What physical restrictions on human activity have greatly shaped human history?
April 16, 2010 6:07 AM   Subscribe

What are some restrictions in infrastructure and logistics that have greatly effected human history? A friend of mine was telling me about the history of Cyprus, and he launched into an intriguing explanation of the practical differences between a galley and a modern sailing ship. "The world at that time had to be designed around parking galleys. There are many cities and towns in Europe that used to just be galley parking lots. Cyprus changed hands a lot because it was a great parking lot." I want to have more ways to organize and make sense of history like this. Can you guys help me? If you have books about this to recommend (I've already read the Jared Diamond work btw) that would be amazing.
posted by voronoi to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
There is the containerization of shipping. Wikipedia and a book on the topic.
posted by chiefthe at 6:17 AM on April 16, 2010

You can argue that access to water in general shaped the political development of ancient civilizations: Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China have great rivers running through them, but are otherwise pretty arid. To farm in these parts of the world, you needed to manipulate your water source through irrigation techniques. When agriculture developed, these civilizations needed strict hierarchies to make sure that there was enough water to feed the crops and enough food to feed the people. Centralized government, legalism, and bureaucracy ended up being the best way to operate.

Greece, on the other hand, can support independent, small farmers with its higher concentration of smaller rivers, mountain streams, and rainfall. When you're less dependent on the work of others, democracy is possible.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:19 AM on April 16, 2010

There's a book about containerization called The Box.

Compare and contrast with the movie On the Waterfront.
posted by dfriedman at 6:23 AM on April 16, 2010

On a smaller scale, the development of an efficient horse collar. (I was so wowed by this fact that I still remember learning it in high school, nearly 50 years ago.)
posted by Carol Anne at 6:25 AM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

James Burke's Connections is basically a 10 hour-long explanation of various instances of what you'd be interested in learning, all strung together throughout history and shown relevant in today's modern world. It's pretty great.
posted by carsonb at 6:59 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure this is what you're looking for but a lot of the strategy of WWII, and pretty much every other war for that matter, was based around capturing ports and airfields. The only reason so many people died on all those tiny rocks in the Pacific were because there were airfields there that allowed bombers to refuel on the way to somewhere else.

Look at any large scale operation, such as Market Garden, and you'll find it was all based around roads and bridges. Cities in Europe were fought over simply because they had strategic ports.
posted by bondcliff at 7:01 AM on April 16, 2010

There is a documentary series called Connections with James Burke. He ties together all sorts of history in unexpected ways. I find history totally forgettable unless it's packaged in a compelling narrative, but I was totally engaged by this. It's old though!
You might be able to find copies at the library/really good vid store.
posted by OlivesAndTurkishCoffee at 7:03 AM on April 16, 2010

shown relevant in today's modern world.

...err, I meant the modern world of the early 1980's. It is old.
posted by carsonb at 7:05 AM on April 16, 2010

I would recommend Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell's The Corrupting Sea: A study of Mediterranean History. This looks at the ancient and medieval world. For a later historical period check out the seminal work by Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.
posted by mfoight at 7:24 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

You would enjoy the recent BBC series How the Earth Made Us - 'the epic story of how geology, geography and climate have influenced mankind'.

Seems to be some of it on youtube if you can't use the BBC iplayer.
posted by Ness at 7:36 AM on April 16, 2010

I'd go so far as to say that human history is the story of physical restrictions on societies, e.g. the argument that the First World War was largely over oil, because the Axis powers had no access to it. There's also counterexamples, actually, like that Greeks never invented locomotives even though they both had railcars and the steam engine because their power needs were amply supplied by cheap slave labor.
posted by Kattullus at 10:10 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thirding _The Box_. It covers not only the practical advantages to shipping by container, but also the effects of shipping regulations, social organization among laborers, rise and fall of ports who did or did not build the infrastructure for containers, and a bit on truck and train transport. It's a fascinating book.
posted by yohko at 10:22 AM on April 16, 2010

the argument that the First World War was largely over oil, because the Axis powers had no access to it

Oil was a factor in both World War I (Central Powers) and World War II (Axis).
posted by kirkaracha at 11:54 AM on April 16, 2010

All society-wide social structures are to a certain degree designed to circumvent the limitations of Dunbar's Number, the number of social associations the human brain can simultaneously retain (about a dozen close friends & family & 150 casual friends & acquaintances). One of the more interesting & illuminating examples of this arose in the Far East in Feudal Japan & Korea, where citizens were labelled with outfits specific to their role & place in society. So you could simply look at a person & tell whether they were a scholar or a baker based on what they wore.
posted by scalefree at 9:26 PM on April 17, 2010

Just found this question and have to recommend the book Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. Prior to the invention of canning (1800's) and refrigeration (1900's) most foods could only be stored for any length of time if they were salted, pickled or smoked. Salt was, therefore, an incredibly important commodity, as its lack might mean starvation over the winter. Major powers fought wars over it, and early examples of monopolistic capitalism abound among its producers.
posted by richyoung at 5:02 PM on May 18, 2010

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