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Social, political, and environmental characteristics of early civilizations


  • The growth of agriculture resulted in intensification, which had important consequences for social organization.
  • Larger groups gave rise to new challenges and required more sophisticated systems of social administration.
  • Complex societies took the forms of larger agricultural villages, cities, city-states, and states, which shared many features.
  • Specialized labor gave rise to distinct social classes and enabled creative and innovative developments.
  • Systems of record-keeping and symbolic expression grew more complex, and many societies had systems of writing.

A new social order

About 12,000 years ago, human communities started to function very differently than in the past. Rather than relying primarily on hunting or gathering food, many societies created systems for producing food. By about 10,000 BCE, humans began to establish agricultural villages.
This had massive ramifications on the social sphere, marking an important departure from past social systems; people lived in larger, denser, and more permanent settlements, and not everyone had to devote their full time to food production. Since there was no need for all residents to devote themselves full time to producing food, specialization within society was made possible. Thus, surplus food, food that did not go directly to farmers’ families, was distributed to members of the society.
Another notable effect of this new social order was the evolution of the idea of ownership; contrary to migrating hunter-gatherer bands, farmers invested a great deal of their time and energy in cultivating specific areas of land, and as such they were attached to them. As this likely lead to disputes, strong leaders and codes of conduct evolved in response.
The advent of agriculture did not happen simultaneously and completely everywhere in the world; some communities adopted farming earlier or more fully than others, and some did not adopt it at all. Despite this variability, however, farming undeniably revolutionized human history. Farming settlements spread rapidly all over the world; humans had foraged for over a million years, and yet, within the last 12,000 years, farming has replaced foraging almost entirely. Very few foraging-based systems survive to this day.
What kinds of social changes resulted from this transformation of food production? The surplus food that agricultural systems could generate allowed for people to live in larger, more permanent villages. Villages were more productive not only agriculturally but creatively. People produced textiles, pottery, buildings, tools, metal work, sculptures, and painting, which were both directly tied to agriculture and to settlement in bigger villages.
A piece of pottery with a geometric design. It is a vessel with a narrow mouth and a wide base, featuring stripes and zig-zag designs in a contrasting dark color on a tan neutral background.
Vessel from Mesopotamia, late Ubaid period (4,500–4,000 BCE). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Farming began a process of intensification, which meant that many more people could be sustained in a given land area since more calories could be produced per acre. As a result, the world population rapidly rose. Between 10,000 and 1000 BCE, the population of the world went from about 6 million to about 120 million. With more people, societies needed to change in unprecedented ways and become more sophisticated with how they organized human life.
While the agricultural revolution certainly had something to do with the development of increasingly complex societies, there is considerable debate about why some agricultural societies ultimately developed into advanced civilizations while others did not. Indeed, in some cases, it seems like complex political orders were the cause rather than the consequence of the development of agricultural systems. Historians and anthropologists are still trying to understand what other variables were at play, such as large-scale irrigation projects, warfare, trade, geography, and competition. Each society grew more complex in response to its own set of environmental, social, and political stimuli.

Larger social group formation

In various parts of the world, including the valleys of the Tigris-Euphrates, Nile, Indus, and Huang rivers, larger and denser settlements began to emerge. These large concentrations of people are referred to as complex societies or civilizations, which share many features, including having a dense population, an agriculture-based economy, a social hierarchy, a division of labor and specialization, a centralized government, monuments, record-keeping and writing, and complex systems of belief.
These complex societies most often took the shape of cities or city-states like Uruk and Ur. These first cities were nexuses of power, production, culture, and innovation. Sustaining these cities was not easy, however. It required extensive and often irreversible manipulation of the surrounding environment in order to extract energy in the form of firewood, materials for building like stone, and resources like food and water. Because of this, these cities were very sensitive to fluctuations in weather and climate. A flood could destroy the entire supply of barley, for example, and a drought could make water supplies worryingly scarce. Because these societies were densely populated, disease, conflict, and shortages were felt even more dramatically. An outbreak of a disease could quickly become an epidemic. In response to these vulnerabilities, these communities developed ways to anticipate the changes in their natural environments, such as storing food and water.
As these small communities developed from small villages to city-states with thousands of residents, they were met with greater challenges and needed to develop mechanisms of social organization to address these obstacles more effectively.

