Chapter 1 – the river valley civilizations

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In this chapter, you will learn about the first civilizations, the factors that gave rise to these civilizations, and how these ancient cultures still influence us today. As you read, keep in mind how you might answer these important questions:

  • What was the Neolithic Revolution?

  • What factors led to the rise of the first civilizations?

  • What were some of the important accomplishments of these civilizations?

Background of Early Humans and the Development of Society:

Most of what we know about early humans we learn from anthropologists (people who study the origins, customs, and beliefs of humans) and archeologists (those who study artifacts - man-made objects). Most of these scientists believe that humankind originated in the Great Rift Valley in East Africa and that homo sapiens – human beings as we are today – first appeared between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago.

Culture – a people’s way of life. It includes language, types of clothing, homes, family organization, systems of government, and ways of getting food. It also includes arts, crafts, music, and religion
The advantages that humans have over other animals - superior intellect, opposable thumbs that allow them to make tools with their hands, and the ability to speak – allow them to remember and pass on their knowledge and way of doing things. Doing this gave rise to the development of cultures.

The earliest humans were hunters-gatherers. They relied on hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants, since they did not know how to grow their own food. Their first technologies included making spears out of bone or stone, fire, and canoes and boats out of logs. Historians refer to this earliest period of human society as the Stone Age culture, because most tools were made of stone. Over thousands of years, these Stone Age peoples were also able to domesticate dogs and learned to make clay pottery.

Early humans migrated to areas where food could be found, since most of their time was spent hunting and gathering. They followed animal herds and looked for areas where nuts, berries, fruits, and grains were in season. During the Ice Age, people began to leave Africa to migrate to other parts of the world. Some travelled as far as the Americas. Humans showed the ability to adapt to a variety of environments and their local conditions.

The Neolithic Revolution:

The Neolithic Revolution is considered one of the great turning points in human history. It began about 10,000 years ago as people began to change from hunting and gathering to producing their own food by growing grains, fruits, and vegetables and herding animals. It is likely that this change first occurred in the Middle East, as wild wheat and barley were plentiful. Agricultural societies also developed independently in other parts of the world at later times in places such as Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas.

Since people no longer had to wander to find food, they were able to build permanent homes and villages. They could establish a more stable way of life. Populations grew, and villages became towns and cities. This brought both benefits and problems. People could grow more food than they could hunt or gather, but they were also more likely to be attacked by others. This led to economic, social and political change. Two new social classes developed: warriors and priests. Defense of the villages became a major consideration, thus the need for warriors. Religious rituals increased in order to ensure good harvests and call on the gods for protection. Therefore, priests became an integral part of Neolithic societies.

The Rise of River Valley Civilizations:

Around 3,500 B.C., the first civilizations arose. The first developed in four separate river valleys. These all had several things in common: mild climate; a waterway to other places; water for growing crops, cooking, and drinking; and fertile soil. The soil was good for growing crops because the valleys were flood plains where overflowing rivers left behind fertile soil. This led to abundant harvests and food surpluses.

Civilization – a form of culture in which some people live in cities and have complex social institutions, use some form of writing, and are skilled in science, art, and technology

MESOPOTAMIA (3500 B.C.E. – 1700 B.C.E.):

Extent of Mesopotamia
The first river valley civilization developed in the region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (present-day Iraq) in an area the Greeks called Mesopotamia (land between two rivers) between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago. The earliest people of Mesopotamia were the Sumerians. They were able to irrigate the land by diverting water from the rivers. This led to the settlement of villages and surplus crops.

Since fewer people were required for agriculture, other people could specialize in other activities such as pottery making, weaving, building and working metals. Others became warriors and priests. Villages began to thrive and eventually led to the first cities.

Government and the Law. Originally, each city had its own ruler and was believed to be protected by local gods. Some of the important city-states were Uruk, Ur, and Babylon. The city-state consisted of the city and the agricultural lands surrounding the city that helped support it. Eventually, some of the city-states were united under a single ruler.

The Babylonian king, Hammurabi, created the first written code of laws. The Code of Hammurabi contained laws pertaining to most things that happened in daily life, including marriage, religion, consumer products, and criminal law. However, Hammurabi’s Code treated nobles and commoners differently, and some of the laws punished criminals very harshly.

