I am working on a story where I will take the geography of our world but install new peoples, cultures and histories. This will likely include fantastical elements as well as mundane. In working through this I have started with the base topographical map of the location I am working through and then began to paint in the cities and states of the groups I'll be writing about. In thinking of where the cities will be located and the backgrounds of those places I begin to wonder exactly how much I will need to look to our own history as a guide. As geography is paramount to where we have settled and why we have settled there, in addition to often also framing the narratives we tell ourselves about those locations and in turn shaping the cultures that grew around those narratives, how much credence should be placed on the existing cultures and histories of our own world when using the geography of Earth as a template for a fictional peoples set in the same location?

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    $\begingroup$ Look up Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond for the answer to this question. There's a book and a documentary on youtube. $\endgroup$ Sep 25, 2019 at 18:59
  • $\begingroup$ Are you making stuff up completely, or are you positing alternate timelines with a distant history shared with our world? $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Sep 25, 2019 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ While reading Guns, Germs and Steel, remember that according to the hypothesis of this book Europeans got the crops of lowest yield (wheat) thus were doomed to be outnumbered and squashed by either East Asians (rice) or Native American (corn, potatoes), thus some degree of scepticism is recommended ;) BTW: How deep are you going? Are you interested in answer considering pattern of prehistoric migration? (or that would be an overkill?) $\endgroup$
    – Shadow1024
    Sep 25, 2019 at 20:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Shadow1024 you need to read the book again, it claims none of those things. For one wheat is one of the highest yield crops in existence. It also does not come from europe. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 26, 2019 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ To be precise: JD claimed strong geographical determinism, based on available species, and I'm just pointing out where his whole hypothesis starts to collapse. Issue of wheat being inferior crop in comparison to staple crops available to other civilisations, he accidentally overlooked. (for our climate potato produces roughly twice higher yield) John, if you mentioned that... yes, wheat comes from the Fertile Crescent, so if we follow JD hypothesis Europeans were even more doomed, as it requires almost impossible (at leas according to JD) adaptation towards different climate on NS axis. $\endgroup$
    – Shadow1024
    Sep 26, 2019 at 15:15

9 Answers 9


Let's try some examples.

  • The Italians live in the exact same geography where the Romans lived. The Romans built a great empire which endured for a long time, and has greatly influenced legal and political systems throughout the world to this day. The Italians spent a full millennium divided into many small states waging funny little wars between them, and were finally unified by the House of Savoy, ruling over a principality which is now in France. When the Italians tried to build an empire they got beaten by Ethiopia and Greece. The Romans were known as dour pragmatists, who looked down upon the artsy Greeks. The Italians are heavily inclinded towards art and entertainment, and are not exactly known for their pragmatic approach to life.

  • The geography of Egypt has not changed all that much since the days of Eratosthenes and Ptolemy the Astronomer. Nevertheless, nowadays Alexandria is not really among the focal points of world culture.

  • The geography of Japan has not changed one little bit since the days of Tokugawa Ieyasu. There is little similarity between the self-isolated country which stubbornly refused to engage with the outside world and the modern industrial hyperpower.

  • The geography of modern Germany is the same as the geography of the same territory during the Middle Ages. While for a thousand years the Germanies were divided into a bewildering patchwork of states and statelets, suddenly in the second half of the 19th century Germany emerged as a unified superpower with ambitions to take over the world, first through force of arms and now through engineering and technology.

Geography is important. It cannot be ignored, and it cannot be circumvented. But miracles do occasionally happen. Alexander the Macedonian king transformed Greece into a superpower, albeit for a short time, but that short time was enough to change the culture of all the peoples from the shores of the Mediterranean to India. A tribe of Turkic-speaking nomads from central Asia took over the (Eastern) Roman Empire and ruled for half a millennium. A small, cold and rainy island took over large, rich and populous India, gave it a common tongue and made it into a united country.

History is not predetermined.

  • Excursus: the foundation of Byzantium.

    The question states that "geography is paramount to where we have settled and why we have settled there". Here is a classical semi-mythological anecdote, which was transmitted to us by Strabo the Geographer.

