Great read and very informative, TheHoarseWhisperer. I'm currently redrawing my maps from a tight focus on a singular region to the broader top-down view of the entire continent. I'll be incorporating many of your ideas and comments into the recreation of my world.
One comment on the expansion of empires: religion. I don't believe this was mentioned previously. A good example are the Crusades. While there may have been natural resources or military advantages to the capture of Jerusalem, the city and region hold religious significance for three major religions. The battle for control over this region has persisted to this day due to religion.
Sorry to those people who commented for not responding earlier.
Mojarda: you're right about religion as a cause for empire-building (although my personal opinion is that it is over-used in fantasy worlds). A point to you.
SaberDart: my grasp of history is improved, thanks to your comments, so thanks for that. Perhaps the point to emphasise is that, while the comments I've written are my attempt to simplify historical processes into ready-to-use patterns for our worldbuilding friends, it is still a simplification, and reality is always more complex, and offers more opportunities than one person can ever write. So if anyone is building a world and they get stuck, find a history book (or science, or whatever the issue is). You can't beat research.
This thread has helped me re-think the lay out and design of my world. While i have been researching this topic, i also came across a free downloadable PDF that covers some of topics in this Thread. I think combining these two resources has helped me considerably.
I'm not sure about the rules on posting links to other sites or not, but since the PDF is free (and legal) i don't see the harm. But for the sake of being on the safe side, i'd suggest people google, A Medieval Magical Society Guide to Mapping. it can be found easily at DriveThruRPG.
While i am still far from honing my mapping skills, hopefully i can get close to the talent i have seen while browsing the gallery here.
Okay, I feel inclined to input even if my advice may not be fully sound or somewhat touched upon in earlier postings.
When developing a culture/kingdom/country and their history prior to when your map is dated or your story. It's vital you think about the chain of people within the society both famous and infamous. The one who held the respect of most of their peers for some reason or another. Was it "inherited" by their royal parents, if so, what did they do with it. It could be very much helpful to create an entire family tree for royal bloodlines and find at least one person in each generation that did something to change things up. This is where having an established database of names comes very much in handy.
Did they go with the culture or do things differently that challenged people's thinking? What were some of the challenges the society faced at the time? Were they the one who created the modern farming scape for the society by domesticating the dangerous wildlife beyond the plains to the north, and henceforth allowing them to start settling in the north? Were they the one who became the most well respected general throughout their nation's history because they're the only general with the balls to put himself on the front line when the situation called for it (like holding a mountain pass)?
Who came along and made things hell for the nation? That one self-obsessed ruler who cared nothing for the life of others? What weird stuff were they into? Were they Empress Potema of the TES universe who was involved with Necromancy? Or were they just a total evil like prickjob like Nero who burned down half of Rome, blamed it on the Christians so he could slaughter more of them, and then used it to build himself a mansion using nearly all of Rome's Treasury? And how far back did this put the nation? Or what did they lose to surrounding nations because of it? Was the change irreversible, or did the maniac die off soon enough so that not all was lost?
Did the little things they said leave a big impact on people? And what do other people of that culture say when they look back on them or the events they were apart of? Rather than just giving a general idea, develop actual quotes by either randoms or their contemporaries.
Make their inventors, scientists, authors, and arcanologists as famous as our own. When people look back on the greats like Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison, Nikolai Tesla, Einstein, Aristotle, and what not, there's a lot more than just their inventions people admired, and then tried to imitate with themselves or see as ideal.
As for those, indicate the impact on society, did they discover the concept of smokehouses by accidentally leaving their large cut of meat inside a smokey factory-size forge overnight and find it wasn't spoiled? And did this in turn allow settlements to be less dependent on a constant of game and expand in other regards? Freeing up their time to build more houses, dig more wells, etc.
I hope this helps at all.
I really like this thread and I'm working my way through it but it has definitely helped me already and I appreciate the time and effort you've put into it. It has already caused me to rethink a lot of my worldbuilding I've already done!
I thought I'd post on an aspect of world-building that can be a lot of fun, is pretty quick to do, and can really benefit the realism of your world. I am assuming you've worked out the geology and geography of your planet. The deserts and rainforests and mountains are in place, and it's ready for you to start populating your nation states. Or is it? Where did all of those people come from?
If you want a realistic scientifically-based world, your people originated in a single place, and then migrated to populated the rest of the world. How they did this, and where they went, will determine things like where your oldest civilisations are, where well-established nation states are and where the "wilderness" is where wild tribes still rule, and civilisation builds walls to keep them out.
The first step is deciding where your people came from. Humans were an evolutionary product of their environment, and it took the combination of a key few characteristics to produce intelligent bipedal tool-users. You're looking for wide-open spaces in a warm climate, without many trees, and relatively flat. For our ancestors it was the open savannah of East Africa around the Rift Valley.
Once you've found your point of origin, simply think about where people would logically move, based on various environmental pressures and changes. As it becomes warmer the tropical regions become more difficult to survive in, but higher latitude climates became more friendly, so people will move toward the nearest pole - just as humans did, heading north. When it comes to migration, movement patterns can be applied using the same logic you use to determine the path of your rivers - the path of least resistence. Primitive humans don't cross mountain ranges or seas, or deserts.
