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Forum LockedJared Diamond North-South axis thesis

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    Posted: 23-May-2009 at 14:41

I know that Jared Diamond has made an amazing contribution to the understanding of the origin and spread of human civilizations. I agree with many of his idea, like the one that agriculture and domestic animals were the key to achieve what we call civilization. I agree with with that agriculture is not enough (consider New Guinea taro's agriculture), but that what is need is efficient food producing plants and animals. I also agree, to a great extent, that  the spread of plants and animals in the directions east-west, from an origin in the Middle East, to India and China, and to Europe and North Africa makes sense. What it bothers me is the complementary thesis that the spread of plants and animals North-South is impossible or very hard.

In Africa itself, for instance, animals like cows and goats spread from North Africa to the south, and were brought by the bantues up to South Africa. In the Americas is even clearer. Plants like the gourds, are supposed to be of Eurasian origin, and spread all over the Americas carried by the first Amerindians. Other plants, like Maize, spread probably from Mexico up to the United States, and down south all the way to South America as low as Central Chile. And even less spread plants like potatoes, could be found from Ecuador to Austral Chile in precolumbian times. 
 
Diamond made the claim of the problems north-south to explain the relative backwardness of Africa, and the Americas before contact. However, he forgot the Americas were isolated by two large oceans: the Atlantic and the Pacific, and also forgot the Sahara was a huge obstacle before modern times. He also forgot the trade that existed from Mexico to colombia in balsa rafts in precolombian times, a trade that brough sea shells of Central America to the Inca rituals in Peru. He forgot as well that the two tones drums of the Tainos are almost identical to the Mayan two tones drums! That the Tainos sailed regularly from Venezuela to Cuba, from there to Mexico and also to Florida! Crossing quite different weathers.
 
Even more, he developed the north-south idea to justify the existence of writing among the Mayas, but not among the Incas, but he forgot that Mayans not only didn't transmit writing to Incas, but not even to theirs neighbours the Aztecs! A more easy explanation about that lack of transmision is that Maya writing was used by a small elite to record its own events. When that elite dissapear the method was gone with them. Maya writting was probable never known among the common people, so traders didn't transmitted it to others.
 
I don't know, but the North South thesis of Diamond doesn't make much sense to me. What do you think?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote edgewaters Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-May-2009 at 08:02

Personally I think Diamond is just Toynbee rehashed. This way of doing history through sweeping generalizations just doesn't work for me - it's for the paperback shelf at the supermarket, imo. It's far too heavy on interpretation and very light on facts.

As for the North-South variation, it doesn't really make alot of sense to me. Agricultural crops like corn and so on had excellent dispersal throughout the Americas, from Argentina to Canada. Sufficient varieties were introduced for a good diet, as early settlers in English and French colonies in the north discovered - their own crops were not sufficient to support the settlers, and the colonies that thrived were the ones who began growing native foodstuffs. Look at the traditional Thanksgiving dinner - turkey, corn, potatoes, cranberries, American Chestnuts, bell peppers, etc etc, almost all of which are native to the Americas and were being cultivated in the northeast, thousands of miles from Mesoamerica.

I think the easiest and simplest way to explain the technological gap between the two hemispheres is simply that one was settled much, much later and remained in a hunter-gatherer phase for much longer. Much of the best forage areas were picked clean and many big game animals were wiped out in Eurasia early on, forcing them to turn to alternatives sooner. In the Americas, game and forage remained plentiful in many areas for a long time, so there was no need to practice agriculture. Why scrabble hard at the soil for bland staple foods when you could have abundant, very very fresh meat and vegetables with so little effort? The population has to get to a certain concentration - become established to a level that can't be supported by game and forage anymore - before agriculture is desirable. Where it had reached that concentration, agriculture was already being practiced. Where it had not, it was unnecessary and inefficient. 

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote pinguin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-May-2009 at 13:42
Exactly!
Just an example more. Still today most people get its fish and sea foods by the method of "hunting gathering" that we call fishing. However, the explotation of rivers and oceans these days is so large that species on the sea are dissapearing. So fishermen are turning into "farmers of the sea". I am not only talking about big high tech salmon farms, but the activities of small fishermen villages that "plant" clamps and other seafood animals right at the sea to cultivate as well.
I am pretty sure in the future most seas will be farms rather that just hunted. Confirming your thesis that people start to produce food only when nature doesn't give it free anymore.
 
 
 
 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 25-May-2009 at 16:03

Diamond's thesis is not that it is impossible for plants and animals to spread from north to south or vice versa.

