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Early civilization

Early civilization

This document gives a broad overview of the haziest part of human civilization: its beginnings.

200,000 - 9700 BCE: The Paleolithic and Mesolithic


For most of our time humans lived in a period that is called the Stone Age. In the first two parts of the Stone Age, the Paleolithic and Mesolithic, humanity was shaped physically and mentally, but true civilization did not yet exist.

Nomadic bands

During the ice ages humans lived as hunters, gatherers and fishermen. They formed small bands of 20 - 60 people, all family-related. The bands were usually nomadic but sedentary in fertile areas. Men did most of the hunting and women most of the gathering, though this division could be quite flexible. Their social status was about equal.
Mankind originated in Africa and from there colonized the rest of the world. South Asia was probably reached 100,000 years ago; Australia and Europe 50,000 - 40,000 years ago; North Asia 25,000 years ago and America 15,000 - 12,000 years ago.


Our species, Homo Sapiens, had been around since about 200,000 years ago, living side by side with other homonidae like Homo Erectus and the Neanderthals. We were skilled hunters, intelligent and efficient, at the top of the food chain, but essentially not different from other animal predators. But somewhere around 50,000 years ago there seems to have been a "cultural revolution". Humans developed bone tools, sewed clothing, hand bows and many other tools. Together with technology came art, of which the famous mural paintings at Lascaux testify, and religion. This first religion is called animism, because it envisioned the world as being full of spirits, who had to be appeased with prayers and offerings. If the spirits were happy, they might prove beneficial; if angered, they were believed to be able to bestow bad luck or even disasters.
Women seem to have been the main drivers behind this movement; all early deities are fertility goddesses.

9700 - 3200 BCE: The Neolithic


During the Neolithic, the last part of the Stone Age, a tremendous revolution occurred. In some parts of the world, humanity moved from a hunting and gathering in nomadic bands to a sedentary lifestyle in villages supported by agriculture.


Evidence suggests that humans already practiced agriculture during mild stages of the last ice age, but combined it with the hunting and gathering that they had practiced for hundreds of thousands of years. But at some point, approximately at 8500 BCE, in the Middle East, humans made farming the standard.
Scientists are still debating what caused the switch to agriculture, because its advantages will have appeared much less to our ancestors than to us with our modern environment. For instance, agriculture takes away freedom to roam and binds people to a patch of land all through the year. Also, working a field of crops takes a lot more back-breaking labor than hunting does. But there are advantages too: a higher birthrate, as women no longer have to carry their infants all over the place and of course more food per unit of surface area, allowing for higher population density. But these advantages seem to weak to decisively tilt the balance. It seems to have been a combination of factors including population pressure, partial dependence on a few species of plants, over-exploitation and short-term climate changes that drove our ancestors to rely more on actively cultivating crops than gathering them. Once they had taken the path of agriculture, population density increased so much that when conditions once more favored the old ways, there was no way back. In hunter-gatherer societies, population density is limited to about 1 person per kmĀ². For early agriculture the figure is about 50, later rising even higher.

Village life

Late stone age people invented a lot of things that had probably been invented before, but never gotten established because they were not needed. But agriculture had different demands and thus humans came up with things like mud-brick and stone architecture to build houses, pottery to store food, copper for tools and weapons and calendars to predict seasonal weather.
The first farmers clustered together in villages on fertile ground. While they domesticated plants, others did the same with animals, replacing hunting with herding. Because of the needs of the animals, the herders needed to remain at least partially nomadic. The two different groups probably traded often with each other: your goat milk for my bread? But in times of scarcity the nomads, who where more mobile, hardened and used to hunting, resorted to stealing and plundering rather than trading. Therefore even early villages were build upon hilltops and/or fortified with walls. Whether it was trade or raiding, the diversification for the first time in history started to tie together people from different places. Together with trade goods, ideas, techniques and culture started to spread and mix.

Domesticated species

Agriculture and its sibling, animal husbandry, took the world only slowly. It took several millennia to spread from the original centers to other parts of the world. Once the principle was mastered, people applied to to many different species of plants and animals, with varying success. Only a handful of species did, and still do today, provide the most nutritional value, while others remain at the fringes. The main species were domesticated at different times and in different places. Southwest Asia was first, with crops like barley, wheat and lentils and animals like goats, sheep, donkeys and cattle. China added millet and pigs; Africa sorghum, yams, coffee; Southeast Asia rice, taro, sugar, bananas; etcetera. American Indians invented agriculture all on their own, using native species like maize, beans, manioc, potatoes and llamas. The American resources, though rich in potential, where harder to domesticate than the eastern ones. Also the peculiar geography of America, where north and south are separed by a narrow band of hostile jungle, hampered the interchange of crops and animals. Because of these disadvantages America's domestications developed centuries or even millennia later than the Middle East. This gave the Old World (Africa, Asia, Europe) in general and specifically the region around Mesopotamia a headstart in the development of civilization.