As you track the migration of peoples, they'll encounter different landscapes that will dictate how civilisation evolves. Human civilisation emerged when humans found the fertile regions around the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris rivers. These regions were a land-bridge between Africa and Eurasia. During preceding extinction events the surviving species had been pressed into this region resulting in extraordinary biodiversity. All of the eight founder crops and all of the major domestic animals were native to this region.
When your populations reach particularly fertile and supportive regions they'll settle, and if resources and animals are abundant you will see the emergence of early cultivating societies - recent examples of the sort of culture you'd expect include the pre-European Maori in New Zealand. If you have a complex enough network of these settlements trading with each other in a central area, those settlements at trading cross-roads will grow. Where trade routes between multiple larger settlements meet you will get civilisation.
Initially, civilisation will be city-based, with somewhat vague borders, extending as far as the cities can project their power. Beyond this lies the territory of minor settlements and nomadic peoples - let's call it wilderness. Where major civilisations encounter each other you will get treaties that formalise rigid borders. Likewise, where empires venture into "wilderness" but find the local groups of people particularly troublesome they might erect border fortifications - such as the Romans build along the Rhine and Danube.
Generally speaking, if you're depicting the early days of human civilisation you won't have solid borders. As human society advances, eventually the wilderness will disappear as it's either claimed by civilisations or its inhabitants establish their own.
Yeah I think you're right Gumboot (and thanks for posting, by the way; especially good to see another Australasian, even if it is from across the Pond ')). The dynamics of human migration are extremely complex, but I think you've given a good description of prehistoric migrations.
One thing I'd point out, though, is that in some cases people did cross seas. The Australian Aborigines and Pacific Islanders are two examples: the Aborigines came to Papua and Australia across a narrow (but very deep) sea trench in Indonesia, where the Wallace Line divides the fauna of Asia from that of Australia/Papua; the Pacific Islanders performed an even more remarkable feat, settling thousands of islands across the Pacific Ocean and covering huge distances, without knowing what they'd find. Of course, they did that many many many millenia later, but it was still impressive.
Then the other thing to mention is the first occupation of the Americas: about 25,000 years ago (if memory serves), when the sea levels were lower, peoples in Siberia crossed the land bridge of Beringia, arriving in Alaska. Much f North America was covered in continental glaciers, but these early settlers followed an 'ice free corridor' to reach the warmer climes in the south (another possibility is that they travelled in canoes down the Canadian coast). Now that sea levels have risen, Beringia is underwater; it wasn't until archaeologists realised that the Bering Strait was once land that they worked out how America was settled. The other thing to remember, though, is that when those settlers were going from Siberia to Alaska, it isn't as though they knew what was waiting for them ahead. They set off, possibly following the herds of animals they hunted, and over a long period of time (don't know how long; at a guess I'd say a few centuries) they gradually drifted onto modern America.
Anyway, I can't find any fault with Gumboot's post. If you want a tip on how to apply that suggestion, just make a copy of your world map, decide, as Gumboot says, where people originated (it could have been in different places, especially if you are having multiple races), and draw lines showing where they'd go. As G. said, people take the path of least resistance, and also they are only meandering along - it will be many many generations before they travel a long way. Also remember that all the diversity that exists in Earth's human population started in one place, so there's no need to have lots of points of origin unnecessarily.
I might also take this opportunity to respond to some earlier comments:
EpicSpire: thanks for your thanks. The PDF, which I have seen mentioned elsewhere in the forums, is a good one, and I don't think there are any problems posting external links here.
Oddly Otter: thanks for reading
Vurtax: For a long time it was a tradition of history to examine the deeds of 'great men' but that's changed a lot now. Historians and archaeologists are these days usually more interested in the lives of the ordinary people who lived in a place. I think there is some merit to considering the actions of individuals. There are definitely a few occasions when one person has changed their world: the purges of the Soviet Union were very much down to one person, Stalin, and his paranoia. Genghis Khan, Christopher Columbus, Winston Churchill, Julius Caesar are other examples. In most cases, it might be possible to argue that if Columbus hadn't sailed to the Caribbean, someone else would have done (i.e. the time was right for the Americas to be 'discovered') but that doesn't change the fact that he was the one who did it. And, as I mentioned, historians tended to focus on 'great leaders' and so it is likely the historians of your world will also have that focus. My tip to worldbuilders would be to be careful not to over-emphasise such events. Thanks for the post, Vurtax.
Point of fact on migrations & the new world - the exploration of berengia wasn't a journey to an unknown land. It was expansion & diaspora. The same peoples that had been spreading throughout southern & eastern Asia also explored north. These peoples were still in the hunter-gatherer stage and had to keep moving in search of food. As populations in a geographic area rose & the size of an individual tribe did not (it capped at about two-dozen), tribes had to either compete for territory or go looking for more. As they were by nature already nomadic, staying in one place likely never occurred to them.
Most interestingly in the the colonization of the new world (at least to me), is that it appears to have happened in three waves. The result is three different groups whose genetic phenotype had developed separately. The first group was most likely the one that settled North America (iirc), the second that found that land occupied and peopled Central & South America, and the last are the northernmost peoples (inuit, etc.) - which is why the Inuit are so similar to the Chu Che peoples of northern Siberia - they are in fact still related.
The point of all this, is that when you look at the movement of peoples across your world, never assume that a group stops doing something. Yes, a given culture may settle down in an area - but what do they do next? Do they stay a single culture? Do they break off splinter cultures? Remember that population growth will always happen when food is abundant unless some predator or health hazard is keeping the population low. This will generally mean expansion.