History of geography

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This article explores the history of geography.

Ancient Greek geography

The Greeks are the first known culture to actively explore geography as a science and philosophy. While maps had been made millennia earlier in Sumer, the Greeks were the first to attempt to fully and systematically describe the world.

In Iliad and the Odyssey Homer included a high degree geographical information. He described a circular world ringed by a single massive ocean. The works show that the Greeks by the 8th century BCE had considerable knowledge of the geography of the eastern Mediterranean. The poems contain a large number of place names and descriptions, but for many of these it is uncertain what real location, if it exists, is actually being referred to.

Thales of Miletus is one of the first known philosophers to have wondered about the shape of the world. He proposed that the world was based on water, and that all things grew out of it. He also laid down many of the astronomical and mathematical rules that would allow geography to be studied scientifically. His successor Anaximander is the first to create a scale map of the known world and to have introduced the gnomon to Ancient Greece.

Hecataeus initiated a different form of geography, avoiding the mathematical calculations of Thales and Anaximander he learnt about the world by gathering previous works and speaking to the sailors who came through the busy port of Miletus. From these accounts he wrote a detailed descriptions of what was known of the world. A similar work, and one that mostly survives today, is Herodotus' Histories. While primarily a work of history, the book contains a wealth of geographic description, covering much of the known world. Egypt, Scythia, Persia, and Asia Minor are all described in great detail. Little is known about areas further a field, and descriptions of areas such as India are almost wholly fanciful. Herodotus also made important observations about geography. He is the first to have noted the process by which large rivers, such as the Nile, build up deltas, and is also the first recorded as observing that winds tend to blow from colder regions to warmer ones.

Pythagoras was perhaps the first to propose a spherical world, arguing that the sphere was the most perfect form. This idea was embraced by Plato and Aristotle who presented empirical evidence to verify this. He noted that the Earth's shadow during an eclipse is curved, and also that stars increase in elevation as one moves north. Eudoxus of Cnidus used the idea of a sphere to explain how the sun created differing climatic zones based on latitude. This led the Greeks to believe in a division of the world into five regions. At each of the poles was an uncharitably cold region. While extrapolating from the heat of the Sahara it was deduced that the area around the equator was unbearably hot. Between these extreme regions both the northern and southern hemispheres had a temperate belt suitable for human habitation.

These theories clashed with the evidence of explorers, however. Hanno the Navigator had travelled as far south as Sierra Leone, and it is possible other Phoenicians has circumnavigated Africa. In the fourth century BCE the Greek explorer Pytheas travelled through north west Europe, and circled the British Isles. He found that the region was considerably more habitable than theory expected, but his discoveries were largely dismissed as fanciful by his contemporaries because of this. Conquerors also carried out exploration, for example, Caesar's invasions of Britain and Germany, expeditions/invasions sent by Augustus to Arabia Felix and Ethiopia (Res Gestae 26), and perhaps the greatest Ancient Greek explorer of all, Alexander the Great, who deliberately set out to learn more about the east through his military expeditions and so took a large number of geographers and writers with his army who recorded their observations as they moved east.

The ancient Greeks divided the world into three continents, Europe, Asia, and Libya (Africa). The Hellespont formed the border between Europe and Asia. The border between Asia and Libya was generally considered to be the Nile river, but some geographers, such as Herodotus objected to this. Herodotus argued that there was no difference between the people on the east and west sides of the Nile, and that the Red Sea was a better border. The relatively narrow habitable band was considered to run from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to an unknown sea somewhere east of India in the east. The southern portion of Africa was unknown, as was the northern portion of Europe and Asia, so it was believed that they were circled by a sea. These areas were generally considered uninhabitable.