    In the 7th century before the common era, Megara, a city located on the Greek isthmus, was in full colonizing mode. One of the their colonizing efforts was led by prince Byzas, officially the son of king Nisos, and mythically the son of Poseidon, the god of the seas. Prince Byzas went to the oracle at Delphi to ask where to set the new colony. The oracle replied that he should establish a new city on the land "opposite the city of the blind".

    Byzas went in search of the city of the blind, but nobody had ever heard of such a city. As he sailed north through the Sea of Marmara and entered the Bosporus, he noticed on the western bank the Golden Horn, which provided a magnificent natural harbor. Opposite the Golden Horn, on the eastern bank of the strait, was the small city of Chalcedon, an older Megarian colony.

    Byzas immediately realized that Chalcedon was the city of the blind, as only blindness could have made anybody establish a city on the wrong bank of the strait. He established a new colony on the western bank of the Bosporus and called it Byzantium. In time, the city he founded was to be renamed Constantinople, and would get to be capital of two great empires; today it is called İstanbul and is the most populous city of Turkey. As for Chalcedon, it is now a district of İstanbul.

  • $\begingroup$ What an excellent answer! Thank you! $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Sep 25, 2019 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ tl;dr = geography, time, and charismatic leaders all factor into the culture of a nation, it's highly path dependent. $\endgroup$
    – kleer001
    Sep 25, 2019 at 19:50
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    $\begingroup$ I love this answer. Frankly, a city by the ocean is more likely to eat fish than a city next to an oasis in a desert. But when the civilization grows large enough to encompass both cities (with a little tech), the coastal city starts eating dates and the desert city starts eating fish. And neither location is likely to invent drums than the other. Geography has an impact, but it's not the central cause of most culture (or even a predominant cause, IMO). $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 25, 2019 at 21:16
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    $\begingroup$ @NamNguyenHoang Mongolia as a whole sure, parts of mongolia are plenty productive. much like egypt mongolia does have productive regions and they are all centered around rivers. Not that it matters how long did the mongolian empire last, a generation. It fell into the trap I mentioned, it exceeded its communication capability and couldn't hold itself together. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 27, 2019 at 13:12
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    $\begingroup$ @John: The Mongolian empire survived for a generation or so as an integrated whole. But the large pieces into which it broke survived for quite some time. The Golden Horde for example. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 27, 2019 at 13:52

Geography has some influence on the culture of the people living in a certain region, though it is not the only force shaping it.

Look at the USA. Without the vast spaces opening to the west, the Anglo-german colonists of the 13 colonies would have hardly changed their home culture into the one of the self made man. You can also see how the sports which are popular in USA (baseball, american football) are a metaphor of the slow gain of territory, while the european favored sports are more resembling a codified war.

Or look at UK and Japan: without their insular geography, could have they thrived in their isolationist culture? It's a famous joke the headline of the English newspaper "thick fog on the Channel, the continent is isolated!".


1) Our species evolved on the savanna and by standards of the animal kingdom, we're master long distance runners. Our brains have neurons connected much more than in other animal ones, give edge not only for abstract thinking but also for hunting animals by running them in to total exhaustion. Not sure whether you can change that for purpose of your story.

2) Our civilisation flourishes in interglacial period. Right now we're roughly in cycles ~120k years of ice age, ~20k of interglacial period. (Rough approximation, see Milankovitch cycles). You may subvert that by having in your timeline to almost make civilisation in intergalciar period, fail it, and actually achieving hardly worked success in another ice age, just for practical purposes whole geography would be different. Extra bonus - because of wobbling of Earth axis, there are periods in which Sahara is more or less green

3) Our brains are still evolving. Especially at extremes environments - apparently cold winters are good for your brain, as such predictable cycles tend to eliminate the least fore planning members of one's tribe. Without this point is hard to explain that there are some differences in average brain size between ethnic groups matching this pattern. In our history it did not matter much, but there was another similarly suitable environment - it seems that Polynesians evolved too some edge in spacial intelligence and ability to keep direction.

