My question is: What are the cultural commonalities between peoples living in these biomes/terrains? The biomes currently factoring in my world-building include the following:

  • Grasslands (including savannas / tropical grasslands, prairies / temperate grasslands, etc.)
  • Woodlands (including rain-forests, temperate forests, arctic taiga, etc.)
  • Highlands (including hills, mountains, plateaus, etc.)
  • Wetlands (including swamps, marshes, bogs, freshwater-, flood-plains, intertidal, etc.)
  • Coastlands (including folks living along major rivers, the coasts of inland lakes, the coasts of the sea, islands, etc.)
  • Wastelands (including extremely arid landscapes, whether cold or hot; as well as landscapes with very little biodiversity or available nutrients, such as tundra or bogs)

The anthropologist Julian Steward studied ways that different cultures adapt similarly to biomes, and developed the field of cultural ecology through his research. Since I’m world-building, it occurred to me that someone must have asked questions like this before, when thinking and writing about biomes and terrain types.

My focus in describing these peoples is to convey how cultures and customs are often as much a result of environment and available resources as anything else (such as imported practices or holdovers from climate change). I ask that answers focus primarily on indigenous peoples with sustainable models of environmental resource management, where-ever possible; although it is also worth noting the less sustainable practices common to adaptation in these biomes, such as over-farming (which leads to desertification) and the draining of wetlands (which decreases biodiversity and destroys specie habitats).

Below is an example I’ve scrounged from Wikipedia, describing hill peoples (i.e. highlands) and adaptive traits and cultural similarities. I am looking to learn as much as possible on this subject, so if similar questions have been answered or if you have reading recommendations, I’m all-ears.

Biome - Highlands: People who live in hills and mountains may make use of stone to build shelters. They may tend small gardens or live as pastoral nomads, tending flocks of animals adapted for elevation and slopes, such as goats. Their musical instruments and singing styles, such as horns, pipes, and yodels, are recognizable across great distances, between hills and mountains. Due to their isolation from lowlands peoples as well as each other, the tribes have historically resisted control from centralized governments. (Basically, I’ve reworded some of the information I’ve found in a wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hill_people)


closed as too broad by bowlturner, T3 H40, Hohmannfan, evilscary, Aify Apr 20 '16 at 15:06

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ You are asking for traits that groups in a specific biome have in common, but that they don't share with groups in other biomes? It sounds like the best approach is to research each biome separately. For instance, here is an article about the religious significance of the beach in "coastland" cultures: hakaimagazine.com/article-short/ceremonies-sea $\endgroup$ – Abulafia Apr 18 '16 at 12:36
  • $\begingroup$ Not necessarily looking for traits that are exclusive to regions; moreso looking for traits which are common across regions of similar variance. I have done some research on individual biomes and it is proving very helpful, as you've said. Nonetheless, I figured someone might have already found some great resources in understanding cultural commonalities. $\endgroup$ – Knownunknown Apr 19 '16 at 0:33

Lengthy this one. Maybe should have been broken down into little subquestions.

It's actually a bit simplistic to tie cultures entirely to their biomes; people move around, groups migrate and what started in one biome might end up in another, cultural and socio-religious-economic-political reasons might advocate certain approaches. Given how culturally complex we all are, it can't really be used to "classify" any particular group of people or explain completely why they do things the way they do.

Also some needs are common across all human groups and the response to these can be shared across all of us. Eg. Community/family ties are generally very important to people who are highly dependent on the vagaries of nature, no matter whether they live in the tundra or in the rainforest.

So let me do this merely by describing the environment and the limitations it would pose and how people got around these historically.

Ice-caps/tundra - Extreme cold and ice cover mean it's highly inhospitable to plant life. The only food sources available would be animal-based obtained from either fishing, hunting or herding (seals, reindeer, sea-life), all of which would require an experienced and travel-hardened set of people. Genetic adaptations in some native peoples give them greater tolerance for a diet completely based off animal foods. Herders would need to keep moving to give their animals enough to graze on in the sparse grass-lichen-moss environment. Ice and permafrost move which means you really couldn't have tall permanent buildings with associated deep foundations. People would need cold-resistant clothing and shelter and a means of obtaining heat (very difficult to start fires and keep them going unless you are aided by modern tools like stoves/gas lighters etc). The cold makes excellent storage and food could be preserved for times of need.

Temperate grasslands - Very hot summers, very cold winters, some precipitation in spring, not enough to reach the deeper layers of soil. Mostly all grass. Prone to drought and quick-burning fires. No cover really from strong arctic winds. Not many trees, no firewood. Need to find other fuel for fire. Some groups traditionally herd animals (plenty of grass) for food and dung for fuel. Soil is very fertile from the decay of grass over generations. Some people near assured water supply grow grass-based, cold resistant crops, eg wheat. Low diversity of animals but very plentiful: bison, deer, caribou: can mean good hunting. Overhunting, overgrazing and overcropping have all happened before around the world.

Tropical grasslands - Warm and hot climate with plenty of rain concentrated in 6-8 months in a year with drought the rest of the time with possible annual fires. Could be formed due to human/elephant clearing. Stands of deep-rooted trees and forests in between. A very large range of wildlife, both herbivores and predators. Any people here would need to worry about safety from animals and water supply in the dry season. Food can be obtained from hunting and herding, from plant/tree sources and from agriculture.

Hilly regions - as you have described. Crops of fruits, tea and foodgrains are possible with terraced fields at lower altitudes where rainfall is moderate and soil well drained but not overdrained.

