Latitudes not Attitudes or ‘Maps not Chaps’

Geography is … only a branch of statistics, a knowledge of which is necessary to the well-understanding of the history of nations, as well as their situations relative to each other.

I’ve been think a lot about the way geography shapes history. A lot of the big questions of history can be boiled down to simple geography.

What brought this to mind was this interview with Ian Morris:

Philip Dodd: “The three paradigms in which you want to work are biolgical, sociologicial…[and geographical]. Tell us why geography is so important to you…”

Ian Morris: “It follows on fairly directly from the ways I was thinking about biology and sociology. It seems to me the major implication of recent work in evolutionary biology is that human beings are all more or less the same things all over the world, which is—clever chimpanzees. That’s what we are. And we do the same things as most other kinds of animals, we’re just better at it…”

“It seemed to me, as I was looking for patterns across the last 15,000 years, was that the real motor for why some societies have developed at different paces than others was simply geography. That’s just what it came down to.”

PD: Give us briefly an example of how geography is determining.

IM: “The most glaring case of geographical determinism is the beginnings of agriculture the end of the Ice Age. There were only a few places in the world while wild species of plants and animals had developed that were potentially domesticable. If you were a hunter-gatherer in central Siberia, it didn’t matter if you were Albert Einstein, you were never going to domesticate plants and animals because it could not be done. If you lived in southwest Asia, it was massively more likely that domestication would happen there than anywhere else because these plants and animals are so densely concentrated there…”

“…Much of what humanists like to dwell on as agency I think is an obsession with the noise generated by human beings. We’re very good at thinking up grand theories about the afterlife for example—about things that very likely don’t exist at all. That is just a distinctively human version of the agency that generally applies to living things.”

“Plants have agency of a kind, bunny rabbits have a lot more, chimpanzees have a lot more still. We have most of all. And we have so much of it, that we clearly have in some ways moved wildly away from what we share with animals. But in other ways we continue to share a great deal of what we do with animals.”

“I like to say when I’m teaching that history is a subfield of biology. It’s the record of what one particular species does. And when you put it like that it’s hard to argue with [that]…”

Richard Cohen and The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (BBC Arts & Ideas)

The interview is from a few years back in reference is Morris’ book Why the Rest Rules–for Now. In that book, he traces history back 15,000 years in order to find the reason why the societies of the North Atlantic ended up dominating and ruling much of the planet today rather than, say, the Middle East or Africa China or South America. The geography factor came up fairly late in his inquiry, and caused him to rethink his assumptions. As he says:

“This is something that actually didn’t fully dawn on me until I was quite some way into writing the book, and I had to go back to the beginning and start doing it all over again…The reason why the book ends up being rather a long one rather than a one-page thing saying ‘it’s geography’ [is because] geography is a somewhat complicated thing. On the one hand, physical geography determines how societies develop. But the way societies develop determines what physical geography means.”

In a column for the Daily Beast he summarizes some of his major conclusions:

When the world warmed up 15,000 years ago, geography dictated that there were only a few regions on the planet where complex societies could develop. This was because only a few regions had the kinds of climate and landscape that allowed for the evolution of wild plants and animals that could be domesticated; and farming could only arise in these places.

The densest concentrations of these plants and animals lay toward the Western end of Eurasia, around the headwaters of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Jordan Rivers in what we now call southwest Asia. It was therefore here, around 9000 BC, that farming began, spreading outward across Europe. Western Eurasia became the richest part of the world.

Farming also started up independently in other areas, from China to Mexico; but because plants and animals that could be domesticated were somewhat less common in these zones than in the West, the process took thousands of years longer to get going.

Ian Morris on Why the West Rules but China Is Next (Daily Beast)

On a similar theme is a book I read recently called Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. It’s mostly about current geopolitical tensions than it is about geography, but it does cover some useful facts about why certain parts of the world developed in the way they did.

It’s a good illustration of how countries came to be, and why they are the way they are. Political scientists like to talk about “Path Dependence”—the fact that understanding why societies are the way they are now has a lot do with historical circumstances, sometimes stemming from a very long time ago. To cite just one example, when you look at current voting patterns in the U.S., counties which had the best conditions for growing cotton in Dixie are the most likely to vote for Democrats today, because they have a larger concentration of African-Americans to this day. And, of course, the conditions for growing cotton growing had to do with climate and geological processes that took place even before modern humans had emerged.


But what really got me thinking about this was looking back at the history of financial innovations. It makes sense that these all began in places which had to have expansive trade by necessity. These were places that were rich in some resources, but poor in other critical ones, and so trading became a necessity. That’s why it is in such places that we must look to find their origins. You’ll find that in history, things are invented out of necessity when and where they need to be. Ian Morris articulates this as his ‘Morris Theorem’: “Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they’re doing.”

The Tigris-Euphrates valley is the major case in point. The well-watered flat river valleys produced lots of raw materials, but not much in the way of stone, gems, or precious metals. So it was here that the first trading “innovations” began such as writing, double-entry bookkeeping, bonds, insurance, tradeable debt, and the like. By contrast, the Nile region was much more self-sufficient. It’s trading was command-and-control, organized through the Pharaoh’s household which owned the major national resources, such as mines and the shipping fleet.

A Four Thousand Year Old Bond (Marginal Revolution)

Looking at Europe a different situation emerges. Why didn’t Europe, with all its geographical advantages, take the lead rather than the Middle East? Marshall notes some of the advantages:

The climate, fed by the Gulf Stream, blessed the region with the right amount of rainfall to cultivate crops on a large scale, and the right type of soil for them to flourish in. This allowed for population growth in an area which, for most, work was possible year-round, even in the height of summer. Winter actually adds a bonus, with temperatures warm enough to work in but cold enough to kill off many of the germs which to this day plague huge part of the rest of the world.

Good harvests mean surplus food that can be traded; this in turn builds up trading centers that become towns. It also allows people to think of more than just growing food and to turn their attention to ideas and technology.

