Missouri River Basin

Your brief for the first part of the project is to set the scene by describing the physical characteristics of the landscape, and to describe the people who inhabited this space at some point before the the Industrial Revolution. This will require additional research into the geology, soils, climate, and ecology of your region/basin, as well as into historical, archaeological, and anthropological accounts of your basin.

As a first marker in time, let’s consider the end of the last ice age and the transition to the interglacial period of a relatively warm and stable global climate around 10,000 years ago (the Holocene). In some cases (i.e. those in the Americas), humans reached your part of the world for just a few thousand years earlier. For those working in Africa and Eurasia, human history begins much earlier.  In all cases, the end of the last Ice Age transformed your river basins into landscapes that resemble the world as we know it in recorded history.

Imagine, then, that you have the power to travel through time and space to explore your river basin as it takes shape. What do you see? Tectonic plates colliding, forming massive mountain ranges? Precipitation scouring the slopes of those mountains, forming trickling streams that become a raging river that deposits those eroded soils onto a vast floodplain? A savannah grazed by innumerable ungulates? Tributaries teeming with anadromous fish? A parched desert bisected by an exotic stream? As we reach the Holocene environment, what patterns prevail in the landscape?

After describing the environmental setting, the second part of your paper should briefly discuss the societies which inhabited your basin some time before c. 1500 AD, and the ways in which they adapted to and/or manipulated flows of water.

Your timelines will diverge here. In some cases, your basins gave rise to some of the impressive “hydraulic civilizations” (see Rivers of Empire), such as the Egyptian kingdoms which coalesced around the Nile Valley about 5,000 years ago. This would be a natural choice for this extension of the story for the Nile group. In the New World cases, we might not know a whole lot about what was happening 5,000 years ago. In these instances, you might want to take a jump forward to the beginning of European colonization of the American continent. What do we know, for instance, of the people who inhabited the Rio Grande Valley in the centuries before Juan de Oñate marched his troops across the river in 1598? Whatever period you jump forward to here, be sure to address the inhabitants of the entire river basin at this time. Even if there is a large, centralized population in one great valley, other parts of your basins often remain inhabited by nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists, or horticulturalists living in small villages.


The assignment consists of two parts: a paper and a VoiceThread presentation with supporting visual aide. The paper should be 1200-2000 words (not including citations). Cite all sources in the text of your paper as appropriate (Author, year: p.) and include full citations in a bibliography.

What to include?

Your paper and presentation should include the following:

  • Identify the physiographic provinces which encompass your river basin.
    • Discuss their geologic history – i.e. how did this land form in deep time?
  • Describe key physiographic features of your basin such as mountain ranges, glaciers, floodplains, major aquifers, deltas, estuaries.
    • Be sure to identify the main tributaries of your river and note any differences in the landscape between sub-basins.
  • Describe the Holocene climate of your basin (i.e. after the last Ice Age, and prior to current global warming).
    • Be sure to speak to variation in climate throughout the basin from headwaters to terminus.
  • Which biomes does your river basin encompass?
    • Discuss the ecosystems that comprised your river basin circa the beginning of the Holocene.
  • What was the flow regime of your river basin like prior to widespread human intervention?
    • For instance, what is the typical seasonal pattern of high and low flow? did this river produce massive floods? How often? How did flow of rivers and streams in the basin vary seasonally? What role did flooding play in the surrounding ecosystems?
  • Human settlement and modification of the landscape
    • What do we know about humans in this space around the beginning of the Holocene? (See Humans at the Beginning of the Ice Age, find your region).
    • Societies that inhabited your basin some time before c. 1500 C.E. (specify when)
      • In what ways did they adapt to the scarcity or abundance of water? Think about ways that people moved around to follow water availability, and ways that people moved water around to increase food production.
      • Did they exhibit what Worster refers to as “subsistence mode of water control”? What techniques or technologies did they employ to move and store water?
      • Did your basin host any “hydraulic civilizations”? Describe their irrigation technology, food production capabilities, and social structure.
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