Chapter 13: The Rise of Old World Civilizations

Land movement from the Old World to the New was only possible during several limited periods, the last of which ended with the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago. Because human occupation was, thus, much longer in the Old World, societal evolution was more advanced here. Tonight, we will be dealing with earliest appearences of the most complex societies, the "civilized" states.

Civilization is a treacherous, and often misused term. To archaeologists, it has a very specific meaning which was covered in one of the first chapters of the book. A civilization is usually defined by a suite of 10 cultural characteristics (pg. 166):

- cities: large, densely-populated, and economically-complex settlements.

- food-surpluses: high productivity permits sedentism (storage) and specialization.

- full-time specialists: individuals who don't have time to farm.

- stratification: some intra-societal groups command more prestige and authority.

- decline of kin-based authority: authority and power can be earned.

- long-distance trade and markets.

- standing army: will of leader can be physically imposed.

- intellectual achievements: writing, math, astronomy, etc.

- monumental architecture: temples, palaces, etc.

- distinctive and sophisticated art styles: Great Traditions

By these definitions, the civilizations first developed in four completely independent regions thousands of miles apart: Mesopotamia(Tigris/Euphrates), Egypt (Nile), Pakistan (Indus), and China(Yellow).


The earliest known civilization developed along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now the country of Iraq. The headwaters of these rivers are in an area known as the "Fertile Crescent" because it was the first known site of plant and animal domestication. By 7,000-6,000 B. C., farming settlements of over 1,000 people were established in Catal Huyuk in Turkey, and Jericho in Palistine. By 5,000 B. C., people had moved down these rivers and occupied the arid region near their mouths in Sumer. Although large settlements developed by 3,600 B. C., there is no evidence that they had the complexity that we associate with urban areas. However, these institutions rapidly evolved as populations grew and settlements became more clustered. Large, multi-community political systems controlled by fortified city/states were in place by 2,700 B. C. However, these city/states were constantly fighting with each other. Thus, the political situation was very dynamic. This must be one factor which encouraged the population nucleation. Thus, although the Sumerian civilization is often discussed, it was not a unified entity. However, like the Maya, they shared many artistic, linguistic, and architectural traits. Unlike the Maya, even though the region was depopulated due to environmental degradation (salinization of soils), many of these complex institutions survived by being moved or adopted in other regions.


Not quite as old as Sumeria, the Egyptian civilization is the best known. It, like Sumeria, lies in the fertile valley of a large river flowing through what would otherwise be a desert. Once again, the annual flooding of the river, combined with irrigation, were vital for the existance of human settlements in this region.

Old Kingdom Period 2600-2200 B.C.

Archaic Period 3100-2600 B.C. Chiefdoms unified into 2 kingdoms

Predynastic Period 4900-3100 B.C. Chiefdoms

By 4,000 B. C., large, egalitarian farming settlements were common.

What's particularly fascinating is that these areas are all similar environments: large, fertile, semi-arid valleys whose rivers permitted effective long-distance communication and trade. Makes you see why Cultural Ecology seems so relavant! Because of the naturally high productivity of the land along these rivers, food surpluses and storage of these surpluses permitted sedentism and specialization. Because of the aridity and available ground water, irrigation was important. As a result, individuals were able to control the means of production: water and the best resources and became "control-specialists". As populations grew, these resources became increasingly important. Because these resources were so rich and efficient long-distance transportation was available (boats and animals), high population densities were achieved.