Scope: After agriculture, the next step in setting a framework for world history is the emergence of civilization as a form of human organization. This is where, in the Western civilization tradition of history surveys, history is usually seen as starting. The first human civilization developed in Mesopotamia around 3500 BCE. Three or four other early, pioneering civilizations can also be identified during the next 2,000 years. These civilizations, all of them agricultural, generated a number of key innovations that have not had to be reinvented since. Civilizations did not, however, spread uniformly. Furthermore, many world historians are uneasy about relying too much on civilization as an organizing principle, and although their objections may sometimes be a bit too politically correct, they deserve some attention. The civilization concept is useful and valid, but only if its limitations are also recognized.
Outline I. The early civilization period in world history runs roughly from 3500 BCE−1000 BCE.
A. Civilization first emerged in the Middle East about 5,000 years after the advent of agriculture. Before that time, agriculture had permitted the development of some isolated cities, usually with populations of 10,000 or slightly more.
B. Nonetheless, it is important to realize that agriculture did not quickly or inevitably lead to civilization. Some agricultural societies (for example, in West Africa) reached the modern period without forming the apparatus that we associate with civilization.
II. The emergence of civilization in the Middle East was preceded by other technological developments in addition to the maturing of agriculture.
A. By around 4000 BCE, people in the Tigris-Euphrates valley (that is, Mesopotamia) were beginning to use bronze for weapons and tools. They also used the wheel, which had probably been brought to the region by nomads in Central Asia.
B. The use of bronze improved military and production capacities, but it also imposed requirements for long-distance trade and travel, another feature that marks this early civilization period.
C. The first specific civilization to emerge, again in Mesopotamia, was Sumeria. It would be followed over the next several thousand years by a succession of states, including Babylonia and the states of the civilization drew migrants and invaders to the region, particularly from Central Asia.
III. Sumeria, the prototype of early civilization, generally offered a number of features that agricultural societies without civilization lacked.
A. This civilization benefited from surpluses in agricultural production. In fact, some historians would define civilizations in general simply as agricultural societies that have particularly large surpluses.
B. Sumerian civilization offered features of human organization not present in agricultural economies, including a formal political apparatus with leadership and a certain degree of structure. Civilizations thus are defined as stated societies rather than stateless societies.
C. Another feature of civilization was the existence of cities and increased dependence on cities. Cities mean concentrations of people that can facilitate cultural exchange and technological development. Cities also depend on more elaborate trade than agricultural societies, fostering the development of a merchant class.
D. Civilizations, beginning with Sumeria, have writing, which enables recordkeeping, is associated with bureaucracies, allows long-distance communication and the expansion of trade, and affects the generation and preservation of knowledge.
IV. A procession of civilizations developed first in Mesopotamia; some of these expanded into empires in the Middle East.
A. Civilization emerged in Egypt along the Nile from about 3000 BCE.
B. Harappan civilization (so called because Harappa was one of its major cities) originated around 2500 BCE in the northwestern section of the Indian subcontinent in what is now Pakistan, along the Indus River.
C. A fourth center of civilization developed in Asia along the Yellow River, or Huang He, in northern China.
D. Some historians also point to the first civilization in Central America, Olmec, as another early civilization type.
E. The fact that most of these early civilizations clustered along river valleys was no accident. River valleys provided the most abundant opportunities for agriculture and, therefore, the promise of surplus.
1. To take maximum advantage of river systems, however, required the use of irrigation systems which in turn depended on a high degree of coordination and, possibly, some property definition.
2. Use of the river encouraged a situation in which governments and formal rules would make sense.
V. Many world historians are uncomfortable with the concept of civilization as a vehicle for studying history.
A. The first objection to this approach stems from the version of the civilization story that is sometimes associated with the Western civilization teaching tradition.
1. This version emphasizes the importance of Egypt and Mesopotamia as the origin of a glorious tradition that would pass to Greece, Rome, and Europe.
2. This view ignores the fact that important early civilizations also developed in other places.
3. This view is vital to recognizing that Egyptian and Mesopotamian traditions fed not only Greece and Rome but also later elements of Middle Eastern, East European, and African civilizations.
B. The second objection to the civilization approach is the fact that much of the world, particularly in this early period, did not adopt civilization.
