Historical Geography

How maps of past times can inform current issues

Favorable Climatic Conditions and the Flourishing of the Tibetan Empire, 618-842 CE

I have long been perplexed by the Tibetan Empire, which existed from 618 to roughly 842 CE. The Tibetan Plateau is a sparsely populated land with a challenging physical environment. Not surprisingly, for most of recorded history it has played a minor geopolitical role. Yet for more than 200 years, the Tibetan Empire was something of a superpower, fully competitive with the Tang Empire of China, the Muslim caliphates of the Middle East, and other great Eurasian states. As the maps posted below indicate, the Tibetan Empire’s territorial sway extended, at various time, well beyond the plateau itself. At its height it covered the Tarim Basin of northwestern China (Xinjiang), the Yunnan Plateau, and more.  

The most extensive depiction of the Tibetan Empire that I have found was published in a recent Science Direct article (Hou et al., 2023). On this map, posted below, the Tibetan Empire in 820 CE is shown (with a dashed yellow line) as having included most of what is today Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as much of Bangladesh and lowland north India. Most maps of the empire show it as having exercised only indirect power over a much smaller part of northern South Asia. Animated maps, moreover, indicate that its power over this area was brief. The map posted in Hou et al. thus seems to be exaggerated, as is so often the case in the mapping of empires.

Regardless of cartographic hyperbole, the article in question does offer an intriguing and largely convincing explanation for the rise and fall of the Tibetan Empire. As the authors’ investigation shows, between 600 and 800 CE the Tibetan Plateau experienced both relatively warm and wet conditions, allowing both agriculture and pastoralism to thrive. Such circumstances, in turn, provided the economic basis for a strong and expansionistic state. Importantly, this period was the only time in the past several thousand years that saw both warmth and “exceptional” humidity on the lofty plateau. Significantly, the collapse of the Tibetan Empire coincided with a return to drier conditions. As the authors write:

A closer examination at the precipitation records revealed that periods when Tibetans actively invaded Tang territory mostly coincided with humid periods, while conversely, Tang invasions into Tibetan territory occurred during relatively dry periods on the TP [Tibetan Plateau].

The peak of the drought at approximately 840 AD coincided with the collapse of the Tibetan Empire. Cold and dry events would be expected to lead to a decline in crop production, breaking the balance between population and resource supply.

Other major episodes of imperial expansion in Central Eurasia also seem to have been linked to favorable climatic conditions. A 2014 article, for example, found something similar in regard to the Mongol Empire. As the authors summarized their findings:

A 1,112-y tree-ring record of moisture shows that in opposition to conventional wisdom, the climate during the rise of the 13th-century Mongol Empire was a period of persistent moisture, unprecedented in the last 1,000 y. This 15-y episode of persistent moisture likely led to a period of high grassland productivity, contributing fuel to the Mongol Empire.

A century ago, leading geographers argued that climate and other aspects of the physical environment determine the course of human history. Such overweening determinism weakened the discipline, contributing to its subsequent marginalization. Today, however, historians and physical scientists are reviving the study of the influence of climate – and of climate change – on the course of history, but are doing so in more modest, rigorous, and productive manner.

Environmental determinism reached its height in the early twentieth century in the works of Yale geographer Ellsworth Huntington. In 1907, Huntington argued in The Pulse of Asia that a long period of intensifying droughts beginning several thousand years ago forced Central Asian pastoral nomads out of their homelands, impelling them to conquer sedentary states located in more climatically favorable areas. As he put it (page 393-394):

If the rainfall fell from 20 inches to 10, the number of sheep would decrease from 60 to one. Manifestly, if such a change took place in the course of a few hundred years, most of the inhabitants would be obliged to migrate. As the nomads pressed outward from the dryer central regions of Asia, we can imagine how they were obliged to fight with the neighboring tribes whom they tried to dispossess. The older inhabitants and the newcomers could not all live together; new migrations would be a necessity; and the confusion would spread in every direction. Meanwhile, Europe, after this long period of blighting cold, was becoming warm and habitable, and the migrants pressed into it, horde after horde. No one tribe could stay long in its chosen abiding-place, for new bands of restless nomads pressed upon it. Rome fell before the wanderers. Nothing could stay their progress until the turn of the tide.

Per chance, though this is only vague conjecture, the legends of King Arthur and his Knights bear a hint of what might have occurred all over central Europe if it had not been for the influx of Barbarians. England, in its remote corner of Europe, far from the dry plains of Asia, responded at first to the influence of improved climatic conditions, until it, too, was reached by the migrating hordes of invaders. Meanwhile, in the most densely populated part of Asia, another movement of nations had begun, presumably because of the distress due to rapid desiccation. The Arab migrants carried with them the fanatical faith of Mohammed, and were by it inspired to remoter conquest.

Such conclusions are directly opposite of those now being advanced by scientifically informed historical studies. One could not, of course, expect Ellsworth Huntington to have had a modern conception of environmental and historical processes and conditions in 1907. Still, to have argued, if only as “vague conjecture,” that the mythical glories of Camelot might have been replicated over central Europe in the early Middle Ages, had it not been for the drought-driven barbarian invasions, is more than a stretch. Unfortunately, the excesses of Huntington’s determinism led geographers to largely abandon the idea that the physical environment has any significant influence on human history, much to their detriment. Today, scientific studies of the changing physical environment are clarifying our conception of the human past are helping to solve historical mysteries.

Mismapping the Achaemenid Persian Empire and the Caucasus

As noted in a recent post, maps of empires tend to exaggerate their territorial extents, and the Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 BCE) is no exception. Most maps of this important empire depict it as covering all or almost all the South Caucasus region, with its border extending to the crest of the Greater Caucasus range (see the top maps from a Google image search posted below). Some show it as pushing even further to the north, encompassing the historically Circassian lands to the north and west of the Caucasus and sometimes even extending completely around the Black Sea (see below).

There is little if any good evidence, however, that the Achaemenid Persian Empire ever included the Kingdom of Colchis, located mainly in what is now the western half of the Republic of Georgia. The Wikipedia map of the early Georgian states posted below gives a much better depiction of the geopolitical situation of the time. The notion that this ancient Persian empire extended to the crest of the Greater Caucasus range derives essentially from a passage written by the ancient Greek scholar Herodotus. Although there is much to admire in the works of Herodotus, it has long been known that many of his assertions were far from accurate. It is for good reason that Lloyd Llewellyn Jones recently decided that it was necessary to write a book on the Achaemenid Empire based mostly on Persian sources, rather than on Herodotus and other Greek writers. But Jones, unfortunately, also maps western Georgia as having been under Persian control.

There is, however, some scholarly disagreement about which polity (or polities) had ultimate sovereignty over what is now western Georgia between 550 and 330 BCE. The Wikipedia article on the history of the Republic of Georgia provides an excellent summary:

Between 653 and 333 BC, both Colchis and Iberia survived successive invasions by the Iranian Median empire. The case is different for the Achaemenid Persians, however.  According to Herodotus (3.97), Achaemenid power extended as far as the Caucasus mountains, but the Colchians are not included in his list of the twenty Persian satrapies. Nor are they referred to in the lists of Achaemenid lands (dahyāva) given in the Old Persian inscriptions of Darius and his successors. In Xenophon’s Anabasis (7.8.25; probably an interpolation) the tribes of Colchis and East Pontus are referred to as independent (autónomoi). On the other hand, Herodotus mentioned both the Colchians and various Pontic tribes in his catalogue (7.78-79) of approximately fifty-seven peoples who participated in Xerxes’ expedition against Greece in 481-80 BC. As the Encyclopaedia Iranica states, it is thus probable that the Achaemenids never succeeded in asserting effective rule over Colchis, though local tribal leaders seem to have acknowledged some kind of Persian suzerainty. The Encyclopaedia Iranica further states, whereas the adjoining Pontic tribes of the nineteenth satrapy and the Armenians of the thirteenth are mentioned as having paid tribute to Persia, the Colchians and their Caucasian neighbors are not; they had, however, undertaken to send gifts (100 boys and 100 girls) every five years (Herodotus 3.97).

The giving of gifts and the supplying of troops by a polity to a much more powerful neighboring empire, however, does not in itself indicate inclusion in that empire. It must also be noted that careful historical cartographers, such as Thomas Lessman, do not map western Georgia as having been part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (see the map below).

The issue at stake here is not merely that of the inaccurate mapping of empires. What I am more concerned about is historical amnesia about the Caucasus, coupled with its pervasive historical misrepresentation. To put it simply, this key region of the world does not get its due in most historical and geographical accounts. All too often, it is simply appended to one or more empires based in other lands. Many such empires did covet the region, and in some periods they did control, directly or indirectly, large parts of it. But the Caucasus also had its own kingdoms and other polities, which deserve recognition.

I recently gave a keynote address about such issues at a conference on the Black Sea region held in Batumi in the Republic of Georgia. I hope to convert this talk to a video later this year; if I do so, I will post it on this website.

