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The Environment's Impact on Early Agrarian Civilizations

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  • 0:01 Early Agrarian Civilizations
  • 1:38 Natural Environments
  • 5:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

After watching this video, you should be able to describe early agrarian civilizations, how they developed in river valleys and how the nature of those rivers affected the development of aspects of those cultures. A short quiz will follow.

Early Agrarian Civilizations

When humans changed their hunter-gatherer ways and began to settle down, there was one important question to answer: Where should they settle? While the reason for humans ditching their nomadic lives is debated, the switch to an agrarian society is not.

For the vast majority of human history, we were hunter-gatherers. This was one of the most successful methods of living humans have enjoyed, and hunter-gatherers collected food, created clothes (warmth), and shelter. They lived healthy and productive lives. But whether out of a desire for more food, growing grains for alcohol, or just experimentation from the abundant leisure time that hunter-gatherers had, humans began to settle down and farm around 12,000 years ago. We formed what's called an agrarian society. An agrarian society is a society where cultivating the land is the primary source of wealth: where the focus is on agriculture and farming.

Where did humans settle? Did they spread out randomly across the globe? No. As it turns out, humans invariably settled along the flood plains of rivers. This shouldn't be at all surprising, because farming is far more successful if land is fertile. And fertile land is easy to find along riverbanks.

Rivers tend to periodically flood. And when they do, they bring nutrient-rich silt with them, making the soil extremely useful for growing things. The river was the heart of early human civilizations and shaped the way those societies operated, how they lived and what they believed.

Natural Environments

Examples of early river-valley civilizations include the Indus Valley civilization, ancient Egypt (the Nile), Mesopotamia (along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers), and Chinese civilization along the Yellow River. Let's look at a few of these in more detail.

First, let's talk about the Indus Valley civilization. The Indus River would flood the land with nutrients twice per year, super reliably. Because of this regular flooding, the Indus Valley contained the most available calories per acre of any river of its time. Things grew easily, and the civilization flourished around 3000 BCE. A total of 1,500 sites have been found, and so the Indus Valley civilization was huge, containing many astonishingly impressive cities. These cities contained multi-story buildings, built from a uniform size of brick. Cities were oriented to catch the wind and contained extensive sewer systems that would have been the envy of much later civilizations. Indus Valley civilizations thrived through trading cotton and cloth with Mesopotamia, in exchange for things like bronze. Their reliable and plentiful land made them a peaceful people - few weapons have been found, suggesting they had what they needed. Unfortunately, it's also quite likely that they themselves were conquered as part of their decline.

Mesopotamia was another highly successful river civilization, but their river was quite different. The flooding of their river was extremely unpredictable, making proper irrigation complex and hard work. As a result, slavery was needed to irrigate effectively. Also probably as a result, their relationship with their gods was equally tenuous and unpredictable. The most powerful people in Mesopotamia were the priests, who were responsible for helping to avoid the wrath of the gods and bring success to the people. Trade was vital to Mesopotamia because, while their land was fertile, there was little metal, wood or stone. Mesopotamia was the world's first known territorial kingdom, developed through trade. But after drought, the weakened kingdom was invaded by pastoral nomads.

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