Economy. Agriculture was the basis of the Mesopotamian economy, since farming and herding supported most other economic activities. Sumerian artisans and craftsmen made items to support Mesopotamian cities, and evidence shows that the peoples of Mesopotamia traded with other civilizations as far away as India.

Religion. The Mesopotamians believed in as many as 2,000 different gods, making them polytheistic. Many historians believe that Mesopotamian religious beliefs were the basis of the world’s oldest faiths. Since Mesopotamian rulers were often priests, a city-state was a theocracy (a society governed by religious leaders). Amazing temples (ziggurats) were built to honor and worship the gods.

Society. Men in Mesopotamia were responsible for farming, herding, building, and trade. Most boys worked with their fathers. A few wealthy boys attended school where they were trained to be priests or scribes.

Most girls stayed at home with their mothers and learned to do household chores. Women were responsible for helping to process grain and taking care of the children and homes. Wealthy women enjoyed much greater freedom than commoners. They could go to the market to buy goods, own property, take care of legal matters in the absence of their husbands, and even seek a divorce. A few noble women enjoyed even greater privileges.

Innovations and Technology. The Sumerians were the first builders of cities. They made buildings from mud bricks enforced with thick reeds, since they lacked stone and lumber for building. Mesopotamian cities were protected by high, thick walls.

Their ziggurats (temples) were stepped pyramids that featured arches. They were usually the largest and most notable buildings in the city. In Babylon, the king built a great palace for his wife. Known as the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon, it was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world because of its impressive architecture and engineering. In addition to building, some of the world’s most important inventions took place in Mesopotamia.

The Sumerians invented the wheel and the sailboat and created weapons and tools made of copper and bronze - a tin and copper alloy. They devised a calendar by dividing the year into twelve months, as well as a number system based on 60. Perhaps their greatest innovation was the development of the world’s first writing system, cuneiform. Cuneiform featured using a stylus to make marks in wet clay tablets. When the tablets dried, the writing was permanently etched into the tablets. Only priests and scribes were able to read and write.

Suggested activities:

  1. Define and illustrate each vocabulary term from this section.

  2. Complete the Amateur Historian activity on Hammurabi’s Code.

  3. Summarize your reading by taking Cornell Notes or an outline.

  4. Begin a “PERSIA” or “SPRITE” comparison chart of ancient civilizations.

EGYPT (3200 B.C.E. – 500 B.C.E.):

The Egyptian civilization grew along the Nile River in Northeast Africa. The Nile is the longest river in the world, and its yearly and very predictable floods provide very fertile soil. In addition, the Nile was used for irrigation and transportation. Egypt’s climate provides ample sunshine and a warm climate that enabled farmers to produce large amounts of food to support a large population.

Government. Egypt developed a highly centralized government. It was ruled by a monarch. The pharaoh, or king, was the most powerful person in empire and inherited his title from his father. His power was absolute. Pharaoh controlled the army and defended Egypt from foreign invasion. He owned all of the land, made all the laws, and controlled all aspects of the Egyptian economy. He was believed to be a god.

Economy. Though Egypt’s economy relied on agriculture, there were large numbers of craftsmen and warriors. Trade was prominent throughout the kingdom, and Egyptian merchants traded with other civilizations.

Religion. Egyptians were polytheistic and believed in an afterlife. This belief led them to preserve bodies after death in order to participate in this afterlife. Pharaohs were embalmed (mummified) and buried in tombs with valuable possessions, such as gold, jewels, and items it was thought they would need as they returned to the gods. Archeologists have been able to learn much about Egyptian history by studying these artifacts.

Warriors, Scribes, Merchants

& Craftsmen


Priests & Nobles

Peasants & Slaves
Society. The Pharaoh and his family were at the top of the Egyptian social order. The priests and nobles were next in order followed by the warriors, scribes, merchants, and craftsmen. At the bottom of the social scale were the peasant farmers and slaves. Their time was spent farming, herding cattle, and working on building projects for the pharaohs.

Innovations and Art. Egyptians developed medicine, including surgical procedures and setting bone fractures. They learned much about the humane body through embalming. They also developed geometry and astronomy, as well as a calendar based on 365 days. Egyptian writing, hieroglyphics, was pictographic and could be found on the walls of temples and tombs, as well as monuments and papyrus (reed paper) scrolls.

