I am currently trying to build a world history and I'm trying to find sources and reasons for what determines where a new culture is created or how big a culture is?

A bit of background is that I'm creating a fantasy world with the entire world history such laid out. The race that I'm trying to map out is magically created and then spreads. Their generation span is ~100 years and the length of time they've been around and spreading is ~10,000 years which means there is roughly 100 generations that occur. They are supposed to spread across an entire continent and break into 4 main cultures in about half this time, with likely several precultures that come before them and are taken over by these other 4 as they grow.

What I've taken to doing is to have the spread marked every 100 years 100km and I'm thinking that maybe every 1500 years they'd consider themselves a different culture because their languages and actual culture is likely different from those that are 1500kms and 7.5 generations from their common ancestor away.

Is there a better way to figure out early pre-historic cultures lines?

  • $\begingroup$ do you really need such comprehensive detail for your story? or is it enough to simply track the lineage of a few adjacent countries/tribes? $\endgroup$ Jul 16, 2016 at 3:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ For just writing a story no. But who says I'm just not world building? $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Jul 16, 2016 at 4:15

3 Answers 3


What Is Culture?

Before discussing the core part of your question, let us determine what a culture is.

www.dictionary.com defines culture as: The sum of attitudes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group of people from another.

Basically, culture is the collective uniqueness and the identity of a group of people living in an area. It is the overall lifestyle of a set of people including things like religion(s), language(s), traditions, food, gender roles and even building style, music and superstitions.

When/How Does A New Culture Develop?

There are many factors and processes which determine when, why and how a culture would change, merge, be influenced or fade away completely. Here are some of these:

Geographical And Climatic Requirements

People living in a tropical, plains area have a different lifestyle than people living in cold, mountainous area. The building style would be different, the food would be different and if the people are not technically very advanced, they would gradually form new folklores and a set of superstitions. Also, if the region of the mountainous people is hard-to-reach, they might also encourage addition of foreign genes to their gene pool to avoid long term inbreeding.

If plains people migrate to mountainous region or mountainous people migrate to plains, their culture would gradually change.

Gradual Foreign Influence

This includes trade relations and political alliances with other peoples. Foreign knowledge gradually adds to the understanding of the world. The availability of new spices and food items influences and adds to the food types. Some foreign words also find their way into the local languages. Sometimes a whole new language can be developed (e.g. Urdu). Dressing options widen and new dress codes find their way in.

This foreign influence is two-way as both nations involved in the relationship are gradually affected by the culture of the other and the most beneficial aspects of the other culture are adopted.

Conquest And Defeat

Unlike long term, gradual influence associated with economic and political relationships, the cultural influence brought about with militaristic conquest and defeat is abrupt. If the victorious party decides to reside in the conquered country and call it home, they are assimilated into the local culture. Their linguistic impact is visible and vivid and sometimes they also affect the local architectural style too, but on the whole it is the invading party which adopts the local culture.

On the other hand, if the masters decide to rule the country by forming a government of their favored local people and return to their borders after conquering, it is the conquered land which is culturally raped. Since the conquerors do not settle in the conquered land, they do not adopt the local culture. Instead, it is their way of life (culture) which influences the local lifestyle.

Technological Progress / Regress

The culture of a region is also affected by the people's technological evolution. With the advance of time, new inventions are made and the cultural values modify with them. For example, since the invention of motor cars, all the set of mannerism associated with horse carriage has vanished and instead a new set of mannerism has formed around this new invention.

Generally, as new inventions and discoveries raise the lifestyle of people, they tend to form new cultural norms aimed at an easy lifestyle.

Religious Influence

A large part of any region's culture is directly formed in the light of the prevailing religion. For example, in Muslim countries, women cover up their faces and heads from non-family men. If/when the prevailing set of religious beliefs gets hit (e.g. when religious myths are debunked by technological advancements or when conquerors set up large scale missionary campaigns), the set of cultural values formed around religious commandments gets wiped out. Similarly, a new set of mannerism is formed around the commandments of the new religion.

How/Why A Race Would Split Culturally?

I suggest different course of cultural influence for each part.

A group of this race lives to the south-west of the central region of the continent. Their region is plagiarised by raiders and plunderers originating beyond their border. These people set out to defeat those people. They gather a large army and chase the raider gangs a long way (a thousand miles or so) into foreign lands. They are finally able to crush the raiders militarily but find themselves lacking too much in resources to return. They settle in these new lands which abound with natural resources. They are culturally absorbed by the wild raiders. A good real life analogy are the Kalash people of extreme north Pakistan. They are said to be the descendants of Alexander who decided to reside in India instead of returning to Greece.

Then there is a group which lives to the north of the continent. They are farming people. When floods starts destroying their crops year after year, they gradually seek higher and higher grounds and finally have to cross a steep mountain range which geographically cuts them from the rest of the continent. In this new land, they find peaceful hunter-gatherer people who welcome them and help them settle (as the resources are enough for both people). With time, these people adopt to the new geographic conditions and constant interaction with the new people also affects their language and dress code. The two cultures gradually merge to form one.

Then there can be a group of the race who are merchants and traders by profession. Perpetual trade-interactions with other cultures leaves its impact, slowly alienating them from other groups of their own race.

The group living in the central part of their land are only affected in time by their progress in technology as religious myths are debunked and new inventions gradually erode old traditions and new ones are formed. New words are also introduced with technological advancement.

You can also introduce a group which is slowly alienated from the rest of their kind because they have to make military and political alliances to help survive against some powerful enemy in the region. Their alliance is not welcome by the other groups and these people slowly absorb the cultural impacts of their allies, slowly changing into a form which is no longer relatable to the original people.

