Most of History Looks Like This:

 

Most of history looks like this: there are humans living along a river.  They spend most of their time nearby the entire river system, including the river's tributaries.  The river system provides drinking water, and it is also where many of the plants that are good to eat grow; therefore it is also where many of the animals that are good to eat graze.  Groups of humans compete with each other over different parts of the river system.  Extended families of humans have lived around the river system for thousands of years.  There are people who live in the upper part of the river, closer to its source, in the mountains.  There are people who live near the mouth of the river, where it empties out into the sea.  And there are people who live along the river somewhere in between.

Down in the lowest parts of the river, the water may be brackish - that is, partly salty, and probably not good to drink.  There may be a delta, and it may respond to the tide.  Different kinds of fish may swim here.  The area may flood sometimes.  The area surrounding this may be muddy, or it may be swampy.  The swamp may be a dangerous place.  Somewhere near this, there may be a sandy seashore.  By the sea, the water is definitely not good to drink, and very few plants grow in the sand.

At the lowest parts of the river, the current is strongest.  People can travel down river quite easily, either by getting into the river and floating downstream, swimming, holding onto a floating branch, or using a surfboard, raft, or boat.  If they are skillful, they can even navigate a larger body of water - perhaps the sea itself.  Sea voyages are dangerous, but developing these skills, low river people can travel to other rivers, and visit other peoples.  If necessary, they may be able to move to other river systems this way, but usually they will not, because they may become quite prosperous by fishing, trading, or piracy, and they may develop a comfortable lifestyle.  They quite likely grow in numbers, so that this is a region of high population, and for a small fraction of populace, great prosperity.  They may develop a more permanent settlement.

For the people who live closer to the river's source, high in the mountains, life is quite different.  It is much colder here, and rockier.  It is a harsh environment for life, and the people who have managed to live here are harder people.  There are fewer plants and animals up here, especially in the winter.  When it is too cold and barren, or there is a difficult season of any kind, people will have to pick up and move - probably just up and down the river, but maybe to other rivers.  But the river may not be as navigable up here, so they will have to travel by land, nomadically.  If they are fortunate, they may have pack animals to help them carry their burdens.  They may indeed have entire flocks of herd animals.  But that requires feeding them, so may force them to move continually to greener pastures.  Maybe they even learn to ride animals.  As they travel around the land, they, too, may trade.  But they may not be able to set up a settlement for very long, and they may not be able to carry much with them.  Perhaps they become fierce hunters.  Perhaps they become fierce warriors.

There is usually some region along the river, somewhere between the high river and the low river, where the land is best.  The water is fresh and good to drink, and there are plenty of animals and plants to eat.  (There may also be bad places along the river - backwaters of stagnant, smelly water, leeches, biting insects and so on.)

So it goes: the up-river people fight the down-river people for control of this most desirable middle-river area. 

Everyone gets to know the river, all its twists and turns.  Everyone gets to know the river strategically.  Everyone remembers the history of battles that have happened here, the famous warriors, how they died, and where.  Everyone is aware of the best places to be strategically.  These become special spots, well worn paths, because everyone is trying to take and hold these areas.

Up-river people have a natural military advantage over the down-river people: they literally have the higher ground.  It's easier to move down the mountain than it is to climb up it.  It's also easier to see from a higher position.  Therefore they will have the advantage in any invasion.  Besides, they have a lifetime of building up the skills necessary for making their way around up here.

To the up-river people, the down-river people seem rich, soft, decadent, weak, like they have everything too easy, like they are spoiled.  (Of course, most low-river people are not rich, but that's how it looks to the high-river people.)  To the down-river people, the up-river people look like unsophisticated hicks, backward, ignorant, provincial, and dangerous.  They are aware of the up-river peoples' judgement of them, and it makes the up-river people seem narrow-minded.  The up-river people are envious of the down-river people, but in such a way that they do not believe that they can ever actually be down-river people, and do not (consciously) wish to be down-river people.  They feel that becoming a down-river person is dishonorable.

The higher population in the low-river areas means that there is a lively competition and everyone is trying to outdo each other.  Therefore there is much progress there - artistically, stylistically, in terms of fashion, ways of talking, ways of thinking, and every once in a while science and technology.  This is less true of the high-river people, who maintain their ways of living for thousands of years, with changes that are only visible to someone who knows this culture well.

Low-river people may use their population size and their commercial and technical advantages to take and hold the best mid-river regions for long periods, with the high-river people envious and excluded.  But periodically, the high-river people will come down from the mountains and raid these settlements, and occasionally, take over.  But if they do take over, or if they come to permanently settle in these areas, they will gradually acculturate among the down-river people and learn their ways, speak their languages, and eventually become down-river people.  Then other up-river people will come to envy them and despise them just as they once envied and despised the down-river people before them.  Indeed, their up-river cousins will despise them all the more for having betrayed their former way of life and having become corrupted.

Gradually, layer upon layer of different cultures are blended into the mid-river and down-river settlements as different clans of up-river peoples invade and take over.  Sometimes other down-river peoples from different rivers may also invade, by sea.  They, too, will become part of the culture that develops.

An on-and-off permanent siege develops.  The strategic points on the river, from which one can secure the defense of the best land of the mid-river, become fortified.  This is obvious once walled cities develop, but it has already been happening for thousands and thousands of years before this.  The fortifications of the "civilized" down-river and mid-river people are periodically surrounded and raided by "barbarian" up-river people.  Sometimes it's different people doing the besieging or being besieged, but the pattern of life remains the same.

The tactics of the "civilized" down-river and mid-river people in controlling the "barbarian" up-river people - or at least holding them somewhat at bay - may vary somewhat from "civilization" to "civilization" but there are some general patterns.  I'll talk about those next time.

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