Africa’s north-south orientation


Started reading Guns, Germ, and Steel, and debated about this with my friend. I do understand that Africa’s North/South orientation adds a lot of climate diversity, which makes it difficult for people to collaborate. To what extent did this actually affect Africa’s economic development? Like for example, are there other countries that may have pulled off thriving under this orientation, or is this a red herring to distract away from the serious impact of European colonization? I do understand this is not a simple question, but let’s try!

In: 192

That doesn’t really make much sense to me because the equator runs right through the middle if Africa and climate is largely determined by your distance from the equator. I’d say yhe bigger issue is a lack of any real navigable rivers in Africa.

This isn’t really an eli5, but there’s a reason the geographic determinism in Guns, Germs, and Steel has been so thoroughly attacked and debunked.

First off, geography isn’t everything or anything close to that. Saying “Africa is less developed because it spans South to North more than East to West” is so ridiculously reductive.

Africa isn’t an isolated bubble. North, West, and East Africa were and are heavily integrated into economic and cultural networks with Europe, West Asia, and South Asia.

It completely ignores that these links did exist. Trade across the Sahara and Sahel has been ongoing for millenia.

It completely ignores that institutions and social systems, you know, exist.

Geography matters, but trying to simply explain, to use the example in the book’s intro, the difference between Papua New Guinea and Europe by only looking at geography is just flat out wrong.

You are talking about Africa as if it is one big country. It is not, rather it is a huge continent with lots of different empires and countries. But there are of course other north-south oriented continents. The biggest of them is America. And you kind of see some similarities in the way that different cultures developed sort of isolated in America just as in Africa. It is hard to get goods from Peru to Brazil by foot so there were not much cultural exchange, just like it is hard to get goods from Kenya to Congo. The US deserts between Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains played a lot of the same role as the Sahara desert in dividing the cultures. What ties the cultures together, both in Africa and in America are river systems. You can easily transport goods by boat so even long before Europeans settled in the US there were pearls from Long Island being sold in the deep Amazon because they are connected through the rivers and internal oceans. Similarly the cultures along the Kongo follows the rivers. The Mediterranean countries have their own culture regardless of which continent they are on, similar with the countries around the Red Sea. The only exception to the rivers is an area of the Nile currently in South Sudan which is impassible, so lower and upper Nile have been culturally separated even though it is the same river.

Guns Germs and Steel has a whole lot of anthropologists who **hate** it – definitely search the book title or Jared Diamond on r/anthropology, I think you’ll find a number of detailed responses to questions like this.

Personally I don’t think that climate variations within Africa are a huge barrier to anything; there’s been a thriving trans-saharan trade route for a thousand+ years, tons of rivers in the Congo basin run north-south, and the climate of East Africa is pretty consistent from Kenya to South Africa. I think a bigger thing to point to is a lack of hyper-fertile areas for “civilization” as westerners think of it to grow. Africa happens to be a very old continent with no mountain ranges eroding down and adding minerals to the soil, and almost no volcanic activity. The biggest exception is the ethiopian highlands, which feed the Nile – and Ethiopia and Egypt have been densely populated, centralized civilizations for a really long time.

That said, it’s really problematic to talk like certain types of human organization are the “real” “proper” way for societies to be, and that other societies must have something preventing their development to that, and that you can point to a small number of huge factors that entirely explain it. That’s kind of the problem with Jared’s book; it compares civilizations in the New World and Africa against a European standard instead of understanding those civilizations on their own terms. Again, way better-written posts about it can be found over on the above subreddit.

I know you are asking about geography and I see everyone is shitting on geography determinance BUT the point of the book is that MULTIPLE factors shaped nations as they are today. Geography is one of the multiple. Arguably the biggest but not the ONLY.

You talk about a red herring to mask colonial pillaging. The only reason Europe could pillage africa and americas is because geography in Europe was easier to work with in kickstarting agriculture to have enough food for specialists.

The North South band affected collaboration tremendously, not just in terms of agriculture. Africa also seems like a bit of a nightmare to try and farm without modern technology. Technology spread through trade routes and contact with other civs. To get a new farming technology or innovation such as iron tools from Cairo to Cape Town 4000 years ago, you’d haveto not get killed by the desert, then you’d haveto not get killed by dense, merciless jungle, then you’d haveto not get killed by vicious tropical diseases or fierce animals.

Then of course, WHERE would you farm? The Sahara dessert? The dense tropical rainforest of Africa? How would you clear even a few trees with hand tools?

There are definitely prime arable locations but the continent is hostile to found a budding civilization. Great empires of Africa did of course form but the geography of Africa has always been a difficult one.

Geography is destiny. BUT, as outlined in the book, its not the only factor at play