Humans’ ability to transform mineral ores into useful materials has shaped the course of human history. Those civilizations that have been armed with a greater range of metal technologies have always defeated their rivals.
In particular, steel has governed the destiny of ambitious Europeans. The conquistadors who swept through the New World were armed with steel swords forged in the Spanish city of Toledo. Settler communities in North America and the Cape of Good Hope were able to capitalize on European-invented steel rails, steel locomotives and steel ships to transform their model European economies. From its creation in the forges of medieval Europe, through its key role in the Industrial Revolution, to the triumph of modern technologies, steel has always been one of the greatest agents of conquest of human history.
Steel is an almost uniquely European technology. It would not have been possible without the earliest experiments with fire and minerals, conducted by Neolithic hunters and farmers over ten thousand years ago. Thanks to the dry environment of the Fertile Crescent, fire pits could be kept ablaze for several days, raising a temperature sufficient to transform limestone into plaster. Before long, this technology was applied to other mineral ores — copper technology brought forth the Bronze Age and iron technology the Iron Age. Once iron ore had been smelted, steel was only a matter of time.
Those parts of the world that were too wet to keep an open furnace ablaze for several days could never make the leap to even the simplest pyrotechnology. The tropical jungles of Papua New Guinea, for example, could never sustain an open fire for more than a few hours. Lacking sufficient conditions to allow them to even begin to experiment, the hunters of the New Guinean lowlands were trapped by their geography in a perpetual Stone Age — until the arrival of metal-bearing Europeans.
The right conditions alone were not enough — budding ironmongers and steel-smiths also needed the right raw materials. Europe struck lucky. Steel's complex manufacture requires large quantities of iron ore and plentiful, carbon-rich forests, plus access to fast-flowing water for power and transport. All of which were readily available in Europe.
From the earliest days of European civilization, the forests of Germany and northern Italy became the home to iron technology. The products they created were unique throughout the world — single plates of armor hammered from one sheet of metal; lightweight longswords with heavy counterweight pommels; and, delicate rapiers designed for popular duel.
These swords, from the Spanish espada robera, or sword of the robe, were invented in the late fifteenth century as an ultra-modern, ultra-chic dress-sword for the upwardly mobile. It was the pride of Toledo, a Spanish city that by the late Middle Ages rivalled any Italian or German city for sword manufacture. Toledo steel was famous throughout the Old World — and soon became infamous throughout the New World.
Geography gave European metallurgy another precious advantage. Thanks to what has become known as the 'optimal fragmentation principal,' the physical environment of Europe allowed a significant interplay of political independence, economic competition and technological collaboration. In other words, the geography of the European continent destined it to host thousands of communities, all jostling for power and prestige.
By the mid-fifteenth century, the latest forging techniques were used to create the strongest, sturdiest, lightest and most flexible armor and swords. Geography had made it inevitable that this precious technology would be used by Europeans to perfect the art of war.
Iron and bronze technologies were also common in the Far East; but without the competitive incentive of Europe, the applications of these materials remained fairly limited. Armor never developed the unique and versatile qualities of European plate armour. Swords remained relatively uniform in style, and thanks to the ease with which technologies could spread from east to west, innovative Asian inventions, such as gunpowder were rapidly snapped up by the voracious European war machine.
It has long been known that agricultural civilizations in Africa were producing iron long before the arrival of Europeans — the deadly, lightweight, Zulu Assegai was testament to the skill of native African ironmongers. But recent studies have also confirmed the independent production of steel in Africa as well — a technology previously believed to be uniquely European. Nevertheless, indigenous Africans were about 1,000 years behind their European rivals — and we will never know what they might have gone on to achieve, had the trajectory of African culture not been interrupted by colonialization.
Civilizations in the Americas lacked equivalent iron resources — but were rich beyond imagination in copper, tin, and precious metals like silver and gold. This, after all, had been the incentive for European exploration — the search for Eldorado, the quest to seize a paradise made of gold. The invaders were not disappointed. Gold was so common in the land of the Incas, it was used purely for decoration and bore no inherent monetary value. Protected solely by bronze weapons and knives carved from stone, the Inca Empire fell easily to deadly Spanish steel.
