Geographical Thought

The use and misuse of geographical concepts and theories, now and in the past

Assessing ChatGPT Based on Its Ability to Write a GeoCurrents Essay.  Final Grade:  D-

Over the past few months, ChatGPT and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI) have become something of an obsession in academic circles. Some of my colleagues are appalled by these development while others are thrilled, but no one is uninterested. Some professors think that AI will make it impossible to give take-home exams and will compromise student research papers and critical essays. But one colleague responded by quipping that at least we will no longer have to read incoherent papers. That might be true, but there is no guarantee that ChatGPT-assisted essays will not be trite and filled with misinformation.

With such controversies in mind, I decided to test ChatGPT against my most recent GeoCurrents post, which examined summer 2023 precipitation patterns in the United States. I tried several prompts of lesser and greater specificity. Two of the more representative ones are posted below, with my appraisals included [IN BRACKETS AND IN ALL CAPS]. What I received from ChatGPT was, to put it bluntly, rubbish. Evidently I do not have to worry that my blogging efforts can be outsourced any time soon to artificial intelligence (or artificial idiocy, as the case may be).

My Prompt: “Write a 700-word essay on precipitation patterns in the United States in the summer of 2023”

ChatGPT Results

Title: Summer 2023 Precipitation Patterns in the United States: A Weather Roller Coaster


The summer of 2023 in the United States has been marked by unpredictable and extreme precipitation patterns [TRITE]. From scorching droughts in the West to relentless rainfall in the East [LARGELY UNTRUE], this summer has been a roller coaster of weather events. In this article, we will delve into the complex factors driving these precipitation patterns and their impacts on different regions of the country.

The West: Drought Persists

Summer 2023 began with a continuation of the severe drought that has plagued the western United States for several years. The states of California, Nevada, and Arizona, in particular, experienced another season of water scarcity [FALSE]. Low snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and reduced reservoir levels exacerbated the situation [ONLY OFF BY 180 DEGRESS].

The primary drivers of this prolonged drought include a lack of winter precipitation [NO], higher temperatures leading to increased evaporation [NOT IN CALIFORNIA], and climate change-induced alterations in atmospheric circulation patterns. The West’s arid conditions have not only strained water resources but have also contributed to an increased risk of wildfires, as dry vegetation becomes more susceptible to ignition [NOT IN THE SUMMER OF 2023].

Despite some scattered showers and thunderstorms [THAT HAPPENS EVERY YEAR], many parts of the West faced water restrictions, mandatory conservation measures, and heightened concerns about future water availability.

The Midwest: Abundance of Rain

In stark contrast to the parched conditions in the West, the Midwest experienced an unusual abundance of rainfall in the summer of 2023. States like Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri witnessed frequent and heavy downpours, causing localized flooding and waterlogged fields. [IOWA WAS VERY DRY]

The primary factor behind this excessive rainfall was a persistent low-pressure system that remained nearly stationary over the region. This system acted as a moisture conveyor belt, pulling in warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico and generating frequent thunderstorms [NOT THIS YEAR].

While the surplus of moisture had negative consequences for agriculture, leading to waterlogged crops and delayed planting schedules [NOT IN MOST AREAS], it also had a silver lining. It helped alleviate concerns about drought and replenished aquifers, ensuring a more secure water supply for the coming months.

The South: A Tale of Contrasting Precipitation

The southern United States had its own share of precipitation variability in the summer of 2023. States along the Gulf Coast, such as Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, experienced a mix of heavy rain events [MOST OF TEXAS AND LOUISIANA WERE VERY DRY] and periods of drought.

The Gulf of Mexico played a central role in driving these weather patterns. Warm sea surface temperatures contributed to increased moisture in the atmosphere, resulting in heavy rainfall and occasional flooding in coastal areas [NOT SO MUCH THIS YEAR]. Conversely, the same warm waters fueled the development of tropical storms and hurricanes, which could bring substantial precipitation but also destructive winds and storm surges [THIS SENTENCE REFERS TO GENERAL CONDITIONS, NOT THOSE OF 2023].

In the interior South, areas farther away from the Gulf Coast often experienced drier conditions and occasional heatwaves [DUH]. These fluctuations created challenges for farmers, who had to navigate between excessive moisture and parched fields, making it a season of mixed blessings .

The Northeast: Unpredictable Rainfall

The northeastern United States, including New York, Pennsylvania, and New England, witnessed a summer characterized by unpredictable rainfall patterns. While some areas enjoyed near-normal precipitation, others faced extended dry spells punctuated by sudden, heavy rain events [OVERALL, THIS AREA RECEIVED MUCH HIGHER THAN NORMAL PRECIPITATION].

One of the driving factors behind this variability was the position of the jet stream. Its meandering path influenced the movement of weather systems, leading to localized variations in rainfall. Areas under the jet stream’s influence saw more frequent and intense rain events, while those outside of it experienced drier conditions [REFERS TO GENERAL CLIMATOLOGY, NOT CONDITIONS IN 2023].

This inconsistency in precipitation had consequences for agriculture, water management, and recreational activities [THIS IS TRUE EVERY YEAR]. Farmers struggled to predict planting and harvesting schedules, while water resource managers had to adapt quickly to shifting water supply conditions.


The summer of 2023 brought a diverse range of precipitation patterns to the United States. While the West continued to grapple with drought and the associated challenges, the Midwest saw an abundance of rain that alleviated drought concerns but presented its own set of problems. The South experienced a mix of heavy rain and drought, depending on proximity to the Gulf Coast, while the Northeast faced unpredictable rainfall [ALREADY STATED].

These diverse patterns highlight the complex interplay of atmospheric and climatic factors that influence regional weather [TRITE]. In a world affected by climate change, extreme weather events are becoming increasingly common, emphasizing the need for adaptive strategies in agriculture, water resource management, and disaster preparedness [BOILERPLATE].

As we move forward, it is crucial to monitor and understand these changing precipitation patterns and their impacts on various sectors of society. Building resilience and implementing sustainable water management practices will be essential to mitigate the challenges posed by future weather extremes, ensuring a more stable and secure future for the United States. [I WONDER HOW OFTEN THESE TWO SENTENCES ARE REPRODUCED BY CHATGPT FOR WEATHER-RELATED TOPICS]


My More Specific Prompt:  “Write a 700-word essay on 2023 summer precipitation patterns in the United States, paying particular attention to the U.S. corn crop”

ChatGPT Results

Title: Analyzing 2023 Summer Precipitation Patterns in the United States: Implications for the U.S. Corn Crop


Summer precipitation patterns play a crucial role in shaping agricultural outcomes, especially in the United States, where agriculture is a significant contributor to the economy [UTTERLY TRITE]. The U.S. corn crop, in particular, is highly sensitive to variations in precipitation, as it is a staple crop used in various industries, from food production to biofuel [EQUALLY TRITE]. In this essay, we will examine the 2023 summer precipitation patterns in the United States and their implications for the U.S. corn crop.

  1. The Importance of the U.S. Corn Crop

Before delving into the specifics of summer precipitation patterns, it is essential to understand the significance of the U.S. corn crop [NO, IT IS NOT]. Corn, or maize, is one of the most widely cultivated crops in the United States, with millions of acres dedicated to its growth. It is a versatile crop, serving as a food source for humans and livestock, a raw material for various industrial processes, and a critical component of the biofuel industry. As such, fluctuations in corn production can have far-reaching economic and societal consequences.

  1. 2023 Summer Precipitation Patterns

To assess the impact of summer precipitation patterns on the U.S. corn crop in 2023, we must first examine the climatic conditions during that period. In recent years, climate change has led to increased variability in weather patterns, making it crucial to monitor and analyze the effects of these changes on agriculture.

The summer of 2023 witnessed noticeable variations in precipitation patterns across the United States. While the Western and Southwestern regions experienced extended drought conditions, the Central and Eastern parts of the country saw above-average rainfall [POOR GENERALIZATION]. These divergent patterns had significant implications for corn cultivation.

III. Impact on Corn Production

  1. Drought in the West and Southwest

The Western and Southwestern regions of the United States, including states like California, Arizona, and New Mexico, experienced severe drought conditions during the summer of 2023 [NO]. These regions are not traditionally major corn-producing areas but do contribute to overall national production. However, the prolonged drought significantly impacted corn yields in these states, leading to decreased production. Farmers in these regions faced challenges related to water scarcity, increased irrigation costs, and reduced crop quality.

  1. Above-Average Rainfall in the Central and Eastern U.S.

Conversely, the Central and Eastern regions of the United States, including states like Illinois, Iowa [NO], and Ohio, received above-average rainfall during the summer of 2023. While adequate rainfall is generally beneficial for crop growth, excessive precipitation can lead to waterlogging and crop diseases [TRITE]. Corn, in particular, is susceptible to water stress and fungal infections when exposed to prolonged periods of high moisture [WATER STRESS IN PLANTS IS CAUSED BY A DEFICIENCY OF WATER].

  1. Adaptation and Resilience

In the face of increasingly erratic climate patterns, farmers and agricultural scientists have been working to adapt and develop more resilient farming practices. These efforts include the use of drought-tolerant corn varieties, improved irrigation techniques, and enhanced soil management practices.

In regions affected by drought, farmers have adopted more water-efficient irrigation methods, such as drip irrigation [DRIP IRRIGATION IS NOT A SIGNIFICANT FACTOR IN U.S. CORN PRODUCTION], to conserve water resources. Additionally, some have shifted towards drought-tolerant corn varieties that can withstand water scarcity to a certain extent [COULD YOU BE A LITTLE MORE SPECIFIC?].

In areas with excess rainfall, farmers have focused on improving drainage systems and selecting corn varieties resistant to waterlogging and fungal diseases. These adaptations aim to mitigate the negative impact of excessive moisture on crop yields [OVERLY GENERAL].

  1. Government Policies and Support

The U.S. government plays a crucial role in supporting farmers and managing the impact of climate-related challenges on agriculture. In response to the 2023 summer precipitation patterns, the government implemented various policies and programs to assist farmers affected by drought or excess rainfall . These measures included financial assistance, crop insurance programs, and research initiatives aimed at developing climate-resilient agricultural practices [NONE OF THESE INITIATIVES WERE IMPLEMENTED IN REPONSE TO 2023 SUMMER PRECIPITATION PATTERNS] .

  1. Conclusion

The 2023 summer precipitation patterns in the United States had a significant impact on the U.S. corn crop [BEYOND TRITE]. While drought in the Western and Southwestern regions led to decreased yields and increased production costs, above-average rainfall in the Central and Eastern states presented challenges related to waterlogging and crop diseases [GROSSLY OVERGENERALIZED]. Adaptation and resilience-building efforts have become essential for farmers, with the support of government policies and programs.

As climate change continues to alter weather patterns, it is crucial for the agricultural sector to develop sustainable and climate-resilient practices. The U.S. corn crop, as a linchpin of the nation’s agriculture and economy [WHILE VERY IMPORTANT, THE CORN CROP IS HARDLY THE LINCHPIN OF THE NATION’S ECONOMY], will continue to face challenges and opportunities in the years to come, making it imperative for stakeholders to adapt and innovate in response to evolving climate conditions.


As GeoCurrents posts are always accompanied my maps, I asked ChatGPT what it could do in the regard. The result is posted below. AsChatGPT evidently has no access to recent climatological date, this was perhaps an unfair test. My next post will therefore assess the chatbot’s ability to write a different kind to essay.


Assessing ChatGPT Based on Its Ability to Write a GeoCurrents Essay.  Final Grade:  D- Read More »

American Geographical Illiteracy and (Perhaps) the World’s Worst Atlas

Ukraine's Location MapGeoCurrents has long been concerned with geographical illiteracy. The depth of ignorance continues to be revealed, most recently in a Washington Post piece that indicates that only 16 percent of Americans can locate Ukraine on a world map. Most distressingly, a significant number of respondents placed Ukraine in central Greenland. Other reports indicate that geographical ignorance is widespread even at the highest levels of political leadership in the United States. Both president Barack Obama and former president George W. Bush have made a number of particularly egregious blunders. Intriguingly, the Washington Post article referred to above indicates that Democrats and Republicans are equally clueless about Ukraine, with only 14 and 15 percent of respondents respectively able to locate the country. Political independents, however, performed much better, with a 29 percent success rate.

Geographical illiteracy is by no means limited to the United States. It rather seems to be a common problem the world over, although it is more pronounced in some places than in others. A 2002 National Geographic Survey, for example, found higher levels of global knowledge in Sweden, Germany, and Italy than in the United States. These results are showcased in Ken Jennings’ charming book Maphead. Jennings devotes an entire chapter to charges of geographical illiteracy, a scandalous lapse of knowledge that has a long history. Here he recounts the shocking story of David Helgren, a former assistant professor at the University of Miami who lost his job in the early 1980 and was threatened with a lawsuit merely for revealing the depth of ignorance of his students, thereby embarrassing his university. An even more embarrassing story outlined in Jennings’ book concerns the time when the U.S. State Department had had confused Mauritius with Mauretania when briefing president Richard Nixon before a visit by the Mauritian prime minister. As a result:

President Nixon led off the discussion by suggesting that the Prime Minister of a valued American ally restore diplomatic relations with the United States! That way, he said, he could offer America expertise in dry farming. The flummoxed Mauritian, hailing as he did from a lush jungle nation, had little interest in desert farming, so he tried to change the subject, asking Nixon about a space tracking station that the United States operated in his country. The bewildered Nixon scrawled something down on a yellow legal pad and handed it to [Henry] Kissinger. The note read, “Why the hell do we have a space tracking station in a country with which we don’t have diplomatic relations?” (Jennings 2011, P. 37).

