In France, history and geography are taught in school as one subject, because the second is the framework upon which the first grows. In this image from the space station, the glacial valleys of the Alps at night reveal how the pattern of human occupation is dictated by the underlying geology. The high mountains are relatively barren and inhospitable, while the broad U shaped glacial valleys provide both space and land for human settlements to grow in.
Mountains were the traditional refuge of the outsider, whether religious heretics such as the Alpine Waldensians or Turkish Alevi, or fiercely independent and self reliant tribes like the Helvetii and their other future Swiss companions. In the harsh environment of the mountains, where the old proverb goes 7 months of winter, 5 months of hell (sept mois d’hiver, cinq mois d’enfer) as you gather a year’s worth of food, such self reliance is necessary to survival, wherever you are. I have observed through visiting chains on 3 continents that mountain people have more in common with each other worldwide than they share with their fellow lowland countrymen.
The Alpine agriculture pattern consists of small scale agriculture, gardens and dwellings on the valley floors and itinerant seasonal flock herding (that followed the side valleys of subsidiary glaciers that once joined the larger ones which carved the large U shaped valleys) up to the high altitude pastures.
Thinking of the factors that made this settlement pattern in the image, we start with the growth of the peaks due to the tectonic forces caused by the ongoing collision of Africa with Europe. We then move on to the highly complex climatic factors that resulted in nearly 2 million years of advancing and retreating glaciation, cutting through the hard metamorphic rocks at the chain’s core and the weaker sedimentary rocks surrounding them.
Deglaciation followed, and Cro Magnon man gradually spread outwards from the refugia they had occupied during the glaciations. They spread into ever more marginal lands as their population grew, learning how to make a calorific living out of all of them, eventually reaching the mountains and using them up to the highest possible altitude (over 5,000 metres in Bolivia) for their environmental constraints. In Europe this had clearly been accomplished by 5,000 years ago, when Otzi the iceman was fatally wounded by an arrow and climbed up towards the high passes to die, only for his body to emerge from a glacier thousands of years later.
In more modern times, the pattern evolved, with monasteries and more permanent villages that still persist today taking form, though the entire area remained harsh and impoverished until the tourism revolution of the 20th century. Before the 18th century, mountains, and what we now term the sublime in general, had been viewed with horror, a famous Englishman even describing the Alps as ‘that frightful carbuncle’. Many English people shared similar views as they crossed the Alps towards Italy over the St Bernard and other passes on their way to Italy on their grand tour.
Throughout the 19th century, thousands of mountain people trekked out every autumn, heading for Paris, and winter employment in the cities, or made watch mechanisms and carved rubies and sapphires into gems and watch stones in the homes they shared with their animals. Traditional foods remained cheese, hard bread and salami, all ways of preserving the food they had squeezed out of the environment during the brief summer for winter consumption.
As the 20th century started, mountaineering and winter sports took off, offering full employment for the first time, and sucking people in from outside, diluting traditional societies in order to service these activities, also developing ski manufacture and other light industry (such as fishing equipment) in the deep valleys, while resorts were developed in the higher regions above. The old cycle never entirely stopped, I still see goats heading up during summer visits to my flat at 2,300 metres, but the economy changed completely from the traditional geographically imposed pattern.
So the Alps passed from a marginal environment to a high value added one, entirely due to changing human perspectives. In all the periods of their history, the geology and geographical history influenced the lives of the people who lived there, passing from eternal harshness trying to squeeze enough calories out of a tough environment and finding ingenious ways to supplement the income such as migration for part of the year to work elsewhere and watch making, to a relative prosperity so high that a Savoy independence movement has been stirring for the past decade in the French Alps. In the future, climate change may end much of this, as winter sports gradually become impossible as the snowline retreats ever upwards (see http://tinyurl.com/mjxxomt), but summer tourism should remain now that the attitude of ‘civilised humanity’ to more marginal environments has changed.
So here we have some of the layers of a palimpsest, partly expressed for a small region of our planet. Every environment in which humans live is subject to such constrains, influenced by the underlying geology and its long history and its interaction with an ever changing climate. The settlement pattern visible as lights along the wider glacial valleys has a long geological, geographical and human history, as do all the world’s landscapes.
Image credit: Mike Hopkins
past posts on glacial valleys: