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The Fertile Crescent: Cradle of Civilization

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  • 0:00 Cradling Civilization
  • 0:49 The Fertile Crescent
  • 2:36 Raising Civilization
  • 5:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Complex civilization wasn't always the norm. In this lesson, we are going to check out the origins of civilization as we know it, and see where, when, and how this new system of living first began.

Cradling Civilization

Think of all the things that make up civilization. You've got your teachers, and doctors, and lawyers, and bankers, and builders, and all sorts of people doing a bunch of different things to keep their society working like a well-oiled machine. But how did we get here? Human societies weren't always this complex. At some point, the very concept of settled civilization had to be invented; it had to be born. To celebrate the birthday of what we call civilization, we'll have to travel back roughly 5,000 years to Ancient West Asia, sometimes called the Middle East. It was here that human groups first developed long-term, permanent societies, which is why we call it the Cradle of Civilization.

The Fertile Crescent

Here we are at the birth of civilization. So, where exactly are we? Currently, we are somewhere along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea in an area known as the Fertile Crescent, stretching in a semicircular shape from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Coast. This large chunk of mostly arid land is where humans first successfully developed agriculture, hence the 'fertile' in 'Fertile Crescent.'

Our tour of the Fertile Crescent begins here, in between the two rivers known as the Tigris and Euphrates. People of the 21st century will mostly identify this as Iraq, with parts of Syria, Turkey, and Kuwait as well. However, we're going to call it by the name given to it by the ancient Greeks: Mesopotamia, which means 'land between the rivers.'

Do you see these people here? These are some of the first people to take seeds from wild plants, plant them, breed them, and develop year-round cycles of sowing, tending, and harvesting. While Mesopotamia doesn't get much rain, it does have very fertile soil thanks to its two rivers, which flood over a wide plain and bring nutrients into the dirt. People have been experimenting with early versions of agriculture here since as early as 10,000 BCE, but it's really taken off since roughly 4,500 BCE.

You see, the Mesopotamians envisioned agriculture on an even larger scale, giving them reliable access to food throughout the year. So they developed early systems of irrigation by building canals, bringing water from the rivers into the drier parts of Mesopotamia. From there, they continued to expand the amount of land they used to plant food and also continued to domesticate new plants and animals.

Raising Civilization

Now this is interesting: you see what these people are doing here? Exactly! They're not doing anything. That's important. Before the development of agriculture, human societies were nomadic, which means they constantly moved with their food supply. However, as these groups developed agriculture, they were able to reliably grow enough food to sustain them. They didn't have to move anymore, so they could stay in one place all the time.

These permanent societies, or sedentary cultures, were very different from the nomadic ones. In a nomadic society, basically everyone worked to procure food. However, these sedentary farming societies of Mesopotamia produced so much food that they developed a surplus. They could make more food than they needed and this gave people and opportunity to do other things. Rather than everyone growing food, some people could focus on building permanent houses for this settled society. Since those builders now spend all of their time working on something besides making food, they had to buy it, which meant that the society now needed merchants to sell food produced by the farmers. From this humble beginning, complex civilizations grew extremely quickly.

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