Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Great Civilizations of Antiquity

All the talking we do about the Greco-Roman Civilizations, got me thinking about older more ancient civilizations. Often we focus on the west and the ancestor civilizations to Europe, neglecting the rest of the world. For example, we have discussed Mesopotamia and Egypt in recent posts, because they are most familiar to us. But what other civilizations were extant?

It turns out that anthropologists commonly identify six civilizations as preceding all others – Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, the Indus River Valley, Peru, and Meso-America (Central America).

I put together a chart comparing five of these on a timeline, showing the stages of development for each. The Indus Valley has been excluded because it’s unique history was not like the others. (Click to enlarge)
I chose the year zero as an arbitrary endpoint in the timeline. A review of the chart shows Mesopotamia leading the way, with Egypt close behind, eventually catching up. China was a couple thousand years behind Mesopotamia when it began, but closed the gap to a thousand years later on. The two civilizations of the Americas were still father behind and did not complete their developmental phases before the year zero.

One can clearly see how the terms the “fertile crescent” and “cradle of civilization” fit Mesopotamia and Egypt as the earliest cultures.

China began its development in the early Bronze Age, in the north, near the Great Bend in the Yellow River. This is a site of Loess soil (sediment formed by the accumulation of wind-blown silt and lesser and variable amounts of sand and clay), which allows the soil to absorb water rapidly without runoff or erosion. The Chinese began to develop irrigation techniques using simple grooves cut in the soil, which took no skill. Later, they used more sophisticated irrigation techniques along with flood control to manage productivity. Here as in Mesopotamia, steppe intersected the flood plain and created two economies: nomadic herdsman and sedentary farmer. Like Mesopotamia, the herdsman took to a life of mobility and raids upon the farmers. The need for defense among the farmers led to the formation of cities. The cities became bigger, networked together, and a hereditary theocracy was the result.

Our two civilizations of the Western Hemisphere are mostly alike and very different from the others. Their formative periods began in the middle to late second millennium B.C, as a result of maturing agricultural techniques. In both cases, advancing agriculture was fused with religious belief systems to produce chiefdoms.

We see in all of these civilizations the catalysts of human development: fertile soil producing from the most primitive farming techniques and eventually a surplus of crop leading the way to a differentiation of human skill and the population density of a city. Urbanism was, in the beginning, protective against the invader, but later evolved according to local forces.

Data from the chart came from Elman's book Origins of the State and Civilization.


Susan said...

Hmmm ... maybe I'm prejudiced in favor of Mesoamerica. They never invented the wheel and weren't as advanced in agriculture. But then again they had no herdsmen raiding the farmers. I think they could have kicked the Egyptians' asses ...

Mike Anderson said...


Do you have books you can recommend on Mesoamerica?

Susan said...

Anything by Linda Schele would be reliable history.

monkeyface said...

Good stuff. Thanks for the overview...

Colingwood said...

It is believed that the Cradle of Civilization could be one of the 5 places where the initial civilization actually began. This particular place is in Mesopotamia and many historical and archaeological experts assume that it was here that cultures then spread to other parts of the entire world as the original people residing here were nomads.