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From Hunting and Gathering to Civilizations

Overview. The first human beings appeared in east Africa over two million years ago. Gradually humans developed a more erect stance and greater brain capacity. Early humans lived by hunting and gathering. The most advanced human species, Homo sapiens sapiens, migrated from Africa into the Middle East, then into Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. Over time, they learned to fashion tools and weapons from stone, bone, and wood, and were, therefore, able to move away from hunting-and-gathering practices to form larger groups.

The beginnings of agriculture, about 10,000 B.C.E., were based on improved tools during the New Stone Age (Neolithic).

The development of agriculture was a radical change in humans’ way of life. By providing a dependable source of food, people could stay in one place, develop toolmaking technologies using metals, and, by increasing agricultural output, free individuals to specialize in other kinds of work. More elaborate political and cultural forms slowly emerged. Civilization emerged in five different regions.

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While focusing on the agricultural revolution, we must not lose sight of the many areas in which other systems prevailed. Hunting-and-gathering was not only a different economic system, it brought with it differences in gender relations, daily life, and social complexity.

Big Concepts. Each of the key phases of the long period of early human history (2.5 million B.C.E.—1000 B.C.E.) can be characterized by a central topic or Big Concept. The first of these is the development of human hunting skills, the adaptation of those skills to the shift geography and climate of the Ice Age, and the patterns of human migration.

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The second Big Concept is the rise of agriculture and the changes in technology associated with the Neolithic revolution (9000 B.C.E. and 4000 B.C.E.). These changes set in motion the agricultural phase of human experience that lasted until just a few centuries ago. The final Big Concept is the appearance of increasingly distinctive human societies through agriculture or nomadic pastoralism and the early contacts among these societies, particularly after 3500 B.C.E. when larger and more formally organized societies, often with early cities as well, emerged and began to develop more consistent patterns of interregional trade.

Triggers for Change. The phase of human history talked about in this chapter is mainly the story of accommodating different environments, especially in the search for food. Around 10,000 years ago, near the Black Sea, humans turned to agriculture, as hunting became less productive. The reasons for the change are not clear, but possibilities include population pressure, and shortages caused by accidental or deliberate over-hunting. Agriculture brought essential changes in social organization, tool-making, and specialization of occupation.

The Big Changes. Agriculture involved a different set of challenges and benefits than did hunting-and-gathering. The demands of farming meant a sedentary life and larger settlements. Social structures became more complex, and greater gender divisions of labor. Agriculture also made possible the key elements of civilization: states, towns, and monumental building. The first four civilizations arose in river valleys that made irrigation, and, hence, large-scale agriculture possible.

Continuity. This transition took place over millennia. Many peoples adhered to their traditional economy, which meant, as well, adherence to traditional social and cultural ways. As they took to farming, traditionally women’s work, men developed ideas of superiority over women. This can be interpreted not as innovation, but as a way to compensate for change.

Impact on Daily Life: Children. Hunting-and-gathering societies necessitated small families, because of the migratory lifestyle and limited resources. With farming, however, not only were larger families possible, they made sense. Children were an integral part of traditional agriculture. Birth rates increased enormously, although infant mortality remained high. The importance of child labor, moreover, brought with it strict control over children. A culture of parental dominance developed—totalitarian in some instances.


A Hunter. An example of Neolithic culture can be found near the Pecos River, in the American Southwest, around 10,000 B.C.E. The hunter, traveling between communities, lit a fire and cooked a small animal, using tools he had brought with him and fuel found nearby. Humans had migrated to North America from northeast Asia as early as 25,000 B.C.E. Speech was possible by about 80,000 B.C.E.

