historical geography

GEOGRAPHERS SEEK TO understand the world by examining spatial relationships. The types of questions they might ask are: Why are things located where they are? How are places different from each other? How are places like each other? How are places interconnected with each other? How do people affect their natural environment and how does the natural environment affect people? In many instances, the answers to these questions are related directly to what the world is like today.

For historical geographers, these questions are adapted to consider the role of time. For example, a historical geographer might ask questions such as: How did people, things, and landscape elements come to be located where they are? How did a place come to be like other places? How did it develop differently from other places? How have people been affected by the natural environment? How have they altered the environment as well? In short, historical geography might be described as the study of past places.

historical geography

Some of the earliest attempts at what might be considered historical geography are rooted in ancient GREECE. Although typically identified as a historian, Herodotus has often been regarded by geographers as one of their own. Based upon his own extensive travels and keen observations, Herodotus developed a sophisticated understanding of how the processes of physical geography played out over extended periods of time, resulting in what was his contemporary landscape.

While individual travel and exploration aided in the development of the historical geographies of Herodotus, the expansion of Islam further developed the field of historical geography. By the mid-8th century C.E., religious conquests had brought northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula under Islamic control. What transpired was an exchange of ideas between East and West. At the same time, Muslim concepts such as the use of the decimal system made their way into Europe, and Greek and Roman texts were translated into Arabic for the first time. Like the Greeks, Muslim scholars such as Al-Biruni incorporated the role of time within the processes of physical geography. In his study of India, Al-Biruni attempted to explain the formation and distribution of alluvial deposits, predating the development of similar ideas in Europe by centuries. Considered perhaps the most significant historical geographer of the medieval Muslim world, Ibn-Khaldun has been cited as the first to explicitly link the physical environment to human activity and culture through time—thereby establishing the human-environment connection so crucial to the broader field of geography as well.

Nineteenth-century European historical geographers continued to study the relationship between humans and the natural environment with respect to time, but were furthered in their research by theoretical developments in the biological and social sciences. In 1859, Charles Darwin introduced the notion of natural descent in his historic volume, The Origin of Species. Drawing in part upon Thomas Malthus’s ideas concerning population growth and the limitations of the natural environment, Darwin concluded that environments were capable of supporting a limited number of organisms and only those organisms best biologically suited to an environment would be able to remain in that environment and successfully reproduce. Those less well suited to the environment would ultimately face extinction because of competition from better adapted organisms.


Although Darwin himself did not specifically include humans within his understanding of evolutionary processes, other scholars like English philosopher Herbert Spencer would. Called social Darwinism, the work of Spencer (who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”) drew parallels between human and animal societies and their relationships to the natural environment. Over time, humans had adapted to their natural environments.

But as historical geography would suggest, natural environments were always changing as well and humans would once again have to adapt or face extinction. Social Darwinism expanded these ideas to include not only the natural environment, but also the social environment. Only those people best adapted to the natural environment and how society had altered and organized itself would thrive and prosper while those not who were unsuccessful in their struggle for survival would eventually die out with time.

Evolutionary ideas like those of Darwin and Spencer were eventually incorporated into the work of historical geographers. German geographer Friedrich Ratzel has often been described as having been greatly influenced by the notion that human societies, like organisms, struggle to survive in specific natural environments. Ratzel suggested that states develop throughout history within the particular constraints of natural environmental resources, including space itself. When the population of a state begins to exceed or meet the capacity of these resources, it must expand its boundaries or be destined to go into a stage of decline and be threatened by more expansive and powerful states. Such expansionist theories of how the history of states was affected by the geography of a territory marked an advancement not only in historical geography, but likewise in the study of migration and geopolitics.


Originally trained in the natural sciences like Ratzel, English geographer Halford J. MACKINDER also tied human culture and political organization through time to the environment. Through his heartland theory, Mackinder suggested that world history could be explained through an examination of the resources and accessibility of various natural environments. Prehistoric humans, he claimed migrated out of the “heartland” to other parts of the globe. Control of the strategic heartland then, had and would continue to dictate who held dominion over the rest of the world.