1. Polynesian society, for example, was an agricultural economy that had a definite social structure and elements of a state but no writing and no particularly vigorous cities.
2. Civilization did not spread to areas where hunting and gathering or nomadism prevailed or to some agricultural societies.
C. The third objection stems from the distinction between civilization and barbarism drawn by civilized peoples. It is quite valid to note that civilizations tend to produce people who look down on others. This is an interesting human phenomenon, but it is important not to adopt those prejudices in looking at civilized and uncivilized peoples. D. The final concern with the civilization concept is the fact that what we emphasize in civilizations can distort aspects of the human experience and the kinds of groups that form civilizations.
1. For example, writing changes the operation of states, trade, and knowledge-gathering, but until very recently, most people in civilizations were illiterate. Writing affects the way society is conducted, but it does not describe the majority condition.
2. We have emphasized cities, but all agricultural civilizations had, at most, a fairly small minority of the total population living in cities.
E. Civilization, as we saw with agriculture, involves a mixture of advantages and disadvantages.
1. Civilizations, by writing rules and laws, formalize the inequality between men and women.
2. Civilizations usually develop a more extensive social structure between the upper classes and the lower classes.
3. Many civilizations extend the capacity for warfare beyond that found in hunting-and-gathering and agricultural societies and, by attracting pressures from the outside, may increase both the importance of military activity and the disadvantages of military activity for ordinary people.
VI. Civilization is, first, a form of human organization, but a second definition of the term involves the emergence and identification of regional characteristics.
A. For example, Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations developed close beside each other geographically. They had trade, military contact, and periods of cultural exchange, but the two societies were quite different.
1. The Egyptian emphasis on monuments implies more labor organization and different beliefs about death and the afterlife.
2. Artistic and literary artifacts of the Egyptian culture tend to be somewhat more optimistic that those of the Mesopotamians.
3. At least in the upper classes, Egyptian societies seem to have allowed greater leeway for women.
4. Egyptians did not practice infanticide, as most early civilizations did.
5. These comparisons attest to the extent to which civilizations in this second meaning could develop separate lines of activity, cultural definitions, and political institutions.
B. The comparative emphasis between Egypt and Mesopotamia highlights civilization as a regionally cohesive force. The same idea applies to other early river valley civilizations. 1. The Harappan civilization seems to have developed elaborate cities with highly advanced urban technologies.
2. Chinese civilization may have placed significant emphasis on the importance of the ruler and the state, at least in comparison to Harappan civilization.
C. Each of the river valley civilizations had some distinctive features and a distinct history, but they all had essential features in common. These civilizations all had states, established cities, developed trading patterns and a merchant class, and had different kinds of writing
VII. All these early civilizations declined, but what legacies did they leave?
A. The river valley civilizations left societal mechanisms that would never have to be reinvented, including the concept of states, the idea of writing, and the use of money.
B. These early civilizations left a certain geographic dispersion that would be important later on. Although they concentrated in river valleys, many of the early civilizations had wider influences.
1. Egypt, for example, had interactions with sub-Saharan African societies along the upper Nile that would ultimately generate their own civilizations. Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations spread their influence to Greece and Crete.
C. The third legacy is the extent to which the spirit of early civilizations spread to later societies.
1. The Chinese, in their semi-mythical histories of the Shang dynasty, implied that the Shang introduced the concept of political order that would inform Chinese culture.
2. People have argued also that Mesopotamian ideas about the separation between humans and nature influenced later Middle Eastern and European cultures.
VIII. The end of the early civilization period is marked by a hiatus around 1200–800 BCE. A. Harappan civilization, for example, simply disappeared. It was replaced by a period in which Indo-European invaders and migrants poured into India and began to mix with local populations. A new civilization phase and a partial relocation occurred as a result. B. Egyptian civilization, although it did not disappear, clearly began to falter somewhat around 1000 BCE.
C. The great empires of the Middle East also went through a hiatus in which important local societies emerged, such as Venetia and Israel.
D. This interval was amplified by a new series of invasions and migrations from Indo-Europeans in Central Asia.
E. Chinese civilization had the least clear disruption; the Shang dynasty flows fairly smoothly into the Zhou dynasty.
F. With the exception of China, this break in civilization history marks the gap between the first civilization period emphasizing river valleys and the classical civilization period.