Chapter Summary. Between the Old Stone Age (Paleolithic) and the New Stone Age (Neolithic)—12,000 to 8,000 B.C.E.—changes in human organization and food production prepared the way for the emergence of the first civilized societies. Neolithic development of agriculture was the first truly revolutionary transformation in human history. Neolithic farmers were able to remake environments to suit their needs, producing surpluses for the support of specialized elites in agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing. The combination of factors usually resulted in urban settlements marked by complex social stratification. Full civilizations emerged first in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, by 3500 B.C.E., and in Egypt along the Nile by 3000 B.C.E. The two very different civilizations had distinct political and cultural characteristics that influenced political forms, art, science, and architecture of neighboring and distant succeeding generations.

Many small centers sprang up after 1500 B.C.E., mixing their cultures with Mesopotamian influences. Some of the smaller cultures had major influences. The Phoenicians, a maritime commercial society, absorbed important influences from major civilization centers, and around 1300 B.C.E., they devised a simplified alphabet that became the ancestor of the Greek and Latin lettering systems. The Hebrews, a Semitic people influenced by Babylonian civilization, moved into the southeast corner of the region around 1600 B.C.E. Their distinctive achievement was the development of a monotheistic and ethical religion that has persisted through the ages and is the basis of Christianity and Islam. East and South Asia also developed unique civilizations near great river systems. Chinese civilization emerged along the Huanghe River.

In North China the formation of the Shang kingdom, from around 1500 to 1122 B.C.E., and the succeeding Zhou dynasty, marked the origins of the distinctive and enduring Chinese civilization. The ancestor to Indian civilizations, Harappa, flourished in the Indus River Valley. All early river valley civilizations encountered difficulties around 1000 B.C.E., establishing a break between the early and later periods of civilization. Climatic change, administrative weakness, and Nomadic Aryan invaders brought an end to the Harappan period in India between 1500 and 1000 B.C.E. The Aryans established the basis for a new pattern of civilization in South Asia.

Human Life in the Era of Hunters and Gatherers. The human species emerged over a period of 2 to 2.5 million years, spreading to every landmass except polar regions. Most of this period is referred to as the Paleolithic (Old Stone) Age. Despite a propensity for violence, the disadvantages of a long period of dependency of infants on their mothers, and back pain due to an increasingly upright position, the species developed unique capacities for adaptation and survival. Between 500,000 and 700,000 years ago, Homo erectus, [pic] a less apelike species, whose larger brain and erect stance allowed better tool use, emerged. Fire was tamed about 750,000 years ago. Most groups supported themselves through hunting and gathering.

Late Paleolithic Developments. About 240,000 years ago Homo sapiens sapiens emerged, also in Africa. The success of this subspecies means that no major changes in the basic human physique or brain size have occurred since its advent. More complex tool production, and impressive artistic and ritual creativity, demonstrated sophisticated levels of thinking. Fire, more sophisticated tools aiding transportation, housing, fishing, and food preparation, plus the effects of climatic change, allowed the human species to spread widely. In the Mesolithic (Middle Stone) Age, from about 12,000 B.C.E. to 8000 B.C.E., humans had moved from Africa into Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. More dramatic change was to occur in the Neolithic (New Stone) Age.

The Neolithic Revolution. Human groups experimented with different survival strategies. Most individuals were members of small bands of hunters and gatherers constantly moving in pursuit of game and plants. Others harvested wild grains and established long-enduring settlements where they resided for a year or even longer. However, only the communities making the transition to true farming were capable of producing civilizations. The resulting food surpluses and increasing populations supplied by agriculture—deliberate planting of grains for later harvest—made urban life and occupation specialization possible. With agriculture, human beings were able to settle in one spot and focus on particular economic, political, and religious goals and activities.

The reasons for this change are unclear, but climatic shifts associated with the close of the last ice age forced migration of game animals and changed wild crop distribution. People had long observed wild plants as they gathered their daily needs. Hunters and gatherers either experimented with wild seeds or accidentally discovered domestication. Once learned, the practice developed very slowly as people combined the new ideas with old techniques. From about 12,000 B.C.E., different animals—dogs, sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle—were tamed. Animal products improved the quality of life and increased crop yield.

