Chapter Summary

Around 2000 BCE, a subsistence crisis gripped much of Afro-Eurasia, and the large riverine states collapsed. Natural resources and soil fertility diminished, and an environmental warming cycle undermined the ability of marginal lands to produce crops. Famine appeared in urban settings, and even transhumant herders from the Afro-Eurasian steppes resorted to raiding to obtain sustenance. Many forms of knowledge and ideologies survived these disasters, and when nomadic and transhumant peoples entered into weakened settled societies, the institutions, practices, and beliefs of both societies adapted to each other. The new (or transformed) societies that emerged established more comprehensive territorial states, which would in turn produce their own tensions. In regions more isolated, where regimes did not interact and compete—such as the islands of the Pacific, the Aegean, and the Americas—small-scale microstates emerged.

Nomadic Movement and the Emergence of Territorial States

As drought and food shortages led to political turbulence in central and western Afro-Eurasia, clans of pastoral nomads from the Inner Eurasian steppes increasingly threatened the peoples of the riverine cities. Similarly, transhumant herders advanced on the cities seeking sustenance for themselves and their herds. The ability of nomads and transhumant herders to adapt more quickly to the changing environmental conditions became the catalyst for the emergence of new territorial states, which would adopt new technologies that allowed them to thrive in the new environment.


The climate changes and drought at the end of the third millennium BCE led nomadic and transhumant people to search for water sources and pasturelands. Many began to move into the river valleys and compete with settled agricultural peoples for resources. They fanned out across much of Afro-Eurasia, bringing with them horses and new technologies for war as well as their cultural and political practices.

Horses and Chariots The literate elites in cities described these nomadic warriors as barbarians and the enemies of “civilization.” Yet, they were likely anything but barbaric. Chariots became foundational to the balance of power across Afro-Eurasia. As early as the late fourth millennium BCE, settled people in the steppes of central Asia had domesticated horses; however, mouth bits and cheek pieces only appeared about a millennium afterward. Around 2000 BCE, pastoral nomads on the northern edge of the Mesopotamian plain developed the chariot; however, the nomads borrowed transportation techniques developed among agrarian peoples that made chariots more durable and allowed the chariot to be pulled by a horse at high speeds. The horse chariot required the contributions of both nomadic and agrarian people, yet the mobility, accuracy, and shooting power of horse-drawn chariot warriors tilted the political balance dramatically in the favor of nomads. They challenged the political systems of Mesopotamia and Egypt and altered warfare across Afro-Eurasia. City dwellers scrambled to adjust to the new warfare, and kings quickly adopted the new technology.


As nomadic people arrived in Mesopotamia, a new political form emerged: the territorial state. The territorial state was marked by power reaching from the city into the distant hinterland. People felt an allegiance to territories and their rulers and to their linguistic and ethnic communities. A shared identity emerged among people within the state’s identifiable borders. Rulers defined territorial limits to their states, and those outside of the state’s limits were defined as “others” unlike those within the state’s boundaries. Authority was based on a divine monarch who ruled through large bureaucracies and legal codes, but order was also achieved by subjects’ adherence to a shared set of norms and values. People viewed a good king as one who could command the respect of neighboring states, yet a feeling of security often resulted only from long and bloody wars as territorial states expanded their boundaries to natural geographic or demographic limits. In less populated regions such as East Asia and the Americas, struggles over borders were less frequent.

The Rise of the Territorial States in Egypt and Southwest Asia

In 1600 BCE, a new wave of pastoral nomadic migrations undermined fledgling territorial kingdoms and a new order of territorial states emerged in which capital cities commanded large hinterlands. The great territorial states that emerged were so well balanced that they had to learn techniques of coexistence, producing highly developed forms of statecraft and international diplomacy.


The Old Kingdom collapsed as drought prevented the Nile from overflowing its banks for several decades. The pharaohs lost their legitimacy and regional rulers formed.

Middle Kingdom Egypt (2040–1640 BCE) The Egyptian Middle Kingdom formed around 2000 BCE as rulers from Thebes consolidated power in Upper Egypt.

Gods and Kings The Twelfth Dynasty ruler Amenemhet advanced the god Amun (who was grafted on to the sun god Re as Amun-Re) as a supreme deity. Because Amun's characteristics were “hidden” his worship could be embraced by believers in many different theological systems. Amun's elevation aided the pharaohs in consolidating authority, because they could link their authority as the rulers of people to that of Amun-Re as the king of the gods.