Sparta Was Part of the Persian Empire? Cartographic Exaggeration and Geographical Misconception in Modern Accounts of the Ancient World  

I have long been frustrated by the way that historical empires are conventionally mapped. It often seems that most maps of most empires exaggerate their size and solidity. This is typically done by portraying them when they reached their greatest territorial extent, even if their newly acquired gains were held for very short periods. Client kingdoms and vague zones of tribute exaction, moreover, are often depicted as intrinsic parts of the empire under consideration.

The Roman Empire is a prime example of such cartographic exaggeration. I recently tested this assertion by doing a Google image search for “Roman Empire map.” The results are posted below. As can be seen, 10 of the 14 top hits show central and southern Mesopotamia (which I have indicated with heavy black ovals) as having belonged to the Roman Empire. Most of these maps specify that they depict the Empire in 117 CE, the year of its greatest extent. What they do not indicate is that central and southern Mesopotamia had only been conquered by the emperor Trajan in 116 CE, that Roman control was never fully consolidated, and that the new emperor, Hadrian, abandoned the region almost as soon as he gained power in late 117 CE. As the Wikipedia article on Trajan correctly notes, “The Parthian [Mesopotamian] campaign had been an enormous setback to Trajan’s policy, proof that Rome had overstretched its capacity to sustain an ambitious program of conquest.” All told, the conventional mapping of central and southern Mesopotamia as belonging to the Roman Empire is misleading at best.

Mesopotamia is not the only area in which Roman power is often cartographically inflated. In some respects, the exaggeration of control in depictions of the Caucasus is more pronounced, as will be explored in a later post.

The control of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (558-330 BCE) over the Caucasus region is also exaggerated in conventional historical cartography. Yet in general terms, this empire is more faithfully mapped than that of Rome. A map in an important new book on the Achaemenid Empire, however, reverses this tendency, egregiously depicting most of Greece as falling under Persian control (see below). Although the map correctly notes that the Greek Kingdom of Macedon was conquered by Persia in 492 BCE, it fails to indicate that Persian control here came to an end roughly a dozen years later. More important, the map’s shading scheme clearly indicates that central and southern Greece, including Sparta, had at some unspecified time been incorporated into the Persian Empire. In actuality, the Persian army never even entered the Peloponnese Peninsula in its failed attempt to subdue defiant Greek city-states.

 The book in question is The Persians: The Age of Great Kings, by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (Basic Books, 2022). Llwellyn-Jones is an accomplished and prolific scholar who certainly knows that the Persian Empire never conquered, let alone ruled, central and southern Greece. Could this absurd map merely be an oversight, a simple illustration given over to an anonymous cartographer that the author neglected to examine before publication? Or was it crafted intentionally, perhaps as a tongue-in-cheek gesture designed to deflate the pretensions of the ancient Greeks? As Llwellyn-Jones makes clear, his central aim is to tell the story of the Achaemenid Empire based on Persian sources rather than on the standard Greek accounts, and a seeming desire to belittle the Greeks is encountered at various points throughout the book. Llewellyn-Jones tells us, for example, that “To visualize themselves as the Great King’s nerve-wracking nemesis gave the Athenians a sense of worth.”

Llewellyn-Jones’s goal, that of removing Greek bias from the story of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, is worthy and generally well accomplished. But although he is a fine historian and an adept storyteller, Llewellyn-Jones is a poor geographer. This a significant problem, as the Persian Empire was a vast polity that encompassed a great diversity of places and peoples. As such, it must be grasped in its spatial and well as temporal dimensions.

Although many examples of geographical misunderstanding could be outlined, I will limit my case to just two. On page 7, Llewellyn-Jones tells us that, “The empire encompassed Ethiopia and Libya … .” Libya?  Greek Cyrenaica yes, but certainly not “Libya” as either we or the ancient Greeks conceptualize the term (to the Greeks, “Libya” essentially meant “Africa”). Ethiopia? Surely, I assumed when reading this passage, the author must be thinking of “Ethiopia” as did the ancient Greeks, who generally used this term to refer to Nubia, located in what is now the core area of Sudan. If so, the passage is still misleading, as the Persian Empire never extended beyond the northernmost part of this region. But on page 95, he tells us that the Persian emperor Cambyses was “determined to push into Nubia – modern Ethiopia …” Modern Ethiopia? The modern country of that name is, of course, far removed and utterly distinct from ancient Nubia (see the map below).

Llewellyn-Jones even makes some serious geographical errors in regard to the core region of the Persian Empire. On page 43, for example, he tells us that  “A particularly strong cultural bond between the Persian tribes and the Elamites emerged in an area of lowland Elam called Anshan …” Anshan is actually located in a valley in the Zagros Mountains in what can only be described as upland Elam; lowland Elam, the area west of Susa, is located instead on the greater Mesopotamian alluvial plain just to the east of Sumer. Llewellyn-Jones’s map of the Persian Empire also misconstrues geographical relations in this area. It depicts Anshan as separate from Elam even though it was part of Elam; it places Anshan east and slightly north of Susa, but it was situated much more to the south; and it places the label “Elam” in an area that was, at the time, probably under the waters of the Persian Gulf (compare the map below with the first map posted above).

Over the past several decades the much of the discipline of history has undergone a profound “spatial turn” that has resulted in far more nuanced understandings of the geographical patterns and relationships of earlier times. One can only hope that geographically informed scholarship on the ancient world will be increasingly embraced by younger scholars.

Ancient Transsexual Pot Smokers? Wildly Divergent Interpretations of Ancient Scythian Culture

The Scythians, who maintained a powerful nomadic state north of the Black Sea during the classical period, have been interpreted in many ways. As we saw in the previous post, historian Christopher Beckwith go so far as to credit them with the origin of philosophy. Ancient Greek thinkers usually viewed Scythians as quintessential barbarians – the cultural opposite of the Greeks themselves. But some Greek thinkers turned the table, portraying the Scythians, or at least some of them, in highly positive terms. According to the historian Ephorus (cited by Stabo), “[T]he modes of life of the Scythians are unlike, for, whereas some are so cruel that they even eat human beings, others abstain from eating any living creature whatsoever,  … and excel all other men in justice …”  The original vision of the “noble savage” thesis is arguably found in the pro-Scythian views of some ancient Greeks. Alfonso Moreno** writes of continuing depictions of “the Scythians of Homer and the Ephorus: the justice and wisest, drinkers of mare’s milk, frugal, nomadic, wagon-dwellers, strangers to money making, communists, invincible warriors, lords of wheat and livestock, the people of Anacharsis …” But as is true of all such “noble savage” depictions, the aim is not that of accurate description but that of criticizing one’s own society. The ancient Scythians of the fourth-century BCE, after all, were very familiar with money-making and their society organized in a class- or even caste-based manner.

Such alternative visions of Scythian society persist to the present. Rather than emphasizing formidable Scythian warriors, some modern writers turn instead to Scythians shamans and healers, especially the enarei. The enarei, a caste-like group, are traditionally depicted as transvestites, as they were biological men who wore women’s clothing and acted in a feminine manner; today they would be more precisely depicted as transsexuals. As such, they are now in fashion – literally.  The design firm Lila Bare, for example, offers a clothing line called “The Enarei,” marketed as the “epitome of non-binary clothing.” The feminine nature of the enarei is also attracting attention. It has been reported, for example, that “Ovid wrote about Scythian shamans known as ἐναρής who were born male, presented as women/feminine, and feminized their bodies using a potion made from the urine of mares in heat.”

The Scythians, and especially their religious practitioners (whether transsexual or not), have also been linked to the use and spread of cannabis as a drug. Recent genetic research indicates that cannabis was domesticated in China, where it was valued for its fibers, seeds, and medicinal properties. Breeding high-THC cannabis for mind-altering purposes, however, is usually credited to either the Scythians or earlier Indo-European pastoral peoples of Central Asia. For interesting and informative YouTube videos on this subject, I recommend “Survive the Jive’s” “Scythian Gods” and “Ancient Cannabis Cult.”

The Scythian use of mind-altering drugs is also linked to that of their Indo-Iranian forebears, who referred to themselves as Aryans. Both the Rig Veda and the Avesta, the earliest accounts of Indic and Iranian peoples, refer to a powerful ritual substance known as soma and haoma respectively. The mystery of the source of soma/haoma has not been solved, and several interpretations are still debated, ranging from the currently favored Epheda, a simple stimulant, to Amanita muscaria, a powerful psychedelic mushroom, to Syrian rue, another hallucinogenic substance. Some writers have speculated that it might have been a combination of cannabis, ephedra, and opium, the residue of which has been archaeologically attested from ritual vessels. It has also been argued that Soma/Haoma was not used by the earliest Indo-Europeans, but was rather borrowed from the people of the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex, who had an urban-agricultural society and interacted extensively with the early Indo-Iranians.