The Geography of Early Agriculture. Hunting-and-gathering societies persisted as sedentary agricultural societies developed. Animal domestication led to pastoralism in semi-arid regions. Pastoral peoples posed a serious challenge to agricultural societies and created extensive empires. Interactions between nomads and agriculturalists were a long-enduring major theme in world history. The agriculturists increased in numbers and spread their production techniques for grain crops and fibers from the Middle East to Asia, Europe, and northern Africa.

Africans south of the Sahara evolved independently, developing root and tree crops. Rice, first cultivated in Southeast Asia, spread to China, India, and the Southeast Asian islands. Maize (corn) was developed in the Americas. Many scholars have termed the development of agriculture, the Neolithic Revolution, but the term is a bit misleading in that the shift to agriculture was no sudden transformation and many peoples continued to rely on hunting-and-gathering and herding.

Patterns of Change. The growing population of sedentary humans, with their plants and animals, transformed their immediate environments. Agriculture supported larger populations with a more reliable food supply. Agricultural peoples could afford to build houses and villages. Despite the many benefits of a more sedentary existence, people did not uniformly embrace it. Some people came to agriculture as a result a diminishing supply of game, some were converted as conquering people moved in, some simply disappeared, the victims of diseases for which they had no immunities. On the steppes of central Asia, the climate was more conducive to herding and, in North America, Indians practiced only limited agriculture until just a few centuries ago. Nomadic invaders played a vital role across the millennia linking major civilizations until just a few centuries ago. Nonetheless, villages and their cultivated lands became the dominant feature of human habitation.

Further Technological Change. Surplus production allowed the development of specialized occupations, including political and religious elites, and specialized production of tools, weapons, and pottery. Early science developed to understand weather and flooding patterns. The first potter’s wheel stimulated better, faster pottery production. One basic change took place fairly soon after the introduction of agriculture. The discovery of metal tools dates back to the Middle East around 4000 B.C.E. First copper, then bronze entered the picture. By about 3000 B.C.E. the last of the stone ages had passed into the Bronze Age. The distinction between “history” and “prehistory”, long dependant on the introduction of writing as the distinguishing characteristic, has been blurred in recent years as scholars have learned how to include objects and burial sites as part of the historical record. The pre-agricultural—agricultural distinction is more central.

Civilization. Agriculture encouraged the formation of larger as well as more stable human communities than had existed before Neolithic times. Most hunting people lived in small tribal groups and moved with the supply of game. Some agricultural peoples moved also, practicing a slash and burn method of agriculture whereby an area would be farmed until the soil became too depleted. Herders moved in tribal bands, with strong kinship ties as well.

Settled Societies. Major agricultural regions involved more permanent settlements with structures, wells, and irrigation systems that were meant to last for generations. Irrigation and defense required the coordination of larger groups of people, and by 7000 B.C.E. population centers numbering in the thousands. One of the earliest settlements in the Neolithic transformation was at Çatal Hüyük.

Çatal Hüyük. Çatal Hüyük, was founded around 7000 B.C.E. in southern Turkey. It was the most advanced human center of the Neolithic period. A rich economic base was built on extensive agricultural and commercial development. Standardized construction patterns suggest the presence of a powerful ruling elite associated with a priesthood. Well-developed religious shrines indicate the growing role of religion in people’s lives.

Defining Civilization. Scholars have argued for two ways to define civilizations. The broader view takes it to mean that a society has developed enough economic surpluses to form divisions of labor and a social hierarchy involving significant inequalities. The narrower view suggests that the chief difference between civilizations and other societies, agricultural or not, involves the emergence of formal political organizations or states as opposed to family or tribes. The word civilization comes from the Latin term for city, and in truth most civilizations depend on the existence of significant cities that function as centers for governance, commerce, trade, sharing ideas, art, and science. Most civilizations also develop a form of writing to help manage taxes, contracts, treaties, and communications over long distances, as well as record events, observations, and ideas.

