Cultural Landscapes

The cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a cultural group. Culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium, the cultural landscape is the result.1

Cultural Landscapes Cultural Landscapes

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    As the famous formula by Carl Sauer has it, Nature + Culture = Cultural Landscape. Take a forest, turn it into farms: cultural landscape. Take the farms and turn them into suburbs: cultural landscape. But what if you are in a primeval rainforest that looks like it has never been touched by humans? This must be a natural landscape, right? Not so fast! Geographers might classify it as a cultural landscape, too. Read on to find out why.

    Cultural Landscape Definition in Geography

    "Cultural landscape" is a central concept in cultural geography.

    Cultural Landscape: the imprint of human activity on Earth's surface. "A" cultural landscape: a certain area where cultures have left detectable artifacts. "The" cultural landscape: generic term recognizing human contribution to most natural landscapes on Earth.

    Characteristics of the Cultural Landscape

    Boundaries and characteristics of a landscape are subjective. One area can be designated as different types of cultural landscape.

    Some might experience a certain urban place as a landscape of fear, while others characterize it as a landscape of economic development, and yet others as a religious landscape.

    There are nearly limitless ways to name, categorize, and delimit cultural landscapes. Below are some universal characteristics.

    Area with Imprint of Human Culture

    This can be almost anywhere, even if people don't live there.

    To climbers or mining companies, a mountain might seem untouched: the ultimate natural landscape. But mountains such as Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas and Puncak Jaya in New Guinea are cultural landscapes because they are sacred for the people who live nearby. If a mining company carves away the mountain or climbers defile it, they are destroying human culture because they are "messing with the deities," so to speak.

    Cultural landscapes Grasberg StudySmarterFig. 1 - Satellite photo shows the Grasberg Mine that has excavated a giant hole in New Guinea's tallest mountain, Puncak Jaya, a 16,024-foot peak sacred to Indigenous groups who struggled against Freeport McMoran, the company responsible for the damage

    Because people inhabit most of the planet's land surface, what AREN'T cultural landscapes, in the broadest sense?

    • Most of Antarctica, where permanent human presence has never been felt (though scientific base areas are cultural landscapes).

    • Arctic areas: humans have inhabited, albeit sometimes intermittently, all places but ice sheets on Greenland and nearby islands, so few landscapes here are natural.

    • Even the remotest parts of Siberia, the Sahara, the Australian deserts, and the Amazon bear imprints of human cultures, and nearly every remote oceanic island has a research station, weather station, military outpost, or former whaling or sealing camp.

    Thus "cultural landscape" signifies ANY landscape on Earth outside Antarctica, as long as you recognize present or detectable past signs of humans there.

    Detectable by Senses or Emotions

    Human cultural artifacts can be detected by at least one of the five senses and/or subjective dimensions such as emotions (landscapes of fear or memory, for example). This is important! In previous times, landscapes were characterized solely as visual artifacts, a holdover from the 17th-century Dutch landschap paintings that are at the origin of the concept. Now, a cultural landscape may be recognizable by its smells, tastes, sounds, and tactile sensations, not just its visual aspects.

    Location + People = Sense of Place

    What we are getting at is this. Because all humans possess culture, the very act of dwelling in a location, whether for a season or permanently, turns that location into a place in a cultural landscape. It gives the location a sense of place. People create geographic meaning, whether by farming, building a shack, naming local landmarks, or telling stories about mountains that turn into the basis of their religion.

    Cultural landscapes are networks comprised of places (locations with meanings) and the ways they interconnect (streets, paths, roads, etc.). Where people haven't been and haven't inhabited, whether ice caps or other planets, cultural landscapes don't exist. But on Earth, the essential human geographical activity is making places and landscapes.

    Text and Palimpsest

    Cultural landscapes, whether they are US suburbs or sacred groves in Benin, have meaning and therefore they can be "read" as what geographers call text. Meanings vary; a single landscape can be read in many different ways. A landscape read by someone who wishes to make a profit has a quite different interpretation than its reading as a place to be preserved in perpetuity, for example.