Western Europe has no real deserts, the frozen wastes are confined to a few areas in the far north, and earthquakes, volcanoes, and massive flooding are rare. The rivers are long, flat, navigable, and made for trade. As they empty into a variety of seas and oceans, they flow into coastlines that are—west, north and south—abundant in natural harbors…These are the factors that led to the Europeans creating the first industrialized nation states, which in turn led them to be the first to conduct industrial-scale war. pp. 88-89

Well, we know that people tend to remain foragers rather than forming more complex societies if they can avoid it, because foraging offers a much better quality of life with a lot more freedom. Complex societies that produce surpluses end up allocating those surpluses to an elite managerial class that can then use its control over the surplus to dominate and control the majority. As Johnson and Earl put it, “…the benefits of a larger community must outweigh the costs before people will form one, or join an existing one…the intensification of the subsistence economy, itself an outcome of rising population and technological innovation, creates a problem that can best be solved by working in larger groups.” (The Evolution of Human Societies, p. 141) Populations in Northern Europe did not need to rely upon intensification as did those in the Tigris/Euphrates (or Yellow River) valley.

When you look at the Near East, their dependence upon massive, labor-intensive irrigation works which can only be produced and maintained communally, as well as their dependence upon annual cereal crops for sustenance, means that it was here that complex proto-states would likely form before anywhere else. The land in the great river valleys was far more fertile than the surrounding countryside, which was dominated by nomadic pastoralists living at lower densities.

Although hydraulic theories of state formation have fallen out of favor, it does seem as though more complex civilizations tend to form first in regions where large-scale irrigation is required for crops. The labor needed to maintain a large infrastructure requires more coordination between disparate villages, which in turn causes supra-regional associations to form which elites can control. This also spurs trade between villages.

In Europe, by contrast, crops were rain-fed. The fact that the continent was originally heavily forested also meant there were lots of places to hide from despotic elites. It was only when the larger, more complex Roman Empire conquered the numerous chiefdoms of Northwestern Europe and introduced things like writing, bureaucracy and money that these lands became organized into more complex, hierarchical civilizations than chiefdoms.

So the direction of cultural transmission was destined to be from East to West rather than West to East, expanding from eastern Eurasia and the Levant across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece, and later to the Italian peninsula. The trade around the Mediterranean became so intense during the Bronze Age that some consider it to be the first global economy.

The year 1177 BCE roughly demarks the disintegration of humanity’s first global civilization: the Late Bronze Age. At its peak, a booming trade in raw materials, agricultural goods, and finished products—from jewelry to pottery, spices and wine—encircled the Mediterranean and stretched north, perhaps as far as present-day Scandinavia, and east to Afghanistan and India. Then, after centuries of brilliance, the civilized world of the Bronze Age came to an abrupt and cataclysmic end.

Drought and unrest sparked global societal collapse in the Bronze Age. Is it happening again? (Quartz)

Where else on Earth do you get something like the Mediterranean Sea, a huge inland sea surrounded by diverse ecosystems separating continents, occupied by diverse cultures, and yet small enough to traverse fairly easily? Nowhere else that I know of. In fact, Neanderthals might have even sailed around the Mediterranean before humans showed up.

Evidence suggests Neanderthals took to boats before modern humans (

Fast forward to the Roman Empire. Why did the Western Empire fall, while the Eastern Empire continue to function for centuries more?

The reasons are complex, but it boils down to this: The Eastern Roman empire had older, more complex settled urban civilizations than the Celtic/Germanic barbarian West did. So it had a longer tradition of civilization, a higher tax base, a longer institutional history, older cities, and more trading links to more “developed” civilizations, most notably China and India.

Western contact with China began long before Marco Polo, experts say (BBC)

Rome itself was something of an “accidental capital”—never strategically well-placed and vulnerable to invasions (as indeed the Celts had done prior to the Empire). This forced the Latins to develop formidable armies, but their geographical location still made them vulnerable.

Byzantium, however, was ideally placed, and it is this reason why Emperor Constantine established his capital here and named it after himself. Constantinople is the ideal strategic location—the gateway between Europe and Asia, as Istanbul still is today. Thus, the Roman East was shielded from armies storming out of the North European plain by the Bosporus, the Mediterranean Sea, and the mountains. The only way to get to North Africa, the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, was through two “pinch points”—Gibraltar and the Bosporus. Coming from nomadic stock, the tribes had little maritime experience—the experienced Roman navy would have made quick work of any attempts by them to attack North Africa or the Levant by sea.

So the Romans managed to confine the barbarian wanderers to Europe, fighting skirmishes but never letting them cross over into Asia or North Africa. An attempt to reunify the empire under Justinian was brought down by plague. Eventually the Vandals managed to cross into North Africa. Once the barbarians did manage to sweep across North Africa, the Eastern Empire started to decline. It remained for the Muslims storming out of the desert in the seventh century, and later the Turks from central Asia, to deal the final blow.

With the gradual dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, it was destined that Europe would end up divided into multiple, competing nations, rather than coalescing back into a single unified state as China managed to do several times throughout its history. Once again, this is due mainly to geography:

If we take Europe as a whole, we see the mountains, rivers, and valleys that explain why there are so many nation states. Unlike the United States, in which one dominant language and culture pressed rapidly and violently ever westward, creating a giant country, Europe grew organically over millennia and remains divided between its geographical and linguistic regions. p. 89

Europe’s major rivers do not meet (unless you count the Sava which drains into the Danube in Belgrade). This partly explains why there are so many countries in what is a relatively small space. Because they do not connect, most of the rivers act, at some point, as boundaries, and each is a sphere of economic influence in its own right; this gave rise to at least one major urban development on the banks of each river, some of which in turn became capital cities. pp. 89-90

Europe’s second longest river, the Danube (1,771 miles), is a case in point. It rises in Germany’s Black Forest and flows south on its way to the Black Sea. In all, the Danube basin affects eighteen countries and forms natural borders along the way, including those of Slovakia and Hungary, Croatia and Serbia, Serbia and Romania, and Romania and Bulgaria. More than two thousand years ago it was one of the borders of the Roman Empire, which in tum helped it to become one of the great trading routes of medieval times and gave rise to the present capital cities of Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Belgrade. It also formed the natural border of two subsequent empires, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman. As each shrank, the nations emerged again, eventually becoming nation states. However, the geography of the Danube region, especially at its southern end, helps explain why there are so many small nations there in comparison to the bigger countries in and around the North European Plain. p. 90

When you look at a map of Europe, you can’t help but be struck by just how much coastline there is! Really, almost everywhere is not that far from a sea, river or ocean. Compare that to the massive continental bulk of Asia or Africa, for example. Plus, its rivers are long, flat and navigable. This practically guaranteed that Northern Europe would became a major trading center, and that’s exactly what happened. And that’s why so many trade innovations originated there, including capitalist markets.

