Early Agricultural Civilizations Feed the People Why was agriculture an essential step in the development of civilization?

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Early Agricultural Civilizations

Feed the People

Why was agriculture an essential step in the development of civilization?

Food is one of the highest priorities for survival. Until this basic need is met, most of a person’s thoughts and activities will be directed toward locating food.

Early hunter-gatherers led a nomadic lifestyle—they moved from place to place following the game, or animals, they hunted. As they traveled they also gathered local plants they found along the way. Because early humans moved so frequently, they did not build permanent shelters.

The development of agriculture—producing crops and raising livestock—provided people with a stable and reliable food supply. Early farmers cultivated crops and domesticated animals. Not only were these animals a source of food, but they also provided labor, such as pulling heavy plows.

With a stable food supply, larger groups of people could settle in one place instead of following the movement of wild animals. They began to build more permanent homes and live in larger communities. People also discussed ideas and created art that made their lives richer. They began to develop civilizations.

What is the importance of specialization of labor in a civilization?

The development of agriculture led to an increase in the population. A stable food source could feed more people than hunting and gathering.

As the population grew, other changes in lifestyle began to occur. People began to live together in larger communities. These communities could be fed by the neighboring farms. With more people in a community, more could be accomplished.

In large communities, workers can specialize in particular trades or jobs. This specialization of labor means that different individuals are responsible for different jobs, such as farming, hunting, building and maintaining shelters, and making tools. This distribution of labor enabled early humans to become increasingly skilled at their specific tasks. This meant they did their jobs more efficiently and effectively. This gave them time to do things they wanted to do. For example, pottery was developed during this time. Artisans also created jewelry, wove tapestries, and created paintings and sculptures. Items such as jewelry and sculptures weren’t needed to survive, but they improved people’s daily lives, because people enjoyed the creation and the use of these items.

The Creation of Social Classes

How did the specialization of labor impact society?

Specialization of labor created a new characteristic of civilizations: social hierarchy. The social hierarchies differed among civilizations but generally contained the following:

  • civil and religious leaders

  • educated community members with valuable skills, such as physicians

  • community members with skills, such as merchants and artisans

  • unpaid laborers, such as farmers

There were fewer members of society at the top of the hierarchy than at the bottom. In early civilizations, power was usually concentrated in the small ruling class of civil and religious leaders at the top.

Initially, an individual’s class ranking was determined by the role he or she filled and changed if that role changed. Over time, class in many civilizations became more rigid, and individuals inherited class status from their families. Once individuals were born into a specific class, they had little chance of moving higher in the social hierarchy.

The division of classes and the specialization of labor it was based on were essential components of early civilizations. As populations grew, it became necessary to divide work. This division of labor also allowed people to excel at their particular jobs and to develop new technologies to make their work more efficient.

Cities and Government-What are the roles of cities and central governments in civilization?

As agriculture continued to develop, fewer farmers and less land were needed to support large settlements. This led to the creation of cities.

Cities developed slowly, and the moment they came into being is hard to determine, because in many aspects they are indistinguishable from large towns. However, cities tend to have large populations and specialized labor (much of which is nonagricultural). They are also typically the center for technology, culture, religion, and government.

Some historians believe Çatalhöyük, an ancient settlement found in modern-day Turkey, may have been the first city. Çatalhöyük was home to several thousand people. There, archaeologists have discovered several cultural artifacts, such as pottery and murals, as well as evidence of a large agricultural system. Archaeologists have also found a portion of the settlement that seems to have been dedicated to religious and governmental buildings and ceremonies.

The Role of Leaders

As larger numbers of people began to live together, leadership became more important to help reconcile conflicts and coordinate large projects. There is evidence from many early Mesopotamian societies, as well as the Egyptian civilization, that rulers were responsible for organizing the labor needed to build temples and large-scale irrigation projects. Other leaders created codified laws that detailed how to resolve problems between members of society.

As cities continued to grow, they often began to feel crowded. Some citizens would move out to start new settlements, which often grew into large cities as well. These cities were sometimes under the control of an empire, and other times they functioned as independent city-states.

Cities under the control of an empire were governed by local leaders. These leaders were picked by the emperor and enforced the laws established by the central government. City-states functioned like independent kingdoms. In addition to having its own central government that ruled over the city and surrounding areas, each city-state also had distinct cultural characteristics and goals. In both systems of government, the central government established an army for defense, negotiated with foreign governments, taxed citizens, conducted trade, and made laws.

Art and Architecture-What role did art and architecture play in the culture of early civilizations?

Culture—the beliefs, behaviors, and knowledge passed on from one generation to another—is the glue that holds a civilization together. Certain elements you encounter every day, such as clothing, music, and entertainment, are examples of your culture. Some of the earliest examples of culture were the art and architecture of ancient civilizations.
Paintings and Sculpture

As their food supply increased and stabilized, more people began to create art. Their art took many forms. People created paintings, pottery, sculptures, toys, and jewelry. Researchers have found large paintings on the walls of homes in Çatalhöyük. These paintings typically depict interactions between humans and animals. Although these paintings are common throughout the city, archaeologists are still uncertain about whether they had any specific purpose or were simply decorative.

Researchers also found several crude sculptures and simple pieces of pottery at Çatalhöyük. As civilizations continued to advance, the sculptures improved. Many of the sculptures were religious in nature, depicting gods and goddesses, although some were believed to have been simple children’s toys. In addition to making sculptures and pottery, early humans also added artistic detail to practical items, such as knives and other weapons.


