De Soto in Florida, 1539

Wanna know what “history” means? It means contingent events with consequences. Putting a whole bar-night of philosophical context behind us, it means that things coulda gone another way but they went thisaway instead. (Philosophy, having been bum-rushed out the door, returns through the window to say, “Why did the Bodhidharma come from the west?” and it has a point.) (Or as Ambrose Bierce brilliantly put it, an accident is an inevitable occurrence due to the action of immutable natural laws.)

A case in point is the sequence of events which reached – if life were an opera – a fortissimo of consequence in the 1500s. It shouldn’t be too hard to look into what perfect specimens of asshole the Spanish conquistadores presented, or the havoc they wreaked upon an entire continent’s human population. Historians among us are invited to speculate upon the fate of the post-Crusades Catholic Church in the absence of New World silver and gold, relative to the Orthodox Catholic Communion and to Islam.

Plenty of biology resides in that encounter, not least the role of microbes, immunity, and epidemics, but there’s another to see as well – let’s consider all the mammals depicted in the image. The Spaniards had horses. None of the people of the New World had horses.

’bout the size of a big pony, varying by species

As mammals go, horses, their ilk, and rhinos, and their ilk, are a pretty closely related group called Perissodactyla and offer no special controversies in terms of who, where, and what changed. Both subsets were present in the New World and the specific horse group Equidae evolved there in the New World during the Miocene Epoch. It was extremely speciose, and you can choose which one you’d really like to tag as “the first horse” – I like to go with the 19 species of Merychippus from about 20 to about 10 million years ago.

What happens then? Moving on to the beginning of the Pleistocene Epoch, maybe 2 million years ago, take a look at the land bridge between what is now the Chukchi Peninsula, the Seward Peninsula, where now there is the Bering Strait. It was not a little bitty bridge with rope handrails. It was twice the size of Texas.

Simply put, lots of mammals lived there and a lot of them in the course of many millions of years spilled onto the other side from the one they’d evolved in. The horse, and now we’re talking about a for-real horse, although not exactly the same species we know today, but the ancestor of it and cool critters like zebras, onagers, and quaggas, was one that evolved in the New World and many of whose members wound up in the Old.

Second, and much later, by oh about 50,000 years ago, humans of various extremely-closely related species were scattered around the Old World, with one of them, Homo sapiens, coming to lie especially widely and thickly upon the land as far as population numbers of the day were concerned. Zipping much more recently to the end of the notably chilly, icy, Pleistocene Epoch, around 15,000-13,000 years ago, some of those humans made their species global by crossing over the Bering land bridge and setting up their high-reproductive shop in the New World. (“around” meaning scholars will now throw things, and I’ll duck, and we continue)

Cue main theme with trumpets I guess, but be fair, you should have played it for the horses too

See? Criss-cross. Humans traversed across the Bering Strait into what is now Alaska whereas the horses had trotted across in exactly the opposite direction. It wasn’t simultaneous which is a little disappointing because I like to imagine each  looking back once over its collective shoulder and saying, “What the hell were those funny-looking things” … Anyway, to finalize the portrait, a lot of humans had stayed behind in the Old World, eventually to domesticate the new arrival; whereas the Pleistocene did its customary destruction of large mammals in the New World and by about 11,000 years ago, no horses, or for that matter monster rhinos, remained there.

About 500 years ago: the long-separated (various minor contacts excepted) geographical halves of humanity reunited. It was a not a nice party. Among other relevant variables, one had horses, and the other didn’t, and this isn’t merely a matter of military encounters, but also quite a bit to do with agricultural and labor capabilities that had factored directly into the respective histories.

Long-term consequences included transforming the flea-bitten, feudal (which means “run by bandits”), and generally irrelevant northwestern margins of Europe into the first and only serious rival of the central economic hub of the Old World, a development I suggest you consider without romance. It’s the defining moment of the past half-millenium, born in those separate moments of the clippety-clop, clippety-clop, and the pitter-patter of biped ape feet, on that swath of land which is long under the sea.

Next: Adapt and die


3 thoughts on “Clippety-clop

  1. Eh… I think one can make a reasonable argument that the feudal system was already ushering itself out the door well before 1492 rolled around (probably since the black death.) You had a sizeable (non-aristocratic) civil service in early Tudor England, for example.

    I’m not sure if you’re referring to the Mediterranean-and-near-east or China, or India, or some combination of the above as the ‘economic hub of the old world’? I do remember getting a present of a book from Ian Morris where there was pretty good data to suggest that China peaked (in relative, not absolute, terms) around the 8th century AD, and that medieval Europe had substantially recovered from the uh… ‘post-Roman migrations period’ by the 12th century, if not earlier.

    One thing I’ve been struck by, though, is how remarkably *rapid* the progress of native American civilisations were, considering the head start Eurasia had in terms of endemic settlement. It’s sobering to reflect that despite the Middle East being home to homo sapiens and our relations for at least a hundred thousand years, the first major urban concentrations don’t appear until, what? 8-10K BCE? By comparison it looks like the early Andeans were falling over themselves to squeeze out some tomb complexes.

    Postscript: Jared Diamond, or other sources?


    • “Eh” yourself! With respect, and acknowledging that I like to see replies here, I ask that you dial down the quibbling. Call it what you like – without the end-runs around Africa, the western margin of Europe would have had no income, and even with that, without the Americas, they’d remain a footnote to the center. If I have to dot every “i” to the exact date with terms the historians can’t agree on anyway, I’d never finish a column.

      My point concerns the dispersal events in very ancient mammalian history and how they played into the significant cultural-economic events of modern human history. I’m pretty sure you’re not disputing that point.

      For courtesy’s sake I’ll answer that I’m referring to the Levantine nexus as the central empire, with no reference to specific dynasties or capitals because that’s always been a management issue over the same thing. Please don’t deliver a debate post about it; again, it’s true enough and increasing its precision isn’t a priority to the purpose.

      I don’t see that my points rely specifically on Diamond (The Third Chimpanzee, Guns Germs and Steel). Maybe the importance of horses as labor? But that doesn’t strike me as controversial, and I was careful not to over-extend it to a position of primary cause. I’m not making a claim regarding the Spanish conquest that stands on a special or disputed assertion.


      • It’s entirely fair to say that animal/megafauna domestication had a huge impact on, e.g, the exported smorgasboard of european diseases, along with many other factors you noted. I’m sorry if I came off as dismissive- (one of my bad habits is substituting a placid nod for, e.g, fist-pumping assent.)

        I remain a little skeptical about the alt-historical role of NE Europe minus a certain continent, but If it’s only a distraction I won’t press the point. God speed, Mr. Edwards.

        Liked by 1 person

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