Agricultural innovations

Early agriculture was a simple affair of slash and burn: clear trees and bushes from a patch of land, grow food for a year or two and then let the land, which has been depleted of minerals, recover for 20 - 25 years, while the farmers move on to another patch. This kind of farming, sometimes called "shifting" or "swidden", puts little strain on the soil, but also has low yields. It is limited to woodland; plains of grass laugh at fires and axes equally.
When the population increases and good woodland becomes scarce, forest fallow starts to get supplemented by bush fallow: slash and burn on lightly forested land with more bushes than trees. Here, they soil recovers much quicker, in 6 - 10 years, but requires more work using sticks and hoes. The activities of early farmers gradually turned forest to bushland and from there into grassland. This led to the invention of the plough, which increases the fertility of the soil substantially. Grass roots require ploughs to destroy them, provide fodder for cattle that can be used to draw the plough and the cattle produces manure that can be used to fertilize the soil. Thus the use of grass, tools and animals reinforce each other. The result was a mixed agriculture where people and animals worked the land together. The first agriculture probably was mostly a women's affair, but with the arrival of ploughs, men, because of their greater muscular strength, were drawn away from their beloved hunting and had to work with the animals to drag the ploughs through the soil.
Farmers probably artificially watered their fields very early, but large and complex irrigation networks spanning large area did not appear until 3500 BCE. Irrigation was the logical next step in the evolution of agriculture, giving yet higher yields than ploughing but requiring even more labor. In fertile areas like Mesopotamia, watered by two rivers and already relatively densely populated, this was both possible and necessary, because of the increasing population and with it, the demand for food. Irrigation was effective and greatly expanded the amount of land that could be worked. Farmlands spread from the wooded hills into the marshy river plains in the valleys and also even into nearby desert areas.
Within a few centuries agricultural surplus, but more importantly population density, had increased so much that a significant number of people could specialize fully in non-farming activities: crafting, trading and making war. They clustered together in towns, with thousands of inhabitants rather than tens or hundreds. Egalitarian tribes were replaced by hierarchical societies. Town folk formed the backbone of what we now call civilization.

3200 - 1700 BCE: The rise of the Middle East


This period saw the rise of civilization, bringing cities, craft, trade and written accounts of events. Civilization also comes with social stratification, i.e. society becomes divided into layers.

The first civilizations

The very first true civilization sprung up in Sumer, the southern part of Mesopotamia, between the rivers Tigris and Eufrates. Here there was a fertile plain of river sediments, where agriculture could thrive. Shortly after, two other civilizations followed. These were also centered around river valleys in semi-desert areas. One was Egypt around the Nile, the other the Harappan, on the banks of the Indus. The first cities appeared in Sumer around 3300 BCE, in Egypt 3100 BCE and around the Indus 2500 BCE. There is evidence of trade and cultural exchanges between the three early civilizations and they bear much similarity, but there were also differences.
Egypt consists of a single river hemmed in by desert and sea on all sides. The Nile flooded every year, fertilizing the land around it without much interference from the Egyptians, allowing annual harvesting without fallow. Ships can flow with its current northward or use sails to sail southward, so it is also an easy transport and communications channel. As a result, it was easy for the first pharaos to unify the country and rule it without too much troubles for millennia.
The Harappan civilization, named after its two primary cities Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, was less isolated but fared equally well. It developed sewer systems and proto-dentistry. This civilization seems to have done without palaces, armies and temples, which still puzzles historians today.
But in Mesopotamia the situation was different. The plains were surrounded by hills were other people lived as semi-nomads, herding animals, supplementing diary products with hunting and gathering. They traded with farmers in the valleys, but overall were poorer. Because of their more nomadic lifestyle they were also tougher and better warriors. In times of scarcity, or just when some leader wanted to become rich quickly, they formed into warbands, raided down into the plains and took by force what they could not get by trade.
In response, the Sumerians militarized. They invented copper and later bronze weapons and developed a warrior caste. As early as 3000 BCE there was frequent warfare in Mesopotamia. War affected society. Strong men made themselves lords, governors and kings, ruling small city states that each consisted of a single city and its surrounding farmland. The population split into two layers, a small upper class of rulers and a large lower class of workers. The position of women degraded. Female fertility gods remained important, but were joined by male warrior gods and a patriarchical rather than matriarchical social order. This matched the situation at the nomads, where male hunters had never yielded their dominance over female farmers.