Just as Ratzel and Mackinder discussed historic diffusion of population and its impact on global politics past and present, European contributions to the field of historical geography diffused across the ATLANTIC OCEAN to the UNITED STATES as well. The influence of Ratzel is especially evident in the work of one of his American students: Ellen Churchill Semple. Although she served as the first female president of the Association of American Geographers in 1921, Semple is most typically remembered for her role as an environmental determinist.

Environmental determinism suggested that the cultural characteristics of a human society would largely evolve according to the physical geography of the group’s home territory. As a result, some groups of people in the world were declared predisposed to immorality and laziness as a result of long-term exposure to tropical climatic conditions or because they lived in along mountain passes. Conversely, other groups, most notably those of Northern Europe, were deemed more successful due to the manner in which their physical environment challenged them and contributed to admirable cultural traits. Environmental determinism allowed for the integration of evolutionary history, culture, and physical geography.

Although much of Semple’s work falls within the classification of environmental determinism, it also at times backs away from being absolutely deterministic. Semple suggested that while environmental conditions may influence people’s actions and livelihoods, they cannot explicitly control people. Environmental conditions may restrict or enable certain ways of life, but ultimately people make their own choices as to how to react to these situations. According to Semple, people did, however, tend to react to specific environments in predictable ways that could be described in terms of spatial patterns of behaviors and corresponding environments.

A contemporary of Semple, geologist Albert Perry Brigham, also began his career in historical geography by examining the role of environmental influences upon society. Later in his career, however, Brigham criticized fellow geologists and geographers who studied this link between humans and the environment, but failed to approach the matter scientifically. He criticized environmental determinists for creating broad generalizations concerning the effect of the environment upon culture that were not based upon scientific evidence but were rather descriptive accounts. Specifically, Brigham rejected their attempts to explain human society based solely upon climatic influences. The natural environment, he explained, was far too complex for geographers to be able to isolate singular environmental characteristics as the historical root cause of race, character, or culture.

Human adjustment to the physical environment through time continued as a primary area of focus after World War I with the work of Harlan H. Barrows. hrough the development of the subfield of human ecology, Barrows redirected the emphasis of environmental determinists upon physical environmental controls toward a human-centered approach. Human ecology sought to understand the impact of humans upon the earth through time rather than merely the impact of the earth upon humans.


An even stronger rejection of environmental determinism in American geography was led by Carl O. SAUER in the 1920s. For Sauer, the primary purpose of geography should be chorology, or the study of areas. Rather than constrain geographers within the limits of environmental influences, geography should study places in terms of regular characteristics that tied them together. These regularities could then be analyzed to understand how areas differ as well as how they are interconnected.

For Sauer, one important way of classifying areas was the cultural landscape. Drawing upon both human ecology and chorology, geographers like Sauer examined how humans transformed the physical environment of the Earth to make it suitable for their own needs. What remained was an imprint of human habitation: the cultural landscape. At times, practitioners of the cultural landscape approach to geography went so far as to challenge environmental determinist traditions by suggesting that human decision making was often a much greater determinant of location than were such physical geography components as climate, soils, and relief.

Chorology and the accompanying cultural landscape studies allowed for the explicit inclusion of history into geography. Cultural landscapes could be examined with regard to which people had lived in them and created them. From this trend emerged the work of geographers such as Derwent Whittlesey and his notions of sequent occupance. According to Whittlesey, a group of people that occupies a place leaves its cultural imprint upon the physical environment based upon its way of life. With the passage of time, preexisting groups must readapt the cultural landscape to meet their changing needs. Similarly, new groups to a location may also alter the preexisting cultural landscape to coincide with their society’s needs and desires. What emerges in both instances is a succession of imprints upon the cultural landscape, each one in essence adding another layer to what the contemporary geographer sees. By working backward through time, a historical geographer could uncover each layer and come to understand how the past contributed to the creation of current cultural landscapes.


As the work of the early 20th-century scholars suggests, a key strength of historical geography lies within its ability to incorporate the notion of change. Historical geographers incorporate elements of the past to understand the present and future geographies. So how do historical geographers approach their work? What kinds of resources do they use?

