Civilization is a way of life that arose after people began to live in cities or in societies organized as states. The word comes from the Latin word civis, which means citizen of a city. A civilization consists of the art, customs, technology, form of government, and everything else that makes up the way of life in a society. In this respect, civilization is similar to culture. But culture refers to any way of life and includes both simple and complex life styles. The word civilization refers only to life styles that feature complex economic, governmental, and social systems. Therefore, every human being lives within a culture, but not everyone lives within a civilization.
Throughout history, individual civilizations have arisen and collapsed, but the basic features of civilization do not disappear. Ideas and inventions spread from one civilization to another. In many cases, similar developments occur independently in different civilizations.
How civilizations develop. During most of the prehistoric period, people lived in small groups and moved from place to place in search of food. They hunted, fished, and gathered wild plants. These early people had a simple social organization based on close family ties. Between 13,000 and 10,000 years ago, some societies of hunters and gatherers in the Middle East adopted more settled ways of life and developed social organizations based on larger, more formal groups. All of these societies developed in areas with predictable seasonal supplies of such foods as fish and easily gathered plant foods. Some archaeologists believe that the social changes occurred in part because certain grain plants became more plentiful near the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. The technology and social organizations of some of these more advanced societies served as a foundation for later farming societies.
About 9000 B.C., people in the Middle East began to cultivate cereal grasses and other plants. They also domesticated goats and sheep at about this time, and they later tamed cattle. In Southeast Asia, people had begun raising crops by about 7000 B.C. People in what is now Mexico also learned to grow crops by about 7000 B.C. The rise of agriculture was a major step in the development of civilization. Farmers settled in permanent villages, which had enough food to support a few craft workers and priests. Periodic food shortages led to increased trade among villages. The villagers exchanged grain, pottery, and various raw materials. By about 3500 B.C., people in the Middle East had learned to smelt copper and make bronze tools and weapons. The demand for metal ore increased, and priests and chieftains gained greater control over trade. Gradually, villages in the Middle East grew into cities. Religious shrines and sacred places, which flourished as ceremonial sites, became the centers of economic and political power in the emerging cities. Several civilizations developed independently in various parts of the world. The first one arose about 3500 B.C. in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley in the Middle East. Other civilizations developed in the Nile Valley in Egypt, the Indus Valley in what are now Pakistan and northwestern India, the Huang He Valley in China, and the Andes Mountains of present-day Peru. These ancient civilizations grew up in widely different natural environments. The people developed systems of writing and new forms of government, made advances in science and technology, and excelled in crafts and art.
Why civilizations rise and fall Philosophers, historians, and archaeologists have suggested many reasons for the rise and fall of civilizations. Georg W. F. Hegel, a German philosopher of the early 1800’s, compared societies to individuals who pass the torch of civilization from one to another. During this process, according to Hegel, civilization develops through three stages: (1) rule by one person, a dictator; (2) rule by one class of society; and (3) rule by all the people. Hegel believed the process eventually results in freedom for all people. The German philosopher Oswald Spengler thought civilizations, like living things, are born, mature, and die. In The Decline of the West (1918-1922), he wrote that Western civilization is dying and will be replaced by a new Asian civilization.
The British historian Arnold Toynbee proposed his theory of challenge and response in A Study of History (1934-1961). Toynbee believed that civilizations arise only where the environment challenges the people, and only when the people are ready to respond to the challenge. For example, a hot, dry climate makes land unsuitable for farming and represents a challenge to people who live there. The people may respond to this challenge by building irrigation systems to improve the land. Toynbee suggested that civilizations collapse when the people lose their creativity.
Most archaeologists attribute the rise of civilizations to a combination of causes, including the structure of political and social life, the ways people modify their environment, and changes in population. In many cases, civilizations may have appeared because local chieftains took deliberate steps to strengthen their own political power. Many scientists believe that political forces and the misuse of land and other natural resources resulted in the economic and political collapse of early civilizations.
World, History of the People have probably lived on the earth about 2 million years. But the story of world history begins only about 5,500 years ago with the invention of writing. The period before people began to write is usually called prehistory.
Archaeologists have pieced together the story of prehistory by studying what the people left behind, including artwork, tools, ruins of buildings, fossils, and even their own skeletons. Such objects provide the main evidence of what prehistoric people were like and how they lived. For a description of life in prehistoric times, see PRE-HISTORIC PEOPLE.
