Teaching the Five Themes of Geography - Human/Environment Interaction

When you study geography as it relates to history, it really is all about humans' interaction with the Earth's environment. Much of the story of human history is the development of new ways of modifying, reacting to, and adapting to the environment. As such, this is probably the theme that gets the most attention in my ancient world history classroom.

When introducing the concept of HEI, I like to show my students a picture of our school just after it first opened. At the time, it was on the edge of town, in the country really. Then I show a more recent image from Google Earth. The students can easily see the difference and see how people have reacted/interacted with the environment to change the landscape of the area around the school. We also talk a lot about how we have adapted to the environment in terms of obtaining drinking water, installing air conditioning, creating shelter, etc. Finally, we talk about some of the ways we have hurt or potentially hurt the environment and how we can clean it up.

Examples of HEI Theme in my Curriculum

Once students understand the basic concept of Human/Environment Interaction, it's relatively simple for them to see it in the curriculum throughout the rest of the year. Following is a unit by unit breakdown of examples of HEI that I try to emphasize in my ancient world history classroom.


During prehistory, HEI was crucial to the advancement of humans to the point of creating civilizations. From the harnessing of fire to advancement in hunting, clothing, and resource harvesting, prehistory is chockfull of examples of HEI. The most important example in prehistory, however, is the Neolithing Revolution - the development of farming. Without that, humans would never have moved beyond the Stone Age.

Ancient Mesopotamia

The Sumerians went nuts with irrigation, arguably to the point of ruining their soil. They also began massive construction projects with ziggurats, palaces, and cities that were the largest of their time.

Ancient Egypt

It's all about the Nile, baby. The predictable flood each year allowed Egyptian civilization to exist, and the Egyptians developed very smart ways of measuring the river's level and utilizing its live sustaining power. The Egyptians were masters at moving earth and rock, as the pyramids clearly demonstrate.

Ancient China

The ancient Chinese forever modified the environment by building the Great Wall. As much as the Egyptians were able to use the Nile, the Chinese suffered the massive floods of their rivers up until modern times.

Ancient India

The people of the Indus River Valley used their river effectively, bulding their cities on raised areas to minimize the impact of flooding on the people.

Ancient Greeks and Minoans

The Greeks and Minoans built their empires by adapting to life near the sea. Even with a lack of arable farmland, the Greeks and Minoans were able to feed the people through herding, trading, and farming native crops (olives, grapes, etc.) The Greeks also demonstrated great competence in altering the landscapes for their cities, temples, and monuments. The Minoans, it appears, ended up succumbing to their environment however upon the eruption of the volcano Thera about 3500 years ago.

Ancient Romans

The Romans were masters of their environment. They used basic materials to create a building material, concrete, that is still one of the most important components of our buildings and cities today. They also built aqueducts to bring fresh water hundreds of miles from its source to the population centers. The Roman Army were very adept at modifying their environment each night to create fortifications and camps. When the Romans finally defeated the Carthiginians in the Punic Wars, they salted the farmland of Carthage to prevent the economic recovery of their enemy. But even the Romans couldn't escape the wrath of the environment from earthquakes and volcanoes.

Middle Ages

The people of Medieval Europe did their best to work with the environment. Because of the loss of much of the knowledge of Greece and Rome (and restrictions by the Church on free scientific thinking), they got a heavy dose of nature's wrath when the Black Plague hit in the 14th Century.


During the Renaissance, great minds like Newton and Galileo began to really understand the way nature (i.e. the environment) worked. This paved the way for even more control of the environment, including the massive alteration of it to the point where we finally must examine the negative consequences of our actions.

Please see also my new (2016) post on the 5 Themes, including a fancy infographic!

Thanks for reading.  I hope this was helpful!

Mr. West

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