Geography: Impact

Figure 1.--El Salvador like all of the countries of the Pacific Rim of Fire has been powerfully affected by geoography, in this case geology and the earhquakes and volcanos associated with converging tectonic plates. The press caption here reads, "Mourn San Salvador Earthquake Victims: Grief-stricken relatives and friends stand outside wreckage of a house in San Salvador in which two boys, ages 5 and 8, were killed during earthquake which rocked the area Monday." The photograph was dated May 5, 1965.

Geography has affected humans and life itself fundamentally and in many different ways. This has been directly and in indicrectly through affects geography has on climate and other phenomenon. Early geogaphers focused in reporting on physical features and cultural difference. Gradually measurement became important and methods to fix locations which led to accurate mapping (cartology). Only relatively recently did geographers began to understasnd and describe the many ways which geography has impacted humans and civilization and continues to do so. One author writes, "So just as there is a Carolingian Europe and a Mediterranean Europe, there is, to, often as a result to these invasionsfrom the east, a Byzantine-Ottoman Europe, a Prussian Europe, and a Hapsburg Europe, all of which are geographically destinct, and that live today through somewhat differeing economic development patterns" differing patterns that cannot simply be erased by the creation of a single currency." [Kaplan] Many ince the dawn of our species has been affected by geography. Geographic and climatice factors led to the development of humanity and the migration out of Africa to every corner of the different oeography has powerfully influenced the develooment of civilization and culture. Early man was at the mercy of thee geographic and climatic factors. Today we are able to understand geography and to an extent predict geological and climatic events, but not yet cpntrol them or even fully uunderstand them.

Barriers and Conduits

Geography has created both natural barriers and conduits. Mountain ranges have had a hugevimpact on history. The Alps allowed a Meditrranean culture develop in Italy. The Himilayaa resulted in very different culture to develop in China and ndia. Seas and oceans have also been insurmountable barriers. England's and America's history has been affected by their natural geographic protective barriers, the Channel and Alantic Ocean respectively. The Atlantic Ocean is perhaps obvious, but the power of these barriers is shown by the extent to whuch the english Channe, at points ionly 20 miles wide, has affected history. The Channel stopped Napoleon (19thbcentury) and Hitler's Panzers (1940). Where natural barriers did not exist, there have been attempts to build one, incuding the Great Wall of China, Hadrian's Wall, the Maginot Line, and Hitler's Atlantic Wall. They have proven much less effective than the natural barriers. Interestingly, technology can turn bariers into conduits. The same Altlantic Ocean that has protected Britain was turned into a conduit by the Vikings, allowung them to strike anywhere along the coast with desvestating raids and to affect Russian history through river travel. And Europeans beginning with Princ Henry of Portugal, used the oceans as a means of navigation and conquest. Rivers have also oroved both barriers and conduits.


Geography was a factor shaping culture since the appearance of human hunter-gathes. The more primitive the people the greater the impact. But even as humpan culure became more sophisticated, geography continued tio be important. Geography has been a major factor in the development of civilization. It is no accident that civilization first appeared in great river valleys.


Geography is a major factor affecting climate. And climate has affected both history and clothing in many ways. Some argue that changing cliate was a factoir in forcing primates down from the trees, out of the forest and on to the African savanah resulted in the development of bipedalism, the destinctibe characteristic of homonoids. We now know that homonoids developed bipedialism before they emerged from the forest as a result of the 1994 discovery of Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus) in Ethiopia. [Science] Ardi has been dated as 4.4 million years old. this is a million years older than Lucy (Australopithecus afrarensis). Historians in recent years have given increased attention to climatology. The most obvious of course is the Ice Age which created a Bearing Sea land bridge to the Americas. Historians are finding climatic links to other major events such as the fall of the Romasn Empire and the plages. On recent years there has been increassing attention to the Little Ice Age. Climate has affected major military campaigns such as Naoleon's invasion of Russia (1812) and the World War II German invasion of the Soviet Union (1941). One wonders how Hitler who considered himself a military genius was suprised that it got cold in Russia during the winter. Climatolgy is now at the center of the climate change debate. Climate has also affected clothing. One major impact on clothing is utlity. While fashion has other iunfuences, the first major influence was utility, protection from cold weather. And this protective clothing enavke humans to populate nearly every corner oif the globe. While the other influences such as fashion have become increasingly important, climate continues to be an imprtant factor. A new development is sun-safe clothing.


