Development of Complex Societies

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In the early stages of the development of complex societies, many different factors had a powerful impact on the way the societies developed. In some areas of the world, religion was the primary force that led to the creation of organized societies. Other areas developed on trade routes that made it necessary to develop complex societies to incorporate the growth of different economic classes and the wealth they generated into the structure of the government. In each part of the world where complex societies emerged, the communities were responding to different types of challenges and the complexities each society created forced them to confront new challenges which then led to the great, complex societies of history.

The urban society of Mesopotamia developed because of the engineering discoveries that allowed residents of the area between the Tigris and Euphrates to increase food production, while the predictability of the Nile River allowed the Egyptians and Nubians to build large, complex societies around their commercial and religious activities.

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Many simple early societies were based around farming. Through cultivating crops and the land, people learned they could settle down in one place instead of being nomads and support a larger population of people. These villages needed a social structure, but their sizes were limited by the amount of food they could produce. In Mesopotamia, especially Sumeria and Babylon, there is not much rainfall, but farmers learned they could artificially irrigate their crops using the fresh water in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers[1]. The large-scale engineering projects required greater social organization than the simple farming communities that came before, but they also resulted in increased food production that allowed them to build cities.

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The urban centers that resulted required more sophisticated organization to make sure that the population was productive: that building projects could be completed, that resources were distributed fairly, and that the city could continue to grow[2].

The division of labor also created different economic classes, which resulted in various social classes as well. Some merchants grew wealthy catering to customers who came to the city from other places, and community building projects required supervision, organization, and funding[3]. Such a large society could not exist as small farmers trading with one another. Political authority was needed to maintain order between the citizens and protect the interests of the entire community, especially the cropland that existed outside the city walls.

An example of the way that authority influenced society is the codification of laws by Hammurabi, especially as they related to family relationships and how husbands could treat their wives. Upper-class people whose marriages represented political and economic alliances were subject to the same law, so that even if a husband had a right to punish his wife for a suspected affair, he could not do anything to her unless he caught her in the act. If he did act out on his jealousy, he would be punished. Hammurabi’s laws treated women like the property of their husbands and fathers, but they also described certain standards of behavior that citizens should be expected to follow for the sake of stability and to reign in people’s behavior[4].

The innovation of urban development also led to the Sumerian creation of military power, as each city-state had to protect its farmland and irrigation projects from one another and from outside invaders. Once the city-states had organized themselves into relatively peaceful social organizations united under a single government, their growing populations often led them to go out and try to conquer other city-states or areas with more resources to increase their wealth[5]. In Mesopotamia, the social organization created in the first cities led to the establishment of the first empires.

Along the Nile River in northern Africa, small city states also emerged due to the increased production of food that agriculture made possible. Agriculture first developed in Sudan, where people first cultivated wheat crops and domesticated animals that roamed the grassland. The growing populations made these cities into cultural and commercial centers, as well, and they also required political authority to keep the peace and maintain the functioning of all of the complex institutions of a city: dividing up resources, keeping the peace, and protecting their resources from other city-states[6]. These cities were often ruled over by Kings who were not only thought of as political authority but were also considered to be divine themselves, so they also held a great deal of religious authority[7].

Over time, the grasslands became desert and agricultural activity centered along the floodplains of the Nile River in Egypt and Nubia. Egypt, particularly, had a very wide and predictable floodplain which attracted immigrants and allowed the population to grow. United under one ruler, who was also considered to be divine, Egyptian society became increasingly complex. Massive amounts of resources, especially wheat from the fertile harvests, had to be dealt with, marketplaces had to be managed, and armies had to be raised to protect the fertile land from invaders. The main organizing force in Egyptian society was its strong religious component.

The Pharaoh was considered a god as well as a king, and the religious power he held was just as important as the political power. The colossal building projects that the Egyptians embarked on, such as the pyramids and temples, required a very complex society and highly skilled workers and engineers[8]. They developed a very complex writing system not only to keep commercial records, but also to record their spiritual beliefs and the history of their empire. Harkhuf used it to document his exploration of Nubia and opening of trade routes there, showing the high levels of complexity that each of those societies had risen to[9].

Both the African and Mesopotamian civilizations developed out of small farming communities who practiced small-scale agriculture. In both areas, advances in agriculture led to increased populations living in densely-populated cities, which allowed the people to divide labor and specialize in different things. The division of labor led to advancement in almost every area: from engineering and agriculture to art and, especially, the political organizations that organized the whole society and made all of those things possible. Both civilizations developed writing systems, originally developed to keep records, but soon used to express imaginations, beliefs, and to write down the histories of their nations.

While Mesopotamian cultures were organized around the complex building projects needed to irrigate their fields, societies in the Nile River had other pressures. Their cropland was regularly fertilized and irrigated, so their complexity developed out of a need to organize the wealth of the city-state and the empire that came as a result. Without the pressure of constantly trying to keep their crops irrigated, the Egyptians organized around religious beliefs, which they expressed in their greatest building projects and influenced almost everything they did.

The pressures that led smaller societies to develop more complex structures were different in each case, but they both resulted in the building of the first great cities which are necessary for the political, social, and technological innovations of complex society. Although the places they lived were very different, the Sumerians and the Egyptians both developed writing to record their progress, political innovations to maintain control of growing populations, and laid the foundations for great building projects and the great civilizations that would come after them.


Bentley, Jerry H. and Ziegler, Herbert F., Traditions and Encounters Vol. 1 from The Beginning to 1500, 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010 -----------------------
[1] Jerry H. Bentley and Herbert F. Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters Vol. 1 from The Beginning to 1500, 5th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 25 [2] Bentley and Ziegel, Traditions, 27
[3] Bentley and Ziegler, Traditions, 33
[4] Bentley and Ziegler, Traditions, 36
[5] Bentley and Ziegler, Traditions, 29
[6] Bentley and Ziegel, Traditions, 50-51
[7] Bentley and Ziegel, Traditions, 52
[8] Bentley and Ziegel, Traditions, 53
[9] Bentley and Ziegel, Traditions, 56

Updated: Apr 12, 2021
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Development of Complex Societies. (2016, Dec 23). Retrieved from

Development of Complex Societies essay
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