** Cannabis was not directly smoked by the ancient Scythians. Rather, it was burned in braziers in enclosed spaces, where the fumes were inhaled.

* Alfonso Moreno, 2007.  “Athenian Wheat Tsars: Black Sea Grain and Elite Culture. In The Black Sea in Antiquity: Regional and Interregional Economic Exchanges, edited by Vincent Gabrielsen and John Lunn. Aarhus University Press

A Scythian Origin of Philosophy? Christopher Beckwith’s Scytho-Centric Interpretation of Eurasian History

Christopher Beckwith is, in my opinion, the most interesting world historian of our time. He is prolific, deeply erudite, and extraordinarily audacious. Although not necessarily convincing, his more outlandish claims are always thought-provoking. In his most recent book, The Scythian Empire: Central Eurasia and the Birth of the Classical Age from Persia to China (Princeton University Press, 2023) Beckwith outdoes himself in propounding a Scytho-centric interpretation of Eurasia in the early period of classical antiquity (circa 700-300 BCE).

The Scythians were probably the first people to master cavalry warfare, which they developed sometime after the year 1000 BCE. Chariots had been used for almost a millennium, but mounted archery was new. This innovation allowed the Scythians to expand rapidly and gain immense military power and wealth. Beckwith argues that the Scythians united the entire steppe zone, something that had never happened before and would only happen in the future on two other occasions (by the Göktürks in sixth century and by the Mongols in the thirteenth). Scythian influence, he further claims, was instrumental in the creation of the Median and Persian empires, and led to the emergence of the first powerful states in China. Beckwith also thinks that the Scythians developed the idea of universal empire, which they bequeathed to other pastoral peoples and ultimately to all of Eurasia. Like all steppe peoples, he argues, the Scythians did everything that they could to facilitate trade, helping their rulers accumulate vast amounts of wealth.

Beckwith credits the Scythians not only with pivotal political and economic innovations, but also with key intellectual developments. He links the very idea of monotheism to the Scythians. His most audacious arguments concern the supposed Scythian origin of speculative philosophy, which he uses to explain the emergence of the so-called Axial Age of universalizing thought in early classical Eurasia. His interpretations here are pointed enough to deserve extended quotation:

Could philosophy be a Scythian invention too? The first part of this chapter shows that the Greeks, Persians, Indians, and Chinese were each taught by an early Scythian philosopher and thus experienced Scythian philosophy first-hand at about the same time, before there is any other sign of Philosophy per se in the lands where they taught. …

The first great philosophers of Greece, China, India, Iran, and Scythia, who flourished between approximately 600 and 400 BC, were revolutionaries. They did something entirely new and unprecedented: all of them criticized and rejected the traditional beliefs and practices of the countries where they taught. Each one was arguably his adoptive culture’s earliest philosopher – in this strict modern sense of the world – with the addition that in Antiquity philosophers were expected to practice their philosophy.  Chronologically, they are:

Anacharsis the Scythian, a half-Greek Scythian who taught in Greece.

Zoroaster, a Scythian speaker who taught in the Scytho-Mede Empire.

Gautama the Scythian sage (Gautama Sakyamuni) who taught in northern India. [The Buddha, in other words]

Gautama (Lao-Tan, Laotzu) who bears a Scythian name and taught in early China. [The founder of Taoism].

(Beckwith 2023, Pages 234-235)


On the surface, this has the look of a crank theory of the kind turned out by enthusiastic but inadequately educated amateurs. But as Beckwith is extraordinarily learned, these ideas need to be taken seriously. Yet no matter how I look at them, they still seems severely strained. Consider, for example, the origin of Greek philosophy. Anacharsis, the half-Greek, half-Scythian gadfly of sixth-century BCE Athens, was widely reckoned as one of the “seven sages” of ancient Greece, but he did not establish a school of philosophy. Philosophy as a focused discipline, moreover, emerged in the Greek city of Miletus, not Athens.

It is possible, however, that there was a Scythian connection with the so-called Ionian Enlightenment of sixth-century Miletus. But before delving into this issue, I must first admit that I am not an expert in this fields, and as a result my own speculations here are rather amateurish. It is also possible that other scholars have come up with similar ideas; if so, I must apologize for not citing them.

To put it simply, I think it is possible if not likely that the first Greek philosophers were inspired to think about the nature of existence by their encounter with Scythian beliefs. Their city, Miletus, was deeply involved in Black Sea colonization and trade, and had extensive mercantile connections with the trade-oriented Scythians. As is generally accepted, the pre-Socratic Milesian philosophers sought above all else to explain nature by identifying its fundamental element, or arche. For Thales, often regarded as the first Greek philosopher, the arche was water, whereas for Anaximenes it was air and for Anaximander it was the “unlimited primordial mass” (apeiron). The Scythians, it turns out, had very firm ideas of their own about this issue.

Scythian religion evidently focused on the idea that fire is the source of all creation, and therefore forms the fundamental substance of the universe. Whereas most ancient Indo-European peoples placed a sky god at the top of their pantheon, the Scythians worshipped above all others a goddess of the hearth, Tabiti. Elements of ancient Scythian fire worship arguably survive in the Zoroastrian faith, which still maintains 167 Fire Temples. They can even be found today in Iran in the secular observances of Chaharshanbeh Suri carried out by on Nowruz (Iranian New Year), which entail jumping over bonfires.

It is not possible to fully understand how the first Greek philosophers derived and framed their ideas about the nature of existence, as their writings survive only in fragments preserved by later Greek thinkers. But it does seem possible that curious Ionian thinkers were taken aback by the Scythian insistence that fire is the fundamental principle of the universe. This oddity may have led Thales and Anaximenes to propose a different element (water or air, respectively), and for an Anaximander to imagine something deeper than any of four of the classical elements (earth, water, air, and fire). Such speculation could have led to further basic inquiry, giving rise to philosophy as a sustained intellectual pursuit. I also find it highly significant that the earliest Ionian philosophers were also deeply invested in geography, which led them to think seriously about the Scythians, the powerful and wealthy people who inhabited the northernmost reaches of their (known) world, and whose practices and beliefs differed so markedly from those of the Greeks.

The Circassian Genocide and the Cartographic Erasure of Circassia

The current ethnographic map of the northern Caucasus mountains shows scattered groups of Circassian people, now numbering roughly 750,000 in Russia. In 1850, however, the Circassians occupied the entire northwestern quadrant of the Greater Caucasus range. But as the Circassians refused to submit to imperial Russian rule, the Russian military engaged in a campaign of displacement and extermination. As reported by Wikipedia, “The Circassian genocide, or Tsitsekun, was the Russian Empire’s systematic mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and expulsion of 80–97% of the Circassian population.”  Most of the few Circassians who managed to remain in their homeland were Kabardians, members of the easternmost of the twelve Circassian groups (or “tribes”). The western groups were essentially eliminated. As noted in a different Wikipedia article:

The Zhaney were a very powerful Circassian tribe in the past. They lived the north of the Natukhai tribe’s land on the coast of the Black Sea and Azov Sea in Eastern Europe. … As a result of the bloody Russian-Circassian War,  Zhaney tribe was almost wholly destroyed, as only 3 families survived.

After their genocide and expulsion, the Circassian people largely vanished from the historical memory of the West, just as “Circassia” disappeared from its maps. In earlier times, Circassia had been well-know and well-represented, appearing prominently on many maps. On a 1744 map of Asia by George Willdey, for example, “Circassia” is depicted as one of the primary divisions of the Asian continent. As it is difficult to see this representation on the map as it can be reproduced here, I have re-outlined and re-labeled Willdey’s divisions on the second map posted below.

Willdey’s map seems to be an outlier, as no others that I have seen give Circassia such a prominent position. But Circassia was often mapped as covering a large area – much larger, in fact, than the area occupied by Circassian people circa 1850. In a Latin-labeled map of 1716 by Johann Baptist Homann, for example, Circassia is shown as extending along the eastern shore of the Sea of Azov, covering much of the steppe zone north of the Caucasus Mountains. Intriguingly, Homann labels the area as a kingdom: “Circassia, seu Regio Circassiorum.” Similar patterns are seen on French-language maps of the same period. An uncolored Nicholas Guedeville map of 1718, for example, shows “Circassie” as extending from the Sea of Azov to the Caspian Sea. It excludes, however, part of the Circassian homeland along the Black Sea coast, labeling it instead as belonging to Abkazia (“Abcassie”).

Nineteenth-century depictions of Circassia typically exclude some of the northern lowland areas included on Homann’s and Guedeville’s maps, but cover most of the northern Caucasus and its lowland fringe, often extending to the Caspian Sea (see Woodbridge map of 1828 posted below). In an unusual French map of 1863, the coloring scheme depicts “Circassie” as a two-part region, interrupted by the lands of the Ossetian (“Ossetes”) people of the central Caucasus  Range. Maps published in the United States at the time often depicted an expanded Circassia, shown as extending from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea (see the detail from a Jacob Monk map of the world, published in Baltimore in 1859, that is posted below).