When “civilization” finally took root in northern Europe thanks to Roman military pacification, ports of trade developed all along Europe’s coasts and rivers (London was an early one of these). Eastern Europe, distant from the Roman heartland and shielded by mountains, remained behind their western neighbors. Not to mention they had to fight off Mongols and Turks.

One thing I always found unique about Europe is that it was “separate yet unified.” That is, even though it was divided into separate nation states, it had a common religious bureaucracy maintained by the Catholic Church in Rome (arguably the first international corporation), and it had a common language in the form of Latin thanks to the legacy of ancient Rome, meaning that scholars from different cultures could communicate in a shared language and tradition, while still maintaining cultural diffeences.

Remember how we said the Eastern Mediterranean was where the older, urban civilizations and all the riches were? And how they had trading connections with the rest of Asia? Well, it’s here that the big lake called the Mediterranean came into play once again. Islamic empires formed throughout the Middle East which linked India and Southeast Asia to the Mediterranean economy. The Pax Mongolica connected East and West along the Silk Road. The entrance of luxury goods from the Abbassid Exchange like spices, cotton and tea created a space for merchants that had not been there before. While Northern Europe concentrated on exporting raw materials, the Northern Italians formed trading empires from their urban centers. They became the conduit between the kingdoms of Northwest Europe and the riches of the East.So it was that Venice, founded by refugees from the dying Roman Empire, became the merchant center of Europe. They were quickly soon joined by other Medieval communes throughout Northern Italy whose wealth would derive from trade instead of farming or raw materials.

Through a series of fortunate events in the ninth century, Venice became politically independent. This, together with Venice’s fortunate geography, uniquely positioned it to benefit from rising trade between Western Europe and the Levant. These two factors combined to enrich Venetian merchants, who used their newfound economic muscle to push for institutional change.

So it was that Northern Italy became the center of banking and trade. Their proximity and dealings with Islamic merchants led to the adoption of Arabic innovations such as Arabic numerals and checks. Here are just a few of the financial innovations that trace their history back to Northern Italy:

By the early fourteenth century, financial innovations included: the appearance of limited liability joint stock companies; thick markets for debt (especially bills of exchange); secondary markets for a wide variety of debt, equity and mortgage instruments; bankruptcy laws that distinguished illiquidity from insolvency; double-entry accounting methods; business education (including the use of algebra for currency conversions); deposit banking; and a reliable medium of exchange (the Venetian ducat). All these innovations can be related directly back to the demands of long-distance trade.

And nearby Genoa created the first quasi-state bank:

The Casa di San Giorgio came a long way and boasted a long history of banking operations. Some scholars even called the first modern bank, predating the Bank of England established on 1695. It also preceded the British East India Company as a private enterprise that administered territory, collected taxes, and raised armies. Indeed, so much the Casa had garnered power, influence, and wealth that Machiavelli praised its administration.

Casa Di San Giorgio: Genoa’s Premier Financial Institution (Exploring History)

By contrast, southern Italy, though not culturally behind in the days Roman Empire (Pompeii is near Naples), fell behind the north in innovation thanks to constant invasions by people like the Normans and Arabs. They would end up being ruled mostly by a succession of foreigners, hence developing a distrust of government institutions and history of corruption that persists to this day.

The countries of northern Europe have been richer than those of the south for several centuries. The north industrialized earlier than the south and so has been more economically successful. As many of the northern countries comprise the heartland of Western Europe, their trade links were easier to maintain, and one wealthy neighbor could trade with another-whereas the Spanish, for example, either had to cross the Pyrenees to trade, or look to the limited markets of Portugal and North Africa.p. 90

The contrast between northern and southern Europe is also at least partly attributable to the fact that the south has fewer coastal plains suitable for agriculture, and has suffered more from drought and natural disasters than the north, albeit on a lesser scale than in other parts of the world. As we saw in chapter one, the North European Plain is a corridor that stretches from France to the Ural Mountains in Russia, bordered to the north by the North and Baltic Seas. The land allows for successful farming on a massive scale, and the waterways enable the crops and other goods to be moved easily. pp.91-92

Of all the countries in the plain, France was best situated to take advantage of it. France is the only European country to be both a northern and southern power. It contains the largest expanse of fertile land in Western Europe, and many of its rivers connect with one another; one flows west all the way to the Atlantic (the Seine), another south to the Mediterranean (the Rhone). These factors, together with France’s relative flatness, were suitable for the unification of regions, and-especially from the time of Napoleon-centralization of power.

And, sure enough, France became the location of the earliest complex states to form in Northern Europe under Charlemagne (the Holy Roman Empire, the Carolingian Renaissance). it was in France where the great Champagne fairs of Europe took place. Eastern Europe, as we saw above, tended to miss out on the party; the Adriatic Coast is a partial exception, falling under the sway of the Venetians.

So it was that we can use the fairs of Europe as a starting point of Western capitalism. But, ultimately, it’s all due to geography.


With the closing of eastern trade routes after the dissolution of the Mongol Empire and the fall of Byzantium 1453, the race was on for the maritime countries of Europe to find an alternate route to the Indies without dealing with Italian or Arab/Turkish middlemen. Portugal was uniquely placed to send its pelagic vessels south down the coast of Africa to find alternate trade routes. Eventually, they did so, circumnavigating Africa and crossing the Indian Ocean.

