Human Development

Miletus, The Black Sea, and the Origin of the Continental Scheme of Global Division

I have long been interested in the origin of the idea that the world is divided into separate continents, having co-written a book on the topic in 1997. While currently working on the Black Sea region, I have been reminded of how central the Black Sea was to the original continental scheme.

The (known) world was first divided into two continents – Europe and Asia – by Greek thinkers located in the city of Miletus in what is now western Turkey. In the 6th century BCE, Miletus was one of the largest and wealthiest Greek city states. It is also commonly regarded as the birthplace of Greek science and philosophy, being the home of the so-called Ionian Enlightenment of the same century. Beginning in the 8th century BCE, Miletus, like many other Greek city states, established numerous colonies, most of which were located around the Black Sea. Milesian navigators and merchants had extensive experience in this water body, and early Milesian thinkers relied on their knowledge when mapping the world.

According to traditional sources, the first Greek world map was made by Anaximander of Miletus. It was subsequently revised by Hecataeus, a noted geographer of the same city. Neither map survived, but they have been reconstructed based on surviving descriptions. As these reconstructions show, the term “Europe” was used to designate the large landmass located to the left as Milesian navigators moved between islands and through narrow passages as they voyaged from their home city across the Black Sea, whereas “Asia” referred to those lands on the right. As the Milesians were also familiar with the Mediterranean, these same terms were used, respectively, for the landmasses to the north and south of this sea (“Asia” was not generally differentiated on continental grounds from “Libya” [or Africa] by Milesian geographers).

In world vision of these early geographers, the division between Asia and Europe in the extreme east continued along the Phasis River (source of the word “pheasant”), now known as the Rioni River of western Georgia. This river was not well understood and was evidently believed by some to link the Black Sea to the eastern reaches of the encircling Ocean. Later Greek thinkers of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE generally regard their own realm as being strung along a series of waterways that extended from the Strait of Gibraltar to what is now western Georgia. As Plato ostensibly quoted Socrates, “I believe that the earth is very large and that we who dwell between the Pillars of Hercules and the river Phasis live in a small part of it about the sea, like ants or frogs about a pond” (Phaedo, 109a). With the world conceptualized in such a manner, it made sense to distinguish the northern side of this division as one land mass, Europe, and the other side as another, conceptualized either as either Asia or as Asia and Libya (Africa).

Later Greek and Roman geographers revised the continental schema, moving the division between Europe and Asia from the Phasis River (Rioni) to the Tanais (Don) River. This maneuver highlighted the passage into yet another enclosed sea (the Sea of Azov, then known as Lake Maeotis), through yet another narrow passage, the Strait of Kerch (then known as the Cimmerian Bosporus). A reconstruction of a Roman world map nicely shows the resulting threefold division of the world, with Europe almost separated from Asia by a north-south-running series of waterways beginning in the Aegean Sea and ending in the Sea of Azov, and Asia almost separated from Africa by the Red Sea (labeled as the Arabian Sea on this map.) This model of the world would become the foundation for all later continental divisions.

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Human Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: Recent Gains and Losses

Several recent GeoCurrents posts have noted substantial improvements in human development over the past several decades, as measured by the human development index (HDI). As the first map posted here shows, some of the world’s least developed countries have experienced the largest gains. Only a few countries saw HDI values decline from 2010 to 2020 (Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Venezuela, Jordan, and Timor Leste).

 

 

Although sub-Saharan Africa registered impressive improvements, it still has the world’s lowest HDI figures, and by a substantial margin. A world map showing only countries in the World Bank’s “low human development” tier, posted here, includes just three countries outside of the region (Haiti, Yemen, and Afghanistan). Within sub-Saharan Africa, however, much of the west and most of the south are excluded.

The World Bank’s HDI tiers might not be the best way to the categorize human development standings. Are we really expected to believe that Papua New Guinea has a “medium” level of human development? (Admittedly, it just barely makes this category.) The thresholds for the categories seem might be too low to accurately represent public conceptualization of this issue. The index might also underestimate income levels, putting too much emphasis on education and health. Finally, the numbers used to generate the index are not necessarily always accurate – particularly in the poorer parts of the world.

One relatively easily measured metric clearly shows that sub-Saharan Africa, or at least its central-interior portion, is by far the least developed part of the world: electricity access. The numbers here are shocking. Whereas countries as poor as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have reached full electrification, Chad and Burundi still have electrification rates below 12 percent. In several areas, the situation has deteriorated since 2020. As a recent Brookings report notes:

In fact, in developing countries in Africa, the number of people without electricity increased in 2020 (after declining over the past six years) and basic electricity services are now unaffordable. Moreover, the cost of electricity services in sub-Saharan Africa remains among the highest in the world—and those who can afford electricity often face unreliable service. As poverty levels increase, countries will be forced to scale back to basic electricity access because citizens will not be able to afford formal electricity bundles.

