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Geography and Climate: Effects on Civilizations

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  • 0:02 Cultural Differences…
  • 1:18 Where Civilizations Spring Up
  • 4:06 Geographical &…
  • 6:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will look at the relationship between geography, climate, and civilization. We will learn why civilizations develop in particular regions and how this leads to lifestyle and cultural differences.

Cultural Differences Based on Geography and Climate

Have you ever noticed cultural differences based on geography and/or climate? Surely, you have. For example, when I was a kid, I lived in Michigan, and the sport of hockey was huge there. Everybody played hockey and watched hockey. Then, when I was a teenager, my family moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. Suddenly I felt like the only guy in the city who followed hockey. Hockey just wasn't a big deal there. Most people didn't care about it. See, hockey has a bigger following in the North than it does in the South.

The climate of the North is more suited to the sport, and the North just has a greater appreciation for the sport than does the South. There are all kinds of other examples. Surfing is a big deal on the West Coast but not so much in St. Louis. A farmer in Iowa lives a very different lifestyle from a banker on Wall Street in New York City. See, geography and climate play a powerful role in affecting culture. Over the course of history, they have also played a major role in where civilizations spring up and what those civilizations look like culturally.

Where Civilizations Spring Up

So, why do civilizations spring up in one particular place as opposed to another? Well, it's actually pretty simple: Civilizations tend to arise in regions that are inhabitable and capable of sustaining life. See, after the Neolithic Revolution, human beings began practicing settled agriculture and pastoralization. This means instead of wandering around hunting and gathering food, they began raising livestock and harvesting crops. Naturally, they wanted to live in regions suitable to these ends. So, oftentimes, civilizations arose along rivers in fertile land.

Some of the earliest civilizations, such as the Sumerians, sprang up between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in a region called Mesopotamia. This region consists of the current countries of Iraq and Iran. This area is often called the cradle of civilization because it is believed the first civilizations arose here.

Another common example of civilization springing up along a river is ancient Egypt. While much of Egypt is desert, the fertile Nile River Valley provided the ancient Egyptians with the means to sustain life. In India, the Harappa civilization developed in the Indus River Valley. In the Americas, the Chavin civilization sprang up in the Andes Mountains along the Mosna River. So we see time and again, river systems and fertile soil were vital to early civilizations.

Access to other resources also determined where civilizations emerged. For example, the Hittite civilization of Asia Minor relied heavily on iron ore and used iron tools and weapons to expand its power. Jumping ahead a few thousand years, Germany rose to power in the late 19th century in part because of its rapid industrialization stemming from iron production. In the 15th-17th centuries, Spain grew wealthy from the gold stolen from Mayan and Incan tribes of North and South America.

So, in addition to river systems and land quality, other natural resources, like iron ore, copper, and gold, affected where civilizations developed. Areas with plentiful hunting game also tended to be prime locations for settlement.

Geographical and Cultural Adaptations

In time, civilizations adapted to the specific geography and climate around them. For example, for the ancient Egyptians, life revolved around the Nile River. Every spring, the Nile would flood, depositing rich soil through the valley. Because of this, the planting and harvesting of crops coincided with seasonal river movements. In the Egyptian religion, the Nile River god, Hapi, was worshipped as the giver of vegetation.

Climate, too, is a powerful agent in cultural adaption. Think of the Inuit tribes that inhabit the Arctic regions. The extreme cold weather dictates how they sleep, what type of shelters they live in, and just about every area of life. Their art and religious beliefs also center on the nature surrounding them.

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