It is simply that they spread more easily to similar climates. I'll go on believing that until someone shows me roses blooming wild in the open Sahara.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote fantasus Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 25-May-2009 at 17:19
If he can show that some plants (or domesticable animals) could not or only hardly spread in north south direction he has a point! And I cannot see the different explanations exclude each other (the north/south direction and the relatively isolation by oceans)- on the contrary these and many more factors contributed. If we dismiss such thinking by callling it "sweeping generalisations", then perhaps we should not come with the argument  that the "later an area was populated, the more retarded development" since that seems to be another generalisation - and hardly a correct assumption, since Africa was populated form very early times, and Australia too, but some part of Northern Europe and Asia first had to get rid of glaciers! On the other hand the southern continents seem to be more "isolated" in the sense they are smaller and surrounded by much more ocean than the norther parts of the world. They even are more "compact" or "massive". That gives much less reason to develop contacts outhwards, even more so as there is not much of larger isles around them. So there seems to be at least some geographical factors to consider.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 25-May-2009 at 19:03
Obviously the Atlantic and the Pacific constitute substantial barriers to east-west movement of animals and plants. However, you can take plants from New England and plant them in old England with no trouble at all. Try planting pines in Brazil.
 
And the grey squirrel happily spreads around Europe once given a helping hand over the sea. He doesn't get on well in Nicaragua.
 
And I hardly dare mention potatoes.  
 
It's a simple fact that zones with similar climates and habitats spread east-west around the globe. In fact it's almost a definition of east and west: at right angles to the NS axis.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote pinguin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26-May-2009 at 03:59

In the Americas the is a factor that goes against latitude, though: altitude. You can grow potatos both at very austral lands like Patagonia and in the equator at Ecuator, but at high altitudes. I bet Jared Diamond didn't consider that factor.

The simple fact is that a plant like Maize spread from central North America all the way to the border of Patagonia with no problem at all.
 
Diamond forgot one factor: the Sahara desert is a very difficult obstacle to overcome in the spreading of agriculture and species. In the case of the Americas, if one is strong enough, could walk all the way from Alaska to the Land of Fire, without finding a single major obstacle, except for rough terrains.
 
 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote edgewaters Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26-May-2009 at 08:17
Originally posted by gcle2003 gcle2003 wrote:

Diamond's thesis is not that it is impossible for plants and animals to spread from north to south or vice versa.

It is simply that they spread more easily to similar climates. I'll go on believing that until someone shows me roses blooming wild in the open Sahara.

Well sure. But roses aren't really a necessary foodstuff for agrarian peoples. And you're not going to make a breadbasket out of the desert regardless of which axis your diffusion is happening in. That land is just not suited to it.

All the most important agricultural products of the Americas just happen to grow excellently in many many different climates. Sweet potatoes, corn, squash, peppers, beans, etc.

Diamond tends to be a bit short on specifics. If he had really studied Mesoamerican and Peruvian agriculture, he'd know that the crops developed there had to be adapted to a wide variety of climates. In both Peru and Mesoamerica, there isn't just one climate. It developed in highland ranges situated next to the coast in both regions, where altitude plays a large role in determining climate. There are cool, temperate zones on the altiplano in Peru and in the fertile uplands of the Sierra Madre in Mesoamerica. There are arid areas (some of which were highly agriculturally productive, such as the Valley of Mexico or the area around Lake Titicaca), wet areas, cool areas, hot areas. Different microclimates were farmed extensively in early times, and the crops developed in those regions were bred to be suitable for growth in the variety of climates found in those regions - from cool, temperate climes to very warm, subtropical and tropical climes. It's also one of the reasons why these particular areas were able to develop such an impressive portfolio of domesticated species, because they had access to so many different microclimates in such a small area. 

As wikipedia puts it - "The region possesses a complex combination of ecological systems. Archaeologist and anthropologist Michael D. Coe groups these different niches into two broad categories: lowlands (those areas between sea level and 1000 meters) and altiplanos or highlands (those situated between 1000 and 2000 meters above sea level). In the low-lying regions, sub-tropical and tropical climates are most common, as is true for most of the coastline along the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The highlands show much more climatic diversity, ranging from dry tropical to cold mountainous climates, the dominant climate is temperate with warm temperatures and moderate rainfall."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geography_of_Mesoamerica



Edited by edgewaters - 26-May-2009 at 08:18
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote edgewaters Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26-May-2009 at 08:31

Originally posted by fantasus fantasus wrote:

If he can show that some plants (or domesticable animals) could not or only hardly spread in north south direction he has a point! And I cannot see the different explanations exclude each other (the north/south direction and the relatively isolation by oceans)- on the contrary these and many more factors contributed. If we dismiss such thinking by callling it "sweeping generalisations", then perhaps we should not come with the argument  that the "later an area was populated, the more retarded development" since that seems to be another generalisation - and hardly a correct assumption, since Africa was populated form very early times, and Australia too, but some part of Northern Europe and Asia first had to get rid of glaciers!

