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Assuming they started at the same point (maybe the split of the continents or the migration of the first "Native Americans" to the American continent), why did the Old World end up developing faster? When the first conquistadors set foot in the new world, it's clear that the old world have developed technologically (for example military) better than the new world.

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Can you describe what you mean by "Old World" and "new World"? Are they equivalent to Europe and America, respectively? – apoorv020 Dec 14 '11 at 18:37
@apoorv020: oh, come on, you're just being anal. – o0'. Dec 31 '11 at 14:04
I think we can safely assume that by "New World" he means the most technologically-advanced civilizations of the Americas, and by "Old World" he means the most technologically-advanced civilizations of Europe, Asia, and Africa. – Joe May 12 '12 at 19:56
Except for Australia and the Americas, all major landmasses occupied by humans had contact with each other and could communicate ideas. Discoveries made in the old world had a good chance of spreading throughout three continents. The civilizations of the old world could be far enough from each other to not to be direct rivals, yet they could cross-fertilize each other with their knowledge and ideas. – sbi Jul 5 '12 at 12:42

5 Answers 5

up vote 45 down vote accepted

According to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, one of the first steps from a hunter-gatherer society towards civilization is agriculture. While agricultural societies appeared all over the world, the old world had a more suitable environment, especially with regards to the grains and large animals that lived there.

The old world had wheat, which is easy to plant, harvest and eat, while the new world had maize (corn), which is not. With regard to large domesticate-able animals, the old world had horses, sheep and cattle, while the new world just had llamas.

The old world could also trade east-west, which meant plants and animals could easily find similar climates (because of similar latitudes) over very long distances, while the new world's trade routes were primarily north-south.

Agricultural production encourages a sedentary society, which in turn leads to population growth, specialization of craft and labor, and a ruling class. Put it all together and you get more and better technology.

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+1. Also might be worth mentioning the north/south east/west axis of the continents and its affect on trade? Grains travelling east/west will work well, north/south not so much. – RedBlueThing Oct 12 '11 at 2:45
@RedBlueThing How is it so? Climate? – Louis Rhys Oct 12 '11 at 3:49
@LouisRhys: I did. Still, it is way more luck than geography, no matter how you turn it. It is always easy to retroactively declare something as inevitable by choosing the right factors to consider. – Wladimir Palant Oct 12 '11 at 9:50
@LouisRhys Regardless of what's happened in the last few hundred years, in the time period we're talking about North America still didn't have helpful grains or animals. Everything needs to be just right, or you get nowhere. – Harley Holcombe Oct 12 '11 at 10:32
Diamond's popular book was bound to come up here. I don't want to dispute it right here, but it's worth noting that many historians and anthropologists disagree with his view, from a basis of oversimplification or just being plain wrong. i.e. Not widely accepted, although not without significant support. – Noldorin Dec 28 '11 at 17:23

Depends on what you mean by advanced. If you mean in terms of metalworking, the lack of easily exploited tin deposits in the Americas means that a bronze age never took off. There was a copper-working culture surrounding the Great Lakes, and it pre-dated the chalcolithic in the old world by a few thousand years, but this lasted only as long as the accessible copper ore did.

On the other hand, the civilizations in the Americas had architecture, science, math and literature to match anything in the Old World. The Incas and their forebears were masters of textiles - they built massive suspension bridges, armor, even boats, from cotton. Along the Amazon and Mississippi cultures used massive earthworks projects and advanced horticultural knowledge to sustain huge cities. So, what happened?

What happened was Smallpox. It wiped out close to 90% of the population of the Americas in only a few decades. The cultures in the Americas didn't have the population base to copy and improve on what the Europeans were doing - in China and India, the political situation was ripe for exploit by outside powers (and this has been a recurring theme for both civilizations going back millennia), but in the Americas, it was plague and plague alone that allowed the Europeans to take over. (The Vikings had been trying off and on for 500 years before Columbus - things Did Not Go Well for them outside of Greenland.)

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+1 For the non-Eurocentric answer. – astabada Jan 10 '13 at 13:14
Smallpox is not the explanation: by the time it hit, European civilization was already far more advanced than, say, the Mexica. – Jon of All Trades Mar 20 '14 at 4:44
The comparison with the Scandinavians settlements is not very accurate. As you said, it was 500 years earlier. European technology advanced quite a bit in the meantime. – Evpok Feb 27 at 14:43

The civilizations developed around the Mediterranean Sea (Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, Judes) were close together, wich made it easier to share ideas and practice commerce. China, India and the Aztecs had to be developed in a relative vacuum.