The first traces of writing date from about 3500 B.C. From then on, people could record their own history. By writing down their experiences, they could tell future generations what they were like and how they lived. From these documents, we can learn firsthand about the rise and fall of civilizations and the course of other important events. The history of the world–from the first civilizations to the present–is based largely on what has been written down by peoples through the ages. The development of agriculture about 9,000 B.C. brought about a great revolution in human life. Prehistoric people who learned to farm no longer had to roam in search of food. Instead, they could settle in one place. Some of their settlements grew to become the world’s first cities. People in the cities learned new skills and developed specialized occupations. Some became builders and craft workers. Others became merchants and priests. Eventually, systems of writing were invented. These developments gave rise to the first civilizations.
For hundreds of years, the earliest civilizations had little contact with one another and so developed independently. The progress each civilization made depended on the natural resources available to it and on the inventiveness of its people. As time passed, civilizations advanced and spread, and the world’s population rose steadily. The peoples of various civilizations began to exchange ideas and skills. Within each civilization, groups of people with distinctive customs and languages emerged. In time, some peoples, such as the Romans, gained power over others and built huge empires. Some of these empires flourished for centuries before collapsing. Great religions and later science and scholarship developed as people wondered about the meaning of human life and the mysteries of nature. About 500 years ago, one civilization–that of western Europe–started to exert a powerful influence throughout the world. The Europeans began to make great advances in learning and the arts, and they came to surpass the rest of the world in scientific and technological achievements. The nations of Europe sent explorers and military forces to distant lands. They set up overseas colonies, first in the Americas and then on other continents, and conquered other regions. As a result, Western customs, skills, political ideas, and religious beliefs spread across much of the world.
Today, the many peoples of the world continue to be separated by different cultural traditions. But they also have more in common than ever before. Worldwide systems of communications and transportation have broken down barriers of time and distance and rapidly increased the exchange of ideas and information between peoples. However far apart people may live from one another, they are affected more and more by the same political and economic changes. In some way, almost everyone can now be affected by a war or a political crisis in a faraway land or by a rise in petroleum prices in distant oil-producing countries. The separate cultures of the world seem to be blending into a common world culture. Much of world history is the story of the way different civilizations have come closer together.
Early centers of civilization
For hundreds of thousands of years, prehistoric people lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants. Even small groups of people had to roam over large areas of land to find enough food. A group usually stayed in one place only a few days. The discovery of agriculture gradually ended the nomadic way of life for many people. After prehistoric men and women learned to raise crops and domesticate animals, they no longer had to wander about in search of food. They could thus begin to settle in villages.
Agriculture was developed at different times in different regions of the world. People in the Middle East began to grow cereal grasses and other plants about 9000 B.C. They also domesticated goats and sheep at about that time, and they later tamed cattle. In southeastern Asia, people had begun raising crops by about 7000 B.C. People who lived in what is now Mexico probably learned to grow crops about 7000 B.C. The invention of farming paved the way for the development of civilization. As prehistoric people became better farmers, they began to produce enough food to support larger villages. In time, some farming villages developed into the first cities. The plentiful food supplies enabled more and more people to give up farming for other jobs. These people began to develop the arts, crafts, trades, and other activities of civilized life.
Agriculture also stimulated technological and social changes. Farmers invented the hoe, sickle, and other tools to make their work easier. The hair of domestic animals and fibers from such plants as cotton and flax were used to make the first textiles. People built ovens to bake the bread they made from cultivated grain and learned to use hotter ovens to harden pottery. The practice of agriculture required many people to work together to prepare the fields for planting and to harvest the crops. New systems of government were developed to direct such group activities.
The changes brought about by agriculture took thousands of years to spread widely across the earth. By about 3500 B.C., civilization began. It started first in Southwest Asia. Three other early civilizations developed in Africa and in south and east Asia. All these early civilizations arose in river valleys, where fertile soil and a readily available water supply made agriculture easier than elsewhere. The valleys were (1) the Tigris-Euphrates Valley in the Middle East, (2) the Nile Valley in Egypt, (3) the Indus Valley in India, Part of in Present Pakistan, and (4) the Huang He Valley in northern China.
While civilization was developing in the four valleys, people in most other parts of the world were still following their old ways of life. Little cultural progress was being made in such regions as northern and central Europe, central and southern Africa, northern and southeastern Asia, and most of North America. In parts of Central and South America, the people were developing some new ways of life. But advanced civilizations did not appear there until hundreds of years later.