But it was an Italian sailing for Spain who would really change things. Ian Morris explains what happened next:

Western Europe—sticking out into the cold North Atlantic, far from the centers of action—had always been a backwater. But when Europeans learned of the East’s oceangoing ships and guns, their location on the Atlantic abruptly became a huge geographical plus.

The Atlantic, 3,000 miles across, became a kind of Goldilocks Ocean, not too big and not too small. It was big enough that very different kinds of goods were produced around its shores in Europe, Africa, and America; but it was small enough that the ships of Shakespeare’s age could cross it quite easily.

Ian Morris on Why the West Rules but China Is Next (Daily Beast)

So of course trade moved north, to the Atlantic Coast—Portugal, Spain, France and England. But it was the small Dutch Republic that ultimately took the lead thanks to a series of commercial innovations. Again, a glance at the maps tells us why the Dutch were so focused on maritime trade. The Low Countries are all below sea level, and their land has been painstakingly reclaimed from the sea by a series of dikes and walls built over centuries. On this reclaimed land sits a very dense population, surrounded by culturally different neighbors and connected by canals. The amount of fertile land was limited, and so the Dutch compensated with entrepreneurial skills. While Dutch farmers made the most of their limited land area, it was inevitable that the economy would come to center around commerce rather than agriculture or natural resources as in France and England. Merchants earned pride-of-pace here, unlike other cultures, and they became politically dominant. It was the early modern precursor to modern-day entrepôts like Hong Kong or Singapore. The wide, flat landscape also made Holland ideal for the innovative use of wind power, increasing their energy consumption. The Dutch were also early pioneers in the use of burning fossil fuel in the form of peat.

The amazing prosperity of the small ‘Republiek der Zeven Provinciën’ and its exceptional position among the European powers during most of the seventeenth century has fascinated generations of historians…The more comes in the open about the thriving Dutch Golden Age society, the more intriguing the question becomes, how so small a population (a million and a half at the vertex of its power) could manage to play leading parts on almost every scene of human activities…This study was motivated by the historical problem of why around 1600 the Republic assumed the mantle of leadership on the path of mankind’s economic and social development. The answer is: because it was able to extensively apply inland navigation and, by that, to fall back on its peat deposits when everywhere (also in the Netherlands itself) deforestation had progressed to such an extent, that wood had become an expensive fuel. Its exceptional position becomes even more evident, when it is considered that at the beginning of the Dutch explosion of prosperity each one of the cities in the ring Amsterdam, Utrecht, Gouda, Rotterdam, Delft, Leiden, Haarlem had an abundance of easily transportable (low peat) turf of excellent quality within a few kilometers of its gates. No wonder, that the centre of gravity of economic development became located in this part of the country.

Peat and the Dutch Golden Age (PDF)

Like Venice centuries earlier, the Dutch were a republic run by bourgeois merchant princes. By this time Protestantism, with its concept of an individual relationship to God supplanting older ideas of communal solidarity and mutual aid, had taken hold in Europe.

The Bank of Amsterdam (Amsterdamsche Wisselbank) was founded in 1609.The original conception of the bank was as a conservatively designed “exchange bank” –a ledger-money bank backed principally by coin–following the example of Venice’s Banco di Rialto. Through a series of innovations, however, the Bank of Amsterdam was ultimately able to achieve a greater degree of success than its Venetian predecessor. Almost until its demise in 1795, the bank was widely admired and served as an inspiration for public banks in other cities. The Bank of Amsterdam never issued notes, but by limiting its depositors’ withdrawal rights, was able to create a highly liquid, quasi-fiat asset in the form of its ledger money.

With the Protestant merchant coup d’etat in Britain known as the Glorious Revolution, the new Dutch king became subordinate to an English parliament increasingly aligned with mercantile, rather than traditional agrarian, interests (as demonstrated by the Corn Laws). The powerful English constitutional monarchy would reshape English society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries according the will of commercial interests, establishing the factory system, and consequently turning land and labor into commodities for sale to a greater extent than anywhere else. The rest, as they say, is history.


The triangular Indian subcontinent, battered by monsoons and separated from East Asia by the Himalayas, and by deserts and mountains to the west, never had much of chance at conquering the world, despite its huge population. It’s contributions rest more in being the source of exotic products traded with both the Abbassid and European cultures.

One surprisingly important philosophical contribution, however, was India’s numerical system. The alphabet had first been developed in the Near East. But Indian mathematicians and philosophers came up with the idea of zero as a number. It is thought that the Hindu religious concept of “nothinginess” (shunyata) may have played a role in this. It’s hard to imagine the modern world without numbers, science and accounting.

“[T]he creation of zero as a number in its own right, which evolved from the placeholder dot symbol found in the Bakhshali manuscript, was one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics. We now know that it was as early as the 3rd Century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world. The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries.”

How India gave us the zero (BBC)


North America had become populated at the end of the Ice Age when a corridor opened in the Canadian Ice Sheet, allowing migrants to march south into the North American continent from Beringia, an isolated Siberian region full of wild game (indeed, the last woolly mammoths would perish on Wrangel Island just as the first pyramids were under construction). Rising sea levels due to melting ice would submerge this region, permanently cutting off the the American population from Asia.

However, recent research has cast some doubt on the above theory. It now seems more likely that humans colonized the Americas by taking watercraft south along the western coast of North America, only later moving inland as the glaciers melted.

This research suggests there could have been two separate migration thrusts into North America, the first along the Pacific coastline around 15,000 years ago, and the second one when the ice-free corridor became habitable and human-friendly, around 12,600 years ago. But this new data presents another intriguing possibility. Perhaps there was only one single migration wave along the West coast, but once the ice-free corridor became habitable, these early settlers started to make their way northwards through the corridor all the way back into Alaska.

