Mapping the Physical & Human Characteristics of Africa & the Middle East

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  • 0:01 Geography Affecting Settlement
  • 0:50 River Valleys & Water
  • 2:13 Plateaus
  • 3:20 Harbors & Trade
  • 4:09 Other Resources Taking Over
  • 5:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Many of the first settlements in Africa and the Middle East have been continuously inhabited for more than 10,000 years. Are we just sentimental, or did our ancestors do that good of a job of picking places to live? This lesson answers that question.

Geography Affecting Settlement

Look at a physical map of Africa and the Middle East. Before we do anything else, soak in that geography. More than anything else, it has affected where people settle in these two regions. If you were to zoom in far enough, you'd see river valleys, fertile plateaus, big harbors, jungles and desert oases. In short, you'd see plenty of places that look ripe for human settlement! More than 10,000 years ago, the major cities of Africa and the Middle East were far from being formed. In fact, the vast majority of the few million people who lived here moved around in hunter-gatherer groups. However, as we will soon see, once people started to settle down, they chose so wisely that modern Africans and Middle Easterners still settle in those same places today.

River Valleys and Water

Have you had enough to drink today? A silly question, but if you are thirsty, chances are you can think of little else. After oxygen, humans need water more than anything. Beyond water to drink, it is also essential for crops to grow. As a result, in both the Middle East and Africa, the oldest societies were those close to rivers and streams. In Africa, the first settlements of the Kush, predating the Egyptians by thousands of years, were up on the Blue Nile in modern-day Sudan. Not yet able to control the floods that would both plague and benefit the Egyptians, these Kush simply lived close to the water in such a way that allowed them to escape the floods. The same could be said about the people of Catal Huyuk in modern-day Turkey - live close enough to the water to take advantage of it, but not so close as to be its victim.

As our ancestors became better farmers, they moved to take advantage of the rivers in a bigger way. Major civilizations sprung up on the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, and Niger Rivers, as well as the well-watered Great Rift Valley. Today, these remain the most densely populated parts of the Middle East and Africa.


Yet not all major cultures sprung forth from these river valleys. Many rivers were still susceptible to floods, and low river valleys were easy for conquering armies to sweep through. As a result, some of the most enduring civilizations sprung up on the plateaus of the Middle East and Africa. In fact, the two oldest continuously independent cultures of the regions are both plateau-based. In the Middle East, Iran has maintained a very distinctly Persian culture since the time of the Ancient Greeks. In fact, the documents written in Persian by Cyrus the Great 2,500 years ago sound as odd but recognizable to modern Persian speakers as Shakespeare sounds to us. Likewise, the same Ethiopian culture that once sent the Queen of Sheba to meet with King Solomon, king of the Israelites in the Bible, continues to thrive in the highlands of East Africa. In both areas, the population is more spread out than in the river valleys of other cultures, but is nonetheless very enduring.

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