Even when our earliest ancestors (including those who had a lot more hair and longer arms) were wandering around the planet, there was probably an understanding of place. Humans aren’t good at detecting territory defined by urine the way animals with better noses can, so there were most likely more physical markers. They might have included man-made marks on trees, or piles of stones, or more broadly, the line formed by a creek or a ridgeline. Maintaining a presence enforced the ownership of a given area of land even better than markers. There was an understanding— our group hangs out over here, and your group stays on the other side of that hill. When there were not so many people and lots of land, it probably wasn’t such a big deal; even nomadic tribes could wander about and avoid conflict. But people began to settle down more with the advent of agriculture, and the need to safeguard your group’s productive region became more important.
As groups allied with other like groups to establish territory, government and all that legal stuff came into being and the lines of property became more formalized. Enter maps. They were the handiest way to demonstrate the lay of the land and portray the facts on the ground—if you stray across this river, or over this mountain range, or beyond this forest, you will likely get thumped. When nations grew out of more primitive allied groupings, they incorporated those natural borders into their formal limits. They were well known, clearly seen, more easily defensible, and didn’t involve straight lines because rivers aren’t rectilinear and topography is generally a rumpled thing.
But humans like nothing better than to complicate matters and get ahead, so maps began to not only reflect the landscape, but to have their own effect on what was out there. Once the whole civilization train had left the station, bigger armies were formed to fight wars, and countries could take over one another, or at least grab some of another’s territory. Cartographers no doubt loved this. They may have even egged the king on in order to be able to update their maps with new borderlines. Wars grew ever more grand and complicated and the victors could call the shots on newly conquered lands.
Sometimes this area had to be apportioned to the several sovereign states who had formed a victorious alliance. In order to make the rewards even, or to “simplify” the process, lines could be drawn upon a map without any regard whatsoever for the topography, or the ethnicities, or the natural communities present. While this made for neat cartography, it brought more long-term upheaval and sorrow than can be said. A straight line connecting a certain point on the coast with a distant mountain peak rarely described the way people had sorted themselves out naturally.
Several countries in the Middle East were defined in 1916 by two of the eventual victors of World War I, Britain and France. They drew countries where none had existed, carving up tribal, ethnic and religious groups with straight lines that were convenient to the drawers for reasons of natural resources and access to trade routes. Through the years, these arbitrary borders have fomented a lot of the raging chaos we see in that area today.
As a contrast, older nations that developed more organically have wiggly borders defined by river courses and mountain chains such can be found in Europe, where countries have virtually no straight line borders. To be sure, there are plenty of more recent borders that follow natural features, but that may be out of convenience more than respect for nature or the habits of the native population.
As the United States planned out its divisions of all the land it obtained “out west,” the architects broke out the old straightedge and set to outlining the so-called “square states”: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and the other non-curvy borders of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and others, often based on lines of latitude and longitude. Of course, all the contiguous states have at least some straight borderline, so the practice was obviously rampant in our young nation. Native Americans, of course, paid the price—the government’s random divvying-up and relocations pushed people into lands utterly foreign to their knowledge and history.
So borders and limits and lines on maps matter, creating circumstances that lead to yet more conflict and map changes that will affect the way future peoples interact. The system seems fraught with dangerous complications, and there are border wars at various points all over the globe. Some long for the halcyon days of life before adjudicated borders—”imagine there’s no countries; it isn’t hard to do.” That’s a beautiful concept, but there are over seven billion of us trying to live together on this planet now, with more on the way. For all its problems, the practice of defining territory with lines brings more order and peace, overall, than it does chaos and conflict. Now get off my lawn!