With the rise of towns, animism evolved into polytheism. Until then, people had worshipped nature, household and ancestor spirits and they continued to do so, but now the spirits were joined by something larger: gods and goddesses. The new deities were identified with towns. When a town or city rose to political prominence, its protector god often rose with it to a position of importance.
The gods were worshipped not in houses and near special landmarks, but in large temples that showed off their might. These required a body of semi-professional priests and priestesses, who were not just mediators between men and gods, but also scribes and administrators, vital in the development of state and culture. When kings rose to power, they clashed with the priests, but eventually joined forces with them. Priests and warriors combined formed the upper class. Kings claimed to rule with the blessing of the gods and were annually married to them in elaborate rituals. Warriors formed the backbone of the army, collecting taxes; priests that of the bureaucracy, handling the administration.

Early warfare

Mesopotamian city states frequently fought against invading nomads, but also against each other. Early war was, to modern eyes, an amateuristic affair. A city chieftain would gather a militia together and fight with primitive, yet deadly weapons like clubs, spears and bows. Logistics were underdeveloped, so the army could not stay in the field very long. Because the soldiers had to walk on foot, their range was limited to about one day's march. But that was enough to reach neighboring cities, which were often within sight of each other. When a battle started to go wrong for one side, it retreated behind the safety of its city walls, where it could withstand a long siege. Usually this prompted a temporary peace treaty, where the side that had the advantage could negotiate some land, a tribute or depose a hostile ruler.
Later armies slowly got better organized. The chieftains established bodyguards of nearly professional warriors and developed siege engines to tackle enemy city walls. As a result, warfare grew more volatile and give rise to a new political organization.

The Akkadian kingdom

Around 2300 - 2220 BCE there was a change in the scale of warfare. One Sargon of Akkad managed to subject a whole series of cities and unify them into a single state. Sargon came not from Sumer but from Akkad, its northern neighbor. This was originally a country of herdsmen, but the slow spread of agriculture had made many of them farmers too. Conquering the old Sumerian center of civilization must have been both a source of wealth and prestige. Sargon was one of the first kings to maintain a standing army and use siegecraft extensively to batter down city walls. He wielded an army of several thousand men and probably needed to campaign almost constantly to gather enough loot to keep them together. The king's reign was based on fear. As long as the threat of Sargon's army loomed, cities payed him tribute, but if he was away, rebellion sparked. His kingdom was unstable, as were the others that succeeded it. Nonetheless the phenomenon of kingdoms was there to stay. It had some characteristics that the earlier city states had not had: a political theory that there always had been a king and always would be one; a bureaucracy to collect taxes and organize public works; a professional army and a merchant class.

The spread of civilization

Approaching 2000 BC irrigation techniques had developed to a degree that farmers were able to work lands outside the floodplains. Agriculture and cities started to spread to Iran, Syria, Palestine, Asia minor and even Crete. Trade routes also expanded, forming a network of roads, rivers and sea lanes connecting the entire region from the Eastern Mediterranean to India. The three ancient civilizations were linked together and new kingdoms arose, like Minoan Crete, Assyria, the Egyptian Middle Kingdom and the Hittites.
Civilization not only spread, but also deepened. Sumerian sculpture attained a higher lever of refinement, changing from stylized to natural. Writing was developed for recording taxes and legal documents and immortalizing the lives and deeds of kings, but quickly was used to also write down many oral traditions and myths, creating the world's first literature. Mathematics moved from simple utilitairian formulas into theoretical algebra. Cities thrived on the increased trading and the largest of them, like Babylon, may have reached 200,000 inhabitants. Hammurabi, sixth king of Babylon, who reigned around 1750 BC, presided over a state that had developed significantly since Sargon. He ruled not only by force, but also by custom and is famous for his codification of law. These were the beginnings of states whose strength depended not on their ruler, but a bureaucracy that outlasted generations.
But the blossoming of civilization was short lived. After just a few centuries of innovation, scientific and cultural advances solidified into a rich, but stagnant tradition, which subsequent generations copied rather than expanded. Maybe the continued growth of civilization could have rekindled the flame of progress, but it was cut short by another innovation - a military one.

1700 - 500 BCE: The great kingdoms


In this period military inventions upset the balance of existing city-states, overturning them and forging the remnants into kingdoms. All the turmoil forced people to come up with answers to new problems and this made culture actually flourish in many places. In this period, especially between 800 and 500 BCE, the foundations for some of the largest religions and philosophical systems were laid down.