We Were Wrong About How Ancient Humans Colonized North America (io9)

Another controversial theory is that the Americas were at least partly colonized from Europe during the Ice Age:

The major evidence driving [the Soultrean] hypothesis is the presence of artifacts found in six sites in the eastern United States dating to somewhere between 18,000 and 26,000 years ago. These tools more closely resemble that of the Solutrean culture that endured in Europe between about 21,000 and 17,000 years ago than the Clovis culture that first appeared in North America about 13,000 years ago.

Could the first humans to reach the Americas have come from Europe? (io9)

The fact that North America was populated late in the game, due to its distance from the African homeland, along with its lack of domesticable herbivores (only llamas and alpacas), meant that civilization would inevitably be slower to take off here than in Eurasia; the thesis of Jared Diamond’s famous “Guns, Germs and Steel”.

The relative genetic isolation of the Beringian population would prove to be especially fatal, as this exacerbated their vulnerability to the relatively novel zoonotic diseases brought over by Old World colonists. North America became settled primarily by English, French and Dutch, while Central and South America became Spanish and Portuguese colonies. The two cultures took very different trajectories.

South America, despite its large land mass, has been relatively backward economically because of a combination of history and geography.
The limitations of Latin America’s geography were compounded right from the beginning in the formation of its nation states. In the United States, once the land had been taken from its original inhabitants, much of it was sold or given away to small landholders; by contrast, in Latin America the Old World culture of powerful landowners and serfs was imposed, which led to inequality.

On top of this, the European settlers introduced another geographical problem that to this day holds many countries back from developing their full potential: they stayed near the coasts, especially (as we saw in Africa) in regions where the interior was infested by mosquitoes and disease. Most if the countries’ biggest cities, often the capitals, were therefore near the coasts, and all roads from the interior were developed to connect to the capitals but not to one another.

Now Europeans themselves could grow the exotic items they so desired like sugar, coffee and cotton (along with new ones like cocoa). This would, in turn, spur the development of the factory system in Northern Europe. The potato would cause a population explosion, ensuring plenty of desperate factory workers. To replace the native workforce for their export plantations in the New World, the Europeans would resort to buying an enslaved workforce from the southern African continent.


So why did Africa, the birthplace of Homo sapiens, not became the center of world culture and trade, rather than the Near East, China or Europe? After all, it had the biggest head start of all! Plus, it has the greatest human genetic diversity, since everyone outside of the continent is descended from what is thought to be a relatively small population of migrants.

Given that Africa is where humans originated, we are all African. However, the rules of the race changed circa 8000 BCE when some of us, who’d wandered off to places such as the Middle East and around the Mediterranean region, lost the wanderlust, settled down, began farming, and eventually congregated in villages and towns.

But back south there were few plants willing to be domesticated, and even fewer animals. Much of the land consists of jungle, swamp, desert, or steep-sided plateau, none of which lend themselves to the growing of wheat or rice, or sustaining herds of sheep. Africa’s rhinos, gazelles, and giraffes stubbornly refuses to be beasts of burden–or as Jared Diamond puts it in a memorable passage, “History might have turned out differently if African armies, fed by barnyard-giraffe meat and backed by waves of cavalry mounted on huge rhinos, had swept into Europe to overrun its mutton-fed soldiers mounted on puny horses.”

But Africa’s head start in our mutual story did allow it more time to develop something else that to this day holds it back: a virulent set of diseases, such as malaria and yellow fever, brought on by the heat and now complicated by crowded living conditions and poor health care infrastructure. This is true of other regions—the subcontinent and South America, for example—but sub-Saharan Africa has been especially hard-hit, for example by HIV, and has a particular problem because of the prevalence of the mosquito and the tsetse fly. pp. 112-113

Most of the continent’s rivers also pose a problem, as they begin in highland and descend in abrupt drops that thwart navigation. For example, the mighty Zambezi might be Africa’s fourth-longest river, running for 1,700 miles, and may be a stunning tourist attraction with its white-water rapids and the Victoria Falls, but as a trade route it is of little use. It flows through six countries, dropping from 4,900 feet to sea level when it reaches the Indian Ocean at Mozambique. Parts of it are navigable by shallow boats, but these parts do not interconnect, thus limiting the transportation of cargo. p. 113

Another contributing factor, Marshall informs us, is simply the massive size of the African continent. Because maps are flat representations of a sphere, northern areas tend to be exaggerated in size, while those closer to the equator are depicted more realistically. While Prisoners of Geography has a good description of just how big Africa is, a picture is worth a thousand words, and this image went viral on the internet a while back:

The massive size of the continent, combined with variable microclimates and a complete lack of navigable rivers meant that civilizational development was held back.

Unlike in Europe, which has the Danube and the Rhine, this drawback has hindered contact and trade between regions-which in tum affects economic development and hinders the formation of large trading regions. The continent’s great rivers—the Niger, the Congo, the Zambezi, the Nile, and others—don’t connect, and this disconnection has a human factor. Whereas huge areas of Russia, China, and the United States speak a unifying language, which helps trade, in Africa thousands of languages exist and no one culture emerged to dominate areas of similar size. Europe, on the other hand, was small enough to have a lingua franca through which to communicate, and a landscape that encouraged interaction.p. 114

Even if technologically productive nation states had arisen, much of the continent would still have struggled to connect to the rest of the world because the bulk of the landmass is framed by the Indian and Atlantic Oceans and the Sahara Desert, The exchange of ideas and technology barely touched sub-Saharan Africa for thousands of years. Despite this, several African empires and city states did arise after about the sixth century CE: for example the Mali Empire (thirteenth to sixteenth century), and the city state of Great Zimbabwe (eleventh to fifteenth century), the latter in land around the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers. However, these and others were isolated to relatively small regional blocs, and although the myriad cultures that did emerge across the continent may have been politically sophisticated, the physical landscape remained a barrier to technological development by the time the outside world arrived in force, most had yet to develop writing, paper, gunpowder, or the wheel p.114

When the Europeans finally made it down the west coast in the fifteenth century they found few natural harbors for their ships. unlike Europe or North America, where the jagged coastlines give rise to deep natural harbors, much of the African coastline is smooth. And once they did make land they struggled to penetrate any farther inland than roughly one hundred miles, due to the difficulty of navigating the rivers as well as the challenges of the climate and disease.p. 115

Southern Africa with its tropical diseases, lack of ports, and lack of navigable rivers, and cut off from the west of the world by the vast Sahara desert, remained divided and tribal, which it remains to this day. Even today its infrastructure remains underdeveloped.

