Carl Sauer Theory Explained


Does the environment create human culture? Or does human culture create our surrounding environment? In 1925, Carl Sauer attempted to answer these questions definitively when he published The Morphology of Landscape.

At the time of its publication, the prevailing theory was that nature created human culture. Sauer argued that the reverse was actually true. Human culture, by working on and working with nature, created a way of life for each individual. The impacts that were found on nature’s landscape, he theorized, were simply manifestations of human culture being brought to life in an observable way.

This meant, according to Sauer, that cultural geographers needed to learn how to read those landscapes in order to know more about human culture.

What Is Human Culture in the Carl Sauer Theory?

Carl Sauer looked at human culture in a way that could only be defined as “holistic.” He felt that culture was the way of life for each person. Instead of using these observations to justify decisions or actions, however, Sauer’s goal was to simply eliminate the personal bias that people tend to have when evaluating a culture that is different from their own.

This caused Sauer to look at human culture in the same way a geologist would look at climatic, geological, or vegetational factors. As time goes by, several different formations occur because of those factors. Weather creates changes to the surface of the planet. It forms seas and coastlines, grows plants, and develops mineral resources. It’s a process that defines and then refines the natural landscape.

Sauer believed that human culture was viewed in the same way, but with one exception. As time went by, the natural landscapes that were formed would also have an influence on how humans behaved. This would result in population centers, population mobility, housing, production, and communication between population points.

How Are Humans Adapting to the Physical Environment?

Human cultures tend to adapt reactively instead of proactively to their surrounding environment. When it is cold outside, you put on a coat. That’s a reaction to the cold. Human cultures put on a coat as well, but on a much larger scale, to the outside events the environment happens to provide.

Communities settle in a specific valley because the soil there is rich and good for farming purposes. People practice specific burial rituals as a way to prevent diseases from spreading through the general population. Even historical events, such as the detonation of an atomic weapon in Japan, cause human cultures to look at the world in a different way just because of the location where the event took place.

Think about it. If you hear the cities of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, you think of them differently than you think of the cities of Seattle and San Francisco. This is the effect that the Carl Sauer theory of landscape morphology is describing.

Why Is the Theory of Landscape Morphology Important?

Before the Carl Sauer theory, it was generally believed that nature affected human environments. This meant human culture was based on a reaction to what was happening in the environment. In effect, human culture developed because of the need to put on a coat because it was cold outside.

Sauer showed through his theory that nature affected more than the outside environment. It could also impact how we perceive the environment. This perception also has an effect on how human culture develops. Before the atomic bomb, one would think of Hiroshima differently than after the atomic bomb.

This does mean that Sauer’s theory does rely on an individualistic interpretation of the natural landscapes that are present in the world today. Not everyone may come to the same conclusions from their observations, which means that human culture also has a certain element of “relative truth” to it.

Or to put it this way: some people might choose not to put on a coat when it’s cold outside because they prefer to be chilly. They might not have a coat to put on in the first place. So how a person feels or what a person believes will have an impact, just as the landscape morphology has an impact on the individual.

Thanks to the Carl Sauer theory, we understand that the environment doesn’t have to control who we are, what we feel, or what we believe. Human culture can evolve naturally just like nature evolves. By understanding this growing process, we can look back upon history and realize what we have learned.