Geography has also played a major role in economics. This was especially the case in the early phase of human development when man was dependent on the resources immediaely available. This can be seen in modern times with tribal peoples living in areas with limited resources developing only primitive life styles. A good example is the the Alacaluf in Tierra del Fuego. For milenia after the development of civilization, economies were in lage measure agicultural focused on food and texttile production. This meant that the crops and livestock were primarily based on what was available and this was still powerfully affected by geograpohy. As humans expanded their transport technology there was an exchnge of plants and animals. This weas nost significant after the discovery of the Americas. Plants lik the potato and corn had an enormous impact when the were introduced in Europe. The geographic destribution of metals was also important. This was a factor in the industrial revolution. This of course first occurred in England where coal and iron were located close together . Technology can over come geographic limitations, but just as agriculture developed in river valies, industry first developed where iron and coal occurred close together and were relatively easily accessible.


Geological changes take place over emense time spans. Geological changes such as the creation of mountain ranges or the tectonic movement of continents involve millions even billions of years and human history is meaured in the thousands. The same, however, is not the case for homids in general. Geological change has created the geographic features which have in turn impacted and incluenced primate/humanoid evolution and eventually history. There are some geological events that have directly affected both evolution and history. Extraresterial events (meteors, comets, and even other planets) have struck earth and played an important if not fully understood role in geological development. The most important has to be collision with Theia that most believe is what created the moon (about 4.5 billion years ago). The moon helped stabilize earth's climate which plyed a key role in making earth ideal for life. Life appear (about 3.5 billion years ago). The next most important event was the Chicxulub meteor strike which led to the extinction of the dinasours and the rise of the mammals (about 66 million years ago). Primates appeared probably as a response to the resources in the lower canopy (about 50-55 million yers ago). The great apes appeared (11-16 million years ago). Proto-homonids may have appeared as early (7 million years ago). These very early fosils have only recently been discovered (Sahelanthropus, Orrorin, and Ardipithecus) -- all in Africa. The principal destinguishing feature here was an erect stature. And the driving force from the beginning was gelogically driven climate change. A drier climate and declining rain forest habitat forced early Homonoids (Hominins) out of the trees and onto Savanah in search of food. This made an erect stature an advantage as opposed to the ape-like stature more adapted to movement in the trees climbing. Australopithecus species, th most immediate human ancestior appeared (about 5 million years ago). The famous Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis lived (about 3.2 million years ago). The first Homonoids appeard (about 2.5 million years ago) which might be seen as the beginning of pre-history. Our species (Homo sapiens) began to appear (about 0.2 million years ago). By this time the current geology was largely formed, but we know much more about climate events and not just the geology. We know of powerful volcanic eruptions (supervolcanoes) that injected enormous amounts of material into the atmosphere and set off sunamis. And because of the debris injected in the atmosphere, affected climate. This has caused feeezing conditions even in the tropics. And the imapact on agriculture and historical events was subtantial. An fact, volcanos may have played a key role in human development. Scientists theorize that horrific "volcanic winter" occurred 71,000 years ago, when Mount Toba in Sumatra erupted. It was followed by the coldest 1,000 years of the last Ice Age. This caused widespread famine, killing off most humanoids. Only scattered bands of humans suvived. It was this population "bottleneck" that created the rapid "differentiation" - or genetic divergence - of the surviving populations. [Ambrose] DNA work support this and suggest thast all modern humans descended from a few thousand people, presumably the survibors of Toba. More recent volcanic erruptions have been only a small fraction of the power of a supervolcano like Toba. Even so, they have impacted historical events. There are many ice ages in earth's longbgeological history. Scientis do not agree as to what causes ice ages. A mix of distance from the Sun, the position of the continents, and solar output. The last ice age happened around 20,000 years ago. And with the falling sea levels we see the pepoling of the America. Geology has continued to impact history. The devastating volcanic eruption of Santorini in the Aegean may have been responsible for the destruction of Minoan civilization (about 1600 BC although dates differ). The eruption of Krakatau (about 535 AD) may have played a role in the European Dark Ages. The eruption of Tambora in Indonesia (1815) caused atmopspheric events that were well observed in Europe. In contrast, Pinatubo (1991) was a minor event, but had a notable impact on climate.