The Industrial Revolution catapulted Europe into a position of unprecedented global domination over the course of the nineteenth century. Building on colonial conquest accrued over the previous 200 years, industrialization transformed the lands of the Americas, Africa and Asia into economic satellites of Europe — producing and consuming raw materials and manufactured goods to fuel imperial economies,spawning 'European' cities thousands of miles away from home. The British, French, Belgian, Dutch and German Empires of the late 19th and early 20th centuries would have been unthinkable without the awesome power of steel.
The Story Of... Wheat
More of the world's farmland is devoted to wheat than to any other crop. At the end of the twentieth century, close to 570 million acres, or one-sixth of all the arable land on the planet, was used to grow wheat. Six hundred million tons are produced annually around the world, 60 kilograms of which will be consumed by the average American every year.
Yet this extraordinary seed-bearing grass, which alongside rice provides 41% of the calories consumed across our globe, was originally native to just a tiny region of western Asia.
Cultivated by the earliest Neolithic farmers in the hills and valleys of Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq over 13,000 years ago, wild-growing wheat has since changed beyond recognition. In the wild, as it still grows in those places today, wheat evolved to shatter in the late summer breeze, spreading its tough-coated seeds far and wide.
But the act of human harvesting, using bare hands or primitive sickles, favored those rare mutant plants whose ears were less likely to shatter; whose grains were softer and larger, and therefore more appetizing.
By subconsciously selecting, favoring, and re-planting these seeds, humans were unwittingly transforming the plant's dominant DNA — and created an entirely new species.
The wheat used for bread today is almost unrecognizable from its ancient ancestor. An iridescent blue-green for most of the year, it has shorter stalks, fatter non-shatter ears, and plump grains which are easy to thresh and mill. Farmed alongside its surviving wild ancestor throughout the modern Middle East, bread wheat is testament to the power of human interference over thousands of years.
Wheat was a critical element of European success, both at home and abroad. Designed to thrive in temperate climates, it was easily exported to North America, South America, the Cape of South Africa and the south-east corner of Australia. Wherever wheat was successful, colonial farmers could establish a model European society — although this prosperity was often achieved at the expense of indigenous populations.
Modern wheat, the product of ancient genetic engineering, symbolizes the success of the European model — success dictated by a fluke of botanical geography.
The Story Of... Cattle
The most emblematic livestock animal of the all-conquering Eurasian agricultural package, the modern cow is descended from an ancient wild ancestor that was native throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa at the end of the Ice Age, and domesticated by the earliest Neolithic farmers around 8000 years ago.
Cattle were not the first large mammals to be domesticated by humans – they were probably beaten to the punch by goats and sheep – but it is the humble cow, and her partner, the ox, who have made the greatest impact on agricultural productivity around the world.
Cattle are the most versatile domesticated animals on the planet. When killed for meat, their carcass yields oil, fat, bone, twine and other useful materials, while their hides give us leather for clothes, shoes and shelter. During their lifespan they provide milk, which can be turned into cream, butter, cheese and yogurt; they can bear heavy loads, or pull plows and carts; they tolerate being tethered to other animals and improve their load-bearing capacity as a result; they provide tons of nutritious fertilizer and consume some of the by-products of arable farming. Before the industrial revolution, beasts of burden like the humble cow were the most powerful machines on the planet.
So how did they ever become domesticated, and placed under human control?
As Jared Diamond observes in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel– Domesticable animals are all alike [but] every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way. Incredibly, of the millions of species of animals that exist in our world, only 14 large mammals have ever been domesticated. That's because they were the only 14 to fulfil all four basic criteria for domestication. And none fulfilled them as magnificently as the cow.
What do you look for in a domesticated animal?
1. Size Domesticated animals have got to be large, to be worth the effort of human control. Their primary purpose, after all, is to provide their owners with a steady and reliable source of meat – and there's not much meat on a mouse, or a monkey. Livestock might also be required to bear heavy weights – including human riders – or pull a heavy load, so, by default, most domesticated mammals tend to weigh over 100 pounds. Modern cattle can weigh anywhere between 800 and 4000 pounds, whilst their ancestor, the aurochs (Bos Primigenius), was even larger, standing more than 6 feet tall at the shoulder.