    Cultural landscapes palimpsest StudySmarterFig. 2 - Galen's palimpsest, an 11th-century AD text written over a partially erased 9th-century text

    Most cultural landscapes function as palimpsests. When a new occupier moves in, the erasure of previous meanings, whether intentional or not, is usually incomplete. Therefore, what you get is like those ancient manuscripts that were erased and written over, again and again. With special tools, historians can detect some of what was erased. In a cultural landscape, geographers can also find traces of those older cultural texts, even if these are buried in the ground (literally), or in place names, like the way the US is filled with Indigenous burial sites and toponyms in places where Indigenous people no longer live.

    The most obvious example of a palimpsest is an urban area, where cultural groups move in and out of neighborhoods leaving behind toponyms and buildings. Cities may have hundreds or even thousands of years of cultural history in dozens of layers imprinted in their landscapes!

    Importance of Cultural Landscape

    Some cultural landscapes are more important than others, and many types of cultural landscapes are worth saving. After all, cultural landscapes are the imprint of human culture on the world. Geographers condone neither the destruction of cultural landscapes nor the creation of new, generic landscapes on top of older, more nuanced and important landscapes. Why is this?

    Cultural landscapes are the cradle of human culture. All cultures, in a way, have their "sacred mountains," whether these are more like Notre Dame de Paris or Gettysburg Battlefield. Without a landscape to contain cultural memory, it can exist only in written or recorded texts.

    Destroying a sacred or historical landscape, not to mention the living landscape of a vernacular culture, to make way for a shopping mall, replaces one landscape with another. It is hard to argue that a shopping mall is anything other than a commercial and generic creation that can be placed anywhere. Sacred, historic, and vernacular landscapes, however, are often irreplaceable.

    Destroying cultural monuments and other signs of a current or past culture on purpose may be an attempt to remove evidence of culture and often happens in genocides, where the intent is to eliminate attachment, memory, and any claims to ownership on behalf of a persecuted culture. Sometimes, this is a necessary step, if the culture whose monuments are being destroyed was the persecutor (think: Nazi Germany), but in general, intentional erasure of cultural landscape happens because new occupiers devalue the imprint of previous inhabitants, unless these were their ancestors.

    All of Australia is Indigenous cultural landscape. This fact was not legally recognized until the last 50 years, as British colonizers after 1788 denied that Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders had been "owners." Now, the process of locating and protecting millions of sacred sites and restoring the cultural landscapes of the continent's hundreds of Indigenous groups is in essence a process of recognizing that Australia has been a cultural landscape for 40,000 or more years.

    Categories of Cultural Landscapes

    The US National Parks Service and the United Nations protect cultural landscapes. Their definitions are somewhat more narrow than those of cultural geographers, as they are not concerned with generic commercial landscapes such as those characterizing the Galactic City (for example). They are justifiably concerned with unique and outstanding places integral to cultural history, preservation, and connection to nature, whether at the level of a country or a local region or culture.

    You may have heard of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, for example. For agencies like the NPS and UNESCO, the recognition of cultural landscapes has become increasingly important. The NPS lists Historic Designed Landscapes, Historic Sites, Historic Vernacular Landscapes, and Ethnographic Landscapes as its four types.2

    Examples of Cultural Landscapes

    Globalization = homogeneity: everywhere is starting to look like everywhere else! Corporations reproduce the same forms everywhere (A Burger King is a Burger King is a Burger King), and dominant cultures like the US are copied everywhere. So does this mean that eventually we will end up with a single global cultural landscape? Opinions differ.

    The US Fast-Food Restaurant

    For many, a McDonald's or Burger King is the ultimate generic, cookie-cutter landscape. It IS a cultural landscape, but is there only one? Arguably, there are actually many. While the McDonalds' across Ohio are all probably pretty similar, particularly those at the Interstate exits, what about the McDonalds' in Brazil...or Japan...or Nigeria? What you may see in these is familiar, but the culture of the people who give meaning to them is of course distinct from Ohio.