 

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Human Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: Recent Gains and Losses

Several recent GeoCurrents posts have noted substantial improvements in human development over the past several decades, as measured by the human development index (HDI). As the first map posted here shows, some of the world’s least developed countries have experienced the largest gains. Only a few countries saw HDI values decline from 2010 to 2020 (Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Venezuela, Jordan, and Timor Leste).

 

 

Although sub-Saharan Africa registered impressive improvements, it still has the world’s lowest HDI figures, and by a substantial margin. A world map showing only countries in the World Bank’s “low human development” tier, posted here, includes just three countries outside of the region (Haiti, Yemen, and Afghanistan). Within sub-Saharan Africa, however, much of the west and most of the south are excluded.

The World Bank’s HDI tiers might not be the best way to the categorize human development standings. Are we really expected to believe that Papua New Guinea has a “medium” level of human development? (Admittedly, it just barely makes this category.) The thresholds for the categories seem be too low to accurately represent public conceptualization of this issue. The index might also underestimate income levels, putting too much emphasis on education and health. Finally, the numbers used to generate the index are not necessarily accurate – particularly in the poorer parts of the world.

One relatively easily measured metric clearly shows that sub-Saharan Africa, or at least its central-interior portion, is by far the least developed part of the world: electricity access. The numbers here are shocking. Whereas countries as poor as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have achieved full electrification, Chad and Burundi still had electrification rates below 12 percent in 2016. In several areas, the situation has deteriorated since 2020. As a recent Brookings report notes:

In fact, in developing countries in Africa, the number of people without electricity increased in 2020 (after declining over the past six years) and basic electricity services are now unaffordable. Moreover, the cost of electricity services in sub-Saharan Africa remains among the highest in the world—and those who can afford electricity often face unreliable service. As poverty levels increase, countries will be forced to scale back to basic electricity access because citizens will not be able to afford formal electricity bundles.

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Human Development Index (HDI) Rankings in South & Central America

Compared to greater South Asia (mapped in a previous post), South & Central America has relatively high levels of human development, as well as fewer disparities between countries. The basic spatial pattern is clear: higher levels of HDI in the “Southern Cone” (Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay) and in southern Central America (Panama and Costa Rica), and lower levels in northern Central America and Guyana. Venezuela still has a moderately high ranking, but it has been dropping, declining from 0.777 in 2013 to 0.711 in 2019. Venezuela is mapped here in the same category as Bolivia and Paraguay, whereas until recently in had a comfortable lead over both countries. Presumable, this downward trajectory continues.

 

Owing to the relatively small HDI gaps among countries in this region, I have revised the initial map by making a finer level of distinction. The same general patterns hold, although here Venezuela drops into a category below that of Paraguay. On this map, unlike the preceding one, Argentina and Chile fall into the same slot, as their HDI figures are very close (0.845 for Argentina and 0.851 in Chile in 2019).

 

 

 

As Brazil is roughly the same size as the rest of South America, it is useful to break it down into its constituent states. As can be seen on this map, Brazilian HDI levels are higher than average in the far south (Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina) and southeast (Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo states), and lower in the north. But the disparities in these numbers across Brazil are much lower than they had previously been, as is evident in the final map posted here. This map also shows major human developmental gains across the country in the first nineteen years of the century. A similar trend is holds for almost all countries of the region. But while Latin America has experienced major strides in human development, its economic growth has stalled out over the past decade, resulting in massive dissatisfaction and a strong turn against incumbents in political contests.

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South Asia’s Human Development Progress

One of my take-home messages for college geography students is that the world is probably both in worse shape and in better shape than they realize: in the geopolitical context of war and conflict, conditions are worse than might be expected from a casual reading of the news, whereas in regard to human development they are considerably better. Over almost all of the world, Human Development Index (HDI) scores have increased over the past thirty years, and in most places they have done so to a significant degree.

Greater South Asia has seen particularly large increases in human development, as is made clear by looking at the paired maps posted here. Not just every country in the region, but almost every major political subdivision has seen major gains in health, education, and average income. But it is also evident that regional HDI disparities have increased in the same period. Some places have made far greater gains than others.

 

In the regional map of HDI levels in 1990, three Indian states have anomalously high figures in 1990 – almost as high as their 2019 figures: Uttarakhand, in the north, Telangana in the center, and Jharkhand in the northeast.  Significantly, none was a state in 1990. At that time, all belonged to other states (Uttarakhand was then part of Uttar Pradesh, Telangana was part of Andhra Pradesh, and Jharkhand was part of Bihar). I suspect that statistical irregularities play a role in these surprising figures.

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Areas of Relatively High Human Development in Greater South Asia

Today’s post continues the GeoCurrents series on the Human Development Index (HDI), focusing initially on greater South Asia. Here we look at areas with relatively high HDI figures.