Egyptians were skilled architects and engineers. They built magnificent temples, pyramids, and palaces of stone mined from quarries on the western side of the Nile valley. Their buildings were decorated with paintings and sculptures.

Egyptian History. The history of ancient Egypt is generally divided into three main periods. The Old Kingdom, The Middle Kingdom, and The New Kingdom. Each period is marked by specific technologies and contributions, and each is noted for producing famous and powerful pharaohs. Some of the famous kings include Khafre, Akhenaten, Hatshepsut, Ramses the Great, and Tutenkhamen

The first pyramids were built by pharaohs during the Old Kingdom as tombs for burial. The most famous pyramid complex is the pyramids at Giza which is dominated by the great pyramid of Khafre.

Suggested activities:

  1. Define and illustrate each vocabulary term from this section.

  2. Summarize your reading by creating Cornell Notes or an outline

  3. Begin a scrapbook of the contributions of ancient civilizations.

  4. Add to your “PERSIA” or “SPRITE” comparison chart of ancient civilizations.

INDIA (c. 3000 B.C.E. – 1700 B.C.E.)

More than 5,000 years ago civilization began in the Indus River Valley in Northwest India. Like Mesopotamia and Egypt, people depended on the flooding of the river to deposit rich fertile soil in the region. Less is known about the Indus civilization. Over 1,000 cities and settlements of this civilization have been uncovered in the region. The two largest cities, Harrappa and Majenjo-Daro, are believed to be twin capitals and were inhabited by over 30,000 residents.

Government. Little is known about the structure of Harrappan government, but the study of artifacts and city structures suggests that the Indus civilization was run by a well-organized central government. It is unclear if there were kings or single leaders.

Agriculture and Trade. Farmers grew grains such as barley and wheat, as well as dates and melons. Trade was the basis of Harrappan economy. The people of the Indus Valley developed a system of weights and measures, and archeological evidence supports the idea that long distance trade was common. A number of small clay seals that were probably used for trading purposes, have been found in the remains of cities.

Religion and Society. Scholars have been unable to determine the religious beliefs of the Harrappan culture or any commonalities Harrappan religion might have had with other ancient religions. It appears that society was quite unilateral and exhibited equity among classes.

Innovations and Technology. Archeological evidence shows that the Harrappans had a technologically advanced culture and were among the first “urban planners.” Most of the houses in the cities were connected to a sewer system and water supply. Archeologists have discovered the remains of protective city walls, dockyards, granaries, and warehouses.

Harrappan technologies included kilns for creating dried brick and pottery, the use of metal for tools and weapons, and manufacturing of cotton cloth. The Indus Valley people developed their own form of writing which is mostly pictographic. Unfortunately, it has yet to be deciphered.

The End of Harrappan Civilization. No one knows what caused the collapse of this civilization, but it is known that it happened rather suddenly by historic standards. Signs of decline were seen around 1800 B.C.E., and by 1700 B.C.E. almost all of the major Harrappan cities had been abandoned. Theories about the end of this civilization include climate change, natural disaster, changes in the courses of the Indus River and its tributaries, and cultural shifts that enticed people eastward.

CHINA (c. 2500 B.C.E.)

China’s first civilization arose in the Huang He River Valley (Yellow River). As in the other river valleys, periodic floods increased the fertility of the soil in the region. As early as 4,500 B.C.E., people had begun farming and raising small animals in the area.

Government. Around 1700 B.C.E., the first known dynasty, or ruling family, took power in the Huang He valley. The Shang built China’s first cities and established a capital in Anyang. The Shang emperors were military leaders and ruled with the help of powerful nobles. The Shang dynasty ended around 1046 B.C.E. when the Zhou dynasty took over.

Economy. Like the other ancient civilizations, agriculture provided stability for the Chinese economy. Though the Chinese were skilled at many crafts, extensive trade was discouraged outside the empire.

Religion. The Shang emperors also served as high priests. Veneration (worship) of deceased ancestors was an important part of early Chinese religion. The priests often offered sacrifices to their royal ancestors.