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-1 I am no expert about the Aztec civilization, but most certainly China and India did not develop in a "relative vacuum". – astabada Jan 10 '13 at 13:09
Despite the fact that certainly China had contact with India, and India with the Middle East, this relations were not frecuent neither constant as in the mediterranean coast. Gobi desert and the Himalayas acted as natural barrier between China and the rest of the world. This situation was only reinforced with the chinese wall, and explains what little was known of those civilization until the times of Marco Polo. – Apocatastasis Mar 8 '13 at 5:52
@Apocatastasis I disagree; if anything the great wall had a positive impact to knowledge exchange, by safeguarding the Silk Road, a vital medium of knowledge exchange. The wall was to defend from nomads who didn't exactly do a lot of knowledge exchange. – congusbongus Jan 21 at 4:59
@congusbongus Marco Polo learned a lot from that nomad called Kublai Khan. Romans learned also from barbarians that raveged his empire. Only because a human group was nomadic doesn't imply that you can't learn anything from them. – Apocatastasis Jan 23 at 20:06

Well, Africa is in the Old World, but most of sub-Saharan Africa was developed less than the Maesoamerican civilizations. Pre-Christian North-East Europe was also at the stage comparable with American cultures. Siberia and North Asia were less developed also.

That is, only the European civilization developed from Classic Antiquity had significant advantage over Mesoamerican civilizations (as well as over the rest of the Old World).

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This is arguable. I'd probably argue on your side, but in the traditional metalugical hierarchy, the New World was mostly still in the Stone Age in 1492 (with a few small spots of Bronze Age), while all of Africa was in the Iron Age. – T.E.D. Oct 24 '12 at 19:56
@T.E.D. would you argue that modern Kamchatka is developed better than Roman Empire because they have televisions? – Anixx Oct 25 '12 at 7:21
@Anixx Good point about "development". But -1 for "only European civilizations [...] had significant advantage". What about Chinese and Indian culture? – astabada Jan 10 '13 at 13:16
@astabada if Indians of the time met with the American cultures I think there would be no difference. For Chineze the difference would be minimal. – Anixx Jan 10 '13 at 15:12
@Anixx I dare you to solve the issue the old manner... with a new question >slapping sound heard< – astabada Jan 10 '13 at 15:23

Historically, civilizations have developed best along peninsulas: mostly surrounded by water, but with one land bridge. Egypt was a peninsula (between the Nile River, Red Sea, and Mediterranean). So was Babylon (between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers). India is one large peninsula, as was ancient China (between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers). Greece and Rome, of course, were the classic examples.

The new world had fewer such peninsulas (in good climates). You can call Patagonia, Argentina a peninsula, but that's too cold. The Panama Canal has made Mexico/Central America a "peninsula," but one that's too hot.

The WHOLE purpose of the Erie Canal was to turn the Eastern United States into a "peninsula (by connecting the Great Lakes, Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico), which is one reason why that country prospered, beginning in the nineteenth century.

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India's southern part is a peninsula and the first urban civlization in India i.e. Indus valley was in Punjab and Sindh till Gujrat, Haryana etc. this region is not a peninsula at all. Peninsula doesn't consider rivers etc. surrounding it but sea. Your argument would be better phrased as that civilizations flourish in river valleys mainly. – NikBels Jan 17 '12 at 7:01
@NikhilBellarykar: I believe that in this context, peninsulas SHOULD include river valleys (Tigris and Euphrates, Indus and the other, because of the transportation advantages gained are similar to those of the other peninsulas. The Eastern U.S. is a "peninsula" between the Mississippi River and Great Lakes on one hand, and the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico on the other. – Tom Au Jan 18 '12 at 14:33
Well, I guess technically you may be right, but at least in context of India, I have not read of any part of India save the southern part as being a peninsula. If we assume that Indus valley was a peninsula, where is the isthmus connecting it to a bigger landmass? I don't mean to nitpick but the term "peninsula" has not been used to describe Indus valley at all. Peninsular India always means the India south of the Vindhyan range. – NikBels Jan 18 '12 at 14:40
-1 I don't buy the whole peninsula thing. It is ill defined. North America was a rather large peninsula of Yucatan, between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The only way Egypt can be considered a peninsula is by considering the deserts as seas, i.e. difficult to cross. – astabada Jan 10 '13 at 13:11
The Americas have plenty of peninsulas, and two of the greatest river valleys in the world: the Mississippi has the greatest drainage basin and the Amazon the greatest water flow. Access to water for irrigation and trade is certainly very important, but does not explain the gulf between the old world and the new. – Jon of All Trades Mar 20 '14 at 4:46

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