World History and the Meaning of Being Human: The Influence of Physical and Geographical Features – by Tessa Erickson-Thoemke. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
In an ostensibly man-made world, natural structures of the earth have greatly influenced human settlements. Climate changes and availability of water were crucial determinants of ideal land to settle on. Thousands of years ago, humans searched for abundant land that was easy to farm and would be safe from drastic climate changes. Thus, pushing many to settle in areas often surrounded by water sources like rivers, oceans, lakes, or basins. Despite encountering adequate land, adjustments often needed to be made. Looking across history, we can examine where early humans settled and why they chose certain areas and then compare those civilizations to a modern city that is thriving today.
Mesopotamia, “the world’s first complex society”, was established within two major rivers: the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. When uncontrolled, the water from the river was irregular and could ruin productive land: “annual floods and low-water seasons came at the wrong times in the farming sequence” (Tignor, 2018, p. 49). So, humans worked to create an ingenious irrigation system. This invention allowed the Mesopotamians to remain settled for a longer period of time as it provided rich soil and abundant, controlled water.
Inhabitants of the Ganges River valley also relied on a river to sustain their lifestyles. The indigenous people of this area had excellent “farming skills and knowledge of seasonal weather,” impressing even the violent Vedic people (p. 100). The Vedic people adopted their methods regarding successful land use, which shows that the indigenous people worked hard to make their civilization as productive as possible, much like the Mesopotamian did with their irrigation system. Both groups of people learned how to effectively utilize the land that they settled on.
A modern city that was also established along a river is St. Cloud, Minnesota. In fact, this city has the second-longest river flowing right through it: The Mississippi River. Once divided into three towns by deep ravines, St. Cloud became united in 1856 (“History of the City”, n.d.). Other resources, like the railroad and the granite quarry, attracted new settlers at the beginning, but the Mississippi River now serves multiple purposes for the city. According to Minnesota Nutrient Planning Portal, “St. Cloud is the first city along the Mississippi to obtain its drinking water from this resource” (“Mississippi River”, n.d.). The river is also used by power plants as a non-contract cooling water source. Best of all, it serves as a source of leisure: “a popular route for day-long canoe trips” and high quality fishing (“Mississippi River”, n.d.). Like the early civilization discussed prior, inhabitants of St. Cloud utilized this natural resource as well as they could. Even today, humans remain innovative when it comes to adapting the land they settled on.
When examining these civilizations and the physical geographic choices humans made, three specific priorities came to mind: sustainability, longevity, and productivity. Humans have a strong desire to sustain their lifestyles, which explains why they searched for certain land in certain climates. We like to be able to provide for ourselves, so settling on land that allowed farming and building of infrastructure was most logical. Non-nomadic humans also like to stay somewhere for a period of time. For most, constantly moving to new homes is unpleasant and exhausting; staying put in one place fosters stronger relationships and greater connections. Thus, profitable land in mild climate conditions allow humans to settle without a lot of concern. Finally, humans have a need to make things and make them well. As we see in all three of these civilizations, innovation is not uncommon. Whether it be an irrigation system, mastering the seasonal weather, or obtaining drinking water, humans have been able to and continue to use geographical attributes in resourceful ways.
From lessons of ancient history, we can learn to appreciate natural land attributes and to have respect for the resources they give to us. For thousands of years, geographical features, like rivers, have allowed humans to establish their settlements and thrive there. We must also recognize that these features should not be taken advantage of or overused. This happened in Mesopotamia when “the danger of planting every year” was unforeseen, “for by the third millennium the fertile soils had been destroyed” (p. 49). Recent climate change reports are also a cause for concern. Today’s settlers have taken the constancy of the climate for granted, so it is important for us to be aware of the potential changes approaching. Regardless of what happens, humans should be open to adaptability once again.
History of the city. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://mn-stcloud.civicplus.com/456/History-of-the-
Mississippi River – St. Cloud major watershed. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Tignor, R. L. (2018). Worlds together, worlds apart: A history of the world from the beginnings
of humankind to the present. (5th ed.) New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
From Professor Liang’s Spring 2019 World History I [Online] class, Tessa is a Psychology student.
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