*** geography and history


Malay geographya
Figure 1.--Geography largely determined the resources available to communities around the world and the climate. Thus geography was a powerful force shaping culture, including clothing. This Malay boy was photographed in the 1920s. The Malay Peninsula was ideal for producing rubber. The Japanese seizure of Malya Peninsula in World War II threatened to unhinge the enire Allied war effort. Rubber was not natuve to Malaya, but growing conditions there were ideal.

Since grade school I have been fascinated by geography. Geography is not an easy disipline to define in part because of all the different braches of geography and the activities with which geograophers are involved. The basic definition is something along the line of the study of the aerial differentiation of the earth's surface. People from ancient times have written about geography. Only since World War II, however, were plate tectonics understood which are the primary mechanism of geological change that are reponsible for geographic features. What originally attracted me to geography was the vast physical and human differences around the world. Only gradually did I become aware of how important geography was in so many aspects of human endevor. This has included both history and clothing, the two major aspects of our HBC website. Geography has affected much more, including climate, cultural, and economics. It has also affected human physiological development which left Native Americans dangeously vulnerable to Old World diseases. Many HBC pages touch on geography and we want to create a page to help HBC readers interested in geography find the pages we have developed. HBC is fortunate to have a geographer among its contributors. He tells us, "I have a Ph.D in what I like to think of as "Historical Geography." I was interested in trying to recreate landscapes (physical and cultural) from the past, and examine factors that impacted and shaped these landscapes. Geographers do other things, of course, such as develop Geographical Information Systems (GISs), hazards research, etc. I am happy to report that university geography departments have grown in size since I was in school. Unfortunately, there has been a trend to merge geography with other disciplines into "social studies". Geographical Awareness quizzes have shown a need to go back to basics, because students have little knowledge of place names these days. School budgets and cutbacks in staff have been a problem."


Geopolitics became important long before the term appeared. It is no accodent that river valley became the craddles of civilization and the most valuable land for long periods. Carhage and Rome were both placed at imprtant locations to dominate the Mediterranean. And the European outburst came fromn Western Europe, the countries facing the Atlantic Ocean. And from that point the European naval powers sought to control vital locations such as Panama, Suez, the Staits of Malaca, abnd the Cape of Good Hope. England used its position at Gibraltar and Malta to control the Mediterranean. For America, control of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi was vital. The Germans after unification (1871) were mesmerized by geopolitical theorists who developed the theory that industralized Germany needed the resources of the East. Both the Tsars and Stalin were intent on dominated the Ukraine with its agriculture vital resources. This set in motion both Stalin's Ukranian Famine and bloody Wotld War II struggle on the Eastern Fronr between NAZI Germany and the Soviet Union. Surely the most important impact of geography was the formation of the modern suerpowers. While Europe fractured into nation states were locked in intermable wars over tiny provinces like Silesia. Russia and America were alble to conquer vast territory with little or no oppositio, Russia to the east and America to the west. This was just the opposite of what occurred ib China which was untited during ancient times. Here other factors than geopgraphy seem responsible. In modern times the English Channel meant that Britain could act tp prevent any one European power (Spain, France, and Germany) from becoming dominant, but this was not the case in ancient times.

Historical Development

The origins of geography date back to ancient times. There was a relationship between geography and astronomy in that the major debate in ancient times was whether the earh was flat or round (global). We know much more about the astronomical thinking of ancient civilization than geography, but there was probably often a relationship. The Chaldean (a Babalonian people) are commonly named as the first astronomers. Eygpt acquired much leaning from Babylonia, but their learning became emnired in superstion and myth. It is in Greece that geography emerged as an important discipline and the first named geographers. The Greeks debated geographical issues with some fervor. The first geograpoher we note is Thales (6th century BC), obe of the seven sages. He saw the earth in a astronomical context and argued that contrary to the accepted belief that the earth was a plain, ot was like other heavenly bodies was a globe and at the center of the universe. Other geographers following Thales continued to insist thsat the earth was flat. Greeks like Anaximander, Anaximenes, Pythagoirus continued the astronomical debate. Their work, however, did not strongy influence popular thought which was more determined by the obvious appearances. Thus the central issue of geograophy (the shape if the earth) was not really answered until the end of the medievsal era by practcal navigators like Coumbus and thinkers like Copernicus abd Gaileo. Long before this the Greeks continued to work on geography, Herodotus often called the father of history, mixed in a great deal og\f geograohy with his historical work (5th century BC). He was followed by Aristotle (4th century BC). He would dominate Westerm thought for an incredible two milennia. Aristole in De Coelo proivides us a summany of sancient gepographic ans astromomical understanding. Aristole through reasing rather than physical evidence cponcluded that the western coast of Spain was near India. Alexander's campaigns added immensly to the Western world's understsanding of physical geography. The astnomomer Hipparchus in Bithynia (3rd century BC) began calculating the longitude and lattitude of gepgraphicv places from celestial observations. Geograophers at the time did mot seiuze on his work, but it was critical to mapping. Geography is not just related to astronomy, but also to geometry which is necessary for calculating the cirumferemce, diameter, and volume of the earth, Thus Eratoshenes. a desciple of Euclid, was probablt the first author who attempted to develop geography into an organized discipline (3rd century) although his knowledge of northern and western Europ was sketcy at best. The Romans did not advance the tools and discipline of geography, the did acquire ememnse geograohic knowledge as they expanded their empire. Plutarch mentions the errection oif milliaria along the Roman roads which provided fefinitive measures of distance (2nd century BC). Ceasar commissioned a survey of the Roman Empire (44 BC) which developed as a mahor and lenthy effort. Part of the result was a huge painting in the portico of Agrippa. The results also appeared in Pliny's Nsatural History. The Greek geographer Strabo proviuded important descriptions. Other impoertant Roman geograpohers were Antonius Pius and Claudius Ptolemy. Ptoleny of Alexandria constructed a system of gography which dominated the Western mind until Vasco de Gams and Golumbus provided the information needed to cotruct a realistic understanding of geography (15th century). Their voyages were the result of the inquisness that had characterized the West combined with the technology to conduct extended voyages. In is interesting how many other civilizatins lacked the inquidtbeness of the West, even civilizations like China which had the technology to conduct extended voyages.