For decades, the region’s highest human development levels have been found in the far south and southwest, specifically in the Indian states of Kerala and Goa and in Sri Lanka. All invested heavily in health and education, reaping substantial rewards. For decades, Kerala was well ahead of the rest of India, especially in female literacy. This patterns partly reflects the region’s social structure, which has long been less male dominated than most of the rest of India.

Sri Lanka has also long outpaced other parts of South Asia, but its edge has been steadily slipping. In 1990, Sri Lanka posted an HDI figure of .629, substantially ahead of Goa’s .552 and Kerala’s .544, and well ahead of Tamil Nadu’s .471. By 2019, Sri Lanka has advanced to .782, but it was now behind Kerala’s .790 and just ahead of Goa’s .761. At the time, Tamil Nadu’s HDI figure had surged to .708. Give Sri Lanka’s current political crisis and economic meltdown, it would not be surprising to see Tamil Nadu and several other Indian states overtake it in the next few years.

 

 

In northern India, the adjacent states of Punjab and Haryana, along with the National Capital Territory of New Delhi, exhibit relatively high HDI numbers, and have done so for decades. These two states are at the center of India’s agricultural “green revolution,” and are the site of substantial agro-industrial economic growth. Although neither Punjab nor Haryana top of the list agricultural production by Indian state, their relative productivity becomes apparent when population is factored in (see the chart posted here). These two states were also the hub of the massive 2020-2021 farmer protest movement that roiled India and caused its government to backtrack on planned prom-market agricultural reforms.

 

 

The neighboring state of Himachal Pradesh also exhibits a relatively high HDI figure, but the factors behind its development are distinctive. Whereas Punjab and Haryana are lowland states with fertile soils, Himachal Pradesh is a land of rugged topography, located in the Himalayan mountains and foothills. Its developmental ascent, moreover, has been much more recent. Through the 1960s, its indicators remained relatively low. A World Bank report credits its transformation on effective and non-corrupt political leadership, female empowerment, and mass electrification based on hydropower. Intriguingly, the population of Himachal Pradesh is overwhelmingly rural, with the state posting one of India’s lowest urbanization rates. In general, both in India and the world at large, low urbanization correlates with low social and economic development. This seeming paradox has received relatively little attention, and as a result it will be the subject of a future GeoCurrents post.

 

 

Higher than average HDI figures are posted across greater southwestern India. This large region has been the site of most of India’s recent industrial and financial expansion. As the next map shows, it is also contains almost all of India’s major tech hubs.

 

 

 

 

 

A far different situation is found in India’s far northeastern periphery. This is another rugged area that was long noted for its relative isolation, poorly developed infrastructure, and numerous ethnic insurgencies. Yet its human development indicators are now well above the average for the country. Many of the so-called tribal peoples of this region converted from animism to Christianity under the influence of missionaries during the colonial period, and three of its states (Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya) now have solid Christian (mostly Protestant) majorities. Missionaries stressed education, resulting in mass literacy. Women also have a relatively high social position in these societies, which are more culturally related to those of Southeast Asia than they are to those of South Asia. Recent infrastructural initiatives by the Indian and local governments, especially in electrification and road construction, have significantly improved economic conditions.

 

In neighboring Burma, several rugged and so-called tribal regions with Christian majorities or large minorities also post higher than expected HDI figures.

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Mapping the Human Development Index (HDI) in Greater South Asia

(Note: Today’s scheduled post on language and nationalism needs more work and therefore its publication will be delayed).

On a map of the World Bank’s Human Development Index divided into the standard categories, South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka*) is depicted as a land of “medium” development, better than central and north-central Africa, but worse than most of the rest of the world. Sri Lanka is an exception, falling instead into the “high development” category. This data, however, was collected before Sri Lanka’s recent economic melt-down. Presumably its HDI figure will decline.

When South Asia’s HDI rankings are broken down into finer categories and mapped in their regional context (one covering Burma and Afghanistan as well as portions of neighboring countries), several spatial patterns are evident. Here India, Bangladesh, and Nepal appear at a medium developmental level, and are flanked on the east and northwest by countries of lower ranking (Burma [Myanmar] and Pakistan & Afghanistan respectively). Bracketing “Greater South Asia” as a whole, one finds countries with much higher HDI levels (China, Iran, and Thailand).

These patterns vanish, however, when the larger countries of the region are broken down into their first-order administrative divisions (states, provinces, regions, etc. **). On this map, the borders between countries are hard to distinguish, and sometimes disappear altogether. China may have a much higher HDI level than India, but many Indian states post higher figures than the neighboring Chinese region of Tibet.

The rest of this post looks at parts of this Greater South Asia that have low HDI figures relative to the rest of the region. Later posts will examine areas with relatively high HDI, as well as regional developmental discrepancies.

