The Comparative Essay: Early Civilizations

1. Compare and contrast key characteristics of two early civilizations (choose from Mesopotamian, Shang, Indus Valley, Chavin, and Phoenician) in terms of three of the following: economy, political system, art and architecture, religion, technology, legacy.


Of the world's first civilizations, all successful and renowned were located on or near a river. The Mesopotamian and Chavín civilizations were no exception to this. Mesopotamia originated in modern-day Iraq in 8000 B.C.E., between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, and the Chavín civilization was located on the coast of present-day Peru in 900 B.

C.E., where the Mosma and Huachecsa Rivers merge. The Mesopotamian civilization died down by 500 B.C.E., and the Chavín declined by 200 B.C.E. These two early river civilizations exhibited many similarities in their political, artesian, and technological advances, but also displayed distinct differences. Even though the Chavín and Mesopotamian civilizations emerged from opposite ends of the world, these river civilizations shared more similarities than differences due to the fact that they encountered many of the same challenges.

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The political components of the Chavín and Mesopotamins revolved mainly around the religious aspects of the civilization and largely emphasized class. In both these patriarchal societies the main political figure was seen as an intermediary between the gods and the citizens of the society. The head of the Chavín society was the shaman, who proclaimed to have divine authority, and was deemed to be a supreme being. Likewise, the Mesopotamians considered their king (referred to as lugals) to have direct contact with the gods, thus portraying the gods' wants and wishes to the society.

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With the religious figure acting as the head of the political scene distinct class systems soon formed in both of these early civilizations.

The Chavín's class system started with the Shaman and his administrators followed by other priests, religious figures, and wealthy merchants. After this elite class came the tradesmen and numerous laborers. The Mesopotamian social classes were nearly identical, with the exception of the wealthy merchants and a more extensive lower class. In Mesopotamia the merchants were not considered part of the upper class, but looked down upon. Also, unlike the Chavín peoples, Mesopotamia utilized the use of slaves in the work force and class system. The political features of both societies reflect the similarities in technological advancements the two civilizations shared.

The technological advances of Mesopotamia and the Chavín civilizations show how both societies dealt with the issues of agriculture and manufacturing. As expanding early river civilizations, both societies needed to learn how to support a larger community. The Chavín and Mesopotamia both developed highly sophisticated irrigation systems to increase the amount of cultivable land for more crop production. Along with irrigation both societies domesticated animals, the Chavín found llamas very useful for travel, wool, and milk. While the Mesopotamians domesticated pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys, and horses for slaughter, travel, and trade.

Besides agriculture, the two societies were also very technologically advanced when it came to the manufacturing and use of metals. The Mesopotamians were the first society to use bronze in 4000 B.C.E. They used this new technology to manufacture stronger, sturdier tools and weapons. The Chavín society was also skilled in metallurgy, but unlike the Mesopotamians, the Chavín used metals like silver and gold to create special religious ornaments and crowns. The major technological advancements of these two early river societies display the similar necessities to live and thrive.

The Chavín and Mesopotamian societies depended on art and to find organization and structure. Both societies used art in their religious practices, the administrators at the major Chavín ceremonial center, the Chavín de Huántar, used artistic imagery to share their religious ideas through trade. They accomplished this by carving traditional religious images in a specified order which signified different religious beliefs. In this way the art was used as an organizational tool to help all citizens of the society understand the religious concepts being taught. The Mesopotamians also used art to portray different religious concepts and stories. Unlike the Chavín though, they achieved this by creating sculptures of their Gods. In these sculptures the social importance of the person could be determined by the statue's height and beard length.

The ones with the tallest and most complex beards were the gods and lugals, then the priests, all the way down to the worshippers at the shortest end of the spectrum. They would then use these sculptures to tell stories about their religious beliefs. This difference in art of the Chavín and the Mesopotamians can be explained by fact that the Mesopotamians had a standardized written language, called cuneiform, while the Chavín did not. This further advancement of the Mesopotamian people allowed them to use their art as more of an aesthetic pleasure. Unlike the Chavín, who needed their artwork to multipurpose as an explanation of their religion.

The two societies of the Chavín and Mesopotamian shared many common struggles of other early river societies. They dealt with many of their struggles in similar ways, but also worked through some of their challenges with different action plans. They shared many similarities in their political systems, technological advancements, and in their use of art. Their political systems were very similar because both the Chavín and the Mesopotamians had leaders who claimed to be intermediaries between the people and their gods, along with a strongly emphasized class system. The societies technological advancements were similar in the fact that they both constructed irrigation systems and learned to use precious metals, but differed in the purpose of the artifacts manufactured from those metals.

The presence of art in both societies showed how religion was a major component in the peoples lives, but the different uses of the art displayed how having a written language, like the Mesopotamians did, could greatly effect the culture. Even though these two civilizations were on opposite sides of the world the numerous similarities they had in political, technological, and artistic advances show how great of an effect that similar topographic features can have on a society.

Updated: Jul 06, 2022
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The Comparative Essay: Early Civilizations essay
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