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.


Civilization itself is an artifact of geography. Civilization required agriculture which generated the needed wealth and the settleds lie style leading to urban life. This first appeared in river valleys because they were espcially fertile abd were the easiest placde to grow crops with the most basic technology.


All countries have been affected by geography. Some nore than others and in many different ways. Perhaps no country has been more affected by geograophy than Panama. It was even geography that led to its creation. Because Panama is an istmus where a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans possible. Of the major countries, it is probably Russia with its vast Eurasian Steppe that has been the country most significantly affected by geography. The Steppe more than any other geographic feature has been an engine for genating history. The Stppepeople for a time have dominated both China and Russia as well striking into Europe and the Middle East. England's island geography has been both a protective shield and as with the Vikings an avenue for invasion. Germany's location in th middle of Europe has prevented its expansion and nearly led to Germany dominating Europe. Japan's island position enabled it to develop independently from China. America's separation from Europe by the Atlantic Ocean was a key element in its development and subsequent world history. Italy, a Mediterranean Peninsula, was perfectly posed to dominate the Mediteranean. Afghanistan's geography has played a role in invasions of India incliding the creation of the Moguhl Empire. Today the poprous borders with Pakistan make it a kind of supportive rear area for Pakistan's struggle with India. Neighboring Iran is in unique position of staddling the oil producing areas of the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf. China's need for raw mterials have lead it into Africa and Southeast Asia, often suppoting brutal, repressive regimes leading to moral conflicys with the West.

Major Features

There are some geographic features that have played key roles in world history. They include bodies of water, deserts, planes, and mountains. Surely the most important is the vast Euro-Asian Steppe. One author claim that the stepp's 'pitiless' climate bred hard and cruel men. [Kaplan] We are not sure about that, but the steppe did bred warring tribes. They struck out of the steppe to the east and west. To the north and south the Steppe horsemen were stopped by the Arctic barrier and to the south the Gobi Desert and Himilayas. China has been the linch-pin of history, affecting European history before the Europeans were even aware of China. When China was strong the steppe tribes struck west. During periods of weakness in China the steppe tribes invaded the Middle Kingdom. The Himilayas and the Alps were both mountain shields. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans cut off the Americas from the rest of humanity. River systems have played a huge tole in history, plaing a role in the creation of civilization. Rivers like the Nile, Tigris-Eurprates, Congo, Amazon, Mississippi, Yeloe , Yangste, and others have played enormous roles in world history and economics. And until the 19th century and the development of railroads they were critical to commerce. The English Channel has even before Roman times played a huge role in English history and as a result European history. It was the Channel that stopped the Spanish, Napoleon, and Hitler with enormous politica and economic consequences. Oceanns and seas have both united peoples through facilitating commerce as well as isolating the Native American peoples in North and South America. The Sahara is another major feature which seems to have played a major role in peopleing the Nile Valley and determining the ethnic makeup of North Africa and Equarorial Africa. One of the most notable geographic features is Gibraltar. It is a huge rock set in one of the most critical points imaginable. This peninsular at the southern tip of Spain has played an enormous role in history. An Anglo-Dutch force seized Gibraltar from Spain during the War of the Spanish Succession (1704). Spain was forced to cede Gibraltar to Britain 'in perpetuity' under the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). It became an important base for the Royal Navy, especially during the Napoleonic Wars and World War II.

Modern Trends

HBC is fortunate to have a geographer among its contributors. He tells us, "I have a Ph.D in what I like to think of as "Historical Geography." I was interested in trying to recreate landscapes (physical and cultural) from the past, and examine factors that impacted and shaped these landscapes. Geographers do other things, of course, such as develop Geographical Information Systems (GISs), hazards research, etc. Through the use of satellites. which revolutionized the collection of accurate place specific data, the GIS has led to such innovations as the directional systems in many cars today. Mapping of the Moon and Mars are extensions of this technology, although, I guess they can hardly be called 'geo', as in geography, any more, being out of this world. I am happy to report that university geography departments have grown in size since I was in school. Unfortunately, there has been a trend to merge geography with other disciplines into "social studies". Geographical Awareness quizzes have shown a need to go back to basics, because students have little knowledge of place names these days. School budgets and cutbacks in staff have been a problem."


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: 11:42 PM 9/30/2009
Last updated: 9:44 PM 1/14/2022