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.)…”
“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. Read More »