Themes in ap world History

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AP World History Study Guide and Graphic Organizers – Unit 1: Foundations, ~8000 BCE – 600 CE

Encounters and interactions between societies

1. Themes in AP World History

Changes and continuities across time periods

Cultural and intellectual developments

Gender and social structures

Technological developments

Political organization

Population shifts

Overarching Themes in AP World History

Changes in the environment

Why you should know this: Knowledge of these themes assists you especially when developing a thesis for an essay. Moreover, because these themes are overarching, they will most likely be the basis of the essay questions. You should always keep these themes in mind when analyzing civilizations and societies, both when you are comparing two different societies and when you are tracing change over time within a society or region. Note the interaction/relationship between many themes.

Example: Analyze the impact of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment is an example of a intellectual development that contributed to interactions

between societies (as philosophes contacted each other across countries and continents) and had a profound impact

on gender and social structures as well as political organization.

2. Regions of the World

To make comparisons and analysis of world events easier, the world is divided into geographical regions.


Modern countries in the region

Historical examples of countries in the region

East Asia

China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea

Chinese dynasties, Japanese shogunates

Southeast Asia

Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Brunei

French Indochina, British colonies, Siam, Angkor Kingdom, Dutch East Indies

South Asia

India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka

British India

Southwest Asia and North Africa

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Israel, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Afghnstan, Syria, Lebanon, Lybia, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Yemen, Cyprus

Muslim caliphates, Ancient civilizations (Nile Valley, Mesopotamia, Sumer, Kush, etc.), Hebrew Kingdoms, Ottoman Empire, Persia

Central Asia

Russia, Mongolia, the “-stans”, Georgia

Nomad territories, Duchies of Kiev, Moscovy, Mongol Khanates

Sub-Saharan Africa

Countries below the Sahara: Nigeria, Somalia, Congo, Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, etc.

Swahili city-states, European colonies, Axum, Transvaal

Eastern Europe

Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, Hungary, Latvia, Estonia, etc.

Partitions of Poland, Austria-Hungary, Soviet satellite countires (Eastern Bloc), Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Ottman Empire, Greek city-states

Western Europe

United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium

Roman Empire, Holy Roman Empire, Gaul, Aragon, Castile, Papal States, Prussia, Anschluss, European Union

North America

Canada, United States, Mexico

European colonies

Latin America

Mexico, Panama, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Venezuela

Olmec, Maya, Aztec, Inca, Native tribal lands, European colonies


Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea

European colonies

Why you should know this: Often, essay and multiple choice questions refer to regions of the world in the prompt. It is important to be familiar with where these regions are located, examples of countries located in the region (modern as well as historically), and to have knowledge of cultural, geographical (physical features), and political characteristics of these regions.
Example: Compare external migrations in TWO of the following world regions (North America, Southwest Asia, Western Europe) from 1914 to the present.

To answer this questions, you would need working knowledge not only of migration

patterns in the 20th/21st centuries, but also of the world regions addressed in the question.

Once you have identified what countries exist in that region in the time period requested by

the question, you can begin to identify examples of migration patterns to use in this

comparative essay.

3. Geography of the world

You need a basic understanding of world geography to be successful in AP World History. Most importantly, you need knowledge of the historical significance of major physical features, especially the world’s oceans.

  • The Arctic Ocean:

    • where: extreme northern hemisphere

    • significance: topped with ice for most of the year, location of mythic “Northwest Passage” (passage does exist, but covered by ice most of the year)

  • Indian Ocean:

    • where: south of South Asia, east of Africa, west of Oceania

    • significance: 3rd largest, extensive trade throughout history, earliest traders used monsoon winds to navigate, scene of intense rivalries (especially during European colonial times)

  • Atlantic Ocean:

    • where: between North/South America and Europe/Africa

    • significance: 2nd largest, center-stage of Columbian Exchange, traversed by billions of immigrants

  • Pacific Ocean:

    • where: between North/South America and Asia/Oceania

    • significance: largest, many islands, Bering Sea/Straight (land bridge bringing people into the Americas), scene of intense modern warfare

Why you should know this: Both multiple choice and essay questions may require you to have an understanding of the historical significance of the world’s oceans.

