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The study of geography developed as people tried to understand their world and answer questions about the size, shape, and scope of the earth.

The ancient Greeks made many contributions to early geography. Aristotle denied the widely held belief that the earth was flat and suggested that it had a spherical shape. Later, Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy and developed the concepts of latitude and longitude. Early advances in geography were also made by the Chinese, Egyptians, Arabs, Romans, and others.

Most geographic ideas of the ancient world, including that of the spherical shape of the earth, were lost by Europeans during the Middle Ages. Marco Polo's accounts of his travels in the late 1200s revived interest in geography. Explorations during and after the late 1400s, such as those of Dias, Columbus, da Gama, and Magellan, proved the earth was round and ushered in an age of great discoveries. With it came improved maps and a knowledge of the world never before attainable. One of the great mapmakers of the time was Gerardus Mercator, a 16th-century Flemish geographer.

Richard Hakluyt, an Englishman, and Bernhard Varen, a Dutchman, were notable geographers in the 16th and 17th centuries. The 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant was one of the first persons to write on the subject matter of geography. Noteworthy geographers of the 19th century included Alexander von Humboldt, Karl Ritter, Friedrich Ratzel, and Albrecht Penck in Germany; Jean Brunhes and Vidal de la Blache in France; Sir Halford Mackinder in Scotland; and William M. Davis in the United States.

Through the years, geography has come to include the study of the earth's surface (that is, the character and structure of an area, including its plant and animal life), as well as the study of economic, political, and cultural life. Thus, the field of geography is concerned with both the physical environment and cultural activities. Some geographers study all these aspects of the earth as they apply to specific regions. More often, however, modern geographers are specialists in one or more subfields of the discipline. These specialists focus on understanding the specific patterns and processes in the physical or human landscape, such as the economic system or the health care delivery system.