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Social units with similar features—such as language, religion, kinship, or subsistence practices—are often associated with particular geographic regions. These cultural areas can vary greatly in size, and often the affinities that bind a cultural group transform over time due to migration, diffusion of ideas and practices, and intermarriage. Despite these difficulties, the concept of a cultural area can be useful in describing certain historic groups.
Human cultural groups, however defined, can always be historically traced to particular places and generally remain associated with specific geographical areas. Such cultural areas can be defined at a broad range of spatial scales. In tribal social formations, a distinctive cultural group might encompass no more than a single village, whereas in complex societies an identifiable cultural group can extend across millions of square miles. Far-reaching cultural areas, however, can always be divided into smaller (sub)cultural regions. By the same token, small cultural groups can usually be agglomerated to yield larger, if less coherent, cultural areas. As a result, no unambiguous criteria for fixing the scale of cultural and geographical areas have ever been established. How such areas are defined and bounded depends on the context.
Historically, the most important criteria for differentiating cultural areas have been affinities deriving from language, religion, kinship, and subsistence practices. Often, these different attributes of social life reinforce each other, giving rise to more or less holistic cultural assemblages. In other circumstances, however, they may run counter to each other. A linguistic community, for example, may be split by differences of faith, whereas a region united by religion may be divided by language. The multifaceted nature of human culture thus confounds the delineation of discrete cultural and geographic areas.
Even relatively nonambiguous cultural groups may be difficult to geographically bound. Cultural patterns usually morph gradually over distance, and even if the change is abrupt, border zones typically have their own personalities. Both the constitution and the distribution of cultural groups, moreover, transform over time, owing to such processes as migration, diffusion of ideas and practices, and intermarriage. Disjunct cultural assemblages, in which a single group occupies a number of separate territories, may result. Conversely, in cosmopolitan environments, a single city may contain a welter of distinctive cultural communities, which may or may not occupy identifiable neighborhoods.
As a result of such complexities, the delineation of geographically bounded cultural areas is always a matter of approximation. Different authors can construct divergent but equally valid regionalization schemes, and even a given author might map dissimilar cultural areas in the same place depending on the issues being considered. Further complications result from the fact that the peoples under investigation may employ their own systems of cultural classification and geographical division.
Cultural and Natural Regions
In earlier decades, scholars often linked cultural groups tightly to their physical environments, delineating distinctive regions that were purportedly definable by both human and natural criteria. The underlying postulate was that different climates demanded different ways of life, giving rise to distinctive cultural assemblages. This form of analysis was carried out most fully in regard to pre-Columbian North America, where ethnographers mapped a series of extensive, environmentally determined cultural regions. The mild, humid area extending from northwestern California to southeastern Alaska, for example, was identified as the province of the Northwest Coastal Indians. Here, an abundance of wood and salmon, coupled with a paucity of most other resources, led to a distinctive maritime way of life. The constituent tribes of this region spoke languages belonging to a number of unrelated families, indicating origins in distant places. Coming together in this
particular environment, where they faced the same challenges, they were thought to have necessarily developed a common cultural system, albeit one marked by localized particularities. Similar arguments were made about the culturally similar inhabitants of the other natural regions of North America.
One key question remained open: were the cultural similarities that characterized such areas the result of adaptation to particular natural environments, or had they arisen less systematically from proximity and exchange? In some parts of pre-Columbian North America, groups belonging to distinct cultural traditions inhabited the same places, casting doubt on the environmental determinism implicit in the “cultural and natural areas” model. In the Southwest, for example, the agricultural “Pueblo” Indians belonged to one cultural complex while the hunting and gathering Apaches, who were more recent immigrants, belonged to another. Later scholarship, moreover, tended to question whether the cultural unity of these naturally defined areas extended much beyond narrow issues of subsistence.
Cultural and Linguistic Areas
In certain circumstances, the spread of a single population over a large territory can give rise to a relatively coherent cultural area. Since the expanding population carries its language with it, cultural areas of this type are linguistically marked. A notable example is Polynesia, which covers a vast expanse of the Pacific, from New Zealand in the southwest to Hawaii in the north to Easter Island in the southeast. All Polynesians are descended from a single ancestral population, all have similar (although not identical) cultural patterns, and all speak closely related languages. But while Polynesia is one of the world’s clearest examples of a cultural region, even it has some fuzzy boundaries. Polynesian “outliers,” for example, are encountered on a few small islands that lie within the bounds of the so-called Melanesian cultural realm, whereas in the case of Polynesian Tonga and neighboring Melanesian Fiji, cultural interchange has resulted in striking hybridity.