The Tigris-Euphrates Valley One of the most fertile regions of the ancient world lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Mesopotamia (now Iraq). Silt deposited by the rivers formed a rich topsoil ideal for growing crops. By the 5000’s B.C., many people had settled in villages in the lower part of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, an area later called Sumer. The Sumerians lived by farming, fishing, and hunting the wild fowl of the river marshes. They built dikes to control the flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and irrigation canals to carry water to their fields. By about 3500 B.C., some Sumerian farm villages had grown into small cities, which marked the beginning of the world’s first civilization. A number of these cities developed into powerful city-states by about 3200 B.C.
The Sumerians produced one of the greatest achievements in world history. By about 3500 B.C., they had invented the first form of writing. It consisted of picture like symbols scratched into clay. The symbols were later simplified to produce cuneiform, a system of writing that used wedge-shaped characters. Archaeologists have found thousands of clay tablets with Sumerian writings. These tablets show the high level of development of the Sumerian culture. They include historical and legal documents; letters; economic records; literary and religious texts; and studies in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.
The Sumerians used baked bricks to build great palaces and towering temples called ziggurats in their cities. They believed that their gods lived on the tops of the ziggurats. Sumerian craft workers produced board games, beautifully designed jewelry, metal ware, musical instruments, decorative pottery, and stone seals engraved with pictures and inscriptions. The Sumerians invented the potter’s wheel and were among the first people to brew beer and make glass. Their system of counting in units of 60 is the basis of the 360-degree circle and the 60-minute hour. For more information on the Sumerian civilization. The Sumerian city-states had no central government or unified army and continually struggled among themselves for power. As time passed, they were increasingly threatened by neighboring Semitic peoples, who were attracted by the growing wealth of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. During the 2300’s B.C., a Semitic king, Sargon of Akkad, conquered Sumer. Sargon united all Mesopotamia under his rule, creating the world’s first empire. The Akkadians combined Sumerian civilization with their own culture. Their rule lasted more than 60 years. Then invaders from the northeast overran the empire. These invaders soon left Mesopotamia, and Sumer was once again divided into separate city-states. One city-state, Ur, briefly controlled all the others.
By about 2000 B.C., the Sumerians had completely lost all political power to invading Semites. Mesopotamia then broke up into a number of small kingdoms under various Semitic rulers. The city of Babylon became the center of one kingdom. The Babylonian rulers gradually extended their authority over all Mesopotamian peoples. The greatest Babylonian king was Hammurabi, who ruled from about 1792 to 1750 B.C. Hammurabi developed one of the first law codes in history. The famous Code of Hammurabi contained nearly 300 legal provisions, including many Sumerian and Akkadian laws. It covered such matters as divorce, false accusation, land and business regulations, and military service.
The Nile Valley The civilization of ancient Egypt began to develop in the valley of the Nile River about 3100 B.C. Agriculture flourished in the valley, where the floodwaters of the Nile deposited rich soil year after year. Beyond the Nile Valley lay an uninhabited region of desert and rock. Egyptian culture thus developed with little threat of invasions by neighboring peoples.
During the 3000’s B.C., Egypt consisted of two large kingdoms. Lower Egypt covered the Nile Delta. Upper Egypt lay south of the delta on the two banks of the river. About 3100 B.C., according to legend, King Menes of Upper Egypt conquered Lower Egypt and united the two kingdoms. Menes also founded the first Egyptian dynasty (series of rulers in the same family). The rulers of ancient Egypt were believed to be divine. The ancient Egyptians borrowed little from other cultures. They invented their own form of writing–an elaborate system of symbols known as hieroglyphics. They also invented papyrus, a paper like material made from the stems of reeds. The Egyptians developed one of the first religions to emphasize life after death. They tried to make sure their dead enjoyed a good life in the next world. The Egyptians built great tombs and mummified (embalmed and dried) corpses to preserve them. They filled the tombs with clothing, food, furnishings, and jewelry for use in the next world. The most famous Egyptian tombs are gigantic pyramids in which the kings were buried. The pyramids display the outstanding engineering and surveying skills of the Egyptians. The government organized thousands of workers to construct the pyramids, as well as temples and palaces, in the Egyptian cities. The cities served chiefly as religious and governmental centers for the surrounding countryside. Most of the people lived in villages near the cities.
