A Natural Experiment of History

Today I want to write an excerpt from the book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond who presented some mind blowing (and well regarded) theories for the reasons behind European domination of the world ahead of the other nations. The excerpt is about Maori people of New Zealand who inhabited New Zealand in around 1280 AD.


On the Chatham Islands, 500 miles east of New Zealand, centuries of independence came to a brutal end for the Moriori people in December 1835. On November 19 of that year, a ship carrying 500 Maori armed with guns, clubs, and axes arrived, followed on December 5 by a shipload of 400 more Maori. Groups of Maori began to walk through Moriori settlements, announcing that the Moriori were now their slaves, and killing those who objected. An organized resistance by the Moriori could still then have defeated the Maori, who were outnumbered two to one. However, the Moriori had a tradition of resolving disputes peacefully. They decided in a council meeting not to fight back but to offer peace, friendship, and a division of resources.

Before the Moriori could deliver that offer, the Maori attacked en masse. Over the course of the next few days, they killed hundreds of Moriori, cooked and ate many of the bodies, and enslaved all the others, killing most of them too over the next few years as it suited their whim. A Moriori survivor recalled, “[The Maori] commenced to kill us like sheep.. . . [We] were terrified, fled to the bush, concealed ourselves in holes underground, and in any place to escape our enemies. It was of no avail; we were discovered and killed — men, women, and children indiscriminately.” A Maori conqueror explained, “We took possession.. . in accordance with our customs and we caught all the people. Not one escaped. Some ran away from us, these we killed, and others we killed — but what of that? It was in accordance with our custom.”

The brutal outcome of this collision between the Moriori and the Maori could have been easily predicted. The Moriori were a small, isolated population of hunter-gatherers, equipped with only the simplest technology and weapons, entirely inexperienced at war, and lacking strong leadership or organization. The Maori invaders (from New Zealand’s North Island) came from a dense population of farmers chronically engaged in ferocious wars, equipped with more-advanced technology and weapons, and operating under strong leadership. Of course, when the two groups finally came into contact, it was the Maori who slaughtered the Moriori, not vice versa.

The tragedy of the Moriori resembles many other such tragedies in both the modern and the ancient world, pitting numerous well-equipped people against few ill-equipped opponents. What makes the Maori-Moriori collision grimly illuminating is that both groups had diverged from a common origin less than a millennium earlier. Both were Polynesian peoples. The modern Maori are descendants of Polynesian farmers who colonized New Zealand around A.D. 1000. Soon thereafter, a group of those Maori in turn colonized the Chatham Islands and became the Moriori. In the centuries after the two groups separated, they evolved in opposite directions, the North Island Maori developing more-complex and the Moriori less-complex technology and political organization. The Moriori reverted to being hunter-gatherers, while the North Island Maori turned to more intensive farming.

Those opposite evolutionary courses sealed the outcome of their eventual collision. If we could understand the reasons for the disparate development of those two island societies, we might have a model for understanding the broader question of differing developments on the continents.

The rest of the book sheds light from astonishing angles on the reasons behind dominance of European nations in the past few hundred years which link back directly to the start of agriculture age 12,000 years ago.

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