The earliest human civilizations arose in conditions that were favorable for agriculture. Ancient river valley cultures gave rise to some of history’s longest-lasting and most powerful civilizations, including the Egyptians and the Chinese.
This does not, however, mean that civilization arises exclusively in fertile floodplains, or that civilizations require the advantage of easy food production to do well. Although 21st century population density maps show urbanization centered around rivers, coasts, and temperate climates, humanity is a cosmopolitan species with permanent habitations on six of the seven continents. From the heights of La Rinconada, Peru (the highest human habitation in the world) to Oymyakon, Siberia (the coldest), we make it work.
Throughout history, humans have eked out homes in the most adverse places, surviving despite challenges that often seem insurmountable even to ourselves. But we’ve done more than survived—we’ve thrived, developing cities, complex governments, record-keeping, technological advances, and other hallmarks of civilization.
The Incas, Greeks, and Aksumites forged empires in the middle of vast mountain ranges, while the Venetians and Aztecs built their capitals on top of seemingly inhospitable marshland. The Mayans inhabited a jungle so thick that we’ve only recently managed to find signs of their remains, while the Nabateans forged a civilization in the middle of the Arabian desert.
A cursory glance at a modern map shows us that mountain ranges, like rivers, make good borders. Mountainous terrain is difficult to cross and easy to defend, and the cultures that arose in it were often distinct, with roots reaching back centuries beyond the prevailing political situation. The Basque people of the Pyrenees Mountains were responsible for Charlemagne’s only real defeat at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. To this day they are fighting for their independence from France and Spain. The people of Kurdistan, native to the mountainous region between Iran and Turkey, have built a reputation as skilled warriors while fighting for their independence.
People who live in mountains are often more skilled in war and raiding—consider why this is. What resources are lacking in mountainous terrain that led people to fight instead of cooperate, and how can these issues of scarcity be solved? For example, mountains often have poor, rocky soil. Aggressive composting on an urban scale can work wonders. Is erosion a concern? Consider building terraces! Do impassable cliffs make trade and communication difficult? With enough manpower, even the mountains will move; the Romans tunneled straight through the Alps to ensure the swift movement of mail and their legions.
Throughout history, mountainous civilizations have maintained stable food surpluses and swift communication with outlying regions despite the challenges of their terrain. The Aksumites, Phoenicians, and Greeks were all located in or were restricted by coastal mountain ranges and relied primarily on sea trade for their prosperity.
The Aksumites lived in the Ethiopian Highlands, which are home to some of the most consistently high elevations in Africa. Though the land was fertile enough to support agriculture before the civilization’s decline, Aksum’s prosperity was largely due to the luxury trade. Like many similarly mountain-bound civilizations, Aksum was a trading center with a powerful navy. Aksum exported agricultural products, minerals, and precious materials like gems and ivory in trade for silk and spices from Asia. They were at the center of a major maritime trading system linking the Roman Empire with India and controlled the Red Sea trade for many years.
Phoenicia was a civilization of disparate city-states, united by culture rather than government. Tyre, located on a spur jutting from Lebanon into the Mediterranean Sea, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. To the east of the metropolis of Tyre stand the Lebanese mountains—a welcome source of precious metals and shipbuilding cedar for the Phoenicians —who traded these resources with Egypt and other Mediterranean powers.
Like the Phoenicians, Ancient Greek city-states traded extensively, especially with southern Europe and the Levant region. Many Greek city-states established coastal colonies and sold what few quality exports they could produce in the poor soil of the Pindus and Peloponnesian Mountains, namely wine, olive oil and the accompanying pottery.
The key takeaway from this is that when placed between the sea and a mountain range, most civilizations will choose to take to the sea and trade, even if that means establishing satellite colonies to trade with. There are, however, exceptions.
