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Early civilizations


  • The term civilization refers to complex societies, but the specific definition is contested.
  • The advent of civilization depended on the ability of some agricultural settlements to consistently produce surplus food, which allowed some people to specialize in non-agricultural work, which in turn allowed for increased production, trade, population, and social stratification.
  • The first civilizations appeared in locations where the geography was favorable to intensive agriculture.
  • Governments and states emerged as rulers gained control over larger areas and more resources, often using writing and religion to maintain social hierarchies and consolidate power over larger areas and populations.
  • Writing allowed for the codification of laws, better methods of record-keeping, and the birth of literature, which fostered the spread of shared cultural practices among larger populations.

Degrees of complexity

Today, almost every city has a supermarket with a wide variety of available foods. We take for granted the fact that people have different types of jobs and that governments exist. But, reliable food sources, specialized work, and governments did not exist for most of human history! They are the products of historical processes that began with the first civilizations several thousand years ago.
A civilization is a complex society that creates agricultural surpluses, allowing for specialized labor, social hierarchy, and the establishment of cities. Developments such as writing, complex religious systems, monumental architecture, and centralized political power have been suggested as identifying markers of civilization, as well. When we see these changes occur, we should stop and ask, “Did people institute these practices because they were beneficial, or were they forced on them?” Historians debate this very question, trying to determine whether civilization was a bottom-up or top-down development.1 Most likely, it was a bit of both.2
Some people think civilization is an advanced stage in the progression of human cultural evolution. But, when historians or anthropologists use the term civilization, they mean a society has many different, interconnected parts. So, rather than thinking about different forms of social organization as completely separate models, it’s helpful to think in terms of a spectrum of complexity. On one end, we have hunter-forager societies—which have little complexity—and on the other end, we have civilizations—which are highly complex. In between lie a wide variety of social structures of varying types and levels of complexity.
Spectrum of social organization: This flow chart shows the least complex form of organized society (hunter-forager) moving to the pastoral/horticultural and finally to civilization as the most complex.

First civilizations

The first civilizations appeared in major river valleys, where floodplains contained rich soil and the rivers provided irrigation for crops and a means of transportation. Foundational civilizations developed urbanization and complexity without outside influence and without building on a pre-existing civilization, though they did not all develop simultaneously. Many later civilizations either borrowed elements of, built on, or incorporated—through conquest—other civilizations. Because foundational civilizations arose independently, they are particularly useful to historians and archaeologists who want to understand how civilization first developed.
Gray world map showing probable areas of independent development of agriculture, in green, in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, China, Peru, Mexico, and North America. Possible routes of diffusion across the globe are drawn in blue.
Map showing probable areas of independent development of agriculture, in green, and possible routes of diffusion. Note that while there is much overlap between these regions and the locations of first civilizations, some areas—like the Indus Valley in northwest India—appear to have developed agriculture after the practice spread to the region. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Geography alone cannot explain the rise of the first civilizations. The process of agricultural intensification had been going on for thousands of years before the first civilizations appeared, and it is important to remember that while agricultural surpluses were necessary for civilization, their existence in a given place did not guarantee that a civilization would develop.3 As civilizations grew, they required increased intensification of agriculture to maintain themselves.4

What do civilizations have in common?

