Assuming they started at the same point (maybe the split of the continents or the migration of what became 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 had developed technologically (for example militarily) better than the New World.

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    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, 2012 at 12:42
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    @apoorv020 That is basic jargon. Old World is Asia, Europe and Africa which were in continuous direct/indirect contact with Each other for most of the history. New world refers to the regions such as Americas, Australia which were discovered during the Age of Discovery and subsequent events by the inhabitants of the Old World.
    – NSNoob
    Feb 17, 2017 at 15:12
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    @LouisRhys- definitely check out Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel. It tries to answer that question and gave me a very good understanding of the idea and its various arguments.
    – 米凯乐
    May 8, 2017 at 21:37

5 Answers 5


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. Oct 12, 2011 at 2:45
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    @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. Oct 12, 2011 at 9:50
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    @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. Oct 12, 2011 at 10:32
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    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, 2011 at 17:23
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    @AdolfoPerez - That is in fact a major theme of Mr. Diamond's book. You really ought to pick it up, as it sounds like it addresses a lot of the things you've been thinking about.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 24, 2012 at 20:07

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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    Smallpox is not the explanation: by the time it hit, European civilization was already far more advanced than, say, the Mexica.
    – user4139
    Mar 20, 2014 at 4:44
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    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, 2015 at 14:43
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    Is it really true that math/science could match that of the Old World? Was there a Pythagorean theorem? Euclid's proof of the infinitude of primes? Size of the Earth and distance to Moon? If so, very interesting but I have yet to read of any of the above being developed in the New World.
    – Jeff
    Mar 19, 2017 at 0:50

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, 2013 at 13:09
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    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. Mar 8, 2013 at 5:52
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    @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. Jan 21, 2015 at 4:59
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    @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. Jan 23, 2015 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, 2012 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, 2012 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, 2013 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, 2013 at 15:12
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    @Anixx I dare you to solve the issue the old manner... with a new question >slapping sound heard<
    – astabada
    Jan 10, 2013 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.
    – nb1
    Jan 17, 2012 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, 2012 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.
    – nb1
    Jan 18, 2012 at 14:40
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    -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, 2013 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.
    – user4139
    Mar 20, 2014 at 4:46

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