How Geography Shaped Societies, From Neanderthals to iPhones

This weeks’ episode of Generation Anthropocene discusses efforts to quantify social development and the cultural retention of the Navajo

The world as we knew it. marzolino/iStock

The very concept of the Anthropocene suggests that humans are actively shaping the planet in ways that will resonate through geologic time. But how has the planet—in this case, geography—shaped human societies since the days of our earliest ancestors?

In this week's episode of Generation Anthropocene, producer Mike Osborne talks with Ian Morris, a professor in the Stanford Archaeology Center and author of the 2010 book Why the West Rules—For Now. Morris developed a social development index to try to quantify the way societies and cultures have grown and changed with time. The index is based on four key factors: urbanization, information technology, war-making capacity and energy capture per capita, or how much food, water and other natural resources each person consumes.

Graphing this data between 14,000 B.C. and A.D. 2000 revealed an exponential rise in global social development around the 1800s—a startling parallel with the time line for the Anthropocene, which many people argue started around the onset of the Industrial Revolution. But as Morris is quick to point out, human activity is rarely that simple:

"If you take away these really, really high scores you get in the years 1900 and 2000, then you suddenly see that this picture that nothing happens for almost 16,000 years, that’s completely misleading. … It’s just that when you squish all the numbers down to be able to fit the high scores on the graph, you can’t see the early stuff anymore," Morris says. "So, when you open up the graph, you start to see a lot more going on."

Hear more from Morris, including his predictions for future social development, here:

Building from Morris’ framework, this episode also features a chat with Ronan Arthur, a former student of Jared Diamond whose research with the Navajo serves as a case study of the ways geography, culture and environment have had a dramatic impact on social development. Arthur leads Generation Anthropocene producer Miles Traer through his research, which focuses on Navajo speakers as a metric of cultural retention following European colonization. The messy relationship between history and geography shows how Navajo speakers not only managed to endure terrible hardships but actually grow in numbers.

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