Formation of governments and social classes

Civilizations evoke images of stone walls, monuments, and roads, but they are more than robust physical infrastructure. To facilitate the organization and administration of these large, dense communities, people began to create social infrastructures: economic, political, and religious institutions that created new social hierarchies. These hierarchies were populated with people playing specialized roles, such as professional administrators, farmers, artisans, traders, merchants, and spiritual leaders. Additionally, due to increased trade and conflict with external civilizations, cities required diplomats, armies, and centralized rulers.
In the foreground, low walls built with tan-colored brick and stone, forming the perimeter of rectangular rooms. In the background, a tall copper-colored stone structure, with a wide base and a tapering top.
The ruins of Ancient Ur of Sumer, one of the world's earliest cities, with the Ziggurat of Ur visible in the background. Located in present-day Tell el-Mukayyar in Iraq. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Most cities grew out of villages, and some ultimately became city-states, which are self-governing urban centers and the agricultural territories under their control. The surplus food production generated by villages in the vicinity allowed for some residents not to participate in food production, which led to the development of distinct specialized roles and associated classes.
In order to facilitate cooperation between these many different classes and to organize large numbers of people to work together for the large-scale construction of irrigation systems, monuments, and other projects, leaders were required, comprising a new social class. Political leadership would take many different forms in the first civilizations, though powerful states, centralized systems of government and command, were the norm.

What do you think?

Why do you think some societies adopted agriculture while others did not? Why do you think some agricultural societies did not develop into advanced civilizations?
Do you think agricultural systems created cities and states in every case, or is there evidence that states often created the conditions for agricultural systems?
What kinds of political orders do you think were most common in early complex societies and why?
What effects do you think cities had on the environment?
What do we mean when we talk about civilizations? Define what constitutes a civilization in your own words.

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user laihuaqing
    Which places did not adapt agriculture or pastoralism? Not including those who left from already established agriculture or pastoralism, I mean socities who had never learned about either or chose not to adopt it.
    (44 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Unkle Funkle
      To this day there are several communities that are still living Hunter-Gatherer lifestyles. This includes some Inuit groups, several indigenous Australian groups, many Central African tribes, several island cultures, and surely there are more that I am not recalling.

      There are regions where the available resources did not allow for the sort of food production efficiency that we see in other areas. If there is not ample fertile land or game that would be easily and efficiently domesticated, it could be true that an agricultural revolution would not be ideal. There are several drawbacks to agricultural and pastoral lifestyles, that for these communities would not be worth the effort.
      (61 votes)
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user Leila Angalean
    Is there any way for us to know how these civilizations functioned? It is safe to make educated guesses that there was a social hierarchy and roles that were carried out by the more capable and suited for individual tasks, but how do we know for sure?

    An interesting question would be how these social hierarchies worked. Were jobs determined by gender, the physically stronger or weaker, the oldest or youngest? What defined the leader or head of the group--the person at the top of the pecking order? Could it have been determined by the elder in the group? The strongest? The most experienced?

    Much like a herd of wild horses, people look to a strong leader to trust and make decisions for the whole herd. How strong of an authority would a leader have? The rights to banish people from the village? To assign jobs? Even to take wives, assuming the leader is male. Would the leader make the call as to adopt agriculture or pastoralism for the village?

    Were physically smaller or weaker people given jobs that would fit into their physical capabilities, or were they pushed to the side, even banished? In that time period, the strong survived. In short, if you fell behind, you were left behind.

    What was the extent of medical knowledge or care? Did civilizations have a healer who would provide the sick or injured with a medicine of some kind such as specific herbs or plants? Were wounds cared for or treated? What were they treated with?