There is also additional suspected factor - seems that some civilisation tend to self reinforce themselves, by introducing harsh rule of law. From evolutionary perspective it means executing (thus eliminating from gene pool) the low IQ and high sociopath individuals. On the other hand is genetically undesirable if intellectual elites keep number of kids low (contraception, celibacy, etc.).

4) If you want to domesticate big animals, then better co-evolve with them. Even Jared Diamond points out that in Americas there had been horses and camels, just they were hunted in to extinction. Unless it's just a fluke, it seems that animals in Eurasia had a chance to co-evolve with us, so survived a bit longer to give us chance to domesticate. TLDR: it seems that there were more species to domesticate.

5) Civilisations tend to start in hot river valleys and spread to colder regions but they are to be trampled by nomads. Even if civilisation look impressive, the even more impressive thing is a group of warrior nomads, that are highly mobile. Ask neolithic Europeans and India peoples about Yamnaya, ask Romans about barbarians, ask whole Eurasia concerning Mongols.

6) Yes, premodern civilisations tend to produce superbugs. Regardless whether it's indeed issue of domestication of animals, or just a problem of close proximity and big groups of humans - it happens. So whatever there is, first your cities would be suffering from plagues (medieval European cities needed steady influx of people from villages, just not to get depopulated). Later, when you came in to contact with primitive, isolated tribes... let's say that your weapons are not their greatest problem.

7) It's a bit tricky to get different humanoid species. is a general rule - in long run two species can not occupy the same niche - whoever is even slightly less adapted, would be outcompeted. Ask Neanthertals or Denisovans. If you want to keep it realistic - some of your species should have a different and clear edge that works really well in some environments, but is detrimental in others. To be fair, some fantasy books (the original Witcher Saga) got around this problem neatly, as after some kind of magic cataclysm species from different worlds suddenly met, and is implied that humans are effectively highly effective invasive specie that already mostly exterminated elves.


There are a few powerful factors.

Productivity: You are not going to have large sessile communities on unproductive ground, large cities require fertile ground and plenty of water just to keep themselves fed and watered. So what we call "civilization" (large populations, specialized labor, advanced technology) always start in places with high fertility and a good water supply, most of the time that means a river valley or large lake. Timber is also important for such societies, more than once advancing societies consumed all their local forests and fell apart, no wood means no fuel for cooking and almost no building material. Note however river valleys are not rare.

Wildlife: what plants and animals are available has a strong impact, animals that can do work and domesticated plants that have a long shelf life (grains) makes for very powerful civilizations, it means large food surpluses and ease of travel for trade (or war) One of the big limiting factors the Inca experienced was war could not be sustained for long because they needed the labor for agriculture. This limited how far they could expand. You as the world creator have a lot of control over this one however.

Ease of travel: The easier it is to travel the larger an society or empire can be, large states need to be able to communicate rapidly to persist, Often this is water based, rivers or seas, but flat plains also lend themselves to it. If communication takes to long you don't know what is happening on the borders soon enough to do anything about it and you start loosing land to rebellion and conquest. Egypt could be one large state because everything was within a few miles of an easily navigated river. Don't expect states to expand across harsh mountains or desert unless they have a coastline to follow around it.

Islands: you would think islands would be good for societies but small and volcanic islands in particular run into a problem, lack of resources. I mentioned wood, but they also lack metals, water sources, and variety in organisms so island cultures tend to be doomed to limited technological development. Islands have to be very large (japan) or very close to the mainland (and thus on continental crust) before they overcome this problem.

In short big communities and thus later big states always occur in river valleys if it is near the ocean even better, you shouldn't have large states is poor environments or springing from seemingly nowhere. The size of a community effects a lot of other things, but most come down to is there enough food surplus for specialized labor, and will the society exist long enough to exploit it. If you want a society to have technology, classical governments, social classes, or even just cities, they have to be in a place that can support them. One of the giveaways of a fantasy setting is a huge empire that somehow persists in wasteland.

