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Essential Question – What were the River Valley Civilizations?

Maps of the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia

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The Ziggurat temple in Ur, Mesopotamia 

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Statue of Gilgamesh 

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Early Ancient Civilizations

  • Mesopotamia (around 3000 BCE)
  • Egypt (around 3000 BCE)
  • Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro (Indus River Valley, India between 3000 and 1500 BCE).
  • Shang Dynasty (Yellow River, China between 1750 and 1122 BCE)

Six basic characteristics of civilization:

A) Geographic Boundaries and Government
B) Economy
C) Population in Cities
D) Social Classes
E) Religion, Education, Art and Architecture
F) Writing


A. Geographic Boundaries and Government
Geographic boundaries provide a set area for people to exist in as a society and also set up areas where certain ethnic groups fit in better than they would in a different area. The boundaries can also be related to landforms in the area because they provide pre-made boundaries. These geographic boundaries can also provide people with some natural protection from other, possibly harmful societies. Geographic boundaries may also provide a society with the necessities for life such as a river or fertile soil. A perfect example of this would be the fertile crescent surrounded by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which allowed for one of the first ancient civilizations to flourish.

Political institutions are formed in areas that have a certain group of people who have the same values and want the same things in life. Having that common bond makes people want to work together and become a community. These political institutions also serve as a form of rule and order in a society. The people belonging to these institutions usually have more power and control over the majority of the population. In theory, these institutions should act with society's best interests in mind.

B. Economics
Economies that produced extra food allowed for trade and the mixing of populations. This also meant people soon realized how to preserve foods and which types of crops to grow when and how. The preservation of food and growing of crops also allowed people to remain settled in one place rather than moving to where the food was. This allowed for cultures to grow and flourish. People no longer had to worry about what to eat next or think about survival. People could begin to explore and question the world in which they lived in. This allowed for societies and cultures to evolve into great civilizations. However, many of the problems with civilization, mainly malnutrition and disease, came about from the surplus of grains and their consumption. By switching from a hunting-gathering lifestyle to an agricultural one, humans lost the many health benefits that came from a balanced diet of plants, nuts, and meats.


C. Mobility of people
People tend to go where the jobs are and the jobs are in areas that have many people and get many different things done. A concentration of people in a distinct area such as a city leads to the blending of different ideas and ways of living. People are forced to cooperate with each other in order to survive together. Many people settling in one place can also create different opportunities for people to trade and master different specialties. This creates jobs and each person has a different talent or specialty. All these different talents come together in the city.

D. Social Classes
Social Classes came to be when people started to see that they were different from the people around them. Some had more land than others which meant they had people working for them. This development of "classes" also created inequality among people. People with more land or "capital" believed they were somehow better than the people with less. The distribution of resources and power became one-sided and many people suffered. Humans naturally have the habit of categorizing the world around them. It allows us to make sense and organize our world. Unfortunately we end up categorizing different people too. We categorize by skin color, personal capital worth, religious beliefs and so on. This leads to certain groups oppressing other groups. Social classes can be found in every modern society today; this is just the way societies have evolved over the many centuries.

E. Religion, Education, Art, and Architecture
Religion started from people worshipping the earth and the "gods" they felt controlled them and the world around them. People developed learning because they want to find out what was happening in the world around them and the many things they could not explain. Religion also offered meaning in peoples lives. It was a convenient way to explain the unknown which surrounded people in ancient civilizations. Whenever things went wrong or disasters occurred people needed and wanted an explanation. Having superior beings to worship helped explain these different phenomena.

 Art was and still is a way to express yourself and keep records which was something that needed to be done as time went on. Art allowed for creativity and talent to thrive and be shared. Humans could express their feelings, skills, ideas etc. through art. Art has been around since the beginning of the human race. People drew
on the walls of caves to tell their stories. Art is also a way for civilizations to express and share their beauty and success of their societies. Art was and still is a way for people to share their opinions about the world or society in which they live. Art can be about people, nature, the unknown, and much more.

Architecture was needed in order to build dwellings and other places where people would gather to work and/or discuss life. Architecture also allowed for civilizations to expand and grow into more advanced and complex societies. Developing the ability to construct buildings and streets allowed for a more modern lifestyle. Architecture has been advancing along with the human race over the centuries. The cities and architecture we have today came from the examples of ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Education was also an important part of ancient civilizations as it is in our world today. The differences were not only between men and women, but with class as well - the wealthy always getting the best treatment.

F. System of Record Keeping
"Writing is a virtual necessity to the societies anthropologists call civilizations. . . . A civilization, with its taxation and tribute systems, its trade, and its public works, require a sophisticated system of record keeping. And so the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Mesoamerica, and (probably) India all developed a system or writing." (The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet. Amalia
E. Gnanadesikan, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, p. 1-2).


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The Rosetta Stone is an excellent example of early written language. Click here for more on the Rosetta Stone.

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The image above shows the linguistic make-up of the Rosetta Stone.
  • Record keeping allowed for more advanced trade and for other businesses to flourish. Record keeping was generally accomplished in one of two ways: through the use of art or a written language.

  • Records needed to be kept in order to organize a settlement and make sure that a recorded history was being kept. Record keeping also allowed for more trade and many more businesses to rise. Keeping records allowed people to go back and look at things later on. A system to keep track of things would be needed in order to make this system work. Without records, civilization as we know it today could not exist. Records are a way to keep track of important laws and rules that a society believes in.

  • Records are kept in all societies. They allow for businesses to be run and for laws to be kept. Without records there would be no organization or rules and no history of prior civilizations

  • With the development of record keeping systems came the development of writing; not just for "business" purposes, but for entertainment purposes as well.

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh is known as the oldest recorded story of all time, having been carved into stone tablets during the 7th century BCE in the kingdom of Ur in Mesopotamia. Not only is the creation of the story a mark of civilization, but the content and plot deal with the differences in a man once he is civilized and integrated into society.