But the most tragic part of Africa’s colonization by Europe (apart from the slave trade) was that countries were established solely on the basis of ensuring the political control of the colonizers.

In 1884 at the request of Portugal, German Chancellor Otto von Bismark called together the major western powers of the world to negotiate questions and end confusion over the control of Africa. Bismark appreciated the opportunity to expand Germany’s sphere of influence over Africa and desired to force Germany’s rivals to struggle with one another for territory.

The Berlin Conference was Africa’s undoing in more ways than one. The colonial powers superimposed their domains on the African Continent. By the time Africa regained its independence after the late 1950s, the realm had acquired a legacy of political fragmentation that could neither be eliminated nor made to operate satisfactorily. The African politico-geographical map is thus a permanent liability that resulted from the three months of ignorant, greedy acquisitiveness during a period when Europe’s search for minerals and markets had become insatiable.

At the time of the conference, 80% of Africa remained under Native Traditional and local control…Following the conference, the give and take continued. By 1914, the conference participants had fully divided Africa among themselves into fifty unnatural and artificial States.

How African countries got their borders (TYWKIWDBI)


At the other end of the Eurasian continent lay China, and complex civilizations formed very early here was well. Once again, the nucleus was the great river valleys where millet, and later rice, were grown:

The concept of China as an inhabited entity began almost four thousand years ago. The birthplace of Chinese civilization is the region known as the North China Plain, which the Chinese refer to as the Central Plan. A large, low-lying tract of nearly 160,000 square miles, it is situated below Inner Mongolia, south of Manchuria, in and around the Yellow River and down past the Yangtze River, which both run east to west. It is now one of the most densely populated areas in the world. p. 39

The heartland, as the North China Plain is known, was and is a large, fertile plain with two main rivers and a climate that allows rice and soybeans to be harvested twice a season (double cropping), which encouraged rapid population growth. By 1500 BCE in this heartland, out of hundreds of mini city-states, many warring with each other, emerged the earliest version of a Chinese state–the Shang Dynasty. This is where what became known as the Han people emerged, protecting the heartland and creating a buffer zone around them. The Han now make up more than 90 percent of China’s population and they dominate Chinese politics and business. p. 40

The Yellow River basin is subject to frequent and devastating floods, earning the river the unenviable sobriquet “scourge of the sons of Han.” Nevertheless, the Yellow River is to China what the Nile is to Egypt—the cradle of its civilization, where its people learned to farm, and to make paper and gunpowder. pp. 39-40

To the north of this proto-China were the harsh lands of the Gobi Desert in what is now Mongolia. To the west the land gradually rises until it becomes the Tibetan Plateau, reaching to the Himalayas. To the southeast and the south lies the sea.

The heartland is the political, cultural, demographic, and crucially—the agricultural center of gravity. About a billion people live in this part of China, despite it being just half the size of the United States, which as a population of 322 million. Because the terrain of the heartland lent itself to settlement and an agrarian lifestyle, the early dynasties felt threatened by the non-Han regions that surrounded them, especially Mongolia, with its nomadic bands of violent warriors…By the time if the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius there was a strong feeling of Chinese identity and of a divide between civilized China and the “barbarous” regions that surrounded it. There was a sense of identity shared by 60 million or so people. p. 41

China’s geography and history caused it to turn inward, instead of outward, and this has made all the difference.

By 200 BCE. China had expanded toward, but not reached, Tibet in the southwest, north to the grasslands of central Asia, and south all the way down to the South China Sea. The Great Wall (known as the Long Wall in China) had been first built by the Qin dynasty (221-207 BCE), and on the map China was beginning to take on what we now recognize as its modem form. It would be more than two thousand years before todav’s borders were fixed, however.

Between 605 and 609 CE the Grand Canal, centuries in the making and today the world’s longest man-made waterway, was extended and finally linked the Yellow River to the Yangtze. The Sui dynasty (581-618 CE) had harnessed the vast numbers of workers under its control and used them to connect existing natural tributaries into a navigable waterway between the two great rivers. This tied the northern and southern Han to each other more closely than ever before. It took several million slaves five years co do the work, but the ancient problem of how to move supplies south to north had been solved but not the problem that exists to this day, that of flooding.

The Han still warred with each other, but increasingly less so, and by the early eleventh century CE they were forced to concentrate their attention on the waves of Mongols pouring down from the north. The Mongols defeated whichever dynasty, north or south, they came up against, and by 1279 their leader, Kublai Khan, became the first foreigner to rule all of the country as emperor of the Mongol dynasty. It was almost ninety years before the Han would take charge of their own affairs with the establishment of the Ming dynasty.

By now there was increasing contact with traders and emissaries from the emerging nation states of Europe, such as Spain and Portogal. The Chinese leaders were against any sort of permanent European presence, but increasingly opened up the coastal regions to trade. It remains a feature of China to this day that when China opens up, the coastland regions prosper but the inland areas are neglected. The prosperity engendered by trade has made coastal cities such as Shanghai wealthy, but that wealth has not been reaching the countryside. has added to the massive influx of people into urban areas and accentuated regional differences. p.41-42

China’s vast distance from the New World was to prove fatal, as Ian Morris explains:

Before people could cross the oceans, it had not mattered that Europe was twice as close as China to the vast, rich lands of the Americas. But now that people could cross the oceans, this became the most important geographical fact in the world.

