Chapter Summary

By the late fourth millennium BCE, the city of Uruk in the southernmost part of the Mesopotamian alluvium had a population of at least 10,000 inhabitants and had grown into an immense commercial and administrative center. As the first city, Uruk marked a new phase in human development.

Settlement, Pastoralism, and Trade

Around 3500 BCE, a series of cultural changes, demographic leaps, and technological innovations enabled complex, hierarchical societies to form, which were reinforced by the emergence of cities and their institutions. Fertile soils, access to water for irrigation, and the widespread availability of domesticated plants and animals allowed the emergence of dense settlements in which labor specialization and craftwork also formed. Most inhabitants engaged in activities other than food production, and soon the goods manufactured were traded with outlying areas and beyond.


Cities first emerged along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Indus River, and the Nile River. With these cities was established the urban-rural divide; however, the two ways of life remained dependant on each other as food products were exchanged for needed urban-produced goods. In addition, new technologies such as the wheel and writing were invented or exploited more effectively.


Most people still lived in small villages.

The Americas In some locations environmental factors limited the growth of settlements. In the Americas thousands of small settlements dotted seashores and riverbanks. People fished, gathered, and hunted for their survival, growing some crops to supplement their diet. In some areas, trade developed between coastal and inland peoples.

Sub-Saharan Africa Similar patterns appeared in Africa, where settlements formed alongside lakes and rivers. Some crop cultivation, along with hunting and gathering, provided the basic food for survival. Although widely dispersed, settlements did trade with one another and maintain cultural contacts.


Across Afro-Eurasia, pastoral nomadic communities emerged that herded domesticated animals with sizable grazing requirements. These small communities migrated annually between pasturelands, living alongside and trading with settled agrarian peoples. In the arid lands of the central Afro-Eurasia steppes, extensive herding of cattle and sheep across vast swaths of lands promoted the horse as a crucial component of survival.


The cities of southern Mesopotamia lacked many basic raw materials and established outposts near the site of needed resources in order to facilitate long-distance trade. Trade and exchange increased, and trading communities grew, some serving as entrepôts for trade among several different communities. Caravans of animals carried goods across the deserts, steppes, and forests of Afro-Eurasia.

Between The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers: Mesopotamia

In the Mesopotamian river basin, the breakthrough occurred that allowed the world’s first cities to emerge.


The great technological innovation in Mesopotamia was in irrigation. The flooding waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers deposited rich silt in its alluvial plain, and farmers developed a system of levees, canals, and water-lifting devices to control these rivers and to store water for the period of the growing season when it was needed. The result was verdant fields that produced high crop yields.


Lacking most natural resources, Mesopotamia had to trade with the inhabitants of the surrounding regions. Its open borders on all sides facilitated such trade but also left Mesopotamia vulnerable to invaders from the deserts and mountains. As a result, Mesopotamia became a crossroads and a meeting ground for the people of western Asia.


By 3500 BCE, the earliest cities emerged in southern Mesopotamia. These cities had evolved over a period of about 1,000 years, building and rebuilding on the same locations. These cities served as meeting places and became devotional and economic centers. Cities increasingly were designed as places to give homage to gods and their kingly representatives, with the temple at the city’s center and palaces and other official buildings on the periphery. The cities grew and expanded, bound together by a common culture, trade, and a shared environment, which was shaped by the nearby rivers.


In the Sumerian and Akkadian worldview, gods controlled everything and acted capriciously and contentiously. Each major god had its home in a particular city, and rulers lavished resources on the construction and adornment of temples as the home of the local god and symbol of urban identity. By the end of the third millennium BCE, temples were established on stepped platforms called ziggurats and were surrounded by buildings that housed priests, officials, and servants. Temples functioned like large households, with agricultural, workshop, and commercial activities.


The palace as an institution and as a physical structure appeared about 1,000 years after the first cities and their temples developed. Nevertheless, the palace quickly joined the temple as a defining landmark and a rival for power. The two rivals often blurred as rulers also doubled as sacred figures, especially using burial rituals to establish their status as gods. As the military and administrative authorities of rulers grew and as these rulers expanded the influence of cities, the balance of power among Mesopotamian cities was disrupted.


The need for socially organized labor to build, maintain, and finance irrigation systems required communal organization. Initially run by assemblies of elders and young men, the city-states soon developed permanent elite power holders who erected systems of bureaucracies, priesthoods, and laws to secure their privileged positions. Households often acted together as closed economic units, and property was held collectively by the household. The Sumerian household was hierarchical, with the senior male as the dominant figure. Gaining a male heir was central to families, either through birth by a wife, or, failing that, a second wife or slave girl brought into the house to bear a male child, or, failing that, through adoption.


