Study Questions for Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, Chapter 8
1) Write down the chapter thesis (pg. 131).
"Only the lack of suitable wild plants might then explain why food production did not evolve in some areas" (131).
Why is this important to his overall argument?
Recall from the 2nd QS:
~What thesis is Diamond attempting to prove?
Different physical environments caused significant variation in the adaptation of human societies.
Throughout the book, Diamond makes the case that significant differences in the adaptation of human societies were the result of differences in the physical environment, not in the people of those societies. The lack, or availability, of plants suitable for domestication and food production is a consequence of environmental differences, not human differences.
Small % of world's 200,000 plants domesticated, ony a few hundred.
Twelve domesticated plant "species account for 80% of modern world's annual tonnage of all crops" (132).
Cereals (members of the grass family): wheat, corn, rice, barley, sorghum
Pulse (members of the legume family): soybeans
Sugar sources: sugar cane, sugar beet
2) Briefly describe his "comparative" approach. What
is he trying to show?
To answer the question, What was the potential of an entire local flora for domestication? Diamond will compare the available wild flora of 3 centers of domestication to see if the Fertile Crescent's environment and flora had clear advantages over New Guinea and the eastern US. He is doing this to establish that environmental differences, not cultural differences, caused the differences in domestication.
2a) Be sure to write down and think about the last
sentence of the major section that concludes on pg. 134.
"Did the flora and environment of the Fertile Crescent have clear advantages over those of New Guinea and the eastern United States?"
3) What is the advantage of a Mediterranean climate?
The mild wet winter and long, hot, dry summers select for annuals. Annual plants devote energy to produce large, edible seeds that can be stored. Also, the annuals do not waste energy in the production of woody stems.
4) What were the advantages of the F.C.'s natural cereal flora?
Wild annuals, the ancestors of domesticates, were abundant and productive:1 ton of seeds/hectare; 50 kcal of edible energy/1kcal of work.
Wild annuals required few changes to make them cultivable.
F. C.'s flora had a high % of hermaphroditic "selfers" (See p. 121-122 for an explanation). This means that plants fertilized themselves and the changes in the plant created by human selection would not be interrupted by cross-pollination. This is also the case for vegetatively propagated plants.
5) How does the F.C.'s wheat and barley stack up against the
In contrast to wheat and barley's rapid domestication, New World corn required millenia of selection to dramatically change the ancestor species', Teosinte, physiology and reproductive biology. Teosinte was a low productivity plant with few, small seeds, which had hard seed covers.
6) List the other areas of the world that had Mediterranean climates.
California, Chile, South Africa, SW Australia, Mediterranean.
7) What were the 5 advantages that the F.C's Mediterranean climate had over other areas with a similar environment?
~FC is the largest Mediterranean climate region, and, therefore had a high diversity of wild plant and animal species.
~FC is the Mediterranean climate zone with the greatest climatic variation. This favored the evolution of a high % of annuals. In combination with high species diversity this created the highest diversity of annuals in all Mediterranean climate regions. 32 of the 56 largest-seeded grasses are from FC.
~FC has wide range of altitudes and topographies which led to the evolution of a high diversity of wild plants, which were potential domesticates. High climatic diversity over small distances allowed staggered harvest seasons and rapid diffusion of different domesticates.
~Goat, sheep, and cow were domesticated in different parts of FC and transferred readily and rapidly within FC. Other Mediterranean climate regions had few or no potential animal domesticates.
~FC may have faced little competition from hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The HG to farming food production strategy was rapid: ~3000 years.
8) What's "ethnobiology"?
The study of "peoples' knowledge of the wild plants and animals in their environment."
9) Is it possible that hunters and gatherers who never made the transition to agriculture (or did so slowly through shifting agriculture) were just not aware of the agricultural potential of their natural environment? No. What does ethnobiology tell us? Generally, "peoples are walking encyclopedias of natural history". They have comprehensive knowledge of the distribution, biological characteristics, and potential uses of local wild plants and animals. Increased dependence on domesticates causes peoples to lose their traditional knowledge of plants and animals. And why is this important to Diamond's argument? Because he is stressing the role of environmental differences. Establishing that all peoples have comprehensive knowledge of their local flora and fauna, leads us to conclude that envoronmental differences caused the differing regional histories of plant and animal domestication. By the way, this is our first encounter with a concept that anthropologists sometimes call "local knowledge." Local knowledge often refers to those knowledge systems of colonized peoples; by and large these systems are not only sophisticated, but are often "appropriated" in various ways by the colonizers.
10) What is the "critical" fact mentioned on pg. 147.
"[I]ndigenous crops from different parts of the globe were not equally productive."
11) OK, write a single paragraph that starts with this topic sentence:
"When compared to the natural suite of the Fertile Crescent's biological organisms, both the New Guinea and eastern North America possessed some decisive disadvantages in their suites of domesticable plants and animals." New Guinea, with its wet climate, had a lack of domesticable cereal crops. There were no native large seeded grasses. Instead domestication was focused on tree and root crops (bananas, taro, and nut tree). NG had no large domesticable mammal species. This led to low protein diets. Root crops had a low yield at high elevations. Introduction of the sweet potato changed this and caused a population explosion and high population density.
The eastern US had a dearth of potential domesticates. Peoples of this region initially domesticated 4 plants (squash, sunflower, sumpweed, and goosefoot) that were only a small portion of the diet. These and later domesticates provided great nutrition but small seeds. But there are still problems because small seeds are hard to collect. Sumpweed causes hay fever. With the introduction of corn and beans from Mesoamerica, farming became more productive.
NG and EUS had a deficiency of potential domesticated plants and animals with which to develop agriculture. They did not have cultural deficiencies.
We are not reading the next chapter. It deals with a similar
dynamic, but focuses on animals instead of plants. Using your intuitive
prowess, guess the thesis of Chapter 9. You can find help on pg. 131-2.
FC had wild animal species that were suitable for domestication. The other regions did not.