Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
Geography can be pretty important. Long ago, before planes, trains, cars, or even horses made it easy for humans to move around the earth, entire communities only a few miles on either side of a ridge might never come into contact. Why? Because there was a mountain in the way!
In today's world, where we can be on the other side of the planet in less than a day, geography may not seem all that important, but it has had an enormous impact on human development and human history. In this lesson, we will discuss the importance of geography to human development and cite a few illustrative examples.
Geography - or the study of the land features, human settlement, and civilization itself - is, it's easy to imagine, incredibly important to the way in which human societies are scattered, and even where human civilization began. For example, the four places where humans first began settling were along sources of fresh water: Mesopotamia, along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern Iraq; in India along the Indus River; in China along the Yangtze River and Yellow River; and in Egypt along the Nile.
All of these civilizations grew up where they did not because the humans who lived near the rivers were that much smarter than in other regions, but because of the area's geography. These large, freshwater rivers were a ready source of water and also provided a ready source of food, as seasonal flooding provided fertile soil for growing crops. With the ability to grow crops and a surplus of food, and with water nearby, there was no longer a need to move from place to place in search of resources. Furthermore, without every minute of the day being devoted to finding food, ancient humans could now devote themselves to more leisurely pursuits, like contemplating life (i.e., religion) and developing plans and methods to organize their relationships with other humans (i.e., civilization and government). These rivers and the geography of the ancient world did not necessarily cause the birth of civilization, but it certainly dictated where it took place.
This principle can be applied to almost any point in history and the development of civilization. Just look at where the major cities in the United States are placed. The United States began as a series of British colonies, and their colonial economies were largely based on trade with England and other parts of the British Empire. As such, many major cities in the eastern United States are either on an ocean (giving them a major port) or on another major waterway. For example, New York City, Boston, Charleston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and others are all based either on the Atlantic Ocean or on a waterway with easy access to open water. Even inland cities, like Chicago and Detroit, are situated on major bodies of water with access to shipping lanes.
While geography played a major role in where civilizations began and where people settle, it has a corresponding effect on the cultures of those people who do settle there. For example, let's look again at the early United States. Many of the folk songs and games that are still played today are highly influenced by geography. Songs like 'Home on the Range' and 'Get Along Little Doggies' were created in the 1800s when immigrants and homesteaders flocked to the wide-open plains of the American west. Lyrics like 'where the sky is not cloudy all day' are reflections of what it was like living in that environment.
While geography impacts culture, it can also isolate it. For example, the Polynesians who lived on Easter Island developed a culture and language entirely unique to the island. Protected from outside influences by the remoteness of their islands, the Easter Islanders built massive stone faces and engaged in rituals that no one had seen before when Europeans first discovered the island in the 18th century. In fact, anthropologists and historians are still piecing together exactly how Easter Islanders managed to build such massive stone sculptures and transport them around the island without the use of modern machinery.
While geography helped dictate where civilization occurred and impacts human culture, it is of the utmost importance in any human conflict. Geography can make or break a military campaign. Before the widespread use of airplanes, rivers and mountains could divide armies, and geography and topography could prove a deciding factor in any conflict. Take the Vietnam War for example. The United States possessed superior air and firepower than their North Vietnamese opponents. One thing they did not possess, however, was an understanding of the terrain and the knowledge of how to fight in the dense jungles of Southeast Asia. Though the United States failed in Vietnam due an enormous range of factors, a key component of this was their inability to cope with, and prepare for, the geography of Southeast Asia.
The farther back we go into history, the more important geography was to the outcome of a conflict. For example, in 480 BCE the famed Battle of Thermopylae was made entirely possible by geography. In this battle, only a few thousand Greeks, led by a small band of Spartan warriors, held at bay for three days a Persian army that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. In the mountain pass at Thermopylae, only a few dozen men could fit shoulder-to-shoulder, hence eliminating the Persians' enormous numerical advantage. Though the Persians eventually overcame the smaller Greek force, the losses they sustained weakened the Persian force, which was eventually defeated later in the war.
Let's briefly review what we've learned.
Geography, our principle focus in this lesson, is the study of land features, human settlement, and civilization itself. And though it can be easy to forget today, when we can hop in a car and drive in climate-controlled comfort across the country in a couple of days, geography is incredibly important, both to history and to current events. Our cities are shaped by it, battles are won and lost due to it, and the first instances of human civilization occurred where they did because of it. No matter what you are doing or studying today, geography is an important thing to consider.
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