Table of Contents
- Early River Valley Civilizations
- The Four River Valley Civilizations and Locations
- River Valley Civilizations Map
- The Decline of the River Valley Civilizations
- Lesson Summary
The early river valley civilizations were formed when people first began to move from a hunting and gathering lifestyle to an agrarian one. Instead of moving around to find food for themselves and their animals, they began to grow their own food and settle down in one location. The majority of these settlements were located near major rivers. These ancient river civilizations set the foundation for later civilizations, leading to our modern civilizations today.
Why did so many early civilizations arise near river valleys? Rivers provided many benefits to early humans, including:
In these ways, the geography of an area influenced where people eventually settled, resulting in many river civilizations.
The major four river valley civilizations were located along the Indus River, the Yellow River, the Nile River, and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia. Although each of these was located along a river for similar reasons, they had very different political systems, religions, languages, and cultures.
The Indus River Valley Civilization, also known as the Harappan Civilization, began around 7000 BCE and lasted until around 600 BCE. Located along the Indus River in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, it had around 5 million people at its peak, and extended about 900 miles along the river. The inhabitants were mostly farmers, artisans, and merchants. The two major cities were Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, which were laid out in a uniform manner, suggesting that they were pre-planned and organized, and feature sewer systems, indoor plumbing, and air conditioning devices.
There is no evidence of a standing army, palaces, temples, or monuments in the Indus River Valley. Despite the lack of mention of rulers, historians feel there must have been some kind of centralized government in place since the cities are laid out so uniformly. Citizens of this civilization had developed several technologies which made life easier, including:
Religious beliefs in the Indus River Valley cannot be definitively known, but it is thought that there may have been fertility rituals and a Mother Goddess deity based on the number of artifacts discovered bearing the female form. There is similarly no agreement on what language was spoken by these people, but they wrote using a script referred to as the Indus Script, which is the earliest form of writing on the Indian subcontinent.
The Yellow River Valley Civilization is the site of the earliest civilizations in China. The Yellow River is the northern of China's two largest rivers, the other being the Yangtze River. Villages began to appear along the river around 5000 BCE, including Banpo Village, which archeologists have designated a representative of Yellow River Valley culture at the time. The village is laid out in the shape of an oval, surrounded in a moat, and all buildings are circular. The base of each building is three feet below the ground, and the dirt excavated while digging was used to help build the walls.
Based on evidence found at the Banpo Village site, the early society formed along the Yellow River was matriarchal, meaning that women, rather than men, were the leaders of the civilization. The people were primarily farmers and artisans who grew millet, domesticated pigs and dogs, and created cloth and advanced ceramics. The language of the settlement is not known, but a form of proto-writing has been discovered on ceramic shards.
Excavated graves show evidence of religious beliefs in the area. People were buried with goods to take with them, which suggests a belief in the afterlife, and the tombs are uniformly oriented east-west, which symbolizes the cycle of death and rebirth. Additionally, items found in the graves point to there having been people in the village who functioned as priests.
Eventually, the first dynasty in China, the Xia Dynasty, was established from the Yellow River Civilization. The most famous figure of this dynasty was Da Yu, or Yu the Great, an emperor remembered for controlling the river's floods so villages weren't forced to relocate.
The Nile River Valley Civilization began around 6000 BCE when people began to settle around the Nile River Valley in Egypt and Sudan. The predictable flooding of the river each year left a strip of land on either side remarkably fertile, perfect for planting crops and developing a society. Between 6000 BCE and 3150 BCE when Egypt was united under its first king, several different cultures succeeded one another in the Nile River Valley. The first settlements were located in Lower Egypt in the north, but then spread out to include Upper Egypt in the south.
Buildings began as simple reed huts, but then evolved into more advanced houses with sturdier walls, hearths for cooking, and windbreaks outside the doors. The people learned to create ceramics; bake bricks for building; carve wood, bone, and ivory; and create weapons and jewelry from metals and other minerals.
By examining burial sites carefully, archeologists have been able to observe the development of religious beliefs among the people of the Nile River Valley. At the earliest cemeteries, people are buried without any goods, which implies a lack of belief in the afterlife. However, goods begin to be seen in later cemeteries, including food and personal belongings, which suggests that the dead were then thought to need these things in the afterlife. Around 3500 BCE, mummification began to be used on the dead, and goods continue to be seen. The language spoken in the Nile River Valley is unknown, but hieroglyphic writing was developed sometime between 3400 and 3200 BCE. It has been found on ceramics and clay seals, but no complete sentences were written until the Second Dynasty of Egypt.