Large cultural groups established by descent from a common ancestral population tend to fade over time in the absence of unifying institutions or political systems. Social intercourse with neighboring peoples along the frontiers, the drift of cultural evolution, and the challenges of living in different natural environments result in gradual divergence. Linguistic families, which by definition derive from single ancestral groups, therefore seldom form coherent cultural areas. While one can, for example, map a family of Turkic languages over vast expanses of Eurasia, it is difficult to correlate this with any sort of distinctive cultural patterns—although politically motivated attempts to do so, under the guise of pan-Turkism, have been made. One group of Turks, the Sakha (or Yakuts), for example, left their pastoral Central Asian homeland long ago for the forests of central Siberia, where they came into contact with the Evenki and other taiga dwellers. Although aspects of a proto-Turkic culture are found among the Sakha, their cultural attributes in general are quite distinctive from those of other members of their linguistic family. The Sakha are further differentiated from most other Turkic peoples by the fact that they did not adopt Islam and were never influenced by the cultural norms of Persian civilization. Among most Central Asian Turks, on the other hand, Persian and Islamic influences were strong enough to generate, according to the sociocultural anthropologist Robert L. Canfield (1991), a distinctive Turko-Persian cultural sphere.
As the “Turko-Persian” example shows, among state-level societies common political or religious institutions can cement together previously distinct peoples, spanning linguistic and environmental divides to generate novel agglomerations. Due to the presence of such integrating mechanisms, complex societies often span larger cultural areas, and more stable ones, than small-scale social orders. Yet even in the case of well-integrated, complex societies, cultural areas change their contours and structures over time. The historical geography of human civilization reveals a continual melding and reconfiguring of cultural assemblages over space.
Cultural Areas in the Ancient World
Lower Mesopotamia, the world’s first locus of urbanism, provides a good example. In this well-demarcated area, independent Sumerian-speaking city-states initially formed a coherent cultural sphere. Over time, however, aspects of Sumerian civilization (including urbanism, literacy, and religious ideas) spread to neighboring peoples, such as the Elamites and the Akkadians, who spoke non-Sumerian languages. Eventually, Sumerian itself disappeared, but many elements originally associated with Sumerian culture, such as cuneiform writing, had diffused over a broad zone, extending from the eastern Mediterranean to the Iranian Plateau. As a result, the Bronze Age Near East can either be depicted as encompassing a single cultural area or as being divided into numerous smaller regions. Ancient Egypt, on the other hand, partially isolated by intervening deserts and usually unified politically, formed a more stable cultural zone. But even in this case, not all cultural boundaries were clearly marked. Nubia, for example, situated up the Nile River beyond several imposing cataracts, shared many aspects of Egyptian culture while developing along its own political lines.
As the ancient Greeks borrowed extensively from both the Egyptians and the Phoenicians, one can place the classical Greek world within the ambit of an “Eastern Mediterranean” cultural sphere. At a finer scale of analysis, however, the Greeks occupied their own cultural area. They were unified by a common language and literature, by common religious ideas and cultic practices, and by common institutions, such as the Olympic games. Although they often stressed their own division into dialect-based subcultures (Ionians, Dorians, Aeolians, and so on), supposedly descended from separate ancestral groups, the Greeks also emphasized their cultural unity. The cultural area associated with Greek civilization was, from a land-based perspective, geographically discontinuous, spread over much of the northern and part of the southern Mediterranean littoral, as well as the Black Sea. The territorial boundaries of the Greek world were never without controversy. Debates raged, and still occasionally flare, over whether nonurban peoples speaking Greek dialects, such as the Macedonians, should really be considered Greek. The position of non-Greek but extensively Hellenized areas, such as Caria in Asia Minor, also remained ambiguous.
The Greek world, for all of its cultural bonds, was never politically united. Virtually all of it, however, would later be subsumed within the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire in its heyday lacked the linguistic, cultic, and quotidian features that unified the Greek sphere. But common political institutions, culminating with the granting of Roman citizenship to all free males across the empire in 212 CE, did forge a kind of unity, and it would do injustice to the empire to deny it status as a cultural area. Cultural union deepened with the spread of Christianity even as political cohesion faltered in the fourth and fifth centuries. At the same time, the diffusion of Christianity outside of the empire, and its subsequent adoption as the religion of state in Nubia, Ethiopia, Armenia, and Georgia, enlarged while simultaneously diluting this cultural domain. The division of the empire into Eastern and Western segments in the fourth century, followed by the divergent political and religious trajectories of Rome and Byzantium, gradually reconfigured the cultural geography of the entire area. Some scholars argue that the main cultural divide in Europe today is that separating the West of Catholic and Protestant Christian heritage from the East of Orthodox background—a division that is sometimes dated to the fourth-century partition of the Roman Empire.
