There are numerous pages, papers and talks held about this topic. Then ideas conveyed revolved around the ideaology of African countries, varying cultures and most common factor, colonalism.

As a South African, this is part of my heritage, defines my culture and my country. That being said, colonialism, being the prominent factor, was a by product of development of European countries, including trade and exploration, etc.

The Analysis

Let us consider 2 groups of people. Europeans (and Asians) aka Settlers and Africans. (This does generalise, but only for the sake of my question).

Settlers were able to explore the world using boats, ships, etc. They were able to trade with far eastern countries. East Africa, was well known for trading with Arabic countries, Somalia, Mapungubwe, etc and a few others.

The Question:

Why did one group of people develop faster than the other. Once again, this is the development that lead to the era of colonisation and exploration. Why did Europeans and Asians develop faster than Africans, Native Americans, etc?

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    This may end up being too vague of a question. "Develop" is a really general term. If you wanted to ask about industrialization, for example, that might help. But, also for example, peoples in the Pacific were exploring far and wide long before Europeans ever ventured there. Also, it's not clear what groups of people you want to compare. – rougon Oct 30 '17 at 18:27
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    We've, as a joke, bandied about the idea of having an "Answered by Guns, Germs, and Steel" close reason for this site. This question would be a prime candidate for it. If you are honestly interested in this question, you should immediately go get a copy from your closest library (or bookstore). – T.E.D. Oct 30 '17 at 19:13
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    Here's a list of books that tried to answer this question (and it's not only Gun Germs and Steel :P). I'm voting to close as per our FAQ that says "If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much." – user69715 Oct 30 '17 at 19:20
  • Egypt is part of Africa, and was arguably the oldest civilized place. Frustrating for me that this isn't obvious to everyone. – axsvl77 Oct 30 '17 at 23:51
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    I think you need to clarify the question. Do you mean "develop" as in discover and implement technology independently, rather like Europe and China in say Roman times? Or do you mean why African countries didn't successfully adopt European tech after contact, like say Japan and South Korea? (I think the second case has a simple answer in Marxist post-colonial economics, but that's just my opinion.) – jamesqf Oct 31 '17 at 4:08

This is discussed in great detail by Jared Diamon's book Guns, Germs, and Steel and boils down to a few ideas:

Firstly, Eurasia is horizontal. Plants and animals adapted to the climate of one place can flourish anywhere east or west of the origin point. This made it easy to spread domesticated animals and plants. By comparison, Africa is vertical, and also much smaller than Eurasia. There were fewer plants and animals suitable for domestication, and those that were domesticated could not be easily taken to other parts of the continent.

Second, Eurasia is connected. The Silk Road is a testament to how easy it was to travel between Europe and Asia and exchange goods, resources, and knowledge. Repeated waves of invaders (from the Volkerwanderung to Timur's hordes) accelerated this process. Africa is isolated, not only from Eurasia, but also within itself, by impassable deserts. There was less knowledge and trade exchanged as a result.

In Europe and Asia, great cross-continental empires (such as the aforementioned Mongols, or the Byzantines) arose, which created stability and promoted trade. They had their fair share of conflict, leading to adoption of progressively more powerful weapons. The printing press made it easy to distribute knowledge of those weapons. Asia fell behind at this point - being able to connect scientists and thinkers across Europe proved to be an unbeatable advantage.

Then Europeans started colonizing. Not only could they defeat the locals using their weapons, they could also bring along the quality animals and plants they had been domesticating over centuries, and settle areas suitable for those animals and plants to live. This allowed for a quick population build-up - a population that was genetically resistant to the diseases those animals carried, unlike the locals.

The outcome - a snowball effect that led to more and more settlement by Europeans, and indigenous peoples losing ground to the winning combo of guns, germs, and steel.

