Cultural & Historical Significance of Bodies of Water

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Major bodies of water have shaped human history time and time again. In this lesson, we'll cover a few of the major ways that this has happened, and consider the ways that water can still influence our lives.


Water is cool. It is the second most common molecule in the world, it has the power to hold itself together and it's one of the only liquids that expands when it freezes. Most of the world is water. Most of your body is water. Water is awesome, and unsurprisingly, water has played a major role in world history. This is especially true of large bodies of water, which have had the power to transform our lives for millennia. We're obsessed with water. I guess you could call us a world of aquaholics.

Water and Resources

So, why have bodies of water made such an impact on human lives? Let's start with one of the most obvious reasons: we need water to survive. Access to water is essential to life, and therefore population growth required substantial amounts of water. Around the world, the first settled civilizations developed in areas where bodies of fresh water made population growth possible. In the Middle East it was the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in Africa it was the Nile River, Asia had the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, in India the Indus River proved instrumental, in Mexico it was the mountain lakes of Central Mexico and in South America the mountain lakes of the Andes provided the necessary waters.

Asides from the water itself, large bodies of water contain resources vital to human societies. Fish and shellfish have been unbelievably important resources for many human civilizations because they are very high in protein and vitamins that benefit human development. In fact, there are some archeologists who believe that humans evolved based on a diet of fish, simply because of how much protein is needed to form our larger brains. This theory is not accepted by all, but no one can deny that many human populations have settled near large bodies of water for the access to abundant marine resources.

Fishing scene from an Egyptian tomb

Travel and Trade

Large bodies of water have also influenced human societies in other ways. Did you know that up through the middle of the 19th century, it was quicker to sail all the way around the Americas than to travel from New York to Los Angeles over land? Water transportation is much more efficient, something that early peoples discovered millennia ago. You can transport larger things on water and over greater distances. It's no surprise then that some of the world's first trade economies were developed around water.

Places like the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean were filled with ancient maritime traders that sailed along the coastline. Sailing technology let people travel further, coming into contact with more and more people. As a result, ideas, cultures, money, and products from around the world have been able to interact and influence each other. You may have heard of the Silk Roads- the famous trade routes between Asia and Europe. Did you know that there were also sea-based trade routes? Most trade between Asia and Europe actually came along the coasts, from China to India and then up the Red Sea into the Mediterranean.

Clearly, access to water was influential toglobal trade systems. Unfortunately, this means that landlocked nations are at a disadvantage. We can see the implications of this in places like Russia. Russia has access to water, but it's mostly ice. So, the 17th-century Russian emperor Peter the Great devoted his life to gaining access to a warm water port, one which would never freeze over. He was not ultimately successful, but for the next few centuries Russian constantly equated their ability to succeed as a modern nation with their ability to gain control of a warm water port. Later Russian aggression and expansion into Eastern Europe was justified almost entirely on that premise.

Peter the Great

Separation and Protection

That brings us to another historical use of water. Water creates a physical boundary between people, which can be very helpful when trying to keep enemies at bay (pun intended). This is one reason that many major cities around the world are built near water. One great place to look is in the center of a major world empire: the Aztecs. The Aztec Empire was based out of Tenochtitlán, a massive city built on a lake and today the center of Mexico City. The only ways in or out were a series of drawbridges. As the Spanish conquistadors learned in 1521, Tenochtitlan was not easy to get into, and once you were there you might find yourself trapped.

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