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Episode Three : Into the Tropics

Episide Three | Transcript

So far, Jared Diamond has demonstrated how geography favoured one group of people – Europeans – endowing them with agents of conquest ahead of their rivals around the world. Guns, germs and steel allowed Europeans to colonize vast tracts of the globe – but what happened when this all-conquering package arrived in Africa, the birthplace of humanity?

Can Jared Diamond's theories explain how a continent so rich in natural resources, could have ended up the poorest continent on earth?

Guns Germs and Steel triumph again...?

Jared's journey begins on a steam train in Cape Town, designed to carry civilization to the heart of the so-called 'dark continent'. In the Cape, Jared discovers a landscape and way of life that feels very European – farms growing cattle, wheat, grapes and barley; settler communities dating back over three hundred years.

He realizes that the first European settlers in southern Africa were dealt a very lucky hand by geography – they landed in one of the few temperate zones of the southern hemisphere – a climate to which their crops an animals were ideally suited. These foundations of their historical success worked for them even 6,000 miles from home and they were able to sweep aside the indigenous hunting communities with ease – assisted by the impact of European germs.

But these settlers were not ones to stand still. A mass migration known as the Great Trek took thousands of Dutch settlers north and east – into unknown territory – and, as they found to their cost, into Zulu land.

The Zulus had built a sophisticated African state based on military conquest – and now they resisted European invasion. But eventually, overcoming the limitations of their weapons and inheriting new, automatic weapons form industrialized Europe, the settlers triumphed over their rival African tribes - at the cost of thousands of lives.

Jared observes that the story of Guns, Germs and Steel seems to be unfolding all over again.

But having swept aside native opposition beyond the cape, Jared asks, could the settlers build a new life of their own?

Enter the Tropics

  Sick white settler  
As the settlers traveled further north, life suddenly became a lot harder. The foundations of their success, their crops and animals, refused to grow. They were forced to barter for food from their neighbours. And they started to fall ill with a mysterious and terrifying fever. It was a complete reversal of the usual pattern of European conquest.

So what had changed?

Jared realizes that, unlike elsewhere in the world - where Europeans had landed in a temperate zone and traveled from east to west, maintaining similar climates - here in Africa, Europeans landed in the south and migrated north, moving through latitude zones and experiencing radically different climates.

In fact, as they crossed the Limpopo River, they had entered the Tropics.

Temperate crops such as wheat simply can't survive in a tropical climate. Nor can European animals – plagued by the diseases which thrive in the Tropics.

But all around them, Europeans could see successful, agricultural Africans growing their own crops, farming their own animals. How could they do this?

Jared sets out to learn more about the secrets of tropical Africa.

The African Story

Stopping off in a school, Jared discovers that the enormous diversity of modern tropical Africa is reflected in the hundreds of languages still spoken across the continent – many of which are mastered by kids at a very young age.

But the inherent similarity of these languages indicates a common ancestral root – a single language spoken by a group of ancient tropical farmers from the Niger-Congo region, who have come to be known as Bantu.

About 5,000 years ago, these Bantu farmers began to spread beyond their native north-west region, moving into new lands, picking up crops and animals as they went. Eventually, Bantu culture spread across most of tropical Africa, reaching as far as the Zulu territories of the south.

Physical evidence for this vast tropical diaspora is scant, but archaeologists have found clues at a site on the banks of the Limpopo known as Mapungubwe – the place of the jackal. Here there is evidence for a complex, agricultural state supporting thousands of people throughout southern Africa – farming sorghum and cattle, forging iron, exporting gold and tin and importing exotic materials and precious stones from as far away as India and China.

The discovery of Mapungubwe overturned centuries of prejudice about African history and proved the continent played host to a sophisticated tropical civilization centuries before the arrival of Europeans.

But, Jared wonders, how did the Africans achieve all this in a climate tailor-made for the spread of disease?

Germs reversed

Elsewhere in the world, European germs laid the foundations for European conquest -decimating native populations who had no previous exposure to diseases like smallpox. But in tropical Africa, the indigenous peoples seemed to survive both imported European germs, and the tropical fevers which were decimating European settlers.

Jared discovers that smallpox in fact may have evolved in tropical Africa – and had certainly been present in the continent for thousands of years. So African cattle-farmers had evolved antibodies and immunities similar to their European rivals; they had even invented methods of smallpox vaccination, conferring immunity for life.

And their lifestyles were designed to avoid infection from mosquitoes, carriers of the deadly malaria parasite. Over centuries of exposure, tropical Africans evolved degrees of physical immunity to the worst effects of this tropical disease. But they also learned to live in high or dry locations, away from the natural habitat of the mosquito, and to limit the level of disease transmission by keeping their communities relatively small.

African civilization had evolved strategies which helped them survive – even thrive – in the topics.

So, Jared asks, where did this civilization go?

An Empire robbed

Geography endowed Africa with one last temptation for European colonizers – natural resources, like copper, diamonds and gold. So, unable to build their own societies in the tropics, European governments turned to cheap African labour instead to maximize the profit from these resources.

Over the course of two generations, brutal regimes throughout central Africa ripped tropical civilization to shreds. They tore men women and children from their homes, and forced them to live and work together in the pursuit of industrial raw materials.

Jared discovers that the very tracks of steel on which he has been riding throughout his journey, were built on the back of this colonial exploitation.

And the legacy these regimes left behind? A continent plagued by disease. When colonial governments destroyed a way of life built up over thousands of years, they left tropical Africans naked to the forces of their environment.

Today, diseases like malaria are resurgent throughout tropical Africa – malaria is still the number one killer of African children under 5-years-old.

Brought to a children's hospital in Zambia, Jared discovers for himself the tragic consequences of this disease.

Possible futures...?

So, Jared concludes, what has his epic journey through world history taught him, after all?

That modern global inequalities have been shaped by geography's influence over our history.

That geography – and advantages such as guns, germs and steel – are the great forces that have shaped the history of our world and continue to shape the experience of countries like Zambia.

But does that mean that Jared is a determinist? That he believes the peoples of the world are destined to follow their geographic destiny, for either good or bad?

Well, no – and for countries like Zambia, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Other tropical nations have managed to lift the burden of diseases like malaria. Government-funded research, new drugs, even a vaccine, today offer hope to the people of Zambia.

Jared concludes that we can only achieve a better future if we have a more comprehensive understanding of our past. Only by recognizing the role which geography, and our environment, have played in our history, can we begin to overcome today's problems.

Because while geography and history may give us our start in life, they should never dictate our destiny.

Where to next?

Read the full transcript of Episode Three.

Go behind the scenes with the production team


- The Show – Overview

- Episode One: Out of Eden
- Episode One: Transcript
- Episode Two: Conquest
- Episode Two: Transcript
- Episode Three: Tropics
Episode Three: Tropics

- Behind the Scenes

- Credits
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