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Throughout civilization frontiers have served as boundaries between strong states and stateless societies, or between populous and sparsely populated areas. Frontiers have been crucial for defense, and for cultural exchange and trade. But the development of frontiers has had devastating effects on indigenous populations residing in them and has resulted in ecological degradation.
The term frontier is used to denote the boundary between a society with a strong state structure and a society without a state, or, in some cases, the boundary between highly populated and relatively unpopulated regions. Frontiers have existed since the beginning of civilization and have played an important role in the interactions between different types of societies. Historically, the Roman frontier in western Europe against the Germanic tribes fostered the growth of militarism in Roman society; the vast stretches of Siberia conquered by Cossacks and other Russian pioneers from the late sixteenth century onward led to the creation of a highly centralized state; and the North American frontier from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries has, according to some, made the United States unique, different from western European societies.
How interaction across the frontier was regarded depended on which side one occupied. On the one hand, stateless societies have been eager to trade with or raid the more highly structured societies on the other side of the frontier, since highly structured societies tend to be richer in material goods than less complex societies. On the other hand, although trade and other exchanges were often essential to both sides, structured states generally disdained and feared those on the other side, whom they considered barbarians. On occasion the less highly structured societies have conquered the states across the frontier. For example, in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, the Mongols, a frontier people from the north of China, conquered both the Chinese and Arab civilizations, bringing destruction but also creating one of the most extensive land empires of human history, and thereby making possible widespread trade and contacts between civilizations on the Eurasian landmass in ways that had not occurred before. Thus, an Italian merchant such as Marco Polo could travel from one end of the landmass to the other and back, bringing tales of European society to the Mongol court and tales of Asia home to Venice.
Civilizations tried to protect themselves from marauders from the other side of their frontiers, with uneven success. Attempts at protection brought about some of the most important military engineering works in human history, such as the Great Wall of China, initially built around 200 BCE by the Qin emperor and later elaborated upon, especially during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Another famous wall meant to keep out barbarians was Hadrian’s Wall, a Roman defense built in Northumberland, Britain, in 122 CE. The Romans built other defensive walls, called limes, in the first century CE on the central European frontier. Walls alone were never enough; they had to be supported by forts and, most importantly, by alliances with peoples on the other side of the frontier. Although tribal peoples were able occasionally to raid their neighbors across the frontier, usually the armies of those neighboring states were militarily superior. Only when strong states grew weak, as happened to Rome after 200 CE and to China at various points in its history, were tribal peoples able to overcome and conquer them. After the seventeenth century, the development of field artillery gave states the upper hand, and no stateless society was able to conquer a state again. The last victory for tribal peoples was the 1644 Manchu overthrow of the Ming dynasty in China; like the Mongols before them, the victorious Manchu embraced the state structure and established the Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12).
Along most frontiers there lived marginal people who moved between the stateless societies and the states, living at different times in either society. They served as buffers between those on either side and, when mobilized by the states, as troops. In Russia, the Cossacks, peoples living in the northern regions between the Black and Caspian seas (and later along the Dneiper and Don rivers in western Russia) explored Siberia and served as the Czar’s troops from the sixteenth century onward. Although the Russian state made use of them, it also feared them, and they came to have a reputation as unruly rebels. The Cossack Ermak, who initiated the conquest of Siberia, had been a river pirate before working for Ivan the Terrible (1530–1584). Likewise, in the nineteenth century the gauchos of the pampas in Argentina and the llaneros of the tropical plains of Venezuela and Colombia served as the soldiers of the patriot forces that liberated the continent from Spanish rule. They were the quintessential tough marginal peoples who, habituated to hard living on the frontiers, were superb soldiers.
Cultural and Economic Exchanges
Although much of the information we have on frontiers relates to defense (for defense preoccupied the states, and it was the states that wrote the histories), frontiers have also been areas of vital cultural change and important in economic terms. Stateless societies adopted the cultural practices or technologies that suited them (such as ironworking), and on occasion the states adopted elements from the stateless societies (as with the Chinese court’s adoption of “barbarian” musical modes or European colonists’ adoption of the foodstuffs of the New World, introduced to them by the indigenous peoples). Frontier peoples also often provided labor, either coerced—prisoners of war were turned into slaves or serfs—or voluntary.
The North American Frontier Myth
One of the great frontiers was the one created in North America with the coming of the Europeans. Like the Russian frontier, the North American frontier engendered many myths that provided a sense of national identity. The U.S. historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932) asserted in 1893 that the United States was defined by its frontier. According to Turner, the frontier inspired and elicited individualism, democratic values, and vigor as the settlers moved westward. In his view, the most valued characteristics of the United States came from the struggle to claim new land from indigenous peoples and adverse conditions. Although a popular and enduring national myth, this analysis has many flaws. In the American South, for example, frontier development went hand in hand with slavery—a fact that does not sit well with the notion of the frontier as a place of democratic values. Nor did Turner’s analysis address the moral problem of displacing the land’s original inhabitants. By the time Turner wrote his essay, the frontier had effectively closed in the United States, but his analysis nevertheless resonated deeply and maintained a powerful hold on the national consciousness.
Frontiers and Environmental Degradation
Although the development of the North American frontier had calamitous effects on the Native American populations, it and other frontier development from the late nineteenth century onward have had another devastating effect with long-term consequences: environmental degradation. Ill-conceived farming practices in the Great Plains resulted in the dust bowls of the 1930s; intensive cultivation of cotton along tributaries of the Aral Sea in Central Asia have reduced the sea’s volume by 75 percent. Industrial development in Russia’s Siberian frontier has resulted in extremely polluted sites, threatened the survival of wildlife, and affected the health of inhabitants. The development of the last great frontier, the Amazon, continues to be plagued by environmental problems, as mining brings with it such ills as mercury contamination, and the establishment of ranches and large-scale agriculture results in erosion and species loss. As with the development of earlier frontiers, it is indigenous populations and the marginal frontier populations that suffer the negative consequences of current frontier development most heavily.
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