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History of geography

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This article explores the history of geography.

The Greeks are the first known culture to actively explore geography as a science and philosophy, with major contributors including Thales of Miletus, Herodotus, Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, Aristotle, Dicaearchus of Messana, Strabo, and Ptolemy. Mapping was introduced by the Romans as they explored new lands and added new techniques. One technique was the periplus, a description of the ports and landfalls a coastwise sailor would find along a coastline; two early examples that have survived are the periplus of the Carthaginian Hanno the Navigator and a Periplus of the Erythraean sea, which describes the coastlines of the Red Sea and the Persian gulf.

During the Middle Ages, Arabs such as Idrisi, Ibn Battuta, and Ibn Khaldun maintained the Greek and Roman techniques and developed new ones.

Missing image
Marco_Polo_portrait.jpg
Portrait of Marco Polo

Following the journeys of Marco Polo, interest in geography spread throughout Europe. The great voyages of exploration in 16th and 17th centuries revived a desire for both accurate geographic detail, and more solid theoretical foundations. The Geographia Generalis by Bernhardus Varenius and Gerardus Mercator's world map are prime examples of the new breed of scientific geography.

By the 18th century, geography had become recognized as a discrete discipline and became part of a typical university curriculum in Europe (especially Paris and Berlin), although not the in the United Kingdom where geography was generally taught as a sub-discipline of other subjects.

One of the great works of this time was Kosmos: a sketch of a physical description of the Universe, by Alexander von Humboldt, the first volume of which was published in 1845. Such was the power of this work that Dr Mary Somerville, of Cambridge University intended to scrap publication of her own Physical Geography on reading Kosmos. Von Humboldt himself persuaded her to publish (after the publisher sent him a copy).

Over the past two centuries the quantity of knowledge and the number of tools has exploded. There are strong links between geography and the sciences of geology and botany, as well as economics, sociology and demographics.

The Royal Geographical Society was founded in England in 1830, although the United Kingdom did not get its first full Chair of geography until 1917. The first real geographical intellect to emerge in United Kingdom geography was Halford John Mackinder, appointed reader at Oxford University in 1887.

The National Geographic Society was founded in the USA in 1888 and began publication of the National Geographic magazine which became and continues to be a great popularizer of geographic information. The society has long supported geographic research and education.

In the West during the 20th century, the discipline of geography went through four major phases: environmental determinism, regional geography, the quantitative revolution, and critical geography.

Environmental determinism is the theory that a peoples physical, mental and moral habits are directly due to the influence of their natural environment. Prominent environmental determinists included Carl Ritter, Ellen Churchill Semple, and Ellsworth Huntington. Popular hypotheses included "heat makes inhabitants of the tropics lazy" and "frequent changes in barometric pressure make inhabitants of temperate latitudes more intellectually agile." Environmental determinist geographers attempted to make the study of such influences scientific. Around the 1930s, this school of thought was widely repudiated as lacking any basis and being prone to (often bigoted) generalizations. Environmental determinism remains an embarrassment to many contemporary geographers, and leads to skepticism among many of them of claims of environmental influence on culture (such as the theories of Jared Diamond).

Regional geography represented a reaffirmation that the proper topic of geography was space and place. Regional geographers focused on the collection of descriptive information about places, as well as the proper methods for dividing the earth up into regions. The philosophical basis of this field was laid out by Richard Hartshorne.

The quantitative revolution was geography's attempt to redefine itself as a science, in the wake of the revival of interest in science following the launch of Sputnik. Quantitative revolutionaries, often referred to as "space cadets," declared that the purpose of geography was to test general laws about the spatial arrangement of phenomena. They adopted the philosophy of positivism from the natural sciences and turned to mathematics—especially statistics—as a way of proving hypotheses. The quantitative revolution laid the groundwork for the development of geographic information systems.

Though positivist and post-positivist approaches remain important in geography, critical geography arose as a critique of positivism. The first strain of critical geography to emerge was humanist geography. Drawing on the philosophies of existentialism and phenomenology, humanist geographers (such as Yi-Fu Tuan) focused on people's sense of, and relationship with, places. More influential was Marxist geography, which applied the social theories of Karl Marx and his followers to geographic phenomena. David Harvey and Richard Peet are well-known Marxist geographers. Feminist geography is, as the name suggests, the use of ideas from feminism in geographic contexts. The most recent strain of critical geography is postmodernist geography, which employs the ideas of postmodernist and poststructuralist theorists to explore the social construction of spatial relations.

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