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Identify the characteristics of civilizations

Uruk archaeological site at Warka, Iraq
Uruk archaeological site at Warka, Iraq

a. the presence of geographic boundaries and political institutions

b. an economy that produces food surpluses

c. a concentration of population in distinct areas or cities

d. the existence of social classes

e. developed systems of religion, learning, art, and architecture

f. a system of record keeping

Focus Question: What key characteristics led to the development of civilizations in the ancient world?

 A schematic showing the spreading of humans in history.
A schematic showing the spreading of humans in history.

Screen Shot 2018-01-03 at 2.30.48 PM.pngSee also AP World History Key Concept 1.3

For an overview of ancient civilizations to 300 BCE, see The Invention and Diffusion of Civilization from Professor Robert Brown, University of North Carolina Pembroke. See also

Rotating_globe-small.gifRecent research in Peru raises a question that people in Buena Vista, a settlement near of the foothills of the Andes established a society built not only around agriculture, but also fishing. If so, the presence of fishing and farming together would be an exception to a worldwide pattern of how civilizations developed. See "The New World's Oldest Calendar?" by Anne Bolen, Smithsonian, May 2007.

Multimedia.pngMesopotamiafrom National Geographic, a short introduction on the "cradle of civilization" known as Mesopotamia

lessonplan.jpgThe Origins of Civilization from the University of Chicago features teaching lessons about the transition from a way of life based on hunting and gathering to an economy based on raising domesticated plants and animals.

Multimedia.pngSecrets of Stonehenge from NOVA (November 16, 2010) offers new research on who built these structures and why.

Early Civilizations Around the World

The ancient city of Caral in Peru on March 30th, 2010
The ancient city of Caral in Peru on March 30th, 2010

  • Mesopotamia and Egypt (around 3000 BCE)

rotating gif.gifFor more see Grade 7.10 and 7.16

  • Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro (Indus River Valley, India between 3000 and 1500 BCE).

rotating gif.gif See World History WHI.21 for more on Indian history to 1800.

  • Central Asia (in present day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan around 2000 BCE)

Six basic characteristics of civilization:

A) Geographic Boundaries and Government
B) Economy
C) Population in Cities
D) Social Classes
E) Religion, Education, Art and Architecture
F) Writing

Some sources expand upon these characteristics to include others. See Eight Features of Civilizationfor an example on a different set of categories.
Multimedia.pngClick here for a video of an overview of these characteristics, this video Includes eight characteristics.

game_icon.svg.pngThe British Museum has a nice interactive site where you can explore religion, trade, writing, technology, cities, and buildings of ancient civilizations.

map of the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia

A. Geographic Boundaries and Government
Geographic boundaries provide a set area for people to exist in as a society and also set up areas where certain ethnic groups fit in better than they would in other, different areas.
  • The boundaries can also be related to landforms in the area because they provide pre-made boundaries. These geographic boundaries can also provide people with some natural protection from other, possibly harmful societies.
  • Geographic boundaries may also provide a society with the necessities for life such as a river or fertile soil.
  • A perfect example of this would be the fertile crescent surrounded by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which allowed for one of the first ancient civilizations to flourish.

Political institutions are formed in areas that have a certain group of people who have the same values and want the same things in life. Having that common bond makes people want to work together and become a community.
  • These political institutions also serve as a form of rule and order in a society.
  • The people belonging to these institutions usually have more power and control over the majority of the population.
  • In theory, these institutions should act with society's best interests in mind.

B. Economics and Food Surpluses

external image 200px-Paperback_book_black_gal.svg.pngEmpires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. Evan D. Fraser & Andrew Rimas. (Free Press, 2010).
  • Food empires are complex networks of farms and trading systems that expand and retract based on food supply (p. 249).
    • Origins, declines, institutions, social structures, and technological developments of civilizations are primarily directed by the need to feed and sustain a population.