Alpine regions - as above with the added problem of low oxygen levels at high altitudes, barren at very high altitudes, vegetation limited to small specialized plants, grasses and mosses at high altitudes, evergreens at lower altitudes. Some groups have genetic adaptations for efficient processing of oxygen at high altitudes.

Plateau/interior regions - Very hot and dry for most of the year, with moisture obtained from seasonal rain, lakes or flowing rivers. Drought resistant crops can survive well. Temperature swings can be marked, with rapid cooling at night.

Coastal plains/islands - Well precipitated and close to marine ecosystem. Agriculture and fishing usually well developed. People here could be very good mariners and navigators. Exposed to storms, sea-level changes, tsunamis and other extreme coastal-events.

Temperate forests - Well precipitated at places, support a varied animal life. Plenty of timber for construction.

Tropical forests/ Rainforests - Thick forest cover. Very warm and humid. People here couldn't really store food very long, they'd just have to find food seasonally and consume it. Also forest soil can be poor, meaning hunting would be a part of life with or without small plots of cleared crop lands with very small harvests. Some weapons such as blowpipes can be more efficient than bows and arrows at short ranges especially upwards into the canopy. These can be supplemented by easily found plant/animal toxins for more effectiveness. Pests such as mosquitoes plentiful.

Swampy/marshy places - Very poor soil; water-logging drains essential nutrients. Plant species growing here would look lush and green but may not provide much nutrition. Not really agricultural land but some groups have crop plant species that are tolerant to marshy/briny/brackish conditions (eg. wild marsh rice) - these efforts would be on a small local scale. Also some plant foods are still found along with an abundance of aquatic/bird life. The moisture and heat would encourage bacterial/pest (esp mosquitoes) growth. Some human groups have evolved malarial resistance as response.

Deserts (excluding Antarctica) - Hot during day, cold at night. Very little precipitation and very, very dry. Water key to life here. Some vegetation possible in areas depending on how close the water table is to the surface. Soil can be surprisingly good in these isolated oasis areas, with vine-based plants such as melons, pomegranates and some vegetables and dry condition resistant trees such as date palms and succulent cactii. Sand areas and rocky plateau areas would pose travel/transport problems due to heat, dry loose fine dust/sand and lack of water. Shifting sand always a problem for cultivated areas.

Nutrient starved places - usually a monoculture in place as far as vegetation is concerned, eg only a certain type of plants around such as grass or moss. Ecosystem geared around this monoculture.

Please feel free to add more.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you. Indeed I don't want to overgeneralize cultures based on their biomes; and by the same token, I don't want to ignore the basic facts of existence. As you've very helpfully pointed out, certain adaptations are common to different environmental factors; and your answer provides exactly the kind of examples I am hoping to describe. Thanks again! $\endgroup$ – Knownunknown Apr 22 '16 at 5:12
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    $\begingroup$ Glad to have helped. It is a pretty tricky question. On the surface of it, certain behaviour in a particular biome looks 'self-evident' but sometimes it could just as easily be observer bias, historically influenced or a cultural choice that has nothing to do with the environment itself. Different cultures living in the same biome might just cope with conditions in completely different ways. Groups might copy from other groups. But environment definitely can't be left out of any cultural study. $\endgroup$ – artemissunshine Apr 22 '16 at 5:51

This is an article you may find useful for your purposes. It summarizes several studies on the differences between cultures developing in certain biomes, although it is quite biased and critical, especially in its second half: Are the Desert People Winning? This article is a response and criticism of its premise, but agrees on many of the basic points: Forest People, Desert People

The major focus of the article is on the difference between 'desert people' and 'forest people'. Desert people are more likely to be monotheistic, while forest/rainforest dwellers tend to be polytheistic or animist.

Deserts are harsh, unforgiving, and simple, with very clear distinction between life and death (water and shade => life, no water and heatstroke => death), and therefore encourage a sense of fatalism, that your life is not in your hands, but is governed by the whims of a single deity (who is generally invoked for rain).

Rainforests, by contrast, are filled with many varieties of plants and animals and a thousand ways to either live or die, leading to a lesser sense of broad cosmic unity but a greater sense of being one among many forms of life, surviving through one's own ingenuity and skill. Rainforest people tend to respect or bargain with the spirits of animals and plants, but typically do not pray to an all-powerful deity.

Desert cultures are also more prone to having a strong warrior culture and a distinct central authority, and tend to have stronger taboos against nudity and premarital sex. Both are probably a result of overall scarceness of resources, the necessity of protecting those resources and the incentive to take those of your neighbor, and the importance of having the means to raise a child before having one. Basically, the harshness of desert life tends to engender the qualities we think of as 'conservative', while the abundance of rainforests tend to produce more 'liberal' societies.

Cold environments (such as Scandinavia) have the resource-scarceness leading to a warrior culture and a fatalistic outlook, but are less prone to monotheism. This may be because even though cold is as deadly as thirst, there are more ways a traveler can protect themselves against the cold; there is no means of surviving thirst unless you find water. Therefore cold-biome cultures place a stronger emphasis on personal empowerment than desert cultures.

The Aztecs and Mayans seem to be unusual in that they were strongly centralized, aggressive warrior-culture forest-dwellers, although it is possible that their cultures originated in the desert before spreading south.

You might want to take these theories with a grain of salt as they tend to be entangled with personal biases regarding intrinsic human nature and liberal/conservative values, nonetheless they are quite insightful.

  • $\begingroup$ Very good food for thought. As you said, taking these kinds of theories with a truckload of salt; nonetheless interesting to compare-and-contrast between the conditions of two very different biomes and a couple explanations for possible effects on human perspective and, by extension, human culture. $\endgroup$ – Knownunknown Apr 22 '16 at 5:20

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