North America Bad MapBut if geographical ignorance is pronounced in the United States, even at the highest circles of diplomacy, the problem does seem to be even more extreme in some other parts of the world. The most extraordinary example that I have encountered comes from Pakistan, where it would seem that the problem extends to the country’s highest level of geographical scholarship! I am referring to the 2012 edition of the Atlas of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, discussed briefly in a recent GeoCurrents post. As noted there, the atlas has an official status, as its copyright is marked as “Government of Pakistan” and as it was printed by the Survey of Pakistan and published under the direction of Surveyor-General of Pakistan. This atlas also has a relatively high production value, and most of its maps of Pakistan seem to be adequate. But its global and world-regional maps are disastrous. A subsequent post will examine the mapping of religion found in the atlas. For the remained of this post we will consider its political map of North America.

California Bad MapAs a detail taken from the map and posted here reveal, the cartographers who produced this map have little understanding of basic cartographic conventions, do not know the most essential distributional patterns of the cities, states, and road networks of the United States, and apparently do not even fully grasp how transportation systems function (note how many of the railroads on the map are depicted as discontiguous). I have expanded the map’s coverage of California to highlight some of its more amusing errors. Note that the city of “San” is shown as substantially larger than the city of “San Francisco,” both of which have been placed offshore. A quick comparison with a decent map of the region, reproduced here, shows how deep its problems run.

Map of CaliforniaI have a difficult time understanding how such a worthless map could have been be produced. Evidently, the cartographers simply did not bother to do the most basic work, and apparently no one who examined the atlas in the production process knew enough to notice the extraordinary degree of inaccuracy. (Or if they did, they either did not care enough to report such errors or were too intimidated to make such a report.) In conclusion, I can only state that I feel sorry for students of geography in Pakistan. They deserve much better than this.

American Geographical Illiteracy and (Perhaps) the World’s Worst Atlas Read More »

The Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies, Part III

(Note to readers: This is the third of at least five posts derived from a draft chapter of our forthcoming book on the Indo-European controversy. This particular chapter examines the intellectual history of Indo-European studies, focusing on the most contentious ideas and ideologically motivated arguments. Its ultimate aim is to help explain why the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origins, which is rejected by almost all specialists in their field, would nonetheless appeal deeply to journalists, editors, funding agencies, and scholars in other disciplines. Again, references are not included in this draft.)

 Renewed Confusion of Race and Language

While early 20th century racial scholars were reducing the scope of the White (or “Caucasian”) race in Europe, stressing the separation of its so-called Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean stocks, a countervailing tendency operated in Africa. Although this movement was not directly linked to debates about Indo-European origins, it did feed into a renewed conflation of race and language in the postwar period that influenced popular conceptions of the so-called Indo-European peoples. It also provoked a sequence of scholarly reactions what would eventually begin to sever the race-language connection.

race4The main tendency in early 20th century African physical anthropology was to inflate the geographical bounds of the Caucasians at the expense of Black Africans. Some writers have traced this maneuver to the defeat of the Italian Army by the Kingdom of Abyssinia at the Battle of Adwa in 1896; since Blacks were widely thought to be incapable of defeating a modern European military force, the conclusion followed that the victorious Ethiopians must actually be sun-darkened Whites. As the facial features of Ethiopians tend to be more like those of North Africans than those of sub-Saharan Africans, this idea received some support from physical anthropology. By the mid 20th century, however, cartographers were expanding the Caucasian label deep into the heart of the continent, encompassing peoples of wholly African appearance. A map in the 1946 Atlas of World Affairs, produced with support from the U.S. military, treated not just Ethiopia and Somalia as demographically dominated by “Caucasian (or white)” people, but also northern Kenya, South Sudan, Uganda, and the northeastern corner of D. R. Congo.

As the peoples of Uganda and South Sudan are hardly “White” by any physical indicators, one must ask how they could have been so classified. The answer, in essence, is language. The scholars responsible for this maneuver knew that it was problematic. Yet as C. G. Seligman explained in his influential book Races of Africa (1930):

 Language—helpful as it may be—is no safe guide to race. Yet the study of the races of Africa has been so largely determined by the interest in speech … that names based on linguistic criteria are constantly applied to large groups of mankind and, indeed, if intelligently used, often fit quite well. … [I]n this volume linguistic criteria will play a considerable part in the somewhat mixed classification adopted. (9-10)

The key construct employed by Seligman and his peers was the “Hamitic Hypothesis,” which takes us back again to Noah’s son Ham. As Hebrew, Arabic, and other closely related languages were defined as Semitic (i.e., linked to the progeny of Shem), more distantly related languages in the same family, such as Ancient Egyptian, Somali, and Galla (Oromo), were linked to Ham and hence deemed Hamitic. As Europeans gained knowledge of interior Africa, scholars increasingly linked all advances in African culture to conquests or incursions by the generally dark-skinned yet putatively Caucasian Hamites; as Seligman put it, “the civilizations of Africa are the civilizations of the Hamites” (96). European writers often seized on dubious physical or linguistic markers among elite African populations as a sign of Hamitic descent. Thus the taller and more sharply featured Tutsi aristocrats of Rwanda/Burundi were viewed as largely Caucasian Hamites, unlike the Hutu commoners. In this case, the two communities spoke the same Bantu language, but it was reasoned that the Tutsis must have spoken a Hamitic language before they overcame the more numerous Hutus. As linguistic information was gathered from eastern Africa, Nilotic-speaking peoples—including many of the pastoralists of the region—were often subsumed into the same putative Hamitic family (although Seligman classified the southern Nilotes such as the Masai as “half-Hamites” [157] while regarding those of what is now South Sudan as “hamiticized Negroes”[169].) At the extreme, as in the portrayal in the 1946 Atlas of World Affairs, it would seem that all eastern Africans speaking non-Bantu languages, such as the Zande of northern D.R. Congo, were assigned to a Caucasian or at least a half-Caucasian racial position, regardless of their physical attributes. Yet Seligman himself thought that even the Bantus have some “Hamitic blood” (178), and he thus limited the “True Negroes” to the coastal zone of West Africa.

R4Africa was not the only part of the world in which race was widely confused with language. In the post-WWII intellectual environment, the extreme claims of pre-war racial scientists were no longer credible, but race remained a key concept for understanding human diversity. For general pedagogical purposes, the most expedient solution was simply to map races along language lines. As a result, peoples speaking Indo-European languages in Europe and India were often racially separated from peoples speaking Uralic, Turkic, and Dravidian languages. In the 1946 Atlas of World Affairs mentioned above, Turks, Hungarians, and (most) Finns are mapped as “Mongolian (or yellow).” In the popular World Book Atlas, Hungarians and eastern Finns are classified as mixed Caucasian and Mongolian, whereas most Turks are depicted as purely Mongolian, as are the Hungarians living in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. A more extreme conflation of race and language is found in a map edited by the noted Welsh geographer and race4-1anthropologist H. J. Fleure, published in Bartholemew’s Advanced Atlas of Modern Geography of 1962. Here Finns and Estonians are mapped as “Asiatic or Mongolian” because of their “yellow skin colour.” On the same map, “Dravidian” is also advanced as a skin-color group (as part of an “Australo-Dravidian” race of “Melanodermic” people). Here even the map projection, deemed “Nordic,” is seemingly racialized.

carleton-coon-map-originalThis chaotic conception of racial diversity in the postwar period provoked a minor reaction. One scholar in particular, the American physical anthropologist Carleton Coon, sought to place racial understanding on a more scientific basis by stripping out involuted taxonomies and firmly rejecting the mixing of racial and linguistic categories. Coon noted the absurdity of classifying the Finns as “yellow”—albeit while failing to see that there is nothing “yellow” about the skin of East Asians— and scoffed at the idea that Europeans are divided into discrete races. Relying on a variety of physical indicators and guided by evolutionary theory, Coon, divided humankind into the Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Congoid (sub-Saharan African), Australoid, and Capeoid (far southwestern African) stocks, which he regarded as distinctive enough to constitute separate subspecies. Coon’s conception remained racially hierarchical, but he no longer placed Caucasians—let alone Aryans—at the apogee. In an illustration tellingly captioned “The Alpha and Omega of Homo sapiens,” Coon contrasted an Australian Aborigine, supposedly possessing a cranial capacity of a mere 1000 cubic centimeters, with a Chinese scholar enjoying “a brain nearly twice that size”(p. XXXII).

Just as Coon was developing his evolutionary approach to racial taxonomy, the entire concept of physical race came under devastating attack. The key figure here was the anthropologist Ashley Montague, who cartographically demonstrated that the main diagnostic traits for race—including skin color, cranial index, nose shape, stature, and so on—have their own distributional patterns, failing to exhibit the spatial co-variation that would be required to support the notion of distinct races. By the late 1970s, few scholars considered race as anything but a social construct, and a pernicious one at that. The pendulum swing was so extreme that any talk of physically based divisions among humankind came to be seen as unacceptable, leading some scholars of genetic diversity to despair. As modern analysis shows, numerous genetic markers do indicate significant physical differentiation among such groups as western Eurasians and Eastern Eurasians.

Marija Gimbutas and the Feminist Revision of Indo-European Studies

As racial anthropology was being reformulated and then abandoned, Indo-European studies were undergoing their own transformation. The key figure here was the Lithuanian-American archeologist Marija Gimbutas, who turned the Aryan hypothesis on its head, portraying the original Indo-Europeans not as history’s heroes but rather as its villains. In 1956, Gimbutas linked the kurgan burial mounds in the Pontic Steppes north of the Black Sea to speakers of the proto-Indo-European language. She associated this so-called Kurgan culture with pastoral, patriarchal warrior bands. In later excavations of Neolithic villages in southeastern Europe, she described a culture that seemed to be the opposite on all scores: sedentary, peaceful, and gender egalitarian. Gimbutas elaborated this thesis in the 1970s in a series of books on the deities of what she called Old Europe, essentially the Balkan Peninsula before the coming of the Kurgans. These female-centered, goddess-worshiping societies, Gimbutas claimed, were highly cultured, almost fully egalitarian, and peaceful, lacking fortifications and offensive weapons. Their irenic civilization, she further argued, was demolished by the Kurgan invasions, which spread not just the Indo-European language family but also warfare, hierarchy, and male domination.

kurgan2aGimbutas’s basic archeological work was solid, and most Indo-Europeanists have accepted some version of her Kurgan hypothesis that places the origin of the language family among the pastoral (or semi-pastoral) peoples of the Pontic Steppes. But her characterizations of both the “Kurgans” and the “Old Europeans” went too far for most specialists, who saw vast leaps from scanty remains to huge generalizations. And some of her lay followers went farther still. In Riane Eisler’s 1988 treatise, The Chalice and the Blade, the Kurgan conquests are seen as ushering in a global age of male domination, social hierarchy, and mass violence. The implication was that a gentle, egalitarian social order is the human birthright, and could yet be reclaimed if only we undo the social damage imparted by the early Indo-Europeans. The Chalice and the Blade was a bestseller, helping propel the wave of goddess worship that swept certain feminist circles in the late 20th century. It was lauded by prominent intellectuals, including Joseph Campbell, the doyen of mythology study. The famed anthropologist Ashley Montagu, noted above for his dismantling of the biological concept of race, hailed The Chalice and the Blade as the “most important book since Darwin’s Origin of Species.” And in odd corners of current popular culture, “Kurgans” still play the role of malevolent sub-humans; in the popular Highlander film series, for example, a character named “the Kurgan” comes from a tribe of the same name, “infamous for their cruelty, and … known to ‘toss children into pits full of starved dogs, and watch them fight for [the] meat’ for amusement.”[1] The same idea reappears in the video game Blackmoor Archives.

Still, Eisler’s comprehensive vision failed from the onset. As male domination characterized almost all historically known human societies, it can hardly be attributed to a single ancient people located in one particular part of the Earth. In today’s world, rates of male on female violence reportedly reach a peak in Melanesia, a realm of small-scale societies about as far removed from the “Kurgans” as could be imagined. Despite its appeal to the left, Eisler’s thesis was overwhelmingly Eurocentric, substituting Europe (actually, a corner of Europe) for the world as a whole. But even many of the less extreme assertions of Gimbutas herself have been undermined by scholarly analysis. The peoples of Old Europe were not altogether peaceful and female-centered, just as the speakers of proto-Indo-European and their immediate descendants were almost certainly not insistently androcentric and violent.

Work in world history also casts doubt on the Gimbutas vision. It is easy to imagine militaristic nomads from the Eurasian steppes as much more male-dominated than their sedentary neighbors, but comparative analysis suggests otherwise. Through the early modern and modern periods, women among the traditionally pastoral Kazakhs and Kirghiz of Central Asia have generally enjoyed more autonomy and power than those living in the village and urban societies of the (Sart) Uzbeks[2] and Tajiks. In medieval Mongolia, female empowerment was pronounced; as Mongol men were often absent at war, it is hardly surprising that women took on major managerial and political roles in the homeland. It is also noteworthy that the Scythians, ancient Indo-European-speaking pastoralists of the Pontic Steppes, not uncommonly buried their females in military gear. Perhaps Herodotus was on to something when he wrote of Amazon warrior women among the tribes of the area. Whether such conditions of relative female empowerment existed among the proto-Indo-European-speakers is anyone’s guess, but it is clear that we cannot simply assume overwhelming male domination based on pastoralism and military prowess.

Orientalism and the Renewed Assault on Indo-European Philology

In the works of the pre-WWII Aryan school and those of the late 20th century feminist revisionists alike, the deep Indo-European past primarily served ideological ends. Certainly the goals of the two camps were opposed; where the former romanticized violence and domination, the latter sought to bolster peace and equality. But whatever their motivations, writers in both groups allowed their desires and prejudgments to guide their conclusions. In this regard, the early Orientalist philologists stood on much more solid ground. Max Müller and and his fellows certainly had their biases and blind spots—as we all do—but their commitment to empirical scholarship allowed them to partially transcend their prejudices.

