It has always gnawed at me—why are so many aborigine societies discovered in South America, the Pacific Islands, Australia, and New Zealand so primitive?
Jared Diamond’s explanation in Guns, Germs, and Steel is that New Guinea natives remained primitive in their social and technological development for two main differences between the local environment and the environment the discoverers came from. The plant choice did not provide as robust nutrition and the animal stock was not sufficient to relieve humans of the hard physical burdens of agriculture, nor where they productive livestock.
- Agricultural plants in local plateau barely provided enough sustenance for the population. This was not the result of poor selection of crops by the locals, but that only nutritionally poor crops grew in that environment. Thus there was no excess production to support specialization beyond farming, as there was in the Fertile Crescent, the Indus valley, China, Egypt, and the further cultivation of the Mediterranean and Western Europe.
- Local animals were not large enough and trainable enough to augment human labor for agricultural tasks. Again, the local human talent had to be devoted to subsistence lifestyle. Little excess talent available to come up with improvements to agriculture.
It’s not an intellectual superiority of Western population that accounts for societies’ differences, but differences in soil and local wildlife.
I can’t do Professor Diamond’s full argument justice in this little post. National Geographic created a documentary on Gun, Germs, and Steel which many libraries have on DVD. Give it a look.