The trade routes that linked civilized lands together also included barbarian areas on their fringes. Thus the central kingdoms not only became richer, but also got the attention of the barbarians. Trade made people come to rely on the wealth that it spread around. When trade faltered, they tried to take by force instead. The less densely populated hills around the civilized lands lacked the means to make a fist against these, until the chariot came along.
The chariot was invented on the steppes of Central Asia. The wheel had been invented long before and led to sturdy but slow carts and wagons that could be used to transport heavy loads. But the chariot was a light, fragile vehicle with spoked wheels. It was made for speed, rather than loading capacity. Combined with an enhanced version of the normal handbow, the composite bow, it revolutionized warfare. Within a few decades chariot archers from the steppes overran all Middle Eastern states. The Harappan civilization crumpled into dust; the Egyptian was temporarily suppressed and the Mesopotamian plunged into prolonged warfare. India was invaded somewhat later and Europe and Southeast Asia suffered little, because their terrain was largely unsuitable for chariots. But as with most military conquests, the chariot invasions did not last. The attacking barbarians adopted civilized culture and the conquered peoples appropriated chariot tactics. As a result, within two centuries new kingdoms appeared along familiar lines: the Egyptian New Kingdom; a re-established Assyria; the Shang empire in northern China.
Again there were some lasting changes. The new great kingdoms were more aggressive than their predecessors. They new upper class of charioteers happily fought anyone who threatened their borders and when there was no enemy around, they did not shrink from fighting each other.


Around 1400 BC metal smiths in Anatolia mastered the technique of working iron. Iron has a much higher melting point than bronze and thus requires a radically different way of smelting, so iron working can really be called an invention. Iron ore is also much more common than copper and especially tin. This meant that many more people could gain access to strong metals.
The Hittites who invented iron managed to keep it more or less a secret for two centuries, but after 1200 BC knowledge of the new technique started to spread. All over the place smiths were making iron tools and also weapons. Heavy infantry was introduced, which required larger number of people, all protected by armor and shields. Against these weapons, chariots could not prevail. The combined demise of the might of the chariots and the old copper and tin trade networks prompted a fresh round of wars, plunging the civilized region into another dark age.
Around 1000 BC the dust started to settle a bit. Some old empires were re-established: Egypt; Assyria; Babylon; the Zhou dynasty in China. But iron had transformed them. No longer could a small elite of feodal chariot-riding lords hold sway over a large peasant population. Peasants became part-time warriors, gaining political power in the process. This was one of the developments that bridged the large social distance between upper and lower classes, making societies more homogeneous.


The last of the three military innovations of the period again came from central Asia. Having invented the chariot, it was only a matter of time before the peoples of the steppe took the use of horses one step further. Instead of teaming them before a chariot, they started to ride on their backs; true cavalry was born. Around 700 BCE light cavalry from the steppes of Asia became commonplace. Cavalry is cheaper than chariots and much better able to deal with rough terrain. Again combined with the composite bow and the hardiness of nomad warriors, the steppe peoples became a danger that would often raid and sometimes conquer neighboring lands in Europe, the Middle East and China.
In time, all civilized areas found answers to the problem. The Persians used a combination of fortresses and heavy cavalry that could withstand arrows; the Chinese built the Great Wall, bought them off or culturally assimilated them; Southeast Asia and to a lesser degree India and Europe were shielded by terrain. Though the steppe warriors occasionally conquered civilized lands, they never seriously disrupted the fabric of society, but it took almost two millennia before the invention of gunpowder finally broke their power.

Empire building

Chariots turned states upside down, iron 'democratized' them and horse archers kept them on their guard. Despite the possibilities for provinces to gain independence, large empires still held an attraction. Only they could construct roads and canals and keep bands of robbers at bay, all to promote that source of wealth: trade. The first coins to replace barter with money were minted in the 7th century BCE. They spread quickly, but it took centuries for true monetary economies to be established, and then only in certain places.
In the meanwhile the new states improved their organization. Assyrians invented mass deportations, to divide and spread subject peoples around their territory in order to prevent revolts. Roads were used not only for trade, but also to quickly relocate armies and have the center of an empire keep in touch with its edges. Administration was improved and in many places large religions sprung up, making states not only political and military units, but also culturally more coherent.
Civilization spread outward, to south China, south India and the Mediterranean. The three ancient centers of civilization, Sumer, Egypt and Indus, where replaced by four new ones, larger and more volatile: China, India, the Middle East and Greece.


