Evolution of the Contemporary Political Map

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

There's a lot more to a map than just its nations and borders. There's a whole history of humanity there. In this lesson, we'll explore how the modern map as we know it came to be.

Evolution of the Map

It's time to talk about the map of the world. This isn't a geography lesson, so this isn't about what's on the map. It's about why the map is…the way it is.

What's that mean? Well, the political map as you see it, meaning the outline of borders and states, didn't always look the way it does now. Borders shifted, countries were absorbed or created, and people moved over time. So, what you see on a map isn't just a random assortment of boundaries that have always existed. It's a living history of human interactions, some of them pleasant and some of them violent. So, let's take a look at the map, not just as it looks but how it got to be that way.

Did the map always look this way?
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The Early Modern Era

When you look at a map of the world, what do you see? You see countries, so to understand this map we have to understand the origin of countries, or nation-states. A nation is a group of people who share a common identity, and a state is the political realm in which they live.

In the medieval era, European people didn't have strict borders around them. They lived in kingdoms or cities that exerted influence over variable ranges of space. This began to change in the 15th century, after the Renaissance had flourished and new ideas were spreading around the continent.

Late 15th-century map, as Europeans tried to better define the world around them
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Two ideas really stood out. For one, there was a new fascination with maps, largely thanks to the fact that the Renaissance was built on international trade. Second, wealthy princes and rulers became more interested in consolidating their power from feudal lords and competing with other princes for control. Combined with increased national pride and identity, these things led to a need to create borders that defined social and political limits of power.

Thus, the basic elements of the nation-state emerged. These changes occurred in an era we call the Early Modern period, and this is where the political map as we know it was born. Countries defined their borders largely around concepts like ethnic and national identity, which is why the English live in England, the Spanish in Spain, etc.

Imperialism Expands the Map

When the political map was born into the Early Modern period, the only places with clear borders were in Europe, since that's where nation-states first really emerged. However, throughout the 15th century Europeans started expanding their influence, and as they did they incorporated new territories into their maps. For the next 400 years, European nations became more and more competitive, striving for global control.

Imperialism was responsible for creating borders across the world
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Imperialism was responsible for creating a map in which everything was delineated into borders, but this process was different from how it had first happened in Western Europe. In Europe, borders were first drawn based around ethnic and cultural identity. Borders in the Americas, Asia, and Africa, however, were drawn by European powers to delineate their territories. As a result, the Maya people of Central America did not end up in a single nation called Mayatopia; instead they were divided between colonies of New Spain, Guatemala, and others. In Africa, the Tutsis didn't end up forming their own nation of Tutsistan; instead they had borders drawn between them and ended up in the European colonies that would become Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Congo, and Tanzania.

The 20th Century

By the year 1900, the world had been divided into neat political categories that could be labeled on a map. However, it still wasn't the map that we see today. Imperialism had resulted in the subjugation of many ethnic groups, as well as tense competition between empires. All of this tension broke in 1914 as the world descended into World War I. The end of WWI in 1918 resulted in the dissolution of the Ottoman, Russian, German, and Austria-Hungarian Empires. New nations were created from their ashes, while surviving empires like Great Britain tried to snatch up a few more territories, and the map was redrawn.

After World War I, the map had to be redrawn
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