Ultimately, it came down to geographic luck.
The inequalities of the world were born from the crops we eat.
Americans have had an advantage because for centuries they’ve grown crops that are more
nutritious and productive. Crops like wheat, which provides about a fifth
of all the calories they eat. The wealth of modern America could never have
been sustained by taro and bananas. But could plants alone really have the power
to shape the course of human history? Or was there something else at play?
Another reason for the division of the world into haves and have nots? Another steady source
of food? We begin to see a process of animal domestication,
by which we mean humans were controlling where they were moving, they were controlling their
feeding, and they were controlling their breeding. Instead of having to go out to hunt, you have
a dependable meat supply. Animals could be used for their milk, providing
an ongoing source of protein. Their hair and skins could be used to make
clothes for extra warmth. And the combination of these particular animals
and plants becomes an extremely attractive package in that after the harvest period,
animals could be turned out on the stubble, and they can actually eat the remains of the
cereal crop harvest. In their turn, animal dung can be used to
provide a fertilizer. Goats and sheep were the first animals to
be domesticated in the ancient world, and were eventually followed by the big farm animals
of today. All of them were used at first for their meat,
but they all proved useful in other ways, especially with the invention of the plow.
Before the industrial revolution, beasts of burden were the most powerful machines on
the planet. A horse or an ox, harnessed to a a plow, could
transform the productivity of the land. And where did the ancestors of these animals
come from? None was from New Guinea or Australia, or
sub-Saharan Africa, or the whole continent of North America.
South America had the ancestor of just one large, domestic animal, the llama.
The big four livestock animals – cows, pigs, sheep, and goats – were native to the Middle
East. Little wonder that this area became known
as the Fertile Crescent, in the middle of a huge land mass: Eurasia.
There were plenty of places for farming to spread and, crucially, many of those places
were to the east and west of Fertile Crescent, at roughly the same line of of latitude.
Why is that so important? Because any two points of the globe that share
the same latitude automatically share the same length of day, and they all can share
a similar climate and vegetation. Crops or animals domesticated in the Fertile
Crescent were able to prosper at other places along the east-west axis of Eurasia.
Wheat and barley, sheep and goats, cows and pigs, all spread from the Fertile Crescent,
east towards India and west towards North Africa and Europe.
Wherever they went, they transformed human societies.
Once the crops and animals of the Fertile Crescent reached Egypt, they caused an explosion
of civilization. Suddenly, there was enough food to feed the
pharaohs and generals, the engineers and scribes, and the armies of people required to build
the pyramids. The same is true of European civilization.
From ancient times until the Renaissance, the crops and animals of the Fertile Crescent
fed the artists, inventors, and soldiers of Europe. In the 16th century, the same crops and animals were taken by Europeans to the New World.
At the time, there was not a single cow or ear of wheat in all the Americas.
Now there a hundred million cattle in the U. S. alone,
and Americans consume 20,000,000 tons of wheat a year. Modern, industrialized America would be unthinkable without the spread of farming from the Fertile