  • But of course, Diamond has a very mixed reception, which, I think, underlines my point that the question is too broad to be interpreted or answered. – rougon Nov 1 '17 at 18:45
  • I disagree with rougon. This is one of the most important questions in history so if a history group like this cannot even attempt to answer it then it is surely failing. – Timothy Nov 2 '17 at 18:22
  • but didn't European traders later use the sea route around Africa rather than travel over land? Further trade they had traded wit Timbuktu since the 12th century and Hanno had circumnavigated africa in 6th century why did it take so long for Europeans to bring their plants and animals over? – Hao S Jul 21 '19 at 4:54

Why not include North and South Americans and the South Pacific in this same comparison, because they all fell victim to European colonization...

There are many reasons.... Why did one group of people develop faster than the other? It had to do with Geographic Advantages enjoyed by Eurasia, and all the waterfall of advantages which came with those geographic Advantages.

The landmass of Eurasia, laid out on an east-west axis, allowed for the sharing of crops, animals, germs(diseases) and ideas. The Americas and Africa, stretched out on a north-south axis, traverse various climate zones and geographic boundaries which discourage trade.

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Major portions of Eurasia had a natural advantage in developing agriculture in the presence of plants that could be easily domesticated. Domesticated Animals here was also an advantage.

North and South America, as well as Africa had a lack of large domestic animals such as Europe and Asia.. ( Europe had the Horse, Oxen). Asia had these and the Elephant. (*) African elephants are not domesticatable, nor is the Zebra, nor is the water buffalo; The America's have the horse, but the horse is not native to the continent it was brought by early European settlers. Farming and domesticating animals provided social stability that is lacking in in hunter gather societies. Living so proximal with large domesticated animals was also an advantage in developing and immune system to a larger variety of germs, that even sophisticated American, South Pacific, and African cultures did not benefit from. Also Labor specializations naturally falls out of living with domesticated animals, this enabled certain groups of labor to eventually develop weapons.

All of these advantages along with the diversity and density of Eurasian populations created an immunity to germs that would later decimate the more isolated populations of Africa and the Americas, when the two populations ultimately did come into contact. This allowed Europeans easy conquest of decimated indigiouns people again and again and again when they came in contact with them.

When or if the population developed Gun Powder and Steel also falls out of the above advantages and plays a role. A lesser role however because it must be tied to either diversity of government or a government willing to pursue the technologies.. China developed gunpowder first but did not benefit from it; and Japan developed superior steel and fire arms first but because of their feudalistic prejudice against guns and a fascination with the sword; failed to capitalize on either advancement.

All these Ideas are tied together and better explained in Jared Diamond NYTimes best selling book, "Guns, Germs and Steel". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel

Alternatives Theories to Guns Germs and Steel..

  • Crosby's 'Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900'. Book came out about a decade before Diamond's, written more for scholastic consumption, wildly popular across many disciplines (medical, historical), comes to some of the same conclusions about weapons and germs, but not as comprehensive. Still a good read.

  • Works by philosophers R.G. Collingwood, Ludwig von Mises, and Michael Oakeshott. All Philosophers who attempt to explain human past by reference to general laws or broad patterns, which itself is controversial in some circles.

  • Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and "Zweites Buch", It all goes back to India and the Himalayas, and a few young folks who couldn't keep their pants on.

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    This is a good summary of Diamond's theory, but note that it's by no means the only plausible explanation for the divergence between Europe and the rest of the world – user69715 Oct 30 '17 at 18:57
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    @user69715 It'd be interesting to read books by other schools of thought. Do you have any suggestions? – SPavel Oct 30 '17 at 18:59
  • My understanding is that non of Diamond's theories are original to him. He was just the one who put them all together in a comprehensive way when asked this same question by one of his friends on a beach one day.. – user27618 Oct 30 '17 at 19:00
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    @SPavel For example, Wikipedia has a non-exhaustive list of proposed factors as well as books written on the topic. To my knowledge there's no clear consensus. I don't object to an answer using Diamond's "Gun, Germs and Steel" explanation, but in this SE this theory is so popular that sometimes it makes people forget that it's not the only explanation. – user69715 Oct 30 '17 at 19:07

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