Funny topic to think about on May Day, but then again it is kinda chilly outside in the shade today, and I’ve posted my generation (this post’s featured image) of an arctic city noir under the northern lights, evocative of some alternate Norilsk. Which provoked a thought in my mind: it’s curious that Russia is the only country that’s ever really done much of anything with the Arctic in the modern period. One might chalk it up to Soviet communism, but I wouldn’t be so sure; after all, on the other pole the only countries that have shown any interest at all in really colonizing Antarctica are decidedly-not-communist Argentina and Chile.
Go North, Young Man!
My mind working how it does, I naturally wander over to thinking about alternate history what-ifs where the efforts we’ve seen in real life are but a glimmering preview of what could have been: a whole modern industrial civilization on the Arctic Rim and even the Antarctic, to the point where those regions become not outposts for resource extraction or marginalized demographic curiosities but truly major population centers, consequential parts of the world in their own right.
Such a scenario might have a decent chance of happening in an alternate history like the timeline I’ve worldbuilt and primarily write in for my stories. Structurally there are far more resources to devote to colonization and the development of fundamentally-viable but currently-remote areas, and far more interest in the whole idea on the part of societies and cultures the world over. Russia in particular (and eastern Europe in general) suffers no losses from the World Wars or communism, so the greater influx to and development of Siberia should be particularly stark compared to real life. Alaska, northern Canada, and Greenland are also primed to boom. Argentina and the rest of the Southern Cone retain their per-capita economic parity with the most developed countries, and immigration keeps pouring in, turning the region into something like the United States’ Hispanic counterpart.
A more intensive development of Siberia and the Arctic in general is an obvious extrapolation from real life, but proportionally the change in South America and Antarctica might be still greater. Argentina could rise to the level of being a great power unto itself, easily capable of supporting a much more robust Antarctic program. It seems unlikely that the whole continent could be claimed by Argentina, but Argentines may well have the strongest presence in the whole region, to the point where the Argentine (and Chilean) hinterland is thick with population and there’s a whole incipient civilization on the Antarctic coast, rather than just a couple of outposts here and there.
Nothing ever happens in the Water Hemisphere…
That scenario is interesting enough, and one I’m likely to incorporate into my alternate history. But there’s another possibility, a different and wildly more divergent timeline than one that just supposes an alternate 20th century. Consider the land and water hemispheres, the halves of the Earth containing the greatest possible percentage of land and water, respectively.
Images by Citynoise of Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA 4.0.
Notice how basically everything and everybody of any world-historical consequence originates from the land hemisphere. The water hemisphere, by contrast, has always been very remote, and the only truly major center of human civilization there is maritime Southeast Asia. Interestingly, even that area wasn’t developed or populated much until surprisingly recently; as late as the medieval era the whole region was little more than wilderness. Large sections of even the core region of it are sparsely populated even today.
Australia and the Southern Cone of South America only really started to be settled in the 19th century, and they remain peripheral and sparsely populated despite substantial growth over the 20th century. Huge swaths of land that, even if those parts of the world were as developed as the American West is, would be host to genuinely major cities and countrysides thick with people are today pretty much empty.
New Zealand and the Pacific Islands are remote and sparsely populated as well, and would be even more so than they are now were it not for the Polynesian people having embarked on their very own Age of Discovery, centuries before Europeans did and with much more primitive technology.
As an aside, the Austronesian expansion in general (which the Polynesians were but one part of, and the latest phase of), from Madagascar (!) in the west to Rapa Nui in the east, made the Austronesian language family the one with the greatest geographic extent until the Europeans’ Age of Discovery, which linguistically was the second great Indo-European expansion.
If South America, Australia, and Polynesia are remote, then Antarctica might as well be a whole ‘nother planet. It’s the only continent to lack a native population, and remained unvisited by human beings until Westerners arrived in the 19th century…eh, maybe. According to legend Ui-te-Rangiora, a Polynesian explorer of the 7th century, may have visited the surrounding sea ice, probably, much like Captain Cook 1100 years later, just missing the actual mainland. The last continent to be discovered by man remains the least populated; Antarctica, an expanse of land larger than Europe, harbors only 5000 people.
Humans being land creatures, it’s both understandable and probable that the land hemisphere would also be the population center, but few worldbuilders of alternate histories consider how interesting it would be if the roles were reversed: what if the water hemisphere, not the land hemisphere, was the center of human civilization?
Cradles of Civilization in the Water Hemisphere
This would require an alternate-historical point of divergence deep in prehistory, but so what? The first thing we need to do is nerf all of real life’s cradles of civilization in the land hemisphere; not terribly hard to do, if we posit different climatological or demographic fluctuations that make settled agricultural life a non-viable prospect in those regions, delaying the advent of civilization. Now we need to pick a cradle of civilization in the water hemisphere.
Maritime Southeast Asia might be the most obvious place, but it will likely develop much closer ties with the land hemisphere than with the rest of the water hemisphere, running the risk of the center of gravity shifting over time. The Southern Cone of South America, specifically the Rio de la Plata basin, might be a better place, but it too has closer ties to the land hemisphere than with the rest of the water hemisphere.