Royal Splendor and Royal Care The Middle Kingdom rulers promoted an ideal of the pharaoh as the good shepherd whose primary responsibility was to fulfill the needs of the flock. The rulers embraced charity and generosity to demonstrate their good stewardship. They also launched the massive temple complex at Thebes dedicated to Amun-Re.

Merchants and Trade Networks The prosperity of the Middle Kingdom gave rise to an urban class of merchants and professionals who carved out roles within society not dependant directly on the kings. They built their own tombs and filled them with material goods. Merchants gained great profits from expanding trade networks that reached to the south, east, and north.

Hyksos Invaders and New Ideas Around 1640 BCE Semitic-speaking peoples called the Hyksos used their mastery of horse chariots to defeat the Egyptian army and establish themselves as rulers in northern Egypt. While the Hyksos assimilated to the land, a ruler in southern Egypt, Ahmosis, adopted the Hyksos weaponry, and about a century after their conquest the Hyksos were defeated and Ahmosis became pharaoh (launching the era of the New Kingdom). Ahmosis built large armies to drive the “foreigners” back into the Levant, and Egyptian rulers began interfering in affairs in the Levant both diplomatically and militarily. The migrants and invaders into Egypt introduced new ideas and technologies, most importantly the several tools of war: the horse and chariot, the composite bow, and the scimitar. The Egyptian army quickly transformed from an army of standing infantry to that of mobile charioteers. This more mobile army allowed the kingdom to expand southward.

New Kingdom Egypt With an efficient bureaucracy, Egypt expanded its authority, especially under Hatshepsut, Egypt's most powerful female ruler. With the victory at the Battle of Megiddo, the first recorded chariot battle, Egypt established a presence in Palestine and was poised to engage in commercial, political, and cultural exchanges with Southwest Asia and the eastern Mediterranean.


An overland crossroads that linked the Black and Mediterranean seas, Anatolia was home to several independent and competing clans. Peoples speaking Indo-European languages entered the region sometime before 2000 BCE, and the peoples of Anatolia fought for regional supremacy.

The Old and New Hittite Kingdoms (1800–1200 BCE) The Hittite kingdom emerged as the chief power in Anatolia as Hattusilis I united the chariot aristocracies in the region. Once having established their authority in Anatolia, the Hittites moved into northern Syria and beyond, eventually sacking the city of Babylon. Yet with the army overstretched and a rebellion brewing in Anatolia, the Hittites retrenched, leaving a power vacuum in southern Mesopotamia. Two centuries later, the Hittites recovered their strength and reasserted themselves as a major power in Southwest Asia.


The drought near the end of the third millennium, combined with the depletion of the soil after a millennium of cultivation and a shift in the course of the Euphrates River, undermined the agricultural productivity of the towns of southern Mesopotamia. The arrival of transhumant peoples also strained resources. The center of political and economic gravity moved northward, where Amorite pastoralists founded the city of Babylon. The era of Sumer and Akkad came to an end.

Nomadic and Transhumant Migrations to Mesopotamian Cities Mesopotamian urbanites looked down upon pastoralists such as the Amorites (a generic term for the transhumant peoples of the western desert), yet such herders had a long relationship with Mesopotamian cities through trade and were familiar with Sumerian culture. The herders provided animal products and purchased the labors of craft workers, paid taxes, and served as warriors, but they had few political rights within the cities. In 2004 BCE, the Amorites joined with the Elamites and other transhumant people from the Iranian plateau to undermine the ruling power in Mesopotamia, the Third Dynasty of Ur. A century of instability followed, after which the pastoral folk restored order.

Restored Order and Culture The new order based in the Amorite city of Babylon nourished a vibrant intellectual and cultural milieu. The court supported skilled artisans, public art, public works, and expanded literary culture. Scribes preserved the ancient texts and traditions of Sumer and Akkad, and heroic narratives from ancient Sumer served to legitimize the new rulers. Literature, arts, and the sciences served to unify the people and to distinguish them from peoples in other kingdoms.

Trade and the Rise of a Private Economy The new Mesopotamian kingdoms shifted away from state-dominated economies and toward private economic ventures, even in such state activities as tax collection. The shift from forced labor to contracted work resulted in a growing pool of destitute workers—an underclass—that threatened the existence of the state. A well-governed territory led to growing trade for which Mesopotamian merchants were well-placed at the crossroads of Afro-Eurasia. Shipbuilding also advanced, leading to larger ships that were able to carry bulky commodities. As economies became more diverse, regional specializations emerged based upon the availability of local resources—a development that further encouraged trade. Poor harvests, however, easily threatened prosperity, and trade across long distances remained a risky venture filled with many costs. In order to minimize risk, merchant households created commercial rules, established early insurance schemes, and relied on extended kinship networks along the caravan routes. Merchants also curried favor with local rulers for their protection.