People in civilizations have had a long history of looking down on societies unlike their own. The Greeks and Romans did; as did the Chinese and Aztecs. Europeans during the 17th and 18th centuries revived the perceived difference between civilized and barbarian societies. Interestingly, many nomadic societies were appalled at the doings of civilized peoples; they also have contributed significantly to world history. The term “civilization” cannot be equated with “good.” It commands the attention of historians because it is the form of human existence that has continued the process of technological change and political organization and generated the largest populations and most elaborate artistic and intellectual forms.

Having started in 3500 B.C.E., civilization developed in four initial centers—the Middle East, Egypt, northwestern India, and northern China—over the following 2500 years. (An early civilization would emerge in Central America, though slightly later in time.) Such early civilizations, all clustered in key river valleys, were in a way pilot tests of the new form of social organization. Only after about 1000 B.C.E. did a more consistent process of development and spread of civilization begin.

Tigris–Euphrates Civilization. The first civilization appeared between the Tigris and Euphrates [pic] rivers in a part of the Middle East long called Mesopotamia, generating the basic definition of civilization. Its society was based upon economic surplus and was able to support priests, government officials, merchants, and artisans. The spreading irrigation systems made regional coordination vital. A clearly defined government developed. Most individuals lived in the countryside. In the emerging cities, residents amassed wealth and power; they exchanged ideas encouraging technological innovation and artistic development; they promoted specialization in trade and manufacture. Sumerians [pic] , migrating from the north about 4000 B.C.E., mixed with local groups to establish Mesopotamian civilization. Already competent with copper and bronze manufactures, the wheel, pottery production, and irrigation processes and technologies, the Sumerians established the world’s first civilization from scratch around 3500 B.C.E.

Around 3500 B.C.E. the Sumerians introduced writing to meet the needs of recording religious, commercial, and political matters. Their system of writing, called cuneiform [pic] , evolved from pictures baked on clay tablets that eventually became phonetic elements. Its complexity confined its use mostly to specialized scribes. Writing helped to produce a more elaborate culture. In art, statues and painted frescoes adorned temples and private homes. The Sumerians created patterns of observation and abstract thought, such as the science of astronomy and a numeric system based on units of 12, 60, and 360, still useful to many societies today. Their religion, based upon a pantheon of anthropomorphic gods intervening arbitrarily in human affairs, was accompanied by fear and gloom among believers. Each city had a patron god. Priests were important because of their role in placating gods and in making astronomical calculations vital to the running of irrigation systems. Many Sumerian religious ideas influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Political organization was based on city-states; their leaders—kings and local councils—ruled agricultural hinterlands. The government defined state boundaries, regulated and enforced religious duties, and provided court systems for justice. Kings were responsible for defense and warfare, and, along with priests, controlled land worked by slaves. Political stability and the use of writing allowed urban growth, and agricultural, commercial, and technological development. The Sumerians were not able to create a unified political system able to resist pressure from invaders, especially those who had copied their achievements. The first of these were the Akkadians [pic] , the Babylonians followed later.

The Babylonian king, Hammurabi [pic] [pic], is noted for establishing a code of law articulating court procedures, property rights, duties of family members, and punishments for crimes his subjects could expect. The Babylonians maintained Sumerian cultural traditions, extending its influence into other parts of the Middle East. New Arrivals, particularly Semitic peoples, adopted the culture of conquered peoples. But large political units declined in favor of smaller city-states or regional kingdoms, particularly during the centuries of greatest turmoil, between 1200 B.C.E. and 900 B.C.E. Thereafter, new invaders, first Assyrians and then Persians, created large new empires in the Middle East.

Egyptian Civilization. Egyptian civilization, [pic] formed by 3000 B.C.E., benefited from contacts with Mesopotamia, but produced a very different society. Egyptian civilization flourished along the Nile River for 2000 years before beginning to decline around 1000 B.C.E. Less open to invasion, Egypt retained a unified state throughout most of its history and influenced later African culture. Egypt’s rulers, pharaohs, were contacts between gods and people, and had immense power. Political organization and economic development were coordinated under the authority of a pharaoh thought to possess the power to assure the prosperity of the Nile agricultural system.

