Latitudes not Attitudes or ‘Maps not Chaps’

Geography is … only a branch of statistics, a knowledge of which is necessary to the well-understanding of the history of nations, as well as their situations relative to each other.
–WILLIAM PLAYFAIR

I’ve been think a lot about the way geography shapes history. A lot of the big questions of history can be boiled down to simple geography.

What brought this to mind was this interview with Ian Morris:

Philip Dodd: “The three paradigms in which you want to work are biolgical, sociologicial…[and geographical]. Tell us why geography is so important to you…”

Ian Morris: “It follows on fairly directly from the ways I was thinking about biology and sociology. It seems to me the major implication of recent work in evolutionary biology is that human beings are all more or less the same things all over the world, which is—clever chimpanzees. That’s what we are. And we do the same things as most other kinds of animals, we’re just better at it…”

“It seemed to me, as I was looking for patterns across the last 15,000 years, was that the real motor for why some societies have developed at different paces than others was simply geography. That’s just what it came down to.”

PD: Give us briefly an example of how geography is determining.

IM: “The most glaring case of geographical determinism is the beginnings of agriculture the end of the Ice Age. There were only a few places in the world while wild species of plants and animals had developed that were potentially domesticable. If you were a hunter-gatherer in central Siberia, it didn’t matter if you were Albert Einstein, you were never going to domesticate plants and animals because it could not be done. If you lived in southwest Asia, it was massively more likely that domestication would happen there than anywhere else because these plants and animals are so densely concentrated there…”

“…Much of what humanists like to dwell on as agency I think is an obsession with the noise generated by human beings. We’re very good at thinking up grand theories about the afterlife for example—about things that very likely don’t exist at all. That is just a distinctively human version of the agency that generally applies to living things.”

“Plants have agency of a kind, bunny rabbits have a lot more, chimpanzees have a lot more still. We have most of all. And we have so much of it, that we clearly have in some ways moved wildly away from what we share with animals. But in other ways we continue to share a great deal of what we do with animals.”

“I like to say when I’m teaching that history is a subfield of biology. It’s the record of what one particular species does. And when you put it like that it’s hard to argue with [that]…”

Richard Cohen and The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (BBC Arts & Ideas)

The interview is from a few years back in reference is Morris’ book Why the Rest Rules–for Now. In that book, he traces history back 15,000 years in order to find the reason why the societies of the North Atlantic ended up dominating and ruling much of the planet today rather than, say, the Middle East or Africa China or South America. The geography factor came up fairly late in his inquiry, and caused him to rethink his assumptions. As he says:

“This is something that actually didn’t fully dawn on me until I was quite some way into writing the book, and I had to go back to the beginning and start doing it all over again…The reason why the book ends up being rather a long one rather than a one-page thing saying ‘it’s geography’ [is because] geography is a somewhat complicated thing. On the one hand, physical geography determines how societies develop. But the way societies develop determines what physical geography means.”

In a column for the Daily Beast he summarizes some of his major conclusions:

When the world warmed up 15,000 years ago, geography dictated that there were only a few regions on the planet where complex societies could develop. This was because only a few regions had the kinds of climate and landscape that allowed for the evolution of wild plants and animals that could be domesticated; and farming could only arise in these places.

The densest concentrations of these plants and animals lay toward the Western end of Eurasia, around the headwaters of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Jordan Rivers in what we now call southwest Asia. It was therefore here, around 9000 BC, that farming began, spreading outward across Europe. Western Eurasia became the richest part of the world.

Farming also started up independently in other areas, from China to Mexico; but because plants and animals that could be domesticated were somewhat less common in these zones than in the West, the process took thousands of years longer to get going.

Ian Morris on Why the West Rules but China Is Next (Daily Beast)

On a similar theme is a book I read recently called Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. It’s mostly about current geopolitical tensions than it is about geography, but it does cover some useful facts about why certain parts of the world developed in the way they did.

It’s a good illustration of how countries came to be, and why they are the way they are. Political scientists like to talk about “Path Dependence”—the fact that understanding why societies are the way they are now has a lot do with historical circumstances, sometimes stemming from a very long time ago. To cite just one example, when you look at current voting patterns in the U.S., counties which had the best conditions for growing cotton in Dixie are the most likely to vote for Democrats today, because they have a larger concentration of African-Americans to this day. And, of course, the conditions for growing cotton growing had to do with climate and geological processes that took place even before modern humans had emerged.