    A very interesting topic! ;-)
    (17 votes)
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    • hopper cool style avatar for user Wanli Tan
      Lots of questions, Leila!
      Firstly, most societies were actually matriarchal, or that females>males. By that time, agriculture was developed. Women farmed, producing rice and wheat, while men produced the protein needed. However, hunting was often unsuccessful and unreliable. The women were able to provide food, compared to the men. They became the leaders. It won't be until when hunting got easier and there was the concept of like mining and stuff that reversed the social structure.
      Depending on civilization, basic medical care was provided, using herbs. I don't know the specifics.
      I believe that people were given jobs based on their ability, and obviously, gender.
      (7 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Ellen Holland
    One of the things I've always wanted to know: How did people know what they could eat without it killing them? How did they know what they could plant that would sustain them? Is it known when people started using herbs for healing as well as eating?
    (6 votes)
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  • mr pink red style avatar for user Wolfgang Bauer
    Isn't it a guess to talk about "specialized roles" in the early agricultural societies. I could imagine that all strong men and women defended their fields and villages in a conflict with invaders/hunters/foragers, while in peace you could do part-time farming, part-time handcrafts. Only with larger settlements (cities) specialization was necessary and wanted.
    (5 votes)
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    • piceratops tree style avatar for user Dan Vedda
      You're right, Wolfgang, it IS a guess, but it's supported by known history from later societies, aboriginal tribes that survive, and straightforward logic. It's reasonable, for example, to assume that there were differing talents in any group. There will be stronger or smarter individuals. Some individuals might have better aim with a bow or spear, while others came up with a better method for planting or a sturdier version of a water vessel. I also suspect that life (for the most part) wasn't constant conflict or war,, either. While roving bands might cause trouble, it's likely that many early groups came together for mutual welfare in sparsely populated areas. There would be an obvious benefit to alignment with a group, and individuals would have to "earn their keep" to stay. It's unlikely groups tolerated anyone who showed up to eat and did nothing in return. Yet not everyone would be good at handcrafts (any more than we'd see today) nor would everyone be a good hunter. But there would be children to take care of shelters to build, water to carry, clothes of some sort to make, etc. So those best suited would likely make the contribution they could do best, whether that was fashioning tools or preserving or cooking food. Even in Native American tribal life these specializations were observed. It is true, as you say, that once there were "cities" specialization did become more necessary, more varied, and increasingly complex and hierarchical.
      (10 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user gumball 2000
    Wouldn't they speak different languages so it would be hard to communicate?
    (4 votes)
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  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user Bekzod Kimsanboev
    WHY people divided labor?
    Let's say even if someone produced enough food for the entire folk, others had to have something in exchange to buy(get) those products produced by farmers, so they had to come up with something new, hence wouldn't it be easier for them to do farming to rather than sit and contemplate what new they could do?
    (2 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user baysim
      You are correct to a degree. Specialization and the division of labor still favored farming in this new agricultural lifestyle. About 90% of the population in any region give or take would be farmers. But while the Agricultural Revolution benefited humans as a whole and is the cause for the tenfold increase of our population from previously, the lives of 90% of the people (the farmers) worsened. It is still apparent today that our bodies are still not completely suited to the agrarian diet. Not only is the agrarian diet worse because it lacks the diversity in food that the forager diet had, the farmers also had to work overtime to produce more food for a more rapidly increasing population. So ultimately, while ten times more food could be extracted from the same given area (thus increasing the food supply and contributing to an increase in population), the food quality worsened and it took more work per farmer to feed an ever growing population.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user kkz2005
    I think some places did not adopt agriculture because they either had not heard about it,
    We're not advanced enough for it, were small enough to were they did not have to, or they like the Hunter gather thing
    (4 votes)
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  • winston baby style avatar for user Robert James Battam
    For civilisation, personally I think of large scale, i.e. much more than just hunting and gathering societies, there has to be agriculture, different structures for different types of trades/crafts/services, and a temple / political area. Something of a town to city scale, rather than just people congregated in camps.

    As far as reasons for not advancing further than just agriculture. I mean there's so many variables, one could be, perhaps the area was ok for crops but there was no contact with anyone to trade, or perhaps there was no other materials other than wood or rock in their local area, which limited their tools and trades to a certain age of technology.

    The other reason is maybe some cultures just couldn't be bothered advancing and were happy as they were, or just maybe it just didn't occur to them as a possibility or requirement. They also may not have had many wars and didn't feel any need to advance at the time.

    I think wars and trade, made people realise the other things they could build and make. They would have seen other people's buildings and items and wanted those things too, they would have seen armies with better weapons and wanted to know how to make it, leading them to learn about better technology.

    The urgency that comes with battle of needing to survive, would have pressured some cultures to advance.
    (4 votes)
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  • marcimus purple style avatar for user Abigils Previlon
    The development of farming and trade allowed early people in the Americas to build?
    (3 votes)
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  • starky sapling style avatar for user aaliya
    One of the things I've always wanted to know: How did people know what they could eat without it killing them? How did they know what they could plant that would sustain them? Is it known when people started using herbs for healing as well as eating?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Hungry people will eat whatever they can get past their taste buds and into their stomachs. If that thing tastes bad, they won't swallow it. If it makes them sick, or makes them die, they won't eat it again, and those who associated someone's swallowing a thing with death, won't try it.
      People were living for thousands of years, eating what they found or killed, before anyone planted anything.

      Since they ate whatever didn't kill them, they discovered what helped them, including herbs.
      (1 vote)