    This is how all cultural forms change when they are in distinct locations. With thousands of cultures in the world, each one creating and maintaining distinct cultural landscapes, it is inevitable that even the most generic cultural forms, once they diffuse, will become heterogeneous.

    The Pyramids of Giza

    The meanings given by the builders to the Great Pyramid and its two neighbors were lost millennia ago. This has not stopped over 200 generations from assigning the pyramids their own meanings. We use this obvious example to point out how the past remains present as long as it is preserved and somehow visible or otherwise sense-able. Even when cultures evolve and pass away, their landscapes remain as part of the heritage of humanity.

    The Amazon Rainforest...or Garden?

    Only in recent years has the scope and density of human habitation in the Amazon River basin over the last 10,000 years been fully appreciated.

    cultural landscapes Amazon StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Amazon Rainforest is largely in Brazil and comprises the NW part of the country: look how much of it is utilized as Indian territory; the rest may also be used, or has been in the past, and is thus also cultural landscape

    The Amazon's vast forests were cast as "empty" by those who wanted to claim them, or who assumed, like the British in Australia, that early habitation had been inconsequential. It wasn't.

    In the 16th century AD, Europeans who sailed the Amazon River did not see a vast forest. They saw towns and cities and vast agricultural land. As across most of the Americas, forests grew back after 90% or more of the human population died of disease. Those who remained continued to practice slash and burn agriculture, protecting certain plants and growing others on purpose. This, combined with the remaining forest gardens from the civilizations that had disappeared, meant that indeed, the Amazon was a type of garden, if extremely grown over.

    Most of it, today, is the current or former cultural territory of an Indigenous group, whether they have legal rights to it or not. Where they do, it may not be used for farming except once every few decades, but is still part of their cultural landscape, used for fishing, hunting, and gathering.

    Cultural Landscapes - Key takeaways

    • Cultural landscapes: land areas bearing imprints of human culture.
    • Very few areas outside of Antarctica can't be characterized as cultural landscapes.
    • Cultural landscapes are critically important as the spatial expression of human culture; like texts, they contain meanings.
    • Cultural landscapes are constantly erased and "written over" but fragments of past landscapes persist, resulting in the concept of landscapes as palimpsests.
    • Some cultural landscapes are critically important repositories of local, regional, or global cultural memory, while others, particularly those created to look identical with purely commercial functions, have less importance.


    1. Sauer, C.O. The morphology of landscape. Berkeley. University of California Publications in Geography, 2, pp.296-315. 1925.
    2. National Park Service. "Understand Cultural Landscapes." 2022.
    3. Fig. 2 Galen's palimpsest ( by "The Galen Syriac Palimpsest", OPenn, Hosted by the University of Pennsylvania Libraries ( licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Cultural Landscapes

    What is a cultural landscape in human geography? 

    A cultural landscape is an area of the Earth's land surface which has meaning for human culture and some detectable human cultural imprint. 

    What are characteristics of cultural landscape? 

    Cultural landscapes are areas with human cultural imprints that can be sensed in some way; they have places and can be read like "texts." 

    Why is cultural landscape important to geographers? 

    Cultural landscape is important to geographers because it is the way humans fashion space into meaning, and it serves as a reservoir and memory of human culture just as a book does. 

    What are some examples of cultural landscapes? 

    Everything from suburbs, malls, and fast-food restaurants to the Amazon Rainforest and the Pyramids of Giza are cultural landscapes. 

    What impact has globalization had on the global cultural landscape? 

    Globalization may have made the world's cultural landscapes more homogeneous, with less variety and diversity, but because of the sheer number of human cultures, each with its own types of cultural expression, it has not resulted in the noticeable elimination of cultural landscapes on a large scale. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    A US fast-food restaurant in India has burgers, but not made of beef; the menu is in Hindi and English; people from a variety of Indian cultures frequent the restaurant. This suggests that

    The Amazon Rainforest is a natural landscape.

    Puncak Jaya and Kanchenjunga are cultural landscapes because


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