In this essay, we shall attempt to examine the earliest examples of human civilisation, using examples from early Mesopotamian civilisations up to c2600BC.
The earliest examples of civilisation are generally acknowledged to be found in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, China’s Yellow River valley, and – quite separately – Peru. While some cultural trade and exchange can be expected from the initial 4 candidates, the Peruvian example implies that civilisation can and will occur separately and without influence; not an ‘export’, but simply a natural development.
All of the earliest civilisations share certain characteristics. Claude Kluckhohn defined civilisation as any societal group which shared 2 of the following 3 characteristics: towns of greater than 5,000 people, a written language, and monumental ceremonial structures. While this works well as a ‘rule of thumb’, it fails to address certain important points; namely, how an area can accommodate high population densities, how written language is able to develop, and why monumental structures were built at all.
Firstly, we shall tackle population density. For an early civilisation to achieve a population density in excess of 5,000 people to a single city or town, the first problem it must deal with is the most basic: that of food. Hunter-gatherer societies obviously cannot support this level of habitation – mankind must be regarded in this matter as a top predator, and typical predator-prey ratios would imply that a hunting group of humans in excess of 5000 people would need a territory of around 75,000 kmï¿½. The only possible answer to the question of how to concentrate this many people into a grouping is through the use of agriculture, and the development of farming techniques which allow large quantities of food to be produced using a relatively small area of land. Through the manipulation of the local environment to create food as needed, early civilisation was able to lower its dependency on natural conditions and begin the slow march of progress.
However, there are other factors which must also be observed in the concentration of so many people into such a small area. The maintenance of social order is, by its very nature, an exponential equation; for every new member added to the group, he must form a social relationship with every existing member. Hence, high levels of social hierarchy and stratification become necessary very quickly – it’s much more difficult to run a grouping of 100 people than it is to run one of 50, unless you have the correct social tools available to maintain control.
Thankfully, increasing agricultural production allows for specialisation – or at very least, taxation, which by its nature is a facilitator for specialisation. The surplus food supply means that actor X no longer needs to farm for himself, allowing for him to become a soldier, a lawyer, a priest, or even a god-king. The emergence of social specialisation almost certainly precedes concepts of state and law – Hammurabi, author of the Code of Laws, was not the first priest-king to rule in Mesopotamia. In early Egypt, at very least, l’estate c’est moi certainly applies; it is very likely so in the other cradles of civilisation, with justice being doled out by personal decision of the king or his adjutants, on a case-by-case basis.
The Code of Laws of Hammurabi leads us neatly to another of the foundations of early civilisation, that of writing. Possibly developed as a simple form of keeping tax records in Sumer, writing grants the author an external record of thoughts, one that can be read across time. It separates the writer from the concerns of time – his words are no longer merely a short-term monodimensional event, but can be held and transcribed indefinitely, and literacy allows for information to be distributed far more effectively.
While no man’s voice can reach 5.5 million people directly, the Daily Mail is read by that many people every day – though it is beyond the scope of this essay as to whether that paper can be regarded as information. Perhaps the most important aspect of writing, however, is that it creates an external bank of knowledge; a repository which may be added to continuously and with much more longevity than the lifetime of a single man. Hence, the sum total of human knowledge can be expanded indefinitely, rather than relying on the frailties of human memory.
The eventual result of these major innovations is the rise of the city. Cities are the very essence of civilisation; the engines of progress which drive the advancement of technology and philosophy. Fed by the agricultural surplus, controlled by the new governments, and protected by the newly specialised military elites, the city allowed people to learn new trades and develop new concepts. Pottery can emerge in newer, more impressive forms; masonry can be developed and refined, and ideas such as mathematics, geometry, natural philosophy and any other conceptual discipline can be followed.
It is no surprise, then, given the primary importance of the food supply, that the first civilisations emerge without fail on flood plains. Until irrigation and other farming technology is developed, the dark alluvial soil of the Mesopotamian flood plains, or the Nile river valley, is the only medium which can be exploited for the kind of mass-production of food needed for human population to reach the ‘critical mass’ required for civilisation. Water is, of course, one of the main requirements of life; it would appear that it is also the catalyst for civilisation, not merely in the direct provision of drinking water, but also in the action of laying down fresh soil each year.