The pyramids were constructed to commemorate the greatness of pharaohs. In comparison with Mesopotamia, Egypt’s science and alphabet were less developed though mathematics proved more advanced and influential. For example, Egyptian mathematics produced the idea of a day divided into 24 hours. Egypt’s art was lively and colorful, depicting, for example, an afterlife in which people might be surrounded by the pleasures of earthly life. Egyptian architectural forms were also quite influential in Egypt but also in other parts of the Mediterranean.

Indian and Chinese River Valley Civilizations. River valley civilizations developed in two other centers. A prosperous urban civilization emerged along the Indus River by 2500 B.C.E., supporting several large cities, including Harappa [pic] and Mohenjo Daro, whose houses even had running water. Indus River peoples had trading contacts with Mesopotamia, but they developed their own alphabet and artistic forms. Infiltrations by Indo-Europeans, however, plus natural calamities, resulted in such destruction that it makes it hard to speak with confidence about either the nature of this culture or its subsequent influence on India. It remains true that civilization never had to be fully reinvented in India.

The Great Cities of the Indus Valley. Harappa and Mohenjo Daro were densely populated, walled cities similar in layout and construction. They were built on a square grid pattern divided by main streets into smaller, precise grids. Buildings and walls were made of standardized kiln-dried bricks. The massive scale required an autocratic government able to manage large numbers of workers. Each city possessed fortified citadels that served as defensive sanctuaries, community centers, assembly halls or places of worship, and public bathing tanks. Large granaries located nearby stored grain, whose sale and production may have been regulated by the state. The main food crops were wheat, rye, peas, and possibly rice, and domesticated animals and cotton were also part of the system.

Irrigation systems controlled the rivers’ flow. The cities were major trading centers; there is evidence of trade with Mesopotamia, China, and Burma. The Harappans remained conservative and resistant to external influences, including weapon development. A powerful class of priests, drawing authority from their role as intermediary between the populace and gods, dominated society. Promoting fertility was a paramount concern. The most prominent deity depicted was a horned god. The concern with fertility also was demonstrated by numerous mother-goddesses. The presence of these figures, in Sumer and other urban sites in the Persian Gulf region, suggests that large quantities of various commodities were traded in the region spanning Mesopotamia and the Indus River valley.

The precise causes of Harappan decline remain disputed. Evidence suggests that the region suffered from severe flooding and earthquakes. Shifts in climatic patterns eventually transformed the fertile region into an arid steppe. The priestly class lost power. Civilization disappeared as Aryan pastoralists conquered the indigenous agricultural population and settled in their place. The Aryans, warrior herders, may have consciously destroyed or neglected the irrigation system on which the Harappan people had once depended. They were superb horsemen, employed chariots, and had more effective weapons than the Harappans. The interaction between the invaders and indigenous peoples established the basis for India’s great classical civilization.

Early Civilization in China. Chinese civilization took form independently along the Yellow River (Huanghe) [pic], although some overland trading contact with India and the Middle East did develop. A state arose to carefully regulate irrigation in the flood-prone river valley and by 2000 B.C.E., the Chinese had advanced technology, science, music, intellectual life, pottery, an early system of ideographic writing, and could ride horses. By 1000 B.C.E., they had introduced iron, which they soon learned to work with coal. By 1500 B.C.E., one tribe, the Shang [pic] , skilled horsemen, chariot drivers, and metalworkers, became dominant and established the foundations of Chinese civilization. They were warlike nomads, ruled by strong kings, regarded as the intermediary between the supreme being and mortals; he held responsibility for the fertility of the state. The king presided over a sizeable bureaucracy and system of vassalage ascribing land tenure, tribute, military service, and administrative duties. The state itself was understood as the center of the world. Shang elites were preoccupied with rituals, oracles, and sacrifices.