There are a lot of smaller factors too, many cultural differences (but certainly not all) originate in differences in environment or in unshared or unique solutions to said environment. But such a list would be well beyond the scope of a single question. At the same time a lot of cultural factors are completely unaffected by geography, geography provides more of a rough constraint than detailed prediction.


Culture is deeply connected to food. Just look at any culture you can think of and they all have dishes they identify as their food, owning it either by ingredients or the way ingredients are treated. Believes and traditions grow on to what first began as simple environmental conditions, providing certain food, disallowing for others.

Geography forms different environments that allow for different plants and animals to dwell. Imagine a very dry, warm land, and how hard it will be to grow crops if water is sparse. People settling in such areas will mostly rely on livestock that is able to eat tough desert plants, and won't consume a lot of water. That is actually considered the origin reason why muslim countries don't eat pork: the meat of pigs does not last as long as goat meat, and pigs use more water. Here you can read a good summary. So the conditions that geography provides are very much responsible for the cultures that develop out of it.

Compare variety rich regions, which provide water, forests, plains and mountains in mild weathers full of wild life and the people will be healthy and happy to share what they have, to regions with unpredictable cold and windy weathers and only fish as their main source of food, and you will get folks with a harsher view on life.

You are what you eat. Nowadays we are able to eat almost ALL the dishes humanity has come up with, but just a few hundret years ago (or even just a half century ago) that was only possible for very few people. Kings in the past did not nearly get the variety of food we get today. In times of hunger many farmers and their households would eat porridge. Only porridge. For breakfast, lunch and dinner, every day of the year. Keep that on for some generations and the culture which grows out of that, even when eventually some bacon gets on the table, will call their children to be grateful for what they have and demand to be considerate. The demands of circumstances will become traditions will become religion.


Geography in a society determines more than you think, in fact everything

Jared Diamond, professor of Geography and Anthropology at the University of California, is a strong advocate of Culture linked to Geography, as outlined in his books Guns Germs and Steel, and Collapse.

Fundamentally, he asked himself the question Why did the Spanish invade the Aztecs instead of the other way around?

The answer, he concluded, was all simply geography. He made a few points:

  • There is little to no difference between races physiologically. We have the same brain masses, essential genetic makeup and the same physical abilities. Therefore the reason cultures are different is due to only environmental factors.

  • Continent size and accessibility is a key factor in development. Europe and Asia had a wide, latitudinal aspect ratio, meaning climate was constant and physical geographical features were not impassible. This lead to the interaction of different peoples on the continent, pushing development, conflict and cooperation. In contrast, South America had varied conditions as it was a longitudinal continent, with impassable jungles and mountains, making interaction between cultures almost non-existent.

  • Geographical features influenced strongly food, crops and farms. In Europe, large areas of fertile soil combined with a crop (wheat) of high yield allowed cities to grow fast, and food to be easily cultivated. In contrast, South America had no such high yield crop, so number and size of cities were numbered. Also, mountainous terrain and jungle impeded transport, such that cities were limited to walkable distance from water holes, as opposed to Europe where towns were large, spread apart and wheeled transport allowed trade of goods.

  • Geography also influenced animal husbandry - Europe having wide geography with links to Asia and Africa, had species easily domesticatable and scalable. South America lacked any such animals. Australia also - kangaroos do not make containable stock being fast and agile, so Aborigines were unable to breed and cultivate them. Cows, horses, chickens and sheep however are easily contained and bred, and allowed large cities, trade and mastery of transport and breeding.