Cities were at the center of all early civilizations. People from surrounding areas came to cities to live, work, and trade. This meant that large populations of individuals who did not know each other lived and interacted with one another. So, shared institutions, such as government, religion, and language helped create a sense of unity and also led to more specialized roles, such as bureaucrats, priests, and scribes.
Cities concentrated political, religious, and social institutions that were previously spread across many smaller, separate communities, which contributed to the development of states.5 A state is an organized community that lives under a single political structure. A present-day country is a state in this sense, for example. Many civilizations either grew alongside a state or included several states. The political structures that states provided were an important factor in the rise of civilizations because they made it possible to mobilize large amounts of resources and labor and also tied larger communities together by connecting them under a common political system.
Early civilizations were often unified by religion—a system of beliefs and behaviors that deal with the meaning of existence. As more and more people shared the same set of beliefs and practices, people who did not know each other could find common ground and build mutual trust and respect.
It was typical for politics and religion to be strongly connected. In some cases, political leaders also acted as religious leaders. In other cases, religious leaders were different from the political rulers but still worked to justify and support the power of the political leaders. In Ancient Egypt, for example, the kings—later called pharaohs—practiced divine kingship, claiming to be representatives, or even human incarnations, of gods.
Both political and religious organization helped to create and reinforce social hierarchies, which are clear distinctions in status between individual people and between different groups. Political leaders could make decisions that impacted entire societies, such as whether to go to war. Religious leaders gained special status since they alone could communicate between a society and its god or gods.
In addition to these leaders, there were also artisans who provided goods and services, and merchants who engaged in the trade of these goods. There were also lower classes of laborers who performed less specialized work, and in some cases there were slaves. All of these classes added to the complexity and economic production of a city.
Writing emerged in many early civilizations as a way to keep records and better manage complex institutions. Cuneiform writing in early Mesopotamia was first used to keep track of economic exchanges. Oracle bone inscriptions in Ancient China seem to have been tied to efforts to predict the future and may have had spiritual associations. Quipu—knotted strings used to keep records and perform calculations—appeared in South America. In all the places where writing developed—no matter its form or purpose—literacy, or the ability to read and write, was limited to small groups of highly educated elites, such as scribes and priests.
Black-and-white drawing of quipu. Fifteen vertical pieces of string are attached to one horizontal rope of string. Each string has one or more knots placed at different junctures along its length.
Is it writing? A quipu was a system of knotted strings that could be used to perform calculations and to record transactions. Evidence for the use of quipu has been found in many Andean cultures over the past several millenia. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Writing offered new methods for maintaining law and order, as well. The first legal codes, or written collections of laws, were the Code of Ur-Nammu from Sumer, written around 2100 to 2050 BCE and the Code of Hammurabi from Babylon, written around 1760 BCE. The benefit of written laws was that they created consistency in the legal system.
Law Code of Hammurabi inscribed on a black stone slab, rounded at the top and rectangular at the bottom. At the rounded top of the slab, taking up about a quarter of the space on the front, is a relief sculpture of two people, one sitting in a throne and wearing an elaborate gown, the other standing with their arms crossed. The lower portion of the slab has law codes written on it in cuneiform.
Law Code of Hammurabi inscribed on basalt stele. If you look closely, you can make out the cuneiform writing in the center. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
This shift toward writing down more information might not seem like a significant development, especially since most people were unable to read or write. However, having consistent, shared records, laws, and literature helped to strengthen ties between increasingly large groups.6
Another notable feature of many civilizations was monumental architecture. This type of architecture was often created for political reasons, religious purposes, or for the public good. The pyramids of Egypt, for example, were monuments to deceased rulers. The ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the pyramids of early American societies were platforms for temples. Defensive walls and sewer systems provided defense and sanitation, respectively.7 Although a few examples of monumental architecture from pre-agricultural societies exist, the greater organization and resources that came with civilization made it much easier to build large structures.
There were many features that early civilizations had in common. Most civilizations developed from agrarian communities that provided enough food to support cities. Cities intensified social hierarchies based on gender, wealth, and division of labor. Some developed powerful states and armies, which could only be maintained through taxes.
Civilization is a tricky concept for many reasons. For one thing, it can be difficult to define what counts as a civilization and what does not, since experts don’t all agree which conditions make up a civilization. For example, people living in the Niger River Valley in West Africa achieved agricultural surplus, urbanization, and some specialization of labor, but they never developed strong social hierarchies, political structures, or written language—so scholars disagree on whether to classify it as a civilization. Also, due to extensive cultural exchange and diffusion of technology, it can be difficult to draw a line where one civilization ends and another begins.
The Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro: Amid the brick ruins of a 3rd-millennium BCE city, stairs descend on two sides into a large, rectangular brick-lined pit. Wooden stakes and wire encircle the perimeter, preventing entry by modern-day tourists.
Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, with the Great Bath in the foreground and the Buddhist Stupa in the background. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

What do you think?

  • When does a complex society become a civilization?
  • What factors were most important to establishing and maintaining a civilization?
  • Do you think that social hierarchies are necessary for civilization?
  • Are state-level political structures necessary for civilization? Or, can independent cities with a shared culture be a civilization?

Want to join the conversation?

