Geography: The Determining Factor in Civilization’s Success

Geography can explain much about the world. The subject is incredibly broad, but holds many secrets about why human civilization is how it is.

Jan 25, 2022By Gabriel Sanchez, BA Journalism and Communications, BA Visual Arts

geography civilization lesson


Think about where you were born. Maybe you still live there. Think of where you went to school, how big or small your neighborhood was, what type of friends you had. Do you remember what places you frequented for amusement or entertainment, what type of nature surrounded your area? It may feel strange to process the kind of family and friends one was born into, and how their impact has led you to where you are now. However, the answer is in geography. Geography is the reason both yourself and ancient civilizations are the way they are today.


Geography: The Phantom Component

eleuterio pagliano the geography lesson
The Geography Lesson by Eleuterio Pagliano, 1880, via Mauro Ranzani


Although the way we learn geography and history makes it seem as if they are two completely distinct subjects, ignoring the common ground between them would be a disservice to both. Geography has influenced history more than any other factor. Take Japan, for example:


A Compass for Ancient Civilizations


Ever wonder why Tokyo is such a huge metropolis and one of the more densely populated cities in the world? We could easily point out the city is an epicenter of technological innovation and unique culture. That would be a correct answer, but not an accurate explanation.


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Four-fifths of Japan’s territory is huge mountains, and 70% of the land on the island is terrible for food production. That leaves a tiny piece of the country left to develop, which is why Japan has just a few cities which are so densely populated. Japan is also a very homogeneous culture. There are barely any ancient tribes and ethnicities. This is due to the first civilizations in the country settling very near each other, at least the successful ones. However, this wasn’t good for cultural spreading, and thus the Japanese civilization was born as we now know them.


And just like Japan, a geographical backstory can point to us the hidden clues of why certain ancient civilizations ended where they are now. Why is the United States so powerful? How did Europe gain an advantage compared to other continents? Why is Africa considered so behind in technological advancement? Many of the deciding factors point to geographical conditions.


meji era woman with parasol at riverside
Woman with Parasol at Riverside, from the Meiji Era, via Japan Times


Geography Is the Answer


Geography has the answer to every one of those questions, but first, we must understand the different components and how they affected ancient civilizations.


Latitudes and Weather


Perhaps the most important component of the geographic compass is how latitude impacted ancient civilizations. Latitudes determine the length of a day on earth and climate, no matter the distance from east to west. In contrast, north to south distances have different day-length, weather, and climate. The tropics, the equator, the polar circles, and the northern and southern parallels are all delimited this way.


Weather is not only a factor in the growing of crops. It can also determine the fate of the diseases in the land, the well-being of their animals and have great advantages or terrible disadvantages upon armed conflict. Throughout history, many invasions and conquests were determined not by the men battling them but by the weather that opposed them.




The first human civilizations were hunter-gatherers, and they were nomadic because once the location where they settled ran out of food, they had to move to other areas. These first civilizations were in constant movement and could not carry their young with them. They could only carry those who could move at the pace of the tribes. For this reason, they controlled births with abortions, infanticides, or sexual abstinence, which led to small populations.


Being able to cultivate and store food gave ancient civilizations the possibility to be sedentary and settle in one place. In areas where agriculture was possible, the civilizations developed large workforces. This, in turn, allowed the construction of the most complex irrigation systems and constant food production, which could feed big tribes.


leon augustin lhermitte gleaning women
Gleaning Woman by Leon Augustin – Lhermitte, 1920, via Useum




Although animals are not strictly geographic components, they are still worth being mentioned. Along with whatever type of land and weather they encountered, the first civilizations also found themselves among animals that were part of the wildlife. So by definition, they were equally part of the landscape.


Now, ancient civilizations with domesticated animals allowed them to plow not-so-good lands, hard lands, or lands that would need natural irrigation. With domestication, these lands became useful and had the possibility of sowing and cultivating crops. Those who possessed the advantages of having horses, llamas, camels, or any type of pack animal, could also transport the food and resources necessary for subsistence, while other societies could only do so on their backs.