No, that's not a generalization. It's a specific - it relates to the specific circumstances of the Americas. I wouldn't say it's applicable to Africa or Australia, because, unlike Diamond, I don't believe in one-size-fits-all explanations that discuss history in a way that is detached from unique contexts.

And frankly, I don't find his agricultural argument much appealing. It might be a good explanation for some specific case - like, say, New Guinea. It's not a good argument when it comes to the Americas. The agriculture and diet of the New World was, in general, superior to the average European's diet. Early European explorers were fairly consistent in describing how robust and healthy the natives appeared to be, and we know from forensic archaeology that they were in pretty good shape compared to the European population, just from looking at things like bone density. 

Europe actually expanded because of a lack of good protein and other nutrients in the diet. They did have cattle and other useful sources of nutrition, but beef and chicken were luxuries that most of the population did not eat on any regular basis. Fish was their primary source of proteins, and their population was outstripping the supply. When they expanded to the New World, they were seeking, initially, three things, and they were all related to food and specifically to protein. They went looking for gold and the Spice Islands (gold so that they could pay the Ottomans for spices from the East). Spices were needed to help preserve meats and thereby reduce spoilage and increase supply. They also went looking for fish stocks, which was the basis of some of the earliest European activity in the New World, in Newfoundland.

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26-May-2009 at 11:35
Different varieties and species evolve differently in different climates. When you talk about potatos in the Americas, what kind of 'potatos' are you talking about? I doubt very much that the potato species indigenous to the Andes spread unchanged all by itself up through Venezuela and Colombia and central America to the north. Certainly not as fast as it would have spread to neighbouring areas with similar climate. Similarly with maize apart from the point of origin.
 
I'd accept though that pinning the label 'East-West' on the theory is a bit misleading, because the same argument would produce a north-south transmission where you have a NS oriented range of mountains with low lying land or sea on either side. It's just that for the most part that isn't true and when you map habitats on a world-wide basis they mainly spread in an east-west direction.
 
I'm not sure that the relative agricultural productivity of Europe and America is particularly relevant. But it's worth noting that the superior diet of North American Indians to European peasants is largely because there were so few of the former and so many of the latter.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote pinguin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26-May-2009 at 13:21
Originally posted by gcle2003 gcle2003 wrote:

...I'm not sure that the relative agricultural productivity of Europe and America is particularly relevant. But it's worth noting that the superior diet of North American Indians to European peasants is largely because there were so few of the former and so many of the latter.
 
It maybe for North American Indians, but the fact is in both Mexico and Peru people eat better than in Europe. Particularly in the Inca empire, that not matter it has a large population it didn't have the problems of hunger that strike Europe constantly, up to the time potatos and other American plants were introduced there.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26-May-2009 at 15:01
Originally posted by pinguin pinguin wrote:

Originally posted by gcle2003 gcle2003 wrote:

...I'm not sure that the relative agricultural productivity of Europe and America is particularly relevant. But it's worth noting that the superior diet of North American Indians to European peasants is largely because there were so few of the former and so many of the latter.
 
It maybe for North American Indians, but the fact is in both Mexico and Peru people eat better than in Europe. Particularly in the Inca empire, that not matter it has a large population it didn't have the problems of hunger that strike Europe constantly, up to the time potatos and other American plants were introduced there.
And what were the relative population densities?
 
And how do you know that hunger didn't strike in either area in pre-literate times? How often do you think there were famines in, say, the Danube basin, before 1000 BC? Again, how would you know?
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote fantasus Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26-May-2009 at 15:15
Originally posted by edgewaters edgewaters wrote:

Originally posted by fantasus fantasus wrote:

If he can show that some plants (or domesticable animals) could not or only hardly spread in north south direction he has a point! And I cannot see the different explanations exclude each other (the north/south direction and the relatively isolation by oceans)- on the contrary these and many more factors contributed. If we dismiss such thinking by callling it "sweeping generalisations", then perhaps we should not come with the argument  that the "later an area was populated, the more retarded development" since that seems to be another generalisation - and hardly a correct assumption, since Africa was populated form very early times, and Australia too, but some part of Northern Europe and Asia first had to get rid of glaciers!

