Big History Project
- WATCH: Where and Why Did the First Cities and States Appear?
- READ: Intro to Agrarian Civilizations
- ACTIVITY: Comparing Civilizations
- READ: Uruk
- READ: Mesoamerica
- READ: Jericho
- READ: East Asia
- READ: Greco-Roman
- READ: Aksum
- READ: Ghana
- READ: We're not in Kansas Anymore — The Emergence of Early Cities
- READ: The Origin of World Religions
- ACTIVITY: Comparing Crops
- READ: Gallery — Civilization
- Quiz: The First Cities and States Appear
READ: Gallery — Civilization
Explore the images of this gallery and consider how increased productivity from the land, food surpluses, and swelling populations changed the types of communities that humans lived in.
The Cradle of Civilization
As with agriculture, the first human civilizations emerged in the Fertile Crescent. More than 5,000 years ago, large agrarian communities became full-fledged cities like Uruk, Ur and Nippur in Mesopotamia and, later, in the Nile Valley of Egypt at Nekhen and Memphis. Agriculture in the Indus Valley fed the growth of cities at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. Civilization would come thousands of years later in the Americas.
Due at least in part to the same environmental reasons of geography and climate that affected the rise of agriculture, civilizations emerged much later in the Americas than in Eurasia. The north-south orientation of the Americas slowed down the exchange of information, with the Andes Mountains in South America acting as a natural barrier between different communities. Eventually people congregated in what is now central Mexico and agrarian civilizations like the Olmecs, the Maya and Aztecs emerged. Further south the Incas built an enormous empire based in and near present-day Cuzco, Peru. The Aztec and Inca empires would flourish until 500 years ago when European explorers defeated these cultures in their prime with steel weapons and disease.
The earliest agrarian civilizations emerged in river valleys because the seasonal flooding of rivers enriched the soils by spreading silt and because access to water was extremely important for cultivating crops. With the advent of irrigation, humans learned to divert water supplies – enabling larger harvests and allowing for storage of water for use by the community.
An Energy Revolution
After domesticating other animals, farmers learned to use their livestock not only as a source of food and clothing material but as "workers" in the field. It was an "energy revolution." With the benefit of an ox, perhaps bred over several generations to be larger and stronger, farmers were able to till more land, producing larger harvests and eventually generating the kinds of food surpluses that led to other aspects of civilization.
Plowing the Fields
With some people plowing fields and producing excess food, other people had more time to turn their attention to other endeavors, including art. This Egyptian fresco from about 1300 BCE depicts the daily life of farmers in the Nile River Valley.
One of the earliest known forms of writing, cuneiform, emerged in Sumer in Mesopotamia about 5,000 years ago. Cuneiform (a later, advanced form is shown here) was produced by pressing the rigid, wedge-shaped edge of a cut reed into wet, unhardened clay. Once the clay dried and hardened, the inscriptions proved extremely durable.
Another form of early writing was Egyptian hieroglyphics, like these from the Medinet Temple of the Dead of Ramses III in Luxor, Egypt. Writing, a major advance in the human use of symbolic language, made an enormous contribution to collective learning.
The Code of Hammurabi
One of the greatest legacies of Mesopotamian civilization may be the The Code of Hammurabi, one if the earliest written records of law. Hammurabi (a Babylonian king from about 1792-1750 BCE) is shown here receiving "the law" from the Mesopotamian Sun god Shamash in a sculpture called the Stele of Hammurabi.
With civilizations came writing, laws and increasingly complex systems of exchange. This Greek silver coin called a tetradrachm was minted in Athens at about 150 BCE but metal coins are thought to have been in use at least 500 years before that. Other civilizations used shells, precious stones and other materials as units of money.
The Mighty Tenochtitlan by Diego Rivera
Although a contemporary painting, this fresco by Diego Rivera illustrates some of the most important characteristics of early civilizations. The Aztec city of Tenochtitlan pictured here included monumental architecture, complex systems of government and trade, and an elite ruling class with supreme power.
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