South Asia’s most heavily populated area, India’s central Ganges Valley, is characterized low HDI. This region, consisting of the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is home to some 312 million people; it would be the world’s fourth most populous country if it were independent. The central Ganges Valley is a generally flat area with fertile soils and plentiful water (especially in the east). It is also the historical heartland of South Asia civilization. Its economic and social development, however, lags behind the rest of the country. Not coincidentally, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are also known for their high levels of corruption and their caste and religious tensions.

To the south of Bihar is the Indian state of Jharkhand, also characterized by low levels of social development. Ironically, it has India’s richest mineral deposits (especially coal) and has therefore been described as an example of the “resource curse.” Most of Jharkhand is a hilly plateau, and it has a large number of adivasis (“tribal people”). It has also been the site of numerous Maoist (Naxalite) attacks on governmental institutions.

 

 

Lower levels of human development are encountered in South Asia’s northwestern fringe. Both the western and eastern parts of Afghanistan, encompassing areas of both Pashtun and Tajik ethnicity, post very low HDI figures. Significantly higher levels are found in central Afghanistan, especially in and around Kabul. Across the country, HDI levels showed significant increases in the first two decades of the century. It will be interesting to see how they change with the Taliban back in power. Preliminary indications are not positive.

Very low levels of human development are also found in Pakistan’s Balochistan region, the country’ largest and most mineral-rich province. Not surprisingly, the ethnically distinct people of this area (mostly Baloch and Brahui) have been in periodic rebellion for decades. Baloch insurgents have recently launched attacks on Chinese-financed infrastructural projects in their region, which they see as benefitting the rest of Pakistan rather than themselves. While Balochistan as a whole posts an HDI figure of only .48, some of its internal districts have much lower numbers still. According to one source, Awaran, known as Pakistan’s “oasis of dates,” has a shockingly low HDI figure of only .17 (2017 data). Outside of Balochistan, the same data source claims that Pakistan’s former FATA region (“Federally Administered Tribal Areas”) had a similarly miserable figure of .22 in 2017. In 2018, this previously largely unadministered region of Pashtun ethnicity was merged with the neighboring state of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It still has one of the world’s lowest levels of female literacy. (Other sources give the dismantled FATA a substantially higher HDI figure of .46 [in 2019].)

Iran’s neighboring province of Sistan and Baluchestan is similar to Pakistan’s Balochistan in regard to its ethnic make-up and physical geography. Its HDI figure, .67, is, however, significantly higher. But Sistan and Baluchestan does have Iran’s lowest HDI figure, and by a sizable margin. It has also been the site of prolonged ethnic unrest.

Burma (Myanmar), although not conventionally classified as part of South Asia, also deserves a closer look. The country as a whole has a relatively low HDI figure despite its abundant resources and historical legacy of economic and social development (the noted historian Victor Lieberman thinks that Burma may have had the world’s highest level of literacy in the 1700s.) Intriguingly, Burma’s areas of particularly low development are not found in its marginalized, non-Burman, “tribal,” upland peripheries (more on this in the next most). The country’s profound “lowland/highland” and “Burman/ethnic minority” cleavages are not visible on this map.

 

Within Burma, a particularly low level of development is found in coastal Rakhine state. Known historically as Arakan, this area long formed an independent kingdom. The Arakanese people speak a language (dialect?) that is very closely related to Burmese. And like the Burmese-speaking ethnic Burmans, most of them follow Theravada Buddhism. Their lands have rich agricultural, marine, and forestry resources. But owing in part to its low levels of development, Rakhine is a restive region. The nationalist Arakan Liberation Army has recently ramped up its attacks on the Burmese state. The Arakan Liberation Army is also hostile toward the Muslim Rohingya minority, which until recently lived in the northern part of the region (vast numbers of Rohingya have been violently expelled from Burma).

Burma’s eastern Shan state posts an HDI figure lower than that of Rakhine, coming in at just over .5. The Shan state covers an upland plateau with some rugged topography and remote locales. It is not, however, a “tribal” area in general. The Shan themselves are a Tai-speaking people who also practice Theravada Buddhism. They were historically organized into small but military potent principalities. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Burma and Siam (which became Thailand) competed over gaining control of this sizable area, with Burma eventually coming out on top. In the late twentieth century, it became a focal point of the narcotics trade. For a time, the insurgent Shan State enjoyed effective independence. In the late 1900s, however, the Burmese government defeated the Shan military, made possible by its alliance with the drug-running United Wa State Army. (The Wa are a “tribal’ people living in the northern part of Shan state.). The entire region is still noted for its narcotics trade and ethnic conflicts.

*The Maldives, another South Asian country, is excluded here due to its very small population. Like Sri Lanka, it has a relatively high level of human development (HDI of .74).

** The provinces of Afghanistan have been amalgamated into larger informal regions by the data source used here.

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