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American Geography: What of It? Part II: Geographical Dominance, No Guarantees

America has often been described by foreigners and citizens alike as a blessed land bountiful with opportunity. Fortunate geography has been often attributed to as the origin of this success. Indeed, the country's vast sources of natural resources, arable land, and navigable waterways, as well as its isolation by two oceans from any formidable military threats have all been prominent in explaining this.


It is an imperative to note, however, that geography has not been to the advantage of America's contemporary lands in the past. On the contrary, North America was easily overrun by settlers from Europe and only came to international prominence in its own right after the establishment of significant settlements, all of which were built by technology and people imported from the Eastern Hemisphere. The indigenous peoples of the United States saw no representation in the new state now pushing onto their lands, and the governance as well as culture and society of this state ultimately became the divergent-but-mostly-imported motley seen today. So what did geography do to the United States before it even existed?


 To start, no such geopolitical analysis could be conducted without considering the contributions of the Columbian Exchange to the Western Hemisphere. The foremost relevant impact of this exchange on the North American continent was the introduction of Old World crops and the agricultural methods to grow these crops(1). When observing the United States's perpetual food surpluses in the modern age, that might not amount to much by comparison, but consider that that was the point from where America's current agricultural dominance grew from. European agricultural technology, having developed over millennia and combined with other proto-industrial and industrial technologies, quickly spread through the continent.


Indigenous agriculture and civilization did exist as well, the Mississippian cultures being the most advanced of all them in North America. In fact, their proliferation throughout the South and Midwestern regions of the current United States suggests that more complex states and cultures could have formed in America given enough time, dispelling any notion peoples from the Old World could be the only ones to develop and civilize the New.


That being said, however, the level of development North America's indigenous peoples were at when Europeans first began populating their lands showed an obvious discrepancy with that of their conquerors. Take population, weaponry, and pestilence, for example. North America had approximately 10 million inhabitants compared to Europe's ~83 million in the years leading up to Columbus's landing in the Caribbean in 1492 (5). Native Americans were also equipped with bows and arrows and war clubs (6), which, though deadly in their own right, had nothing on the range and damage of European muskets, rifles, and metal swords. Finally, disease, an almost overdone-but-yet-crucial aspect of the Columbian Exchange, worked overwhelmingly in favor of the Europeans, whose deadly cocktail of smallpox, tuberculosis, and malaria, among many plagues, overwhelmed native populations, who only had syphilis, destructive but limited in range, to give back (9).


Such an event as the Columbian Exchange would be dismissed as a far-fetched conspiracy at best if suggested as possible today, and for good reason. Afro-Eurasian integration into the Western Hemisphere has linked the region with the rest of the world, rendering such an imbalanced interaction impossible today. However, the important detail here is that the Columbian Exchange happened before at one point. Despite being a geopolitical scientist's dream now, American geography certainly didn't assist its indigenous residents in fending themselves against the tide of European settlement (at least not significantly enough to allow a native-led sovereign government to exist until now). Why is this so?


Obvious answers immediately present themselves. The natives had no immunity to Afro-Eurasian diseases, the New World had insufficient population to resist external settlement, they were technologically inferior to Europeans, fortunately placed local conflicts allowed Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro to respectively upend the Aztec and Inca empires, North America had no such state large enough to be an empire in its own right, etc. While these answers all have their own merits, a larger phenomenon, already widely discussed in contemporary academic literature, can explain all these plus the paradox of America's geography: geographical determination.


To start, the potential for agriculture plays a key role in this form of geographical determination. A lesser chance for agriculture also indicates a lesser chance for civilization to form and grow, since all human development has been done from sedentary, meaning agriculture-based, civilizations. To this extent, the Americas were home to less animals and plants that could be domesticated than the Fertile Crescent(10), which meant a lesser chance for agriculture to form in said areas. Of these, most were also scattered around South and Central America, further stretching the time until agriculture could occur.


Furthermore, any chances of crops, let alone technologies or ideas, reaching North America from South or Central America and vice versa, was heavily complicated by the Americas's vertical land placement, a theory defined as the continental axis hypothesis as defined by Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel. To transcend the distance from the heart of Mesoamerican culture in approximately present-day Guatemala to the Mississippi cultures in Mississippi, a similar distance as that from the Mediterranean to the edge of contemporary Iran, a person would have to traverse jungle, highland, desert, or water, all with varying temperatures and climates.


Compare this to the aforementioned Mediterranean-Iranian stretch of land, which Alexander the Great conquered in his Persian campaigns from 334 B.C.E. to 327 B.C.E., a mere span of seven years. This comparison is made not to glorify Hellenic elements or to highlight any inadequacies of a traveler journeying from Mesoamerica to Mississippi, but to point out how much of a difference geography can make in human action. Considering that maize, first domesticated in Mesoamerica around 7000 B.C.E., made it to North America through the American Southwest by around 2000 B.C.E.(11), it is reasonable to assume the vertical axis of the Americas made communication and travel more challenging than in Afro-Eurasia. Even if early-age crop movements are sluggish compared to conquerors (which they very much are), that is the only comparable interaction between any civilization in the Americas to anything in the Old World. In fact, as recently as the first Spanish conquistadors, the Aztec and Inca empires knew nothing of each other, let alone even the existence of North America.


After keeping all this in mind, taking a look at the success of the Americas, and more specifically that of the United States, in the present seems somewhat surreal; surreal, that is, to contrast the America at the time of the Columbian Exchange to the America now. In a way, though, there is an explanation for that gaping discrepancy. American geography does indeed have great potential, but that potential can only become significantly actualized via sufficient human development. Perhaps, with enough time to themselves, the Mississippi cultures could have consolidated into an empire (or several rivaling empires) strong enough to dominate large swaths of the American Midwest and South, even developing their own enlightened ideas of human life to create a time of prosperity similar to that of the past century.


Alas, the less magical reality is that ultimately Afro-Eurasian technologies and ideas and people displaced these native cultures and built the Western Hemisphere to what it is today. After all, the world didn't pause human progress to wait for Native Americans to catch up so a fair match between the Old and New Worlds would ensue.


To conclude, America's geography, while a perfect match for the industrial environment of the past three or four centuries, did not conduct well with previous preindustrial settings, meaning its geographical prominence is not set in stone. In the shift to the digital age and beyond, the position of America's geographical dominance is susceptible to change as before. New technologies, major disruptions in climate, even a new dimension of outer space might give rise to a geography better suited for the future than America's. There might not be one either, however, as well.


Before the future, however, comes the concern of the present, where the digital age brings new considerations to the table.



Citations:

(5) Urlanis, B T︠S︡ (1941). Rost naselenii︠a︡ v Evrope : opyt ischislenii︠a︡ [Population growth in Europe] (in Russian). Moskva: OGIZ-Gospolitizdat. OCLC42379320.

(6) Skov, Eric (2011). "Sling Technology: Towards an understanding of Capabilities". The Nebraska Anthropologist. 26: 112–126.



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