Early River Valley Civilizations in Afro-Eurasia

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Some of the first civilizations in the world tend to have one major feature in common. In this lesson, we'll look at the first civilizations of Afro-Eurasia and examine the similarities and differences in their origins.

Early River Valley Civilizations

I love rivers. They're so peaceful. Ancient people seemed to have loved rivers too, and while I'm sure they enjoyed the tranquility of a softly-babbling brook as much as I do, they probably had other reasons to appreciate rivers as well; for example, the fact that rivers sustained their very existence. Across the world, many of the first societies to give up a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence and form sedentary, non-mobile, communities did so around major river systems. It makes sense; rivers provide natural defense, an abundance of high-protein foods like fish, a constant supply of fresh water, and tend to be accompanied by soil that is soft and fertile enough to sustain agriculture. We call these first sedentary societies the early river valley civilizations. Generally, this term is applied only to those civilizations which developed highly complex political/social systems within a major river valley and developed agriculture and writing independently, without it being brought in by another culture. In the Eastern Hemisphere, there are four major early river valley civilizations, societies who could appreciate more than anyone in history the importance of a good river.

Mesopotamian Civilizations

The oldest of the traditional early river valley civilizations is Mesopotamia, and the rivers that allowed for its development were the Tigris and Euphrates. Never heard of Mesopotamia? Don't feel bad; most people today know it as roughly Iraq, Syria, and Kuwait. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are large, fresh water systems that people were able to use to begin domesticating plants. Small settlements appeared, but around 3500 BCE those settlements grew into what is considered to be the oldest true civilization in history. The various cities of Mesopotamia, which each operated as independent kingdoms, developed complex systems of trade with each other, had sophisticated religions, and even developed the world's first true system of writing, called cuneiform. These cities often worked together for mutual benefit, achieving things like developing irrigation to bring water from the rivers into the drier deserts surrounding them, making previously desolate areas farmable. The Mesopotamian societies thrived until around 539 BCE, when the region was conquered by another empire, but the precedents they set changed human history.

Mesopotamian societies developed the first true writing system, called cuneiform
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Egyptian Civilizations

The next of the traditional early river valley civilizations can be found just southwest of Mesopotamia. Egypt is the land focused around the Nile River, the longest fresh-water river in the world. Egyptians started developing agriculture along this river just barely after the Mesopotamians did, and the Nile is one of the best places in the world for farming. Every year, the Nile River flooded, inundating the soil and bringing in fresh nutrients. So, the land was very fertile and settled communities developed, which turned into kingdoms. Around 3000 BCE, the two major kingdoms that had recently formed Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt were united under a single king called a pharaoh. This is considered the true beginning of Egyptian civilization. The Egyptians also developed irrigation systems to bring water from the Nile into the deserts of Egypt, and developed systems of crop rotations to keep the soil from being overused. Egypt remained one of the dominant powers in the world for nearly 3,000 years and even under Greek and Roman dominance remained a major cultural and economic center.

Harappan Civilizations

As Mesopotamia and Egypt were developing major civilizations based around fertile river valleys, someone across the Indian Ocean got the same idea. Based around the Indus River, today in Pakistan, several independent cities were founded, which we call the Harappan civilization after the largest city, Harappa. Harappan civilization is largely a mystery to us. Just like the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, the Harappans created a system of writing. Unfortunately, we can't read it. Without being able to read their records, most of what we know about Harappan society is based on archeological remains, predominantly their impressive ruins. Harappan cities were massive, with well-developed agriculture and trade, but there are some things that seem unusual. So far, we haven't found any monumental burial sites, which is common in early societies with kings. Just think of the pyramids in Egypt. There's also very little evidence of warfare or even an imperial military, again things that are expected in most early civilizations. Were the Harappans a peaceful society that believed in equality and democracy? Or, are the records of kings and armies all stored in writing, waiting for us to decipher it? We don't know, but we can tell that the various cities of the Indus River Valley were one of a kind.

The Harappans left behind many fascinating artifacts, but we still are unable to read their writings
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