Sauer, Carl O.

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Sauer, Carl O.



Carl O. Sauer, for more than thirty years chairman of the department of geography at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century geography. The study of cultural geography, especially as it has developed in the United States, owes more to Sauer than to any other man. His concern for the quality of human life in its physical setting, for historical and ecological processes, and for the origins and dispersals of culture traits and complexes that have modified the cultural landscape is in the tradition of German geographical thought, of which Sauer has been a principal interpreter.

Born of German ancestry in Warrenton, Missouri, in 1889, he graduated from the local and now defunct Central Wesley an College in 1908, having earlier studied for a time in a school in Wiirttemberg, Germany, where he had family ties. His attachment to the rural and small-town ways of life and landscape of the Middle West of that period has played an important role in his teaching and writing, and he has frequently returned there for study and reflection.

Sauer next studied at the University of Chicago, where the first full-fledged graduate program in geography in the United States had recently been instituted. His PH.D. dissertation, The Geography of the Ozark Highland of Missouri (1920), was acclaimed as a model of regional cultural geography. In 1915 he was appointed to the staff of the new department of geology and geography at the University of Michigan, where in a period of seven years he advanced from the rank of instructor to that of full professor. His work in designing the Michigan Land Economic Survey brought him national recognition. He left Ann Arbor in 1923, at the age of 33, to become chairman of the department of geography at Berkeley. Sauer retired from active teaching in 1957, except for occasional graduate seminars and guest lectureships, but his scholarly output has been undiminished.

Sauer also served the development of geography outside the university. He played an important role in the early development of land-use mapping in the United States and in the establishment of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. For a time in the 1930s he was consultant to the President’s Science Advisory Board. For many years he served as a member of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation selection committee, in which capacity he had a unique opportunity to observe and influence a wide range of American scholarship. He has received honorary degrees from Heidelberg University, Syracuse University, and the University of California and medals from the American Geographical Society, the Berlin Geographical Society, and the Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography.

Soon after Sauer came to California, he and many of his students turned their attention to northern Mexico, especially to the historical geography of the settlement of the dry northwestern part. Later he was to concern himself increasingly with tropical Mexico and Central America and, finally, with the Caribbean. Latin America was thus the strategic site for his observation of the interaction between the simpler, peasant cultures and the sustaining earth. Here, where the mark of the past is so deeply imprinted on the land, he found an especially congenial atmosphere for the study of the interplay between habitat and habitant. His careful reconstructions of past Latin American landscapes and economies, based on a combination of archival work and detailed field inspection, are models of historical geography. The Early Spanish Main (1966), an analysis of the Spanish conquest on the islands of the Caribbean and its margins, is their capstone. Several of his publications on Latin American subjects appeared in the University of California monograph series Ibero-Americana, which he founded in 1932 with A. L. Kroeber.

Sauer’s outspoken rejection of environmental “influences” as the focus of geographical inquiry, enunciated in his Morphology of Landscape (1925), was a critical turning point in the development of American academic geography. Instead of the deterministic view that had largely dominated American geography since the turn of the century, he advocated geographical inquiry into such themes as the man-modified landscape and the origin, spread, limits, and alteration of the elements of that landscape. Holding that all geography is essentially historical, he systematically used any kind of data pertaining to human settlement and activity, and he often found archeological evidence fully as pertinent as written documents. For him the kitchen midden, the colonial archive, the relict plant community or soil profile, and the wisdom of the countryman at work on his hillside garden patch provided information equally relevant to the problems of cultural geography.

A recurring theme in Sauer’s work is the tremendous importance and antiquity of the domestication of plants and animals. In Agricultural Origins and Dispersals (1952a), he summarized his efforts to locate the principal hearths of domestication and the subsequent routes and extent of1 dispersal. Using archeological and ethnographic evidence, Sauer argued that the origins of cultivation must have been in the woodlands rather than in riverine valleys of the world. He made a basic distinction between the agricultural complexes of monsoon Asia and northwestern South America, which are largely dependent on vegetative reproduction by slips and cuttings, and the seed cultures of southwest Asia and of Mexico and Central America. Sauer hypothesized that the earliest form of plant selection involved asexual plant propagation and that it was probably first practiced by the sedentary fishing peoples living around the shallow seas of southeast Asia. The early domestic animals of these peoples were household animals such as the dog, pig, and chicken. Sauer accepted the view that plant selection by seed reproduction came later, and he was influenced by N. I. Vavilov in pointing to China, India, and Ethiopia as Old World centers of seed domestication. He associated herd animals with cereal cultivation and accepted Eduard Hahn’s theory of a mixed economy in which milking of animals was a culture trait integrally involved in the process and purpose of their domestication, probably for noneconomic ends. His research along these lines has especially attracted the attention of anthropologists and archeologists. Many of his speculations regarding the antiquity of man in the New World, Pleistocene ecology, and the relation of changing sea levels and shore configurations to human occupation sites continue to stimulate new research.

