Opposing Influences — Part 2: The Enviornment and the Evolution of Cultural Identity

As settlers sought resource rich areas in which to establish a home, they put vast distances and imposing natural boundaries between themselves and their neighbors. This created a measure of cultural isolation that allowed the two groups to diverge over time. Their thought patterns and beliefs, foods and manner of dress, individual decorum, art, and the structure of their governance would adapt to their new living conditions. Eventually, the society would self-identify as a unit distinct from all others. In so doing, a unique culture was born.

Often, the development of culture would be driven largely by how the group sustained itself and what threats they faced. In agricultural societies, the turning of the seasons held both practical and spiritual significance. Furthermore, many agricultural cultures strongly featured the local sustenance crops, prey animals and apex predators in their mythos and superstition. Once a strong population of craftsman was established, tools made from local materials would shape everyday life. With the practical necessities of survival seen to, aesthetic urges were indulged. The group would distinguish people and places of social, religious, and financial significance with treasures and ornamentation in order to set them apart. People would look to the wonders in their world and attempt to explain the marvelous and appease unforgiving forces that plagued them via religious beliefs and ceremonies. As the society grew, so did the collection of communal details and habits that would go on to form a region’s cultural identity.

However, even when firmly established, cultures are not monolithic, unchanging entities. Rather, a people’s cultural identity is constantly adapting to, blending with, and blatantly stealing from other societies. Eventually, natural boundaries were “tamed” and overcome. Societies grew towards one another, established trade routes and began to exchange language, beliefs and experiences along with material goods. Major trading centers became a miasma of culture and power, shifting the focus away from the familial and tribal unit and towards the national scale.

A hundred and fifty years ago, choosing to move across a continent or an ocean meant that you had no reasonable expectation of ever again seeing those you left behind. Now, talking to my mother a thousand miles away is a trivial matter. Observing a religious ceremony taking place on the other side of the planet is as simple as an internet search. If I want to eat exotic foods, I simply need to find an ethnic grocery store or restaurant. This ability to move materials, people and ideas have caused a greater blending and evolution of culture than any other time in human history.

The technological advances made in transportation and communication over the past century have fooled us into thinking that the world is small and easily accessible. The truth is, oceans are still vast and mountains are still tall and imposing physical boundaries. However, they no longer block the flow and diffusion of ideas. It is humanity that has changed, not the planet.


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