The Inca Empire is perhaps the best-known mountain-based civilization. The Andes Mountains had an enormous impact on Incan civilization, which developed in isolation from Eurasian trade and cultural diffusion. Unlike the previous examples of mountain civilizations, the Inca didn’t live in isolated valleys and ports, trading by sea. They built roads and terraces into the mountains themselves, traversing valleys by bridge and eking out a precarious living on the mountainsides. Because of the difficulty of traversing the mountains, Andean civilizations did not use wheeled transportation—with so many stairs and rope bridges to traverse, carts and wagons were impractical.
When crafting a world where creativity is a goal, consider how the limitations of the environment can be overcome. If there are no trees or clay deposits, or lime for parchment, how might records be kept? If weight isn’t a concern, might someone etch thin sheets of rock or metal? What animals are available for hauling? Would basket-and-pulley systems be feasible?
For an excellent example of how to make mountains a vital part of your setting, consider Anne McCaffrey’s Pern. Settlers built their civilization under threat from a voracious organism that came from the sky and destroyed all organic matter it came into contact with. They carved halls and homes from stone mountains and volcanoes and bred beasts of burden to help them communicate and protect vital cropland from attack. Every aspect of society was informed by the environmental threat, and the bunker mentality that came from living underground.
Before an unknown catastrophe—most likely a drought—felled the Mayan civilization, the Amazon rainforest was home to a booming empire with flourishing cities, vast agricultural output, and towering intellectual breakthroughs. Although the region the Mayans controlled is often thought of as a jungle, the Mayan heartland was actually an infertile wetland before they built canals to drain the excess water and raise up the landscape for growing. These “floating gardens” allowed the people of the Amazon to support agriculture and provided land for urban areas.
The Aztecs did something similar on Lake Texcoco. The original Aztec settlement was on an island in the middle of the lake, and when the capital outgrew the available land, the Aztecs built “floating gardens” called chinampas in order to extend the available land. They dredged channels into the swamp, then piled the mud and decaying plants onto artificial islands stabilized with reed fencing. To maintain the chinampas in the face of seasonal flooding, farmers created complex drainage systems. In addition to the initial infusion of compost from the decaying swamp matter, farmers fertilized the chinampas with human waste collected from the urban centers. This helped keep human waste from entering and poisoning the water supply.
The thing to remember about water is that—although it is as critical as sunlight for the growth of most crops—too much can be just as problematic as too little, and the challenge of keeping it clean should not be underestimated. Disease is just as much a threat to survival as starvation or war.
The Medieval Italian city-state of Venice didn’t let marshland halt its progress either. Since the lagoon community was originally founded as a trading post and later became home to Roman refugees who banded together to create a republic in the face of local threats, it had a different social structure and therefore different agricultural needs compared to analogous empires. Rather than eliminating the marshes or covering them up, the Venetians relied on the disease-infested swamps to help defend them from attackers. They built bridges, canals, and stone fortifications but integrated with the sea rather than overcoming it. With their incredible navy, they were able to control substantial portions of Mediterranean trade, including control over the Adriatic Sea.
When crafting a world where creativity is a goal, consider how different aquatic challenges might be handled. If “swamp fevers” like leptospirosis or malaria are a major threat, people might wear clothing that keeps their skin from being exposed to mosquitoes or bacteria. They might mythologize biting insects the way some cultures view crows. On the waterways, mapping changeable routes might become a key form of recordkeeping. Divers and dredgers might attain the high status that firemen in other cultures see. Canoes, rather than carts, might become the most common form of transportation—consider how their form might differ depending on the nature of the marsh, the depths of its channels. Would keels be suitable? Paddles? Or would a flat-bottom boat moved via poling be more suitable?
To see an example of a fantastical civilization centered around people surviving in a toxic swampland, check out the excellent worldbuilding in Robin Hobb’s Rain Wild Chronicles. The rich history of the world grows out of the environment, particularly its flora and fauna. The struggle to eke out enough resources to live on is evocative. The adaptations people make in order to survive are a great example of humanity’s boundless ingenuity.