1. WESTERN EUROPE

But what really got me thinking about this was looking back at the history of financial innovations. It makes sense that these all began in places which had to have expansive trade by necessity. These were places that were rich in some resources, but poor in other critical ones, and so trading became a necessity. That’s why it is in such places that we must look to find their origins. You’ll find that in history, things are invented out of necessity when and where they need to be. Ian Morris articulates this as his ‘Morris Theorem’: “Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they’re doing.”

The Tigris-Euphrates valley is the major case in point. The well-watered flat river valleys produced lots of raw materials, but not much in the way of stone, gems, or precious metals. So it was here that the first trading “innovations” began such as writing, double-entry bookkeeping, bonds, insurance, tradeable debt, and the like. By contrast, the Nile region was much more self-sufficient. It’s trading was command-and-control, organized through the Pharaoh’s household which owned the major national resources, such as mines and the shipping fleet.

A Four Thousand Year Old Bond (Marginal Revolution)

Looking at Europe a different situation emerges. Why didn’t Europe, with all its geographical advantages, take the lead rather than the Middle East? Marshall notes some of the advantages:

The climate, fed by the Gulf Stream, blessed the region with the right amount of rainfall to cultivate crops on a large scale, and the right type of soil for them to flourish in. This allowed for population growth in an area which, for most, work was possible year-round, even in the height of summer. Winter actually adds a bonus, with temperatures warm enough to work in but cold enough to kill off many of the germs which to this day plague huge part of the rest of the world.

Good harvests mean surplus food that can be traded; this in turn builds up trading centers that become towns. It also allows people to think of more than just growing food and to turn their attention to ideas and technology.

Western Europe has no real deserts, the frozen wastes are confined to a few areas in the far north, and earthquakes, volcanoes, and massive flooding are rare. The rivers are long, flat, navigable, and made for trade. As they empty into a variety of seas and oceans, they flow into coastlines that are—west, north and south—abundant in natural harbors…These are the factors that led to the Europeans creating the first industrialized nation states, which in turn led them to be the first to conduct industrial-scale war. pp. 88-89

Well, we know that people tend to remain foragers rather than forming more complex societies if they can avoid it, because foraging offers a much better quality of life with a lot more freedom. Complex societies that produce surpluses end up allocating those surpluses to an elite managerial class that can then use its control over the surplus to dominate and control the majority. As Johnson and Earl put it, “…the benefits of a larger community must outweigh the costs before people will form one, or join an existing one…the intensification of the subsistence economy, itself an outcome of rising population and technological innovation, creates a problem that can best be solved by working in larger groups.” (The Evolution of Human Societies, p. 141) Populations in Northern Europe did not need to rely upon intensification as did those in the Tigris/Euphrates (or Yellow River) valley.

When you look at the Near East, their dependence upon massive, labor-intensive irrigation works which can only be produced and maintained communally, as well as their dependence upon annual cereal crops for sustenance, means that it was here that complex proto-states would likely form before anywhere else. The land in the great river valleys was far more fertile than the surrounding countryside, which was dominated by nomadic pastoralists living at lower densities.

Although hydraulic theories of state formation have fallen out of favor, it does seem as though more complex civilizations tend to form first in regions where large-scale irrigation is required for crops. The labor needed to maintain a large infrastructure requires more coordination between disparate villages, which in turn causes supra-regional associations to form which elites can control. This also spurs trade between villages.

In Europe, by contrast, crops were rain-fed. The fact that the continent was originally heavily forested also meant there were lots of places to hide from despotic elites. It was only when the larger, more complex Roman Empire conquered the numerous chiefdoms of Northwestern Europe and introduced things like writing, bureaucracy and money that these lands became organized into more complex, hierarchical civilizations than chiefdoms.

So the direction of cultural transmission was destined to be from East to West rather than West to East, expanding from eastern Eurasia and the Levant across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece, and later to the Italian peninsula. The trade around the Mediterranean became so intense during the Bronze Age that some consider it to be the first global economy.

The year 1177 BCE roughly demarks the disintegration of humanity’s first global civilization: the Late Bronze Age. At its peak, a booming trade in raw materials, agricultural goods, and finished products—from jewelry to pottery, spices and wine—encircled the Mediterranean and stretched north, perhaps as far as present-day Scandinavia, and east to Afghanistan and India. Then, after centuries of brilliance, the civilized world of the Bronze Age came to an abrupt and cataclysmic end.