They joined the ruler in propitiating spirits to provide crops and offspring. Artistic expression peaked in bronze vessels used for offerings of grain, incense, wine, and animals. Human sacrifice occurred during ritual warfare and ceremonies. Shamans performed oracular functions for harvests, wars, journeys, and marriages. Readings were taken from animal bones and tortoise shells . They were drilled and seared, and the resulting cracks were interpreted. Patterns inscribed on the bones and shells formed the basis for a written language that provided the diverse peoples of the loess zone with a common culture. The initially pictographic characters evolved to convey complex ideas.

By the end of the Shang period there were 3000 characters. The bones and bronze vessels on which the characters were first carved gave way to bamboo, silk, and wooden surfaces. In the 1st century c.e., they were replaced by the Chinese invention of paper. The written language made communication possible between the elites, and eventually artisan and cultivating classes, of the many different groups across the region’s diverse cultures and languages. The use of increasingly standardized and sophisticated characters provided a bond between river valley peoples. Writing became fundamental to Chinese identity and the growth of civilization.

The Heritage of the River Valley Civilizations. Many accomplishments of the river valley civilizations had a lasting impact. Monuments such as the Egyptian pyramids have long been regarded as one of the wonders of the world. More prosaic achievements are fundamental to world history even today: the invention of the wheel, the taming of the horse, the creation of usable alphabets and writing implements, the production of key mathematical concepts such as square roots, the development of well organized monarchies and bureaucracies, and the invention of functional calendars and other divisions of time. Almost all later civilizations are built on the massive foundations first constructed in the river valleys. Despite the many accomplishments, over 2500 years, most of the river valley civilizations were in decline by 1000 B.C.E.

Heritage of Early Civilizations. While the Harrapan civilization of the Indus valley collapsed, and much was lost, influences persisted at the core of following Indian civilizations. Harappan civilization had a markedly different legacy than the Shang. The region where the Chinese polities emerged became the center of a civilization continuing until today. The system of writing was one of many factors in the evolution of Chinese civilization. Mesopotamia and Egypt differed in influencing regions beyond their spheres. Europeans, even North Americans, are sometimes prone to claim these cultures as the “origins” of the Western civilization in which we live.

These claims should not be taken too literally. It is not clear that either Egypt or Mesopotamia contributed much to later political life, though the Roman Empire emulated the concept of a godlike king and the existence of strong city-states in the Middle East itself continued to be significant. Ideas about slavery may have been passed on from these civilizations. Specific scientific achievements proved vital, for example the Greeks studied Egyptian mathematics. Scholars argue, however, on how much was passed on beyond certain techniques for measuring time or charting the stars. Some historians of philosophy have argued that Mesopotamian-influenced cultures emphasized a division between humanity and nature, in sharp contrast to the Chinese understanding of harmony, which they claim affected later civilizations around the Mediterranean in contrast to China. It is, however, hard to assess these continuities. Mesopotamian art and Egyptian architecture had a more measurable influence on Greek styles, and through these, in turn, later European and Muslim cultures.

New Societies in the Middle East. There was a final connection between early and later civilizations in the form of regional cultures that sprang up under the influence of Egypt and Mesopotamia, along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean mainly after 1200 B.C.E. Civilization had spread widely enough to encourage a set of smaller centers to emerge, mixing their cultures with Mesopotamian influences.

These cultures produced important innovations that would affect later civilizations in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and other parts of the world as well. For example, the Phoenicians devised a simplified alphabet that became the ancestor of the Greek and Latin lettering systems. They also improved the Egyptian numbering system Phoenician traders established colonies on the shores of the Mediterranean in Europe and North Africa. Another regional group, the Lydians, first introduced coined money.