Yet at the same time that the early Indo-European past was being reimagined by Gimbutas and her followers, the reputation of the early Indo-European philologists was again being savaged, as the field itself was again brought to the forefront of scholarly discourse. The key text here was Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism, which condemned the entire project of philological scholarship for serving European imperialism by facilitating intellectual domination over the non-Western world. To be sure, Said subjected Jones to relatively light criticism and mostly ignored Müller, but both were ultimately damned. Said accused Jones of trying to “subdue the infinite variety of the Orient” by attempting to codify the main texts of the region (p 78). For Said, there was no escaping the taint; even “great Orientalist works of genuine scholarship,” he argued, “came out of the same impulse” as “Gobineau’s racial ideas”(p. 8).

From a historical point of view, there was something deeply ironic about this broad-brush attack on the Indo-European philologists. For the early Orientalists who wrote on India were demonized by the arch-racialists of their own day precisely because they sought to erase rather than inscribe the “ontological and epistemological distinction between ‘the Orient’ and … “the Occident”—the very distinction in which Said located the essence of Orientalism (p. 2). To be sure, one can find passages in Jones, Müller, and their peers that strike the modern reader as inadequately sensitive or even bigoted, but so too one can find such sentiments in all writers of the period. In the end, to tar all Orientalists as complicit in the imperial project is to descend into a form of anti-intellectualism, rejecting out-of-hand an invaluable legacy of thought.

Indo-European Revisionism in South Asia

Meanwhile, the legacy of Müller and his peers have came under increasing attack from another quarter altogether, that of Indian nationalism. This school is epitomized in D. N. Tripathi’s edited collection of 2005 entitled A Discourse on Indo-European Languages and Cultures. The various contributors to this volume understandably object to the old narrative of the Aryan invasion of the sub-continent, a story that emerged in the 19th century from a combination of philological inquiry and racial science. According to this account, superior Aryans invaded South Asia in the Bronze Age, conquering and ruling over the indigenous dark-skinned people and then creating the caste system to ensure that the two groups remained distinct and unequal. Support for this theory was supposedly found in the Rigveda, one of humankind’s oldest text. Yet as Trautmann shows, this neat and simplistic narrative of Aryan invasion had actually been opposed by most of the leading European Sanskritologists of the 19th century. It has also been rejected by modern mainstream scholars, who deny stark racial divisions and tend to posit plodding infiltrations of Indo-European speakers into the Indian subcontinent, along with a gradual and complex development of caste ideology. And regardless of the seemingly clear division of South Asia into an Indo-European north and Dravidian south, it has long been recognized that the entire region shares numerous linguistic features, making it a Sprachbund or linguistic convergence zone.

The current school of Indo-European revisionism in India, however, goes much further in denouncing the old Aryan hypothesis. Some of these writers deny any foreign impact on ancient South Asian civilization, as if in fear that acknowledgement would sunder the unity of India and compromise the nationalist agenda. As Tripathi specifies in his introduction, the main point of the volume is to show that the Indo-European language family originated in South Asia with the Indus Valley civilization and then subsequently spread westward. Sanskrit, he contends, “is the most suited choice as the proto-Indo-European language,” adding that the “antiquity of the Vedas is far more than what Max Müller and others have tried to fix” (p. 13). Other chapters redeploy from Europe to India the exhausted trope of the intrinsic Aryan inclination to migrate. Ajay Mitra Shastri, for example, argues that, “the frequent migrations of enterprising peoples from India westward are responsible for the commonness and great similarity in the vocabulary of the speakers of Indian, West Asia, and European languages.” Yet Shastri is moderate compared to T. P. Verma, who claims not only that Sanskrit was the original language of all humankind, but that it was a direct gift from above. As he boldly argues, “Vedas are verbal transformations of God” (p. 116), essentially taking us back to an early 19th century conception of human prehistory. A more extreme version of this thesis is found in the Wikipedia “Talk” page on Max Müller, where the philologist is accused of being a “bigot who was trying to destroy a civilization” merely because he dared to examine religious texts through the lens of secular scholarship.

This Indocentric school of Indo-European studies has generated significant opposition among more traditional scholars, both in the West and in India. According to Edwin Bryant, tensions grew so pronounced that it became “increasingly difficult for scholars of South Asia to have a cordial exchange on the matter without being branded a ‘Hindu nationalist,’ ‘western neo-colonialist,’ ‘Marxist secularist,”’ or some other simplistic and derogatory stereotype.” In an attempt to break down such barriers, a joint volume entitled The Indo-Aryan Controversy was published in 2005, containing insightful arguments from both camps, with several authors emphasizing the influence of the non-Indo-European languages of South Asia on the region’s Indo-European tongues. In the end, however, the “out of India” theory favored by Tripathi and his colleagues cannot withstand the scrutiny that it receives in this volume. As Michael Witzel demonstrates, no linguistic evidence supports an Indian origin of the Indo-European languages, whereas a vast amount of evidence can be found against it. As he concludes, “To maintain an Indian homeland of IE … requires multiple special pleading of a sort and magnitude that no biologist, astronomer, or physicist would tolerate”(p. 375).

Although many Indian scholars have been trying to put the Aryan invasion myth to rest for once and all, the idea nonetheless retains potency in other corners of southern Asia. In the far south of India, many so-called Dravidianists accept the Aryan invasion thesis on face value, but give it a negative spin to oppose Brahmin interests, favor Tamil over Sanskrit and Hindi, and more generally advocate Tamil nationalism. In northern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and especially Iran, a pro-Aryanist movement still attracts support, as evidenced by a minor YouTube video genre that celebrates the racial nature of the local population. More than 300,000 views, for have example, have been garnered by a video entitled “Aryan Race in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India”; its creator (PersianCyrus) claims that:

The real Aryans live in Iran, Afghanistan 
Tajikistan, Pakistan and India. With the attack of the mongols and turks most of the people there got “turkified” or “mongolzied”. However some of those survived!

In such a manner, anti-Arab and anti-Turkish prejudice in Iran is given a pseudo-scholarly gloss.


[1] I am indebted to GeoCurrents reader William Barnard for  bringing this character to my attention. The quotation is from the Wikipedia article on the fictional character known as “the Kurgan.”

[2] The term “Uzbek” has been used to refer to two separate groups. Originally it referred to a largely pastoral group speaking a Turkic language closely related to Kazakh, a group that created the Uzbek Khanate of the Early Modern Period. In the early 20th century, Soviet ethnographers reassigned to the term to the sedentary peoples of the region who speak a heavily Persian-influenced Turkic language. Previously, these people, along with their Tajik neighbors, had generally been called “Sarts.”

The Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies, Part III Read More »

The Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies, Part II

(Note to readers: this is the second portion of a chapter of our forthcoming book on the Indo-European controversy; more will follow. This chapter outlines the main ideological ramifications of the debates concerning Indo-European origins and dispersion.  It is not an account of the development of Indo-European linguistics. It is rather concerned with the use, and especially the misuse, of linguistic idea by scholars in other fields and by assorted ideologues. References and footnotes are unfortunately not included here.)  


“Race Science” and the Challenge of Philology

875924-MAs “race science” gained strength in late 19th century Europe, it faced a major obstacle in Indo-European philology. European racial theorists maintained a stark separation between the so-called Caucasian[1] peoples of Europe and environs and the darker-skinned inhabitants of South Asia, yet the philologists argued that Europeans and northern Indians stemmed from the same stock. Some of the early efforts to mesh the new racial ideas with linguistic findings  were rather strained. The popular American writer Charles Morris, for example, argued in 1888 that races are divided on the basis of both language and physical type, which generally but not always coincide; he further contended that “the Aryan is one of these linguistic races” (p. 5) that had lost its original physical essence. The general tendency was to emphasize ever more strongly this supposed loss of “purity,” and thus for physical type to trump linguistic commonality. As Isaac Taylor, the Anglican Canon of York, noted a few years later, “The old assumption of the philologists, that the relationship of language implies a relationship of race, has been decisively disproved and rejected by the anthropologists” (p. 5).” By the end of the century, the increasingly victorious racialists regarded the philologists as their main opponents. Taylor concluded his influential The Origin of the Aryans by noting that “the whilom tyranny of the Sanskritists is happily overpast” (p. 332); he also charged philology with having “retarded …  the progress of science” (p. 6)

51qlTvU6i7L._Paradoxically, race scientists relied on the findings of the Indo-European philologists while denouncing them and turning their key discovery on its head. Writers propounding the racialized Aryan thesis emphasized the massive expansion of the Indo-European people in ancient times—a fact demonstrated by historical linguistics—seeing in it prime evidence of Aryan superiority. The preeminence of the ancient Aryans, such writers believed, was evident in the intrinsic restlessness that led them to explore new lands and subdue indigenous inhabitants. As early as the 1850s, Arthur de Gobineau argued that the civilizations not only of India but also of Egypt and China—and perhaps even Mexico and Peru—had been founded by Aryans, whom he extolled as the world’s natural aristocrats. Gobineau and his successors claimed that the original Aryans lost their racial essence as they spread from their homeland and interbred with lesser peoples. The resulting mixture supposedly led to degeneration and the loss of vigor. As the century progressed, more extreme racists argued that “mixed races” cannot maintain themselves, as one of the genetic stocks that went into their creation would necessarily prevail. Isaac Taylor went so far as to argue that the children of parents from “diverse” races are usually infertile, much like the offspring of horses and donkeys (p. 198). As a result, most race scientists concluded that Aryan blood had been swamped out long ago in India, although the more moderate ones allowed that a measure of Aryan nobility could still be found among the Brahmins, owing to their steadfast rejection of cross-caste marriage.

050-Guenther-rassenkarte-1930-m-LegendeAs the Indo-European commonalties discovered by the philologists were reduced to a distant episode of heroic conquest followed by miscegenation, degeneration, and the local extinction of the racial line, race theorists sought to relocate the original Aryan homeland. This search for a European urheimat became intertwined with a simultaneous development in racial thinking: an emerging fixation on head-shape as they key to racial identity and origins. Armed with the seemingly scientific tools of head calipers and cranial indices, anthropologists divided Europeans into several distinct physical types, viewed either as sub-races of the Caucasian stock or as discrete races in their own right. Although disagreements persisted, most racial scientists came to identify the Aryans with the narrow-headed (dolichocephalic), fair-skinned, light-haired people of the north, rather than the broader-headed (brachycephalic) “Alpines” of central Europe or the darker-complexioned, shorter “Mediterranean” peoples of the south. (German theorists of the Nazi era added yet more European races, such as the stocky blond “Falisch” race supposedly found in parts of western Germany.) In this reading, the original Celts, Slavs, Greeks, and Italics had been Aryans, but by intermarrying with others they had lost their racial essence, retaining only the linguistic marker. Only the Nordic peoples—often IE_homeland_proposals_mapidentified with current and past speakers of the Germanic languages[2]—could count as true Aryans, a notion closely identified with the German[3] linguist and archeologist Gustaf Kossinna. If northern Europeans represented the genuine Aryan line, uncontaminated with the blood of the subjugated peoples, then it stood to reason that the Aryans had been the indigenous inhabitants of northern Europe. Various theories were consequently advanced to locate the Indo-European cradle somewhere near the shores of the Baltic Sea. The linguistic evidence remained ambiguous, however, leading to prolonged debates about the precise location of the homeland.

The many inconsistencies and contradictions that riddled this emerging synthesis were either bypassed or accommodated through special pleading. Western European writers who denigrated the Slavs while celebrating the Germans overlooked the fact that northern Poles and northern Russians tend to have narrower heads and fairer complexions than southern Germans. The non-Indo-European Finnic peoples with their Uralic languages presented a greater problem; Estonians in particular tend to be rather narrow headed and extremely fair. One expedient was to classify the Uralic language family as a distant cousin of the Indo-European family, assuming that the speakers of the two original proto-languages sprang from the same racial stock. The widespread notion that the Uralic tongues belonged to a Ural-Altaic family that also included Mongolian, however, challenged this idea, leading to profound discomfiture. One result was awkward descriptions of the Finns, with one writer describing them as “linguistic Mongolians” who are nonetheless “intermediate between the blond and the Mongolian [physical] types, although much nearer the former” (Morris 22).

As the racial interpretation of prehistory gained predominance in the late 19th century, Max Müller attempted to stem the tide, objecting strenuously to the misappropriation of his work. In his Biographies of Words and the Home of the Aryas, published when he was 64, Müller forwarded a surprisingly modern conception of linguistic history. Although he had long stressed the kinship of northern Indians and Europeans, he now denied that he had ever conceptualized it in terms of race. Instead he denounced any identification of language groups with racial stocks, contending that “an ethnologist who speaks of Aryan race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair, is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or a brachycephalic grammar.” Müller further sought to discredit the romantic celebration of the proto-Indo-Europeans, mocking the “taken for granted idea” that “in the beginning … there was an immense Aryan population somewhere, and that large swarms issued from a central bee-hive which contained untold millions of human beings.” Müller went so far as to cast doubt on the core notion of a single Proto-Indo-European language, arguing instead that that the language family could have emerged out of a welter of related dialects. He further contended that speakers of these dialects might have spread their tongues not by way of massive invasions but rather through the gradual infiltration of relatively small numbers of people out of their Asian homeland. But Müller reserved his most profound contempt for those who associated an Aryan race with northern Europeans:

But where is there an atom of evidence for saying that the nearer to Scandinavia a people lived, the purer would be its Aryan race and speech, while in Greece and Armenia, Persia and India, we should find mixture and decay? Is not this not only different from the truth, but the very opposite of it?

