Why European Agriculture Developed Faster Than South America’s (Part 7)

Jagmeet Khabra

For the rest of the series, click here: PART 1 PART 2 PART 3 PART 4 PART 5 PART 6

Why European Agriculture Developed Faster Than South America’s

The domestication of animals played a crucial role in the agricultural revolution in both Europe and South America. In Europe, domestication helped farmers to become more efficient because large animals, like oxen, could pull ploughs. Also, the Europeans did not have to exercise much effort to conquer the Native Americans because of all the infectious diseases they brought with them.

It is important to note that in Europe, domesticated animals could help human beings perform hard labour, but in South America, humans had to do all the labour. This means that Europeans needed less people to complete the same tasks as South Americans, which led to more rapid development in Europe. South America required larger populations to complete the same tasks that Europeans mastered years before them and used their technology to create large cities. However, in order to sustain a large population, a civilization has to develop large surpluses of food. Europe took advantage of large animals to plough the land to increase agricultural production, while South America had to do the labour manually.  While European women became gradually less involved with agriculture and more devoted to domestic work and childcare, and agricultural production actually increased. In South America, though, agriculture without animals was very labour intensive, requiring both men and women to be very involved in the labour force.

The high diversity of domesticated animals also played a huge role in the Europeans’ advancement in comparison to South America. The main axis for Europe is east/west, whereas the main axis of the Americas is north/south. Europe’s east/west axis meant that domesticated species from one part of Europe could move easily along the same latitude for thousands of miles. Food like chicken and citrus fruits that became domesticated in Asia could easily spread westward to Europe. In contrast, the north/south axis of the Americas meant that species domesticated in one area could not spread far without encountering day-lengths and climates to which they were not adapted. As a result, animals like the turkey could not move south from Mexico to the Andes. Also, the llamas and alpacas never spread north from the Andes to Mexico, leaving civilizations in Central America lacking pack animals. It took thousands of years for the corn to evolve, as well. Plants and animals that thrive at a given latitude tend to thrive at the same latitude anywhere else on the planet either north or south of the Equator. Therefore, there is an easy east/west overland migration route for those crops or animals, and they commonly export themselves beyond their point of origin.

The demographics of the Fertile Crescent are the reason that the region experienced such rapid domestication. The plants and animals that originated from there were already well adapted to the climates of the regions to which they spread. For example, once farming crossed from the plains of Hungary into central Europe around 5400 B.C, it spread so quickly that the sites of the first farmers in the vast area from Poland west to Holland were nearly contemporaneous. Conversely, in certain regions in the Andes where domesticated sunflowers might have thrived, but their southward spread was stopped by the intervening tropical climates. The mere 700 miles of north-south distance prevented Mexican corn, squash and beans from reaching the American Southwest for several thousand years after their domestication in Mexico, and Mexican chilli peppers and chenopods never did reach north during prehistoric times. This is sufficient evidence to support the idea that an east – west layout offered an advantage to a north – south formation.

Europe had a clear advantage in many sectors of agricultural development in comparison to South America. It is clear that the plants and animals that Europeans were able to domesticate instantly trumped anything that South America had developed. Even though both plants and animals were domesticated in the same way in both continents, the species that existed in South America were drastically different from the species that existed in Europe.  The most important thing that happened during the agricultural revolution was when the Europeans conquered South America, bringing a plethora of diseases with them. The conquerors were immune to diseases that originated from their animals because of vast history and variety of the animals in Eurasia. This allowed Europeans to increase their immunity to dangerous pathogens that would later wipe out millions of South Americans.

Europeans also used their domesticated animals, like the ox and the cow, to plough their fields and farm more efficiently.  The use of these animals changed social stratification because only the strongest people could plough, and men were usually stronger than women. So, women focused on domestic chores and childcare. With this more hands-on approach to child rearing, children emerged as more intelligent. They in turn grew up to develop European technology, like improving forms of writing (which originated in the Fertile Crescent). There is no doubt that the Europeans won the agricultural revolution because they had advantages in almost every single aspect of development.


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