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Globalization, Then

Spread of trade and culture -- even genetically modified food -- rocked the ancient world too

September 14, 2003|Jared Diamond | Jared Diamond, a geographer at UCLA, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies." E-mail:

We tend to think of globalization as uniquely modern, a product of 20th century advances in transportation, technology, agriculture and communications. But widespread dispersal, from a few centers, of culture, language, political ideas and economic systems -- even genetically modified foods -- is actually quite an ancient phenomenon.

The first wave of globalization began around 8500 BC, driven primarily by genetically modified foods created in the Mideast and China, and to a lesser extent Mexico, the Andes and Nigeria. As those foods spread to the rest of the world, so did the cultures that created them, a process that reshaped the ancient world in much the same way the U.S., Europe and Japan are reshaping today's world.

Our ancient ancestors' method of genetically modifying food was of course much different from the way it is done today. When humans lived as hunters and gatherers, they had to make do with whatever wild plants and animals they found. It turned out, though, that some of the wild species upon which humans relied for food could be domesticated. Early farmers soon learned not only how to cultivate the resulting crops and raise livestock but also how to select the traits they valued, thereby genetically modifying foods.

In choosing to sow seeds from wild plants with particularly desirable traits -- often the result of mutations -- early farmers changed genetically, albeit unconsciously, the foods they raised.

Take the case of peas. Most wild pea plants carry a gene that makes their pods pop open on the stalk, causing the peas to spill onto the ground. It is no surprise that early farmers sought out mutant plants with a gene for pods that stayed closed, which made for an easier harvest. As a consequence of their preference, by selecting, over many generations, seeds from the plants that best served them, they ended up with a genetically modified variety of peas.

Would-be farmers in some regions had a huge advantage. It turned out that only a few species of wild plants and animals could be domesticated, most of them native to the Mideast, China, Mexico, the Andes or Nigeria -- precisely those places that became ancient centers of power. The crops and livestock of those five restricted homelands of agriculture still dominate our foods today. Many of the lands most productive for modern agriculture -- including California, Europe, Japan and Java -- contributed no species that were domesticated.

Ancient people lucky enough to live in one of the few areas with wild plants that could be domesticated radically altered their societies. Hunters and gatherers traded their nomadic lifestyles for safer, more settled lives in villages near their gardens, orchards and pastures. Agricultural surpluses, like wheat and cheese, could be stored for winter or used to feed inventors and bureaucrats. For the first time in history, societies could support individuals who weren't directly involved in producing food and who therefore had time to govern or to figure out how to smelt iron and steel. As a result of all the extra food and stability, farming societies increased in population density a thousandfold over neighboring hunter-gatherers.

Ultimately, ancient genetically modified foods conferred military and economic might on the societies that possessed them. It was easy for armies of 1,000 farmers, brandishing steel swords and led by a general, to kill or drive out small bands of nomads armed only with wooden spears. The result was globalization, as early farmers spread out from those first five homelands, carrying their genes, foods, technologies, cultures, scripts and languages around the world.

It is because of this first wave of globalization that almost every literate person alive today uses one of only two writing systems: an alphabet derived from the first Mideastern alphabet or a character-based language that grew out of Chinese. This is also why more than 90% of people alive today speak languages belonging to just a half-dozen language families, derived thousands of years ago from a half-dozen languages of the five ancient homelands. The Indo-European family that includes English, for example, originated in the Mideast. But then as now, there was also a cost: Countless other ancient languages and cultures were eliminated as the early farmers and their languages spread.

The first wave of globalization moved faster along east-west axes than along north-south axes. The explanation is simple: Regions lying due east or west of one another share the same latitude, and therefore the same day length and seasonality. They are also likely to share similar climates, habitats and diseases, all of which means that crops, livestock and humans can spread east and west more easily, since the conditions to which they have adapted are similar. Conversely, crops, animals and technologies adapted to one latitude spread only with difficulty north or south to another latitude with a different seasonality and climate.

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