It is thus for good reason that Trautmann contends that Müller was the “Public Enemy Number One” of the racial scientists (172).


The Triumph and Decline of “Racial Science” and the Aryan Ideal

After the turn of the century, racialist writers tended to distance themselves ever further from the Indo-European idea. The influential polemicist Houston Stewart Chamberlain —one of Hitler’s favorites—hesitated to use the term “Aryan” for his favored race due to its association with the Indo-European language family, preferring instead “Teutonic.” Chamberlain “granted that there was once a common ancestral Indo-European race,” but assumed that its essential traits had long ago vanished everywhere except among the Teutonic folk of northern Europe. Oddly, he wanted to restrict the term “Aryan” in the modern world to individuals who embodied the supposed traits for their distant forebears. Chamberlain’s 1899 The Foundations of the 19th Century went through twenty-four editions and sold more than 250,000 copies by the late 1930s. But despite its public success, its flaws were so overwhelming that it failed it to impress even some of the world’s most ardent imperialists. In this regard, Theodore Roosevelt’s trenchant review is worth quoting at some length:

 [The Foundations of the 19th Century] ranks with Buckle’s “History of Civilization,” and still more with Gobineau’s “Inégalité des Races Humaines,” for its brilliancy and suggestiveness and also for its startling inaccuracies and lack of judgment. … Mr. Chamberlain’s hatreds cover a wide gamut. They include Jews, Darwinists, the Roman Catholic Church, the people of southern Europe, Peruvians, Semites, and an odd variety of literary men and historians. But in his anxiety to claim everything good for Aryans and Teutons he finally reduces himself to the position of insisting that wherever he sees a man whom he admires he must postulate for him Aryan, and, better still, Teutonic blood. He likes David, so he promptly makes him an Aryan Amorite[4].

Despite Roosevelt’s skeptical views, “Aryanism” in its various guises emerged as a potent force in the United States, where it often took on a particularly American cast. An important text here is Joseph Pomeroy Widney’s 1907 Race Life of the Aryan Peoples. Widney was an influential thinker, founder of the Los Angeles Medical Society and the second president of the University of Southern California. A man of his times, he disparaged philology while arguing that “the history of the world is largely only the history of the Aryan man.” Widney often compared the original Indo-European expansion to the settlement of the United States by Europeans. Like many of his predecessors, he found their racial essence in pioneering restlessness: “For there is unrest in the Aryan blood, an unrest which is ever urging it out and on.” Widney’s signal contribution, if one could call it that, was synthesizing racism with environmental determinism. At the time, geographers stressed the contrast between the salubrious temperate climates the deleterious tropics, and here Widney eagerly followed suit. The Aryans of India, he argued, succumbed not only to race mixing but also to the enervating heat, whereas those of Russia were undone by frost along with Mongolian admixture. As he unambiguously put it, “Aryans retain racial vitality only in temperate climates.”

Passing_of_the_Great_Race_-_Map_4Another well-known American racial theorist, Madison Grant, also pictured the prehistoric Aryan adventure through the lens of the westward expansion of the United States. Even more than Chamberlain, Grant rejected the terms “Aryan” and “Indo-European,” contending that the race so denoted had long since vanished almost everywhere. But among the “Nordics,” who alone preserved the racial essence, he found the same spirit of adventure that produced all the world’s great sailors, explorers, and pioneers. “Practically every 49er” in the California Gold Rush, he told his readers, “was a Nordic.” Grant’s 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race was deeply felt in U.S. intellectual circles. The extent of Grant’s racism is evident in the fact that as secretary of the New York Zoological Society he helped arranged to have a Congolese Pygmy[5] exhibited in a cage in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo and labeled as a “missing link” between apes and “the white race.”

It is difficult to exaggerate the sway of racial science in North America and northern Europe in the early twentieth century. This was not merely the pet theory of bigots and chauvinists, but a widely accepted doctrine that cut across political lines. It was embraced by some of the most knowledgeable, sophisticated, and progressive thinkers of the time. Even the Fabian socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw found much to admire in Chamberlain’s hymns of racial hatred. Of particular significance, however, was V. Gordon Childe, perhaps the foremost pre-historian of the era. An Australian by birth who was long affiliated with the University of Edinburgh, Childe was an accomplished philologist as well as a preeminent archeologist. He was also a lifelong Marxist, committed to a variety of leftist causes. To be sure, Childe was wary of the extremism of “Houston Stewart Chamberlain and his ilk,” warning that “the word ‘Aryan’ has become the watchword of dangerous factions and especially the more brutal and blatant forms of anti-Semitism” (p. 164). But despite these cautionary remarks, Childe embraced the core of the Aryan thesis. As he concluded his hallmark 1926 book, The Aryans: A Study of Indo-European Origins: “Thus the Aryans do appear everywhere as promoters of true progress and in Europe their expansion marks the moment when the prehistory of our continent begins to diverge from that of Africa and the Pacific” (p. 211).

2264c_03e38417f5b3f1b4ada11a081a05c0aaChilde was too knowledgeable and intellectually honest to impute all human progress to the Aryans. Indeed, he emphasized the fact that the early Indo-Europeans had repeatedly “annexed areas previously occupied by higher types of culture” (p. 200). How to explain such annexations was an intellectual challenge. In one passage, Childe opined that it was “only explicable in racial terms” (p. 200), which he later specified to be largely a matter of brawn: “the physical qualities of that stock did enable them by the bare fact of superior strength to conquer even more advanced people” (p. 212). But in the end, Childe claimed that it was neither bodily strength nor a more generalized racial superiority that allowed the Aryans to triumph, but their language itself, a view originally put forward by the German philosopher and bureaucrat Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). The final lines of his text attribute Aryan domination to the “more excellent language and mentality that [they] generated” (p. 212). This supposed excellence is spelled out in the first few pages of Childe’s book:

[T]he Indo-European languages and their assumed parent-speech have been throughout exceptionally delicate and flexible instruments of thought. They were almost unique, for instance, in possessing a substantive verb and at least a rudimentary machinery for building subordinate clauses that might express conceptual relations in a chain of ratiocination.”  (p. 4)[6]

Childe, the “great synthesizer” of European prehistory, thus returned to the philological roots of inquiry to explain the mushrooming of the Indo-European language family.

Childe’s theories of Aryan linguistic supremacy, however, had little impact, and he later came to regret having written the book. Over the next decade, a new generation of social and cultural anthropologists began to transform the field. Scholars were now committing themselves to learning the languages of the peoples they studied, and in so doing they undermined the idea that primitive peoples have primitive languages, incapable of expressing abstract concepts. Philologists who studied non-Indo-European languages, moreover, knew full well that there was nothing uniquely Aryan about subordinate clauses. Childe’s linguistic understanding had become antiquated, invalidating the key component of his Aryan theory.

Meanwhile, the emerging school of sociocultural anthropology discredited scientific racism on other fronts. Franz Boas, the German founder of the discipline in the United States, showed that head shape is determined in part by parenting practices, as the cranial indices of American-born children of immigrants deviated from those of their mothers and fathers. The behavioral disparities found in different human groups, Boas argued, stemmed from cultural difference rather than innate temperaments. As the students of Boas gained positions of leadership in anthropology departments across the country, racialists such as Madison Grant despaired.

But it is important to recognize that the revisionism of Boas had its limits. Despite his staunch opposition to scientific racism, Boas, like Childe, remain wedded to the idea that language embodies the worldview of the group that speaks it, revealing its volksgeist, or ethnic essence. This idea would be further elaborated by his student Edward Sapir and Sapir’s student Benjamin Whorf into the eponymous Sapir–Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativism, which claims that language determines thought. Although a “soft” version of this hypothesis has many defenders, most linguists reject outright the stronger version of the original formulation, which denies the universality of basic human cognition.

Regardless of developments in linguistic theory, by the 1930s, scientific racism was in rapid retreat in the United States and Britain, and by the late 1940s it was discredited even in Germany. With the post-war revelations of Nazi atrocities, the thesis of Aryan superiority was thoroughly ejected from mainstream intellectual life. To be sure, it continued—and continues—to fester in odd corners. These days, it is easy to be reminded of its existence by doing ethnographic map and image searches, in which content from the neo-Nazi website Stormfront appears distressingly often.

The Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies, Part II Read More »

The Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies, Part I

(Dear Readers,

As mentioned previously, I am now working on our forthcoming book on the Indo-European controversy.  I have now finished the chapter on the history of the debates, which I will post here at GeoCurrents, in pieces, over the next two week.  Bibliographic references are not included, although they may be added later. Comments and criticisms are of course welcome.)

Debates about Indo-European origins and dispersion have played a surprisingly central role in modern intellectual history. At first glance, the ancient source of a group of languages whose very relatedness is invisible to non-specialists would seem to be an obscure issue, of interest only to a few academics. Yet it is difficult to locate a topic of historical debate over the past two centuries that has been more intellectually provocative, ideologically fraught, and politically laden than that of Indo-European origins and expansion. Although the controversies have diminished in the Western public imagination since the middle of the 20th century, they still rage in India, and elsewhere their reverberations persist. As a result, the Indo-European question is anything but trivial or recondite. To understand the significance of the current controversy, it is therefore necessary to examine the historical development of Indo-European studies in detail, paying particular attention to the ideological ramifications of the theories advanced to account for the success of this particular language family.

division-2mBefore the mid 1800s, most European scholars conceptualized human diversity primarily through the story of the sons of Noah—Ham, Shem, and Japheth—whose descendants supposedly gave rise to the various “nations,” “stocks,” or “races,” of humankind, terms that were usually applied interchangeably.  Although the geological and biological theories of Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin are rightly viewed as having effectively undermined the religious understanding of prehistory—thus ushering in the secular intellectual age—historical linguistics, or philology as it was then called, played a key role as well. The discovery of deep linguistic connections that cut across the conventional geography of Noah’s descendants unsettled the religious view of the past, encouraging the emergence of a secular conception of human development. As historical linguistics developed over the first half of the 19th century, Bible-based ethnography grew ever less tenable. (Although the noted linguist Mark Baker  argues in The Polysynthesis Parameter that the Tower of Babel story,* which recounts the diversification of languages among Noah’s descendants, might convey a non-literal truth, insofar as the macroparameters built into the deep structures of human language necessarily generate “serious linguistic diversity”—which he claims indicate an origin “distinctly spiritual in nature” [p. 514].)

t-o diagramAlthough the account of Noah’s progeny in Genesis 10 is geographically spare and ambiguous, traditional Jewish accounts usually identified the descendants of Japheth with the north, those of Ham with the south, and those of Shem—the ancient Hebrews and relatives— with the middle zone. In medieval and early modern Christendom, however, the tripartite continental division of the world led most scholars to identify Ham’s descendants with Africa, those of Shem with Asia (or at least western Asia), and those of Japheth with Europe. Early attempts at serious linguistic classification remained within this general framework. The precursor of formal historical linguistics in England, the physician and antiquarian James Parsons (1705-1770), viewed the deep similarities across many European languages as evidence of descent from a common ancestral tongue, which he linked to Japheth. Although the use of the term “Japhethic” to denote the Indo-European language family was abandoned long ago, the Noahic scheme lingers on: “Semitic,” a subfamily of the Afroasiatic languages, derives its name from Shem, while “Cushitic,” another subfamily in the same group, stems from Cush, the eldest son of Ham. (The term “Hamitic,” long used to cover all of the non-Semitic Afroasiatic languages of Africa, was abandoned only in the 1960s after Joseph Greenberg showed that these languages did not descend from a single common ancestor.)

jonesThe celebrated founder of Indo-European studies, Sir William Jones (1746-1794), remained wedded to a Biblical vision of the past. Jones, a well-trained philologist working as a civil servant with the British East India Company in Calcutta, realized that Sanskrit was related to Greek and Latin, and probably to Gothic, Celtic, and Persian as well. As he put it, the resemblances between Sanskrit, Latin, and Classical Greek are so profound that “no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists…” Thus was born the idea of an Indo-European linguistic family, along with that of a long-lost proto-Indo-European ancestral tongue (although these terms were coined much later). But as Thomas Trautmann explains in Aryans and British India, the modernity of Jones’s comparative linguistics was compromised by his pre-modern ethnographic convictions and designs. Jones’s ultimate project apparently aimed at “recovering the lost language of Noah and of Adam through the comparison of vocabularies” (p. 52). To square the kinship of Sanskrit with the languages of Europe within the Biblical narrative, Jones had to reorient the territory of Noah’s three lines of descent. In his retelling, the children of Ham settled in India and Egypt, where they “invented letters, observed and named the stars and planets,” and otherwise created civilization; later movements brought these same people to Greece, India, northern Europe and perhaps even Mexico and Peru (Trautmann 52). In Jones’s idiosyncratic view, the descendants of Japheth were not the Europeans, but rather the pastoral peoples of Central Asia and perhaps even the stateless tribes of the Americas—groups that he claimed “cultivat[ed] no liberal arts” and had “no use for letters” (Trautmann 52).  Such a view represented an inversion of mainstream European accounts, which celebrated the Japhethic line of Europe while denigrating the progeny of Ham in Africa and, in some accounts, southern and eastern Asia as well.

Jones’s eccentric revision of the story of Noah’s sons had little influence on other scholars, as it rested on fanciful migration scenarios that challenged mainstream biblical understanding. In the long run, however, his linguistic research led to work that undermined religiously inspired ethnography. To be sure, the Noahic thesis continued to have its adherents throughout the 1800s. In the 1850s, the forerunner of “scientific racism,” Arthur de Gobineau, accepted the narrative of Noah’s sons, although he regarded all three as progenitors of the White race, as he did not think that that non-Whites descended from Adam. By the late 1800s, however, academic scholars could no longer invoke the Bible to sketch the contours of prehistory.

