The Great Plotnik

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

More or Less Cargo

As you can see by the size of this photo, Jared Diamond is a tiny little man. Plot and Duck watched his tiny little PBS Jared Diamond documentary last night, the one where he figures out the answer to the question a New Guinean made to him some forty years ago: "Why do you white people have so much cargo, and we New Guineans have so little?"

It's a fascinating concept (and his book sold a few million copies). It took Diamond decades of study to come up with the answer: location, location, location. People who lived in the most favorable climates (in the current climactic age), which is to say in the temperate latitudes, and who also had the use of large draft animals to pull their plows, prospered. Those who didn't, didn't. It's not about one people being smarter than another, it's where your ancestors happened to settle.

Animals were the key. Not only could they be raised for meat and milk, but for most of man's existence large animals were the most powerful work engines on the planet. They had to have special characteristics too -- the zebra is a large and powerful animal but has never been domesticated because it is native to the African savanna where so many predators live as well. To survive, the zebra has had to worry about every new sound. So it spooks easily. You can't use a skittish animal to pull a plow.

And the animal had to be social -- it had to get along with humans. A dog is social, but can't pull a plow. A cat -- hah. A cat could answer your email if it wanted to, but you can't make it pay attention.

There are a total of fourteen large work animals that have been domesticated by humans over the last 13,000 years. How many of these potential work animals are native to the Americas? Only one, the llama. How many to New Guinea? None, although they did eventually import the pig from Europeans. But a pig cannot be used for milk or to work in the fields.

How many large, social animals were native to the Fertile Crescent? The horse, the cow, the camel and the ox. Plus, they were in the right latitude. When Middle Eastern nomads became farmers, society as we know it began.

When Diamond first went to New Guinea, he found large societies still existing in Stone Age hunter-gatherer mode. This is only a few decades ago. These societies were successful, carving out a measured existence for perhaps more than 40,000 years. But they've never been able to acquire much cargo.

The beginning of modern societies dates to around 13,000 years ago. This is the age in whose climate The Great BZWZ intends to specialize. Plotnik is beginning to see why. It's a fascinating age.

But there's another question that interests Plotnik as well. Did those animals really evolve in the Fertile Crescent, or did they move there from somewhere else? All the people, apparently, started out in Southwest Africa, so where did the animals come from? Why did the cow and the ox end up in Mesopotamia anyway? Maybe they all really did get off Noah's boat in Turkey. But you've got to wonder how he kept the cats from spooking the zebras.

It probably has something to do with societies evolving and then dying out over and over again, through the grand expanse of planetary time, leaving only a thread behind to begin anew. Which thread will we leave behind?

Cargo. Lots of cargo.


Post a Comment

<< Home