Geography has played a crucial role in history since civilization began. Mesopotamia is credited by many as part of the “cradle of civilization.” The word Mesopotamia literally means, “Between two rivers.”(Henry) These two rivers were so important to Mesopotamians that they named themselves after the Tigris and Euphrates. These rivers were important to Mesopotamians, because they allowed them to irrigate their land. Cities that developed away from the rivers quickly became depopulated, while cities built along the river flourished.
Furthermore, because living near the rivers meant less labor, the Mesopotamians had enough time to develop writing and methods of record-keeping. Living near the river also allowed Mesopotamia’s influence to spread to other lands. The rivers served as a method of transportation and a trade route. Using them, the Mesopotamians were able to trade with other people for things they lacked. This diversification led to greater prosperity. Waterways lead to the same sort of prosperity for the Greeks and subsequent empires(Yoffee).
Waterways, however, are not the only geographical factor that has affected the development of civilization over the years. Indeed, Jared Diamond suggests that geographic placement has determined the destiny of the entire world. Most people know, says Diamond, that the Spanish conquered the Aztecs because the Spanish had the advantage of guns and had built up immunity to diseases that the Aztecs had never had. Yet most people do not ask why the Spanish had their guns and diseases, while the Aztecs lacked them.
According to Diamond, most of the diseases came from Spanish proximity to domesticated animals. Most of the animals in the Americas were not domesticated. Those that were did not spread from continent to continent, because the main axis separating the Americas is north/south. This means that animals face different periods of daylight and different climates, which keep them from traveling as far as they otherwise might(Diamond).
The domestication of animals lead, says Diamond, not only to the spread of disease, but also to advancement in technology. Farmers with domesticated animals could plough more and thus save more. This left those who had domesticated animals more time to develop other technologies – like writing and ship building. This is also, says Diamond, why the people of Africa were colonized by Europeans.
While Africa boasts many large mammals, most cannot be domesticated. If, Diamond says, hippos or rhinos could have been domesticated, it is very likely that the people of Africa would have dominated Europe. Yet, these animals cannot be domesticated. Adding to Africa’s troubles is the fact that countries with low rainfall are not as productive as those with much(Diamond).
Today, geography still plays a major role in politics. Natural resources are at the heart of modern conflicts. Oil is the main source of fuel for most modern nations; therefore, those who naturally hold it are in the position to set prices and rules for those who lack it to follow. Many Americans saw the war in Iraq as a war for oil. Whether it was or was not, oil prices skyrocketed in response to the Middle Eastern conflict. Meanwhile, disease and temperature still affect the degree of prosperity some nations can reach.
For instance, as Shaun Miller and Diamond observe, Argentina and Chile have temperate climates, just like the United States. These two countries are te richest on the South American continent. The countries in the tropics suffer from diseases like Malaria, which, say Diamond and Miller, has warded of colonists and still retards economic growth in many areas. Furthermore, air-conditioning costs more in tropical climates, which makes labor hard for those who would work(Miller and Diamond).
Water also still makes a difference in economic well-being as well. Indeed, according to Diamond, South America’s two landlocked countries, Bolivia and Paraguay, do not have the diverse trading options countries with seaports do(Miller and Diamond). This puts them at a severe disadvantage. Technology can and does improve life for many, but geography is sometimes hard to beat.
Diamond, Jared. “Why Did Human History Unfold Differently On Different Continents For The Last 13,000 Years?” 23 April 1997. Edge . 14 December 2008 <http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/diamond/diamond_p1.html>.
Henry, Laura S. Geography in Greek Myth:How the Mediterranean Environment Shaped Ancient Culture. 21 November 2007. 03 Oct 2008 <http://greek-history.suite101.com/article.cfm/geography_in_greek_myth>.
Miller, Shaun and Jared Diamond. “Social Sciences: A New World of differences.” Nature 441.7092 (2006): 411-412.
Yoffee, Norman. “Political Economy in Early Mesopotamian States.” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 281-311.