In the end, culture is determined essentially by interaction. Jared Diamond offered the explanation that evidence suggests reduced interaction limits cultural development, whereas increased interaction, although conflict-ridden, pushes it forward and develops it in new directions.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, this point concerning brain mass is not exactly correct... "African-descended people (Blacks) average cranial capacities of 1267 cm3, European-descended people (Whites) 1347 cm3, and East Asian-descended people (East Asians) 1364 cm3." sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S016028960200137X $\endgroup$
    – Shadow1024
    Sep 26, 2019 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Shadow1024 Yes point taken, I think the implication was that they are essentially similar. $\endgroup$
    – flox
    Sep 26, 2019 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ 1) I think you may missed the "germs" part, which was the only place where JD was accepting notion that we may still be evolving. 2) Wheat... yes, that's one of the weakest point of the whole theory, as potato bring higher yields and revolutionised Europe go.galegroup.com/ps/… 3) In which exactly study they ended up "essentially similar"? In the linked article they were wondering how to explain 21 IQ points difference, which awkwardly correlated with differences in brain size... $\endgroup$
    – Shadow1024
    Sep 26, 2019 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Shadow1024: The Neanderthals had an average cranial capacity of 1,600 cm³. "Africans" is not a natural grouping -- some Africans are Europoids, and the rest show much more diversity than the rest of mankind combined. Males tend to have bigger heads than women. What is your point? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 3, 2019 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ The question "why did the Spanish invade the Aztecs instead of the other way around" is silly, and it is one of the weakest points of Diamond's book. The Aztecs were a stone-age civilization. The Spanish had an advantage of four millennia of technological development. With such a huge difference all other points are insignificant. I am of the opinion that he chose this example because it fit his program; other examples would be must less fitting -- why did the Romans conquer Gaul and not the other way around? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 3, 2019 at 14:13

You need to keep digging for stuff. Lots of good examples here. Here's a few more:

  • Mediterranean soils tend to be loose and sandy. Tillage was in effect done with a sharp stick, dragged back and forth in a cross hatch pattern by oxen.

  • Northern soils were heavy clay, and farming was essentially impossible until the creation of the mouldboard plough. The horse collar, and the breeding of heavy draft horses helped. Fields were long and narrow, because turning a plough is hard, and so that the eventual crown to the field (soil is always turned toward the centre) created drainage ditches, which allowed the fields to be sowable earlier in spring.

  • Climate has a huge influence on architecture. Cloisters -- essentially large covered porches give living areas protected from rain, but fairly well lit. Windows before glazing are cold. Scots peasants had 'black houses' No windows at all. Just the light from the open door or the sullen glow of a peat fire. Monks in scriptoriums in northern climates complained about their ink freezing. There are reasons why 12 century portraits show so much clothing. Houses were built with living quarters above stables. A cow is a 2500 BTU/hour thermal machine. You don't let that much heat go to waste. You see this even today. Houses in southern areas have large windows. Sometimes the boundary between inside and outside is blurred, with outdoor kitchens, patios... Housing in northern climates tends to smaller windows, tight fitting seals on doors, storm entrances.

  • climate has a huge influence on clothing. Imagine a roman toga in Lapland during mosquito season. Those multiple layers of thin white fabric of the desert peoples are actually cooler than skin. In a humid tropical climate, skin works better. This in turn had effects on what was considered moral behaviour.

  • Cities tend to grow where products have to change direction, or mode of transport. On land look at where major routes cross. On rivers, look at the mouth, and major confluences. Obstacles, such as falls, or mountain passes also create cities. The pass may only be open part of the year. The falls requires portaging all your gear and goods, and perhaps the boats. See history of the Silk Road for more examples, as well as where cities sprang up on the Mississippi/Missouri/Ohio river systems.

An example of the latter: The Canadian fur trade uses Canots du Maitre to haul from Montreal to Grand Portage. This was a 36 foot canoe. Voyageurs carried goods over the Grand, (9 miles) but they used a smaller Canot du Nord, about 23-25 feet long with about half the cargo, but only one less paddler. They didn't portage canoes over that portage.

Later on, furs came south on the McKenzie, and Slave rivers then up the Athabasca to Athabasca Landing, transhipped by cart to Edmonton, then down the Saskatchewan, and down the Hayes to Hudson Bay. The round trip for trade goods for furs took 6 years for the extreme ends of the trading empire.

  • In island archipelagos, people on opposite sides of a straight often have more in common including language than people on opposite sides of the same island. It's easier to move by boat. See south west pacific (China sea, Coral Sea, Indonesia...) for examples.