The work of Jones and his successors forced European scholars to grapple with the deep connections between the peoples of Europe and those of South Asia. Traditional “universal” histories produced in Christendom had limited their attention to western Asia, Europe, and North Africa, areas known from the Bible and classical literature. Such works typically dispensed with India and areas further east with a few dismissive paragraphs. Such a blinkered view had been challenged by Voltaire and other philosophes of the French Enlightenment, but their assessments were dismissed by both religious stalwarts and European chauvinists. With the rise of comparative philology, however, the Enlightenment’s ecumenical perspective received a temporary boost. Jones’s successors in Britain and India in the early 1800s continued to delve into Sanskrit linguistics and literature, examining as well the relationship between Sanskrit and other South Asian languages. In doing so, these Orientalist scholars emphasized the antiquity and the sophistication of the Indian tradition. At the same time, continental European researchers such as Franz Bopp and Rasmus Rask put the study of historical linguistics on a sound scientific basis, outlining systematic laws of sound change and grammatical transformation. Such work solidified the historical linkages among the languages, and hence the cultures and peoples, of northern India, Persia, and Europe.

Max_MullerOf signal importance to this endeavor was the German scholar of Sanskrit, Max Müller, who long taught at Oxford. Müller coined the term “Aryan,” derived from Sanskrit texts, to denote the original group of people whose language spread so broadly and diversified so extensively. The Aryan homeland, he suspected, lay in Central Asia, probably in Bactria (northern Afghanistan), a theory currently supported by the noted linguist Johanna Nichols. To Müller and many of his fellow Orientalists, the differences in physical appearance between Europeans and their Indian relatives was superficial; the latter had darker skin merely because of their ancestors’ prolonged exposure to the sun. The revealed kinship of what later became known as the Indo-European peoples fostered deep interest in India and, to a lesser extent, Persia. As knowledge accumulated, a veritable “Indomania” grabbed hold in a few corners of European intellectual life.

The resulting respect accorded to India, however, generated a strong reaction, a movement propelled as well by the intensifying economic and technological divergence of Europe and Asia and by the steady advance of Western imperialism. In philosophy, Hegel and most of his heirs disdained all things Indian in withering terms, while in Britain utilitarian thinkers such as James Mill disparaged Indian civilization and attacked its Orientalist defenders, contending that progress in South Asia could only be realized by wholesale Westernization. But at least Mill and his fellow British liberals believed that progress in India was possible; as the 19th century wore on, the rise of so-called racial science led to a ratcheting up of anti-Asian antipathy and other forms of bigotry, a movement that would culminate in the horrors of the Holocaust.


*Genesis 10 explicitly states that the various Noahic descent groups developed their own languages, while the next chapter, Genesis 11, which recounts the story of the Tower of Babel, tells us that all people at the time spoke the same language. Current-day Biblical literalists deal with this seeming contradiction by arguing that the sequencing of the Bible does not necessarily reflect chronological order, and that as a result many of the passages in Genesis 10 recount episodes that occurred after the events outlined in Genesis 11. In Christian literalist circles today, the origin of human diversity is largely explained on the basis of the “confounding of languages” that followed the construction of the Tower of Babel, although the story of the sons of Noah still figures prominently as well.



The Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies, Part I Read More »

The Hazards of Formal Geographical Modeling in Bouckaert et al.—and Elsewhere

The linguistic and historical failings of the Bouckaert et al. Science article have been examined in previous posts and will be revisited in subsequent ones. The model’s cartographic miscues have also been dissected. The present post takes on the more abstract geographical issues associated with the authors’ approach.

The Bouckaert et al. article is overtly geographical. “Mapping” is the first word in its title, and the second sentence focuses on “explicit geographical models.” But the geographical model employed is so stripped of substance as to become almost anti-geographical. No allowances are made for actual geographical features other than the basic differentiation of “land” and “water” (with the latter term apparently meaning “seas and oceans”). In one of several sub-models employed, the authors assume that “movement into water is less likely than movement into land by a factor of 100.” But the ease of movement over water depends on the technology at hand and the cultural proclivities of the people in question. Would one ever make such an assumption when modeling the spread of the Austronesian language family, which depended on the double-outrigger canoe? The language map of the Philippines posted here clearly shows that in this case it is water that links linguistic communities and land, specifically the mountainous interiors of the main islands, that separates them. It is also notable that those who model pre-modern transportation networks generally assume that movement over water is vastly more efficient than movement over land.*

In the Bouckaert et al. model, geography is essentially reduced to geometry, which in turn becomes merely a matter of distances and directions. Mountains, passes, rivers, badlands, dense forests, and so on account for nothing. Such a stripped-down view of geography is convenient for mathematical modeling, but only at the expense of truth. We know from numerous historical studies that the movement of peoples (which is not necessarily the same as the movement of languages) is often guided by variation in the physical landscape. Agricultural settlers typically sought out appropriate soils, such as loess in the case of Neolithic farmers venturing into central Europe; heavy clay soils were avoided for millennia. Pastoralists, by the same token, sought out good pastures; it is no accident that the equestrian Magyars, like the Huns and Eurasian Avars before them, settled on the grassy Alföld of the Danubian Basin. Agricultural settlers, like the supposed carriers of Indo-European languages in the Bouckaert model, do not simply “diffuse” over a landscape like pathogens jumping from host to host. The process is rather more intentional, and much more molded by the variegated features of actual physical landscapes.

Bouckaert and company’s modeling is by no means the first attempt to flatten geography into geometry. I am particularly concerned about this maneuver because an earlier attempt to do the same thing within geography greatly weakened the discipline. I am often asked why geography is such a weak field in the United States, absent from most leading universities. The issue is complicated, but a key event was geography’s own “quantitative revolution” in the early 1960s, an intellectually aggressive refashioning the discipline into a positivistic, statistics-dominated “science” centered around the discovery of supposedly invariant spatial laws. To allow the statistical methods that the young revolutionaries favored, geography had to be reduced to distance and direction. Most of their studies began by assuming that the landscape being investigated—or merely hypothesized—was an “isotropic plain,” completely uniform and featureless in all directions. Such an assumption rules out everything that differentiates actual landscapes. The main result was mathematically elegant but empirically questionable and often worthless conceptual structures.

A prime example of geography losing its way was Central Place Theory, initially developed in Germany in the 1930s and then celebrated by Anglo-American geographers as a conceptual breakthrough in the 1960s. Central Place Theory postulates that the distribution of cities and towns of various sizes follows regular hexagonal patterns generated automatically by retail marketing behavior. The theory is almost entirely deductive, beginning with a set of assumptions and then working out their logical consequences. The assumptions**, however, do not hold, and as a result the theory did not work as promised. It is true that in some relatively flat areas urban patterns approximate the expected form, but in such cases administrative hierarchies generally played a much larger role than retail marketing. In regard to the United States, moreover, geographer James Vance showed in the early 1970s that wholesaling was far more important that retailing in determining the location and relative standing of major cities. Vance was attacked at the time not so much for being incorrect as for challenging the new theoretical underpinnings of a discipline in the desperate thrall of physics envy.

It is difficult to exaggerate the damage done to geography by the quantitative revolution. Suddenly, cultural and historical geography were deemed trivial, widely viewed as examining little more than noise that distracted attention from the underlying spatial laws. Exploring the complex interactions found in any given region now seemed quaint if not pathetic, a mere descriptive exercise deemed insignificant when contrasted with mathematically rigorous and supposedly scientific investigations. For the same reason, world geography—the core of the field, as constituted since antiquity—virtually vanished from the curriculum. Teaching “the world” came to be viewed as the mere cataloging of facts, failing to provide the conceptual purchase necessary for real understanding. Field study in distant lands was for the same reason actively discouraged by many; why go to Ghana and suffer the inconveniences and indignities of travel in a poor country when the same invariant spatial laws could be discovered in Iowa in the comfort of one’s own lab? Armed with such scientific-seeming techniques, geographers could now reach the height of their profession without knowing much of anything about the actual world.

Needless to say, the “laws” discovered by the quantitative revolutionaries of the early 1960s seldom proved very powerful, just as the explanations they offered seldom had much explanatory power. It is no accident that the doyen of the movement, David Harvey, abandoned the entire effort soon after publishing Explanation in Geography. In the early 1970s, Harvey—“the 18th most-cited intellectual of all time in the humanities and social sciences”— abruptly converted to Marxism, a transition followed by many other geographers at the time. Within a few years, radically leftist social theory had displaced positivism as the “cutting edge” of the discipline. Despite the huge intellectual shift that this entailed, including the general rejection of mathematical methods, the insistence on high theory and the corresponding denigration of empirical study remained firmly entrenched. Throughout this period, important geography departments continued to be shuttered by budget-conscious university administrations.

Admittedly, a number of scholars did attempt to link the abstract models of geography’s quantitative revolution to real landscapes, with mixed results. A key figure here was the preeminent historical anthropologist of China, G. William Skinner (1925-2008). Skinner had become enamored of Central Place Theory in the 1960s, which he used to “explain” the location of cities and towns in China’s Sichuan Basin. He later turned his attention to larger regions, brilliantly arguing that the structure of Chinese history had to be conceptualized around a handful of “physiographic macro-regions” loosely coincident with drainage basins. Skinner subsequently tried to integrate such regional analysis with Central Place Theory as well as several other abstract spatial schemas into what he called the “Hierarchical Regional Space Model.” He was convinced that this model applied to any preindustrial agrarian society, and he went to heroic efforts to show that it worked equally well in France and Japan as in China. In the Skinner model, geographic cores and peripheries of varying scales coincide with drainage basins to form all-encompassing spatial structures. Everything from the average age of marriage to the average wage rate was supposedly predicated on positioning within such highly structured spaces. Unfortunately for Skinner, empirical verification proved elusive, and his project essentially came to naught. All that his three decades of lavishly funded research produced was a few minor articles and a massive, idiosyncratic cartographic archive. As it turns out, human geography is an intrinsically complex affair that is not so easily reduced to clean conceptual structures.




More recently, genuine progress has been made in applying technical analysis to geographical issues. The key has been to use such techniques as tools rather than ends in themselves. Geographical Information Systems (GIS), for example, offer no “explanations” on its own, but rather allows scholars to more effectively uncover patterns and visualize evidence and complexity, as noted by Andrew Zolnai in a comment on the previous GeoCurrents post.

Quentin Atkinson claims that he would like to refine his own model of Indo-European expansion to encompass actual geographical variation beyond the land/water dichotomy. Doing so would surely be advantageous, but as long as his underlying assumptions fail to withstand scrutiny, the end result will still be untenable. Again, this is not to argue that abstract models are of no use in geographical or historical analysis, but only to insist that they be applied with great care.

* For an impressive model of the transportation networks of the Roman Empire, see Orbis: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World.

** Walter Christaller, who originated Central Place Theory, made the following assumptions, as outlined on the Wikipedia article on the theory:

▪                an unbounded isotropic (all flat), homogeneous, limitless surface (abstract space)

▪                an evenly distributed population

▪                all settlements are equidistant and exist in a triangular lattice pattern

▪                evenly distributed resources

▪                distance decay mechanism

▪                perfect competition and all sellers are economic people maximizing their profits

▪                consumers are of the same income level and same shopping behaviour

▪                all consumers have a similar purchasing power and demand for goods and services

▪                Consumers visit the nearest central places that provide the function which they demand. They minimize the distance to be travelled. No provider of goods or services is able to earn excess profit (each supplier has a monopoly over a hinterland)


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Geographical Fantasies in Foreign Policy Magazine

Warnings about the impending “decline of the West,” which date back at least to 1918*, have grown increasingly common in recent years—as have works debunking such predictions. The most recent entry in the latter category is an article in the current edition of Foreign Policy by Bruce Jones and Thomas Wright entitled “Meet the GUTS,” the wordy subtitle of which reads, “The West Isn’t Declining. Here Are Four World Powers Enjoying an Astonishing Renaissance.” Although Jones and Wright make some cogent points about differential economic growth and political clout, their spatial framing of the issue is pure fantasy, based on the redefinition of basic concepts of world geography to fit their strained arguments.

The newly coined term “GUTS” refers to the four countries that are supposedly leading the Western “renaissance”: Germany, the United States, Turkey and South Korea. Whether these states are actually experiencing a sustained resurgence that will refashion international relations is highly debatable: Germany is beset with the Euro-zone crisis, the U.S. remains economically troubled and hamstrung by political gridlock, mounting inflation threatens to undermine Turkey’s recent boom, and South Korea, with one of the world’s lowest birthrates, faces an impending demographic implosion. But regardless of their economic standings, how can Turkey and especially South Korea be so casually classified as “Western” countries? South Korea, after all, lies at the eastern extremity of the Eurasian continent, the landmass that gave rise to the supposed global division separating “the West” from “the East.”

The longitudinal divide that yielded “the West” and “the East” has a long and complex history, as analyzed at some length in The Myth of Continents. In simplified terms, the idea traces back to the division of the Roman Empire under Constantine, and was reinforced by the much later split with Christianity between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Western tradition (Roman Catholicism and later Protestantism as well). In the modern era, the geographical focus of the West grew less stable, but it generally remained focused on Western Europe and its North American offshoot. The idea of the “East,” in contrast, separated into two separate concepts, that of a cultural East (or “Orient”), largely coincident with “Asian Civilizations,” and that of the geopolitical East, which tended to focus on Russia. During the Cold War, geopolitical framing usually prevailed, pitting a Soviet-dominated East against a West defined around the NATO alliance. During this period, industrialized East Asian allies of the U.S., especially Japan, were occasionally associated with the West, but their far-eastern locations, along with their non-Western cultural and historical backgrounds, usually kept them out of the so-called Western World. The “Western Civilization” courses that once formed a mainstay of U.S. college education, for example, had no room for Japanese or Korean history.

