How to apply geography to interpret the past

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  • Publicado : 25 de noviembre de 2010
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Geographers and historians agree that the human story must be told within the context of three intertwined points of view—space, environment, and chronology. The geographically informed person understands the importance of bringing the spatial and environmental focus of geography to bear on the events of history and vice versa, and the value of learning about the geographies of the past.
Anunderstanding of geography can inform an understanding of history in two important ways. First, the events of history take place within geographic contexts. Second, those events are motivated by people's perceptions, correct or otherwise, of geographic contexts. By exploring what the world was like and how it was perceived at a given place at a given time, the geographically informed person is able tointerpret major historical issues. For example, why did the land invasions of Russia by Sweden under Charles XII, France under Napoleon, and Germany under Hitler all fail? And why did people want to build the Panama and Suez Canals?
Answering such questions requires a geographic approach to the spatial organization of the world as it existed then and as that world was seen by the people of thosetimes. In the case of the land invasions of Russia, the failure of the invaders can be linked to the dimensions, conditions, and constraints of the physical and human environments involved: the harsh weather conditions to be endured, the prevalence of rivers and marshes to be crossed, the vehicle-impeding mud to be overcome, the vast distances to be traversed, the shortages of food and othersupplies, and the hostility, determination, and home-ground advantage of the defenders. As all three invasions demonstrated, space and environment form a context within which people make choices.
The geographic approach to the past also requires looking at the ways in which different people understood and assessed the physical and human geographical features of their spatial and environmentalcontexts. In the case of the Panama and Suez Canals, the geographic approach involves an assessment of how people and governments perceived and valued transportation costs in terms of both money and time, the topography and geology of the area, the available technology and labor force, the political forces operating in Central America, Europe, and Southwest Asia, and the economic returns that wouldensue. Such an assessment leads to understanding that the canals were constructed because it was determined that the efforts and costs would be worthwhile in terms of the resulting economic and political gains. Looking at the past geographically requires that attention be given to the beliefs and attitudes of the peoples of bygone times regarding the environment, human migration, land use, andespecially their own rights and privileges versus those of others. Such information can be obtained through the study of visible remains of buildings and other facilities, which offer clues to what occurred and why. A careful geographical analysis of today's cultural and physical landscapes is a valuable resource for learning about the past.
The geographies of past times carry important messages fortoday's people. The events of human history have been played out on a vast and complex geographic stage, and countless generations have had to make the best of what Earth has provided in the form of climate, land and water resources, plants and animals, and transportation routes; all of these things are shaped by the ongoing interactions of physical and human systems and have created the contexts inwhich history has unfolded. The study of history, without these rich contexts, is one-dimensional. In like fashion, the study of geography, without an appreciation of history, is one-dimensional. Understanding the geographies of past times, therefore, is as important as understanding the geography of the present. Students must appreciate that viewing the past from both spatial and chronological...
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