  1. Interactions between Muslims and Europeans during the seventeenth century were most commonly found in

    1. the Atlantic Ocean

    2. the Arctic Ocean

    3. the South China Sea

    4. the Indian Ocean

    5. the Pacific Ocean

This question is specifically calling on your knowledge of the historical significance of

the world’s oceans and major seas. In the 17th century (1600’s), the most frequented oceans

were the Atlantic and Indian. Contact between Muslims and Europeans would only be

possible in the Indian Ocean. Indeed, remembering that the Indian Ocean was the busiest

ocean in terms of commerce (exotic spices and goods from Asia and India, luxury

commodities from the Middle East) at that time would help you immediately identify the

correct answer.
4. Definition of a civilization

Why you should know this: You may encounter questions that ask you to classify a group of people as a civilization or a society based on characteristics. If you know the traditionally accepted definition of a civilization, then a question such as this would be easy question.

1. All of the following are common characteristics of a civilization EXCEPT:

a. an established, complex institution such as a government

b. elaborate irrigation techniques

c. multiple large cities

d. agricultural practices

e. specialized workers

The only characteristic listed above that is not included in the accepted definition of

a civilization is (d) agricultural practices. Knowing the definition of a civilization helps you

eliminate incorrect choices.

5. Independent invention vs. diffusion

A major debate in the study of world history is the significance of independent invention and diffusion of ideas. Specifically, a debate surrounds attaching importance to the opposing ideas: Which is more important? Which has led to more progress for any given civilization?

  • Independent invention: an idea or technology was invented/created independent of outside influence

  • Diffusion: an idea or technology was introduced to a region/society/civilization by members of another civilization

Why you should know this: You may be asked to identify the difference between these two ideas, or evaluate the significance in an essay. Always be aware that these ideas are associated with a great historical debate.

  1. An example of diffusion rather than independent invention is

    1. the Sumerian use of the wheel

    2. the Mayan concept of zero as a place holder

    3. the origin of the Greek alphabet

    4. the cultivation of the banana in Southeast Asia

    5. the origin of monotheism

The only example of something that originated outside the culture that used it is the

Greek alphabet, which was adapted from the older Phoenician alphabet.

6. The Agricultural Revolution

The first major world event studied in AP World History is the Agricultural Revolution, lasting from about 8000 BCE to about 3000 BCE.

  • Agricultural Revolution

    • what: implementation of farming techniques, usually followed by the domestication of animals

    • where: independent invention/development in this order: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Indus River Valley, Yangtze and Huang He River Valleys, Southeast Asia, Central America, South America (Andes)

^ uncertainty about diffusion vs. independent invention for some areas,

notably Egypt, Indus River, Southeast Asia, and South America

    • significance: humans transitioned from foragers to farmers; marked the beginning of the Neolithic Age, impact on gender roles; slash-and-burn techniques led to large migrations of farmers, which led to the spread of the use of agriculture; allowed civilizations to develop (permanent settlements, specialized workers, advanced technology, record keeping, government/institutions)

Why you should know this: The knowledge of the impact of the development and diffusion of agricultural practices is important for multiple choice questions because this theme dominates the beginnings of civilization (River Valley Civilizations)


  1. Early agriculture in the Americas

    1. developed as a result of cultural diffusion from the Eastern Hemisphere

    2. featured the domestication of larger animals than in the Eastern Hemisphere

    3. did not produce the wide variety of crops that the Eastern Hemisphere did

    4. saw the rise of the urbanization earlier than did the Eastern Hemisphere

    5. saw the rise o urbanization earlier than did the Eastern Hemisphere

Knowledge of a general, relational time-line of the development of agriculture, as well

as the specific characteristics of the development of agriculture would allow you to

eliminate all but (d) which implies development in the Americas before the Eastern

7. Characteristics of Early Agricultural Civilizations

It is imperative that you know and understand the common characteristics of early agricultural civilizations. Note that the characteristics mentioned below expand on the definition of a civilization.