Mesopotamian Kingdoms The new Mesopotamian kingdoms integrated the traditional organization of city-states with the clan-based polities of herders and nomads. Thus, the new territorial polities were rooted in identification with clan and tribe—and with the line between one's own group and others. The nomadic chieftains transformed their authority within the nomadic societies—in which they were elected and had proven their prowess on the battlefield— into hereditary kingly authority that allied itself with merchants in exchange for revenues, but which still relied on the support of nobles. Such a polity placed particular emphasis on the ruler's charisma as a source of strength, especially as they subdued weaker neighbors and pressured them to become tributary states. The most famous Mesopotamian ruler, Hammurapi (r. 1792–1750 BCE), sought to stabilize the state by establishing a legal order that would balance the demands of the powerful merchants and elites with the needs of the poor. The Code of Hammurapi compiled 300 edicts, addressing crimes and their punishments and setting out social relations in exhaustive detail that would ensure the peace of the kingdom.

Kassite Rule When Hittites destroyed the first dynasty of Babylon, Kassites who had previously settled in Mesopotamia reestablished order in the region and brought all of southern Mesopotamia under their control. The Kassites emphasized trade over military expansion and absorbed and sought to preserve Mesopotamian culture. Their work saved Mesopotamian historical literatures and artifacts for later generations, although very little of Kassite culture and language has been preserved.


The great territorial states that had emerged in Southwest Asia and North Africa by the fifteenth century BCE established an interregional balance of power and developed tools to settle difficulties through treaties and negotiations. Only where the edges of these powers met could small regional states survive and aid in maintaining the balance of power. Sustaining the balance required constant communication among the great states. Diplomacy typically took the form of marriages and exchange of gifts. An elite, cosmopolitan merchant and political class emerged, relying on Akkad as the language of diplomacy. Yet the foundations of power were not always durable, for the ruling classes relied on the least privileged for their power and authority because the poor paid taxes and provided labor.

Nomads and the Indus River Valley

The Vedic people from the central Asian steppe moved into the Indus River valley beginning around 1500 BCE, a region in which the population had been greatly reduced since the drought of the late third millennium BCE. The Vedic people (who called themselves Aryans) spoke an Indo-European language (Sanskrit) and brought with them horse chariots and religious rituals that they used to distinguish themselves from the local peoples. The indigenous population adopted the language of the Vedic people, while the newcomers took up the agriculture of the local peoples. The Vedic people migrated throughout the northern plain of South Asia, mixing agrarian and pastoral ways. The inability to breed horses in South Asia’s semitropical climate encouraged the Vedic people to sustain a brisk trade with central and western Asia.

Rise of the Shang State (1600–1045 BCE)

The Shang state emerged in northern China around 1600 BCE. Lacking well-defined and fixed boundaries, the Shang state did not face threats from rival territorial states, which diminished its need to assert its hegemony. Its capital moved as its frontier expanded and contracted. The Shang kings established a highly personalized style of rule, traveling frequently around the country, and used metallurgy and writing to reinforce their rule. Most important, however, the Shang kings remained aware that agricultural growth and controlling precious metals were of centra lsignificance .


The Shang state emerged from the need for a mechanism to settle disagreements among the numerous villages and towns that formed around the Yellow and Yangzi rivers. Unlike the previous Longshan peoples, the Shang dynasty created a lineage of hereditary rulers whose claim on power was based on their relation of their ancestors and the gods. The Shang adopted the horse chariot from the central Asian steppes and improved upon it by adding bronze fittings and harnesses, which gave the horse chariot greater speed and range. Other large states also developed in China, and the Shang state did not establish these as surrounding vassal states. At Yin around 1200 BCE, the Shang state erected massive palaces and bronze foundries. Surrounding workshops produced jade and ivory objects, silk cloth, and bronze weapons.


The availability of the needed raw materials locally gave the Shang the ability to develop a bronze culture. The weapons and fittings for the horse chariots they produced gave them unprecedented power in dealing with their neighbors, especially as the Shang closely controlled access to the necessary raw materials to prevent their rivals from forging bronze weapons. The Shang developed cast-molding procedures that permitted huge increases in production; however, the demands for raw materials required many to work as lowly tribute laborers in the mines. The Shang also promoted agricultural development, with new technologies increasing food production. Elites supplied warriors and laborers while allies sent valuable goods in return for military protection. By placing themselves at the symbolic and literal center of all exchanges, Shang kings reinforced their power over others.