The size of the Earth was an important question to the Ancient Greeks. Eratosthenes attempted to calculate its circumference by measuring the angle of the sun at two different locations. While his numbers were problematic, most of the errors cancelled themselves out and he got quite an accurate figure. Since the distance from the Atlantic to India was roughly known, this raised the important question of what was in the vast region east of Asia and to the west of Europe. Crates of Mallus proposed that there were in fact four inhabitable land masses, two in each hemisphere. In Rome a large globe was created depicting this world. That some of the figures Eratosthenes had used in his calculation were considerably in error became known, and Posidonius set out to get a more accurate measurement. This number actually was considerably smaller than the real one, but it became accepted that the eastern part of Asia was not a huge distance from Europe.

A 15th century depiction of the Ptolemy world map, reconstituted from Ptolemy's Geographia (circa 150)

While the works of almost all earlier geographers have been lost, many of them are partially known through quotations found in Strabo. Strabo's seventeen volume work of geography is almost completely extant, and is one of the most important sources of information on classical geography. Strabo accepted the narrow band of habitation theory, and rejected the accounts of Hanno and Pytheas as fables. None of Strabo's maps survive, but his detailed descriptions give a clear picture of the status of geographical knowledge of the time. A century after Strabo Ptolemy launched a similar undertaking. By this time the Roman Empire had expanded through much of Europe, and previously unknown areas such as the British Isles had been explored. The Silk Road was also in operation, and for the first time knowledge of the far east began to be known. Ptolemy's Geographia opens with a theoretical discussion about the nature and techniques of geographical inquiry, and then moves to detailed descriptions of much the known world. Ptolemy lists a huge number of cities, tribes, and sites and places them in the world. It is uncertain what Ptolemy's names correspond to in the modern world, and a vast amount of scholarship has gone into trying to link Ptolemaic descriptions to know locations.

Pliny the Elder's Natural History also has sections on geography.

For the most part Ancient Greek geography was an academic field. There is little evidence that maps or charts were used for navigation. It does, however, seem that at least in Athens the people were acquainted with maps and that several were on public display. It was the Romans who made far more extensive practical use of geography and maps.

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, geographical knowledge in Europe regressed (though it is a popular misconception that they thought the world was flat), and the simple T and O map became the standard depiction of the world. In the Middle East, however, Arabs such as al-Idrisi, Ibn Battuta, and Ibn Khaldun maintained the Greek and Roman techniques and developed new ones. The Islamic empire stretched from Morocco to India, and Arab traders travelled throughout Asia, Africa, and the Indian Ocean. The Arabs added a great deal of knowledge to expand and correct the classical sources.

Marco Polo to the 18th century

File:Marco Polo portrait.jpg
Portrait of Marco Polo
See article:Age of discovery

Following the journeys of Marco Polo, interest in geography spread throughout Europe. The c.1400 reintrocution of Ptolemey's writings, which had been lost in Europe but preserved in the Islamic world, provided a sytematic framework to tie together and portray geographical information. The great voyages of exploration in 16th and 17th centuries revived a desire for both accurate geographic detail, and more solid theoretical foundations. The Geographia Generalis by Bernhardus Varenius and Gerardus Mercator's world map are prime examples of the new breed of scientific geography.

By the 18th century, geography had become recognized as a discrete discipline and became part of a typical university curriculum in Europe (especially Paris and Berlin), although not the in the United Kingdom where geography was generally taught as a sub-discipline of other subjects.

19th century

One of the great works of this time was Kosmos: a sketch of a physical description of the Universe, by Alexander von Humboldt, the first volume of which was published in 1845. Such was the power of this work that Dr Mary Somerville, of Cambridge University intended to scrap publication of her own Physical Geography on reading Kosmos. Von Humboldt himself persuaded her to publish (after the publisher sent him a copy).

In 1877, Huxley published his Physiography with the philosophy of universality presented as an integrated approach in the study of the natural environment. The philosophy of universality in geography was not a new one but can be seen as evolving from the works of Alexander Von Humboldt and Immanuel Kant. The publication of Huxley physiography presented a new form of geography that analysed and classifed cause and effect at the micro-level and then applied these to the macro-scale (due to the view that the micro was part of the macro and thus an understanding of all the micro-scales was need to understand the macro level). This approach emphasised the empirical collection of data over the theoretical. The same approach was also used by Halford John Mackinder in 1887. However, the integration of the Geosphere, Atmosphere and Biosphere under physiography was soon over taken by Davisian geomorphology.

