Borders: Where do they come from and what do they mean?

Around 10,000 years ago, the only borders known to human beings were natural borders such as mountains, forests, or bodies of water that separated one area of land from another. Humans were hunter-gatherers at that time, meaning that all food was obtained by foraging for plants and hunting wild animals. Given the relatively small number of people and large availability of resources, there was little need to ‘claim’ and fight over territory. People still fought, but not for resources – it is speculated that it may instead have been for cultural or psychological reasons such as the need to demonstrate one’s dominance (Gat, 2000).

However, since the rise of agriculture and modern civilization, humans have sometimes shown a territorial instinct similar to that of some animals. People fight over land in order to gain possession of the resources there, just as a pack of wolves defends its territory to secure sufficient food for all its members. But the human desire to create borders goes far beyond the animal instinct to ensure the survival and wellbeing of one’s social group. For us, borders have a psychological aspect too – that of identifying ourselves and making us ‘belong’ to one group rather than another, while separating us from the unfamiliar and the ‘other’. Finnish Professor of Geography, Anssi Paasi, wrote in his 1998 paper ‘Boundaries as Social Processes: Territoriality in the World of Flows’:

“National identity is one of many, often coexisting and overlapping identities (religions, tribal, linguistic, class, gender, etc.)…”

and that,

“Boundaries are both symbols and institutions that simultaneously produce distinctions between social groups and are produced by them.”

Social groups often define themselves, and are defined by others, in terms of any of the identities listed above. National borders often coincide with these groupings. In Europe, for example, linguistic groups are very prominent: the official language(s) of most countries is distinct to that of its neighbors e.g. France and Spain. The members of different European nations therefore tend to have different linguistic, as well as ethnic, backgrounds. This seemingly ‘natural’ division exists because many of Europe’s borders are natural borders, like the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. In ancient times, such obstacles would have been difficult to traverse, and so it would have been natural for groups on either side to independently develop their own language and culture. In modern times, these natural borders have often been adopted as the political, legal, and economic boundaries that define nations.

One notable exception is Switzerland, whose national borders straddle four linguistic regions – French, German, Italian, and Romansh. Professor Anthony D. Smith of the London School of Economics (LSE), who is one of the founders of the field of nationalism studies, pointed out in his 1994 paper, ‘The problem of national identity: Ancient, medieval and modern?’, that

“The Swiss Confederacy is often cited as a counter-example to the importance of language for nationality, the need for cultural homogeneity and the central role of the state.”

He reasons that this is so because the country started off as several distinct Alemanic tribes, separated by mountains and with no common language or ethnicity. Around the 13th Century, however, these different tribes began to unite to fight off mutual enemies, defending the land which was to become Switzerland. The descendants of these people came to share common names, ancestry, myths, and historical memories, giving them their shared ‘Swiss’ identity.

In contrast to Europe’s mostly natural borders, those in Africa are man-made. The continent was under European colonial rule in the 19th Century and was divided up between Europe’s nations during the 1884-5 Berlin West Africa Conference. The 10,000 or so independent states which existed prior to colonization were amalgamated into 40 countries. These neatly-drawn borders clarified who owned the natural resources, such as oil and mineral deposits, contained within each piece of land, but it also resulted in the haphazard partitioning of Africa’s numerous ethnic, tribal, and linguistic groups. As a result, Africa now contains some of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world (Elbadawi, 2000).

One example is Nigeria. According to The World Factbook of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), it has a population of over 170 million, primarily made up of seven disparate ethnic groups. But in reality, there are over 250 distinct ethnic groups speaking over 500 different languages. The numerous wars in Africa, such as the recent conflict in Mali, are often attributed to tensions arising between these numerous groups. However, many studies (e.g. Azam, 2001; Elbadawi, 2000) point out that this is not the fundamental cause of conflict: the real reasons are “high levels of poverty, failed political institutions, and economic dependence on natural resources” (Elbadawi, 2000). Ethnic divisions arise as a result of these factors and may then lead to conflict, but wars do not necessarily start per se because different ethnic groups are intolerant of one another.

Latin America is also a continent which was home to many indigenous populations prior to European colonization. The spectacular natural features of the continent, such as the Amazon Rainforest and the Andes mountains, provided a natural separation between different tribes and were also adopted by the Europeans as national borders. The enormous variety of terrains and ecosystems also meant that different tribes evolved highly distinct survival strategies. After the arrival of the Europeans, many of these natives were killed during wars or died from European diseases to which they had no immunity. Relatively few survived in the country now known as Brazil, where white, black, and mulatto (mixed white and black) are now the dominant ethnic groups. However, in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, separated from Brazil by the rainforest, many indigenous groups survived and today form the majority. The diversity of these indigenous groups is still evident, with different groups present in each country: Quechua, Aymara, and Amerindian in Bolivia; Amerindian in Peru; and Amerindian and Montubio in Ecuador.

Although it is instinctive for people to seek out those who look similar to themselves – it indicates that you have a similar genetic make-up and we are pre-programmed to preserve our genetic lineage – in modern society this instinct is frequently culturally and socially overridden. National, ethnic, religious, and linguistic borders still provide people with a sense of shared identity, but interacting and building positive relationships with other groups is recognized to be a great advantage and a marker of a progressive society. So is living and learning from others rather than conquering them. Although economic opportunities are still determined by the often arbitrarily assigned physical borders of nations and regions, with the advent of modern information technology in today’s increasingly globalized world, borders of any variety are no longer a major barrier to communication and the sharing of ideas and knowledge. And the world is a richer and better place because of it.

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What do borders mean to you? Please leave a reply below.

Tracey Li is a Research and Communications Intern with INESAD.

For your reference:

Azam, J-P 2001, ‘The Redistributive State and Conflicts in Africa’, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 38, No. 4, pp. 429-444. <>

Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook. <>

Elbadawi, I & Sambanis, N 2009, ‘Why Are There So Many Civil Wars in Africa? Understanding and Preventing Violent Conflict’, Journal of African Economics, Vol. 9, Issue 3, pp. 244-69.

Gat, A 2000, ‘The Human Motivational Complex: Evolutionary Theory and the causes of Hunter-Gatherer Fighting, Part I. Primary Somatic and Reproductive Causes’, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 1.

Gat, A 2000, ‘The Human Motivational Complex: Evolutionary Theory and the causes of Hunter-Gatherer Fighting, Part II. Proximate, Subordinate, and Derivative Causes’, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 2.

Harding, L, The Guardian 30 January 2013, Mali’s ethnic tensions erupt as troops hunt down suspected Islamists. <>

Meredith, M, The Washington Post 20 January 2006, The Fate of Africa. <>

Paasi, A 1998, ‘Boundaries as Social Processes: Territoriality in the World of Flows’, Geopolitics, Vol. 3, Issue 1.

Smith, AD 1994, ‘The problem of national identity: Ancient, medieval and modern?’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 17, Issue 3.


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