Architecture began simply. Geography, resources, and weather affected the design of buildings. If a city was located in a hot desert area, buildings might be made from sun-dried mud bricks, like they were in Çatalhöyük, and openings might be placed to catch passing breezes. After these factors were considered, a building’s function would determine its final design. Early structures included simple houses and granaries, which were used to store the excess wheat and other crops. Like the art of early civilizations, architecture became more advanced as cities did. Houses began to reflect the social status of their occupants, with large and elaborate houses being built for the higher social classes. Temples, such as the ziggurats in Mesopotamia, also began to be constructed.

In addition to buildings, large public-works projects, such as irrigation systems, also began to appear. These large-scale agricultural systems were especially important in the civilizations that developed in river valleys, such as Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Religion and Literature-What role did religion and written language play in the culture of early civilizations?

An important characteristic of civilization is the ability to transfer its culture, and particularly its knowledge, to others. Two major cultural developments that occurred in early civilizations were organized religion and written languages.

Members of ancient civilizations faced many hazards that their technology could not overcome. Bad weather destroyed crops. Illnesses and injuries that would be minor today often led to death. To help explain these difficulties and hardships, people often believed they were at the mercy of superior beings, or gods. They looked to stories and legends to understand how the gods affected the world they lived in.

In ancient times, every member of a civilization generally followed the same religion. They often practiced rituals, or standardized religious ceremonies, to mark special occasions, honor their gods, or ask their gods for help. Early civilizations often had a social class of priests and priestesses who oversaw these rituals and who were believed to have special connections to the gods. Religion was a cultural characteristic that united the members of a civilization.


Before writing was invented, people could pass down information only orally, with one generation telling the following generation what they knew. Stories helped people remember important information, such as the best time to plant crops, or how to hunt certain animals. As civilization continued to advance, people developed writing to record and preserve information and ideas so they could be shared with other civilizations and future generations.

Written language played several important roles in ancient civilizations. People used written records to keep track of flood and planting cycles, record trade transactions, and provide information about civil and religious laws and ceremonies. Such records also commemorated leaders and passed on traditions and stories. Cylinders sealed with engraved images and writing, which historians believe were used in ceremonies, have been found in several early Mesopotamian cities. Most well-known civilizations have recorded information about themselves in writing. As a result, researchers can study those civilizations today.

The Importance of Geography-How did geography affect the establishment and spread of early civilizations?

As the importance of agriculture grew, it became necessary for early humans to settle near a reliable source of water. For this reason, many of the earliest civilizations arose around natural sources of water.

The Nile River, the Tigris River, and the Euphrates River were the heart of many of the earliest civilizations. These rivers flooded regularly, enriching nearby soil for farming.

The flat fertile areas this flooding created were ideal locations for agricultural societies to develop. Crops grew easily near the riverbanks, and as farmers learned more about irrigation, they could expand the usable farmland.

The rivers provided several other benefits. They were a source of freshwater for drinking, a source of food, and a method of transportation. But while these great rivers made it possible for civilizations to develop, an area's geography could also present obstacles to the further spread of civilizations.

Obstacles to Civilization

People encountered some barriers to expansion that they were unable to overcome. Deserts, mountains, and oceans were often insurmountable. With the time period’s limited technology, it was impossible for a large number of people to protect themselves and carry the amount of resources necessary to cross a desert, cross a mountain range, or sail across an ocean.

Climate was also a limiting factor in the expansion of civilizations. People could not survive in areas with extreme climates and weather conditions. Too much rain or too little rain made agriculture difficult or impossible. The extreme cold or heat of other areas made them uninhabitable.

Exchanges Among Early Civilizations

What did civilizations exchange as they interacted?

Civilizations interacted with one another through war and trade. As they encountered and occupied one another, they often shared aspects of their cultures, such as stories, technology, scientific knowledge, and religious ideas. 

Civilizations usually had an abundance of one natural resource, such as wood or minerals, but may have lacked other resources, such as game or certain crops. Civilizations often could trade the resources they had for those they needed. As merchants traded with one another, they exchanged more than goods. Trade among civilizations led to a cultural diffusion, or a spreading of culture. Merchants shared systems of writing and methods of weighing and measuring items to help standardize trade. These merchants also traded art and technologies. Other civilizations then used and adapted these technologies. In this way, technologies, scientific knowledge, and ideas spread quickly.

If trade was not possible, however, armies could be sent to gain control of other lands and their resources. Wars also led to the exchange of ideas and culture. As civilizations conquered new lands and other societies, they brought their ideas with them. They would institute their own form of government and religious beliefs in the conquered region. However, portions of the old governmental system or religion often remained even after the conquering army left.

In some areas where several civilizations were located near each other, and where competition for resources was fierce, both trade and war were common. There were rapid turnovers of leadership, due to war, in many populated regions. For example, several different empires ruled Mesopotamia over the centuries.

The exchange of ideas and technologies allowed knowledge and expertise in certain fields and professions to grow more quickly than they would have if civilizations had remained isolated. Gathering together into large cities and establishing cultures enabled early humans to not only survive but also thrive.

Cities provided early humans with the basic necessities of life. They also encouraged the development of culture and encouraged specialization and learning. Even today, cities continue to be crucial to the success of civilizations.

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