The geographical category of “Circassia” could even extend into the Black Sea itself. In a 1693 map by Vincenzo Coronelli, for example, the waters of the northwestern portion of the sea are labeled “Mare de Circassia Caucaseum”

By the late 1800s, however, the label “Circassia” had essentially disappears from maps made in Western Europe and the United States. Genocide, in other worlds, was followed by cartographic erasure, as will be explored in more detail in the next GeoCurrents post.

The Unique Multiply Enclosed Back Sea, and the Crucial Grain Supply of Ancient Athens

As noted in the previous post, the “marginal sea” concept has little utility for geo-historical analysis. More useful is the idea of what might be termed an “enclosed sea,” meaning one whose entrance to the open ocean, or strait, is narrow enough that it could have been controlled by a strong state in the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods. Such enclosed seas are few. If we limit our attention to parts of the world that had states during these times, there are really only four straits that count: the Strait of Gibraltar, separating the Mediterranean from the Atlantic; the Danish straits, separating the Baltic Sea from the open margins of the Atlantic; the Strait of Hormuz separating the Persian Gulf from the Indian Ocean; and the Bab-el-Mandeb, separating the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean. Of these, the 13-kilometers-wide Strait of Gibraltar is the narrowest. The Bab-el-Mandeb, in contrast, is 26 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent, whereas the Strait of Hormuz is 39 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent. The Danish Straits do entail some narrow passages, but there are three of them, and the most important, the Great Belt, is 16 kilometers wide at its narrowest point.


The Mediterranean is not only the most enclosed sea, but is also the largest by far. More significant, it opens up to its own enclosed seas, all of which are connected by even narrower passages. The long and meandering Dardanelles, which links the Mediterranean’s marginal Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, is only 0.75 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent, as is the Bosphorus, which connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. The Strait of Kerch, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, is much wider, 3.1 kilometers at its narrowest extent, but is still significantly narrower than the Strait of Gibraltar.

Such observations lead to an inescapable conclusion: the Black Sea system, including Marmara and Azov, is a unique physical-geographical entity. There is nothing else remotely like it on earth, an oddly unrecognized fact. It is also noteworthy that the Black Sea lies near the center of the segment of the world that includes the other enclosed seas, as can be seen on the maps posted below.

The enclosed nature of the Black Sea system has been geopolitically important during several historical periods. Consider, for example, the situation of Athens during its heyday in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. After the defeat of the Persian Empire, Athens was eager to secure access to the Black Sea and its many resources. The Delian League that is soon created maintained control over both the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. After its defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, Athens lost this informal Aegean empire, and thus found itself in a strained situation. It eventually cobbled together a new but less-imperial Second Athenian League, which included cities along the Dardanelles and Bosporus. It was at this time that Black Sea grain became essential for the sustenance of Athens (and several other Greek city states). Securing access to the essential grain supply also entailed maintaining a tight alliance with the culturally hybrid Greco-Scythian Bosporan Kingdom, which sat astride the Strait of Kerch (then called the Cimmerian/Kimmerian Bosporus). Fish supplies from the highly productive Sea of Azov and the rivers that flowed into it were also an important resource for Athens, underscoring the significance of its connection with the long-lived (438 BCE –527 CE) Bosporan Kingdom.

For a fascinating account of this relationship, I recommend Alfonso Moreno’s “Athenian Wheat-Tsars: Black Sea Grain and Elite Culture,” which is found in an important book entitled The Black Sea in Antiquity: Regional and Interregional Economic Exchanges. Moreno highlights the close ties between Athenian elites associated with the school of Isocrates (an extremely important although under-appreciated intellectual and political operative), and the Greco-Scythian elites of the Bosporan Kingdom. His final words are worth quoting:

Two things only were needed to ensure the permanence of this system: the good-will of the Bosporan kings, and Athenian control of the route between [the Cimmerian Bosporus and Athens]. As long as Athenian political leadership could provide this, Athens would be fed and a few of its politicians gain enormous power. If correct, we may have here a very different way of understanding this trade: an oligarchic grain supply sustaining a professedly democratic state.

Although the fifth century BCE is usually considered the golden age of ancient Athens, the fourth century BCE was in many respects a more intellectually vibrant period. To a large extent, the culture that allowed such intellectual flourishing was underwritten by the grain and other resources that flowed in from the Black Sea, which in turn entailed maintaining close relations with the states that controlled the crucial choke points leading from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Azov.

Problems Faced by Countries Directly Rooted in Conquest Empires

Several recent GeoCurrents posts have remarked on Nepal’s relatively low social and economic indicators, especially when compared with other environmentally and culturally similar regions in the southern Himalayas. Explaining why this is the case, however, has not been attempted. Nepal’s chaotic political environment and recent history of conflict no doubt play a major role. But could a deeper reason be lodged in the fact that the modern state of Nepal is directly rooted in the early-modern conquest empire of the Gorkhas? In such an empire, one group of people conquers and imposes its will on many other groups, creating profound resentment. Turning such a polity into a well-functioning nation-state, and especially a democratic one, can be a challenge.

To assess this thesis, it is useful to look at other modern countries similarly founded on relatively recent conquest empires. Although many countries could potentially be placed in such a category, I have limited it to eight states, including Nepal (see the map below). Each will be briefly examined here.

Ethiopia, in its currently geographical bounds, emerged in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the rapid conquests of the Kingdom of Abyssinia, or Ethiopian Empire, dominated by the Christian Amhara people. Although most of Africa was colonized by Europeans, quite a few of its peoples were subjugated by this indigenous empire. Not surprisingly, religiously and linguistically diverse Ethiopia continues to experience pronounced ethnic tensions, and has never successfully transitioned into a fully national state.

Saudi Arabia is a more recently created conquest state, emerging in the early 1900s. In 1902, the domain of the Saud family was limited to a small area near the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. Through a spectacular series of conquests over the next several decades, Ibn Saud had carved an extensive state that became known as Saudi Arabia. Although one could argue that Saudi Arabia was never an empire because its creation involved the conquest of other Arabic-speaking Muslim groups, the actual situation was more complicated. The austere Wahhabi sect that was, and still is, closely linked to the Saudi dynasty, was foreign to most of what is now Saudi Arabia. Especially to Twelver Shi’ites of the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia can still seem like an empire. But it is also true that generous social spending and rapid economic development have more generally transformed Saudi Arabia into a successful nation-state.

Afghanistan is directly rooted in the Durrani Empire, carved out by Ahmad Shah Durrani in the mid 1700s. A Pashtun project, the Durrani Empire forcefully brought many members of other ethnic groups, with different languages and cultures, under its rule. In the twentieth century, Afghanistan sought to transform itself into a national state in several different incarnations, with middling success. But Afghanistan’s continuing tensions and turmoil have some linkages with its imperial formation.

Modern Burma/Myanmar is firmly rooted in the Burmese Konbaung Empire and Dynasty (1752 to 1885). The first Konbaung ruler crushed the wealthy and sophisticated Kingdom of Pegu in southern Burma and subsequently almost wiped its Mon people off the map. Konbaung rulers went on the conquer the Shan states, Arakan, Manipur, and even Assam, severely threatening the British East India Company in Calcutta. Three Anglo-Burmese war followed, eventually reducing the entire empire to British imperial rule. But when Burma was reborn as an independent state in 1948, its leaders sought to reestablish ethnic Burman domination over non-Burman peoples, following Aung San’s pre-war slogan “our race, our language, our religion.” Ethnic rebellions immediately proliferated and continue to this day. Burma has never been able to turn itself into a solid nation state.

Iran has deeper and more complicated roots, but it was essentially formed by the Safavid Dynasty, which conquered the region that is now Iran, and more, in the early sixteenth century. The religiously driven Safavids turned Iran a Twelver Shi’ite country; today it is a Twelver Shi’ite theocracy. The Safavid state was a joint project of Turkic military power and Persian cultural and administrative capability, the combination of which continued to form the backbone of the Iranian state long after the Safavid Dynasty fell from power in 1736. Iran eventually turned itself into a relatively successful national state, but to its mostly Sunni Kurds and Balochs, and to many Iranian Arabs as well, it can still seem like a Persian empire.

Russian arguably became an empire in 1552, when Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) conquered the important Muslim state of Kazan, turning Russia into a multi-confessional, multilinguistic polity. Subsequent expansion brought many other non-Russian peoples under its imperial rule. Although the Bolsheviks rejected the very idea of empire, in many ways the Soviet Union that they created continued to function as an imperial state – as does Russia to this day. Ethnic conflicts, however, are not a major problem today. Crucial factors here include the fact that ethnic Russian form a solid majority (70 to 80 percent of the total population) and the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s political suppression.

