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The beginning of all human societies and the development of their communities, traditions, technologies, and cultures were influenced by the environment in which they lived.

It is helpful for students to begin any study of people and cultures with an understanding of their location and environment. It gives students a foundation and a window into why tools and customs developed the way they did. Geography is defined as “the study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.” Therefore, to understand human histories is to understand a peoples' connection to their environments. Geography is not just the simple memorization of place names and coordinates, it is a pathway to understanding our shared human history.

When studying the history of North America, students should begin to explore its physical features and climate as well as its first peoples. About 30,000 years ago, North America looked much like it does today, with a narrow strip of ocean, the Bering Sea, separating it from Asia. There were no people living in North America at the time. During the last Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago, sea levels dropped, exposing a land bridge, Beringia, between North America and Asia. Large game animals like bison and mammoth crossed this land bridge and were followed by Asian hunters. People migrated to different regions over thousands of years, such that by 1500 BCE, about 15-20 million people lived in North America!

The landscape of North America varies greatly from its frigid arctic tundra in the north to its swampy, humid everglades in the southeast; from the dry deserts of the southwest to the lush forests of the eastern woodlands. How did the environments in which people lived affect the development of their cultures and technologies? Students can learn much about the similarities and differences in people all around the world when they explore the opportunities and challenges present in their environments. Understanding the physical geography of an area gives students the foundation for understanding an area's human geography.

The Indigenous peoples of North America adapted to their homelands with ingenious ways of using natural resources to build shelter, find food, make clothing, and develop complex cultures, traditions, arts, and religions that are rooted in harmony with the land. By looking at history through a “geographic perspective”, students gain a deeper understanding of how people met the challenges posed by the land with innovative solutions. How did people in the Arctic meet their needs of food, clothing, and shelter when their environment was so forbidding? How did adaptations differ with people in the warm Caribbean? How was it the same? A helpful tool is to have students organize their research into a graphic organizer such as a spider map. The graphic organizer can include the following:

  • Place or Location: Where is this region located on a map?

  • Environment: What is the climate of this region? What are the weather elements, the temperature, rainfall, wind, etc. measured over a period of time? What is the vegetation like?

  • Natural Resources: What are the things found in nature that are useful to people, such as soil, water, vegetation, minerals, and animals?

Once students begin to look for these, they'll notice that the categories listed above influence the development of the following:

  • Basic Needs: Food, shelter, and clothing are considered fundamental for human survival. How did people use the natural resources found in their area to meet their needs? How did the climate affect the types of clothes and shelter they created?

  • Technologies: How did people use the natural resources in their environment to create modes of transportation? How did they solve problems such as too little or too much water? What innovations did people create because of the challenges that were present in their environment?

  • Religion, Art, and Cultural Traditions: What beliefs systems did people have? How might their environment have affected their beliefs? What were the roles of men, women, and children? What types of art did people create? What other elements of culture did people enjoy such as games, festivals, cuisine, and decorative clothing?

  • People: Who were/are the people who live in the area? What do they call themselves? How was their society structured? Were there different social classes present? What jobs were most valued in society? What type of leadership did they have? How were community decisions made?

By studying geography and people in this way, students can make sense of the different cultures present throughout the globe. Students can critically examine how the availability of natural resources and the environment contribute to the uniqueness of a culture. Fostering a greater understanding of the differences and, just as importantly, the similarities between cultures both past and present will help students become empathetic global citizens. Students will understand that throughout history, most human beings desired similar things: to feel a sense of belonging, to have their basic needs met, to communicate with others, to create, to problem solve, and to make a better future for their children.

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Related Activities

Check out these geography activities from our guides on Ancient Mesopotamia, First Nations of the Northwest Coast, and Ancient China.

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