Mountains and mountain passes have pros and cons, depending on what other surroundings the area may have. They’re great to serve as barriers, which offer significant advantages in conflict and make it difficult for other countries to invade. Nonetheless, they can also be deadly to the enclosed civilization. If a civilization is surrounded only by mountains or sea, they become isolated. If the terrain is located in an advantageous latitude with a great climate, they can prosper by themselves. However, if this is not the case, they are left to their luck, as they cannot spread to more lands, which tends to mean the end of civilization.


katsushika hokusai thirty six views mount fuji
Fine Wind, Clear Morning in the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1830-32, via The Washington Post




Most ancient civilizations were formed around major rivers, especially when those led to the sea. Living far away from the rivers mostly meant tribes had to be nomadic. Rivers provide civilizations with a supply of fresh and clean water, which they can use for crops, animals, and themselves. When the river empties into the ocean, it adds the means for exploration and transportation. Large rivers can also serve as an advantage against invasion, especially when facing large armies that must transport a wide array of supplies and weapons.




Similar to mountains, coastlines have polar opposite consequences. On one hand, beautiful sandy shores with low tides allow for the construction of harbors and the establishment of successful trade routes with many different civilizations. The cons of these coasts are that invading is fairly easy. This was a huge factor in the conquering of America by the Europeans. The East Coast of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico are great shores to land.


If the coastlines of a civilization are rocky or pretty much non-existent, it’s near impossible to invade from the shore. But it also makes for more difficult trading routes, which force these civilizations to find a technological innovation to succeed or fail.


These geographical factors do not exist in isolation, meaning that having many rivers does not grant instant success, for example. Each feature coexists and combines to give each region, country, and civilization its due properties.


How Geography Shaped Continents


Throughout history, geography has determined the fate of ancient civilizations and their consequences on today’s world. Now, it’s time to see how exactly these civilizations fared in contrast to their geographic combos. The influence of geographical combos is not limited to certain regions. Entire continents have suffered and prospered thanks to their unique combination of geographical features.


jacques laurent agasse lord rivers stud farm
Lord Rivers’s Stud Farm, Stratfield Saye by Jacques Laurent Agasse, 1807, via Useum




Europe benefits from the Gulf Stream current. The current gives the continent constant rainfall over the year, allowing for the growth of crops on a large scale. Europe has almost the same latitude throughout the entire continent, so the weather is never too extreme. The summers are warm and winters cold, but not overly so that people cannot labor during the whole year. The winter helps kill a lot of bacteria and insects, which keeps the population healthy.


The land is mainly plains, no mountains or valleys, and is flooding with rivers, no pun intended. There are also few desert areas, so basically, all the continent is good for agriculture. Not only that, but the many coastal areas are great for commerce and creating trading routes. The geographic landscape allowed for a huge population that could be fed without any worries. These same humans followed by specializing in arts, science, and religion, creating a cycle in which the technology that developed from science allowed better ways of producing food and standards of living.




On the other hand, Africa, being huge and vertical with several latitudes, has way more climates than Europe: Mediterranean, Desert, Forest, Saho, and Tropical. This makes the transportation of foods, crops, and animals nearly impossible. Although Africa has sectors with extensive rivers, these are not deep nor calm enough to navigate through, making trade routes impossible. The consequence of this is that these civilizations have always had to struggle with food supplementation and combat starvation. Thus, little science, technology, or art was developed.


charles webber the underground railroad
The Underground Railroad by Charles Webber, 1808, via Dagens Nyheter


How Geography Shaped Ancient Civilizations


Needless to say, tracing back the roots of the success of certain ancient civilizations has geography written all over it.




Mesopotamia’s location was the best for its citizens. Running along the Fertile Crescent, located in today’s Iraq-Syria-Turkey zone, was the richest on all planet Earth. It had the best animals for domestication, varied weather that allowed for the growth of food all year, and two enormous rivers, Tigris and Euphrates.