China is the most complicated case. Its civilizational roots extend back for millennia, longer even than those of Iran. But the geographical expression of China today stems from the conquests of the Qing Dynasty and Empire in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Taiwan, viewed by Beijing today as an intrinsic part of its territorial domain, had never previously been under Chinese rule. The huge regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Manchuria all became firmly part of China owing to the power of the Qing. Ironically, the Qing were not themselves an ethnic Chinese but rather Manchus; their success in subjugating the vastly more numerous Han Chinese people resulted in their own demographic swamping and virtual disappearance as a people. Today, China forms a secure national state with relatively minor ethnic conflicts. Such stability stems from the demographic predominance of the Han people (92 percent of the population) and to the country’s rapid economic ascent. But to Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols, and others, China can still feel like an imperial state.

Many other countries, including the United States, have some imperial roots and are treated as empires by some writers. But for the eight countries mapped above, imperial roots are pronounced. It is probably not coincidental that none of them has a successful history of democratic governance.

Are the Kurds Linked to the Bronze-Age Hurrians? Is Tattooing Evidence of This Connection?

The Kurdish national myth links the origin of the ethnic group to the ancient Medes, an Iranian people who supposedly carved out a large empire that was quickly supplanted by that of the much better-known (and closely related) Persians in the 6th century BCE. As the Wikipedia article on the Kurds notes:

Many Kurds consider themselves descended from the Medes, an ancient Iranian people, and even use a calendar dating from 612 BC, when the Assyrian capital of Nineveh was conquered by the Medes. The claimed Median descent is reflected in the words of the Kurdish national anthem: “We are the children of the Medes and Kai Khosrow.”

Few if any scholars give credence to this theory. The poorly documented language of the ancient Medes does seem to have been closely related to Kurdish, with both languages placed on the Northwestern side-branch of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language tree. But the Median language does not seem to be any more closely related to Kurdish that it is to any of the other modern languages on the same branch. More to the point, historians increasingly doubt whether the Medes ever created a coherent state, let alone a vast empire. What little is known about their political organization comes from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, with Assyrian cuneiform archives providing a little additional information. Herodotus certainly assigned a prominent position to the Medes, but otherwise evidence about their geopolitical role is essentially lacking.

The Kurdish emphasis on their supposed Median progenitors is not surprising. In ethno-nationalist discourse, powerful and illustrious peoples from bygone eras are often enshrined in an ancestral position to bolster feelings of national pride. Such self-serving stories usually have little historical support and are therefore regarded with suspicion or outright contempt by most impartial scholars.

But if there is no solid evidence that the Kurds are the descendants of the ancient Meads, that does not necessarily mean that they have no cultural, historical, or genetic roots in ancient ethnic formations. Scholarship on such topics is often precarious, however, as the evidence is generally murky and national ideologies tend to intrude. But as long as they are based on some reasonable evidence, such “primordialist” ideas should not be rejected out of hand. Many of them warrant further inquiry, regardless of whether they seem farfetched.

To my mind, the most intriguing thesis on ancient Kurdish roots is found in the early works of Michael Mehrdad Izadi, one of the world’s most preeminent historical and cultural cartographers (his map collection, found at Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project, is a cartographic treasure trove). Born to a Kurdish father and Belgian mother, Izadi has deep and abiding interests in the Kurdish people. Some of his early writings on this topic can be found at Kurdistanica.com. Here he expounds his thesis of partial Kurdish descent from the ancient Hurrians, a Bronze-Age people who were associated with a powerful state (or empire) called Mitanni. Although the Hurrians, unlike the Kurds, were not an Indo-European people, some of their leaders, experts in chariot warfare, evidently were; their personal names, and even some of their deities, link them to the Indic (or Indo-Aryan) branch of Indo-European language family.

If Izady’s thesis is correct, the Kurds would have originated from an amalgamation of the ancient Hurrians and more powerful, mostly male, Indo-European-speaking intruders (initially speaking an Indo-Aryan language and later speaking one or more Iranian language). In global historical terms, this scenario fits into a common pattern. The languages of more military powerful peoples often supplant those of less powerful peoples, but other cultural aspects of the original group often survive with relatively little change. This is what Izady sees when he peers into the distant Kurdish past:

The legacy of the Hurrians to the present culture of the Kurds is fundamental. It is manifest in the realm of Kurdish religion, mythology, material and martial arts, and even the genetics. Nearly three-quarters of Kurdish clan names and roughly half of topographical and urban names are also of Hurrian origins, ….  Mythological and religious symbols present in the art of the later Hurrian dynasties, such as the Mannaeans and Kassites of eastern Kurdistan, and the Lullus of the southeast, present in part what can still be observed in the Kurdish ancient religion of Yazdanism, better-known today by its various denominations as Alevism, Yezidism,and Yarisanism (Ahl-i Haqq).

Izady’s interpretation of Kurdish origins and religious beliefs, it must be noted, has been rejected by many experts in the field. The Wikipedia article on Izady includes some crudely dismissive comments, albeit made by some equally controversial scholars. In the long run, it is usually best to neither embrace nor dismiss evidence-based but non-mainstream interpretations of deep historical processes. Most of our key theories in both the natural and human sciences, after all, were once roundly rejected for contravening the established consensus.

When the language of an elite population replaces the language of a subordinated group, traces of the older language often persist in the form of vocabulary elements, sounds, and even grammatical structures. If Izady’s thesis is correct, one might expect to find such a Hurrian “substratatum” in the modern Kurdish language(s) (or, more precisely, a Hurro-Urartian substratum, as Hurrian’s only known relative was the language of the Iron Age Kingdom of Urartu in what is now eastern Turkey and Armenia). As it turns out, evidence does exist for such linguistic traces. Several years ago, the blogsite Within the Lands of Kurda ran a three-part series on this topic, entitled “The Hurro-Urartian Substratum in Kurdish.” Each of these posts is worth quoting:

It has long been shown by scholars that significant portion of Kurdish toponymy originates from Hurro-Urartian; examples are ”Barzani” which was name of a Hurrian god …

Indeed, there are hardly any cases where there is not a ”native” [i.e. Hurro-Urartian] Kurdish equivalent for the superimposed Irano-Kurdish words.

As can be seen, Kurdish language appears to be a creole language formed after an amalgamation of Hurro-Urartian and Iranic languages. The Hurro-Urartian layer, showing itself as an older substratum in which Urartian is stronger, while the Iranic layer, which began undoubtedly with the Scytho-Cimmerian invasion of Urartu emerges as a superstratum. The Iranic layer was further intensified with a wave of clearly identifiable Middle Persian loanwords under the Sassanid period, during which, Iranic aristocrats played a prominent role in local affairs

The author received some harsh criticism, however, in the comments section of the blog, particularly regarding the idea that Kurdish is a creole language. Linguists have very strict rules for determining such matters, and the author probably took a step too far. All that I can conclude from my own cursory investigation is that a major Hurrian-Urartian substratum in Kurdish as an intriguing possibility that deserves further inquiry.

Perhaps the most interesting line of evidence for the Hurrian roots of the Kurdish people comes from the realm of tattooing. Tattoos are haram, or forbidden under Islamic law, but Muslim Kurds – particularly women – have nonetheless maintained this ancient practice to this day, although it does seem to be slowly disappearing. Traditional Kurdish tattoos, primarily placed on the hands and face, are called deq. They are based on an elaborate symbolic system, sometimes deemed a “secret language.” Izady sees a clear Hurrian linkage here as well:

It is fascinating to recognize the origin of many tattooing motifs still used by the traditional Kurds on their bodies as replicas of those which appear on the Hurrian figurines. One such is the combination that incorporates serpent, sun disc, dog and comb/rain motifs. In fact, some of these Hurrian tattoo motifs are also present in the religious decorative arts of the Yezidi Kurds, as found prominently engraved to the wall at the great shrine at Lalish.

Regardless of any connections to the ancient Hurrians, deq tattooing is a fascinating topic in its own right. Several recent articles have focused on this endangered cultural tradition. I will  conclude this post with quotations from two of these publications. First, from The Bajer:

DEQ is a secret language, mainly among women. … In some cultures, tattoos stand for religion, power, and joy; others believe the practice of DEQ has therapeutic power. According to some women I have interviewed, DEQ is a reminder of loss, a way to immortalize their loved ones. They keep essential memories constantly in mind with powerful symbols on apparent parts of the body, such as the face, feet, arms, hands, and chest.

DEQ differs from the modern tattoo with its unique ingredients and recipe, which varies across different ethnic groups. DEQ tattoo ingredients include sheet metal soot or ash, coal dust, milk from a lactating mother who has weaned a female baby, which is believed to make the tattoo stick permanently, and liquid from an animal’s gallbladder. The application of DEQ includes embroidering the mixture into the skin through one to three needles.