The Atlantic, 3,000 miles across, became a kind of Goldilocks Ocean, not too big and not too small…The Pacific, by contrast, was far too big. Following the prevailing tides and winds, it was an 8,000-mile trip from China to California—just about possible 500 years ago, but too far to make trade profitable.

Geography determined that it was Western Europeans, rather than the 15th century’s finest sailors—the Chinese—who discovered, plundered, and colonized the Americas. Chinese sailors were just as daring as Spaniards; Chinese settlers just as intrepid as Britons; but Europeans, not Chinese, seized the Americas because Europeans only had to go half as far.

Europeans went on in the 17th century to create a new market economy around the shores of the Atlantic, exploiting comparative advantages between continents. This forced European thinkers to confront new questions about how the winds and tides worked. They learned to measure and count in better ways, and cracked the codes of physics, chemistry, and biology.

As a result, Europe, not China, had a Scientific Revolution. Europeans, not Chinese, turned science’s insights onto society itself in the 18th century in what we now call the Enlightenment.

By 1800, science and the Atlantic market economy pushed Western Europeans into mechanizing production and tapping the power of fossil fuels. Britain had the world’s first Industrial Revolution, and by 1850 bestrode the world like a colossus.

One popular theory is that Grand Canal provided a substitute for outward exploration:

Was the Grand Canal a substitute for Chinese ocean exploration? (Marginal Revolution)

This comment to the above article does a good job of explaining why Portugal’s explorations were profitable enough to be self-sustaining, while Chinese “treasure ship” fleets were more about projecting power, and were not economically viable in the long term (even if Gavin Menzies claims are correct):

The way European and Chinese explorations were initiated was a bit similar, a state funded project to achieve non-economic goals. But China gave huge resources to the project, while Portugal had strictly limited resources, the land income of military monastic orders (Order of Aviz, Order of Christ) that became under-employed after Portugal ended reconquista. Crusades in Morocco were tedious and rather fruitless. Henry the Navigator, younger brother of the king got the history changing idea of sending ships further south than Morocco even though nobody knew what they will encounter. But risking few lives was exactly what military orders were doing: taking care of the younger sons of nobility so they would not become highway robbers, rebels etc. However, even “rich” orders had scant resources in a kingdom with one million inhabitants so as soon as possible explorations were aimed to give some profit and sustain themselves. One should also note that ships that were seaworthy in the stormy seas of western Atlantic were seaworthy pretty much everywhere. After some 30 years, explorations that had budget fitting the dedicated budget of the orders started to yield increasing profits, and after 70 years Africa was circumnavigated and reaching Asian trade routes and lucrative markets became imminent. Then the neighboring Spanish hopped onto the bandwagon etc. Later European monarchs from countries closer to the mercantile center of Europe actively supported piracy and other “omnivorous” sources of profit. In other words, the continuation of expeditions beyond the lifetime of Henry the Navigator had good economic case.

Zheng Ho was a friend of the Chinese emperor and he got approval and budget to build Treasure Fleet that informed barbarians about the glory of the Empire of the Center. The ships were huge and magnificent, but following the traditional Chinese shipbuilding that allowed to navigate without difficulty in the zone of Trade Winds, but probably not so much beyond that. Circumnavigation of Africa would require sustained effort and decades of initially fruitless technological progress. Ships were loaded with beautiful products from state supervised manufactories, e.g. porcelain, and were bringing back “gifts from barbarians”, that could delight the emperor but were not justifying the huge expense. Having a giraffe in the imperial menagerie was a success that Confucian scholars in the administration of the empire did not appreciate, they would rather trim the budget and decrease taxes. And once the patron and friend of Zheng Ho was replaced with his successor the program was abolished.

It is easy to see that China could not achieve through “explorations” what they were getting anyway by foreign traders visiting their ports. More irrational was the lack of military navy that would defend the coast against Japanese pirates. In the same time, that was actually related to the renovation of the Grand Canal. That renovation was related to the change of capital from Nanjing or Beijing, and the change of focus in the foreign affairs from the south-central sea cost to the steppe of Manchuria and Mongolia, and internally, the calamities faced by the coastal Chinese were neglected to focus on the danger from the nomads. Basically, for a huge empire internal politics are much more important that whatever happens beyond the borders, and the directions of foreign policy are mostly dictated by the internal circumstances of the ruling elite. Some contemporary states come to mind…

The most popular explanation for why it was foggy England rather than China (which had plenty of coal) that started the Industrial Revolution was articulated by the economic historian Kenneth Pomeranz, and also has to do with geography, specifically where those coal deposits were located:

What, then, does account for the “great divergence” of the book’s title? Pomeranz argues for the importance of two factors, essentially exogenous “shocks” outside the price system that had important effects on the economy: the distribution of energy-generating resources and the accident that Europe discovered the New World, whereas China did not.

The first argument might be termed “geology is destiny.” Coal was the chief energy-generating resource significant for the Industrial Revolution. The location of major coal deposits was a critical factor in determining the viability of industrialization. England’s coal deposits were located almost exactly where manufacturers would have placed them if they had had a say in the matter; transportation costs therefore were low and were made still lower by the ready availability of efficient water transport. Compare this development-friendly geographic distribution in Europe with the geographic distribution in China. Although China was blessed with large coal reserves, they were located for the most part in the thinly populated northwest, hundreds of miles from the potential manufacturing centers in the south and east. Thus, China was at a relative disadvantage compared to Europe in terms of the luck of the geological draw. At the same time that coal in eighteenth-century Europe was cheap and readily available to fuel industry, in China that resource remained relatively expensive and in large part a curiosity relegated to the collections of rock hounds.

The second argument is another variation on the “good luck versus bad luck” theme. The fortuitous (for Europe) circumstance of the discovery of the Americas and the subsequent availability of resources for the Industrial Revolution that this discovery entailed were the exogenous factors. The flow of cotton, sugar, timber, and tobacco to Europe from the New World gave economic development there a significant boost at a critical time; China enjoyed no advantage even remotely comparable.