Over the years, huge armies of conquering Egyptians expanded the kingdom’s boundaries far beyond the Nile Valley. At its height in the 1400’s B.C., Egypt ruled Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and part of the Sudan. As a powerful state at the junction of Asia and Africa, Egypt played an important role in the growth of long-distance trade. Egyptian caravans carried goods throughout the vast desert regions surrounding the kingdom. Egyptian ships sailed to all the major ports of the ancient world. From other lands, the Egyptians acquired gems, gold, ivory, leopard skins, fine woods, and other rich materials, which they used to create some of the most magnificent art of ancient times. Although the ancient Egyptians had contacts with other cultures, their way of life changed little over thousands of years. Their civilization gradually declined, and the Egyptians found it harder and harder to resist invaders who had greater vigor and better weapons. Egyptian records from the 1200’s and 1100’s B.C. describe constant attacks by “sea peoples.” These peoples may have come from islands in the Aegean Sea or from lands along the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. After 1000 B.C., power struggles between rival Egyptian dynasties further weakened the kingdom.
The Indus Valley Historians have only partly translated the writings left behind by the ancient civilization that arose in the valley of the Indus River and its tributaries. As a result, they have had to rely almost entirely on archaeological findings for information about the Indus culture. The ruins of two large cities-Mohenjo-Daro (also spelled Moenjo Daro) and Harappa–tell much about the Indus Valley civilization. In addition, the remains of hundreds of small settlements have been discovered in the valley. Some of these settlements were farming villages, and others were seaports and trading posts.
Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa probably had more than 35,000 inhabitants each by about 2500 B.C. The people of the Indus Valley had a well-developed system of agriculture that provided food for the large population. They dug ditches and canals to irrigate their farms. The Indus cities had brick buildings and well-planned streets laid out in rectangular patterns. Elaborate brick-lined drainage systems provided sanitation for the towns. Craft workers made decorated furniture, fine jewelry, metal utensils, toys, and stone seals engraved with animal and human forms. Inscriptions on these seals, as well as on some pottery and a few other objects, provide the only traces of Indus writing known at present. Archaeologists have discovered that standardized sizes of bricks and uniform weights and measures were used throughout the Indus Valley. The Indus settlements traded with one another and with foreign cultures. Traces of seals used on goods from the Indus Valley have been found as far away as Mesopotamia. The Indus people probably also traded with people of central Asia, southern India, and Persia.
Between 2000 and 1750 B.C., the Indus Valley civilization began to decay. Scholars do not know why this process of decay took place. Changing river patterns may have disrupted the agriculture and economy of the region. Overuse of the land along the riverbanks also may have damaged the territory. By about 1700 B.C., the Indus civilization had disappeared. The Huang He Valley. The earliest written records of Chinese history date from the Shang dynasty, which arose in the valley of the Huang He during the 1700’s B.C. The records consist largely of writings scratched on animal bones and turtle shells. The bones and shells, known as oracle bones, were used in religious ceremonies to answer questions about the future. After a question was written on an oracle bone, a small groove or hole was made in the bone. The bone was then heated so that cracks ran outward from the groove or hole. By studying the pattern of the cracks, a priest worked out the answer to the question. Thousands of oracle bones have been found. They provide much information about the ancient Chinese. Many of the bones record astronomical events, such as eclipses of the sun and moon, and the names and dates of rulers. The system of writing used by the Shang people had more than 3,000 characters. Some characters on the oracle bones closely resemble those of the present-day Chinese language.
Little remains of the cities of the Shang period. Most of the buildings were made of mud or wood and have long since crumbled away. However, the foundations of pounded earth survive and indicate that some of the cities were fairly large and surrounded by high walls. The people of the Shang period cast beautiful bronze vessels. They also carved marble and jade and wove silk. The Shang people had many gods. They attached great importance to ties of kinship and worshiped the spirits of their ancestors. They believed that their ancestors could plead with the gods on their behalf. The Shang people were governed by a king and a hereditary class of aristocrats. The king and the nobility carried out religious as well as political duties. However, only the king could perform the most important religious ceremonies. The Shang leaders organized armies of as many as 5,000 men and equipped them with bronze weapons and horse-drawn war chariots. They used their armies to control the other peoples of the Huang He Valley. The Shang ruled much of the valley for about 600 years.