A Brief History of Geography

March 12th, 2019

Old Globe

The studying of geography has existed for many centuries. To take an in-depth look at the history of geography, we'd need to dissect the world-view of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman scholars.

We won't be doing that.

This article will give a quick nod to those early geography buffs, and then take an even faster pass at geography's modern period.

Let's get started with a shout-out to the original pioneers of geography.

Early Geography

Ancient Egyptians thought the Nile was the center of the world. They called the Mediterranean Sea the "Great Green," believing that it encircled the entire world. They didn't even know Europe existed!

Geography-wise, Egyptians were pretty clueless by today's standards.

The Babylonians did a little bit better. At least they made a few maps. The oldest known world maps are from ancient Babylon around the 9th century BC.

The ancient Greeks decided a poet would be their geography guy. They thought of Homer as the founder of geography, and they used his works, the Iliad and the Odyssey, as their geography textbooks. Homer deserves some credit—he represented the world as circular, ringed by a single massive ocean, which was actually pretty insightful for the time.

All civilizations around the globe had their own take on geography. India firmly embraced the study, mixing in a dash of Hindu mythology. China has early geographical writing that dates back to the 5th century BC. They got fairly detailed, recording nine Chinese provinces and describing their trades, economies, and agricultural systems, among other specifics.

Innovative map-making techniques also came out of ancient China. It's responsible for the first known use of a geometric grid and mathematically graduated scale in a map.

During the Middle Ages, a man named Stephanus of Byzantium was nerding out in Constantinople and authored a very important geographical dictionary, Ethnica. It was a valuable resource at the time, providing well-referenced geographical info about ancient Greece.

Around 600 AD, George of Cyprus wrote his Descriptio orbis Romani (Description of the Roman world). It included details about Italy, Africa, Egypt, and the western Middle East.

In the Islamic world, the 7th century's geographical center of activity was in what we now call Iran and Iraq. Notable Islamic geographers of the Middle Ages include Jabir ibn Hayyan who, around 721, wrote on many geographical subjects, and Ibn Khurdadhbih (820–912), who wrote Book of the Routes and Provinces, a compendium of location details that's the earliest known Arabic work of its kind.

In the 10th century, Ibn Rustah tried to corral a lot of geographical information into a single volume, a tome known as the Book of Precious Records.

In Medieval Europe, geographical knowledge briefly took a step backward. They didn't still think the world was flat, but they did cling to extremely simplistic world maps. Nevertheless, bounders like Marco Polo in the 13th century, and the Portuguese and Spanish explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries, brought new discoveries to the table, stimulating more advanced geographic study.

Modern Geography

What's considered geography's renaissance started around the same time those European explorers were doing their thing.

In 1400, European geographers began embracing the ancient Greek writings of Ptolemy as their foundation for a systematic framework that united all known geographical information. It was a shift that influenced how geographic studies were conducted for centuries.

European imperialism began in the early 15th century and it had a huge impact on Western geography. From the 16th to 18th century, in the West, interest in geography was dominated by overseas exploration and the national expansions that ensued.

Nevertheless, the field of geography was maturing, and by the 18th century, it started to be viewed as a discrete science. In the 19th-century, Alexander von Humboldt advanced a holistic view of geography and nature with his work, Kosmos: a sketch of a physical description of the Universe.

During this time, the number of tools available to geographers expanded, and the body of geographical knowledge grew rapidly. The Royal Geographical Society was founded in England in 1830 and the National Geographic Society was founded in the US in 1888.

That brings us almost up to date.

From the beginning of the 20th century, geography has continued to be both expanded and refined. It's reached into new areas of study and been divided into many subdisciplines.

Physical geography focuses on all aspects of the natural environment, including land, water, and air, and the plants and animals that inhabit those domains. It includes subbranches like Climatology, Geomorphology, which is the study of the Earth’s surface and how it is shaped, and many others.

Then there's Human Geography, which emphasizes the study of geographic influences on human society. It looks at people, their cultures, and the interactions they have with their surroundings, including political, social, and economic factors.

Human geography includes subdisciplines like Cultural geography, which focuses on Earth’s cultures, examining norms, location-based variations, and the relationships between cultures. It also encompasses Historical geography, the study of how humans have changed a place or region over time, and Urban geography, which examines dense settlements.

Geography—The Age-old Study of Everything

Geography has never been limited to the logging of place locations and names. It's the systematic study of our world and its characteristics. Practitioners meticulously catalog the nature and distribution of the world’s features and document the connections that humans have with their surroundings.

For a discipline with such a massive scope, we've taken an extremely condensed overview of its history. Nevertheless, we hope this summary has been enlightening.