The Origins of Domestication

Diamond, J. M. (2003). Guns, germs, and steel : the fates of human societies. New York : W.W. Norton, c1999. Chapter 4, 5, 6, 8

It took a lot of coffee to get through this reading, Diamond’s writing is more factual than other readings we have been assigned, but also very thought provoking. Throughout his book, Diamond asks a series of questions such as “Why did food production develop first in these seemingly rather marginal lands, and only later in today’s most fertile farmlands and pastures?” (Pg 94) and “Since those areas on nonindependent origins were suitable for prehistoric food production as soon as domesticates had arrived and why did the peoples of those areas not become farmers and herders without assistance, by domesticating local plants and animals?” (Pg 94) These questions he answers by giving numerous examples of what happened in places where plants and animals were easily and quickly domesticated (the Fertile Crescent) and places that domesticated much later after some ‘founder’ crops were introduced (New Guinea and Eastern USA).

When I previously read chapter 7 of Guns, Germs, and Steel there wasn’t much context as to who Diamond is, so I was happy that with reading further readers do find out more about him. At the start of the chapter 4, Diamond ages himself when he talks about working as a farmhand in Montana as a teen. He touches on the discourses that we have become accustomed to; the heroic conquest of Europeans that fails to mention the dire effects it had on indigenous populations. He also shows a bit of his humorous side when he talks about being in Papua New Guinea and the tribe he’s staying with brings back mushrooms for dinner; when he asks if they are poisonous the tribes people get angry saying “Only Americans could be so stupid as to confuse poisonous mushrooms with safe ones.” (Pg 144) It’s shocking how much these indigenous peoples know about their local plants and animals. But when it is the way they have survived for thousands of years, it makes sense that they would be so knowledgeable; just like the people from Tell Abu Hureyra. Archaeologists have found that villagers from Tell Abu Hureyra had 3 uses for the 157 species they collected; edibles, edibles that can have toxins easily removed, and for dyes and medicine. (Pg 145)

I didn’t realize the role animal domestication played on plant domestication, “Only over a thousand years later, with the introduction of the ox drawn plow, were those farmers able to extend cultivation to a much wider range of heavy soils and tough sods.”(Pg 88) Domestic animals were able to increase crop production by providing fertilizer and the ability to use large scale agricultural equipment such as plows. But domesticated animals also had adverse effects to developing areas, “Germs thus acquired ultimately from domestic animals played decisive roles in the European conquests of Native Americans, Australians, South Africans, and Pacific Islanders.” (Pg 92) In figure 4.1 it shows the progression from suitable wild species to the development of technology and dense sedentary societies. (Pg 87) I also didn’t realize this progression that all started with the domestication of suitable wild species, “Hence the availability of domestic plants and animals ultimately explains why empires, literacy and steel weapons developed earliest in Eurasia and later, or not at all, on other continents.” (Pg 92) Today’s society is all a product of domesticated plants and animals; pretty mind boggling when you think about it.

In parts of Diamonds book, I got a little lost and had to stop to pour more coffee, such as radiocarbon dating and the numerous examples from the past. Although these made his book more of a story that made it easier to read, I also wish he cut out some of the examples and details. But he obviously spent a lot of time gathering all of this information on botany, animals, history, anthropology and archaeology, when he himself is a physiologist. Although, I found the theories and big ideas very interesting; “The arrival of ‘founder’ domesticates enabled local people to become sedentary, thereby increasing the likelihood of local crops evolving from wild plants that were gathered, brought home and planted accidentally and later planted intentionally.” (Pg 100) Areas where conditions weren’t the best for plant and animal domestication benefited from these founder species from other areas that had increased crop production. A lot of Diamonds writing made complete sense when I thought about it, but most of it I had never thought of before, “The people of areas with a head start on food production thereby gained a head start on the path leading towards guns, germs and steel. The result was a long series of collisions between the haves and the have-nots of history.” (Pg 103) I think these two sentences can be a quick summary for what this book is about, the link between food production and ‘progress’ and the interactions between societies with and without food production.

I like that Diamond puts into context the long process that led to domestication, “…it took thousands of years to shift from complete dependence on wild foods to a diet with very few wild foods.”(Pg 107) This makes me appreciate living in this age where I don’t have to depend on wild foods for survival, “In reality, only for today’s affluent First World citizens who don’t actually do the work of raising food themselves does food production (by remote agribusinesses) mean less physical work, more comfort, freedom from starvation, and a longer expected lifetime.” (Pg 104) I cannot imagine what it would be like to be a hunter-gathering, never knowing exactly where you’re next meal will come from and if there will even be a meal. I also like that he questions which came first; increase in food production or an increase in human populations. It’s another one of those questions that really makes you think and is still debated.

In chapter 8, Diamond explains the advantages the Fertile Crescent had that made it able to domesticate so much earlier; high diversity, seasonal climate changes, varying altitudes, and animal domestication. (Pg 138) His final conclusions to his previous questions are it all depends on the environmental factors, and there is much evidence to prove this. He ends by stating his thesis, “…regions differed greatly in their available pool of domesticable species, that they varied correspondingly in the data when local food production arose, and that food production had not yet arisen independently in some fertile regions as of modern times.” (Pg 155) I agree with his thesis, I don’t think it was a regions people that prevented food production, but the environmental factors such as the domesticable species available.


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