  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Tatjana Blumfeld
    What is a horticultural society?
    It's mentioned where the spectrum of social organization is described.
    (24 votes)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Rosie Friedland
      Hi Tatjana! Horticultural is another way of saying an agricultural society. Horticulture is the practice of tending and cultivating plants. It's being compared along with a pastoral society, which involves herding animals, as more complex forms of social org. than hunger-forager societies. Hope this helps!
      (46 votes)
  • leafers seedling style avatar for user Srishti Sethi
    The formation of political structures seems apparent with civilization, but how questioning around human existence may have lead to religious groups?
    (15 votes)
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  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Martin Lupin
    Why the shape of the temples of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica was similar to a pyramid?
    (12 votes)
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  • starky tree style avatar for user KAYLIN167
    So, how do we determine what's writing and what isn't? For example, the Quipu in paragraph thirteen in the article. Would that be considered an ancient form of writing, or a way to calculate certain things? How do we know?
    (12 votes)
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  • old spice man blue style avatar for user Dj
    How could a civilization form like this in such a small period of time?
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Paul G
      Agriculture made it possible for civilization to grow exponentially. Because food is not a challenge anymore (compared to hunter-gatherer societies), people have free time which could lead to specialization in crafts, the arts, and technology. Technology like irrigation and selective breeding of plants with high calories lead to more food, population boom, and more people to do jobs that the society requires. In short, more people means more brains and hands to do any type of work.
      (9 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Rachel
    A complex society becomes a civilization when they begin to establish social organization, religious practices, and begin political groups.
    Factors that were most important to establishing and maintaining a civilization was the gathering of people to do their different jobs. Establishment of cities and shared views.
    I do think that social hierarchies are necessary for civilizations because life would be boring if we were all the same. Also, when people do tough jobs, they should be paid for them.
    I do not think that all state-level political structures are necessary for civilization, I think independent cities with a shared culture can be a civilization.
    (6 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Niuniu
      I think with social hierarchies it's a bit of an oversimplification to chalk everything up to 'life would be boring if we were all the same' or 'people should be paid more for doing tough jobs', hierarchies don't actually exist to benefit those who work harder but only those who are born in positions of power, imo social hierarchies exist to uphold class exploitation
      (7 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Mary Johnson
    When did "marriage" i.e. monogamy come into being?
    (6 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Hecretary Bird
      Some of the earliest instances that we know of a man and woman ceremoniously uniting are found in the Mesopotamia area. In the Talmud and the Bible, there are references to marriage, and we get the idea of the man providing from the woman from hebrew tradition and texts. There really isn't a conclusive answer as to exactly how marriage came into being, but it was probably the need for order and higher stability in early families.
      (4 votes)
  • aqualine sapling style avatar for user Botond Bátorfi
    How did castes emerge? Was it the possessing the required qualities that enabled people to practice some kind of power over the others, or was it about who can make the others "kneel" for them?
    (3 votes)
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    • duskpin tree style avatar for user Nicole Ng
      Well it depends on what type of caste you're talking about. Hinduism has a caste system based on its religion, while castes like feudalism are most likely for socioeconomic order and 'balance' in a society. Castes do just that, order, and if you think about it, we informally have them today in our Western societies in the forms of socioeconomic classes. Considering that most social organisms, especially humans, start out as hierarchal social animals naturally, then I theorize that's where the concept of castes formed.
      (8 votes)
  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user Bekzod Kimsanboev
    When people started agriculture,did people stop travelling because thre was no need to forage anymore? If yes, then how did diffrerent methods of agriculture spread around the world?
    (1 vote)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user baysim
      Agriculture did not spread. Rather, it emerged in the areas suitable to it. In very fertile regions around the Yellow or Indus rivers, for example, agriculture helped bring about a sedentary lifestyle which led to the need for specialization and later on the need for centralized rule. We see agriculture emerging around the world at similar time periods. However, that is just relative to us - agriculture may have arose in one region a couple thousand years before agriculture emerged in another region halfway across the world.

      In places not suitable for agriculture, like the Australian outback, the hunter-gatherer tradition was maintained because there was no incentive to become agrarian. The need to forage still remained in places such as these well after the period we refer to as the Agricultural Revolution occurred.
      (7 votes)
  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user heather reser
    how effective was their trading society? how big did there communities approximately reached/get to be?
    (5 votes)
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