Drought and unrest sparked global societal collapse in the Bronze Age. Is it happening again? (Quartz)

Where else on Earth do you get something like the Mediterranean Sea, a huge inland sea surrounded by diverse ecosystems separating continents, occupied by diverse cultures, and yet small enough to traverse fairly easily? Nowhere else that I know of. In fact, Neanderthals might have even sailed around the Mediterranean before humans showed up.

Evidence suggests Neanderthals took to boats before modern humans (Phys.org)

Fast forward to the Roman Empire. Why did the Western Empire fall, while the Eastern Empire continue to function for centuries more?

The reasons are complex, but it boils down to this: The Eastern Roman empire had older, more complex settled urban civilizations than the Celtic/Germanic barbarian West did. So it had a longer tradition of civilization, a higher tax base, a longer institutional history, older cities, and more trading links to more “developed” civilizations, most notably China and India.

Western contact with China began long before Marco Polo, experts say (BBC)

Rome itself was something of an “accidental capital”—never strategically well-placed and vulnerable to invasions (as indeed the Celts had done prior to the Empire). This forced the Latins to develop formidable armies, but their geographical location still made them vulnerable.

Byzantium, however, was ideally placed, and it is this reason why Emperor Constantine established his capital here and named it after himself. Constantinople is the ideal strategic location—the gateway between Europe and Asia, as Istanbul still is today. Thus, the Roman East was shielded from armies storming out of the North European plain by the Bosporus, the Mediterranean Sea, and the mountains. The only way to get to North Africa, the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, was through two “pinch points”—Gibraltar and the Bosporus. Coming from nomadic stock, the tribes had little maritime experience—the experienced Roman navy would have made quick work of any attempts by them to attack North Africa or the Levant by sea.

So the Romans managed to confine the barbarian wanderers to Europe, fighting skirmishes but never letting them cross over into Asia or North Africa. An attempt to reunify the empire under Justinian was brought down by plague. Eventually the Vandals managed to cross into North Africa. Once the barbarians did manage to sweep across North Africa, the Eastern Empire started to decline. It remained for the Muslims storming out of the desert in the seventh century, and later the Turks from central Asia, to deal the final blow.

With the gradual dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, it was destined that Europe would end up divided into multiple, competing nations, rather than coalescing back into a single unified state as China managed to do several times throughout its history. Once again, this is due mainly to geography:

If we take Europe as a whole, we see the mountains, rivers, and valleys that explain why there are so many nation states. Unlike the United States, in which one dominant language and culture pressed rapidly and violently ever westward, creating a giant country, Europe grew organically over millennia and remains divided between its geographical and linguistic regions. p. 89

Europe’s major rivers do not meet (unless you count the Sava which drains into the Danube in Belgrade). This partly explains why there are so many countries in what is a relatively small space. Because they do not connect, most of the rivers act, at some point, as boundaries, and each is a sphere of economic influence in its own right; this gave rise to at least one major urban development on the banks of each river, some of which in turn became capital cities. pp. 89-90

Europe’s second longest river, the Danube (1,771 miles), is a case in point. It rises in Germany’s Black Forest and flows south on its way to the Black Sea. In all, the Danube basin affects eighteen countries and forms natural borders along the way, including those of Slovakia and Hungary, Croatia and Serbia, Serbia and Romania, and Romania and Bulgaria. More than two thousand years ago it was one of the borders of the Roman Empire, which in tum helped it to become one of the great trading routes of medieval times and gave rise to the present capital cities of Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Belgrade. It also formed the natural border of two subsequent empires, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman. As each shrank, the nations emerged again, eventually becoming nation states. However, the geography of the Danube region, especially at its southern end, helps explain why there are so many small nations there in comparison to the bigger countries in and around the North European Plain. p. 90

When you look at a map of Europe, you can’t help but be struck by just how much coastline there is! Really, almost everywhere is not that far from a sea, river or ocean. Compare that to the massive continental bulk of Asia or Africa, for example. Plus, its rivers are long, flat and navigable. This practically guaranteed that Northern Europe would became a major trading center, and that’s exactly what happened. And that’s why so many trade innovations originated there, including capitalist markets.

When “civilization” finally took root in northern Europe thanks to Roman military pacification, ports of trade developed all along Europe’s coasts and rivers (London was an early one of these). Eastern Europe, distant from the Roman heartland and shielded by mountains, remained behind their western neighbors. Not to mention they had to fight off Mongols and Turks.