Second, from Daily Sabah:

Deq symbols have different connotations but most of them are believed to protect women from evil forces. They are said to bring good health, cure illnesses and be associated with fertility and tribal affiliations. The figure of an eye is said to divert the evil eye, while an image of a gazelle brings luck. The figure of the sun or the moon refers to an endless and healthy life and an illustration of a millipede is associated with good housekeeping. For beautification, the figure of the moon or a star is preferred. The common “V” symbol is a tribal identifier. Certain geometrical figures or animal images refer to fertility. “Deq” is seen as an accessory, something that elderly women in Turkey’s southeast proudly show. Jodi Hilton, an American photojournalist, visited Syrians who have been displaced by the DAESH [ISIS] siege and now live at refugee camps in Turkey. There, she documented some of the last-remaining tattooed women from the Syrian town of Kobani.

Historicity: New Geo-Historical Podcast

For those interested in world history, architectural history, urban geography, and exploring on foot the world’s most important cities, I highly recommend Angus Lockyer’s new blog, Historicity.  In the first three installments, Angus walks along the streets of London and explains the history and significance of important buildings and monuments. Although Historicity would be best enjoyed while retracing his steps, my wife and I found it both entertaining and illuminating while driving through the Montana countryside. Angus’s ability to weave the main threads of world history through an intimate urban landscape is impressive.  We look forward to a forthcoming installment on Tokyo, as the presenter is a retired professor of Japanese history.

Historicity can be found at:

Angus Lockyer can also be heard speaking about Japan in two episodes of another great podcast, the BBC’s In Our Time. This engaging radio show, which has been running weekly since 1998, has a misleading name, as its content is usually historical. We affectionately call it “Melvyn and His Guests,” after its delightful octogenarian host, Melvyn Bragg, and the scholars he interviews.

Montana’s Changing Population Geography

(Note: The next several posts will focus on the geography of Montana.)

As noted in previous posts, Montana is experiencing a population boom. Three decades ago, however, there was widespread worry about population stagnation and possible decline. Since becoming a state in 1889, Montana has experienced several demographic cycles, each marked by different geographical patterns. Geographer William Wyckoff has extensively documented these changes. In particular, I recommend his essay “Peopling the Last Best Place, 1870-1990,”* published by the Burton K. Wheeler Center at Montana State University at the time of lagging growth and concern about the state’s future. I will briefly summarize some of Wyckoff’s arguments before considering the more recent era of population growth.

The early cycles of boom and bust, Wyckoff argues, were linked to economies of natural resource development, governmental investments, and climatic fluctuations. Prior to 1890, the non-native population was heavily focused in the southwestern part of the state, particularly in a handful of mining districts. As Wyckoff’s map of settlement in 1870 shows, southwest Montana at the time was linked most closely to Utah. A decade before the turn of the century, however, the settlement of the Great Plains in the east accelerated, propelled by railroad development, a series of relatively wet years, and high wheat prices.

But as the map shows, Montana’s population in 1900 was still concentrated in the west, particularly in the four labeled counties. Far above the others was Silver Bow, containing the extraordinarily productive and profitable copper mines of Butte. Neighboring Deer Lodge, a copper-smelting hub, also stands out (its shuttered Anaconda Smelter Stack, at 585 feet, is the tallest surviving masonry structure in the world). Relatively large population clusters were also found in Lewis & Clark County, another mining center, and Cascade County, an emerging energy (hydropower) and transportation hub. Helena, in the former county, boasted of having the world’s highest concentration of millionaires (50 in a population of 12,000 in 1888). Cascade’s county seat of Great Falls exploded from 3,979 residents in 1890 to 14,930 in 1900. Gallatin County in southwest, with 9,533 residents, was the main agricultural region supporting the mining economy. As can be seen in Wyckoff’s second map, the Butte mining district had become the state’s demographic core by 1890.


In the first two decades of the twentieth century, agricultural expansion transformed the Great Plains, at least in areas accessible to the rapidly growing rail network. World War I was an especially promising time. As a result, many eastern Montana counties were subdivided. Ironically,  the demographic cycle went into reverse just as new counties were proliferating. Drought struck in the late teens and returned periodically in the 1920s, a decade that did not roar in Montana; the state’s population dropped by 2.1 percent during this period. As Wyckoff notes, over half of Montana’s banks failed between 1920 and 1926.

The agricultural boom of the period from 1890 to 1920 resulted in a far more geographically balanced population structure for the state as a whole. As can be seen on the 1930 population map, the mining district of the southwest were no longer dominant. We also see the rise of Yellowstone County and its key city of Billings, an emerging agricultural, energy, and transportation hub. Billings would surpass Great Falls as Montana’s largest city around 1970, and today has almost twice Great Fall’s population.

Moderate population growth returned to Montana in the post WWII period, with the 1950s and 1970s posting strong gains. With the exceptions of Cascade and Yellowstone countries, however, the Great Plains continued to stagnate. Agricultural mechanization reduced the need for labor, and the region’s harsh climate and remote location discouraged settlement. As Wyckoff notes, population growth in the post-war period was propelled by the forestry industries in the northwest, energy in the greater Billings and Great Falls area, and the early emergence of natural-amenities development in some of the more scenic valleys in the mountainous west.

In the 1980s, Montana’s population growth rate fell to 1.6 percent. As Wyckoff writes, “More than two-thirds of Montana’s 56 counties lost population, and the state’s struggling economy since 1980 prompted over 50,000 residents to leave.” Stagnation in a time of national economic growth generated concern, leading Montana State University to commission the study in which Wyckoff’s essay appears. But the situation would soon turn around. Montana’s population grew by almost 13 percent in the 1990s and by almost 10 percent in each of the first two decades of the new century. Much of this growth was focused on amenity-rich areas in the west. Of particular note are the two college towns of Missoula and Bozeman, home, respectively, of the University of Montana and Montana State University. Missoula County grew by almost 22 percent in the 1990s, while Gallatin County, where Bozeman is located, posted a gain of more than 34 percent. As Montana State University increasingly emphasized science and engineering, Bozeman emerged as a regional tech hub, contributing to population gains of more than 30 percent in Gallatin County during both the 2000-2010 and 2010-2020 periods.

The 2020 map of population by county again reveals a stark demographic divide, especially when contrasted with the map of 1930. With the exceptions of Yellowstone (Billings) and Cascade (Great Falls) counties, the Great Plains remains very sparsely settled. Most of its counties had larger populations in 1920 than they do today, and several have fallen below 1,000 residents. Population is now concentrated in the west, but even in western Montana most countries have small populations and have experienced little growth. That situation is perhaps changing, however, as exorbitant real estate costs lead many people to seek housing outside of the region’s booming cities, especially Bozeman. Many other parts of western and central Montana have excellent natural amenities, and thus appeal to those who value outdoor experiences.

*In “Population Decline in Montana,” by Patrick C. Jobes, Craig Wilson, and William Wyckoff. Published by the Burton K,. Wheeler Center, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana. April 30 and May 1, 1991

Chavacano: A Spanish-Based Creole Language of the Philippines

Language FamiliesLanguage-family maps, like the one posted here, generally show Austronesian languages blanketing the entire Philippine archipelago. But such a depiction is not accurate, as the mother tongue of the majority of the inhabitants of the tip of the Zamboanga Peninsula on the island of Mindanao is definitely not Austronesian. Perhaps as many as 700,000 people here speak Chavacano (alternatively, Zamboangueño or Chabacano* de Zamboanga), a Spanish-based creole language that has been influenced by a number of Philippine languages. Zamboangueño speakers are, moreover, scattered in minority communities across much of the southwestern Philippines and even into northeastern Borneo (in the Malaysian state of Sabah).

Language Families of the Philippines MapOther Chavacano dialects are found elsewhere in the Philippines, counting several hundred thousand speakers among them. The most important of these is Caviteño (or Chabacano de Cavite), found in the city of Cavite on Manila Bay, near the capital of the Philippines. Before World War II, Cavacano also dominated an important neighborhood in Manila itself, but this dialect, Ermiteño (named after the Ermita district), is apparently extinct.



Chavacano Language MapChavacano is interesting from both linguistic and historical-geographical perspectives. To begin with, it is widely considered to be one of the world’s oldest creole tongues, with a history dating back some 400 years. It is clearly based on Spanish, which is quite a rarity; although many creole language are Portuguese-based and many have been influenced by Spanish, the only other Spanish-based creole tongue is Palenquero, spoken by only a few thousand persons in a small area of Colombia. (See John McWhorter’s The Missing Spanish Creoles for an extended exploration of this topic.) The presence of words borrowed from Nahuatl indicate that Chavacano derives more from Mexican Spanish than from pure Castilian. Different dialects of the language show distinctive borrowing patterns from various Philippine languages. Other languages have contributed vocabulary elements as well. In the Chavacano dialects of southeastern Mindanao (Davao), the influence of Chinese and Japanese is marked, giving rise to “two sub-dialects, namely Castellano Abakay Chino and Castellano Abakay Japón.”