Geography has had an obvious impact on history. Just how significant is a matter of conjecture, but that it is very important there is no doubt. Anthropologists have established almost without doubt tht mankind developed in Africa. There is considerable difference of opinion as to how man spread out over the globe. Here geography must have played a major role. Some accounts suggest man first moved along coast lines. Notably all of the early civilizations emerged in river valleys. One at the edge of Africa, the others outside of Africa. The key factor with rivers was the importantance of dependable water source and alluvial flooding enriching the soil. In addition the movement away from tropical climate was a factor. Herding was based on rich graslands and grass is most lush beyond the tropics. The same is true of crop yields of important grains--species of grasses. [Cook] It was the agricultural abundance in these river vallies that gave rise to the first civilizations. Europe's emergence in the 16th century was strongly associated with geography. [Diamond, Guns.] Geography has continued to influence history. There are of course many other instances of geography affecting history. Russian history was affected by the vulnerability of the flat to Steppe to inasion. The geographic isolation of the Americas were factors in the success of the Conquistadores over the Native American civilizations. [Cook] Russian history is marked with invasion from east and west. The origins of Russia itself evolved around the major rivers. The Huns and Mongols swept east over Russia from the Mongolian Plain. It was the Sweedes, Poles and Germans that swept west. Britain in contrast benefitted by the security afforded by the Channel. At sea, it was an island nation, Britain, that became the world's preeminent sea power. An American naval strategist theorized that in modern history, command of the seas has been desisive. [Mahan] This ground-breaking assessment of seapower was premissed on geography. Geographical factors had a huge impact on the settlement of America. New York's rise was based on the important natural harbor and the fact that the Hudson River was an important route inland, made even more important when the Erie Canal linked the Huson to the Great Lakes, opening the West and turning New York into the most important city in America.


Location hs played a major role in history. The expansion of America and Russia occurred because there were no powerful entity blocking their expansion. Thus Russia expanded east and America west. At the same tme the major European countries expended heir considranlr energies and resources fighting each other over small provinces like Silesia, Alsace, or other fought-over provinces. So whike the Eyropean countries engaged in one war after nother, Americ created a huge country to the west and Russia to the east.


Geographic separation left Native Americans dangeously vulnerable to Old World diseases. This did not show up in body types, but it did affect the genetic resistance to Old World diseases. The key factor here appears to be that the New World had few animals that could be domesticated. Old World people domesticated a range of animals and lived in close contact to then. The result was to build up immunities to disease related to those domesticated animals. This domestication appears to have occurred after Siberian tribes made the transit ton the New World. Thus New World people developing in isolation did not develop the immunities.


Geography has afftected human physiology in a mumber of ways. Adaptation to cold seems to have been a major force. Thus we see differences in eye, hair, and skin color in northern Europe. This occured as humans migrated out of Africa to northern climates. White skin, light hair and blue eyes were adaptations to colder weather. Native Americans were much more recent arrivals to northern climes, perhaps explaing why they did not make phyiolgical asaptations. The eskimos reponse to the cold climate was primarily cultural (clothing, housing, and diet). They did not make the same genetic adaptations that occurred in northern Europe. Perhaps the success of their cultural adapttions help to make genetic adaptatioins unecessay. Presumably nose and lip features were also affected. As native Americans moved into the high alditudes of the Andes, we see chest sizes (lung capacity) being affected. It is interesting that Native Americans did not make phisiolgical adaptations to cold, but did to altitude, suggesting that genetic changes can come relatively fast if cultural if cultural adaptatioins are not possible. This genetic shift in the Andes occurred very rapidly. The same occurred in the Himilayas, but over a longer time frame. A characteistic of east Asians (China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia) is an epicanthal fold in the eye. This is a fold of skin that covers the inner corner of the eye. This gives Asisans a characteristic narrow, almond-shaped shape eye. The value of this adaptation is not clear. It appears to be an adaptation to protect against the cold and windy conditions in northern Asian steppe.


It hs made considerable difference what country any given country bordered on. Poland's history has been largely determined by its location between Russia and Germany. Mexicans like to repeat the phrase, "So far from God and so close to the United Sates." Germany's proximity to Russia set up huge struggles in World War II with the Germans desiring to controll the East with its vast agricultural potentil and natural resources.



Ambrose, Stanley. University of Illinois. Ambrose's theory is summarized in "Ancient 'Volcanic Winter' Tied To Rapid Genetic Divergence In Humans", Science Daily (September 8, 1998).

Cook, Michael. A Brief History of the Human Race (Norton, 2003), 385p.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel.

Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About the Coming Conflicts and the Bttle Against Fate (2012).

Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (1890).

Science (October 2, 2009). This special issues of Science include 11 aricles from 47 researchers presenting the findings on Ardipithecus ramidus after 15 years of work.


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Created: 11:11 PM 11/23/2013
Last updated: 3:51 PM 2/27/2018