One thing I always found unique about Europe is that it was “separate yet unified.” That is, even though it was divided into separate nation states, it had a common religious bureaucracy maintained by the Catholic Church in Rome (arguably the first international corporation), and it had a common language in the form of Latin thanks to the legacy of ancient Rome, meaning that scholars from different cultures could communicate in a shared language and tradition, while still maintaining cultural diffeences.

Remember how we said the Eastern Mediterranean was where the older, urban civilizations and all the riches were? And how they had trading connections with the rest of Asia? Well, it’s here that the big lake called the Mediterranean came into play once again. Islamic empires formed throughout the Middle East which linked India and Southeast Asia to the Mediterranean economy. The Pax Mongolica connected East and West along the Silk Road. The entrance of luxury goods from the Abbassid Exchange like spices, cotton and tea created a space for merchants that had not been there before. While Northern Europe concentrated on exporting raw materials, the Northern Italians formed trading empires from their urban centers. They became the conduit between the kingdoms of Northwest Europe and the riches of the East.So it was that Venice, founded by refugees from the dying Roman Empire, became the merchant center of Europe. They were quickly soon joined by other Medieval communes throughout Northern Italy whose wealth would derive from trade instead of farming or raw materials.

Through a series of fortunate events in the ninth century, Venice became politically independent. This, together with Venice’s fortunate geography, uniquely positioned it to benefit from rising trade between Western Europe and the Levant. These two factors combined to enrich Venetian merchants, who used their newfound economic muscle to push for institutional change.

So it was that Northern Italy became the center of banking and trade. Their proximity and dealings with Islamic merchants led to the adoption of Arabic innovations such as Arabic numerals and checks. Here are just a few of the financial innovations that trace their history back to Northern Italy:

By the early fourteenth century, financial innovations included: the appearance of limited liability joint stock companies; thick markets for debt (especially bills of exchange); secondary markets for a wide variety of debt, equity and mortgage instruments; bankruptcy laws that distinguished illiquidity from insolvency; double-entry accounting methods; business education (including the use of algebra for currency conversions); deposit banking; and a reliable medium of exchange (the Venetian ducat). All these innovations can be related directly back to the demands of long-distance trade.

And nearby Genoa created the first quasi-state bank:

The Casa di San Giorgio came a long way and boasted a long history of banking operations. Some scholars even called the first modern bank, predating the Bank of England established on 1695. It also preceded the British East India Company as a private enterprise that administered territory, collected taxes, and raised armies. Indeed, so much the Casa had garnered power, influence, and wealth that Machiavelli praised its administration.

Casa Di San Giorgio: Genoa’s Premier Financial Institution (Exploring History)

By contrast, southern Italy, though not culturally behind in the days Roman Empire (Pompeii is near Naples), fell behind the north in innovation thanks to constant invasions by people like the Normans and Arabs. They would end up being ruled mostly by a succession of foreigners, hence developing a distrust of government institutions and history of corruption that persists to this day.

The countries of northern Europe have been richer than those of the south for several centuries. The north industrialized earlier than the south and so has been more economically successful. As many of the northern countries comprise the heartland of Western Europe, their trade links were easier to maintain, and one wealthy neighbor could trade with another-whereas the Spanish, for example, either had to cross the Pyrenees to trade, or look to the limited markets of Portugal and North Africa.p. 90

The contrast between northern and southern Europe is also at least partly attributable to the fact that the south has fewer coastal plains suitable for agriculture, and has suffered more from drought and natural disasters than the north, albeit on a lesser scale than in other parts of the world. As we saw in chapter one, the North European Plain is a corridor that stretches from France to the Ural Mountains in Russia, bordered to the north by the North and Baltic Seas. The land allows for successful farming on a massive scale, and the waterways enable the crops and other goods to be moved easily. pp.91-92

Of all the countries in the plain, France was best situated to take advantage of it. France is the only European country to be both a northern and southern power. It contains the largest expanse of fertile land in Western Europe, and many of its rivers connect with one another; one flows west all the way to the Atlantic (the Seine), another south to the Mediterranean (the Rhone). These factors, together with France’s relative flatness, were suitable for the unification of regions, and-especially from the time of Napoleon-centralization of power.

And, sure enough, France became the location of the earliest complex states to form in Northern Europe under Charlemagne (the Holy Roman Empire, the Carolingian Renaissance). it was in France where the great Champagne fairs of Europe took place. Eastern Europe, as we saw above, tended to miss out on the party; the Adriatic Coast is a partial exception, falling under the sway of the Venetians.