Shang society embraced a patrilineal ideal in which male family elders took precedence and authority within families. Among the royal elite, wives and servants were frequently buried with individuals, indicating the belief that the family social hierarchy continued after death. The Shang state functioned as a patrimonial theocracy in which the ruler derived his authority from the guidance of ancestors and gods. The ruler communicated with ancestors through oracle bones, in which the cracks in heated shoulder bones of cattle or turtle shells were interpreted. Shang writing began as scribes wrote the questions they had asked the ancestors on the back of the oracle bones. No independent priestly class existed as the king was also the head of the clergy. Ancestor worship sanctified Shang authority, and all Shang rulers were deified when they died.


Oracle bones are the primary evidence of the development of writing in China. The transition from the purposes of writing in divination to that of literature was slower than in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Priests used oracle bones to seek information about rainfall and the sustenance of crops. The Shang rulers established a wide range of ceremonial and bureaucratic routines that relied upon detailed written records in order to integrate their urban capital with tributary states.

The South Pacific (2500 BCE–400 CE)

Austronesian-speaking people moved into the South Pacific from south China in the fourth millennium BCE, followed by a second migration, this time from Taiwan, around 2500 BCE. They encountered and replaced the Negritos—descendants of hunter-gathering people who had migrated from the Asian continent around 28,000 BCE when the coastal Pacific islands were still connected to the mainland.

Traveling on double-outrigger canoes, these people reached most of the South Pacific by 400 CE with the exception of Australia and New Zealand. They created fine pottery, and, using their seafaring skills, monopolized trade and continued migrating throughout the South Pacific.


The rich volcanic soil of the islands aided the growth of agriculture, and maritime resources were also harvested as islanders adapted to the local environment. Ceremonial buildings were erected, and people often worked cooperatively to manage ponds for fish production and maintain irrigation works. Yet the vast distances of these islands from one another tended to promote fragmentation and isolation of the inhabitants.

Microsocieties in the Aegean World

Having never achieved significant unification, the peoples of the Aegean absorbed influences from Southwest Asia, Egypt, and Europe. A people from central Europe that scholars have dubbed the Mycenaeans migrated into mainland Greece in the centuries after 1900 BCE. They soon turned to the sea to look for resources and trade.


Trade was the main bearer of influences from the east into the Aegean. The islands of the Mediterranean served as meeting points where eastern influences spread into Europe. Trade boomed, especially that of precious metals used in making bronze, on islands such as Cyprus and Crete. Minoan culture developed on Crete propagating independent palace centers such as those at Knossos.


Although influenced by Southwest Asia, the islands also developed unique aspects to their culture. Minoan culture focused on a female deity but did not establish large temple complexes with priestly classes. Palaces were not fortified or even built with natural defenses. Large private homes contained bathrooms with toilets and running water.


In contrast to the refined culture of the Minoans, the Mycenaeans on the Greek mainland developed a society based upon war. With the horse chariots that the Mycenaeans brought with them into Greece, they came to dominate the indigenous population. Palaces were built as hulking fortresses that displayed weaponry and illustrations of violent conflicts. Mycenaean expansion eventually reached and overwhelmed the Minoans. These microsocieties came to an end in the late second millennium BCE.

Europe—The Northern Frontier

The transition to settled agriculture occurred slowly in Europe. New agricultural communities struggled to break new ground and overcame isolation by creating regional alliances. These self-sufficient communities were not large, hierarchically organized societies, and innovations in metal and pottery occurred sporadically. Europe remained a wild frontier. The domestication of the horse and the arrival of wheeled chariots and wagons altered this landscape. Both became instruments of war and allowed humans to adapt to the expanses of the steppe lands across central Europe. The new agriculturalists looked to the rolling grasslands of Inner Eurasia but were prevented from entering this region by horse-based pastoralists. These pastoralists were attracted by the agricultural lands of central Europe, and frequent hostilities occurred between the two. As a result, Europe saw constant struggle between settlers, hunter-gatherers, and nomadic pastoralists, which encouraged the development of cultures with a strong warrior ethos. Europeans sought to adopt the war technologies of the nomads, and over time trade also emerged. Europe remained a land of war-making small chieftainships.

Early States in the Americas

Across the Americas, the lack of domesticated animals and beasts of burden inhibited trade. In the Central Andes local communities formed confederations, similar to those found in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean at the time. The ecological diversity of this region—with fishing along the coast, agricultural lands in the foothills, and pasturelands in mountains— promoted trade between subregions and towns. Here commercial networks could support political ones, which were established through marriage alliances. The daily activities of small communities in the Central Andes took place around central plazas on raised platforms.