Among the resources most used by historical geographers are archival documents, historic records of the past. Often these sources are stored by the government in national, state, and local archives; public and university libraries; as well as government offices. Examples of the type of information available in these locations include the original Federal Manuscript Census forms filled out over a century ago by hand; property ownership and land use records; natural resource inventories; and some of the primary tools of the trade for geographers—maps and photographs.

Maps and photographs have proven especially important for historical geographers who study the cultural landscape. But equally important for them is the use of fieldwork that includes studying the landscapes as they are today. By looking at the material culture, or built environment, of a cultural landscape, the historical geographer may trace the elements back through history to understand what took place in the past.

For example, by studying the types of houses built or field patterns used, a historical geographer might be able to tie those elements back to another place in the world and in doing so uncover historic migration patterns. With that in mind, they might also attempt to relate the appearance of the cultural landscape to political, economic, or religious belief systems present in a society.

Fieldwork is also crucial for those historical geographers specializing in the transformation of the physical environment. After going into the field to take current measurements of physical phenomena such as river sediment discharge or inventory soil types, they can then compare those new measurements to those of the same places in past times. This process allows physical geographers to understand and chart historical change in the environment. Like cultural geographers, physical geographers may also combine fieldwork and archival documents in their work. Old maps, photographs, and even personal accounts of past environments can be used to fill in the gaps between time periods as well.


While the basic idea of historical geography as the study of past places remains today, the scale of those places and spatial relationships has grown considerably in more recent decades. One of the major areas of interest in historical geography today examines the process of globalization. Globalization describes how different places in the world are becoming more and more interconnected with each other every day. Many historical geographers are now interested in the history of geopolitics and the changes in world economies. By examining these systems at the largest scale possible, the global scale, historical geographers seek not only to understand how politics and economics impacted societies around the world in the past, but also to predict what new alliances and conflicts may arise in our future.

Migration studies are still vital to understanding the historical processes of globalization. In some instances, historical geographers examine migration patterns with the goal of trying to understand how countries such as the United States expanded as well as how its settlers learned to adapt to new environmental challenges. While these historical geographers may focus on the progress of settlers and new nations, others may examine the issue of migration from the standpoint of the preexisting, or indigenous, population. Migration and settlement do not occur in empty space, but rather, in the case of colonialism, they affect the people who were already living in those places for centuries beforehand.

By understanding the changes that occurred with the development of colonialism centuries ago, historical geographers can hope to better explain the often difficult conflicts that emerge with the collapse of colonial empires in the 20th century.

This reexamination of colonialism from the perspective of native populations has also drawn attention to other groups whose stories have often been left untold. One area of historical geography that has grown substantially in more recent decades is one that focuses on feminist historical geography. Throughout history, women and men have often held different amounts of political, economic, and social power. Feminist historical geographers attempt to shed light on how these inequalities affected the way that women experienced historic events and places in dramatically different ways from men.

Modern technology has certainly aided in the practice of historical geography in more recent decades. With the development of cheaper and faster computing systems and the Internet, access to historic geographic data has grown substantially. Now, with only the click of a computer mouse, historical geographers can locate data sources on the Internet once available only on paper in archives. This turn to the digital world has also been reflected in the increasing use of geographic information systems (GIS) in historical geography. GIS often serves as a means for efficiently storing, retrieving, and analyzing historical spatial data that would have previously occupied thousands of printed volumes and taken thousands of hours to examine individually by hand. Understanding the past has certainly been aided by present technology.

Despite the centuries that have elapsed since the chronicles of Herodutus and Ibn-Khaldun, their work nonetheless still reflects ideas common to that of more contemporary geographers, even those using GIS. The goal of historical geography is not simply to provide a single snapshot image of past places, but rather, like these historic scholars, to come to understand how places of the past are related to those of today. Historical geography does not try to discover ultimate causes or a single origin; rather, it recognizes that geographical relationships occur within a continuum of time—past, present, and future. Historical geographers attempt to reconstruct past places in the interest of understanding contemporary places and their potential impacts upon future ones.