China was separated from the other centers of civilization by the steppes and the Himalayas. As a result, it lagged a little behind in development, until it had defined its own distinct culture. The Shang are often credited with being the first imperial dynasty, but actually they ruled only a small part of China. Their successors, the Zhou, officially ruled for 800 years, but their power steadily weakened over time, until their were in power only symbolically. During this time, the Chinese developed the basic foundations of their culture. They held the idea that the country was ruled by an emperor who could maintain power as long as he had the Mandate of Heaven, to be succeeded by a new dynasty once he lost it. The emperor ruled through a vast bureaucracy, both in Heaven and on Earth. Respect for authority, good government, traditions and family was formalized in the teachings of Confucius, while ancient mysticism found a place in the Taoist religion.


When the chariot peoples invaded India around 1500 BCE, they established the Vedic culture and shifted the balance of power from the Indus to the Ganges valley. Here too after some centuries the power of the charioteering aristocracy was challenged by mass infantry with iron weapons, but response was different. The Indians developed the caste system to solidify class differences. The top three castes were filled by the conquering Aryan peoples; the single lowest by the conquered. Despite being the strictest social stratification, the caste system was not absolute and permitted social mobility.
The Indians developed the concepts of karma, that every deed affects one's fate; samsara, that everyone is born and reborn in a never ending cycle and moksha, that it is possible to break free of this cycle. Theas ideas were taken up by Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism and through the latter, later spread to southeast Asia, China and Japan.

The Middle East

Like before, the Middle East, in the center of the civilized world, was affected by forces from all around. Empires came and went: the Egyptian New Kingdom, Hurrian Mittani, Kassite Babylonia, Elam and always Assyria. The new empires battled on a larger scale than their predecessors.
The turmoil prompted some people to come up with new ideas. The Persian prophet Zoroaster, who laid the foundations of Zoroastranism and the Jews, who established Judaism, broke with old traditions and held that there was but one god, not many. The image of the afterlife changed too. The polytheists usually pictured a mirror of life on Earth, but monotheists borrowed an idea from the Egyptians, that good deeds in life lead to rewards in the afterlife and a bad ones to punishment. It seems that Judaism was a way for the Jews to define their cultural identity and preserve their independence while larger empires like Egypt and Assyria tossed them around. Those larger empires, with rich cultural traditions, intermarried with ancient polytheism, had no need for religious upstarts, thus they remained aloof of Judaism. Zoroastranism introduced new ideas and heavily influenced Judaism, but had trouble lifting off as a religion on its own. It became moderately important when the Persian emperors used it as a tool to unify their vast empire, but never completely replaced older traditions.
The Persians were the first to unite the Middle East. The peoples of the highlands of Iran adopted cavalry from the north, where they were in direct contact with the horsemen from the steppes. Once they had mastered it, they made use of their new might. First the Medes dealt Assyria its final death blow, then the Persians took over from them.
The Persian empire was the largest that the world had ever seen. It spanned the entire center of ancient civilization, from Egypt to Bactria. The Persians had learned the lessons of their predecessors and improved on them. They wielded a superior administration, good roads, a uniform state religion and a large trade network.


Civilization spread from the Middle East into the Mediterranean. Early cultures include the Phoenicians, their colony Carthago, the Etruscans and of course Greece. Civilization in Greece had started with the Minoan civilization on Crete, which had borrowed heavily from Egypt, but also introduced elements of its own: a naval economy, bull-worship and fine, naturalistic art. From there, Greek culture developed through the Mycenaean civilization, which perished in the iron revolution, into classical Greek culture.
The mountainous terrain of Greece its extensive coastline kept the Greek politically divided, but did not prevent cultural unity. The were organized into city-states, the poleis, like the early Sumerians, but in a different world. The Greeks were not just farmers, but also busy traders, explorers and warriors. There were unique in many aspects. Greek armies, quite egalitarian, practiced a heavy head-on style of infantry warfare with the hoplite phalanx; their art was sublimely realistic; their great philosophical minds speculated freely and invented logic and in Athens people adopted democracy.

500 BCE and later: The classical age and beyond

In the classical age cultural, social and political innovation slowed down. There were some new developments, like the birth of Christianity, but the focus was on preserving the ideas, rather than keep pushing forward. Empires grew large and prosperous and in due time connected the entire civilized world: Greeks and later Romans in the west, Sassanid Persia in the center, the Han dynasty in China and the Maurya and Gupta empires in India. Later the stagnation would hamper the great civilizations. They would have to fight off barbarians like the Huns, Magyars, Vikings and Mongols, cope with famines and plagues like the Black Death and all these threats sometimes brought down whole empires. But culturally there would be no fundamental changes, except for the arrival of Islam in the 7th century CE. The real change did not come before the 16th century CE, when European sailors navigated the globe and started to drag the world with them, ultimately to the Industrial Revolution.