In ancient history, six distinct “cradles” of civilisation are usually identified. These are the regions which appear to have developed civilisation independently or semi-independently.
The six cradles of civilisation were: Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, China, Mexico and Peru.
One curiosity is that, with the exception of China, which emerged a little later, each of these societies emerged around 3000 BCE – as if history’s light was suddenly switched on.
1. Mesopotamia (Modern Iraq)
Mesopotamia 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.
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 developed writing for pleasure, in literature such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Ruins of the city of Mohenjo-Daro, Pakistan
2. Indus Valley (Modern Pakistan)
The earliest civilisations on the Indian subcontinent emerged in the lush Indus River valley that runs through modern Pakistan around the same time as civilisation was emerging in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
The Bronze Age in the Indian subcontinent began around 3300 BCE, two thousand years after the emergence of agriculture around the Indus. The Indus civilisation developed roughly at the same time.
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 artefacts have been found at archaeological sites.
The Mexican cradle of civilisation also emerged around 3000 BCE. This is a curious coincidence as there can have been no cultural cross-pollination.
Famous cultures in Mexico included the Olmecs, the Mayans, and the Toltecs, thousands of years before the Aztecs.
They 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.
In these American civilisations, writing developed entirely independently of any other system.
Historians of early writing argue whether, for example, China developed the concept of writing independently or understood its existence elsewhere in the world and developed a system of their own. Ancient American writing could have no such possible contact. This proves the usefulness of writing discussed earlier – to communicate, to record, to tax, to rule.
4. Peru (and Ecuador)
The oldest known civilisation in South America is the Peruvian Norte Chico culture emerged around 3000 BCE around the same time as Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilisations were first emerging. It is thus considered one of the six cradles of civilization, along with Mexico, Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and the Indus Valley.
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.
Ancient tablets from Egypt
The Egyptian Old Kingdom, the first major period of this great civilisation, also emerged around 3000 BCE. The Egyptian state was highly centralised under the pharaohs, with a complex administration of governors, tax collectors, and centrally planned building and agriculture emerging.
The pharaoh dominated all aspects of Egyptian life but relied upon a complex bureaucracy to run the country, first via a vizier for the whole country and then regional governors. This society built irrigation systems, pyramids, temples, and canals. Long-distance trade developed.
Building projects were organized and funded by the state for religious and political purposes. Pyramids were built during the Old and Middle Kingdoms.
From around 2200 BCE, the Old Kingdom’s stability began to break down and was not restored for a few generations. Under the Middle Kingdom (circa 2055 BCE-1650 BCE), pyramid building resumed and long-distance trade re-emerged and links within Africa became very important. Stability broke down again until restored by the New Kingdom (1580–1080 BCE).
China emerged a little later than the other five cradles. With the possible exception of Egypt, Chinese civilisation is most closely associated with a country and yet for much of its early history, China was disunited.
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.
The Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE) is accepted as having historically existed. However, it is unlikely that their concept of China was much like ours and it was probably a period of several disunited kingdoms.
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, vast influences on East Asian values and belief systems to this day, emerged. During this period, our concept of “China” began to develop.
You can learn more about the development of civilisation in our new book, A Quick History of the World, available now.
Sign up for news, review copies and other freebies.