Society. The Emperor, royal family, and nobility were at the top of the social order. Beneath the top tier was the warrior class, and at the bottom of the social scale were the craftsmen and farmers.

The family was the key unit of society. Women were subordinate to men and had few rights. Marriages were arranged for children, and the extended family generally resided together in the same home.

Shang oracle bones with pictographic writing
Innovations and Art. Skilled metal workers, the Shang crafted superior weapons and ceremonial vessels out of bronze and were the first to manufacture silk cloth using the cocoons of silkworms. The Chinese developed a pictographic form of writing. There are over 5,000 characters representing words. This writing is still in use today and has seen little change since its origins.


In addition to the four river valley civilizations, archeologists have recently found evidence of a possible civilization in central Asia that may have flourished around 4,000 years ago. People here built buildings of mud-brick, used irrigation systems, and made tools and weapons from bronze. They raised wheat and barley, as well as sheep and goats.

The Phoenicians developed a trading civilization along the eastern Mediterranean. They were a seafaring people who produced a number of goods, including purple dye, lumber from the cedar forests of Lebanon, and glass which they traded to foreign markets. The Phoenicians also established colonies along the Mediterranean coast.

The Phoenicians spoke a Semitic language and developed an alphabet of 22 characters that could be used to spell out all the words in their language. This alphabet was eventually passed on to the Greeks and is the forerunner of the alphabet we use today.

Pastoral nomads were important groups of people who lived on the fringes of ancient civilizations. Though they were often viewed as hostile and barbaric, they played a significant role in ancient society. Having domesticated animals for both food and clothing, they moved along migratory routes which allowed them to trade with people living in settled communities. They were able to pass along new technologies to various groups.
THE HEBREWS (Israelites)

The Hebrews (Jews), or Israelites, had a lifestyle based on herding and grazing flocks. According to Hebrew history, their forefather, Abraham, migrated from Mesopotamia to Palestine (Canaan). The Hebrews were greatly influenced by both Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations, due to their location. Around 1200 B.C.E., the Hebrews had established a united kingdom known as Israel. By 970 B.C.E., they had established control over all of Palestine with a capital in the city of Jerusalem.

A lasting contribution of the Hebrews is their religion. Considered the first monotheistic religion (they believed in only one god), it is considered one of the major world religions and became the basis of both Christianity and Islam. Unique among ancient religions, Judaism is based on the belief that God is for all peoples and that individuals can have a personal relationship with God (Yahweh). God provided laws to the people (the Ten Commandments) through Moses. According to Jewish history, Moses led enslaved Hebrews out of Egypt back to their promised land and presented them with the Ten Commandments, which came directly from God.

Unlike Hammurabi’s Code which identified crimes and punishments for both civil and criminal law, the Ten Commandments focused on religious and moral behavior. They forbade stealing, murder, adultery, and other immoral behaviors, in addition to commands to worship one God and keep the Sabbath holy.

Suggested activities:

  1. Define and illustrate each vocabulary term from this section.

  2. Summarize your reading by creating Cornell Notes or an outline

  3. Add to your scrapbook of the contributions of ancient civilizations.

  4. Add to your “PERSIA” or “SPRITE” comparison chart of ancient civilizations.

  5. Locate the river valley civilizations on a map of the Eastern Hemisphere. Color code the civilizations and create a corresponding key. Label the continents and oceans.

  6. Create a color-coded timeline that shows the beginning and end of each river valley civilization.

  7. Compare and contrast the Code of Hammurabi with the Ten Commandments.


  1. What was the big change during the Neolithic Revolution?

  1. List at least six things all river valley civilizations had in common.

  1. What were at least three different kinds of writing invented by the river valley civilizations?

  1. How did the Neolithic Revolution change the roles of women and children in ancient society?

  1. Identify and describe at least two legal systems of ancient civilizations.

  1. List at least five scientific and mathematical technologies developed by ancient civilizations.


Civilization eventually spread beyond river valleys. During the “Classical Era,” some civilization grew powerful enough to create large empires by conquering neighboring lands. The cultures, institutions, and philosophies continue to influence peoples today. During this time, people began to examine morality and the meaning of life. Their artistic and technological achievements formed a standard by which we still judge today, thus the term “classical” by which we refer to this era.

