Once, over lunch, I asked him to compare the moon landings to another event in human history. I thought, being an engineer, he would cite an invention — the wheel, the compass, the steam engine, the transistor. But, as happened so often, his quick answer surprised me: “the Austronesian expansion.”
He had just read Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, which offers a bold and sweeping explanation of why Eurasian and North African civilizations survived and conquered others, due to geographical and environmental advantages rather than intellectual, moral or genetic superiorities. It was clear Armstrong admired the thesis, but he was focused on one chapter in particular: “Speedboat to Polynesia.”
Archaeologists have found that groups of people were leaving Asia by boat tens of thousands of years ago, and by 5000 B.C., these immigrants had established a potent and versatile culture on the island of Taiwan (also once known as Formosa),…

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