They were one of the first civilizations that had city-states. They had a centralized government as well as a gigantic worship temple in the main city. The reason for that is because the irrigation systems were not advanced enough to hold water that overflowed to the outer parts of the civilization.


Thanks to so much prosperity, they derived into different ethnicities, located in several parts of Mesopotamia. Not every city was equally rich with resources and prosperity. Understandably so, different tribes led constant battles over the control of fertile land and water. Despite its troubles, Mesopotamia was incredibly rich as a whole. It was them who invented the rule of six to measure time.


anselm feuerbach the symposium second version
The Symposium (Second Version) by Anselm Feuerbach, 1874, via Medium




Although it was located in an environment that was extraordinarily difficult to live in, Egypt’s proximity to the Nile River made it possible for them to thrive. With immense isolation, due to the desertic limits for spreading society, and a very little area to control, it was extraordinarily easy to maintain power and develop the civilization’s culture through one person or leader. This allowed the Pharaoh to dominate civilization.


The Pharaoh influenced the Egyptians to believe their life and environment were a blessing and a gift from the gods. That’s why the Egyptian philosophy on life became rather distinctive. Instead of fearing death, they celebrated life and believed that death was a continuation of it. This is why their tombs are magnificent, and we have geography to thank for that.


joseph mallord william turner fifth plague egypt
The Fifth Plague of Egypt by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1800, via Time


How Geography Shaped Modern Civilizations


It is clear that geography has shaped a lot of ancient civilizations. However, does it influence the world today as much as it did years ago?




It’s hard to have a better example of a country that has benefited more from its geographic location than the United States. Two factors have pretty much contributed to making it the power it is today: weather and land.


First of all, one would need a huge army to conquer such a vast land. No doubt, as history showed, the British and French empires, among others, were perfectly capable of doing so. The downside was that they needed six days of travel across the Atlantic Ocean to reach the USA. News, food, and resources had to wait at least one week, which made for complicated conquest, and in the end, impossible conquest.


USA’s neighbors, Canada and Mexico, would have benefited from the close territory. However, their societies were not as advanced due to their climates. Canada is mostly a frozen land, and only 5% of it is good for agriculture; they don’t have many rivers to connect the land, and thus a really small population. Mexico is mostly arid and with huge mountains. Barely 10% of the land serves as agriculture. Combine this with the USA having great plains for agriculture, as well as tons of rivers and trade routes; thereby, the giant of North America is today a veritable hegemon.


However, the United States does not have original resources. The oil they gather is mainly from Alaska, Texas, and the Gulf of Mexico, three lands that they acquired later thanks to their previous advantages that geography conceded. Due to the land in the United States being mainly flat, it was easy to build roads and railroads which connected the entire country.


winslow homer army of potomac
The Army of the Potomac–A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty by Winslow Homer, 1862, via National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


Israel vs. Palestine


One of the ways Israel has tried to go about fighting the Palestinians is by using their geography against them. For example, Israelis control a majority of land compared to the Palestinians. In the land that Israel has, all of the northern territories are farmable, which contrasts to Palestine because their territories lack fertile, farming-accessible land.


Israel controls almost all of the water that pumps into Palestine. Palestinians rely heavily on water due to the arid climate and scarce agriculture. This has created a conflict that no longer can be referred to as the battle for the holy land. It’s a struggle that has very much in mind the thriving of each civilization.


To Geography: A Much Needed Apology


It’s not just hard to imagine a world without geography; it’s impossible. But very often people find geography to comprise of just maps or descriptions of territory, and not as this humongous influence over how societies developed and created the world in which we live. Whenever you feel overwhelmed with questions that you seem to find no answer for or events where luck and chance feel like the main characters, think again. Remember that geography can be a huge deciding factor not only in the fate of great civilizations, but in how we live our lives as well.

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By Gabriel SanchezBA Journalism and Communications, BA Visual ArtsGabriel is a journalist and writer with a passion for the greatest of philosophical questions and a keen interest in political theory. He believes history has played a huge role in today’s environment that is often disregarded in modern society. He likes to dive deep into topics that better explain our current world.