So it was that we can use the fairs of Europe as a starting point of Western capitalism. But, ultimately, it’s all due to geography.

WHY EUROPE DOMINATES THE WORLD

With the closing of eastern trade routes after the dissolution of the Mongol Empire and the fall of Byzantium 1453, the race was on for the maritime countries of Europe to find an alternate route to the Indies without dealing with Italian or Arab/Turkish middlemen. Portugal was uniquely placed to send its pelagic vessels south down the coast of Africa to find alternate trade routes. Eventually, they did so, circumnavigating Africa and crossing the Indian Ocean.

But it was an Italian sailing for Spain who would really change things. Ian Morris explains what happened next:

Western Europe—sticking out into the cold North Atlantic, far from the centers of action—had always been a backwater. But when Europeans learned of the East’s oceangoing ships and guns, their location on the Atlantic abruptly became a huge geographical plus.

The Atlantic, 3,000 miles across, became a kind of Goldilocks Ocean, not too big and not too small. It was big enough that very different kinds of goods were produced around its shores in Europe, Africa, and America; but it was small enough that the ships of Shakespeare’s age could cross it quite easily.

Ian Morris on Why the West Rules but China Is Next (Daily Beast)

So of course trade moved north, to the Atlantic Coast—Portugal, Spain, France and England. But it was the small Dutch Republic that ultimately took the lead thanks to a series of commercial innovations. Again, a glance at the maps tells us why the Dutch were so focused on maritime trade. The Low Countries are all below sea level, and their land has been painstakingly reclaimed from the sea by a series of dikes and walls built over centuries. On this reclaimed land sits a very dense population, surrounded by culturally different neighbors and connected by canals. The amount of fertile land was limited, and so the Dutch compensated with entrepreneurial skills. While Dutch farmers made the most of their limited land area, it was inevitable that the economy would come to center around commerce rather than agriculture or natural resources as in France and England. Merchants earned pride-of-pace here, unlike other cultures, and they became politically dominant. It was the early modern precursor to modern-day entrepôts like Hong Kong or Singapore. The wide, flat landscape also made Holland ideal for the innovative use of wind power, increasing their energy consumption. The Dutch were also early pioneers in the use of burning fossil fuel in the form of peat.

The amazing prosperity of the small ‘Republiek der Zeven Provinciën’ and its exceptional position among the European powers during most of the seventeenth century has fascinated generations of historians…The more comes in the open about the thriving Dutch Golden Age society, the more intriguing the question becomes, how so small a population (a million and a half at the vertex of its power) could manage to play leading parts on almost every scene of human activities…This study was motivated by the historical problem of why around 1600 the Republic assumed the mantle of leadership on the path of mankind’s economic and social development. The answer is: because it was able to extensively apply inland navigation and, by that, to fall back on its peat deposits when everywhere (also in the Netherlands itself) deforestation had progressed to such an extent, that wood had become an expensive fuel. Its exceptional position becomes even more evident, when it is considered that at the beginning of the Dutch explosion of prosperity each one of the cities in the ring Amsterdam, Utrecht, Gouda, Rotterdam, Delft, Leiden, Haarlem had an abundance of easily transportable (low peat) turf of excellent quality within a few kilometers of its gates. No wonder, that the centre of gravity of economic development became located in this part of the country.

Peat and the Dutch Golden Age (PDF)

Like Venice centuries earlier, the Dutch were a republic run by bourgeois merchant princes. By this time Protestantism, with its concept of an individual relationship to God supplanting older ideas of communal solidarity and mutual aid, had taken hold in Europe.

The Bank of Amsterdam (Amsterdamsche Wisselbank) was founded in 1609.The original conception of the bank was as a conservatively designed “exchange bank” –a ledger-money bank backed principally by coin–following the example of Venice’s Banco di Rialto. Through a series of innovations, however, the Bank of Amsterdam was ultimately able to achieve a greater degree of success than its Venetian predecessor. Almost until its demise in 1795, the bank was widely admired and served as an inspiration for public banks in other cities. The Bank of Amsterdam never issued notes, but by limiting its depositors’ withdrawal rights, was able to create a highly liquid, quasi-fiat asset in the form of its ledger money.