The guiding questions to keep in mind as you read this chapter are:

  • What factors gave rise to Persia, Greece, and Rome?

  • What were the major accomplishments of the “classical civilizations” in the West?

  • How did the religious beliefs, philosophies, and rules of law affect these civilizations?

THE PERSIAN EMPIRE (2,000 B.C.E. – 300 B.C.E.)

Located on the Iranian Plateau, the Persian Empire was created when the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great united peoples in the region in 550 B.C.E. Cyrus continued to expand his kingdom by conquering lands to the west (Lydia and Babylonia) and to the east all the way to the Indus River .

Cyrus’ son continued to expand the empire by conquering Egypt. This created the largest empire up to that time. Stretching from the Nile to the Indus River, Persia was more than 3,000 miles from west to east. The empire was unified by a network of public roads and contained several capital cities.

Government. The Persian king, Darius, divided the empire into provinces, each ruled by local officials that were loyal to the Persian king. The provinces paid taxes and a tribute (payment made as a sign of submission) to the Persians.

Economy. The Persians prospered from extensive trade throughout the empire, as well as the tributes that were paid. They introduced a system of weights and measures to help standardize trade and implemented the practice of using coins, instead of barter, to purchase goods. This “money economy” greatly improved trade throughout the empire.

Religion. Like almost all ancient civilizations, the Persians originally worshipped many gods, Around 570 B.C.E., a religious leader, Zoroaster, introduced a new religion to the empire. He believed that there were only two gods: the god of truth, light, and goodness, and the god of evil and darkness. Zoroastrianism taught that the universe was a battlefield between these two forces and that people who led good lives would eventually go to heaven, but those who followed the path of evil would be doomed to a fiery hell.

Innovations and Technology. The Persians constructed large walled cities throughout their empire. To help with trade and to unify the empire, they built hundreds of miles of roads made of gravel and stone. Connecting Sardis in the West with the city of Susa in the East, the Royal Road was 1,500 miles long with over 100 stations for changing horses and gaining respite from travel. The emperor, Darius, established a postal service using couriers to carry letters over the new roads making communication within the empire easier.

THE GREEKS (2,000 B.C.E. – 300 B.C.E.)

The geography of Greece influenced civilization differently than that of the river valley civilizations. Greece consisted of a relatively large peninsula and the Aegean islands. It also included the coastal region of much of present-day Turkey. Because of its hilly terrain, farming was difficult. The soil in much of Greece is rocky, so the land was used primarily as pasture.

Early Greek Civilization

Located in the Mediterranean Sea south of the Greek mainland, is the island of Crete. Around 2000 B.C.E., the Minoan civilization developed there. A seafaring people, the Minoans created a thriving culture. They were skilled shipbuilders, made tools and weapons of copper and bronze, and developed their own form of writing.

Most people believed that the stories of Minoan civilization were myths, until archeologists discovered the remains of the palace at Knossos which proved that the ancient civiliation did exist. The palace contained over 300 rooms, including baths, and was decorated with fresco murals, Artifacts indicate that the Minoans also had a unique religion. The collapse of the civilization around 1400 B.C.E. remains a mystery.

Mycenae was a second civilization that grew on the Greek mainland and the coast of Asia Minor beginning about 1400 B.C.E. The Mycenaeans are considered by many to be the first true Greeks. They were conquerors who were ruled by kings, appeared to have shared in the wealth of other civilizations, built walled cities containint citadels (forts), and had unique burial practices. The Mycenaeans were conquered by people from the north, the Dorians. Under the rule of the Dorians, Greece experienced a “dark age” in which trade, economic growth, and education declined.

The Rise of Greek City-States

Since centers of Greek population were isolated from each other by mountains and the sea, cities developed separately from one another. However, Greeks did share a common culture. They spoke the same language, had the same religious beliefs, and many of the same customs. Almost all Greek city-states contained an agora (market), an acropolis (religious center, usually on a hill overlooking the city), public buildings, and were surrounded by a wall built for protection.

Government. Each city-state, or polis, had its own form of government and legal system. In their earliest days, the polis was ruled by a king. Over time, many of the monarchies were replaced by other forms of government. Two of the leading Greek city-states, Sparta and Athens, became examples of opposing views of both leadership and culture.