  • $\begingroup$ Do you know how anthropologies/archeologists says something is from x culture vs y culture from prehistoric times when those cultures overlap? Or rather, are there a list of techs you could give that distinguish x from y culture? $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Jul 16, 2016 at 6:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Durakken: Elaborate please. I did not understand what you are precisely asking about. $\endgroup$ Jul 16, 2016 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ When you look at pre-historic archeology it seems to divide cultures based on pottery or the way they knap their arrow heads...Is there a list of these things? Or for example Minoan vs Hellenic cultures are different but to me they seem pretty much the same, is there something that distinguishes them? Or in the case of the Greeks there are 3 types, what is the thing that defines these 3 types as different? Again they all seem to be the same to me. $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Jul 16, 2016 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ Minoan and Hellenic cultures were rather different. Even the cultures in the urban and rural regions of the same country differ slightly. Basically culture = lifestyle + belief system. If there is any difference in the lifestyle (including arts and political system and construction style) or the religious / technological understanding of two sets of people, their cultures would be different. $\endgroup$ Jul 16, 2016 at 20:27

As someone who has studied cultural anthropology, briefly and a long time ago, I find the portentous explanations of what culture is and what shapes it a little too staid. Culture is shaped by the social structures people live in: their families, their economy, their environment, their technology, their beliefs religious and secular, their political structures, and their relationships to other cultures.

Cultures change fastest when people see something another culture has and they want it. Or they have it imposed on them. Culture is expressed in the behaviour of people. Even one society's culture has within myriads of micro-cultures of families, villages, cities and any group of people who live, work and play together.

Culture is expressed by what people do, the arts they make, what their power relationships are, who their kin are, their economic relationships, who and how the marry because marriage is the engine of reproducing not just people in a society but the next generation and succeeding generations who will be inculcated with that culture.

Cultures are fluid. They change and keep on changing. yet they are also conservative retaining many features of their power relationships either in families or in their political institutions and arms of governance. Culture shapes conflict and cooperation within any given society.

Power, resources, the economy and biology in the form of reproduction dominate culture. Decide how those dominant factors shape a society and the shape of its culture will emerge.

Lessons about all of those can be learned from history (useful but always a bit secondhand and it's often hard to discern the real drivers beneath the surface) and the social sciences like anthropology (which mainly focus on traditional societies). There are cultural anthropological studies of institutions in contemporary society. You can check books on the ordinary lives of people in other historical eras. Sorry there are no shortcuts when you're working with complex systems like societies and their cultures. But it is possible to develop a feeling for what happens in them and use that as the basis for your fictional cultures.


A magically created race spreading across a previously unoccupied landmass will diversify only to the extent that communications and authority are disrupted during or after the expansion.

Since the creators of your race planned on there ultimately being four separate cultures, they would have segmented the continent with forests, mountain ranges and major rivers which would serve as barriers between any expanding colonists and their previous leadership. Once beyond these barriers, each exploration party would fill the leadership void from their own ranks and begin as a new culture. That culture would become distinct as it customized itself to face the challenges of the new lands which it occupied.

Depending on how militaristic and power-hungry your race was designed to be, sub-cultures might break away from the mass, even when there is no geographic barrier to reinforce or justify the separation. Such groups may or may not survive in the long term because once divided, each of these geographically adjacent cultures would be competing for the same resources. Wars and forced reunifications would litter your race's history.

Simultaneous with your races growth across the continent, each culture's mastery of its environment would also be growing. In time, some cultures would learn how to easily span the geographic barriers which originally separated them. When this occurred, parent nations might reach out to colonies either through trade or conflict. Our own history suggests that where conflict is a viable option, the opportunity for trade is often ignored. Again, wars and forced reunifications will mar your race's history.

Many forces will disrupt what is already a complex system. Conquering emperors and evangelistic religions will rise. Crop failures, plagues and famines will knock mighty nations down. Technological advancements might turn minor players into superpowers. Weather and earthquakes might also become a factor.

In the end, no amount of preparation or planning on the part of your race's creators, will guarantee what shape their cultures take. Life is an extremely volatile artistic medium; one in which the pigments have a greater influence on the end result, than the talents of the artist.

But none of that really answers your question...

I would suggest that the best way to create the history which you are looking for, is to start with a few broad strokes (map out the continent and decide where the geographic barriers go), then work backwards from the four great cultures, starting broad and then adding increasing detail as you move backwards into their past.

My recommendation is that you strive to enjoy the process. Don't get too hung up on justifying the whys of each step of your race's journey. Remember that life is a dynamic medium. There isn't always an obvious reason why a thing occurs. Sometimes there are multiple reasons and sometimes there are so many mutually exclusive, possible reasons, that the truth can never be known.

Leave yourself candy-bars along the way. Sprinkle into each history, a few spectacular but undeveloped story opportunities, a revered king or a group of noble martyrs. You never know when you'll be in the mood to write a short story, and every short story can become another part of your world's history. A well created world should contain enough story hooks to keep its creator writing for a lifetime.

Steal from everything you read! You are not the first world builder to set about this task. Every time you encounter something spectacular in another author's work, find its essential spark and put something just as spectacular into your own world.

But back to my point. Enjoy the process. To much thinking about how to do it, can strip the joy out of actually doing it.

Two final points...

  • Don't let world building postpone your use of your world any more than necessary.

  • Never consider the world building job done. There is always room for more history.

  • $\begingroup$ Applying your own assumptions and then saying saying you don't need the answer or should do the opposite of what you're doing is not an answer... $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Jul 16, 2016 at 4:17
  • $\begingroup$ Did I say that you should do the opposite? Really? Nowhere in this answer do I say "don't worldbuild". What I said was, enjoy the process! Which is what I demonstrated while answering the question. $\endgroup$ Jul 16, 2016 at 8:57

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