Australia is another interesting choice for a cradle of civilization; it’s even rather desert-like, much like places like Mesopotamia and Egypt were in real life, and is relatively remote from the land hemisphere. It’s easier for ships to sail from the east coast all the way across the Pacific Ocean by way of New Zealand and South America to the west coast than it is to navigate from the east coast to the west coast directly. That’s the sort of place that might keep closer ties to the water hemisphere. Another choice would be the Valdivian temperate rainforest of southern Chile, which shares the same advantages.
Polynesia in general and New Zealand in particular might do even better, but in the age before civilization no people lived there! More sophisticated methods than that available to your average hunter-gatherer are required, though that doesn’t mean these regions couldn’t be reached without agriculture. The Haida of Cascadia, for example, reached as far afield as Mexico, and they didn’t just lack agriculture, they lacked sails! I suspect a complex society based in a temperate rainforest could develop sailing and navigation technology at least as sophisticated as our timeline’s Polynesians.
What if native South Americans had their own Age of Discovery?
Either Australia or southern Chile would do nicely to jump-start such a group, but I find the South American possibility more interesting, as the southernmost part of that region is the tail end of the great human migrations of the Paleolithic, the greatest distance traversed overland; the sheer romance of the people at (what from a Paleolithic perspective is) the end of the Earth developing the technology to go even further is just too good for me to resist.
The wind screams out of the west in this part of the world, so they would go eastward across the subantarctic islands, visiting and colonizing the Falkland Islands first, then proceeding clockwise around this map until they circumnavigated the Antarctic.
Map by Hogweard of Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA 3.0.
The lands south of the Antarctic Convergence are harsh, but they are full of sea life, such as whales and penguins. Detours northward would reveal Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island at first followed by the far more lush and clement New Zealand, which no doubt would become a prime colonization site. New Zealand serves as the gateway to Polynesia, and the subantarctic is the gateway to Antarctica itself.
Toward native Antarcticans
If these people have sailing and navigation technology then this enables a gradual adaptation to ever-harsher conditions, much like what the Inuit did in the Arctic. As such, the settling of Antarctica by hunter-gatherers is just a matter of time…but they have time, since all the cradles of civilization have been nerfed! No European explorers will come knocking on their door like alien invaders! Well, Cascadian or Japanese ones might…but let’s suppose that doesn’t happen.
Unlike the Inuit these people will have relatively easy access in terms of sailing and navigation to the entire rest of the world; not just the islands of the water hemisphere (and Australia) but the very ends of the Earth, places like North America, Europe, Asia, and especially Africa will be known and visited. Nevertheless, if their technology remains primitive these will be daunting expeditions taken once in a blue moon by very few people, so their impact may well be insignificant (much like the Inuit who visited Scotland…yes, really).
In the meantime, this gives us the ethnogenesis of a new native people on Earth’s last continent, living a lifestyle like the Inuit, only even tougher. Give them a few thousand years and they’d probably end up looking like fair-skinned versions (Antarctica makes Scandinavia look like a sunlit paradise…) of our world’s native South Americans.
Antarctica as the Cradle of Civilization?
Where it gets really fancy is if these native Antarcticans develop some form of agriculture, raising crops and livestock that can only exist in the harsh conditions of the far south. Antarctica has a grand total of two flowering plant species, Antarctic hair grass and Antarctic pearlwort. They only grow on the western Peninsula now, but domestication could improve their yields and cold-hardiness and extend their range to cover the tundra around the continent. That assumes that they’re even edible, which I can’t find any sources on. Sea-based plants of some type like kelp might be another possibility.
Much stronger is the idea of domesticating animals such as penguins and seals, forming a ranching-based culture and bringing agriculturalism into the world, breeding them up and drastically increasing the food supply to the point where full-fledged cities supported by ranching are viable all along the Antarctic coast, with the subantarctic being the periphery and the colder-temperate penguin-friendly zones being perhaps the most remote outposts of civilization, the rest of the world being sparsely populated and remote.
It’s wild, but a development like this is what you’d need for Antarctica, as well as the water hemisphere in general, to become the center of the human world. Antarctica is relatively remote from other landmasses, but it does function as a sort of interface between the tail end of the Americas and the tail end of Asia (by way of Australia), so from this world’s point of view it may well be a strategic location, the center of the world.
The other Pole
Well, until the domestic penguin and seal are introduced to the Arctic, and places like Greenland and the Arctic Rim become the urbanized gateways to the pristine outdoorsman’s paradise that is North America and Europe. It would be even more pristine if god-knows-what-diseases from the penguins and seals (bird flu, etc.) that Antarcticans are immune to killed off 99% of the rest of the world’s population in a virgin-soil epidemic (think the Columbian exchange, but global, not just in the Americas; yikes…).
Even then, the waters of the north aren’t as rich as their southern counterparts, and the Arctic is remote and settled late relative to its southern counterpart, so Antarctica’s place as the capital of civilization, or at least the springboard of it where all the food is still raised (with modern technology the cost of importing penguin meat into the Sun-Belt-type locales of New Zealand, Australia, and Argentina might start to look doable…), is assured.
Talk about polar dreaming! Again, it’s wild, but it’s not totally implausible a scenario, and at the risk of tooting my own horn I’d say it’s pretty unique and creative. No doubt in this world the story would be that it was no coincidence that civilization was spearheaded by the most remote and far-flung section of humanity, the culture that dared to go further than any other, the people who were subject to the harshest conditions in the world; after all, God made Antarctica to train the faithful.