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Mesopotamia: The First Civilization

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  • 0:02 Mesopotamian Civilization
  • 0:37 Basics
  • 1:28 Agriculture
  • 2:39 Settlement & Migration
  • 4:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the beginning of one of the oldest civilizations in the world, Mesopotamia. We specifically discuss the factors that encouraged settlement in the region.

Mesopotamian Civilization

Historically speaking, American cities have grown incredibly quickly. Villages and towns grew into cities as America's industries attracted immigrants and migrants from all over the world. In less than 300 years, for example, New York City went from a sleepy Dutch colonial post to one of the premier cities of the world. Most cities in history, however, grew much more slowly. Mankind's earliest cities took several centuries to coalesce in Mesopotamia. In this lesson, we'll explore those early cities, the factors that led to their rise, and the societies that supported them.

Basics

Even though Mesopotamia is the name of one of mankind's oldest civilizations, you likely wouldn't find it if you looked on a map today because none of the city-states that rose during that period survived to the modern era. So, exactly where was Mesopotamia? The word Mesopotamia is Greek for 'between two rivers.' This name is fitting, as the historic civilization rose in between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is today Iraq.

The presence of these two rivers created an incredibly rich and fertile landscape in between the Zagros Mountains to the east and Arabian Desert to the west. Not only did these rivers collect all the water runoff from the bordering mountains, but they also flooded seasonally, depositing rich silt and other soils full of nutrients each year. Because of this, scholars have nicknamed this dynamic and unique landscape the Fertile Crescent.

Agriculture

The presence of the Fertile Crescent and the harshness of the surrounding environment encouraged the ancient Mesopotamians to slow and eventually end the migratory, hunter-gatherer lifestyle early humans had practiced for millennia. Historians and paleontologists currently believe that the earliest Mesopotamians first began practicing agriculture sometime between 10,000 and 8,000 B.C., though some recent archaeological finds may push that date even further back. The first thing Mesopotamians did was domesticate animals. Animal husbandry may even predate the birth of agriculture, as early hunter-gatherers may have domesticated and drove herds of animals on their migrations.

Next, early Mesopotamians began domesticating wild plants and planting them in large quantities. This was humankind's first foray into agriculture, and before long, Mesopotamians were adept growers of wheat, barley, and other crops. By 8,000 B.C., early Mesopotamians were building permanent structures to live in and abandoning the hunter-gatherer lifestyle altogether. As more and more Mesopotamians adopted an agricultural lifestyle, communities grew up as families and bands built their houses next to one another.

Settlement & Migration

These communities first sprang up in the more Northern area, hundreds of kilometers north of the Persian Gulf. Later, likely around 6,000 B.C., these Northern farmers began migrating southward, bringing their agriculture and sedentary lifestyles with them. The South was less amenable to agriculture than the Northern part of the Fertile Crescent, and here, Mesopotamians developed sophisticated irrigation techniques to water their fields.

The agricultural revolution that occurred in Mesopotamia in these early centuries of human civilization arguably paved the way for the growth of modern civilization as we know it. Through agriculture, Mesopotamians now produced more food than they could eat in a single day or week. In response, they built storage rooms and granaries that could house the extra food and keep it fresh to be used in case of hardship. Furthermore, without having to constantly hunt animals or forage for food, Mesopotamians now had time for cultural pursuits, such as the crafting of pottery, written symbols for language, and the development of complex theologies and creation stories.

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