Semple, Ellen Churchill. 1911. Chapter XVI: Influences of a Mountain Environment. Influences of Geographic Environment on the Basis of Ratzel’s system of anthropogeography. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Synopsis

The main argument in Ellen Churchill Semple’s chapter “Influences of a Mountain Environment” is that the mountain environment, or the zones of altitude along with zone of latitude, make a complex phenomenon from the anthropo-geographical standpoint that “it may show a graded series of contrasted complementary locations, closely interdependent grouping of populations and employments, every degree of density from congestion to vacancy, every range of cultural development from industrialism to nomadism” (p. 557). Additionally, the mountain environment greatly influences climatic and cultural variations in a range of few miles.

 Semple advocates for environmental determinism, stating that human behavior and the social and cultural values are determined by the environment humans to live in. The altitude determines the socio-economic and cultural development, religions, social security (environmental security), agriculture, livestock, immigration, family size and type, mental and moral quantity, diversity of peoples and dialects, population increase and population density. The population density is distributed according to location in steppe, piedmont, and mountain: “The steppes have their scattered pastoral nomads; the piedmonts, with their irrigation streams, support sedentary agricultural peoples, concentrated at focal points in commercial and industrial towns and mountains are occupied by sparse groups of peasants and shepherds” (p. 558). She identifies four key ways that the physical environment can affect the human behavior: 1) direct physical effects (climate, altitude); 2) psychical effects (culture, art, religion); 3) economic and social development (resources and livelihoods); and 4) movement of people (natural barriers and routes, such as mountains and rivers (p. 560).

 She admits that the construction of mountain areas of ethnic survival is unique –or isolated and protected. The mountain inhabitants have the motto of “to have and to hold” (p. 599) and they are usually “conservative” (p. 599), this checks them from the influence of the environment and the outside world to stimulate them to change. Furthermore, the “spirit of the times” suggests “how strangely indifferent” they are to the outside world, and how “distasteful” innovation is to them (p. 600). For Semple, the important thing was the mental and moral qualities they preserve such as “suspicion towards the strangers, strong religious feelings, an intense love of home and family, etc.” which they acquire from the extreme environmental and climatic conditions in the mountains they dwell in; and the surprisingly “peculiarly honest” nature they exhibit despite supreme physical qualities like “the strong muscles” and “unjaded nerves” they possess. This justifies Semple’s argument that human behaviors are determined by the environment.

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