I recently read Paul Martin's "Twilight of the Mammoths", and a year or so ago, I read Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and "Collapse". Thinking about these three books made me wonder about how different the history of the world would be if (assuming Diamond's and Martin's respective hypothesises are correct) the Clovis people (or some subset of them) had domesticated horses, camels, and/or other late Pleistocene species native to this continent.
If the Europeans had arrived in the 15th century and found advanced civilizations -- heavily armed, equipped with horses, camels, and maybe even war-mammoths, how different would that catastrophic first contact have been? Europeans still would have had their (unintentional for the most part) ultimate weapon: smallpox, to which the Americans would have had no immunity. But it is likely that the Americans would have had equally lethal diseases to transfer back to the Europeans.
Now obviously, this is a significant change in world history, and we do not even know if the animals in America had the right behavioral quirks to make them domesticatable. But if they were, and if they had been domesticated, those Clovis paleolithic nomads would have a massive advantage over other peoples in the Americas.
A friend pointed out that people need an impetus to develop technology. It is not enough to merely have access to the right materials and time. Diamond only briefly touched on this – the primary way he did touch on it was the fact that cultures that lived on “isles of plenty” quickly reverted to a pre-agricultural lifestyle. The reason for this “reversion” is that early-stage agriculture is backbreaking labor – if a society doesn’t need the tech to survive, they won’t bother.
We know that pre-Colombian Americans did need agriculture to survive. It was independently invented at least twice in the Americas, possibly more, and contrary to the common image of the Americans as barely (if at all) civilized, most of North America was settled by agrarian nation-states until the late the 1400s. In fact, the arrival of Europeans caused many of those states to dissintegrate even before the English began building colonies. English fishing fleets had been re-supplying on the coast of what is now New England since the 1550's. The Jamestown and Plymouth colonies found depopulated and even completely vacant villages -- why? The smallpox epidemic that eventually would wipe out 95% of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas began at first contact 70 years before, not when the English finally decided to build colonies in the early 17th century.
Given that America was not rich enough to support the population without agriculture, it is not out of line to think that some subset of the Clovis peoples could have domesticated American *Horse, *Camel, *Cow, *Goat, species that were extinct by the time the Europeans arrived in our time line. Especially since they did domesticate the dog, and their descendants re-domesticated feral Spanish horses so quickly. The biggest difficulty might be that Pleistocene America probably was rich enough to make agriculture unnecesary. (All those millions of bison, elephants, sloths, and horses who had never seen a predator as unassuming, but nevertheless deadly, as humans)
Later on, the primary impetus to develop technology is a combination of two things: first, competition for land and resources with neighbors, and second, development of internal divisions of labor – specialization becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – once you have a XYZ class, it becomes difficult to imagine life/civilization without it. Eventually XYZ breaks into specialties W and A, and now you have two classes of specialists instead of one, and neither are out plowing the south 40. Agricultural producers have to accelerate to meet the added demand.
The key shift I see in history required to make my what-if work is that the extinction event needs to be either dramatically slowed down, or the animals have to be domesticated within a century or two of arrival in the Americas. Paul Martin argues that the fossil record pretty much conclusively shows that all of the species that went extinct in the Clovis era did so within a few centuries to 1000 years at the outside of the human arrival – in other words, the biggest obstacle to domestication was having the realization that there was any reason to bother. At first the animals were unafraid of man and so numerous that they could go out and get a meal any time they wanted one (and the evidence suggests that the Clovis people had this “fast food” attitude: the few known kill sites in the fossil record are sites of massive overkill.). By the time they were scarce, it may have been too late to save most of the species in question.
If you can get past that hurdle, I see no reason (especially given the resource-richness of North America) that the Europeans would not have encountered societies at least as advanced as iron age, and really – I tend to think more advanced is likely. Remember there is not that big a leap from the late Roman period to the early renaissance – in several ways the Romans were more advanced than 15th century Spain. The American West has vast reserves of copper, gold, silver, and tin, so a bronze age is a virtual certainty. Once a culture has the skills to make bronze, it is not that big a step to realizing that iron is available and even better than bronze – and I tend to think it would have the same driving force the discovery did in Europe – war. I don’t visualize one vast American empire. I visualize an America much like 15th Century Europe, i.e., several nascent nation-states verging on empire (i.e., Britain and Spain), several future nation-states still in a tribal/feudal stage (i.e., Germany and Italy), and the rest of the continent somewhere in between those situations (or no-man’s lands between nations at war.)
I don’t think that South America would have fared as well, unless it was colonized by North American Empires – South America has the disadvantage of a North-South axis requiring multiple types of agriculture across the continent – not so in North America.
*Horses and Camels evolved here and migrated to Eurasia & Africa. There were half a dozen or so species of bison – it is not unreasonable to assume that at least one of those species could have been domesticated as their Eurasian relatives were. Goat = a lowland species related to the mountain goat and bighorn sheep that still exist out west.
There are also the wild cards: elephants, (about which we know little, since less than half of the ancient family still exists) sloths (ranging in size from large dog to mammoth-sized) (about which we know almost nothing – could they have been tamed as a meat/milk source? Certainly an animal as slow as a sloth could have been captured, and might have put up with captivity if it was provided with a steady diet.) Giant beavers and Armadillos (I can’t imagine a domestic use for these, but certainly impressive armor could have been made by a Neolithic people from an armadillo the size of a Volkswagen beetle.