I’m a fan of Jared Diamond’s classic Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies published back in 1997. Recently, I’ve discovered another two interesting “Big History” books. Origins:How Earth’s History Shaped Human History (2019) by Lewis Dartnell begins with human evolution in East Africa and ends with the profound ways the planet has been altered in just the past few centuries. Peter Watson, in The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New (2012) examines the remarkably different trajectories taken by human societies in the Old World and the New World between 15,000 BCE and 1,500 CE.
In Origins, Dartnell covers climatic changes, colliding tectonic plates, distribution of wild species of plants and animals, different types of rocks, ocean currents and wind patterns, and on and on. These phenomena helped to shape the dispersal of humans out of Africa, locations of the earliest civilizations near tectonic plate boundaries, routes along the Silk Road across Eurasia, mining of coal and oil supplies that dominate geopolitical tensions today, and even why Democratic-voting counties exist in a distinct band across the southeastern US (Cretaceous marine shales that produce fertile soils, especially valuable for cultivating cotton).
The descriptions of how European sailors explored the seas are fascinating. Starting as early as the late 14th century, Spanish and Portuguese sailors were venturing south along the northwestern coast of Africa. Return trips were difficult. Eventually the navigators learned that by turning west into the vast Atlantic Ocean and heading north to above 30 degrees latitude, they could catch southwesterly prevailing winds and sail back home. Over time, sailors gained the knowledge that prevailing winds blow in opposite directions in adjacent bands of latitude. Christopher Columbus believed that by sailing west he could reach the East Indies, which he expected was just over the horizon. Wrong. (His posssible map, below.) Instead, in his 1492 expedition he visited what are now the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola (Dominican Republic/Haiti)—then sailed northeast and managed to catch the westerly winds that returned him to Spain. Amazing!
The two great populations that developed in the Old World and the New World — Africa, Asia and Europe on one side and the Americas on the other — were completely separated until the small wooden ships carrying Spanish fortune seekers sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. The Great Divide has descriptions of how the societies in these realms developed very differently, with dissimilar beliefs and religious practices, all as a result of adaptations to environments with different climates, plants, animals, and other natural resources.
The Great Divide is a tome, and I haven’t finished reading it yet, but Watson covers lots of great material. Did you know — three things that didn’t happen in the New World: plowing, milking and riding (fragile llamas and alpacas were the only large mammals domesticated in the Americas). Pastoral nomadism dominated in the Old World (lots of domesticated mammals) and fertility was a foundation of religions. The unpredictable environment of much of Mesoamerica and the Andes – including El Niño floods, violent earthquakes, and exploding volcanoes –inspired dramatic religions that included human sacrifice (emphasis on convincing deities to make things NOT happen). The New World ruled with vast numbers of hallucinogens (as many as 100 different types; the Old World only had opium poppies, Cannabis, and a handful of others) but in the Old World alcohol was discovered very early. And much much more – fascinating info!
Have you read any of these three books or similar titles that you’ve enjoyed? I’d love to hear from you — please add your comments in the “Comment” box, below. Thank you!
Thanks for sharing these books, Roseanne!
I hadn’t heard of them but they remind me a little of Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen’s “Deep Roots” — which looks at how factor endowments related to the types of agriculture that are viable, and subsequently whether large plantations with slave labor emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, shaped contemporary political attitudes among southern whites — in terms of support for Republican candidates, gun rights, the death penalty, and more opposition to civil rights for African Americans.
It turns out that in areas of the “black belt” that had fertile soil for sugar and cotton production (and hence were more wedded to slavery) have much more conservative political attitudes compared to the Appalachian region, which had rockier soil that was less suitable for the types of cash crops that can be cultivated on large plantations.
The point is — I think political science is now following this idea that factor endowments and natural history matter for contemporary politics. Geologists and political scientists might have a number of shared interests.
Great blog! Keep up the good work!
Thanks Chris! Very interesting to learn — I really appreciate your comment. Nice to be edging my interest in natural history into the realm of political history! (The term factor endowments is new to me, although several decades ago I took a college economics class …) Also, a book I considered mentioning in this post is “Silver, Sword and Stone” (2019) by Maria Arana — a beautifully written history of Latin America, beginning with the Colonial period. Fascinating, but also almost exclusively unpleasant (masacres, slavery, oppression, etc etc) — definitely not a “vacation read”. Still, if you haven’t heard of it you might be interested. Thanks so much for your comment!
A fascinating perspective on world history to be sure, thanks Roseanne (and Chris)! I would like to add, with apologies to the faint-of-heart (or stomach), some of what I understand about human sacrifice—that the aboriginal Mexicans used human sacrifice somewhat similarly to the way it was used in Mesopotamia–for insuring fertility. The Aztecs, for example, regarded humans as *nourishment* for the sun, upon which maize crops depended. In Chichen-Itza, on the other hand, humans were sacrificed to Chacmool, the God of Rain, who, as we know too well here in the western US, has shown himself to be much more fickle than the sun.
Thanks Diana! Yes — human sacrifices definitely were a big part of the Aztec religion. Glad I wasn’t around back then!
What about 1491 or 1493 by Charles Mann? I’ve only read the latter so far, but it’s fascinating… if a bit overlong. Did you know that most of the earthworms we know in North America did not exist until the arrival of Europeans? And now they’re considered a critical nutrient recycler and an agricultural canary in the mineshaft. Astounding how much the world changed post Columbus.
Yes – good point! I’ve only read 1491 — but it is excellent!(Full disclosure: I only described recently published books in my post because I’ve been searching for competitive/complimentary/comparable books to mention in the book proposal I’m writing — finally getting around to starting to search for a publisher for my book.) And very interesting about earthworms — I had no idea! One of these years I’d like to read 1493. Thanks for the comments!
HI Roseanne! The information in your blogs is all so very interesting. I just started reading “Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari (looks like it was first published in 2014). It seems to touch on some of the same concepts your describe in your blog and so far I’m enjoying it very much. Cheers!
Thanks, Christine! Yes — I’ve read parts of “Sapiens” — lots of interesting info. Thanks for the note.