  • In the Canadian Arctic it's reasonable to travel thousands of miles along the coast by dog team. (Distances of 100 to 150 miles a day on smooth ice are reasonable.) Traveling inland is much more difficult. Languages reflect this with each area's language being mutually comprehensible for about a thousand miles either way from Point Barrow to Greenland. However coastal Inuit and Caribou Inuit had different languages -- and different technologies. Coastal groups are based on hunting seal, both on the ice, and by kayak on water. Inland groups are based on caribou. Further inland you get Indians (I'm at a loss here for the proper term to distinguish Innuit from other first peoples...) with the boundary being roughly treeline, and a much greater dependence on wood as a material for making dwellings and tools.

  • Variable climate requires civilization of some sort. Variable climate means one year's food production isn't guaranteed. Food storage becomes a critical factor in the stability of cities. There was a lot of grief in the Mediterranean about 1150 BC with a climate shift that dropped crop yields. See also the old testament stories of Joseph, and fat/lean years. This applies to nations too. India used to be unable to feed itself in my memory. The green revolution of fertilizer is one reason this has changed, but a bigger reason was rat proof grain storage.

  • In addition to Diamond's books, already mentioned, look at James Burke's book, "Connections" It details a bunch of interacting bits of technology, history, climate, coincidences, and show how some changes are pretty arbitrary, but others are inevitable.


The short answer is the higher the level of technology, the less that culture depends on geography. But the initial trajectory of a culture is shaped by geography.

Primitive and early humans were completely at the mercy of their environment. If you live next to a river, then you have a chance of setting up agriculture. If not, then you're stuck with hunting-gathering. If you live next to a cliff with natural caves, then you have a convenient place for shelter. If you live in the rainforest, then you're going to have to improvise a shelter on your own. Cliff-dwellers don't need to learn how to build houses. All of this will affect how people live together and form a society, what they eat, who they worship and how. In other words, their culture.

However, as technology advances, "geography" shrinks. Nowadays we can drive over 100 miles to see an event; traveling such a distance would take many days and be very hazardous for a medieval peasant. We can chat with a person in India in real-time through our computer. We can eat fresh fish in the middle of the Arabian desert. We can order clothing made from silk in China and have it shipped to Nigeria. We can fly to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower in person. Technology has eliminated many of the constraints once forced upon us by distance.

There are still some practical limitations. We can move out of town if we don't like living here, but it is a hassle. We might drive to a more distant restaurant that we would not consider walking to, but a three-hour drive is probably out of the question. We tend to form friendships with people that we meet in person i.e. within close proximity. In the future, even these constraints will probably vanish. Then we can effectively be wherever we want, eat whatever we like, and hang out with crowds we like, however distant. Geography will play little role in the picture.

But beginnings are often the most influential stage of life. All societies begin at the primitive level and slowly develop technology, of course. Which means that their initial culture was, in fact, profoundly shaped by their starting geography. This would have an impact on what kinds of technology they develop, which would in turn change how the geography affects them, and so on. Thus, all cultures emerged from, and developed in certain ways in response to, local geography. This leaves a lasting mark on the traditions of that culture. However, once cultures become advanced enough and start interacting with each other, the direct impact of geography declines. What remains are the lingering effects of the initial traditions shaped by their "original" geography.


try and think about which factors of the land are constant, and then let your imagination run from there. what sort of culture can you imagine sprouting from each area? it shouldn't hold you back, just offer some seedlings or cores for your 'traditional' cultural identities.

before things get modern, you'll notice that culture is closely tied to the land. remember that most people are born and die in their own bubble, which may consist of rice paddy farming all day, or working in massive metropoli, or spending their days on the sea, and to this day you can find these remote bubbles of culture and it'll all to various degrees take on the outer appearances of the broader cultures around them, but the details will all be closely tied to the land and natures cycles and what they have to work with. try and consider all of japans region-specific festival topics, and compare it to them eating kfc on christmas

perhaps its more important to consider how fluid the culture of each place is, and then have geography win over the broader cultures, that you're free to paint onto your maps, in rural or distant or closed-off places. that way is more natural

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    – Cyn
    Sep 26, 2019 at 15:09

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