Why are there different cultures?

I must be honest: I do not have an answer to this question, or rather, there are many valid answers, but no certainty that it will shed light on those first millennia of humanity that then went on to lay the solid foundations of history. This article has some scientific and knowledge basis, but this is not a pure gold.

What is culture?

Many things. However, according to the British anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor it would be the complex totality that embraces notions, beliefs, arts, customs, habits and all other types of abilities and constant activities, which are typical of person as a member of society. In the memoir Tristes Tropiques, by the famous Claude Lévi-Strauss, nature and culture are in opposition. This statement is extremely important, because, together with the previous statement, what Lévi-Strauss wrote puts everything that characterizes humanity before nature, also reconnecting a bit to Virgil’s Aeneid, written more than 2000 years ago, which already spoke of plowing the soil as of a violence towards the Earth. Obviously there is an exaggeration in all this, but taking up the various myths of the Golden Ages (present in many cultures and for many centuries), we see how anthropic activities have always been seen as violence, in a certain way, albeit perhaps necessary, but a characterizing violence, so much so that in the Middle Ages it was even thought in that period differences between human beings had arisen regarding wealth, since the strongest and most able had taken possession of more goods and they had created private property. There is some truth in all this, differentiation between cultures arises with progress, but it is not the only factor.

Cover of first edition of Tristes Tropiques

The progress

It is undeniable that, at first, the various Homo sapiens individuals were at the same level. Undoubtedly there were minimal organizations and minimal physical differences that already led to some odds, but, historically, poorer societies involve fewer differences. Progress, which we could initially identify as just technological progress, also allows for the accumulation of goods and therefore wealth. These riches are gradually distributed less but, thanks to them, the population increases, this has already begun to characterize different groups of Homo Sapiens, which could have been more or less advanced from a technological point of view, therefore more or less rich and therefore more or less complex their societies might be. Think of the wealth of ancient China, the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire, all places where the first domestications of plants and animals often developed, which then also allowed the development of these anthropic areas. Germanic and ancient Roman populations often lived a few miles away, but, at least until the third century, there were enormous differences between the two populations, which started from wealth to get to the complexity of the corporate organization, which was already state-owned for the Romans, but it was not even possible to speak of the State as far as the tribes of Central and Eastern Europe were concerned, even though they were in similar areas. These territories were so poor that the Romans stopped even considering their conquest. When trade then increased, the barbarians got rich and therefore organized themselves more, until they had the ability to invade the Western Roman Empire to the point it fell. But why were the Germanic peoples so different from the Mediterranean ones?

Roman Empire at the time of its greatest extension, the map also shows all the populations excluded from the imperial territories


Geography, as part of nature, is already opposed to the human being, implementing actions by the latter, capable of opposing geographical difficulties (or at least adapting). The Mediterranean was much better connected to the Middle East than Central and Eastern Europe, mainly thanks to the presence of Italy, but not only. The Iberian Peninsula and North Africa represent one of the two extremities of the enormous Eurasian continent, the largest geographic area horizontally, where men could and can find the same climatic zones for thousands and thousands of kilometers, so as to be able to export then more easily, especially the most ancestral knowledge, therefore those inherent to hunting and gathering (but also, more simply, the duration of the day). This geographic conformation has allowed the displacement of men and therefore of discoveries, which could be adapted in vast areas (just think of the kiwi, of Chinese origin, but also widely cultivated in Italy, almost 10 thousand kilometers away). Greater connections and movements guarantee both the circulation of discoveries and therefore greater progress, and the circulation of people, who can therefore also mix and enrich the various cultures. Furthermore, geography influences with different climates, as obvious. The native inhabitants of the Hawaii obviously dressed in a very different way compared to Vikings, but at the same time the ancient Greeks dressed differently than the Vikings. Furthermore, geography also impacts on natural activities, such as volcanoes, going as long as to impact on religious beliefs, undoubtedly a very important part of various cultures (both their variety and their absence). An important example is that of Goths and Angles, as well as, a few centuries later, the example of Lombards and Vikings. All these peoples came from Scandinavia, but while the Angles easily conquered Roman Britain, at the same time the Goths were a people who moved almost exclusively on horseback. Later, the Vikings began to plunder Albion, but in the same period the Lombards struggled even to live on the Italian coasts. This is because, while the Angles and, above all, the Vikings, had continued to live overlooking the sea, Goths and, above all, Lombards, had lived for a long time in the plains of Central and Eastern Europe. Geography had essentially created two different peoples, history had then further doubled them.

A Viking, an ancient Hawaiian and an ancient Greek


History is an element that supports culture, which influences and is influenced by it, they are a very particular and complex couple for which I will spend a few lines or I should spend entire pages, but just think, for example, of how the Ottoman Empire was always considered opposed to Europe for cultural (especially religious) reasons, but its fall also led to the rise of conservative Islam, further away from Europe, which in turn influences present-day European history. In short, history is a completely unique element, which at times influences culture and at time is influenced by culture, in a continuous whirlwind that will only end with the end of one of the two.

The culture

As Carl Sagan said:

The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself

In the same way, culture ends up influencing itself. When rifles arrived in Japan, in a few years they made the island one of the areas in the world where firearms were produced in the best way, but in Japan the samurai were very important and almost totally limited their production and circulation. They preferred edged weapons. Culture had just influenced itself, going to strongly modify the vision of firearms, by the Japanese people, in the following centuries (as well as our vision of that people, which comes from manga and anime). But we also come to our times. Let’s just think about the rights of minorities. Each State (or each group of States) obviously has a different culture and this also impacts on its approach to minorities, just think of the regulation of relations between homosexual couples: in some States there is even the death penalty, in others there is equal marriage and, consequently, the possibility of adopting. Culture, influencing history and progress, therefore, can end up influencing itself and this has ended up creating an immense number of cultures, which in recent decades have been homogenizing at a speed and at a level never seen before, because geography is not influenced by culture, but progress has also reduced spaces, making geography less impactful. It’s all the fault of and the merit of… culture.

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