Guns, Domesticated Ungulates and Wheels — why some civilizations dominated over others in history

In Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) Jarred Diamond describes how a few conquistadors could come to dominate an entire continent despite their numerical inferiority. Many of the natives who weren’t killed by the invaders’ guns died from their germs, to which they had no biological adaptations. North American natives never developed animal husbandry and our domestic animals have been the major source of contagious diseases in our history.

If we want to answer the question of why the Americas fell to a handful of invaders it’s important to find out the missing ingredients in the formation of the respective civilizations. It is true that the Old World had a headstart in the development of farming, but that doesn’t explain everything. Agriculture started in the New World around 9.000 years ago, approximately at the same time as in China. And yet, it was the Chinese who invented guns about 1000 years ago, at a time when even metallurgy hadn’t been invented yet in the Americas.

The Incas were the most advanced American civilizations, however, some basic things we find in Old World civilizations were conspicuously absent

The Americas never developed pastoralism, and I will argue that all of the missing elements are due to missing pastoralism.

In The Horse, the Wheel, and Language (2007) David W. Anthony shows how a handful of herders from the Russian Steppe came to dominate Europe and a large part of Western Asia. They achieved their dominance through some impressive innovations: the horse and wheeled chariots were among them. Advanced metallurgy was another. Bronze Age metallurgy was probably largely spread by herders. What is it that creates those close ties between metallurgy and pastoralists? Metallurgy features twice in Jarred Diamond’s title: guns and steel. And therein lies the answer: arms. Pastoralism coevolved with a system of mutual predation (raiding) in pastoralist tribes.

Weapons and herders go together like a horse and carriage. And so do domesticated ungulates and wheels. Wheeled artefacts, identified as children’s toys, have been found in Mexican archaeological sites, some dating to approximately 1500 BCE, but American agricultural societies never used them for work.

As pastoralism and agriculture co-evolved we do not have much to compare American civilizations with. One interesting comparison is the Indus Valley Civilization:

The general scarcity of weapons from Harappan sites remains striking; but as Corke (2005) points out, in other Bronze Age civilizations (e.g. Egypt, China, Mesopotamia) weaponry tends to be found in burials rather than settlements; so — he reasons — the visibility of weapons and warfare in the Indus valley may be greatly reduced by an overall lack of funerary remains. As he also points out, though, there is no evidence that weapons were used as symbols of authority (by contrast with Mesopotamia, for instance) or in any way formed ‘a significant part of elite identity’ in the Indus civilization. What is definitely absent is the glorification of weapons and the kind of people who employ them. (The Dawn of Everything, A New History of Humanity )

While the Indus Valley Civilization did have metallurgy, livestock and wheels its attitude towards weapons is markedly different from its neighbours in Mesopotamia. I hypothesise that this was due to the absence of evolutionary pastoralist types. The Harappan culture was pre-Indo European and a very peaceful one. How did it end?

Some historians believed the Indus civilisation was destroyed in a large war. Hindu poems called the Rig Veda (from around 1500 BC) describe northern invaders conquering the Indus Valley cities. While this isn’t the mainstream view anymore (climate change is a common explanation), I do believe that the Vedic texts are describing the influx of Yamnya (Indoeuropean) pastoralists:

In the oldest text of Hinduism, the Rig Veda, the warrior god Indra rides against his impure enemies, or dasa, in a horse-drawn chariot, destroys their fortresses, or pur, and secures land and water for his people, the arya, or Aryans. Composed between four thousand and three thousand years ago in Old Sanskrit, the Rig Veda was passed down orally for some two thousand years before being written down, much like the Iliad and Odyssey in Greece, which were composed several hundred years later in another early Indo-European language. The Rig Veda is an extraordinary window into the past, as it provides a glimpse of what Indo-European culture might have been like in a period far closer in time to when these languages radiated from a common source. (David Reich, Who We Are and How We Got Here )

There is a huge difference between India before and after the arrival of the steppe pastoralists.

There is not only a hierarchy but a group hierarchy with some groups having such low status that they count as outcasts. This is a certain sign of social dominance orientation. What’s more, the appearance of a warrior caste, where none had existed before. It is not unlikely that the Kshatriya caste once was the highest caste and was directly made up of the descendants of the pastoralist warriors.

Many Indians are reluctant to call the Varna System Caste, arguing that it reflects a more natural order rather than an artificial hierarchical power structure. Varna actually means “colour” or “complexion” and when we time- travel back to India in 1000 BC when the Atharva Veda, on which most of Ayurveda is based, we will find three different complexions as well as different body types (doshas), much less mixed than they are today:

Vata: dark-skinned people. Most likely hunter-gatherers or people with a recent hunter-gatherer origin.

Pitta: light-skinned people. Most likely the Indoeuropean pastoralists from the north

Kapha: intermediate. Most likely originally Iranian farmers who together with forager types probably had made up most of the Indus Valley Civilization.

A recent article in Nature seems to confirm the different genetic origins of the three doshas:

Principal component analysis (PCA) of these SNPs classified 262 individuals into their respective groups (Vata, Pitta and Kapha) irrespective of their ancestry, which represent its power in categorization. We further validated our finding with 297 Indian population samples with known ancestry. Subsequently, we found that PGM1 correlates with phenotype of Pitta as described in the ancient text of Caraka Samhita, suggesting that the phenotypic classification of India’s traditional medicine has a genetic basis; and its Prakriti-based practice in vogue for many centuries resonates with personalized medicine. ()

Weapons (guns), domesticated ungulates and wheels were a recipe for one group to dominate others. However, the most important ingredient was a “dominance drive”, the will to dominate other peoples. Forager and farmer types mostly lack such a will. Coming full circle to the conquistadors this would mean that most of them were evolutionary pastoralist types.

Check out my book Understanding History: Herders, Horticulturalists and Hunter-Gatherers for more:

Originally published at on January 6, 2022.




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