With the end of the Cold War such geographical framing ceased to be appropriate, and as a result the concept of the geopolitical East, much like the closely related idea of the “Second World,” essentially disappeared. Yet Cold-War thinking still undergirds Jones and Wright’s definition of “the West.” South Korea is a Western country, they tell us, because it is “one of America’s oldest and most reliable allies.” By the same token, Turkey’s NATO membership, along with its basically democratic governance, is viewed as placing it firmly within the Western camp.

But if Jones and Wright define the West on strategic, geopolitical grounds, how do they frame its rival, the region of the world that it is supposedly competing with? Here they focus on the “rise of the BRICs,” which has been associated with the “supposed decline of the Western powers.” But the so-called BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—are tied together by nothing beyond the facts that they are large and have experienced significant economic growth over the past decade. India and China are actually regional rivals, and democratically governed India has been building close economic and military ties with “the West” in recent years. Brazil, moreover, is much more easily construed as a “Western” country than is South Korea if one moves beyond narrow strategic considerations.

Regardless of what “the West” is pitted against, it is highly questionable whether the region, as defined by Jones and Wright, has any real coherence. I suspect that few Koreans would place their country within the Western World, and that many more would take offence at any such notion. In Turkey the issue can be assessed more directly. When the country was under authoritarian rule, it certainly inclined toward Western Europe and the United States, but under democratic rule the Turkish electorate has essentially rejected the notion that Turkey is a fundamentally Western country. Public opinion polling, moreover, shows that most Turks view the United States and Western Europe in unfavorable terms, in part because of the deep cultural and social divisions that separate their country from “the West.”

Lest one accuse Jones and Wright of being too optimistic about “Western” prospects, that admit that “the West is also hobbled by four countries that have yet to recover from the financial crisis: Britain, France, Italy, and Japan.” Including Japan in the West is of course as problematic as including South Korea. And placing Britain in the same economic category as Italy and Japan betrays a distressingly short-term sense of economic trajectories. But perhaps we can be relieved that the authors did not frame the lagging foursome as the “BIFJs,” as they think that acronyms have real significance, concluding their article with the observation that, “Perhaps these rising powers need an acronym if they are to be taken seriously. Is it time for the BRICS to meet the GUTS of the West?”

Between the rising GUTS and the languishing “BIFJs,” Jones and Wright locate a single intermediate Western country, Australia. They admit that Australia has done very well economically in recent years, caution that it “has not had the impact of a rising power,” yet go on to state that its “geographical position, close security relationship with the United States, and vast energy supplies means it is likely to become more influential in global politics”—seemingly implying that the GUTS may soon become the GUTAS. But what of Canada, a significantly more populous and economically powerful country than Australia? As is so often the case in U.S. publications, Canada simply goes unmentioned.

*1918 was the year in which the first volume of Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (or Decline of the West) was published.


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Sebouh Aslanian’s Remarkable Reconstruction of an Early Modern Trade Network

In the field of world history, the idea of the “trade diaspora” looms large. Before the development of modern transportation, communication, and finance, long-distance merchants not only had to develop skills in cross-cultural negotiation, but also had to establish the trust with one another that would allow them to move goods and money over vast distances. In the mercantile diaspora model, certain ethnic groups are viewed as having developed specializations in both long-distance trade and the cultural brokerage services that it demanded, deriving trust with their fellow merchants largely by virtue of belonging to the same ethnic community. In the early modern Eastern Hemisphere, the most important of such trade diasporas was probably that of the Armenians, as was explored in a previous GeoCurrents post.

In an important new book, Sebouh David Aslanian shows that the actual situation faced by Armenian long-distance merchants in the early modern period was rather more complicated than that. In From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of the Armenian Merchants from New Julfa, Aslanian is able to trace out in great detail the activities of a number of individual merchants, thanks in good part to his discovery and analysis of a large trove of primary documents. As he demonstrates, trust did not flow naturally from Armenian cultural solidarity. The Armenians merchants based in New Julfa, a suburb of the Persian capital of Isfahan, generally trusted only fellow New Julfans, not other Armenians. As a result, Aslanian argues, their activities formed not an ethnically based trade diaspora, but rather a mercantile network, one with a primary hub (New Julfa), a number of nodes, and many spokes. He further shows that trust demanded much more than a common upbringing in New Julfa. Wealthy financiers entrusted their agents, who might trade and travel for decades, with large amounts of cash, and hence demanded accountability. Family members of wandering merchants were sometimes treated essentially as hostages back in New Julfa. And when an agent finally returned, he had to present detailed account books to his sponsor; if his sums failed to square, he could be subjected to the bastinado—the torture of having the soles of his feet beaten, an excruciatingly painful procedure. Aslanian also shows how gossip about merchants’ reputation helped the system function smoothly. Due to the presence of overlapping networks, one mercantile in nature, another run by the Armenian Apostolic Church, information about the activities and trustworthiness of individual merchants circulated widely.

From a purely geographical point of view, one of Aslanian’s most important contributions is his literal mapping out of the travels of two particular New Julfa merchants. He was able to construct this map due to the diligence of the Spanish Inquisition in the Philippines. When Armenian merchants arrived in Manila, where Peruvian and Mexican silver was very profitably exchanged for Chinese silk and porcelain, many chose—quite conveniently—to convert to Roman Catholicism, which required meeting the inquisitors. The office of the Inquisition would then record the converts’ life histories, providing Aslanian with the data necessary to construct this remarkable map.

Note how widely these two particular merchants traveled. Both went back and forth among Manila, Canton, and southern India on several occasions. More remarkable was the fact that one of the individuals also journeyed extensively in Europe and Russia, sailing twice from Amsterdam to Archangel. This map surely deserves a place in world history textbook alongside those of other noted travelers of the pre-steamship age, such as Ibn Batutta and Zheng He.

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Geography and Science Fiction: the Creation of Realistic Alternative Worlds

Map of Imaginary Planet, Earth 2(Note to readers: As GeoCurrents is technically on vacation, it seems like a good time to explore an issue that falls outside of the blog’s basic field of concern. For the next week, posts will focus on speculative fiction, culminating with the free release of my own science fiction novel, Terranova: The Black Petaltail, on this website. Regular GeoCurrents posts on matters of geography and history will begin again in the second week of January.)

Fantasy can be an entryway into serious geographical and historical thought. While preparing several GeoCurrents posts, I have come across deeply informed discussions of obscure historical topics in game-players’ discussion boards. Map-making is also taken seriously by authors and fans of science fiction and fantasy literature. Those who base their stories or games on alternative worlds are especially drawn to cartographic depiction and historical timelines. Such efforts sometimes go well beyond the mere limning of lands and waters, showing such deeper structures as tectonic plates.

Several websites offer tools and advice for building one’s own imaginary planet. The Fractal Worldmap Generator, for example, allows the easy construction of realistic fantasy cartography in several projections; all one has to do is specify what percentages of a sphere should be covered with water and ice. The Elfwood site, advertised as “The World’s Largest SciFi and Fantasy Community,” provides detailed geographical advice for would-be world-makers, even providing elementary instruction in climatology. The Wikipedia article on “world-building” also offers basic lessons, informing readers, for example, that “a forest will typically form in locations with higher levels of rainfall. Where the prevailing winds cross a mountainous rise, the forest will appear on the windward side where moisture tends to be deposited.”

Map of Imaginary Planet with Environmental ZonesWhether such remedial education is adequate to the task is another matter. To truly construct a realistic Earth-like world requires the kind of knowledge provided by a college-level course in physical geography; not a few enthusiasts have created handsome worlds that embody glaring geographical contradictions. Consider, for example, the maps posted here. In Earth 2, the brown areas, presumably deserts or semi-deserts, are mostly situated in such necessarily humid areas as the equatorial zone, the upper-mid latitudes on the west side of the largest continent, and the subtropics on the east side of the same landmass. The second map (“Environmental Zones of the Three Continents”), depicting a different imaginary world, does a better job. Note, however, the equatorial desert in the west, as well as the woodlands to its north at around twenty degrees, an area that ought to be desert.* For such patterns to exist, the basic parameters of physics would have to be changed, putting us not merely in an alternative world but in an alternative universe.

Such quibbles may seem pedantic—they certainly do to my own children. Perhaps it would be better to stress how far the genre has advanced over the past several decades. In earlier years, most Earth-like planets in science fiction were not just geographically incorrect, but positively simpleminded. Human- (or humanoid-) inhabited globes were routinely imagined not as richly variegated worlds but as simple, uniform places. These kinds of planets represent not alter-worlds so much as samples of our own terrestrial sphere, the geographical equivalents of one-dimensional human characters embodying particular traits. Such failings have been strikingly pronounced in the two largest science fiction franchises, Star Trek and Star Wars. Both series are richly imaginative and consistently thought-provoking, and I have enjoyed them for decades. In terms of basic geography, however, Star Trek and Star Wars leave much to be desired.

Star Trek, Gamma Trianguli VI In the original Star Trek television series, which aired from 1966 to 1969, entire planets were portrayed as individual neighborhoods. In almost every episode, the show’s protagonists could stroll to all significant places on a given world once they had beamed down from their spaceship. Such a narrow scope, admittedly, was all but dictated by the series’ restricted budget and special-effects limitations. Yet the much more lavishly produced second Star Trek series, The Next Generation, was little different. Indeed, its world-building capabilities sometimes seem to have declined. Compare, for example, the planet Gamma Trianguli VI from “The Apple” (1968) with the world that lent its name to the episode entitled “Angel One” (1988). Although the view of Gamma Trianguli VI from the deck of the starship Enterprise gets the cloud patterns wrong (no mid-latitude spiral bands, no thunderheads of an inter-tropical convergence zone), the planet’s topography looks reasonably Earth-like. Angel One, on the other hand, appears more like Neptune: one glance tells you that this is not a place where a mammal from Earth would be able to breathe. Yet when the crew beams down, they encounter nothing alien whatsoever—other than the fact that the women of Angel One physically dominate the men.

Star Trek, Angel One In the Star Wars franchise, planets tend to be far more fully realized. Rather then being reducible to intimate locales that can be effectively covered on foot, they form expansive spaces that demand mechanized transport. Yet few are depicted as having Earth-like complexity and variation. Instead, they tend to form single environments: if some are completely desertic, others are wholly forested. The films also feature grassland planets, swamp planets, ocean planets, and even a completely urbanized planet packed with a trillion inhabitants. Some worlds are described as entirely temperate, others (impossibly) as completely tropical.** Most of the planets of Star Wars, in other words, are not worlds at all, but rather expanded stand-ins for particular ecotypes on Earth.

Star Wars, Hoth and Tauntauns Some of the environmentally restricted Star Wars planets are more realistically imagined than others. An ice-covered, perennially frozen sphere, for example, remains within the realm of plausibility. In our universe, such a planet would not be capable of supporting macroscopic life of the kind found on Earth. In the Star Wars galaxy, however, Hoth is fully ice-bound, yet supports massive mammalian species. What could such large herbivores as tauntauns possibly eat? Such niceties were ignored in the original film, but Star Wars “Expanded Universe” sources attempt to provide answers. Hoth, we are told, is replete with “under-ice caves containing large lichen fields … on which Tauntauns feed.” Interesting idea, but physically impossible; ice is not stable enough to support long-lasting, light-filled caves of the size necessary to support such ecosystems.

Some authors of SciFi and fantasy have elaborated complex geographical patterns, creating what seem to be fully realized alter-worlds. But complexity does not guarantee geographical accuracy, as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post.

*On Earth, deserts are found on the west sides of continents between around 18 and 30 degrees of latitude, and in continental interiors, especially where mountains block prevailing winds. (Note that Afro-Eurasia forms a single continent in this regard.) The exceptions that do exist are generally explainable by oceanic currents, which in turn can be deduced from the basic patterns of land and sea.

** “The tropics” is by definition a restricted latitudinal belt: the zone where the sun is directly overhead at noon once a year (twice at the Equator). A planet whose axis is tiled 90 degrees relative to its orbit around its sun would in this sense be entirely “tropical,” as all areas would experience a mid-day sun angle of 90 degrees. But it would by no means possess a uniformly “tropical” climate, as most areas would experience prolonged periods of the year with little or no sunlight. Even at the equator of such a planet, the sun would not rise above the horizon on the two solstices.


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Thomas Friedman’s Afghanistan Fantasies

Wikipedia Map of the Persian Safavid Empire

Wikipedia Map of the Persian Safavid EmpireOn November 1, 2011, noted New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman implicitly placed the United States in “a long list of suckers,” a roster composed of countries that had been foolish enough to invade Afghanistan. Friedman came up with the idea while on a tour of historical sites in northern India. When told by a guide that in the late 1500s a “great battle” had followed a Persian attempt to conquer the Afghan cities of Herat and Kandahar, Friedman “had to laugh” at the foolishness of the endeavor. Iran, in his mind, had just been added to the register of feckless “countries certain that controlling Afghanistan’s destiny was vital to their national security.” Friedman concluded his column by arguing that the United States would be wise to pull out of Afghanistan and attempt instead to influence local military contingents and regional powers from afar. Such a course, he claims, would be both more cost-efficient and more effective than trying to maintain U.S. armed forces in the country indefinitely.

