PBS Series on "Guns, Germs and Steel": part two


Posted to www.marxmail.org on July 28, 2005


I am all caught up on the PBS "Guns, Germs and Steel" series. This post will deal with part 2 and I will get around to saying something about part 3, the conclusion, when time permits.


Part 2 tries to explain why it was so easy for Pizarro and the conquistadores to subdue the Incas. For Diamond, this is a function of geography mainly. Because the Eurasian landmass was more horizontal than vertical, it was possible for advances in agriculture to fuel subsequent breakthroughs such as the production of guns and steel. When societies operate on the same basic climactic and seasonal basis, farming innovations can be transmitted along the same axis. For example, when wheat growing and sheep rearing were introduced in the Fertile Crescent, it was relatively easy for these practices to diffuse into Europe or into China since they all share the same growing seasons, etc. Once you get this kind of agriculture established, everything else supposedly falls into place.


The Americas were skinny and tall by comparison. Any agricultural breakthrough was difficult to export since there was so much difference between the climate and seasons of Mexico and Peru supposedly. This was not just a problem for agriculture. It was also a problem for other advances, such as writing. With such a great distance between Guatemala and Peru, Mayan advances in writing never made it south. This leads Diamond to conclude that the Incas would be at a disadvantage in a military confrontation with Spain--leaving aside the European superiority in arms. The Spaniards had written down military handbooks on how conquests should be organized in places like Mexico, which were made available to other expeditions. Without knowledge of writing, the Incas could not respond in kind defensively.


The Americas also lacked herd animals of the kind that Europeans had been raising for millennia. Since pigs, cows, etc. were the source of common diseases such as smallpox, measles, etc, a resistance to infection could take place over generations. When the Incas, who had never developed such immunity, were exposed to the Europeans, they began dieing in great numbers. Some historians estimate that 90 percent of the indigenous people in the Americas died of such illnesses, making the job of conquest all the more easy for the Europeans.


In addition, the Europeans had developed guns and steel, which they used for rapiers. With such weapons at their disposal, and with the added advantage that riding horseback would give them, it was no wonder that several hundred of Pizarro's men could vanquish thousands of Incan warriors.


There is not much to quibble with in Diamond's analysis such as it is. By stressing the contingencies that allowed the Europeans to enjoy a vast military superiority, Diamond can drive home the point that racial superiority had nothing to do with the Spanish victories. Of course, what is missing from Diamond's narrative is any understanding of what it will take to redeem these historic crimes against humanity.


I would only add a couple of observations that help us make better sense of what took place in the 16th and 17th centuries.


To start with, we should be cognizant that there is a temporal as well as a spatial distinction between the Americas and Eurasia that favored the latter's one-sided domination. As Jim Blaut points out in "Colonizer's Model of the World," the Americas were settled fairly late in the game, no earlier than 30,000 BC. The earliest migrations preceded the agricultural revolution, which took place roughly 10,000 to 12,000 years ago in Eurasia. Blaut, citing Stuart J. Fiedel's "Prehistory of the Americas", puts the same developments as 4,000 years later in the Americas. Despite the substantial time differences, there is every possibility that the Americans would have made up the difference culturally. But the European invasions forestalled all that.


If anything, Blaut is even more emphatic than Diamond in emphasizing the role of germs. He believes that the Spanish military superiority would have evaporated eventually as the new technology of horses, steel and guns diffused into the native population, just as it always does. Just look at how the Iraqis are figuring out new ways to blow up HUMV's using lasers presumably ordered over the Internet.


Finally, Henry Kamen has some interesting things to say about the much-vaunted conquistadores in his recently published and highly acclaimed "Empire: How Spain Became a World Power: 1492-1763" that were viewed as sacrilege in Spain. They amount to a demythologizing.


In a nutshell, Kamen argues that "Spanish military success was made possible only by the help of the native Americans." The assistance came in two varieties, one humble and one less so, but both were essential. Indians carried out such duties as carrying baggage, searching for food and water, tending animals, delivering messages, etc. In Diamond's dramatization of the march of Pizarro on the seat of the Incan monarchy, this was left out entirely. The Spaniards are depicted as totally on their own.


Additionally, the Incas fought amongst themselves, with the Inca Huascar aligning himself with Pizarro. A witness to the successful battle depicted in the PBS episode stated, "If the Incas had not favoured the Spaniards, it would have been impossible to win this kingdom."


As proof of what would happen when the Incas learned to stiffen their resolve and compensate for Spanish superiority in arms and technology, Huascar's brother Manco raised an army of 50,000 that surrounded Cusco, where two hundred Spaniards were holed up. In other words, you had the same relationship of forces that obtained in the initial Spanish victory. This time things did not go so well for the conquistadores. The siege of Cusco lasted over a year, from March 1536 to April 1537. Eventually, the Spaniards counter-attacked but Kamen states that without Indian support, they would have failed.


Ultimately, it was germs rather than guns or steel that led to the fall of the Aztecs and the Inca.