Economy. The Greeks relied on the sea, since farming was very difficult. Trade and fishing became the economic base. In addition to pottery, the Greeks manufactured wine and olive oil to trade throughout the Mediterranean region.

Religion. A polytheistic people, the Greeks believed in many gods and goddesses. However, unlike the gods of most ancient peoples, Greek deities had the attributes of humans with the same wants and weaknesses. The gods were believed to live on Mount Olympus. The myths that the Greeks told of their gods are still popular today. Most are familiar with Zues, Apollo, Athena, and many others. The stories of the Trojan Horse and Jason and the Golden Fleece are still learned today. The Olympic games orginated when the Greeks sought to honor their gods every four years by participating in athletic events.

Society. Social life in the city-states varied, but like most ancient civilizations, the Greeks had a patriarchal society. Women needed permission from the male head of the household to go out in public. They were not even allowed to eat with the men, when their husbands were entertaining. They were expected to cook, clean, and take care of the home and family. The education of children also varied among the city-states.

Innovation and Technology. The Greeks were greatly influenced by other groups of people in the Mediterranean and were exposed to important achievements such as the Phoenician alphabet and monumental building. A creative people, the Greeks became skilled artists and architects. They developed many scientific and mathematical innovations, as well as beautiful music and timeless literature, including plays.

A Contrast in City-States

Though the Greek city-states shared a common culture, in some cases there were many differences. This often caused conflict among the city-states themselves. Perhaps the greatest rivalry can be found in that of Sparta and Athens. Sparta is arguably the finest example of a military state, while Athens took pride in being the cultural center of Greece.

The Military State:

Located on the Peloponnesian peninsula in the southern part of Greece, Sparta was one of the most important Greek city-states. The Spartans had conquered most of their neighbors by 725 B.C.E. and forced them into slavery. Known as helots, these slaves were forced to farm the land. Because the Spartans were constantly under the threat of revolt by the helots, life in Sparta was based on military needs. The Spartans required strict obedience and discipline. There was no room in Sparta for the weak. For instance, if a newborn baby was found to be unhealthy, it was taken to a hillside where it was left to die.

New ideas and individualism were discouraged in Sparta. Boys began military training at the age of seven and were taken to live in barracks. At age 18, a young man became a soldier and continued to live in barracks until the age of 35. Spartan men lived the lives of soldiers until they were able to retire at 65.

Marble statue of a helmed hoplite (5th century BCE)
Women in Sparta experienced more freedom than those in other Greek city-states. They were in charge of the home, since the men were always training. They were expected to remain fit and exhibit courage at all times. At an early age, girls were trained in physical fitness, as well as being taught the household duties necessary to be a good wife.

Politically, Sparta was organized as an oligarchy (government which is run by a small number of people). Two ceremonial kings were elected by the council of elders, a group of 28 men over the age of 60. The kings acted as generals of the Spartan army, as well a chief priests. The council of elders proposed and voted on laws, while a small group known as ephors acted as judges. In essence, the government was run by the council of elders, since they made most of the decisions regarding the city-state.

The Cultural Center:

Unlike Sparta, Athens was not concerned with constant protection or eliminating uprisings. Athens was the center of trade in the Greek world and eventually developed a powerful navy. It became a cultural center embracing philosophy, artistic endeavors, and education.

The city-state of Athens created a democracy in its city-state. It was a unique form of government in the ancient world in which every citizen could participate by directly voting on issues that needed to be decided by the city-state. The Citizens Assembly was the main governing body and was open to all citizens, but only the first 5,000 who gathered could attend the meetings. Meeting about ten times a year, the assembly made foreign policy decisions and made laws for Athens. Citizens who served on a council, jury, or as a judge received pay for lost earnings. This allowed for poor citizens to be able to participate. The word democracy means “rule of the people” in Greek. Since women, foreigners, and slaves were not considered citizens, they could not participate in government. This meant that only a minority of Athen’s residence were actually citizens.

Young boys of wealthy families began school at the age of seven. Most were taught by tudors who were often slaves in the household. A well-rounded education consisted of academic and athletic training, as well as music. Young girls rarely received a formal education, but were taught to cook and clean.


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