Archaeologists and historians acknowledge six independent “cradles” of civilisation, that is, ancient civilisations which appear to have developed independently or semi-independently of each other. This is often seen as a “tendency” of human beings, intelligent and social, to create civilisations.
One of the interesting aspects of the six cradles is that five of them appeared around 3000 BCE, after thousands of years of slow developments of agriculture and social organisation in the millennia before. It must be remembered that these societies must have had no or almost no knowledge of each other. They were developing largely in ignorance of the world much beyond their own geographical location. But to these societies, we owe cities, writing, art and religion.
Stone relief sculpture from ancient Sumer
Mesopotamia, an area which largely corresponds to modern Iraq, was home to some of the earliest known civilizations in the world.
By the early centuries of the fourth millennium BCE, the world’s first cities, such as the Sumerian cities, including Ur, were emerging. These were supported by complex social and agricultural structures. Eventually larger states developed, such as Babylonia and Assyria in the next millennium or so.
The Mesopotamian cultures produced many important developments from agriculture to communications. Perhaps the single greatest contribution of the city-states of Mesopotamia was the cuneiform system of writing.
Cuneiform writing used a sharp tool to cut small ticks and wedges into a clay tablet. The Mesopotamians realised that by arranging the shapes into complex patterns, they would convey large amounts of information for posterity or over great distances. This was one of the first fully realised writing systems and the Mesopotamians later developed writing for pleasure, in literature such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Nefertiti, who was first wife of a pharaoh, and then it is believed became a pharaoh herself.
Egypt emerged around 3000 BCE in the fertile Nile Valley as a result of a huge population movement in Africa as the Sahara Desert dried out. A number of smaller states were united by the Old Kingdom in the third millennium BCE. It was a process of continued cultural and political development.
The Egyptian state began to extend its borders south and westwards. Bureaucracies became more centralised under the god-king, the pharaoh, with a complex administration of governors, tax collectors, and centrally planned building and agriculture emerging.
This society built irrigation systems, pyramids, temples, and canals. Long-distance trade developed to Asia, Africa and Europe.
Egypt had long periods of decline, invasion and reunion, in the so-called Middle and New Kingdoms. However, Egypt remained a hugely important cultural power for three thousand years, until the death of Cleopatra in 30 BCE.
In Ancient Egyptian society, social status was particularly important. Scribes and officials formed an upper class below the immediate royal circle, followed by priests, physicians and engineers. Egyptian society had very relaxed views around sexuality and its expression in art and public life, and it appears had no particular taboos around homosexuality.
Ancient Egypt was an intensely religious society. Egypt had a large pantheon of gods, whose forms were fluid between human and animal, and between genders. They were supernatural and magical beings who could be called on for help but who were temperamental and occasionally cruel. Magic was part of daily life and people believed that it was usually a force for good.
3. The Indus Valley
The earliest civilisations on the Indian subcontinent emerged just before 3000 BCE in the lush Indus River valley that runs through modern Pakistan around the same time as civilisation was emerging in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
By about 2500 to 1900 BCE, a surprisingly large number of urban centres, most famously Mohenjo-daro in modern Pakistan, had developed. These cities were built of brick and maintained drainage systems and multi-storey houses and apartment blocks.
These societies appear to have been well-organised and probably relatively wealthy, as complex pottery and other luxury artifacts have been found at archaeological sites. The Indus Valley civilisation declined – the reasons are not very clear – and its remarkable cities were abandoned. Some such as Mohenjo-daro remained entirely lost under soil for 3000 years.
The American cradles of civilisation also emerged around 3000 BCE, around the same time as Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus Valley. This is a curious coincidence as there can have been no cultural cross-pollination millennia before contact with other continents.
The ancient Mexicans built pyramids and temples within large, well-planned cities, developed their own systems of mathematics, astronomy and medicine, invented calendars and abacus calculators.
They developed irrigation systems and began to plan agricultural production across large areas to feed the cities that they were building.
Ancient American writing developed entirely independently of any other system. This proves the usefulness of writing – to communicate, to record, to tax, to rule. Writing is so advantageous that on more than one occasion, it spontaneously appeared among unconnected human societies.
Thousands of miles to the south, and probably without any contact to the northern Mexican civilisations, the oldest known civilisation in South America is the Peruvian Norte Chico culture emerged around 3000 BCE.
Norte Chico lasted until around 1800 BCE. Another very ancient South American culture, the Valdivian, appeared in modern Ecuador from 3000 to 1800 BCE. A coastal society living off agriculture and fishing, the Valdivians lived in circular communities in which people lived around a central round plaza.
Confucius, whose ideas became a huge influence on Chinese culture, ancient and modern
China developed somewhat later than the first five civilisations. However, archaeologists and historians consider this a cradle of civilisation as the civilisation appears to have emerged with little or no contact to others and is one of the most unique and vibrant civilisations to have ever emerged in the world.
The Xia dynasty (c. 2100 to c. 1600 BCE) is the first Chinese dynasty (the principle marker system for the country’s pre-modern history) to be named, although it may not have actually existed. Archaeological evidence for the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE) is much clearer. China developed its own system of writing, too, although academics dispute whether there was any outside influence on that development.
The Zhou dynasty (1046 BCE to c. 256 BCE) was the longest-lasting dynasty in Chinese history. Under the Zhou, many of the core concepts of Chinese civilisation started to emerge. The philosophical-religious systems of Confucianism and Taoism emerged. During this period, our concept of “China” began to develop. An extraordinary amount of ancient Chinese culture – from Confucianism to chopsticks, the writing system to the strong belief in the centrality of the country itself – survives intact in modern Chinese society.
UPDATE! Lots of readers have asked why Ancient Greece is not included in this list. The answer is simple. Ancient Greek civilisation probably has more influence on our lives today than any other. However, Greek civilisation emerged quite late in comparison to some others and even in its earliest phases, such as in very early Crete, was very influenced by other, earlier societies. This in no way diminishes the importance and innovations of Ancient Greek civilisation!
This post contains edited material from our book, A Quick History of the World, which can be downloaded here.