Precursors to writing in Mesopotamia occurred when officials who used clay tokens with carved images to seal off storage areas began to use them to convey meaning. When someone realized that the images could represent words and then distinct sounds, writing emerged as a symbol of marks that recorded discrete sounds. Scribes began to connect symbols with sounds and sounds with meaning, which enabled them to record and transmit messages through abstract symbols and signs. Scribes developed a system of writing called cuneiform, in which a cut reed made wedged impressions into wet clay. Writing significantly enhanced the ability of elites to trade goods, control property, and transmit ideas. Only a tiny scribal elite mastered the complex cuneiform script. By around 2400 BCE, texts recorded economic transactions and political events and spawned the first written narratives of a “people” and their origins. Cuneiform was adaptable to different languages, aiding its use among elites throughout northern and southern Mesopotamia.


Urbanization spread northward in Mesopotamia, developing distinct economic, political, and social organizations in these lands. Meanwhile, in southern Mesopotamia, Sargon the Great unified the independent cities, forging a single political, economic, and cultural alliance in a land called Akkad. Thus marked the arrival of the first multiethnic collection of urban centers—the territorial state. Under Sargon, Mesopotamia’s culture had expanding influence as distant neighbors sought to copy its monumental architecture, artworks, and literary works. His empire, however, only lasted for three generations as tribesmen from the Zagros Mountains conquered the capital city around 2190 BCE.

The Indus River Valley: A Parallel Culture

Mesopotamia connected the Indus Valley and the Nile Valley by trade routes, but the peoples of these two regions created their own distinctive cultures and societies. In the Indus River basin of the third millennium BCE, Harappan society formed, merging strong local traditions with significant influences from the people of the Iranian plateau (and indirect influences from Mesopotamia). The Harappan people fortified their cities and embarked on a system of public works. The favorable physical environment of the Indus Valley assured Harappans plentiful supplies of water and rich alluvium for planting. Surplus production freed many inhabitants from agricultural labor, and rural wealth soon produced urban splendor. Cities appeared by 2500 BCE, reaching populations of 35,000.


Our knowledge of Harappan culture is more limited than our knowledge of its contemporary cultures in Mesopotamia and Egypt, in large measure because many Harappan remains are now inaccessible to archeologists and because scholars have not been able to identify the spoken language of the Harappans. Harappan cities were well planned, with drainage systems and fortified citadels, and were frequently made of brick in their construction.


Harappan trade extended inland to the Iranian plateau and along the coast as far as Mesopotamia. Settlements were established to secure access to valuable raw materials, such as copper and gemstones. A standardized system of weights and measures facilitated trade, which suggests the Harappans lived in a centralized and structured state. Yet they appear not to have built palaces or grand royal tombs or other types of monumental structures.

“The Gift of the Nile”: Egypt

Ancient Egypt was a melting pot that included immigrants from the deserts east and west of the Nile River, as well as those who came from the Mediterranean region and those who trekked northward from central Africa. These people concentrated into the narrow band of land along the Nile and its delta because it supported agricultural cultivation.


Beginning in the highlands of central Africa, the Nile River carries rich silt along its long path to the Mediterranean Sea. The river’s flooding created a green belt along the riverbanks, thus binding Egyptian society closely to the river itself. The different origins of the Nile’s two forks assured both the needed annual flooding (the Blue Nile) and a constant supply of water (the White Nile). The Egyptians built flood basins to capture the Nile’s summer flood waters. Rich silt would be deposited in the basins, and then the water would be drained away, leaving rich fields for planting. These basic systems of water management did not require state planning.


Somewhat isolated by its physical environment, the region along the Nile River south of the first cataract developed a sense of a common destiny. The region was largely self-sufficient, with abundant resources, and additional resources were available along the river to the south. The primary task of the pharaohs was to bring ma’at, stability and order, out of the dualistic forces that shaped Upper and Lower Egypt.


Egypt grew rapidly once the Nile was harnessed for agriculture. The king protected the Egyptians from raiders to the east and south and ensured that the regular flooding of the Nile occurred. An elaborate bureaucracy emerged that organized labor and produced public works. Modern scholars organize the history of Egypt into three dynastic eras—the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom—divided by Intermediate Periods in which central authority broke down.


By the beginning of the Old Kingdom (2649 BCE), the basic institutions and ideology of the Egyptian state were established. The ruler was responsible for the well-being of the people. A possessor of divine powers, the king was to behave like a god—serene, orderly, and merciful. Impressive architectural spaces were created in which kings performed royal ceremonies. King Djoser and his architect Imhotep created the first step pyramid, which stood at the center of a walled precinct that served as a stage for royal rituals. The ideology emphasized the underlying unity of the various regions of the Nile River while the cosmic order was seen as starkly hierarchical. Pyramid building evolved rapidly and required vast labor. Peasants and workers were required to work for the state at certain times of the year, and their labor was augmented by slaves.