Over the past two centuries the quantity of knowledge and the number of tools has exploded. There are strong links between geography and the sciences of geology and botany, as well as economics, sociology and demographics.

The Royal Geographical Society was founded in England in 1830, although the United Kingdom did not get its first full Chair of geography until 1917. The first real geographical intellect to emerge in United Kingdom geography was Halford John Mackinder, appointed reader at Oxford University in 1887.

The National Geographic Society was founded in the USA in 1888 and began publication of the National Geographic magazine which became and continues to be a great popularizer of geographic information. The society has long supported geographic research and education.

20th century

In the West during the second half of the 19th and the 20th century, the discipline of geography went through four major phases: environmental determinism, regional geography, the quantitative revolution, and critical geography.

Environmental determinism

For more information, see: Environmental determinism.

Environmental determinism is the theory that a people's physical, mental and moral habits are directly due to the influence of their natural environment. Prominent environmental determinists included Carl Ritter, Ellen Churchill Semple, and Ellsworth Huntington. Popular hypotheses included "heat makes inhabitants of the tropics lazy" and "frequent changes in barometric pressure make inhabitants of temperate latitudes more intellectually agile." Environmental determinist geographers attempted to make the study of such influences scientific. Around the 1930s, this school of thought was widely repudiated as lacking any basis and being prone to (often bigoted) generalizations. Environmental determinism remains an embarrassment to many contemporary geographers, and leads to skepticism among many of them of claims of environmental influence on culture (such as the theories of Jared Diamond).

Regional geography

For more information, see: Regional geography.

Regional geography represented a reaffirmation that the proper topic of geography was study of places (regions). Regional geographers focused on the collection of descriptive information about places, as well as the proper methods for dividing the earth up into regions. Well known names from these period are Alfred Hettner from Germany and Vidal de la Blache from France. The philosophical basis of this field in United States was laid out by Richard Hartshorne who defined geography as a study of areal differentiation which later led to critic of this approach as overly descriptive and unscientific.

The Quantitative revolution

For more information, see: Quantitative revolution.

The quantitative revolution was geography's attempt to redefine itself as a science, in the wake of the revival of interest in science following the launch of Sputnik. Quantitative revolutionaries, often referred to as "space cadets", declared that the purpose of geography was to test general laws about the spatial arrangement of phenomena. They adopted the philosophy of positivism from the natural sciences and turned to mathematics—especially statistics—as a way of proving hypotheses. The quantitative revolution laid the groundwork for the development of geographic information systems. Well-known geographers from this period are Fred K. Schaefer, Waldo Tobler, William Garrison, Peter Hagget, Richard J. Chorley, William Bunge or Torsten Hägerstrand.

Critical geography

For more information, see: Critical geography.

Though positivist and post-positivist approaches remain important in geography, critical geography arose as a critique of positivism. The first strain of critical geography to emerge was humanist geography. Drawing on the philosophies of existentialism and phenomenology, humanist geographers (such as Yi-Fu Tuan) focused on people's sense of, and relationship with, places. More influential was Marxist geography, which applied the social theories of Karl Marx and his followers to geographic phenomena. David Harvey and Richard Peet are well-known Marxist geographers. Feminist geography is, as the name suggests, the use of ideas from feminism in geographic contexts. The most recent strain of critical geography is postmodernist geography, which employs the ideas of postmodernist and poststructuralist theorists to explore the social construction of spatial relations.

See also


  • Martin, Geoffrey J. All Possible Worlds: A History of Geographical Ideas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Harley, J.B. and David Woodward. eds. The History of Cartography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

External links