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Early River Civilizations: The Indus, Nile, Yellow, Tigris & Euphrates River Civilizations

Kai Baldwin, David Wood, Grace Pisano
  • Author
    Kai Baldwin

    Kai has a master's degree in media studies from The New School, and a bachelor's degree in religion and philosophy from Lebanon Valley College. They have taught college religion courses for over two years.

  • 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.

  • Expert Contributor
    Grace Pisano

    Grace attended James Madison University has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school social studies in several states around the country.

What were the early river valley civilizations? Learn about the Indus River Valley Civilization, other civilizations, and see a river valley civilizations map. Updated: 04/28/2021

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Early River Valley Civilizations

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?

Why did so many early civilizations arise near river valleys? Rivers provided many benefits to early humans, including:

  • Access to water, which is essential for survival
  • Access to fertile land, which made it easier to grow enough crops to feed the people in the settlements
  • Access to fish and other animals who came to drink the water, which made it possible for the people to eat more than just the crops they could grow
  • Access to easier transportation, since they could send boats up and down the river to trade with other settlements within a civilization

In these ways, the geography of an area influenced where people eventually settled, resulting in many river civilizations.

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  • 0:08 Early River Civilizations
  • 1:53 Indus River
  • 2:40 Nile River
  • 3:29 Tigris & Euphrates Rivers
  • 4:06 Yellow River
  • 4:43 Lesson Summary
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The Four River Valley Civilizations and Locations

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

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.

The Indus River Valley Civilization extended through modern-day India, Pakistan, and Nepal.

Map of the Indus River Valley Civilization

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:

  • The wheel, used for carts and other transportation
  • Irrigation systems for growing crops
  • Flat-bottomed boats used for trading
  • The ability to work with ceramics and metals

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

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.

The Yellow River Valley Civilization was located in northern China.

Map of the Yellow River Valley.

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

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.

Upper Egypt was located in the south because that is where the upper part, the headwaters, of the Nile are, which then flow down to Lower Egypt in the north.

Map of the Nile River Valley.

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.

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Additional Activities

Mapping and Comparing Rivers in Early Civilizations

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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