Why European Agriculture Developed Faster Than South America’s (Part 6)

Jagmeet Khabra

For the rest of the series, click here: PART 1 PART 2 PART 3 PART 4 PART 5

The New World

The term “the New World” describes the western hemisphere, specifically the Americas. The term originated in the early 15th or 16th century, when Christopher Columbus arrived and effectively “discovered” the last of the major inhabitable continents. In 1493, when Columbus returned to Spain after his first voyage to the New World, Pope Alexander VI drew the line of demarcation[1]. This line divided the new lands that Spain and Portugal had claimed. Meanwhile, the acquisition of the New World allowed the Europeans to opened huge farms and plantations where they grew cotton, fruit, sugar cane, and vegetables. Therefore, there was an immediate need for people to work on these farms, which ultimately stimulated the slave trade[2]. The opening of the sea routes and overland trade routes to the New World, Africa, and Asia allowed the Europeans to build their colonial empires. The direct economic effects of the slave trade contributed to the process of West European growth before the Industrial Revolution, and indirectly, it triggered fundamental institutional changes.

When the Europeans discovered the New World in 1492, they came in and dominated the land violently and swiftly[3]. These invading Europeans had steel, swords, guns, and horses, while the Native Americans has only stone and wooden weapons and no animals to ride. It only took a few dozen European military soldiers to defeat thousands of Native Americans.  However, this was only one way that the Europeans were able to successfully decimate the native peoples. The Europeans brought infectious diseases like small pox and measles, which quickly spread from one tribe to another[4]. The Europeans, meanwhile, and built up immunity to these diseases, which was another unexpected advantage of their domesticated animals. On the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, European diseases killed eight million natives in fifty years[5], and soon, an estimated 95% of the New World Indian population was dead. These diseases were endemic in Europe, and the European populations had time to develop both genetic and immune resistance, but Native Americans had no such resistance. These diseases helped the Europeans to colonize South America much faster than they would have with only their armies.

For all the diseases Europeans brought to the Americas, not a single disease passed in the opposite direction. The major reason for this was that the South Americans did not have as many animals that could be domesticated as the Europeans did[6]. Even though both continents developed agriculture, lived in heavily populated cities with animals in close proximity, Europeans were around animals that frequently caught more dangerous diseases[7]. The only animals that South Americans were close to were llamas and they did not live in herds, nor did many people drink llama milk because it was not readily available beyond the Andes. Due to the size of the llamas, people did not keep them indoors. Therefore, it was very difficult for diseases to pass from a llama to a human.

Farming made it possible for the development of technology, including military technology. Europeans did not invent war. Throughout the history of human civilization, people have been competing with each other – manoeuvring to fight off, conquer, drive out, or exterminate their rivals.  That being said, in the Battle of Cajamarca in 1532, 169 Spaniards faced an army of 80,000 Inca soldiers. Legend has it that within the first seven minutes of battle, 7,000 Incas were dead[8]. When the battle was finally over, there was not a single causality on the European side. This disparity existed because the Europeans had steel swords and the Incas had wooden clubs. This example shows how much more advanced the Europe were compared to the people of South Africa.

Due to the Europeans’ easy access to the Fertile Crescent, they developed a huge advantage in trade, as well. They had easy access to many grains and cereals that grew in the Fertile Crescent. This crops in the Fertile Crescent gave the Europeans the ability develop food for a large population and easily domesticate these crops.  On the other hand, the only plant that the South Americans could domesticate was quinoa, and later, corn from Mesoamerica. With a vast variety of crops, human beings in Europe were able to develop a surplus much faster than early South Americans.  This allowed the Europeans an early advantage over the crop sector and more power over which plants they were able to domesticate.


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