As mentioned above, one Chavacano dialect is extinct, and others may be diminishing. (Not surprisingly, the number of speakers and the current status of the different dialects is hotly disputed.) But Chabacano de Zamboanga is a healthy language, forming both the main mother tongue and the lingua franca of Zamboanga, the sixth largest city in the Philippines, with more than 800,000 residents. Efforts are being made to ensure the health of the Cavacano media. A recent article in the Philippine Inquirer, for example, highlights a Chavavano radio drama produced locally by a Canadian Catholic priest. As Christopher Sundita, writing a comment on a 2011 Language Hat post, claims:

[T]he Zamboanga variety is the healthiest variety of Chavacano. It has experienced exponential growth since the 1940s with Keith Whinnom (1957) reporting 1,300 speakers to the 2000 Census reporting around 380,000 (with the usual caveats). There is ample media in Zamboanga Chavacano and its local prestige ensures its survival. The future doesn’t look too great for the Cavite & Ternate varieties. And Ermita Chavacano is already gone, if its sole speaker hasn’t passed away yet.


The linguist John M. Lipski goes further than Sundita, dismissing the low estimate of Whinnon. He argues strongly against:

[T]he mistaken notion among creolists (beginning with Whinnom 1956) that the largest Chabacano-speaking population, that of Zamboanga City, is small and moribund, when in fact it is a thriving first- and second-language speech community of perhaps half a million speakers. Frake (1971) was the first to provide more accurate information on Zamboangueño, but to this day many scholars in the Philippines and abroad are unaware of the true strength of the Zamboanga Chabacano community.


The geographical distribution of Chavacano sheds light on the distinctive historical geography of the Philippines. Although Spain ruled the Philippines for more than 300 years, Spaniards never settled in large numbers and did not seek to impose their language on people of the archipelago. The two most important places of Chavacano development were of particular military significance to Spain, and thus housed many soldiers and other Spanish-speaking personnel. One of these was Cavite, located on Manila Bay, which housed the all-important shipyard (the Astillero de Rivera) in which most of the storied Manila galleons, which sailed annually to Acapulco Mexico, were constructed. After the galleon trade was discontinued in 1815, the shipyard was transformed into the Spanish Arsenal.

Zamboanga, quite in contrast to Cavite, was situated at the far extremity of the Spanish imperial possessions in the Philippines. But that gave it great significance in the never-ending war between the Spanish Empire and the Muslim sultanates of southwestern Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. Fort Pilar in Zamboanga long served as the bulwark of Spanish power in the region, albeit an insecure one that demanded constant reinforcement. Mexican soldiers, masons and other workers from Cavite, and laborers from the Visayas Islands in the central Philippines rubbed shoulders in the fort and adjoining town. In due time, the creole language of Chabacano de Zamboanga emerged, allowing these disparate groups to easily communicate with each other.


Philippine Languages MapThe map that I constructed to illustrate this post shows not merely the two main area of the Chavacano language in Zamboanga and Cavite, but also the main divisions of the indigenous languages of the Philippines. Several of these groupings are, however, controversial, particularly when it comes to the Batanic languages of the extreme north. But there is wide consensus that virtually all languages of the archipelago belong to the Philippine sub-family, a linguistic group that extends into a small slice of northeastern Borneo in Malaysia and a significantly larger swath of northern Sulawesi in Indonesia. The languages in this family are relatively closely related to each other, leading some scholars to suggest that they all derived from a language that spread long after the original Austronesian settlers reached the archipelago. As to Wikipedia puts it, “Although the Philippines is near the center of Austronesian expansion from Formosa, there is little linguistic diversity among the approximately 150 Philippine languages, suggesting that earlier diversity has been erased by the spread of the ancestor of the modern Philippine languages.”


Langauges of the Philippines Diagram MapFinally, I have posted an interesting hybrid map-diagram of the languages of the Philippines made by, “a physicist who is in dire need of a stress reliever.” I would be interested in comments on this map from professional linguists.

* Controversies arise over the use of “Chabacano” versus “Chavacano.” As the author of one article notes, “In Zamboanga City, the old-timers will be offended if you tell them that their language is chabacano instead of chavacano. To the new generation the words chabacano and chavacano are interchangeable.” The Wikipedia explains the origin of the word in this manner:

Chavacano or Chabacano originated from the Spanish word chabacano which literally means “poor taste”, “vulgar”, “common”, “of low quality”, or “coarse”. During the Spanish colonial period, it was called by the Spanish-speaking population as the “lenguaje de la calle“, “lenguaje de parian” (language of the street), or “lenguaje de cocina” (kitchen Spanish to refer to the Chabacano spoken by Chinese-Filipinos of Manila, particularly in Ermita) to distinguish it from the Spanish language spoken by the peninsulares, insulares, mestizos, or the elite class called the ilustrados. This common name has evolved into a word of its own in different spellings with no negative connotation, but to simply mean as the name of the language with that distinct Spanish flavour. However, most of its earlier speakers were born of mixed parentage – Hispanized urban natives, Chinese migrants and Spanish or Latin American soldiers and civil servants during the Spanish colonial period.


Maritime Linkages in the Linguistic Geography of the Philippines

A crucial if often overlooked issue in world historical geography is whether seas and other waterways serve to separate or to unite human communities found on opposing shores. The answer, of course, is “it depends”: it depends on the distances entailed, the physical characteristics of the seas (and lands) in question, the maritime technology and orientation of the people involved, and so on. In some circumstances, even relatively narrow waters can form profound barriers, whereas in others seas provide easy linkages to distant lands.


Indian Ocean MapPerhaps the best example of waterways forming barriers comes from the western Indian Ocean. Madagascar and especially the Comoros are not particularly far from eastern Africa, the probable homeland of humankind, yet they were not peopled until the Common Era (the time period staring at the year zero)—and when Madagascar was settled it was initially by way Southeast Asia, not Africa. The fertile and sizable Mascarene Islands (Mauritius, Réunion, and Rodrigues), were not discovered until much later and were not inhabited until the modern era.





Largest Philippines Islands MapThe best example of seas connecting opposing shores is probably the Philippines, a quintessentially archipelagic country composed of more than 7,000 islands. The Austronesian migrants who came from Taiwan to the Philippines some 4,000 years ago were superb sailors with a well-developed maritime technology, and in the archipelago they found rich and inviting Central Philippines Google Earthseas sprinkled with a profusion of islands. In this environment, waterways tended to link peoples found on the opposing shores, whereas the mountainous interiors of the larger islands tended to form barriers. It is not coincidental that the smallest administrative division of the Philippines is the “barangay,” a term that originally meant “village” but is actually derived from “balangay,” an indigenous watercraft.

Maritime Linkages Philippine Languages MapThe fact that seas have historically connected, whereas uplands have tended to divide, the human communities of the Philippines is best illustrated by a language map of the country. One can see such patterns on any such map of the country, but one does have to look closely to perceive them. To clarify the situation, I have made a new linguistic map of the archipelago that highlights such maritime connections. This map is based on several sources, relying heavily on language maps published in Wikipedia and Ethnologue. Note that I have mapped both individual languages and minor language families and dialect clusters, doing so in order to highlight maritime linkages. I have, however, left out some minor languages that have clear maritime geographies, such as Asi.



Central Philippines Language MapAs the title of my map specifies, only those Philippine languages that span more than one significant island are considered. As a result, important languages such as Kapampangan and Pangasinan are excluded, as they are essentially confined to one island. But as can be seen, most of the major islands of the country are divided among two or more languages. Even some relatively small islands, such as Tablas, Burias, and Biliran, are linguistically split. In the central Philippines in particular, the central points of distribution for most languages are found at sea, not on land.


Visayan Languages MapThe sea-based distribution of Philippine languages map was probably even more pronounced in earlier historical periods. Three Philippine languages expanded greatly over the course of the 20th century: Tagalog, Cebuano, and Ilocano. Before that time, for example, Cebuano was not spoken in southeastern Mindanao, as it was largely confined to lands bordering the Bohol and Camotes seas. The oddly discontinuous distribution of the Southern Visayan languages, shown on my map as wrapping to the south of Mindanao, stems in part from the modern southward expansion of Cebuano. Before the Spanish conquest, languages in this group may have extended across much of northern Mindanao. The reduction of the geographical extent of the Southern Visayan languages may have been related to the eclipse of what had been the important city and state of Butuan in northern Mindanao, a decline that was itself closely linked to the Spanish imperial project. The Butuanon language survives to the present, although just barely. But at one time, Butuan was a very significant place indeed. As described in the Wikipedia:

Pre-Hispanic Philippines MapButuan, before its colonization, was known as the Rajahnate of Butuan, an Indianized kingdom known for its metallurgic industry and sophisticated naval technology. The rajahnate flourished at the 10th and 11th centuries CE, and had an extensive trade network with the Champa Civilization and the Srivijayan Empire.

