Archeological studies and other scientific methods have provided us with a view of human development that begins millions of years ago. Most of the 2 million-plus years of our existence as a species has been described as the Paleolithic, or Old Stone, Age. This lengthy phase, during which both Homo erectus and then Homo sapien sapien made their appearances, ran until about 14,000 years ago. Homo erectus appeared as early as 500,000-750,000 years ago. They stood upright and learned simple tool use, mainly through employing suitably shaped rocks and sticks for hunting and gathering. Several species of Homo erectus developed and spread in Africa and to Asia and Europe, reaching a population of perhaps 1.5 million 100,000 years ago. Homo erectus disappeared about 40,000 years ago. Our immediate ancestors were Homo sapiens sapiens. All current races are descended from this subspecies. Early varieties of Homo sapiens sapiens lived as small bands of hunter-gatherers. These groups developed language, rituals, and more sophisticated tools.
The Neolithic Revolution. The Neolithic Revolution is the term given to the development of agricultural societies. This revolution in economic, political, and social organization began in the Middle East as early as 10,000 B.C.E. and gradually spread to other centers, including parts of India, North Africa, and Europe. With the rise of agricultural forms of economic production, humans were able to remain settled more permanently in one spot and increase their levels of specialization regarding particular economic, political, and religious functions. Additionally, the emergence of agriculturally based societies caused a massive increase in the sheer number of people in the world. However, most evidence suggests that gathering and hunting peoples resisted agriculture as long as they could. By about 3000 B.C.E., metalworking had become common in the Middle East. Like agriculture, knowledge of metals gradually fanned out to other parts of Asia and to Africa and Europe. Metalworking was extremely useful to agricultural and herding societies. Agricultural peoples had the resources to free up a small number of metal tool makers who specialized in this activity and exchanged their product with farmers for food.
Civilization. The word “civilization” comes from the Latin term for “city.” Formal states, writing, cities, and monuments all characterize civilizations. Civilizations also exhibit elaborate trading patterns and extensive political territories. While many of the ingredients of civilization had existed by 6000 B.C.E., the origins of civilization, strictly speaking, date to only about 3500 B.C.E. The first civilizations were the river-valley civilizations, so-called because they all developed alongside major rivers to secure an adequate water supply for agricultural production. The earliest river-valley civilizations began in the Middle East and flourished for many centuries. They 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. Most of the river-valley civilizations were in decline by 1000 B.C.E.
Tigris-Euphrates Civilization. This civilization originated in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in a part of the Middle East called Mesopotamia. It was one of the few cases of a civilization that started from scratch—with no examples from any place available for imitation. This civilization progressed mostly due to the accomplishments of the Sumerians, the most influential people in the Tigris-Euphrates region. By about 3500 B.C.E, the Sumerians had developed the first known human writing, cuneiform. They also were characterized by the development of astronomical sciences, intense religious beliefs, and tightly organized city-states. The Sumerians improved the region’s agricultural prosperity by learning about fertilizers and using silver to conduct commercial exchange. Their ideas about divine forces in natural objects were common among early agricultural peoples; a religion of this sort, which sees many gods in aspects of nature, is known as polytheism. Sumerian political structures stressed tightly organized city-states, ruled by a king who claimed divine authority. Here was a key early example how a civilization and political structures combined. The government helped regulate religion and enforce its duties; it also provided a system of courts for justice. Kings were originally war leaders, and the function of defense and war, including leadership of a trained army, remained vital. The Sumerians eventually succumbed to the Akkadians, who continued much of the Sumerian culture in the Tigris-Euphrates region, and the Babylonians, who developed Hammurabi’s code. It laid down the procedure for law courts and regulated property rights and duties of family members, setting harsh punishments for crimes. This focus on standardizing a legal system was one of the features of early river valley civilizations.
Egyptian Civilization. Egyptian civilization emerged in northern Africa along the Nile River by about 3000 B.C.E. It benefited from trade and influences from Mesopotamia, but it also produced its own distinct social structures and cultural expressions. Unlike Mesopotamian civilization, Egyptian civilization featured very durable and centralized institutions. Mathematical achievements and impressive architectural structures also characterized Egyptian civilization. From 2700 B.C.E. onward, the Egyptian pharaohs directed the building of the pyramids, which were to function as their tombs. However, the building of these massive architectural monuments could only be accomplished with the use of an abundance of slave labor.
Indian and Chinese River Valley Civilizations. A prosperous urban civilization emerged along the Indus River by 2500 B.C.E., supporting several large cities, such as Harappa. Indus River peoples had trading contacts with Mesopotamia, but they developed a distinctive alphabet and artistic forms. Invasions by Indo-Europeans resulted in such complete destruction of this culture that little is known today about its subsequent influence on India. Civilization along the Huang (Yellow) River in China developed in considerable isolation, though some overland trading contact developed with India and the Middle East. In addition to the existence of an organized state that carefully regulated irrigation in the flood-prone river valley, the Chinese had produced advanced technology and elaborate intellectual life by about 2000 B.C.E. There was also less of a break between Chinese river-valley society and the later civilizations in China than in any other region. The Shang ruled over the Huang River valley by about 1500 B.C.E. These rulers are noted for managing the construction of impressive tombs and palaces.
In Depth: The Idea of Civilization in World Historical Perspective. The belief that there are fundamental differences between the “civilized” and the “barbarians” is an old and widespread one, used by the Chinese, American Indians, ancient Greeks, and modern western Europeans, to name just a few. The latter attempted to define a series of stages in human development that ranged from utterly primitive to “advanced,” with the advanced culture belonging to the western Europeans. By the nineteenth century, racial qualities were quantified as qualifiers for position along the hierarchy of “civilization.” In the twentieth century much of that intellectual baggage was eventually discarded. At present, the most accepted way to approach a definition of civilization is to see it as one of several ways humans identify social organization.
The Heritage of the River Valley Civilizations. Basic achievements like the wheel, alphabets, mathematics, and divisions of time are vital legacies of the early civilizations. Mesopotamian art and Egyptian architecture influenced the Greeks, and subsequently the Romans, who both passed on much of their heritage to Muslim and European civilization. The Phoenicians devised a simplified alphabet that greatly influenced the Greek and Latin writing systems. The most influential of the smaller Middle Eastern groups were the Jews, who gave the world the first clearly developed monotheistic religion.
In Depth: The Legacy of Asia’s First Civilizations. The first civilizations that developed in south Asia and China matched the Mesopotamian civilizations in size, complexity, and longevity. Although much of the Harappan civilization was destroyed and unknown for thousands of years, some legacies (e.g., yoga positions) carried on. In contrast, much from the early Chinese civilizations survived and profoundly influenced the history of that region; of particular note is the Mandate of Heaven and its writing system.
The First Civilizations. The first civilizations established a pattern of division among the world’s peoples. After Homo sapiens spread to almost every corner of the world and then had relatively little contact with each other, separate languages and cultures developed. But by 1000 B.C.E. the Phoenicians traded with Britain and Chinese silk was sold in Egypt. Overall, four distinct centers of civilizations developed: the Middle East, India, China, and Egypt (five if the nascent Olmec civilization is included). Each had important commonalities including trade, writing, and cities, yet was in many ways different from the others. Thus, the duality of common experience and diversity has been part of the human experience for a very long time.