Guns, Germs, and Steel | Study Guide

Jared Diamond

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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Part 1, Chapter 3 : From Eden to Cajamarca (Collision at Cajamarca) | Summary



Chapter 3 is the final chapter of Part 1. It opens with a description of the capture and murder of the Inca emperor Atahuallpa by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and a relatively small band of soldiers in 1532. This event, the "most dramatic moment" of contact between European and American peoples, is the basis for what Diamond calls the "proximate factors" that explain conquest. In using these proximate factors, Diamond hopes to dig beneath to find "ultimate factors," ones he says lie in human geography. The chapter describes the events of the conquest through firsthand accounts by the Spanish. In a military contest, Atahuallpa had every advantage—thousands of troops, buttressed by thousands more subjects—but instead he was tricked by the far smaller force of Pizarro, who captured the emperor and extorted Atahuallpa's people for ransom before executing the emperor, leading to the general and virtually complete conquest of one of the largest American empires.

Diamond asks a series of questions to get at the proximate causes of conquest. Pizarro was able to capture Atahuallpa because of advanced military technology, including "steel swords and other weapons, steel armor, guns, and horses," all of which allowed a minority of troops to defeat the Incas without a single casualty. Weapons were important, but Diamond points to the military use of the horse as a "tremendous advantage." Meanwhile, Atahuallpa and the Incas were already greatly diminished from the effects of a smallpox epidemic that spread in advance of the Spanish. This epidemic had recently killed the previous Inca emperor and his heir, which had led to a civil war between the forces of Atahuallpa and his brother Huascar. Diamond asks why Atahuallpa fell for Pizarro's trap, and Diamond argues that the Incas' lack of knowledge of the Spanish led to a series of miscalculations. These miscalculations stemmed from a lack of ways, such as writing, to transmit information. He also asks a historical counterfactual: Why did the Spanish come to the Americas to conquer the Incas instead of the other way around? Here, maritime technology was key: ships allowed transoceanic transport, and the Spanish could benefit from the spreading of ideas and technology through writing and literacy. Literacy in particular "made the Spaniards heirs to a huge body of knowledge about human behavior and history," which allowed them to outsmart the Incas. Therefore, these factors, reduced to the phrase "guns, germs, and steel," were the proximate factors that allowed for conquest.


In Chapter 3 Diamond embarks upon a deeper exploration of the fundamental causes of conquest by setting up the "proximate causes" of guns, germs, and steel. He seeks to understand why Spanish and Inca societies developed as they did.

Diamond's choices of examples of conquest are important. Selecting the Inca over the Aztec Empire as the primary example of conquest allows Diamond to make his case more clearly. The use of the Aztec Empire would have dramatically complicated Diamond's case. For example, the Aztecs were conquered only with the help of subject peoples who rose up to overthrow the harsh Aztec rule. Aztecs also had sophisticated writing and cosmological systems, factors that complicate Diamond's explanations. A further complicating factor not addressed by Diamond is the so-called "Black Legend"—that is, alleged Spanish or European cruelty with which the conquerors treated indigenous populations.

While "guns, germs, and steel" is a superficially cogent argument to show how and why the Incas were defeated, Diamond asks readers to dig deeper and ask harder questions about why those factors developed for Europeans and not peoples of the Americas. Chapter 3 concludes the first part of the book, and the subsequent sections seek answers to these deeper questions.

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