2. Temperament It's no good trying to catch and domesticate a large load-bearing mammal, if it's got a nasty temper! Any animal weighing over 100 pounds is capable of killing a man with a single kick – so the earliest farmers deliberately targeted those species that tended towards docility amongst humans, and a predictable, herd mentality. Species they ruled out included solitary predators like large wild cats; gazelle, whose tendency to panic and bolt made them impractical to catch and pen; and even relatives of the aurochs, such as the ancestors of modern day bison – unpredictable giant mammals with a habit of stampeding without provocation. By contrast, the modern cow is famous for her sweet-natured temperament, content to graze in heavily managed herds, chewing cud and watching the world go by.
3. Growth rate Large, generally docile mammals who then take years to mature, can also be ruled out. To be economically viable, domesticated animals should grow quickly and reach their full potential within a few years. This criteria rules out elephants, for example, who can take up to fifteen years to reach adult size. At heart, domestication has an economic incentive, and some propositions are better than others. Cattle take just two or three years to mature.
4. Diet Finally, it's simply a waste of time and effort to feed, raise or capture one animal, only to have to then feed it to another. The best animals for domestication are herbivores, or at a push, omnivores – and the cow will happily eat only grass. She'll also consume a huge proportion of the inedible by-products of arable farming – wheat, barley and rice hay – doing humans an additional favor along the way.
So, what is the wannabe farmer left with?
He must capture a large, docile herbivore, weighing over 100 pounds, content to be part of a herd under human control.
Of the fourteen mammals which have ever wholly conformed to this profile, nine of them are still confined to limited parts of the world.
Only five have become ubiquitous farmyard animals across our planet.
Those five are the goat, the sheep, the pig, the horse, and – our champion – the cow.
Their ability to provide meat, dairy and draft while reproducing themselves and eating nothing but grass, has made cows a source of wonder throughout human history – objects of worship, even – to which European civilization may owe its very existence.
The Story Of... Horses
Domesticated in central Asia around five thousand years ago, the horse was instrumental to the development of Eurasian civilization. Unlike most other large mammals, it was not farmed for its meat, milk or hides. Instead, the horse was harnessed solely for its incredible strength – to pull plows, vehicles, and most significantly, to carry humans themselves.
Without horses, the evolution of complex European economies and trading networks would have been unthinkable. Most significantly, the horse transformed the art of war. From the earliest horse-drawn chariots of the Hittite empire, to the bareback cavalrymen of Attila the Hun, the warhorse has become synonymous with Eurasian military success.
Spanish horses were instrumental in the conquest of the New World. Neither the Aztec nor the Inca had ever seen humans riding animals before; the psychological impact of mounted troops was tremendous.
Hernan De Soto, comrade of Pizarro, famously rode his horse right into the Inca Emperor's throne room. Eyewitnesses later recalled:
"The captain advanced so close that the horse's nostrils stirred the fringe on the Inca's forehead. But the Inca remained still, he never moved."
Spanish conquistadors like de Soto were inheritors of some of the finest riding techniques in the whole of Eurasia. The jineta riding style, unique to Spanish cattle-ranchers, emphasized spontaneity, speed, balance in the saddle and maneuverability. Bull-fighting, a pastime which grew out of Spanish ranching, also helped riders and their horses improve their techniques of forceful advance and swift retreat.
The conquistadors who sailed to the New World had grown up on ranches and farms. They had ridden horses since their youth, and brought their finest animals with them. The consequences for the peoples of the New World were catastrophic.
On the morning of November 16, 1532, a surprise charge of just 37 Spanish horses, concealed in the Inca town of Cajamarca, unleashed an orgy of bloodshed. Europeans had known for centuries that foot soldiers stood a good chance against cavalry if they stood firm and repelled the outnumbered mounted troops. But the Inca had no experience of this, nor could they have read about others' experiences, since they were geographically isolated and had no written records from which to learn. Instead, they panicked and tried to flee, allowing the outnumbered conquistadors to run through them with great speed and efficiency.
