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Winter 1997
The Landscape of Destiny
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Thus, questions about inequality in the modern world can be reformulated as follows: Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way? For instance, why weren't Native Americans, Africans and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated, subjugated or exterminated Europeans and Asians?

We can easily push this question back one step. As of the year A.D. 1500, when Europe's worldwide colonial expansion was just beginning, peoples on different continents already differed greatly in technology and political organization. Much of Europe, Asia and North Africa was the site of metal-equipped states or empires, some of them on the threshold of industrialization. Two Native American peoples, the Aztecs and the Incas, ruled over empires with stone tools. Parts of sub-Saharan Africa were divided among small states of chiefdoms with iron tools. Most other peoples -- including all those of Australia and New Guinea, many Pacific islands, much of the Americas and small parts of sub-Saharan Africa -- lived as farming tribes or even still as hunter-gatherer bands using stone tools.

Of course, those technological and political differences as of A.D. 1500 were the immediate cause for the modern world's inequalities. Empires with steel weapons were able to conquer or exterminate tribes with weapons of stone and wood. How, though, did the world get to be the way it was in A.D. 1500?

Once again, we can easily push this question back one step further, by drawing on written histories and archaeological discoveries. Until the end of the last Ice Age, around 11,000 B.C., all peoples on all continents were still hunter-gatherers. Different rates of development on different continents, from 11,000 B.C. to A.D. 1500, were what led to the technological and political inequalities of A.D. 1500. While Aboriginal Australians and many Native Americans remained hunter-gatherers, most of Eurasia and much of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa gradually developed agriculture, herding, metallurgy and complex political organization. Parts of Eurasia, and one area of the Americas, independently developed writing as well. However, each of these new developments appeared earlier in Eurasia than elsewhere. For instance, the mass production of bronze tools, which was just beginning in the South American Andes in the centuries before A.D. 1500, was already established in parts of Eurasia more than 4,000 years earlier. The stone technology of the Tasmanians, when first encountered by European explorers in A.D. 1642, was simpler than that prevalent in parts of upper Paleolithic Europe tens of thousands of years earlier.

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