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How Physical Settings Supported Early Civilizations

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  • 0:08 Recipe for Civilization
  • 0:25 Landforms
  • 2:10 Climate
  • 3:09 Neighbors
  • 4:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

When determining where to build their first villages, people had to consider many factors. This lesson explores how physical environments affected where the first villages and cities were built.

Recipe for Civilization

When humanity decided it was time to settle down, chieftains did not begin building towns just anywhere. Locations for villages and cities were carefully chosen, taking into account the landforms, climate and potential neighbors of any given site.

Landforms

Many landforms either encouraged or discouraged the decision of early humans to stop hunting and start farming. For starters, there had to be land that was good for farming. This eliminates many different landforms. No one wants to farm in a swamp, as the land is too low.

That said, sometimes the land was too high. Of course, some hills were understandable, and even if some of the land was too hilly for farming, it could be used for herding sheep, cows or even horses. Also, a nice hill surrounded by flat land could provide the perfect place to defend a village, as the attackers would be tired from climbing the hill. However, mountains were not a good choice. They were often too steep to make crops worthwhile, and even then the soil would often be too rocky for anything to grow. Also, mountains could often block rain, meaning the crops would wilt and die.

Instead, nice flat land was ideal for farming. This meant that farmers could grow their crops with greater efficiency, which meant they could work less and grow more food at the same time. But it wasn't just the elevation of the land. There had to be sources of water nearby as well. However, not any kind of water source was ideal.

While lakes and ponds may sound like the perfect water source, they could quickly become polluted, as water sources often doubled as toilets. As such, some form of water that moved was preferable. For this reason, many of the greatest early civilizations, such as the Egyptians and the Sumerians, developed near rivers. In some cases, such as the Nile in Egypt, a river could also bring nutrients for the soil, meaning that better crops could be grown.

Climate

Even in the best-watered places, though, the climate, or weather over a long period of time, was just as important. After all, it was impossible to grow crops in places where there was snow year round. Likewise, some places were simply too hot or dry to be able to grow the types of crops necessary to support a village.

Of course, there are exceptions. Egypt and Mesopotamia are both in the middle of deserts, but because of the abundant water supply from rivers, the civilizations were able to develop. However, the shift of these rivers could (and did) often leave towns too far away from water, meaning that the people moved a few miles away and rebuilt everything.

Water wasn't the only climate factor though. Equally important was the amount of sunshine that a village's farms would receive. In much of Mesopotamia and Egypt, this was not too much of a problem, which is one of the reasons those places were able to grow such large cultures.

Neighbors

Finally, the neighbors of a particular civilization had much to do with the decision to settle down. Of course, no one would want to settle too close to someone who may seek to destroy their village. However, it is not only human neighbors that are important. In fact, in the early days of a settlement, it was often much more important for a growing civilization to have easy access to animals, whether to hunt/fish or to potentially domesticate, or tame.

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