8 January 2014
An area of land directly influenced by water. An ecosystem that is transitional between land and water ecosystems. Riparian areas usually have visible vegetative or physical characteristics reflecting the influence of water. River sides, lake borders, and marshes are typical riparian areas.
More narrowly, “riparian” is often used to refer to riverbanks, so that a riparian civilization is a civilization of a riverbank. When we consider the earliest complex civilizations on Earth several of them are centered on river ecosystems, most notably ancient Egypt, with its agricultural economy based on the annual flooding of the Nile, but also the Indus Valley civilization, the Yellow River Valley civilization, and the civilizations of Mesopotamia, which region lies between the Tigris and the Euphrates, hosting the legendary cities of Babylon, Uruk, and Ur.
While those of us who don’t live in Mesopotamia tend to think of the region as desert, there are extensive marshes — home of the “Marsh Arabs” — fed by the Mesopotamian river system, and here we find conditions exactly as described in the above-quoted definition of riparian areas. Just such conditions made possible the earliest settled terrestrial civilizations.
There are exceptions to this pattern of riparian civilization (especially when “riparian” is narrowly construed in terms of rivers), such as the ancient civilizations of Peru (Andean civilizations such as the Chavin and the Moche), the Mayans, and Khmer civilization in southeast Asia. Each example has something interesting to teach us if we consider them in the spirit of comparative civilization.
The Maya and the Khmer are especially interesting, and might be called the exceptions that prove the rule. Both constitute what archaeologists sometimes call “hydrological” civilizations, since each was predicated upon an extensive regime of irrigation, made possible by the creation of reservoirs and a rigid social organization that enforced the distribution of water. While the water utilized by the Khmer and the Maya was not a grand river system as in Egypt, the Indus Valley, or the Yellow River Valley, the ready availability of water was crucial to the structure of the civilization that emerged in these places.
Even more interesting to me in the case of the Maya and the Khmer is that both were tropical civilizations. It is extraordinarily difficult to maintain the institutions of civilization in a tropical climate; the kind of plants that grow are not well-suited to long term storage. In temperate climates, civilizations can begin around the nucleus of grain agriculture surplus. Grains store well, and they can be guarded against rodents who would consume stored grain by the presence of cats, who are obligate carnivores and therefore eat only the rodents and none of the stored grain.
Ancient Egypt might be called a subtropical civilization, as the Tropic of Cancer neatly cuts across the Nile separating lower Egypt from upper Egypt, which latter is in the tropics proper while the former is not. But the great climatological fact of Egypt is the Nile and its ecosystem, rather than the tropics. The Nile ecosystem allowed for the cultivation of wheat and barley for food, and flax and papyrus for textiles, rope, and paper. And, as we know, the Egyptians worshiped cats.
Perhaps what makes Khmer and Mayan civilization stand out in my mind is that these were not only civilizations in the tropics, but civilizations set in the midst of tropical rain forests. The other earliest terrestrial civilizations were either in the tropics or on the cusp of the tropics, but the great river systems upon which these civilizations were based had a climatological role in the formation of civilization that trumped the tropics. In the case of the Andean civilizations of Peru, the altitude of the Andes moderated the tropical climate, and the staple crop became the potato. The Mayans had the “three sisters” as their staples — maize, squash, and beans — sometimes cultivated in “forest gardens.” Both of these examples are interesting: potatoes and maize were the result of human cultivation, and there is perhaps no staple crop in the Old World as genetically transformed by human cultivation as these staples of the New World that made civilization possible in the Western Hemisphere. Thus the peoples of Mesoamerica made civilization possible by the selective breeding of staple crops that would in turn make large scale settled agriculture possible.
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