Judaism. The most influential of the smaller Middle Eastern groups were the Jews, who gave the world the first clearly developed monotheistic religion. The Hebrews, a Semitic people influenced by Babylonian civilization settled around the Mediterranean around 1200 B.C.E. Their distinctive achievement was the development of a monotheistic and ethical religion. They regarded themselves as a chosen people under God’s guidance. Their religious ideas were written down in the Hebrew Bible and other writings. The Jewish religion and moral code persisted even as the Jewish state suffered domination by foreign rulers, from 772 B.C.E. until the Romans seized the state outright in 63 B.C.E. In Jewish hands, the concept of God became less humanlike, more abstract.

This represented a basic change in not only religion but humankind’s overall outlook. God had not only a power but also a rationality unlike the capricious traditional gods; the Jewish God was orderly and just, and individuals would know what to expect if they obeyed God’s rules. God was also linked to ethical conduct, to proper moral behavior. Religion for the Jews was a way of life, not merely a set of rituals and ceremonies. The Jews were not important politically, but their written religion enabled them, even when dispersed, to retain cultural identity. The Jews did not try to convert other peoples, but the later proselytizing faiths of Christianity and Islam incorporated their ideas.

Assessing the Early Civilization Period. Overall, the river valley civilizations, flourished for many centuries, created a basic set of tools, intellectual concepts such as writing and mathematics, and political forms that would persist and spread to other parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Invasion and natural calamities in India, and invasions and political decline in Egypt, marked a fairly firm break between the institutions of these river valley civilizations and those that would later develop. Huang he civilization, in contrast, flowed more fully into the more extensive Chinese civilization that would follow. The Middle East, where civilization had first been born, provided the most complex heritage of all. Here too there was a break between the riverine empires and the civilizations of Greece and Persia that would later dominate the region.

However, smaller cultures, such as that of the Jews, provided a bridge between the river valley period and later Middle Eastern society, producing vital new inventions and ideas. One final result of the first, long period of human civilization is clear: a pattern of division of the world’s peoples. Small groups of people had spread to every corner of the world, developing separate languages and cultures. The rise of agriculture stimulated new links, for example, the Phoenicians traded with Britain for metals whereas the Chinese traded their silks with Egypt.

Here we have one of the basic themes of history: steadily proliferating contacts against a backdrop of often fierce local identity. Civilization itself was an integrating force at a larger regional level though smaller identities persisted. Four distinct centers of civilization (five, if the emerging Olmec culture in Mexico is included), shared the basic features defining civilization, like cities, trade, and writing, but each developed widely varied patterns, from style of writing to beliefs about nature. Civilization and considerable diversity thus coexisted hand in hand.

GLOBAL CONNECTIONS: The Early Civilizations and the World. Mesopotamia and Egypt presented two different approaches to relationships outside the home region. Mesopotamia was flat, with few natural barriers to recurrent invasion from the north. Perhaps for this reason, Mesopotamian leaders thought in terms of expansion, conquering territories within the Middle East. Many traders pushed outward dealing either with merchants to the east or sending expeditions into the Mediterranean and beyond, and also to India. Egypt, though not isolated, was more self-contained.

There was important trade and interaction along the Nile to the south, which brought mutual influences with the peoples of the Kush and Ethiopia. Trade and influence also linked Egypt to Mediterranean islands like Crete, south of Greece. River valley civilization in had fewer far-reaching contacts than its counterpart in Mesopotamia. Ultimately, however, contacts with China would shape development in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Already in the river valley period, the Chinese were advancing new technologies, for example the manufacture of silk, which would have wide influence on later interregional trade.

Chinese irrigation systems became increasingly sophisticated, involving engineering principles that would gain wider scope later on. Harappan society traded widely with Mesopotamia, but there is little evidence of significant influence. Harappan civilization proved much more vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change, particularly in contrast to China. Comparison of the early civilizations thus emphasizes quite different patterns of scope and legacy.

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From Hunting and Gathering to Civilizations. (2016, Oct 19). Retrieved from

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