Chapter 1: From Human Prehistory to the Early Civilizations

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AP World History Mr. Soff

Chapter 1: From Human Prehistory to the Early Civilizations
Archeological studies and other scientific methods have provided us with a view of human development that began millions of years ago. Most of the 2 million+ years of our existence as a species has been described as the Paleolithic, or Old Stone, Age. This lengthy phase, during which both Homo erectus and then Homo sapiens sapiens made their appearances, ran until about 14,000 years ago. Our immediate ancestors were Homo sapiens sapiens. All current races are descended from this subspecies.

From Hunting and Gathering to Civilizations, 2.5 million–1000 B.C.E.: Origins
Overview. The first human beings appeared in east Africa over two million years ago. Gradually humans developed a more erect stance and greater brain capacity. Early humans lived by hunting and gathering. The most advanced human species, Homo sapiens sapiens, migrated from Africa into the Middle East, then into Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. Over time, they learned to fashion tools and weapons from stone, bone, and wood, and were, therefore, able to move away from hunting-and-gathering practices to form larger groups. The beginnings of agriculture, about 10,000 B.C.E., were based on improved tools during the New Stone Age (Neolithic). The development of agriculture was a radical change in humans’ way of life. By providing a dependable source of food, people could stay in one place, develop tool making technologies using metals, and, by increasing agricultural output, free individuals to specialize in other kinds of work. More elaborate political and cultural forms slowly emerged. Civilization emerged in five different regions. While focusing on the agricultural revolution, we must not lose sight of the many areas in which other systems prevailed. Hunting-and-gathering was not only a different economic system, it brought with it differences in gender relations, daily life, and social complexity.
Big Concepts. Each of the key phases of the long period of early human history (2.5 million B.C.E.—1000 B.C.E.) can be characterized by a central topic or Big Concept. The first of these is the development of human hunting skills, the adaptation of those skills to the shift geography and climate of the Ice Age, and the patterns of human migration. The second Big Concept is the rise of agriculture and the changes in technology associated with the Neolithic revolution (9000 B.C.E. and 4000 B.C.E.). These changes set in motion the agricultural phase of human experience that lasted until just a few centuries ago. The final Big Concept is the appearance of increasingly distinctive human societies through agriculture or nomadic pastoralism and the early contacts among these societies, particularly after 3500 B.C.E. when larger and more formally organized societies, often with early cities as well, emerged and began to develop more consistent patterns of interregional trade.
Triggers for Change. The phase of human history talked about in this chapter is mainly the story of accommodating different environments, especially in the search for food. Around 10,000 years ago, near the Black Sea, humans turned to agriculture, as hunting became less productive. The reasons for the change are not clear, but possibilities include population pressure, and shortages caused by accidental or deliberate over-hunting. Agriculture brought essential changes in social organization, tool-making, and specialization of occupation.
The Big Changes. Agriculture involved a different set of challenges and benefits than did hunting-and-gathering. The demands of farming meant a sedentary life and larger settlements. Social structures became more complex, and greater gender divisions of labor. Agriculture also made possible the key elements of civilization: states, towns, and monumental building. The first four civilizations arose in river valleys that made irrigation, and, hence, large-scale agriculture possible.
Continuity. This transition took place over millennia. Many peoples adhered to their traditional economy, which meant, as well, adherence to traditional social and cultural ways. As they took to farming, traditionally women’s work, men developed ideas of superiority over women. This can be interpreted not as innovation, but as a way to compensate for change.
Impact on Daily Life: Children. Hunting-and-gathering societies necessitated small families, because of the migratory lifestyle and limited resources. With farming, however, not only were larger families possible, they made sense. Children were an integral part of traditional agriculture. Birth rates increased enormously, although infant mortality remained high. The importance of child labor, moreover, brought with it strict control over children. A culture of parental dominance developed—totalitarian in some instances.
Chapter 1 deals with the emergence of agriculture and its impact on human life, the spread of agriculture, and the persistence of other patterns.
Human Life Before Agriculture:

  • Humans learned simple tool use, tamed fire, and developed bigger brains and a more erect posture during the Paleolithic (Old Stone) Age, which lasted from about 2.5 million years to about 12,000 BCE.

  • Over time, the hunting and gathering species Homo sapiens sapiens, which originated in Africa and from which all modern humans are descended, came to dominate other human types.

  • Stone tool use gradually improved, and humans developed speech, rituals, and culture as they gradually spread across the globe.

  • In the Mesolithic (Middle Stone) Age, from about 12,000-8,000 BCE, humans made more advanced tools, fought in more wars, and increased their population considerably.

The Neolithic Revolution:

  • In the Neolithic (New Stone) Age, between roughly 8,000 and 3,500 BCE, some human societies experienced one of the most dramatic developments in human history.

  • These groups mastered sedentary agriculture (often called the “Neolithic Revolution”) and domesticated animals. These innovations produced food surpluses and rising populations made possible the founding of cities and the increasing specialization of occupations within human societies.

  • At the same time, pastoral nomadism developed, but these nomads remained on the periphery of civilizations and sedentary agricultural zones.

  • Soon after the introduction of agriculture, societies in the Middle East began replacing stone tools with those made of metal—first copper, then bronze. These new tools improved agriculture, aided in warfare, and benefited manufacturing artisans.


  • The emergence of civilization occurred in many agricultural societies. It often built on additional changes in technology including the introduction of metal tools.

  • Most civilizations had common features including cities, writing, formal institutions (especially government and religion), stratified classes, and trade. Catal Huyuk is an excellent example of an important town in an early Neolithic civilization.

  • Early civilizations included those in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus River Valley, northern China and western South America.

The Heritage of the River Valley Civilizations:

  • River valley civilizations left a number of durable innovations, but most declined after about 1,200 BCE. This decline was often due to nomadic migrations across Eurasia by pastoral nomadic chariot peoples from the central Asian steppe.

  • A number of small population centers emerged in the Middle East. These civilizations introduced further innovations including the religion of Judaism, the alphabet, iron tools, and extensive trade connections across the Mediterranean basin.

The First Civilizations:

  • The river valley civilizations created a basic set of tools, intellectual concepts such as writing and mathematics, and political forms that persisted across three continents.

  • The rise of civilizations reduced local autonomy, as kings and priests tried to spread trade contacts and cultural forms and warred to gain new territory.

  • Despite wars and trade, civilizations had little contact with each other and thus developed separate cultural patterns.

Key Terms:

1. Paleolithic:

2. Neolithic:

3. civilization:

4. culture:

5. pastorialism:

6. Bronze Age:

7. cuneiform:

8. ziggurats:

9. Aryans:

Review questions:

1. Every human on earth is a member of which species?

2. The Paleolithic Age refers to what?

3. What was/were the first animal(s) to be domesticated by humans?

4. Which society was the most egalitarian of all societies?

5. Where did the Neolithic revolution first occur, and why?

6. List some of the ways the development of agriculture caused important changes in humans.

7. Why didn’t the original inhabitants of Australia develop agriculture?

8. Once developed, why were metal tools preferred over stone tools?

9. What are some of the basic hallmarks of a society becoming a civilization?

10. Where, and in what context, did the earliest known writing in a civilization develop?

11. What was one of the most important “firsts” the Sumerian civilization produced?

12. What was the characteristic political organization of the Tigris-Euphrates civilization?

13. One of the ways Egypt differed from the Mesopotamian civilization was in its emphasis of what?

14. Which civilization was probably destroyed by natural disasters such as climate change?

15. In what ways was Jewish monotheism different from most earlier ancient religions?

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