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Xpedition Hall
Check out:
X17: The Dig

- Geo-Generations

Lesson Plans
- 3-5: One if by Land, and Two if by Sea!
- 6-8: Which Way did They Go?
- 9-12: Geography and History in Songs
Geography Standards


How to Apply Geography to Interpret the Past

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.

An understanding 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 to interpret 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 those times. 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 other supplies, 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 environmental contexts. 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 would ensue. 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, and especially 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 for today'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 in which 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 points of view can lead to a greater awareness and depth of understanding of physical and human events, and is an essential ingredient in the interpretation of the world of today. Students must also understand that the geographic approach helps to explain why events did happen in a particular way but not necessarily why they must have happened in that way.




National Geographic Marco Polo Xpeditions Xpedition Hall Standards Activities Lesson Plans Atlas Forums Search Xpeditions Links 00 Introduction 01 The World in Spatial Terms 02 The World in Spatial Terms 03 The World in Spatial Terms 04 Places and Regions 05 Places and Regions 06 Places and Regions 07 Physical Systems 08 Physical Systems 09 Human Systems 10 Human Systems 11 Human Systems 12 Human Systems 13 Human Systems 14 Environment and Society 15 Environment and Society 16 Environment and Society 17 The Uses of Geography 18 The Uses of Geography