With the Protestant merchant coup d’etat in Britain known as the Glorious Revolution, the new Dutch king became subordinate to an English parliament increasingly aligned with mercantile, rather than traditional agrarian, interests (as demonstrated by the Corn Laws). The powerful English constitutional monarchy would reshape English society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries according the will of commercial interests, establishing the factory system, and consequently turning land and labor into commodities for sale to a greater extent than anywhere else. The rest, as they say, is history.

INDIA

The triangular Indian subcontinent, battered by monsoons and separated from East Asia by the Himalayas, and by deserts and mountains to the west, never had much of chance at conquering the world, despite its huge population. It’s contributions rest more in being the source of exotic products traded with both the Abbassid and European cultures.

One surprisingly important philosophical contribution, however, was India’s numerical system. The alphabet had first been developed in the Near East. But Indian mathematicians and philosophers came up with the idea of zero as a number. It is thought that the Hindu religious concept of “nothinginess” (shunyata) may have played a role in this. It’s hard to imagine the modern world without numbers, science and accounting.

“[T]he creation of zero as a number in its own right, which evolved from the placeholder dot symbol found in the Bakhshali manuscript, was one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics. We now know that it was as early as the 3rd Century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world. The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries.”

How India gave us the zero (BBC)

THE AMERICAS

North America had become populated at the end of the Ice Age when a corridor opened in the Canadian Ice Sheet, allowing migrants to march south into the North American continent from Beringia, an isolated Siberian region full of wild game (indeed, the last woolly mammoths would perish on Wrangel Island just as the first pyramids were under construction). Rising sea levels due to melting ice would submerge this region, permanently cutting off the the American population from Asia.

However, recent research has cast some doubt on the above theory. It now seems more likely that humans colonized the Americas by taking watercraft south along the western coast of North America, only later moving inland as the glaciers melted.

This research suggests there could have been two separate migration thrusts into North America, the first along the Pacific coastline around 15,000 years ago, and the second one when the ice-free corridor became habitable and human-friendly, around 12,600 years ago. But this new data presents another intriguing possibility. Perhaps there was only one single migration wave along the West coast, but once the ice-free corridor became habitable, these early settlers started to make their way northwards through the corridor all the way back into Alaska.

We Were Wrong About How Ancient Humans Colonized North America (io9)

Another controversial theory is that the Americas were at least partly colonized from Europe during the Ice Age:

The major evidence driving [the Soultrean] hypothesis is the presence of artifacts found in six sites in the eastern United States dating to somewhere between 18,000 and 26,000 years ago. These tools more closely resemble that of the Solutrean culture that endured in Europe between about 21,000 and 17,000 years ago than the Clovis culture that first appeared in North America about 13,000 years ago.

Could the first humans to reach the Americas have come from Europe? (io9)

The fact that North America was populated late in the game, due to its distance from the African homeland, along with its lack of domesticable herbivores (only llamas and alpacas), meant that civilization would inevitably be slower to take off here than in Eurasia; the thesis of Jared Diamond’s famous “Guns, Germs and Steel”.

The relative genetic isolation of the Beringian population would prove to be especially fatal, as this exacerbated their vulnerability to the relatively novel zoonotic diseases brought over by Old World colonists. North America became settled primarily by English, French and Dutch, while Central and South America became Spanish and Portuguese colonies. The two cultures took very different trajectories.

South America, despite its large land mass, has been relatively backward economically because of a combination of history and geography.
The limitations of Latin America’s geography were compounded right from the beginning in the formation of its nation states. In the United States, once the land had been taken from its original inhabitants, much of it was sold or given away to small landholders; by contrast, in Latin America the Old World culture of powerful landowners and serfs was imposed, which led to inequality.

On top of this, the European settlers introduced another geographical problem that to this day holds many countries back from developing their full potential: they stayed near the coasts, especially (as we saw in Africa) in regions where the interior was infested by mosquitoes and disease. Most if the countries’ biggest cities, often the capitals, were therefore near the coasts, and all roads from the interior were developed to connect to the capitals but not to one another.

Now Europeans themselves could grow the exotic items they so desired like sugar, coffee and cotton (along with new ones like cocoa). This would, in turn, spur the development of the factory system in Northern Europe. The potato would cause a population explosion, ensuring plenty of desperate factory workers. To replace the native workforce for their export plantations in the New World, the Europeans would resort to buying an enslaved workforce from the southern African continent.

AFRICA

So why did Africa, the birthplace of Homo sapiens, not became the center of world culture and trade, rather than the Near East, China or Europe? After all, it had the biggest head start of all!