To take it one step further, consider a world in which dry land is nothing but a myth. Waterworld, starring Kevin Costner, shows what civilization might look like if everyone lived aboard ships on a world dominated by oceans. The worldbuilding is not, perhaps, as robust as it might have been — but the premise is clever and the unyielding spirit of humanity is on full display as the characters fight to survive despite living in the opposite environment from which humanity evolved.
The key to surviving in the desert is, of course, water. Qanats, like those built by the ancient Persians, are underground water-supply systems that function similar to aqueducts. Because they run underground, they don’t suffer water loss from seepage and evaporation. They are dependent on underground water tables, but in true deserts, they can prove unreliable as these water sources dry up.
In Arabia, the Nabatean people hid water cisterns in defensible locations throughout the desert, which helped them solidify their power. The construction of their capital—Petra—was a massive feat of engineering. Skilled workmen cut channels into the rock walls and created cisterns and reservoirs lined with cement to ensure the water stayed where they wanted it. They left no possible water preservation method unexplored, carefully measuring gradients and creating diversion systems for the flash floods common in the region. Terraces controlled runoff systems and prevented erosion, allowing the Nabataens to cultivate drought-tolerant plants like olives, dates, pomegranates, and figs.
Yet the Nabateans were not living at subsistence levels. Like Las Vegas—the USA’s quintessential desert city—Petra was home to large, open fountains. This, and their creation of safe trade routes through the desert allowed them to patronize the arts—a key indicator of a thriving civilization.
Civilization, whatever the precise nuance of its definition, implies more than desert warriors wandering through the sands, herding animals from oasis to oasis and eking out survival in the heat of the day. Although many cultures have occupied the world’s deserts over the thousands of years of humanity’s existence, most human civilizations have thrived in deserts thanks to their control of trade, which is something to bear in mind when creating a fictional example.
In Medieval Africa, the city of Timbuktu leveraged its control of the gold and salt trade through the desert to stand as the capital of several West African kingdoms, including Songhai, Ghana, and the famous Mali, which was wealthy enough that its ruler, Mansa Musa, famously destabilized the value of gold in Cairo by giving alms to the poor on his way to Mecca. Although the climate has changed significantly since the city’s heyday, its status as a powerhouse of desert trade was the secret to its flourishing.
Water is key to a city’s presence in the desert, but there are many ways a fictional society might acquire such a vital resource. Qanats and cisterns deep below the earth, protected from the heat of the sun, are one way. Another might be importing in exchange for a valuable resource controlled by a desert kingdom. A civilization with sufficiently advanced technology might extract water from minerals like talc. Such a society might be secretive, to ensure control of secure paths through the desert, or warlike for the same reason.
The ur-example of desert worldbuilding is, of course, Frank Herbert’s Dune. The harsh environment is key to the story and Herbert does a masterful job of displaying human ingenuity and the struggle to survive despite extreme adversity.
But my favorite example of exemplary worldbuilding in a desert environment comes from Michelle Sagara West, whose Sun Sword series is told from the perspective of women from the desert rather than an Imperialist savior. In the Sun Sword series, the desert is omnipresent and oases are key to civilization’s hold on the empire, but the desert is not a monolithic expanse of unrelenting sand. It feels real, and the people who live in the Dominion of Annagar do too.
A civilization is, at its core, a complex society resulting from urbanization. Food surpluses allow labor to be divided into specific jobs, which allows for formal recordkeeping and dedicated craftsmanship. Civilization coalesces around groups of people coming together to survive in large numbers. Collaboration and cooperation allow humans to overcome even the most extreme environmental challenges.
The key to survival is willingness to change. Whether that means adapting to their environment, or changing it to suit their needs, humans excel at surviving in adverse conditions. History offers a wealth of different examples in which people have adapted to difficult environments, but many more are possible. Earth may not offer many instances of complex societies emerging from the tundra, but The Girl and the Stars by Mark Lawrence imagines what such a civilization might look like brilliantly. What might a civilization arising in the depths of space look like?