Cults of the Gods Every region in Egypt had its resident god, who combined various aspects and was represented by animal and human figures. Official religious practices took place at main temples. Kings and priests cared for the gods and their temples and in return the gods maintained order and gave sustenance to the king and all humanity through him. The goal of religious practice was to preserve the cosmic order, which required constant efforts on the part of worshippers.

The Priesthood The priests held a highly privileged status in Egyptian society. The priests mobilized the channels of communication between spiritual powers and their subjects, ensuring that Egyptians embraced subservience to the priesthood. Common Egyptian people established and cared for local shrines at which they worshipped.

Magical Powers Magic held an important place in the lives of commoners, as they relied on amulets, omens, and divination to address the most profound questions of life.


By the middle of the third millennium BCE, literacy was firmly established among the small body of scribes, raising their social status. Two basic forms of Egyptian writing emerged. Hieroglyphs were employed exclusively in religious or royal contexts. A cursive script written on papyrus also developed, called demotic writing. More widely used than hieroglyphs, demotic writing was used for administrative record keeping, private letter writing, works of literature, poetry, mathematical texts, and numerous other purposes. Literacy was highly prized by the upper classes, who viewed it as a mark of intellectual achievement.


Egypt’s population expanded steadily under pharaonic rule because the state successfully managed agriculture and labor through a large bureaucracy. Such growth created a culture resistant to change. Numerous metropolitan centers emerged, though none as large as the Mesopotamian cities. As a land somewhat isolated, Egypt did not require large trading cities.


Lacking a dominant city, the Egyptian state became more dispersed over time and allowed local variation and adaptation. In addition, Egypt’s power extended to the east, west, and south, yet this expansion exposed the weakness of the state. Bickering among factions of the political elite shook the state, and royal power collapsed after the death of Pepy II in 2152 BCE. Local magnates assumed control of the government in some provinces, and local leaders plunged into bloody regional struggles. Egypt had entered the First Intermediate Period.

The Yellow and Yangzi River Basins: East Asia

The riverine societies in China emerged more slowly than those in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley. The abundance of food along the Yellow and Yangzi River basin resulted in communities being dispersed. In addition, the relative geographic isolation of China prevented the large-scale movements of populations and ideas into China.


In the Yangshao culture along the Yellow River, preliterate signs and markings appeared long before similar markings were used in Mesopotamia, but greater complexity only appeared in China as nomads from the Mongolian steppes brought in such innovations as bronze in the second millennium BCE. The existence of the Longshan people provides evidence that the cultures of the Yellow River valley were developing, and its peoples were coming in greater contact with one another. Interregional links between northern and southern China took shape as peoples from Longshan villages migrated southward into Southeast Asia and the south Pacific. Throughout China, wealthy, localized polities emerged, including a significant one in Liangzhu.


The Liangzhu people developed numerous implements for use in preparing their fields, managing domesticated animals, catching fish, and building their homes. In the early centuries of the second millennium BCE, as China recovered from a long drought, elaborate irrigation systems and extensive trading networks materialized. China became a centralized polity as a powerful monarchy united the independent communities of riverine peoples.

Life on the Margins of Afro-Eurasia

Those who lived on the margins of the urban, territorial states were often looked down upon by the urbanites as primitive “barbarians.” These peoples, however, became adept users of technology and fashioned durable institutions and belief systems.


In the regions north of the Mediterranean Sea, a warrior based ethos developed in which chieftains and military men led societies with little social stratification. In the area of the Aegean Sea, mountains and large bodies of water kept communities apart, delaying the emergence of complex cities. Instead, fortified settlements were established by local rulers who controlled limited agricultural areas. Around 2500 BCE, more formally organized governments appeared, especially on the island of Crete. Knossos became a palace town connected to an extended network of palaces. Trade developed with peoples living on the coasts of Egypt, Anatolia, and the Levant, but agriculture remained central to survival.


Although populated very early as humans moved out of Africa, Anatolia changed slowly as people clung to their small villages organized around the fortified citadel of local rulers. Among these citadels was the city of Troy, made legendary in the Greek epic, the Iliad, by Homer. Archeological studies of this site and its large buildings (megarons) indicate that Troy was an active trading center that linked the Aegean and Crete to Southwest Asia


In the western edge of the Afro-Eurasian landmass, the forerunners of modern Europeans were largely scattered across the land. Warfare dominated social development as violent conflicts over resources were common. The frontier expansion of agricultural communities slowly advanced, often reaching a critical turning point around mining enterprises. By 4000 BCE, the more developed agrarian people had coalesced into large communities. Large ceremonial structures such as Stonehenge were built with enormous shaped stones called megaliths. Growing interaction and exchange among communities sparked wealth and warfare, as demonstrated in the appearance of drinking cups—bell beakers—as a part of warrior culture. Slowly a split developed between eastern and western Europe as western Europe envisioned a more elaborate expression of the warrior ethos. Warfare encouraged borrowings among competing peoples as each group tried to maintain its advantages. The demand for weapons also encouraged economic and technological innovations.