Economies that produced extra food allowed for trade and the mixing of populations.
  • This also meant people soon realized how to preserve foods and which types of crops to grow when and how.
    • The preservation of food and growing of crops also allowed people to remain settled in one place rather than moving to where the food was. This allowed for cultures to grow and flourish.
      • People no longer had to worry about what to eat next or think about survival. People could begin to explore and question the world in which they lived in.
  • This allowed for societies and cultures to evolve into great civilizations. However, many of the problems with civilization, mainly malnutrition and disease, came about from the surplus of grains and their consumption.
    • By switching from a hunting-gathering lifestyle to an agricultural one, humans lost the many health benefits that came from a balanced diet of plants, nuts, and meats.

external image 200px-Dollar_Sign.svg.pngClick here for information on Trade in the Mediterranean.

Ancient civilizations often formed around rivers because they provided food to hunt and water to drink as well as more fertile land.
  • Below is a map of four of the earliest civilizations that developed close to rivers.

external image ch2-4-river-valley-civ-skf-19-728.jpg?cb=1346539432

For more resources, see Early River Valley Civilizations from Community Union School District, Wheaton, IL

multicultural.pngClick here for early evidence of trade in pre-Columbian Lower Mississippi Valley culture from the Louisiana Office of Cultural Development.

How ancient trade changed the world.

the Ziggurat temple in Ur, Mesopotamia

C. Population in Cities

Uruk: The First City

See Special Topic Page: The First Cities

Bioarchaeologists Link Climate Instability to Human Mobility in Ancient Sahara

Thebes, Egypt:
  • A city of great importance in the later years of ancient Civilizations
  • At one point was the largest city in the world (80,000)
  • Is home to some of the most important architecture in Egyptian history
Click:here for more.

D. Social Classes
Social Classes came to be when people started to see that they were different from the people around them. Some had more land than others which meant they had people working for them.
  • This development of "classes" also created inequality among people. People with more land or "capital" believed they were somehow better than the people with less. The distribution of resources and power became one-sided and many people suffered.

  • Humans naturally have the habit of categorizing the world around them. It allows us to make sense and organize our world. We categorize by skin color, personal capital worth, religious beliefs and so on. This leads to certain groups oppressing other groups.

  • Social classes can be found in every modern society today; this is the way societies have evolved over the many centuries.

womens history.jpgClick here to read about women and their status in the Ancient Worlds of Egypt, Rome, Greece, Israel, and Babylonia.

Click here for a link to more information on the role of women in ancient Mesopotamia.
  • Women's status in society
  • Jobs/roles for women
  • Marriage
  • Motherhood

Click here to read specifically about the role of women in Ancient Chinese civilizations.

primary_sources.PNGClick here for a primary source on the writings of Aristotle. One way to analyze the cultural attitude towards women in Ancient Greece is by reading his book, Politics.

E. Religion, Education, Art, and Architecture

Religion started from people worshipping the earth and the "gods" they felt controlled them and the world around them.

  • People want to understand what was happening in the world around them, especially the many things they could not explain.
  • Religion also offered meaning in peoples lives. It was a convenient way to explain the unknown which surrounded people in ancient civilizations. Whenever things went wrong or disasters occurred people needed and wanted an explanation. Having superior beings to worship helped explain these different phenomena.

The above image is of cave paintings in Lascaux, France.

Art was and still is a way to express yourself and keep records which was something that needed to be done as time went on.

Art allowed for creativity and talent to thrive and be shared. Humans could express their feelings, skills, ideas etc. through art.

French Cave Paintings and Rock Art Archive

Rotating_globe-small.gifArt has been around since the beginning of the human race. See Cave Paintings in Indonesia Redraw Picture of Earliest Art from National Geographic, October 8, 2014.

This research indicates paintings may be as much as 40,000 years old.

People drew on the walls of caves to tell their stories. Art is also a way for civilizations to express and share their beauty and success of their societies. Art was and still is a way for people to share their opinions about the world or society in which they live. Art can be about people, nature, the unknown, and much more.

