One of the most important books in modern Southeast Asian studies is James Scott‘s The Art of Not Being Governed. This book draws on the term Zomia, coined by Willem van Schendel, which describes the upland areas of mainland Southeast Asia that had never been completely incorporated into the lowland civilizations associated with the kingdoms and empires of Pagan, Funan, Champa, Sukhothai, Dai Viet, and so forth.
In the Southeast Asian context, then, civilizations are lowland things. (In the islands things are slightly different, but the lowland/upland distinction does emerge around the Malay terms hulu [=source, interior] and hilir [= downstream] to describe riverine polities in Sumatra, see here for more.) An early draft of Scott’s book circulated under a title that was something like “Why Civilizations Don’t Climb Mountains.”
I am fascinated, though, by the limits of generalization from the Southeast Asian experience. Nothing holds the Southeast Asian cases in more relief than the Incan and Aztec Empires, located in upland areas and no less “civilizational” than lowland empires of the Mayan and Moche. But the case that really stands out is the Merina Kingdom on Madagascar. Here we have a case of a kingdom founded by Southeast Asians—the first Malagasy people came from Borneo—but politically and socially centered in the highlands of an island with a noticeable coastal/interior divide. Like many who have worked on politics in island Southeast Asia, Madagascar ranks pretty high on my research bucket list for this very reason.
Now, I am certainly not the first to have noticed that there are highland civilizational counterparts to the riverine civilizations of Southeast Asia and others settings like China, India, and Egypt. But I’m not familiar with any direct answer to the question in the title of this post. Do we know, when do civilizations climb mountains? Is there a big Jared Diamond-style biogeographic perspective on the conditions under which empires form in upland versus lowland areas (which could tell us why, for example, Borneo and New Guinea never developed Merina-like highland civilizations)? Something more prosaic? Or is this just a case of variation that has no single explanation? I’d love to know the answer.