Guns, Germs, and Steel | Study Guide

Jared Diamond

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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Part 2, Chapter 5 : The Rise and Spread of Food Production (History's Haves and Have-Nots) | Summary



Chapter 5 shows how and why farming developed in only a few regions in the world. It asks why it developed in certain places and not others, why it spread to some areas and not others, and why certain regions and people didn't take to farming all. First, Diamond explores the difficulty of definitely knowing when and where agriculture first developed because of problems with radiocarbon dating: specifically, the challenge of getting uncontaminated and sufficient samples from archaeological sites and the fact that carbon fluctuations in the atmosphere can alter results. In addition, site mapping for the places where domestication originated provides only imperfect data.

With these problems in mind, Diamond argues agriculture developed in five primary areas—the Fertile Crescent, China, Mesoamerica, the Andes, and the eastern United States—and four others may have developed the practice, including the African Sahel, West Africa, Ethiopia, and New Guinea. Other areas then received domesticated agriculture following "founder crops" that came from elsewhere. These areas were western Europe, the Indus Valley, and Egypt, and they mostly benefited from their proximity to the Fertile Crescent. To the question of whether founder crop peoples conquered new regions or if populations adopted the practice on their own, he speculates that in some areas, such as Europe, farming was adopted. In other areas, it is certain food production was part of "population replacement."

Diamond concludes by asking what explains these patterns of development and promising to explore this question in the subsequent chapters.


Chapter 5 is very short, but it provides an important empirical basis for Diamond to move on to explain how and why agricultural production developed. Chapter 5 shows only certain regions developed and practiced farming and animal domestication. Because Diamond sees farming as the material foundation of societies that gave birth to the development of "guns, germs, and steel," showing these isolated practices is important to his broader geographic argument. It is important to note agriculture also developed in Mesoamerica, an area conquered by Europeans, raising questions of Diamond's overall argument; however, he does not raise them himself.

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