I have no complaints against Friedman’s recommendations, but that is beside the point, as advocating or criticizing specific policies is beyond the scope of GeoCurrents. I do, however, have major objections against his use of historical and geographical evidence to bolster his position. Rather than engaging in serious geo-historical reflection, Friedman merely trots out the hackneyed idea that Afghanistan is the perennial graveyard of empires, a country singularly resistant to foreign rule. In reducing the complex history of the region to a crude stereotype that pertains at best only to the 19th and 20th centuries, Friedman discredits his own analysis.

Map of Persian Safavid EmpireThe basic errors in Friedman’s historical reconstruction are pervasive and deep. Let us begin with his initial paragraph. Following his Indian tour guide, Friedman states that in the late 1500s “Afghanistan was part of India and the Moghul Empire.” Actually, in the late 16th century “Afghanistan” was nothing at all, as the country did not exist until 1747. More to the point, the western and northern portions of the territory that now forms Afghanistan generally remained outside of the fluctuating boundaries of the Moghul Empire. Through most of  the late 1500s and 1600s, the western region was part of the Persian (Safavid) Empire, which at times controlled most of what is now Afghanistan. As the map of the Safavid Empire shows, the Uzbek Khanate also vied for power across much of the region. In cultural and historical terms, however, Persian-speaking Herat—the “Pearl of Khorasan”— is much more a Persian city than an Afghan one. Herat was not permanently annexed by Afghanistan until the mid-1800s, and without British military assistance the Afghans might have lost the city to the Qajar Dynasty of Persia on several occasions.

In the final analysis, any late 16th century battles over Herat and Kandahar were simply typical struggles along the frontiers of expansive empires, rather than examples of the pointlessness of invading the unconquerable terrain of Afghanistan. Friedman’s secondary contention, that “Afghanistan” was “part of India” in the late 1500s makes even less sense. In the 16th century, “India” was merely a vague geographical expression used by European that included Southeast Asia (“Farther India”) and in some circumstances extended across East Asia to encompass the Americas. Subsequently, India came to be defined (in certain circumstances) on physical grounds as the South Asian subcontinent; “India” in this sense includes southern Afghanistan up to the crest of the Hindu Kush, but not northern Afghanistan, which has instead been classified as part of Central Asia.

Map of the Growth of Afghanistan in the 1800sFriedman’s column moves on from the Persian-Mughal struggles in the late 1500s to the so-called Great Game of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the British and Russian empires vied for influence in the borderlands between Central and South Asia. Once more, Friedman takes a limited historical episode and transforms it into a permanent geo-historical feature: “it is worth … recalling for how many centuries great powers — from India to Persia, from Britain to Russia, and now from America to Iran, Turkey and Pakistan — have wrestled for supremacy in this region, in different versions of what came to be called “The Great Game.” Yes, “great powers” have often “wrestled for supremacy” in the region under consideration, but the same thing can be said about many other parts of the earth. And the notion that Turkey is now seeking “supremacy” in Afghanistan is too outlandish to merit discussion.

After discussing “the Great Game,” Friedman rapidly segues to the US decision to remove its armed forces from Iraq, writing as if it were part of the same story: “Just as I don’t buy the notion that we need to keep playing The Great Game in Iraq, I also don’t buy it for Afghanistan.” Here he unmoors the concept of the “Great Game” from its Central Asian geographical context as well as from its late 19th century historical milieu, framing it as a permanent, trans-historical, trans-regional dynamic. I “don’t buy” this analogy: although there are many similarities between the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, differences also abound. In the end, understanding is not advanced by forcing these conflicts into a common mold based on regional competition between the British and Russian empires in the late 1800s.

As regular GeoCurrents reader have seen, I am suspicious of the idea of the nation-state. In particular, I find the commonplace notion that all countries are automatically united across their territorial extents by the common bonds of national solidarity both simplistic in conception and dangerous when used to guide foreign policy. Afghanistan has never formed a coherent nation-state. It originated in the 18th century as the conquest empire of the Pashtun warlord Ahmad Shah Durrani, founded on the military subjugation of diverse peoples scattered across an vast area that had never previously been politically united. This “Durrani Empire” subsequently weakened and was whittled back to its Pashtun core. Its successor state, the Emirate of Afghanistan, saw its boundaries drastically fluctuate, as mid- and late-19th century conquests brought in Tajik, Uzbek, and other non-Pashtun areas, while British advances subtracted significant areas in the southeast. Borders were finally stabilized in the late 1800s, but they remain contentious to this day; Afghanistan does not recognize the validity of the Durand Line that separates its territory from that of Pakistan. Equally pertinent, many Tajiks, Uzbeks and members of other minority groups in the country have at best marginal loyalty to any entity called Afghanistan, which they continue to suspect as a potential vehicle for Pashtun domination.

If the idea of intrinsic unity is problematic when applied to a state as feeble and disunited as contemporary Afghanistan, it is positively pernicious when retroactively applied to the territory of modern Afghanistan as it existed in previous centuries. Such an idea is implicitly deployed, however, whenever anyone describes the country as the “Graveyard of Empires,” a geo-historical cliché that will be the subject of the next GeoCurrents post.


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Where Is Southern Africa?

Maps of Indicating Different Definitions of Southern AfricaRecent GeoCurrents posts have focused on Southern Africa. The regional boundaries, however, has not been defined. What exactly, one might ask, does Southern Africa encompass? It obviously includes South Africa, but what other countries, or parts of countries, are slotted into the region? As is often the case with broad geographical designations, the answer remains elusive. Although the initial “s” in “Southern” is usually capitalized, indicating usage as a specific place-name rather than as a vague locational referent, different sources define the region in strikingly different ways. As a result, one can rarely be sure exactly what an author means when he or she discusses “Southern Africa.”

Wikipedia's Map of Three Southern Africas The Wikipedia article on Southern Africa notes that the term is “variably defined,” but goes on to specify three standard definitions, two formal and one informal. The first is that employed by the United Nations in its “geoscheme” of global division, used primarily for organizing statistical information. The U.N.’s “Southern Africa” is of minimal scope, composed only of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland. (The same five countries also constitute the Southern African Customs Union, regarded as the oldest customs union in the world). The Wikipedia’s second definition follows the membership roll of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), generating a much larger region; this version of Southern Africa, including both Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, covers almost the entire southern half of the continent. But as the article notes, DR Congo is more commonly placed in Central Africa while Tanzania is usually classified as part of Eastern Africa. As a result, the article goes on to outline an informal, “geographic” Southern Africa of “general usage.” This region essentially takes in everything south of DR Congo, including all of the islands of the western Indian Ocean (Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion, Comoros, Mayotte, and Seychelles).

In actuality, “general usage” is much too variable to constitute any precisely defined “Southern Africa.” Many sources exclude the Indian Ocean islands, due both to their insular locations and to their distinctive cultural histories. Others seem to pick and choose countries at will, as revealed by the selection of maps culled from an internet image search for “Southern Africa map.” One view of the region adds Zimbabwe to the UN five, another adds Mozambique, another tacks on Zambia as well as Mozambique and Zimbabwe (while apparently excluding Lesotho and Swaziland), another includes all of these countries as well as Malawi and the British Atlantic territory of St. Helena, another takes in Madagascar and environs as well, another subtracts the islands while incorporating Angola and Tanzania, another extends as far north as Kenya, and yet another encompasses even Uganda. A few map of the region, moreover, deviate from the state-based framework. The Southern Africa of South African bird watchers, for example, includes southern but not northern Mozambique. The most aberrant example that I have found, the “walking safari map of southern Africa, takes in most of Zambia, most of Zimbabwe, part of Botswana, and nothing else.

Directionally defined geographical regions tend toward ambiguity. At the global scale, even so basic a term as “the West” can refer in some contexts to an area no larger than northwestern Europe, yet in others can take in almost half of the world (see the discussion in The Myth of Continents). Similar discrepancies are encountered in regard to the global South, East, and North. Directionally labeled regions defined from a particular vantage point tend to be particularly slippery. The “Middle East,” for example, is in the “middle” of the “the East” as seen from London or Paris; as result, Morocco and Algeria are by definition excluded from the region; due to cultural considerations, however, they often slip in nonetheless. Historical change can also generate spatial slippage; the area that is now called the Middle East is deemed the Near East when it comes to studies of the ancient world, when the core of the West is regarded to have been the Greek and Italian peninsulas. The same deviation can apply to sub-national regions as well; in the United States, the Midwest is not located in the middle of the West, but rather entirely to its east.

Most of the time, such ambiguity is of little account, as it hardly matters exactly what area is referenced when one writes about “Southern Africa” or “the West.” In some circumstances, however, such terms are applied with precision, which can result in confusion if one remains unaware of the fact. Just last month, for example, I received a letter from a prospective graduate student interested in studying Cambodian history through Stanford University’s program in South Asian Studies. I had to inform him that as far as academia is concerned, Cambodia is located not in South Asia but in Southeast Asia, and that Stanford has no program to speak of in Southeast Asian Studies. He did not write back.

Map of UN Geoscheme of Global Division Due to such potential confusion, it might prove beneficial to have a mutually agreed-upon set of such regional designations, at least for scholarly purposes. I would find it useful, for example, to be able to deploy such terms as “Southern Africa” in an exact sense, taking for granted that educated readers would understand what part of the world I am referencing. But no such unambiguous divisional system is available. One might consider using the United Nations’ “geoscheme,” but it is too idiosyncratic to be of much utility, as it expands Eastern Africa beyond recognition, places Iran in “Southern Asia,” classifies Mexico as part of Central America, and so on. The most glaring infelicity in the UN scheme is its inclusion of South Sudan in Northern Africa. By no reasonable criterion does South Sudan belong in this region. To begin with, the new country is located much closer to the center of the continent than to its northern coast. One could even argue, moreover, that its very non-North-African nature led South Sudan to seek and gain independence from the Khartoum regime. One can only hope that the U.N. will reassign South Sudan to Central or Eastern Africa, either of which would be a far more appropriate designation.

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The Ambiguities of Sovereignty in Early Modern Central Europe

Locator map of the Electorate of Saxony

Locator map of the Electorate of SaxonyMost current-day mapping of central Europe during the early modern period (1500-1800) emphasizes the division of the so-called Holy Roman Empire into its constituent states. Detailed maps, readily available online, delineate every kingdom, duchy, principality, imperial city, and politically independent archbishopric and bishopric within the empire, as is evident in the impressive Wikipedia map locating the Electorate of Saxony posted here. In this portrayal, the so-called imperial states are depicted as units of the same type, existing at the same level of the political hierarchy, regardless of size and significance. In one sense, such a view is appropriate, capturing an important aspect of the constitutional order of the Holy Roman Empire. Regardless of their size, the polities depicted on the map enjoyed “imperial immediacy,” which meant that they fell “under the direct authority of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Imperial Diet (Reichstag), without any intermediate liege lord(s).” As neither the emperor nor the diet actually held much authority, such states and statelets can be understood to have possessed what the Wikipedia calls a “form of sovereignty.”

But if the various imperial states of the Holy Roman Empire had sovereignty of a sort, they did not possess the full political autonomy that “sovereignty” now generally denotes. Nor were they conceptualized at the time as equivalent units. Archdukes and their archduchies outranked dukes and their duchies, just as the latter outclassed counts and their counties; hierarchy was intrinsic to the system. In the Imperial Diet itself, moreover, different kinds of states were weighed differently. The imperial free cities, for example, had only an advisory role in the Reichstag, while many minor counts and prelates were grouped together in “colleges” that had only a single vote.

Vaugondy map of Germany, 1751In the geographical imagination of the time, the minor states of the empire were of even less account. In the vast majority of maps produced during the early modern period, no effort was made to depict the quasi-sovereign subsidiary states of the Holy Roman Empire. Most were considered too small to be of significance, and—as explained previously—sovereignty per se was not the main criteria for mapping. Instead, the empire was usually subdivided into a dozen or so regional aggregations, as can be seen in the detail of the Vaugondy map of 1751, posted here. Vaugondy included a few of the Empire’s constituent states, such as the Kingdom of Bohemia, but otherwise his map bears no resemblance to our standard reconstruction of the political geography of early modern Germany. Several of Vaugondy’s regions seem odd to the modern eye, especially his Upper Saxony (Haute Saxe), which included two major states (the Electorate of Saxony in the south and the Electorate of Brandenburg in the north) as well as a number of minor ones. In the modern historical conception, “Upper Saxony” is limited to the “electorate” of the same name, never extending into Brandenburg, which was then linked to Prussia.

Vaugondy’s depiction of Upper Saxony, however, was typical of the time. It was also rooted in the geopolitical structure of the Empire. Like most produced in the eighteenth century, his map referenced an overlapping system of division, the so-called Imperial Circles. These spatial groupings were supposedly organized for defense and taxation, although their powers were marginal. They also had their own Diets, or Kreistags. Not all of the empire, however, was so “encircled.” Some of its smallest divisions remained outside the system, as did some of its largest, including Bohemia—by law the Empire’s only kingdom.* Moreover, As the Wikipedia map posted here shows, the circles were themselves fragmented (intricately so in the case of the Electoral Rhenish Circle). In a word, the Imperial Circles essentially reproduced the decentralized structure of the empire as a whole at the regional scale.