The Great Divergence (The Independent Review)


Although the Near East was where complex civilization first emerged in Eurasia, it fell behind China and Europe in the Early Modern period for reasons which are still debated. The sack of Baghdad by the Mongols appears to have been a critical blow for Islamic civilization.

The most salient geographical fact about it in my mind has to be—that’s where the oil is! This factor was unimportant until liquid hydrocarbon fuels became essential to the Industrial Revolution, particularly for transport. Now it’s arguable the most important geopolitical factor in the world.

The Greater Middle East extends across one thousand miles, west to east, from the Mediterranean Sea to the mountains of Iran. From north to south, if we start at the Black Sea and on the shores of the Arabian Sea off Oman, it is two thousand miles long. The region includes vast deserts, oases, snow-covered mountains, long rivers, great cities, and coastal plains. And it has a great deal of natural wealth in the form that every industrialized and industrializing country around the world needs–oil and gas.

It also contains the fertile region known as Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers” (Euphrates and Tigris). However, the most dominant feature is the vast Arabian Desert and scrubland in its center, which touches parts of Israel, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, and most of Saudi Arabia, including the Rub al Khali or “Empty Quarter.” This is the largest continuous sand desert in the world, incorporating an area the size of France. It is due to this feature that not only the majority of inhabitants of the region live on its periphery, but also that, until European colonization, most of the people within it did not think in terms of nation states and legally fixed borders.

The notion that a man from a certain area could not travel across a region to see a relative from the same tribe unless he had a document, granted to him by a third man he didn’t know in a faraway town, made little sense. The idea that the document was issued because a foreigner had said the area was now two regions and had made up names for them made no sense at all and was contrary to the way in which life had been lived for centuries. pp. 135-136

As with Africa, it was the partitioning of antagonistic tribal cultures into modern nation states by European powers which set the stage for much of the chaos taking place in that region today. Climate change is certain to make this even worse in the future.

In 1916, the British diplomat Colonel Sir Mark Sykes took a grease pencil and drew a crude line across a map of the Middle East. Ie ran from Haifa on the Mediterranean in what is now Israel to Kirkuk (now in Iraq) in the northeast. It became the basis of his secret agreement with his French counterpart Francois Georges-Picot to divide the region into two spheres of influence should the Triple Entente defeat the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. North of the line was to be under French control, south of it under Brit:ish hegemony. p.136

…there was violence and extremism before the Europeans arrived. Nevertheless, as we saw in Africa, arbitrarily creating “nation states” out of people unused to living together in one region is not a recipe for justice, equality, and stability. Prior to Sykes-Picot (in its wider sense), there was no state of Syria, no Lebanon, nor were there Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel, or Palestine. Modem maps show the borders and the names of nation states, but they are young and they are fragile.p. 137


Finally, Russia, far to the north and east and mostly landlocked except for the ports on the Black and Baltic seas (until its later expansion across Siberia) was destined to be behind Western Europe. It formed a unique culture of its own, mixing East and West. Not until Peter the Great would it take its place among the great European powers.

But the biggest factor was it’s exposure to the nomadic pastoralist raiders of the vast Eurasian grasslands, most notably the Mongols. These steppe nomads would plague both Russia and China throughout their history. Not only would the wrenching changes of the North Atlantic pass by Russia by until much later in history (serfdom was abolished in 1861), but the leaders Russia to this day would obsess over establishing buffer zones to protect the Slavic heartland from invasion:

Russia as a concept dates back to the ninth century and a loose federation of East Slavic tribes known as Kievan Rus, which was based in Kiev and other towns along the Dnieper River, in what is now Ukraine. The Mongols, expanding their empire, continually attacked the region from the south and east, eventually overrunning it in the thirteenth century.

The fledgling Russia then relocated northeast in and around the city of Moscow. This early Russia, known as the Grand Principality of Muscovy, was indefensible. There were no mountains, no deserts, and few rivers. In all directions lay flatland, and across the steppe t the south and east were the Mongols. The invader could advance at a place of his choosing, and there were few natural defensive positions to occupy.

With no natural barriers, and surrounded by enemies, the Russians needed to develop a strong authoritarian state to survive at all.

Enter Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar. He put into practice the concept of attack as defense–i.e., beginning your expansion by consolidating at home and then moving outward. This led to greatness. Here was a man to give support to theory that individuals can change history. Without his character, or both utter ruthlessness and vision, Russian history would be different.

What they did was to spend several centuries developing a “buffer zone” around Moscow, at the same time establishing ports where this landlocked power could interact with the outside world via trade instead of just being invaded.

The fledgling Russia had begun a moderate expansion under Ivan’s grandfather, I van the Great, but that expansion accelerated after he carne to power in 1533. It encroached east on the Urals, south to the Caspian Sea, and north toward the Arctic Circle. I r gained access to the Caspian, and later the Black Sea, thus taking advantage of the Cau .. casus Mountains as a partial barrier between it and the Mongols. A military base, was built in Chechnya to deter any would … be attacker, be they the Mongol Golden Horde, the Ottoman Empire, or the Persians. There were setbacks. but over the next century Russia would push past the Urals and edge into Siberia, eventually incorporating all the land to the Pacific coast far to the east.
When they finally got to the Baltic Sea and established St. Petersburg, the rulers decided that it was time for Russia to become a great European power.

In the eighteenth century, Russia, under Peter the Great-who founded the Russian Empire in 1721-and then Empress Catherine the Great, looked westward, expanding the empire to become one of · the great powers of Europe, driven chiefly by trade and nationalism. A more secure and powerful Russia was now able to occupy Ukraine and reach. the Carpathian Mountains. It took over most of what we now know as the Baltic States-Lithuania. Latvia. and Estonia. Thus it was protected from any incursion via land that way, or from the Baltic Sea.

This chapter of the book was excerpted by The Atlantic, and be read here:

Russia and the Curse of Geography (The Atlantic)

Next time we’ll take a closer look about how a few accidents of geography led to the formation of capitalist markets in Western Europe based on a new theory.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.