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By Norman Davies
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Norman Davies
All right reserved.
Environment and Prehistory
There is a marked determinism about many descriptions of Europe's environmental history. Many Europeans have assumed that their 'continent' was so magnificently endowed that it was destined by Nature for world supremacy. And many have imagined that Europe's good fortune would somehow last forever. 'The empire of climate', wrote Montesquieu in 1748, 'is the first of all empires'; and he proceeded to show that the European climate had no rival. For Montesquieu, as for his many successors, Europe was synonymous with Progress.1
There has also been a good deal of national parochialism. Even the founder of human geography, the great Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845-1918), one of the intellectual ancestors of the Annales school, was not above a touch of Gallic chauvinizing. The geography of France, he stressed, was marked by the keynote of variety. 'Against the diversities which assail her', he wrote, 'France sets her force d'assimilarion, her power of assimilation. She transforms everything that she receives.' On Britain, in contrast, he quotes the doggerel lines about 'this paltry little isle, I with acres few and weather vile'. Onehundred years later one finds Fernand Braudel doing similar things.2 Variety is indeed a characteristic of France's superb make-up. But it is not a French monopoly; it is a hallmark of Europe as a whole.
In fact, the Peninsula of Europe is not really a 'continent' at all: it is not a self-contained land mass. At c.10 million km2 (3.6 million square miles), it is less than one-quarter the size of Asia, one-third of Africa, one-half of each of the Americas. Modern geographers classify it, like India, as a subcontinent of Eurasia: 'a cape of the old continent, a western appendix of Asia'. Even so, it is impossible to deny that Europe has been endowed with a formidable repertoire of physical features. Europe's landforms, climate, geology, and fauna have combined to produce a benign environment that is essential to an understanding of its development.
Europe's landforms do not resemble those of any other continent or sub-continent. The depressions to north and south have been flooded by the ocean to form two parallel sea-chains which penetrate deep into the interior. In the north, the North Sea-Baltic sea lane stretches 1,500 miles (2,500 km) from the Atlantic to Russia. In the south, the Mediterranean-Black Sea system stretches over 2,400 miles (4,000 km) from Gibraltar to the Caucasus. Within these protected seas lie a vast complex of lesser gulfs and a huge spangle of islands. As a result, the ratio of shoreline to landmass is exceptionally high: at c.37,000 km, or more than 23,000 miles, the European shoreline is almost exactly the length of the Equator. For early Man, this was perhaps the most important measure of accessibility.
What is more, since the shores of the Peninsula lie in the temperate latitudes of Eurasia's western extremity, they are served by a user-friendly climate. Prevailing ocean winds blow westerly; and it is the western coasts of the great continents that stand to benefit most from the moderating influx of sea air. Yet few other west-facing continental coasts can actually enjoy the advantage. Elsewhere, if the western shore is not blocked by towering peaks or icy currents, it is lined by deserts such as the Sahara, the Kalahari, or the Atacama.
The climate of Europe, therefore, is unusually temperate for its latitude. Generally speaking, under the influence of the Gulf Stream, northern Europe is mild and moist; southern Europe is relatively warm, dry, and sunny. Central and eastern Europe enjoy elements of a true continental climate, with clear, cold winters and baking hot summers. But everywhere the weather is changeable. Extremes are usually avoided. Even in European Russia, where the difference between the mean temperatures of January and July can approach 45°C, the range is only half what it is in Siberia. The wettest district in Europe is in western Norway, with an average annual precipitation of 3,500 mm (138 inches). The dryest district surrounds the Caspian Sea, with less than 250 mm ( inches) per annum. The coldest spot is Vorkuta, with a mean January chill of -20 °C; the hottest is disputed between Seville and Astrakhan, both with mean July roasts of +29 °C. These extremes do not compare with their counterparts in Asia, Africa, or the Americas.
Europe's temperate climate favoured the requirements of primitive agriculture. Most of the Peninsula lies within the natural zone of cultivable grasses. There were abundant woodlands to provide fuel and shelter. Upland pasture often occurs in close proximity to fertile valleys. In the west and south, livestock can winter in the open. Local conditions frequently encouraged special adaptations. The extensive coastline, combined with the broad Continental Shelf, gave fishermen rich rewards. The open plains, especially of the Danube Basin, preserved the nomadic horse-rearing and cattle-driving of the Eurasian steppes. In the Alps -- which take their name from the high pastures above the tree-line -- transhumance has been practised from an early date.
Europe's climate was probably also responsible for the prevalent skin-colour of its human fauna. Moderate levels of sunshine, and hence of ultra-violet radiation, meant that moderate levels of pigmentation came to be encoded in the Peninsula's gene pool. Certainly, in historic times pale faces have predominated, together with blond or golden hair and blue eyes in the northern regions. The great majority of Europeans and their descendants can be easily recognized as such from their looks.
Until recently, of course, it was impossible to take anything but the most superficial racial factors into consideration. The analysis of blood groups, body tissues, and DNA imprints, for example, was unknown until the late twentieth century; and it was not realized just how much genetic material all human beings have in common. As a result, racial theorists were apt to draw conclusions from external criteria such as skin colour, stature, or skull form. In reality, the racial make-up of Europe's population has always displayed considerable variety. The tall, blue-eyed, fair-skinned, platinum blonds of the so-called 'Nordic race' which established itself in Scandinavia forms the only group remotely qualified for the label of 'white'. They bore little resemblance to the squat, brown-eyed, swarthy-skinned and black-haired people of the so-called 'Mediterranean' or 'Indo-Mediterranean Race' which dominated large parts of the south. . . .
Excerpted from Europe by Norman Davies Copyright © 2006 by Norman Davies. Excerpted by permission.
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