Mesopotamia is often regarded as the initial starting point of civilisation as a whole, considered to pre-date the other centres, with the early ‘Ubaid period beginning in c6000BC. This was still pre-history, with writing not appearing for another 2500 years or so; however, excavations at ‘Ubaid by C.L. Woolley in the 1920s uncovered evidence of irrigation channels, canal systems, and temples connected to the period, as well as clay and terracotta ware, and, importantly, stone tools. Stone is not native to Iraq, implying a trade network; it’s also worthy of note that the wheel is considered to have been invented by the people of ‘Ubaid. The ‘Ubaid civilisation’s northern sites suffered some form of catastrophe in the mid-4th century BC, at around the time of the rise of what is known as the Uruk period; whether this was an outside invasion replacing the people of ‘Ubaid, or a natural progression of the society itself is open to debate.
The Uruk period (c4000BC-c3100BC) is notable for the beginnings of monumental architecture – the first proto-ziggurats – as well as the rise of the first large-scale cities, reaching up to 50,000 inhabitants. It is also, contentiously, where writing first appears to develop, in around 3500BC; though the primitive pictographic tablets of the period are effectively just pictures and incapable of describing concepts beyond the purely visual. There is also a great deal of evidence to imply a definite government structure, and therefore also social stratification, and also mass-production of pottery.
It is the period immediately following Uruk, known as Jemdet Nasr or the proto-literate period, where writing really begins to take hold, and that history can definitely be said to have begun. Cuneiform symbols developed, possibly for the purpose of tax records, and while some pictographic elements remained within the written language, their numbers began to drop significantly and their meanings move from strictly descriptive to multi-purpose.
The development of the pictographs into cuneiforms may have been spurred by the adoption of the wedge-shaped cuneus as the standard writing implement, which made the pictograph itself more difficult to achieve; however, the concept of syllabic writing was still undeveloped, and given the Sumerian tendency to monosyllabic speech forms it would take a while to appear. Jemdet Nasr is also known as Uruk III, and it shares a majority of the typical cultural markers of the previous period, in more highly-developed forms. Most notable of the period’s legacies is the sexagesimal number system, still used in time measurement today.
Following the proto-literate phase, history can begin properly, and the Sumerian civilisation truly begins. However, the term ‘civilisation’ implies a unity which was certainly not present in ancient Mesopotamia at the time; the Sumerians were divided amongst themselves into a series of small, competing city-states, in a manner akin to the classical Greeks. This competition took the form of both war and trade, with the area trading its substantial food surpluses for metals and wood from neighbouring areas. In each city, a Priest-King would rule in the name of the city’s God, and each city had a different patron deity. Every so often, one city or another would gain primacy in the area, leading to its king claiming the title ‘king of Kish’, possibly due to Kish being the first such state to gain hegemony.
The city states themselves became increasingly fortified, and warfare between the various kings became near-constant. In spite of the healthy food surpluses, and the vast storehouses kept for grain, farmland and water were a constant prize for these wars, possibly due to food being the primary trade good. While these wars were often violent and repetitive, the ‘king of Kish’ would occasionally be brought in for arbitration between feuding states; this king could also seemingly try to call on the military aid of other kings should he need it, although not always successfully. This principal of ‘first amongst equals’ appears to have been shaky at best, with the other states never far enough behind the leader to be safely considered vassals.
In conclusion, the origin of civilisation is firmly connected to the supply of food. It is the surpluses which allow it to arise, it is the fertility of the flood plains which marks the site of early civilisation, and it is even the food wealth of Mesopotamia which created the technological hotbed of organised warfare. The intensive competition for limited agricultural land, with little other natural resources, naturally encouraged startling innovations, such as writing and the wheel, just as in Greece they led to the growth of philosophy and mathematics, and in Europe to the rise of the jet fighter and the ballistic missile.