On 1001 CE, the rajahnate had established contact with the Song Dynasty of China. The annual Song Shih recorded the appearance of a Butuan mission at the Chinese imperial court, and the rajahnate was described as a small Hindu country with a Buddhist monarchy, which had a regular trade connection with Champa. The mission, under a rajah named Kiling, asked for equal status in court protocol with the Champa envoy, but ultimately was denied by the imperial court. However, under the reign of Sri Bata Shaja, the diplomatic equality was eventually granted to the Kingdom, and as a result the diplomatic relations of the two nations reached its peak in the Yuan Dynasty.

(The pre-Hispanic history of the Philippines is vastly more complex and important than what is indicated by most historical accounts. I am pleased that Wikipedia has finally put up a decent pre-Hispanic historical map, posted here with Butuan emphasized.)

Finally, it must also be noted that distinguishing the various languages and dialects of the Philippines is a difficult task, as a great deal of linguistic mixing has long occurred. Consider, for example, the situation in the Bantayan Islands, found to the northwest of Cebu. I have left this small archipelago blank on my language map, following the Ethnologue in classifying its tongue, Bantayanon, as a separate language. The Wikipedia description of Bantayanon is brief but intriguing:

The Bantayan dialect is mostly a mixture of Visayan languages: principally native Cebuano, Hiligaynon (Negros), Waray-Waray (Samar), Masbatenyo (Masbate) and Boholano (Bohol). However it has words it can call its own such as “kakyop, sara, buwas” (yesterday, today, tomorrow).

(Note that in my language map, Boholano is classified as a dialect of Cebuano.)

(UPDATE: Customizable maps of the Philippines are posted here.)



But are There Any Jobs in Geography?

(Note to readers: Last week I promised a GeoCurrents post on secession movements and proposals for the partitioning internationally recognized sovereign states. That post is still forthcoming, but it is taking considerably more time than I had anticipated. At present, I hope to post it by the middle of this week. In the meantime, I have written something a little different.)

Jobs in GIS USCAs a university geography instructor, I am often asked by students about potential careers in the field. “I love geography,” they tell me, “but how can studying it get me a job?” This is not an easy question for me to answer, because, like most professors, I have little experience and few contacts outside of academia. What I have long done is to refer such students to the Association of American Geographers (AAG), which provides information on such matters. Olivia Crosby’s “Geography Jobs,” linked to on the AAG webpages, is particularly useful.

Most “jobs in geography” discussions focus on the importance of technical education, particularly Geographical Information Systems (GIS). When I was in geography graduate school in the early 1980s at UC Berkeley, GIS was a relatively new field. Unfortunately, I missed the boat. I did so for two reasons. First the Berkeley Geography Department was hostile to Geographical Information Systems because the department was, paradoxically, both too conservative and too leftist for anything as useful as GIS. Second, I was myself something of eco-radical Luddite at the time, as such I had no interest in something as technical as GIS. But I have long since rejected the Luddite philosophy in favor of eco-modernism, and I am now a strong GIS proponent. I have not taken the effort to learn GIS myself, much to the disappointment of some GeoCurrents readers, but I always urge my students to do so. If they do, a rewarding career in geography might result.

The U.C. Berkeley Geography Department, to my knowledge, never embraced GIS, but most other geography departments have, as have a great many departments in other disciplines. “Spatial history,” for example, is a burgeoning subfield in the discipline of history, one that produces technically sophisticated historical geography (or geographical history, if one prefers). To my mind, the foremost practitioner of this art—and science—is the historical geographer Anne Knowles. See this New York Times article for an exploration of her work, and well as a discussion of the new term “spatial humanities.”


USC GIS MH370One school that has made great strides in GIS, both in regard to research and education, is the University of Southern California (USC), as can be seen in the website of its “Geographic Information Science & Technology Graduate Programs.” The USC program is particularly good at generating “infographics” that explore major topics of public concern through effective images. One example, that of the search for MA370, is reproduced here. The USC GIS program also produced the infographic on careers in GIS that is found at the top of this post. As can be seen, interesting job opportunities are available in numerous fields.


Echoes of Biafra: Geographical Patterns in Nigeria’s 2015 Election

(Note to Readers: GeoCurrents is now on its summer schedule, which should entail 3 posts per week.)

Nigeria 2015 election mapNigeria’s 2015 election has been widely regarded as marking a milestone in the country’s democratic transition. For the first time, an incumbent president lost a bid for reelection. Goodluck Jonathan, the outgoing leader, conceded defeat readily, graciously passing power to his challenger Muhammadu Buhari, who he had trounced in the 2011 election. Buhari had been a repressive military ruler of Nigeria in the early 1980s, but he now regards himself as a “converted democrat.” Many observers credit Buhari’s victory to the belief among many Nigerians that a northern Muslim with a military background can deal more effectively with the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency than a southern Christian with a civilian background, such as the militarily ineffectual Jonathan. Many also think that Buhari’s somewhat abstemious personal habits will give him an edge in tackling the country’s massive corruption problems.

Nigeria 2011 election mapAs the first two maps posted here show, Nigeria’s 2015 election saw a significant reduction in county’s north/south regional/religious electoral divide. In 2011, every northern, Muslim-dominated state voted for Buhari, many by an overwhelming majority, whereas almost every southern, Christian-dominated state voted for Jonathan, many by an overwhelming majority. In the 2015 election, however, a number of southern states favored Buhari, including the country’s economic core of Lagos. Such a “mixed” electoral map is a hopeful sign for Nigerian national unity. Nigeria’s regional political division has been so pronounced that a special election rule was created to ensure some measure of trans-regional support: a successful presidential candidate must gain at least 25 percent of the vote in at least two-thirds of the country’s 36 states.

Nigeria 2015 election Jonathan Vote MapBut the 2015 electoral map also shows the persistence of regional division. Although Buhari did quite well in many southern states, he failed miserably in the southeast. Over most of this densely populated and economically significant area, Buhari received less then 10 percent of the vote, as the electorate remained overwhelmingly committed to Jonathan. Intriguingly, the area that voted heavily for Jonathan in 2015 almost exactly matches the Nigeria 2015 Election Biafra Mapregion that rebelled against Nigeria and declared itself to be the independent country of Biafra in the late 1960s, as can be seen in the next map. This area, demographically dominated by the heavily Christian Igbo people, thus remains politically distinctive from the rest of the country. Among some groups in the southeast, the desire for independence remains strong.

In the coastal belt of the southeast, another factor may have contributed to Buhari’s poor showing. Prior to the election, it was rumored that Buhari was planning to suspend job-training programs and payments to former militants that had greatly reduced political violence in this strife-plagued region. As Voice of America reported on June 2, 2015:

Former militants in Nigeria’s Niger Delta say unrest may resume if the country’s new president ends the amnesty program and monthly payments that brought peace to the oil-producing region.

Each month, former militants who used to spend their time bombing pipelines and kidnapping foreign oil workers in the Niger Delta get the equivalent of about $330 to convince them to occupy their time in other ways. They also get access to training programs intended to help them find other work.

This arrangement started in 2009, but it was never supposed to last forever. New Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said so in his inauguration speech last week, announcing the program would end in December.

Two days later, however, a senior Nigerian official announced that the new Nigerian government “is committed to continuing with a militant amnesty program in the Niger Delta in a bid to improve the security situation in the oil-producing region…” The country can ill-afford renewed fighting in this region, despite the expense of the program.

Nigeria 2015 Election Yoruba MapThe real change in Nigeria’s electoral geography from the 2011 to the 2015 election is found in the southwest, another densely populated, economically significant region. In 2011, this area had supported Jonathan, but in 2015 it gave the majority of its votes to Buhari. But in neither election was the margin of victory pronounced. As a result, the southwest has apparently come to function as the vital “swing region” in Nigerian elections.

Most of the southwest is demographically dominated by members of the Yoruba ethnic group. Although Yorubaland is mostly Christian, it also contains quite a few Yoruba-speaking Muslims, as well as many practitioners of the indigenous Yoruba religion, a faith that has seen something of a revival in recent decades. (Unfortunately, data on the actual religious make-up of the region is not easy to find.) Although the Yoruba are mixed when it comes to religion, they do tend to have a strong sense of regional and ethnic identity – as well as a degree of suspicion of both the Igbo-dominated southeast and the Hausa-Fulani-Kanuri dominated north.

Nigeria Econony Igbo People MapAnother “swing” area in recent Nigerian elections is the Edo-speaking state of Edo in the south-center. Here Jonathan triumphed in the 2015 election, but did so narrowly. Edo is one of the most economically productive states of Nigeria. It is also the heir of the once-powerful kingdom of Benin, noted for its magnificent artistic output of bronze-work during the medieval and early modern periods. The Kingdom of Benin is not to be confused with the modern country of Benin located to the west of Nigeria, which was formerly called Dahomey. Dahomey changed its name to “Benin” not in reference to the kingdom of that name, but rather to the adjacent portion of the sea known as the “Bight of Benin.”

Wednesday’s post will examine Nigeria’s regional divisions more carefully, looking specifically at those who would like to divide the country into several new sovereign states.