Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Collapse III

The next few chapters of the book cover the Anasazi in the American Southwest, the Mayans in Mexico and Central America and the Viking settlements in the North Atlantic. In the case of the Anasazi, the collapse had multiple causes according to Diamond. Those included environmental destruction, climate change, breakdowns in internal trade and political dysfunction. The Mayan collapse was much larger than any of the others considered so far in the book and affected at least five million people. Diamond identifies five strands to this collapse: Malthusian overpopulation and food shortages, deforestation and erosion, fighting, climate change and political failure to solve the other four problems, which he thinks were solvable.

Far more space is devoted to the Vikings, in part because they had several settlements and different outcomes in each settlement. The Viking expansion began in about 800 A.D. with a succession of raids on countries near Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Eventually, the easy pickings ended when the victims took stronger measures to defend themselves, and the Vikings thereafter established permanent residence in several locations, including Russia, Normandy, England, Ireland and the Faeroe, Shetland and Orkney Islands. Over time they were absorbed by the local populations and lost all of their connections with their homelands.

The Norwegian ventures far out into the Atlantic became progressively less successful. On Iceland they interbred with the Celtic inhabitants and attempted to replicate farm life in Norway. The island is volcanic and the soil is more sensitive than that of Norway. Soon they had deforested it, and the volcanic soil was eroded away by the grazing of cattle and sheep. In this case the settlers were able to survive by turning to fishing for sustenance, and they increasingly relied on trade with Norway to support their economy, which has remained healthy up to the present.

Conditions in Greenland were far less favorable. Its climate is colder and more variable than that of Iceland or Norway, and raising cattle and sheep there is a significant challenge, since that damages what little agricultural land there is. Often a cold or foggy summer meant that there would not be enough hay to feed the cows during the winter. Apparently their cows were tiny – only four feet tall. They also faced the mini-ice-age which struck Europe during medieval times and were further isolated when the bubonic plague killed half of the population in Norway. Although life there would have been difficult for anyone, Diamond faults the Norse for inflexibly adhering to familiar European practices which didn't fit their immediate circumstances. For reasons which aren't clear, they didn't consume much fish, which was one of the most abundant food sources in the region. They preferred beef and venison, which became delicacies. By that time the Vikings had converted to Christianity, which caused the Greenlanders to allocate their scarce resources inappropriately. They built a cathedral, and their priests and upper class lived luxuriously. Furthermore, they failed to learn from the Inuit, whom they ran into in the latter part of their stay in Greenland. The Inuit were far more skilled than they were at hunting some of the local species and could survive without wooden buildings and metal weapons or tools. Their kayaks were engineering marvels which gave them access to a wide hunting range. They could have helped the Norse hunt different prey or obtain walrus tusks, which were extremely valuable in Europe before elephant tusks became available. However, the Norse paid little attention to the Inuit and seemed to think that they were animals: they killed one to see how much it would bleed. In some sense they were successful in that they managed to survive there for 450 years, but in the end they all starved to death.

The Norse in Greenland made westward trips to North America and attempted to start a settlement in Newfoundland. However, as was the case with the Inuit, they had little interest in the Native Americans and created a hostile environment by killing them on contact. Thus, although they returned occasionally to obtain wood, their North American settlements were abandoned because they became unsafe for habitation. Diamond points out that it was not until 1492, with the arrival of Columbus, that Europeans began to trade with Native Americans and take advantage of them in the pursuit of their own goals.

I am enjoying Diamond's methodology and the vast resources that he has available, of which he is discussing only a small part. This is a daunting topic that covers several unfamiliar cultures over hundreds of years each. Although it is a long book, I am hoping that the lessons he draws at the end will make the effort worthwhile. So far I am finding little with which to disagree in his theories. My only complaint is that he does not consider the idea that the Inuit may, besides their particular skills, have a selective advantage living in the Arctic region because of the physical characteristics of their bodies, which may have made them better adapted to cold climates than the Norwegians. Apparently such thoughts are still considered to be racist nonsense on college campuses.

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