Permanent settlements

As people began to farm, they began to settle in one place. Eventually, villages, towns, and cities developed. Important examples of early permanent settlements are Catal Huyuk and Jericho. Early cities became the focus of a civilization because of their political, cultural, and economic importance

Specialized workers

As farming produced food surpluses, many people did not have to farm and were able to specialize in other areas, such as ceramics and textile production. As civilizations advanced, people were able to specialize in other professions, such as commerce, civil engineers, religious leaders, and political leaders

Technological innovations

Early agricultural/Neolithic civilizations developed the use of various metals (copper, gold, and bronze in that order) for items such as weapons and other luxury goods; other examples of technological innovations, largely due to the specialization of workers, include advanced irrigation apparatus, the wheel, weapons, sundials, etc.


As cities developed in the early civilizations, the inhabitants required large public works projects beyond the scope of private citizens. As a result, governments formed to organize and oversee the fabrication of roads, irrigation projects, public buildings, etc. and to regulate commerce (through the establishment of laws, courts, and a system of punishment. Moreover, governments functioned to protect citizens from invasions and to organize attacks on rival civilizations. Governments also collected taxes from the city dwellers

Social Classes

As people settled on land to farm, there were those who laid claim to more land than others, thus forming the first elite social classes. Early civilizations had an elite social class comprised of large land-owners. Many civilizations, such as Sumer, had a slave class, although in most cases slaves could buy their freedom. Likewise, men could sell women and children into slavery to pay off debts.


As people began to observe more closely their environment in an effort to increase agricultural productivity, knowledge of seasons and nature increased. Attempting to explain natural processes and natural disasters, people developed elaborate stories about the origin of life and rituals to appease gods they perceived as controlling nature. Over time, a group of specialized workers emerged to lead these rituals and devote their lives to the worship of deities.

Why you should know this: You will be asked to identify and compare characteristics of early civilizations.


  1. Early urban dwellers

    1. were dominated by peoples in agricultural settlements

    2. left the pursuit of religious practices to agricultural peoples

    3. saw the need for a government

    4. were exempt from taxation

    5. were offered few opportunities to carry out specialized tasks

Knowing the characteristics would help you eliminate all of the answers except for (c).

8. River Valley Civilizations

You are required to know the characteristics of the River Valley Civilizations, which were the first major civilizations in world history

River Valley Civilization

Specific Characteristics

Shared Characteristics


    • earliest civilization

    • located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers

    • Achievements spread to Egypt and Indus Valley

    • Technology: bronze, copper, irrigation canals

    • ~3500 BCE: Sumerians settle in southern Mesopotamia

  • cuneiform to write

  • ziggurats as religious monuments

  • Epic of Gilgamesh (flood story similar to Genesis)

    • flooding required construction of irrigation canals, which required the formation of government (city-states)

    • Social classes: ruling/elite landowning class, slavery

    • Patriarchal: men dominated government and the family

  • women wore a veil by the 16th century BCE but did have the opportunity to work outside the home in commerce, religious roles, and in record keeping

    • Lack of natural barriers led to frequent invasions of the region: Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians

    • Babylonian King Hammurabi: Code of Hammurabi

  • Distinction between class and gender in punishments

    • community cooperation to build large public works projects, especially irrigation projects

    • need for cooperation led to the development of increasingly centralized governments

    • knowledge of metallurgy (whether independently invented or acquired through diffusion) led to advanced tools, weapons, and art