Wikipedia map of Imperial Circles 1560Most early modern cartographers had little interest in mapping such spatial “monstrosities” (as Goethe famously characterized the Holy Roman Empire itself), seeking instead to outline regions with more immediacy in the popular imagination. Vaugondy’s own map of the Holy Roman Empire was only loosely based on its division into imperial circles. Even where the place-names lined up, he made no effort to precisely portray the circles, basing his own bounded units only roughly on their territorial forms. Moreover, several of the areas that he delineated, such as Pomerania, were historically constituted regions with no specific imperial status. A handful of enlightenment geographers, to be sure, did depict the Imperial Circles, as can be seen in the Homann map of 1740. But most produced hybrid images, as in John Cary’s map of “the Circle of Upper Saxony with the Duchy of Silesia and Lusatia.”Homann Map of Imperial CirclesCary Map of Upper Saxony

* During this period, however, the King of Bohemia was the Hapsburg Emperor himself, whose forbears had accumulated a string of possessions and hence titles. Prussia was also, after 1701, styled a “kingdom”—of sorts—but that was possible only because its eastern segment (a Duchy!) lay outside of the boundaries of the Empire. Until 1772, moreover, the monarch had had to call himself “King in Prussia,” rather than the “King of Prussia” in order to maintain appearances. Before 1657, the Duchy of Prussia was held in vassalage from the Kingdom of Poland; in Vaugondy’s map, this section of Prussia is still mapped as part of Poland.

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Geographic Environment, Cultural Diversity, and Liberalism in the Eastern Mediterranean

Map of topography and religious minorities in Syria and Lebanon“The power of mountains to protect makes them asylums of refuge for displaced peoples.” Ellen Churchill Semple, 1911, Influences of Geographic Environment, Chapter 16.

“Great fertility in a narrow coastal belt barred from the interior serves to concentrate and energize the maritime activities of the nation. The 20-mile wide plain stretching along the foot of the Lebanon range from Antioch to Cape Carmel is even now the garden of Syria.” Ellen Churchill Semple, 1911, Influences of Geographic Environment, Chapter, Chapter 8.

In examining the spatial patterns of the eastern Mediterranean, many observers have been struck by the close correlation between mountainous areas and religious diversity. The heartland of the Druze sect is the aptly named Jabal al-Druze, a volcanic cluster of peaks that arises abruptly from the arid plains of southern Syria; other Druze communities are found in the mountains of central Lebanon and in the Golan Heights. The largest Christian population in the region, the Maronites, are concentrated in the Mount Lebanon area; the Alawite community is focused in the An-Nusayriyah Mountains of coastal Syria; and the main Yezidi population is found on and around Sinjar Mountain in the northeast.

The notion of a link between mountainous topography and minority populations was once a widely accepted principle of geography, put forth most eloquently by Ellen Churchill Semple. Since her day, geographers became so wary of environmental determinism that they ceased writing about such linkages. But whatever its causes, the correlation cannot be denied. Consider the language variety of the Caucasus—dubbed by medieval Arab geographers the “mountain of languages”—or of the central highlands of New Guinea. Such diversity does not always stem from “displacement,” as the quote above might indicate. But Semple was correct in noting the “refuge” often afforded by rough terrain. Up to this day, governments have a difficult time controlling, and imposing orthodoxy on, mountainous regions. By the same token, insurgencies often prove more intracatable in highlands than in lowlands. One cannot understand the geography of the Levant without grasping the connection between cultural diversity and upland topography.

Ellen Semple also stressed the cosmopolitan nature of coastal zones that engage in extensive commerce with foreign lands, highlighting Lebanon in the regard. Although Lebanon has its share of religious extremism and animosity, public opinion surveys indicate that Lebanon ranks alongside Turkey as the most socially and politically liberal Muslim-majority country. According to the indispensible Pew Research Center, of the Lebanese Muslims who see a struggle between Islamic modernizers and fundamentalists, eighty-four percent identify with the modernizers; in Egypt, by contrast, fifty-nine percent identify with the fundamentalists. Lebanese Muslims are also more supportive of democracy than are Muslims elsewhere in the world, even in Turkey. Another Pew survey showed that forty-nine percent of Lebanese Muslims consider it a good thing that Islam plays a small role in their country’s political life, whereas in Turkey only twenty-six percent of Muslims agreed, and in Egypt only two percent did so. And whereas eighty-four percent of Egyptian Muslims and eighty-six percent of Jordanian Muslims voiced support for the death penalty for those who leave Islam, in Lebanon only six percent of the Muslim population did so. Likewise, while only thirteen percent of Lebanese Muslims indicated support for whipping or amputation to punish theft and robbery, seventy-seven percent of Egyptian Muslims did so. (Support for the radical Shi’ite party Hezbollah, however, is much higher in Lebanon, where it is based, than in neighboring countries.) In short, the coastal, moutainous strip of territory along the eastern Mediterranean remains a highly distinctive land, set apart in several regards from the rest of the region in which it is located.

None of this is to argue that Lebanon’s coastal orientation determines the beliefs of its inhabitants, or that mountainous locations are necessarily culturally diverse. This is merely a question of tendencies, and tendencies can certainly be overriden by other factors. Semple herself entitled her magum opus Influences of Geographic Environment, not Determinents of Geographic Environment. When examining contemporary geopolitics, we would do well to keep such influences in mind.

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The Netherlands Is No Longer a Low Country: Conundrums of Geopolitical Classification

highest point in the netherlands?

highest point in the netherlands?composite countries sovereign states composed of constituent countriesThe modern Netherlands forms the heart of the so-called Low Countries, a historical region composed of the flat and watery delta formed by the Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt, and Ems rivers. As the name suggests, the Low Countries have no mountains. On WikiAnswers, the second-highest-rated response to the question, “What is the highest point in the Netherlands?” is simply, “Nope, we don’t have mountains. Large hills is the best we can do.” The first return, however, is strikingly different, referencing Mount Scenery, a precipitously sloped volcano that reaches 870 meters (2,800 feet) in elevation. Mount Scenery became the Netherlands’ highest point on October 10, 2010, when the Caribbean island of Saba, which essentially is Mount Scenery, was transformed into a “special municipality” of the Netherlands.

The incorporation of Saba, Bonaire, and Saint Eustatius into the Netherlands transformed the basic parameters of the country in several regards. The demographic change was relatively minor; the Netherlands’ population jumped by 18,000. More significant were shifts to the country’s geography; its southernmost and westernmost points were suddenly relocated by thousands of miles. The Netherlands also became, in part, a tropical land.

Such changes may seem trivial, but the reformulation of the Netherlands’ Caribbean holdings opens a fascinating window onto some surprisingly tricky issues of geopolitical conceptualization. What does it require for a formerly separate area to fully become part of a country—not just in legal terms but also in the popular imagination? No one doubts that Hawaii is fully part of the United States. Likewise, the French overseas departments, including Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, are by all accounts integral portions of France. But Saba, Bonaire, and Saint Eustatius are “special” municipalities of the Netherlands, and remain distinctive in a more profound sense than that of sheer distance from the mainland. While the use of English as the language of public school instruction in Saba and Saint Eustatius is odd enough, it is the official status of the US dollar that really sets the three islands apart. The relationship maintained by the Netherlands proper with Saba, Bonaire, and Saint Eustatius is in some ways similar to that between China proper and its “special administrative regions” of Hong Kong and Macao, both of which have their own currencies. Although Hong Kong certainly falls under the umbrella of Chinese sovereignty, whether it is an integral part of China is another matter. It is not treated as such by the CIA, the World Bank, and other many other international agencies, and is instead accounted as a separate though subordinate unit.

Similar conundrums of geopolitical classification are posed by a number of other European outliers, starting with the Dutch anomalies of Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten. Legally defined as “constituent countries” of the Kingdom of the Netherlands,” these three islands are too autonomous to be counted as integral parts of the Netherlands (whose westernmost point is said to be Bonaire, not the more westerly island of Aruba.) Greenland is treated in a similar manner. Denmark is never regarded as including this “constituent country;” if it were, Denmark would jump to thirteenth rank in the standard list of countries by area. Yet the relationship between the United Kingdom and its “constituent countries” – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – is completely different, entailing much tighter linkages. Geographers would never think of excluding Scotland from a depiction of the United Kingdom the way we habitually exclude Greenland from Denmark.

In short, the concept of “constituent country” is inherently muddled, meaning different things in different sovereign states. Further extensions of the category provide no clarity. French Polynesia is sometimes described as a constituent country of France, just as the Cook Islands and Niue may be said to form constituent countries of New Zealand, yet none of these Pacific polities is legally defined in such terms. Officially, the Cook Islands form a parliamentary democracy in “free association with New Zealand,” which retains sovereignty. Yet the three countries that exist in similar “free association” with the United States (the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau) are all considered independent, and are in fact members of the United Nations.

The upshot is that the term “Netherlands” is now an inherently ambiguous geopolitical category. It might refer just to the European heartland, or it might include the three Caribbean special municipalities as well. But the “Kingdom of the Netherlands” explicitly includes as well as the three Caribbean constituent countries (Aruba, Curacao, and Sint Maarten). To put it differently, the Netherlands is not to be confused with the Kingdom of the Netherlands, of which it is merely one constituent country. And to make matters even more complex, the European portion of the Netherlands is often referred to in casual parlance as Holland, even though this term, strictly speaking, denotes only two of the country’s twelve provinces (North Holland and South Holland).

As always, the political division of the world turns out to be far more complex than it seems at first glance.

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Delusional Mapping and the Invisible Comanche Empire

Historical maps of colonial North and South America are often misleading. Many cartographers portray vague claims to sovereignty by European powers as if they constituted actual control, while downplaying or flat-out ignoring potent indigenous polities. At its worst the result can be a cartographic caricature, revealing more about fantasies spun in London, Paris, or Madrid than about power on the ground in the Americas.

Consider the first two maps posted above, excerpted from the innovative and comprehensive DKAtlas of World History. “The World in 1800” depicts a solid swath of Spanish “possessions” extending approximately to the current U.S.-Canada border. Most of North America is cleanly divided between the United States and the Spanish, British, and Russian empires. In the uncolonized northwestern zone, only one indigenous polity is labeled – that of the Tlingits – and it is misplaced (too far to the south). Three additional tribes are shown, of which two are likewise misplaced: the Utes (too far to the north) and the western Inuits (too far inland). The second DK map, “The Colonization of North America to 1750,” is better, not least because grandiose Spanish claims beyond New Mexico are simply left off the map. A sizable number of native groups are shown, with those in the south depicted as falling under Spanish control. Note that the Comanche territory is shown as lying wholly within the zone of Spanish power, rendering the Comanches (in cartographic code) as a subdued or client people.

In actuality, Spanish power in 1800s was perilously thin north of the Rio Grande. Feeble Spanish authority was exercised in north-central New Mexico, southern and central coastal California, and the area around San Antonio in Texas. Spain also exerted some authority over the modest former French outposts in the Mississippi Valley. But most of the northern area colored red on the map had not even been explored by Spaniards, much less settled or subdued. What is mapped as an empire here was little more than a conceit.

Spain’s delusions of imperial authority are exposed in one of the more remarkable books of American history to appear in recent decades, Pekka Hämäläinen’s Comanche Empire (Yale University Press, 2008). Winner of four book awards (including the Bancroft Prize for the best work in American History), Comanche Empire forces us to reconceptualize the geography of power in central North America during this period. In Hämäläinen’s gripping account, the Comanches ran a powerful political and economic organization that was more than able to hold its own against European settlers and soldiers. By the late 1700s, the outposts of Spanish sovereignty in New Mexico and Texas were forced to deal with Comanche chieftains as diplomatic equals, and were in some ways allowed to exist at all only at the sufferance of the local warlords. The Comanche language was emerging as a lingua franca of a broad region, and was increasingly spoken by Hispanic settlers in Taos. From the mid 1700s through the mid 1800s, the tribe’s vast realm, “Comancheria,” extended from the Arkansas Valley in southeastern Colorado to the Balcones Escarpment in central Texas.

According to Hämäläinen, Comanche power figured prominently in the expansion of the United States into the Southwest. Spanish-speaking settlements in Texas had been so devastated by Comanche raids that the Mexican government felt compelled to open the struggling colony to Anglo settlers. The newcomers subsequently rebelled and established the short-lived Texas Republic. Under the leadership of Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, the Texans vowed to remove or exterminate the Comanches in 1838, but the resulting war proved mutually destructive. When Sam Houston regained the presidency in 1841, Texas and Comancheria reached a settlement. Henceforth the Comanches would turn their pillaging energies on northern Mexico, while trading peacefully with Texas. Comanche raiders eventually penetrated deep into central Mexico, returning with vast herds of stolen livestock. Horses and mules were in high demand in the United States, ensuring profits for the Native suppliers and providing American farmers with cheap stock. But the Comanche forays devastated much of northern and central Mexico, clearing the way for an easy U..S victory in the Mexican-American War of 1946-1848. As Hämäläinen puts it:

The US take-over of the Southwest was significantly assisted by the fact that the Comanches and the Apaches had already destabilized Mexico’s Far North. Apaches had devastated vast stretches of northwestern Mexico, but Comanches left the deepest imprint. In each major stage of its expansion, the United States absorbed lands that had been made ripe for conquest by Comanches, who themselves were not interested in direct political control over foreign territories. (p. 233)

Comanche Empire has been faulted for conceptualizing the Comanche realm as an empire. The Comanches did not build a conventional state apparatus; they had no bureaucracy or permanent governmental institutions. Nor did they rule directly over subject peoples, as empires are wont to do. But they did extract tribute, and they did conduct sophisticated diplomatic maneuvers. Comancheria was reminiscent in many ways of the early nomadic polities that arose on the great grasslands of Eurasia, “tribal confederations” that raided, traded with, and often held power over the sedentary peoples living in adjacent areas. Over time, many of these pastoral aggregations developed into genuine states and empires, the Mongols being the prime example. One can only imagine what might have happened in North America if European immigration and technological development had come to a halt around 1800. Under the right conditions, the evolution of a full-fledged nomadic Comanche Empire seems entirely plausible—a scenario worth exploring in counterfactual history.


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