But the great irony of the conquistadors' victory was that, until about 10,000 years ago, the horse's wild ancestor had flourished throughout the Americas. The plains of North America had in fact been the natural homeland of the Equus species, some of which migrated across a narrow land passage to the plains of central Asia.
Then, between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, the species vanished from the Americas – it is believed, through a combination of over-hunting and climatic change. The submersion of the Bering Strait meant no subsequent, reverse migration could occur from central Asia, and the horse remained absent from the Americas until its reintroduction by Europeans.
The Story Of... Smallpox – and other Deadly Eurasian Germs
Much of the credit for European military success in the New World can be handed to the superiority of their weapons, their literary heritage, even the fact they had unique load-bearing mammals, like horses. These factors combined, gave the conquistadors a massive advantage over the sophisticated civilisations of the Aztec and Inca empires.
But weapons alone can't account for the breathtaking speed with which the indigenous population of the New World were completely wiped out.
Within just a few generations, the continents of the Americas were virtually emptied of their native inhabitants – some academics estimate that approximately 20 million people may have died in the years following the European invasion – up to 95% of the population of the Americas.
No medieval force, no matter how bloodthirsty, could have achieved such enormous levels of genocide. Instead, Europeans were aided by a deadly secret weapon they weren't even aware they were carrying: Smallpox.
Smallpox is a viral infection which usually enters the body through the nose or throat. From here the virus travels to the lungs, where it multiplies and spreads to the lymphatic system. Within a few days, large pustules begin to appear all over the victim's skin.
Starting with the hands and the face, and then spreading to cover the rest of the body, each blister is packed full of smallpox DNA. If punctured, these blisters become highly infectious, projecting fresh smallpox particles into the air and onto surrounding surfaces -such as someone else's skin. It is a disease that requires close human contact to replicate and survive.
The total incubation period lasts 12 days, at which point the patient will will either have died or survived. But throughout that period, if gone unchecked, they may have passed the disease to an enormous number of people. But the disease requires close human contact to replicate and survive.
Smallpox is a remarkably effective, and remarkably stable, infection – research has shown that over the course of 10 years, as few as three individual bases may change in a strain's DNA. The disease found an effective formula thousands of years ago, and there's no reason to change it.
So where does this deadly disease come from, and why was it linked to Europeans?
variety of domesticated mammals in the world – eating, drinking, and breathing in the germs these animals bore. Over time, animal infections crossed species, evolving into new strains which became deadly to man. Diseases like smallpox, influenza and measles were in fact the deadly inheritance of the Eurasian farming tradition – the product of thousands of years spent farming livestock.
These epidemic Eurasian diseases flourished in dense communities and tended to explode in sudden, overwhelming spates of infection and death. Transmitted via coughing, sneezing and tactile infection, they wreaked devastation throughout Eurasian history – and in the era before antibiotics, thousands died.
But not everyone.
With each epidemic eruption, some people survived, acquiring antibodies and immunities which they passed on to the next generation. Over time, the population of Europe gained increased immunity, and the devastating impact of traditional infections decreased.
Yet the people of the New World had no history of prior exposure to these germs. They farmed only one large mammal – the llama – and even this was geographically isolated. The llama was never kept indoors, it wasn't milked and only occasionally eaten – so the people of the New World were not troubled by cross-species viral infection.
When the Europeans arrived, carrying germs which thrived in dense, semi-urban populations, the indigenous people of the Americas were effectively doomed. They had never experienced smallpox, measles or flu before, and the viruses tore through the continent, killing an estimated 90% of Native Americans.
Smallpox is believed to have arrived in the Americas in 1520 on a Spanish ship sailing from Cuba, carried by an infected African slave. As soon as the party landed in Mexico, the infection began its deadly voyage through the continent. Even before the arrival of Pizarro, smallpox had already devastated the Inca Empire, killing the Emperor Huayna Capac and unleashing a bitter civil war that distracted and weakened his successor, Atahuallpa.
