This award-winning book looks at which geographical, geophysical, biological and social influences might have affected the course of human history – social, cultural and political. It’s a book with a huge remit: 13,000 years of human history following the end of the last Ice Age. Its main underlying theme is: why did the West, beginning with cultures in the Near East, come to have such a profound impact on the rest of the world? Why for instance did 400 Conquistadors overcome tens of thousands of Native Americans in South America?
It’s a fascinating and important question; and a great read. The author discusses how geography can affect social change, for instance pointing out how west-east geography is much easier to traverse over time since it has pretty much the same climate types, whereas north-south geography, for example west of the Andes with a greater variety of climate types, is more difficult. Paris to Vladivostok is a much easier prospect than Lima to Panama.
The book also goes into the history of diseases and immunity, pointing out how colonising Westerners brought diseases to the New World that people there had no immunity to – not a new tale, but one that required telling in the context of the book.
Another facet of the discussion is how chance helped in the Fertile Crescent – the high number of animal species which can be domesticated compared with, say, Brazil; the chance growth of emmer wheat in the area; and so on. Also noted is how China for instance, though it had an early culture of invention, did not capitalise on that culture as did the West.
Some books you just know are going to be eye-openers as you read them. I had that impression when I started this, and it turned out to be compulsively readable and very thought-provoking. I recommend it whenever I can. It turned out to be influential in my own work too, especially when it comes to world-building…