As larger cities grew, they began to have conflicts with each other. The Scorpion King attempted to unify these city states but was unsuccessful. Narmer, a king from Upper Egypt, was the first to successfully unify Upper and Lower Egypt, and began the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt, which is the first period for which we have written history.
The word ''Mesopotamia'' comes from a Greek word that means ''between two rivers,'' and indeed, the Mesopotamia River Valley Civilization was located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now the Middle East. Evidence for the earliest settlements dates them to around 10,000 BCE, significantly earlier than most of the other early river civilizations. The people farmed, domesticated animals, and eventually began to trade with each other, using the wealth that came from trade to establish the first cities in the world
Unlike several other civilizations, Mesopotamia was never unified under one government. It is better understood as a group of different city states connected by their script and gods. Cities began to be formed around 4100 BCE, including Uruk, Ur, and Susa, and it is believed that their writing, called cuneiform, was developed as a way to facilitate trade between different areas. However, we do not know what their spoken language was. Other significant developments of ancient Mesopotamia include:
There are over 1,000 gods in the Mesopotamian pantheon, and many stories about them, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the oldest story to be written down anywhere in the world. The people believed they were working together with the gods to tame the land, build cities, and maintain balance in the world. Even a person's job was thought to be a contribution to keeping chaos at bay. Trades include a wide variety of professions, including priests, artists, healers, scribes, and teachers.
Below is a river valley civilizations map showing the locations of all four major ancient river civilizations.
Eventually, each of the four early river valley civilizations declined and was replaced by other civilizations. Most declined due to a variety of factors including climate, war, and economic issues. For some, there is no definitive answer as to why this happened since we only have archeological evidence to go on. For example, historians are unsure whether the Indus River Valley Civilization collapsed due to problems with the trade lines, a natural disaster, or climate change that caused the river to change its course. However, they agree that the cities of the large civilization were largely abandoned between 1700 and 1900 BCE.
In the Yellow River Valley Civilization, a succession of dynasties came to power and lost it again until 220 CE, when the Han dynasty collapsed completely. This was partly caused by the fact that the civilization was growing faster than it could be governed, and it eventually split into smaller states who ruled themselves. A massive flood from the Yellow River around 14-17 CE was likely also a factor, as the devastated region became the center for a persistent rebellion.
Egypt and the Nile River Valley Civilization went through a long period of decline. In 1070 BCE, Upper and Lower Egypt once again split, with each being ruled by a separate leader. A series of civil wars, economic crises, raids, an unstable climate, and wars with foreign nations made the civilization even more vulnerable, and led to it being conquered by the Persian Empire in 525 BCE.
The Mesopotamia River Valley Civilization began to decline in 1530 BCE when it was conquered by the Kassites, who remained in control for over 400 years. However, Mesopotamian culture survived this period, and a period of rule by the Assyrians, and only completely declined when they were conquered by the Persian Empire in 530 BCE. At this time, the people notably lost the use of the cuneiform script that had unified the area for so long.
There were four major early river civilizations in the ancient world, each located along the banks of a large river.
Early civilizations were often settled along rivers, since there was plenty of access to water and fertile land that made farming, and therefore survival, much easier. Each of these civilizations had unique political structures, religious beliefs, and languages. They developed technologies such as writing, irrigation, transportation, and artistry, and their examples helped form the foundations for our modern societies today.
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Although the first major civilizations were unique, they were similar in that they had access to freshwater rivers that provided for the needs of their community. After doing this lesson, the extension activity will help students locate the civilizations and think about ways water was used.
Begin by giving students a blank world map. This could also just be a map that includes the Middle East, Asia and North Africa. Have students label the following rivers: Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Indus, Yellow. Depending on their readiness, the rivers could already be drawn onto the map or they could put them in themselves. Next, they should identify where the early civilizations existed and the name of each.
If doing this early in the year, this activity could easily become a review of important map skills. Have students add a title, compass and key to their map.
Once the map is complete, students should list the ways that water and rivers were important to early civilizations (agriculture, power, drinking water, etc.).
Finally, they should think about and record their answer to the following question: ''Agree or disagree: The location of early civilizations on rivers is a coincidence. We do not have enough evidence to say that rivers were essential to their success.''
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