Sauer has insisted on the close links of cultural geography with both biology and the earth sciences. He sees man as the ecologic dominant in nature, intervening more and more decisively to change the balance and nature of organic life. He has, for example, insisted that the problems of increasing world-wide desiccation are caused by agricultural and grazing practices and not by “climate deterioration.” He has repeatedly written about the historical processes of biotic destruction and soil depletion as reflections of changing technology and changing attitudes about the earth. Another theme in his writings has been the role of fire, especially of fires set by man, in the modification of the vegetative covering of the earth and the establishment of grasslands. He was the principal organizer of an international symposium held at Princeton in 1955 that focused on“Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth” (1956a).

Sauer has viewed with misgivings the growing emphasis of some of his colleagues on techniques and tools of analysis that produce quantitative results: he has insisted that the qualities of both human society and the man-made landscape are often other than those that permit quantitative processing (1952b). Leighly has observed that to Sauer the investigation of human beings and their behavior by mechanical processes of organization and computation is as repugnant as the environmental determinism he rejected years earlier (see the introduction by Leighly, to Sauer’s Land and Life, p. 6). Human geography, Sauer has said, exists because of the diversification that exists in human ways, and no approach to its questions is more rewarding than that of comparative culture history, soundly based on ecological and geographical principles and concepts.

James J. Parsons

[See alsoDomestication; Ecology; Geography, especially the articles oncultural geographyandsocial geography.]


1920 The Geography of the Ozark Highland of Missouri. Geographic Society of Chicago, Bulletin No. 7. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1925 The Morphology of Landscape. University of California Publications in Geography, Vol. 2, No. 2. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1932 The Road to Cibola. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

1935 Aboriginal Population of Northwestern Mexico. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1938 Theme of Plant and Animal Destruction in Economic History. Journal of Farm Economics 20:765-775.

1941 Foreword to Historical Geography. Association of American Geographers, Annals 31:1-24.

1948a Colima of New Spain in the Sixteenth Century. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1948b Environment and Culture During the Last Deglaciation. American Philosophical Society, Proceedings 92:65-77.

1950 Grassland Climax, Fire, and Man. Journal of Range Management 3:16-21.

1952a Agricultural Origins and Dispersals. New York: American Geographical Society.

1952b Folkways of Social Science. Pages 100-109 in Minnesota, University of, Social Science Research Center, The Social Sciences at Mid-century. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

1956a The Agency of Man on the Earth. Pages 49-69 in International Symposium on Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, Princeton, N.J., 1955, Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1956b The Education of a Geographer. Association of American Geographers, Annals 46:287-299.

1957 The End of the Ice Age and Its Witnesses. Geographical Review 47:29-43.

1958 Man in the Ecology of Tropical America. Pages 104-110 in Pacific Science Congress, Ninth, Bangkok, 1957, Proceedings. Volume 20: Special Symposium on Climate, Vegetation, and Rational Land Utilization in the Humid Tropics. Bangkok: The Secretariat.

1962a Homestead and Community on the Middle Border. Landscape: Magazine of Human Geography 12, no.1:3-7.

1962b Seashore—Primitive Home of Man? American Philosophical Society, Proceedings. 106:41-47.

1966 The Early Spanish Main. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

Land and Life: A Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer. Edited by John Leighly. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1963.


Hahn, Eduard 1896 Die Haustiere und ihre Beziehungen zur Wirtschaft des Menschen: Eine geographische Studie. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.

Hahn, Eduard 1909 Die Entstehung der Pflugkultur. Heidelberg (Germany): Winter.

Hahn, Eduard (1914) 1919 Von der Hacke zum Pflug. 2d ed. Leipzig: Quelle & Meyer.