No, that's not a generalization. It's a specific - it relates to the specific circumstances of the Americas. I wouldn't say it's applicable to Africa or Australia, because, unlike Diamond, I don't believe in one-size-fits-all explanations that discuss history in a way that is detached from unique contexts.

And frankly, I don't find his agricultural argument much appealing. It might be a good explanation for some specific case - like, say, New Guinea. It's not a good argument when it comes to the Americas. The agriculture and diet of the New World was, in general, superior to the average European's diet. Early European explorers were fairly consistent in describing how robust and healthy the natives appeared to be, and we know from forensic archaeology that they were in pretty good shape compared to the European population, just from looking at things like bone density. 

Europe actually expanded because of a lack of good protein and other nutrients in the diet. They did have cattle and other useful sources of nutrition, but beef and chicken were luxuries that most of the population did not eat on any regular basis. Fish was their primary source of proteins, and their population was outstripping the supply. When they expanded to the New World, they were seeking, initially, three things, and they were all related to food and specifically to protein. They went looking for gold and the Spice Islands (gold so that they could pay the Ottomans for spices from the East). Spices were needed to help preserve meats and thereby reduce spoilage and increase supply. They also went looking for fish stocks, which was the basis of some of the earliest European activity in the New World, in Newfoundland.

Frankly I do no think  Your argument about europeans searching for "food" convincing either. Some early settlements were for fish, but the main motive appear to be gold and silver. Of course those who were rich could buy expensive foods and spices, but that is not the same as to say "the lack of food" were their main motive. You could as well say it is the main reason behind current  economic troubles since of course extravagant consumption may include extravagant foodstuff!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote pinguin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26-May-2009 at 15:27
@gcle2003
 
I am speaking of the situation at the times of the conquest. I already mentioned that Aztecs were masters in hydroponics, with theirs chinanpas. The Inca empire, for instance, had a well developed agriculture infraestructure with channels and terrace plating. They managed to had a permanent food surplus. There are additional tecniques that most "westerners" don't know, like to store dehidrated potatos and meat for long period of times, storage "cooling" systems with cold water running down stone buildings, drop by drop irrigation with ceramic pots that allowed water to filter slowly, etc.
However, ancient pre-Inca civilizations did have problems with hunger, particularly the Moche culture. Pre-Aztecs (Mayans) also seem to had quite a bit of problems.
 


Edited by pinguin - 26-May-2009 at 15:30
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Cryptic Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26-May-2009 at 16:42
Originally posted by edgewaters edgewaters wrote:

that's not a generalization. It's a specific - it relates to the specific circumstances of the Americas. I wouldn't say it's applicable to Africa or Australia, because, unlike Diamond, I don't believe in one-size-fits-all explanations that discuss history in a way that is detached from unique contexts.
Please bear in mind that Diamond is discussing Macro trends on a global scale. Local exceptions will exist and specific examples may contradict his theory.
 
But... Jared is correct on a macro scale. The East west movement between Europe-Middle East- Asia allowed for vastly different civilizations to exchange vastkly different plants and domesticated animals. The result was that areas on the east west axis had a far larger selection to choose from than civilizations on the North South Axis. The more selection, the better chance of finding advantageous material.  Things then "snowballed".
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote pinguin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26-May-2009 at 16:45
According to Diamond the Inca Empire was impossible... because it expanded from North to South, from Ecuador and Colombia to Central Chile and Argentina, covering half the surface of the Roman Empire and crossing Diamond's latitude limits like crazy.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote lirelou Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26-May-2009 at 20:43
     "the Inca Empire was impossible... because it expanded from North to South, from Ecuador and Colombia to Central Chile and Argentina..."