    • writing system

    • development of social classes

    • use of slave labor

    • patriarchy

    • polytheism

    • trade with neighboring and far-reaching civilizations

    • warfare: internal and external pressures

Shared Characteristics

    • community cooperation to build large public works projects, especially irrigation projects

    • need for cooperation led to the development of increasingly centralized governments

    • knowledge of metallurgy (whether independently invented or acquired through diffusion) led to advanced tools, weapons, and art

    • writing system

    • development of social classes

    • use of slave labor

    • patriarchy

    • polytheism

    • trade with neighboring and far-reaching civilizations

    • warfare: internal and external pressures


    • ~3000 BCE

    • Nile River Valley

    • Irrigation canals to channel annual floodwaters, construction of which led to the establishment of government

    • some major cities, but mostly agricultural settlements

    • trade along the Nile connected villages

    • Pharaoh held significant power and authority, constructed pyramids to serve as tombs

    • polytheistic religion

    • mummification exemplifies belief in afterlife

    • Defined social classes, opportunity for commoners to rise in status through government jobs

    • Patriarchal: women rarely served in government (regents of young pharaohs, priestesses, scribes)

    • Gained knowledge of bronze tools from Mesopotamia, iron working from the Kush

    • hieroglyphics developed (possibly) from cuneiform as a result of trade

    • Protected from invasion by surrounding desert

Indus Valley

    • ~2500 BCE

    • Indus River Valley (modern Pakistan)

    • unpredictable flooding of the river

    • Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro: cities with streets in a grid

    • Technology: running water and sewage systems in houses

    • Harappan writing remains elusive (not yet deciphered)

    • Archeological evidence of trade between Mesopotamia and Harappa (Persian Gulf)

    • ~1500 BCE: Aryans invade and conquer Indus River Valley

  • Blending of Aryan and Harappan cultures had significant impact on the future Indian civilization

Shang Dynasty/ Huang He Valley

Shang Dynasty/ Huang He Valley

    • ~1760’s BCE – 1120’s BCE

    • Most isolated: Deserts, mountains, seas

    • Trade: Southwest and South Asia

    • Shang dynasty was earliest to leave written records

    • Technology: bronze (from Mesopotamia by means of migrations), ironworking (~1000 BCE)

    • Flooding of Huang He led to irrigation projects which called for the development of central rule, strengthening Shang power

Shared Characteristics

    • community cooperation to build large public works projects, especially irrigation projects

    • need for cooperation led to the development of increasingly centralized governments

    • knowledge of metallurgy (whether independently invented or acquired through diffusion) led to advanced tools, weapons, and art

    • writing system

    • development of social classes

    • use of slave labor

    • patriarchy

    • polytheism

    • trade with neighboring and far-reaching civilizations

    • warfare: internal and external pressures

Walled cities along river served as cultural, military and economic centers

    • Rulers built elaborate palaces and tombs

    • Early writing used on oracle bones

    • Social classes: rulers, artisans, peasants, slaves

    • Patriarchal, although prior to Shang rule Chinese society was matrilineal

    • Ancestor veneration

    • Shang fell to Zhou: mandate of heaven called for an end to Shang rule, Zhou continued trend of centralization of government

Mesoamerica and Andean S. America

    • developed later than Eastern Hemisphere civilizations

    • developed along smaller rivers and streams as compared to other River Valley civilizations

    • llama was largest animal

    • Technology: copper, irrigation systems

    • Olmecs, Maya constructed pyramids and temples

    • Polytheistic

  • Quetzalcoatl: god that would return to rule people

    • Social classes: ruling elite and priests at top, commoners and slaves at bottom

    • Mayan Innovations: calendar, system of writing using pictographs, idea of zero as placeholder, discoveries and knowledge of astronomy and time

    • Mayan political organization: city-states ruled by kings

    • Mayan kings frequently fought each other, with prisoners of war taken as slaves or for religious sacrifices

    • Andean civilizations isolated by mountains and lack of pack animals

    • Andean government: city-states separated by mountains

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