Multimedia.pngClick here to see videos about art in the different ancient civilizations from the Khan Academy.

Architecture was needed in order to build dwellings and other places where people would gather to work and/or discuss life.

  • Architecture also allowed for civilizations to expand and grow into more advanced and complex societies. Developing the ability to construct buildings and streets allowed for a more modern lifestyle.
  • Architecture has been advancing along with the human race over the centuries. The cities and architecture we have today came from the examples of ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Education was also an important part of ancient civilizations as it is in our world today.
  • The differences were not only between men and women, but with class as well - the wealthy always getting the best treatment.

F. System of Record Keeping (see also Grade 7.10)

"Writing is a virtual necessity to the societies anthropologists call civilizations. . . . A civilization, with its taxation and tribute systems, its trade, and its public works, require a sophisticated system of record keeping. And so the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Mesoamerica, and (probably) India all developed a system or writing." (The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet. Amalia
E. Gnanadesikan, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, p. 1-2).

primary_sources.PNGThe Rosetta Stone is an excellent example of early written language. Click here for more on the Rosetta Stone.

The picture above is of the Rosetta Stone.
The image above shows the linguistic make-up of the Rosetta Stone.
Secret Codes For Writing | Write your name in Cuneiform – Just like a Mesapotamian ...:
Secret Codes For Writing | Write your name in Cuneiform – Just like a Mesapotamian ...:

  • Record keeping allowed for more advanced trade and for other businesses to flourish. Record keeping was generally accomplished in one of two ways: through the use of art or a written language.
  • Records needed to be kept in order to organize a settlement and make sure that a recorded history was being kept. Record keeping also allowed for more trade and many more businesses to rise. Keeping records allowed people to go back and look at things later on. A system to keep track of things would be needed in order to make this system work. Without records, civilization as we know it today could not exist. Records are a way to keep track of important laws and rules that a society believes in.
  • Records are kept in all societies. They allow for businesses to be run and for laws to be kept. Without records there would be no organization or rules and no history of prior civilizations
    statue of King Gilgamesh
  • With the development of record keeping systems came the development of writing; not just for "business" purposes, but for entertainment purposes as well.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh is known as the oldest recorded story of all time, having been carved into stone tablets during the 7th century BCE in the kingdom of Ur in Mesopotamia.
    • Not only is the creation of the story a mark of civilization, but the content and plot deal with the differences in a man once he is civilized and integrated into society.
    • See Influential Literature Page, The Epic of Gilgamesh

An excellent article on early writing systems: David Burzillo, "Writing and World History," World History Connected May 2004.

The Development of Writing in Ancient Mesopotamia:
  • The earliest writing systems evolved independently and at roughly the same time in Egypt and Mesopotamia
  • Writing system was originally invented by the Sumerians
  • It emerged in Mesopotamia around 3500 BCE
  • At first, the writing was representational
  • Writing began as pictures - it became ineffective for explaining anything other than nouns
  • Cuneiform: (World's earliest writing): functions both phonetically (representing a sound) and semantically (representing a meaning such as an object or concept) rather than only representing object directly as a picture.

See lThe Cuneiform Writing System in Ancient Mesopotamia to see complete listing of learning objectives and activities:

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 11.31.08 AM.pngLesson activity:
Use this site for an interactive guide explaining the development of writing. There are also fun links to explore and puzzles to solve to further learning about ancient symbols.

Have students practice the idea of representational writing by creating their own symbols to communicate with one another.

Have students practice drawing the ancient symbols and discuss what the symbols would look like today.

Fun Art Activity: Have students paint their name, or perhaps the school's name, by using the Cuneiform Alphabet guide above.

Interactive Games and Quizzes on Ancient Civilizations
  • Use this idea to assess student's knowledge on the chronological order of the ancient symbols that were the origins of writing and language.


Social Class Retrieved February 7, 2007, Web site: http://www.lepg.org/classes.htm