Well, it expanded from Cuzco south and north, but that is beside the point. I think the previous commenter hits the nail on the head when he notes that Diamond is speaking at the macro level. The Inca Empire expanded the way it did because that is the way that the Andes range runs. The easiest lines of communication were north to south, rather than east to west. Also throwing Colombia and Argentina into the boundaries of the Inca empire makes it appear much larger than it was. They only reached small corners of both nations. Indeed, their expansion into Ecuador took place only some 50 years or so before the arrival of the Spanish. Thus Manco Capac's desire for a "Quitu" princess, and the split that led to an Inca civil war, whose effects made Pizarro's task so much easier. The Spanish recognized Ecuador's status under the Inca by making it a province of Peru. It was Simon Bolivar who removed Ecuador from Lima's control to make it an independent nation, and left a source for conflict that endures to this day. 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote edgewaters Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26-May-2009 at 20:55
Originally posted by Cryptic Cryptic wrote:

Please bear in mind that Diamond is discussing Macro trends on a global scale. Local exceptions will exist and specific examples may contradict his theory.
 
But... Jared is correct on a macro scale.
There is no 'macro scale' where the rules apply across the board. If the entire Western hemisphere is a "local exception" what remains of the 'macro'?
"Macro scale" = sweeping generalization. There are too many local variables.
Jared does a good comparative study of Eurasia vs New Guineau; I'll give him that. The rest .... not so much.
Quote The East west movement between Europe-Middle East- Asia allowed for vastly different civilizations to exchange vastkly different plants and domesticated animals.

That whole business happened in areas of very small size in the Americas, due to microclimates produced by altitude differences. It's the first thing you learn about Mesoamerican agriculture, if you ever study it. They had a huge range of microclimates of all different sorts, produced by different elevations and climatic patterns related to the coastal highlands. Many of the crops they developed, such as corn, were specifically bred so that they could be grown across the entire range of these climates.

Originally posted by gcle2003 gcle2003 wrote:

Different varieties and species evolve differently in different climates. When you talk about potatos in the Americas, what kind of 'potatos' are you talking about?

Mainly sweet potatoes. Think I mentioned that, didn't I? Anyway, it's a pretty long list of things that were growing in the northeast that had come from Mesoamerica. Corn, sweet potatoes, squash, dozens of varieties of beans and peppers, etc.

As early settlers noted, though the European crops for the most part grew just fine in the Americas, they were insufficient especially at the small scale of an overseas settlement. Those colonies that learned to grow American crops rapidly overcame difficulties in food production - and, eventually, so did Europe itself.

Quote I doubt very much that the potato species indigenous to the Andes spread unchanged all by itself up through Venezuela and Colombia and central America to the north. Certainly not as fast as it would have spread to neighbouring areas with similar climate. Similarly with maize apart from the point of origin.

Corn spread rapidly, and its cultivation spanned an area from southern Argentina right up to Ontario. As I mentioned, corn - and other crops developed in Mesoamerica - were specifically bred to be suited to the high range of microclimates, ranging from cool temperate to warm tropical, found in Mesoamerica.

Quote But it's worth noting that the superior diet of North American Indians to European peasants is largely because there were so few of the former and so many of the latter.

Quite the opposite, actually. There were no cities in Europe to compare with the massive population densities of centers like Tenochtitlan. In the breadbaskets of the Americas, populations were quite a bit higher than they were in Europe. The biggest city in Europe at the time of contact was London, with a population of about 50 000 ... which is a relatively minor center in Mesoamerican terms. There were dozens of centers at around twice that, and a few (like Tenochtitlan) that were orders of magnitude higher.

Europe was fairly sparsely populated at this time. It was the introduction of American domesticated plants that allowed it to expand and reach the kind of densities known in the Western Hemisphere, the Indian subcontinent, or Asia.



Edited by edgewaters - 26-May-2009 at 21:09
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote pinguin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26-May-2009 at 21:12
Yeap. I bet Jared Diamond need to have an intensive course on ancient Americas agriculture. I bet he could switch a bit is focus from New Guinea's taro agriculture to the Ancient Americas to stop speaking nonsense.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote fantasus Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26-May-2009 at 22:45
Originally posted by edgewaters edgewaters wrote:

That whole business happened in areas of very small size in the Americas, due to microclimates produced by altitude differences. It's the first thing you learn about Mesoamerican agriculture, if you ever study it. They had a huge range of microclimates of all different sorts, produced by different elevations and climatic patterns related to the coastal highlands. Many of the crops they developed, such as corn, were specifically bred so that they could be grown across the entire range of these climates.

 

 
Sorry to "interrupt" but do You not here in fact perhaps indirectly support Diamonds argument?
If we find such a variety of microclimates, and areas of very small sizes, perhaps You find a lot of varieties of the same cultivated plants. If those varieties are not natural, but "cultivated" this may have been a proces taking a lot of time, perhaps making the spread of agriculture a slower proces(in americas)?
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