In the era of global conquest which followed, European colonizers were assisted around the world by the germs which they carried. A 1713 smallpox epidemic in the Cape of Good Hope decimated the South African Khoi San people, rendering them incapable of resisting the process of colonization. European germs also wreaked devastation on the aboriginal communities of Australia and New Zealand.
More victims of colonization were killed by Eurasian germs, than by either the gun or the sword, making germs the deadliest agent of conquest.
The Story Of... Writing
One of the most important inventions in human history was undoubtedly the development of writing. Life without this innovation would be unthinkable today.
Emerging independently in just a handful of places around the world, writing comprehensively transformed early agricultural societies. A technology which was invented primarily to record accounts rapidly exploded into a means of informing, recording and expressing all of the political, social, cultural, historical, and most intriguingly, private, thoughts and actions of all walks of society.
Writing is believed to have first evolved around 5,000 years ago, in a region of the Fertile Crescent called Sumer. An elaborate system of symbols known as cuneiform was developed to permanently record official accounts on clay tablets — but it didn't take long for cuneiform to be used for political and historical events as well — even legends, such as the fabled story of Gilgamesh, the oldest written story in the world.
At the same time, the native peoples of Central America were experimenting with their own unique form of symbolic representation, culminating in the written hieroglyphs of the Mayan civilisation of Southern Mexico. And up to 4,000 years ago, the people of China had developed the third independent system of writing in history, crafting their own complex system of symbols and characters.
From these three founder systems evolved all of the complex alphabets, languages and writing systems in the world. Semitic alphabets, evolved from Sumerian, dominate the so-called Indo-European language family. Chinese has shaped the languages of south-east Asia.
The one writing system that seemed to go nowhere was, tragically, the Central American language of the Maya. Why? Because geography had conspired to keep the Maya isolated from their neighbors. There were few trade networks to carry new technologies beyond the Mexican plateau — particularly south, through the impassable isthmus of Panama. There weren't even any load-bearing mammals to transport humans across such trade networks, had they existed. The people of the Americas communicated only sporadically, from shore to shore — which meant there was never the consistency of communication to necessitate using the written word. So Mayan symbols remained local only to central America — seized upon and largely destroyed when Europeans arrived.
In each of these three cases, writing evolved as a useful by-product of a complex, economically specialized, politically-stratified society, built on agricultural surplus. While such cultures evolved all over the world, only Eurasia had the right conditions to trigger the next great evolutionary step. Because, almost as significant as the invention of writing itself, was the invention of printing.
Developed in central Europe in the mid-fifteenth century, from metal and ink technologies which had evolved across Eurasia, movable type allowed the rapid dissemination of multiple copies of any written work. Printed books became bestsellers in a Europe undergoing enormous social change. Middle class artisans and landowners from independent mercantile towns were increasingly economically and politically powerful — and increasingly literate, thanks to the boom in universities. The printed word capitalized on this social transformation.
So what does this mean for the story of Guns, Germs, and Steel?
Writing — and printing — acted as an additional agent of conquest for the Europeans. Thanks to printed accounts, Pizarro and his conquistadors read about successful tactics employed by their predecessors elsewhere in the New World. In particular, they pored over Hernan Cortes' best-selling account of the conquest of the Aztec Empire, just 10 years before. Printing gave Europeans access to a wealth of historical, cultural and military knowledge from previous eras, which the Inca — a non-literate society — could never have had.
The Inca Emperor had never seen a book before he met Pizarro. When presented with a copy of the Bible, he tried to listen to it, smell it, shake it — the idea of reading was simply incomprehensible to him. In the heat of the moment, this reaction caused dreadful offense and triggered the Spaniards' brutal attack on the people of Cajamarca. But in the long term, what this cultural misunderstanding represented was the chronic isolation of the Inca Empire. Their geographic neighbors, the Maya, had developed crude forms of writing, but these and other inventions had never spread south to the Andes. Political, social, and military organization inside the Inca Empire was checked by the limitations of human memory.
Throughout human history whenever literate societies clashed with non-literate societies, the victors were usually the ones capable of later recording their great achievements for posterity. To the victor goes the recording of history.