Asian Cultural Areas
In East Asia, an extensive cultural area emerged through a combination of political might and the diffusion of literacy and ideology. Confucianism, Mahayana Buddhism, and a belief in the preeminence of the Chinese imperial system were key features of this emergent sphere. As the Chinese state expanded south of the Yangzi (Chang) Valley during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), these cultural patterns spread with it, as far south as northern Vietnam. Although Vietnam was to reclaim its independence in the tenth century CE, it remained within the orbit of “Confucian Civilization,” continuing, for example, to employ the Chinese ideographic writing system until colonized by France. To the east, Korea came under the influence, both political and cultural, of China, especially during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). Although Japan never succumbed to Chinese rule, it too adopted many aspects of Confucianism, the Chinese writing system, and a host of other ideas and practices of Chinese provenance. The cultural commonalties so generated have proved long lasting. Today, many scholars depict an East Asian cultural area composed of China (excluding Tibet and Xinjiang), Korea, Japan, and—in some versions—Vietnam.
In South Asia, by contrast, an extensive cultural area emerged in the absence of political unification. During the first millennium BCE, the complex of religious ideas and practices now known as Hinduism began to coalesce in the Ganges Valley and then spread across the rest of the Indian subcontinent. By the early centuries of the common era, South Asian forms of high culture had diffused through much of Southeast Asia as well. This evolving cultural region was fused together by common spiritual ideas (such as the transmigration of souls), caste ideology and practices, and the use of Sanskrit as a sacred language of the elite. Many of its key features were to be challenged internally by Buddhism and externally by Islam, resulting in additional rounds of cultural transformation and geographical reconfiguration. Eventually, Southeast Asia was to be largely detached from the field of South Asian cultural influence. Some scholars would argue the same for present-day Pakistan, emphasizing the distinctiveness of its overwhelming Muslim population. Those who regard Pakistan as remaining within a culturally defined South Asian region, on the other hand, point to the fact that many aspects of everyday culture—such as diet, music, and language—continue to tie together the peoples living on either side of the India–Pakistan border.
The Historical Emergence of New Cultural Areas
The spread of Islam during and after the seventh century demonstrates how new cultural areas can emerge explosively, linking together formerly separate regions through both cultural synthesis and the spread of novel ideas. As Islam fused both a legal code and a set of political ideals with religious beliefs and practices, it proved particularly potent for generating a new, dynamic culture area. In the process, the previously distinct Persian zone was substantially merged with that of the Arabic-speaking world, although in many respects Iran retained its cultural distinctions. As Islam expanded, it came into contact with many different cultural traditions, resulting in the development of numerous hybrid forms. Debates are therefore conducted over whether an “Islamic cultural area” should be limited to the historical core of the Middle East and North Africa or whether it should cover the entire Muslim world. Such disputes are made more complex by the contemporary spread of more orthodox forms of Islam into peripheral areas, such as Java, that were formerly marked by profound syncretism.
European imperialism also created in a relatively brief span a number of distinctive cultural areas. Today, for example, Africa is often divided into Francophone, Anglophone, and Lusophone (i.e., Portuguese-speaking) zones, based on the languages of elite and official communication. Similarly, Latin America is usually mapped as its own cultural area. But, as in the case of other culturally defined regions, “Latin America” is not without controversy. Argentines, for example, have often wanted to emphasize their European roots at the expense of a pan–Latin American identity, whereas many scholars now argue that in large portions of South and Central America, the indigenous cultural imprint remains more substantial than the “Latin” one.
Areas or Networks? New Geographical Approaches
As the example of Latin America shows, the mapping of cultural areas is always ideologically fraught and intellectually challenging. As a result, many scholars now prefer to avoid positing discrete cultural areas of any sort, preferring to emphasize cross-cultural networks and patterns of globalization. This is especially true in regard to the contemporary world, supposedly characterized by a postmodern condition of constant flux and the continual transgression of all purported boundaries. Yet even in ancient times, similar processes operated, leaving all cultural areas unstable in content and uncertain in extent. Cultural areas are thus perhaps best thought of as geographic constructions rather than as preexisting entities that can be discovered though empirical analysis.
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