Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Mud and Civilization: a cartography workshop

This post is part of a series to augment The Worldbuilder's Handbook available for free download.

This and other world workshops are gathered in my Worldbuilding Directory for you to explore.

Find more map-making content in my Cartography Directory.

When building your world, it's important to keep in mind that civilizations first crop up near rivers. Obviously, ready access to fresh water plays a huge role in where early settlements are established, and the most successful of these settlements grow into cradles of civilization.

But the mud available to a civilization also plays a key role. Mud bricks are a crucial building material for many early settlements, allowing societies to establish their first permanent structures, well before they develop the tools necessary to build with wood or stone.

Of course, the presence of magic in your world may replace certain tools, resulting in a different order of evolution for resource utilization. Be sure to weigh magic influences when deciding how your early settlements evolved, and deviate from the normal Earth paradigm whenever it feels logical.

Perhaps the biggest mud-factor of all pertains to the flat coastal plains of river valleys. On Earth, these areas are where the major cradles of civilization all formed, from ancient China and India to Egypt and Mesopotamia. What drove these settlements to evolve into the pinnacles of the ancient world? You guessed it - mud.

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River water contains all the sediment that has been washed downstream, all the way from the headwaters in the highlands. This sediment is called silt and it's super-fertile, tantamount to fertilizer. When the spring thaw causes river waters to rise, the rivers flood their banks and spread out, slowing down the current and allowing the silt to settle to the bottom.

When the flood waters recede later, the vast hectares of land that were flooded now have a thick layer of silt left behind. Fertilized with this rich mud every year, the river valley can produce verdant crops, leading to a food supply that can support the growth of civilization. With the free exclusive How to Make Fantasy Maps in Photoshop, you can establish mother rivers for your dominant cultures using this principle.

While river valleys are the foremost location for cradle civilizations, a successful culture can develop anywhere with fertile soil. Consider the big island of Hawaii, which has no huge rivers and no annual delivery of silt to support its bountiful crops. However, Hawaii is a volcanic island, its soils rich in the same types of nutrients as river silt.

Hawaii needed no rivers to support its growing civilization, because the land itself was already fertile. Now compare this to the island of Borneo, which is no longer volcanically active. Each year, the monsoon rains strip more topsoil from the island, robbing it of precious nutrients.

As a result, the ecosystem of Borneo is one of famine. The jungles are mostly old trees specialized in soaking up scant nutrients from rocky soil, and the people scrape out a living from the seas and the caves, where subterranean nutrients have collected, shielded from surface erosion.

When building your own world, reflect on each of your dominant cultures and how their civilization began. Some may live on an island or a volcanic plain like the Serengeti, cultivating a super-fertile portion of your main continent. But to maintain Earth-like realism, at least one of your major cultures should occupy a coastal river delta, akin to the Nile River delta in Egypt or the Yellow River delta in northeast China.

That's it for this post! Check out the latest worldbuilding workshops for more.

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