Vintage 1998. ISBN 0-09-930278-0

On the 16th November 1532 a group of 168 Spanish soldiers led by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in Cajamarca Peru. The nearest Spaniards were over a 1000 miles away in Panama but nevertheless they decided to set a trap for the Inca emperor Atahuallpa who faced them with 80.000 men.

At the end of this historic first day of contact between the dominant European power and the largest empire in the Americas, 7000 Incas were killed with many more wounded. Not a single Spaniard was lost.

The Spanish used horses, steel weapons and armour and some firearms to completely overwhelm their opponents.

Eight years later in 1540, another conquistador Hernando de Soto, led his soldiers through the south eastern part of North America and was surprised to find abandoned towns in his path.It turned out that Indians had died of diseases such a smallpox, measles, typhus and influenza that had never been encountered before, and which had been accidentally introduced by Spanish visitors to the coast.

The microbes were travelling faster than the Spanish troops and they were certainly proving more fatal. It is estimated that between 1520 and 1618 smallpox alone reduced the Aztec population of Mexico from about 20 million people to 1.6 million.

Diamond makes the point here that it was the Spaniards who arrived in the Americas and not the Incas who arrived in Europe. Furthermore it was the Spaniards who had the horses and steel, and European diseases wiped out the Indians rather than American diseases wiping out the Europeans .


This excellent book starts to become very interesting as he takes the next step and asks why things turned out this way.

His idea is based on geography. The Eurasian continent is bigger than America, Africa or Australia and it has a dominant East West axis rather than a North South one. The result is that a lot of Eurasia lies in similar latitudes, and any plants ar animals that can be domesticated in one area have a good chance of being suitable for use elsewhere in a vast area reaching from Ireland to Japan.

He also points out that Eurasia was "lucky" in having a larger stock of the ancestral plants and animals that were suitable for domestication. These were much fewer in America and Africa and especially in Australia. People living in the middle eastern fertile crescent (present day Syria and Iraq) around 8000 B.C.could harvest large large amounts of wild cereals in a short time. These were the precursors of the earliest cereal crops, wheat and barley.

The mayor 5 domesticated animals were all Eurasian in origin; the cow, sheep, goat, pig and horse probably being domesticated between 8000 B.C. and 2500 B.C. giving Eurasian people plenty of time to develop resistance and immunity to the diseases such as smallpox that arose from contact with them.

Further history is more familiar with settled agriculture and the key factor of a rising population. As he says,"size of regional population is the strongest single predictor of societal complexity". It only took time for different technologies to combine to manufacture such things as the printing press that opened wide the floodgates of knowledge and technology.

In my opinion this is an important book to look out for.

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