Beginnings of Civilization (4 million B.C.–200 B.C.)

The Peopling of the World, Prehistory–2500 B.C.

As early humans spread out over the world, they adapted to each environment they encountered. As time progressed, they learned to use natural resources.  The earliest peoples came up with new ideas and inventions in order to survive.  As people began to live in settlements, they continued to develop new technology to control the environment. Early humans hunted animals and gathered wild plant foods for 3 to 4 million years. Then about 10,000 years ago, they learned to tame animals and to plant crops. Gradually, more complex economies developed.

Human Origins in Africa

What were the earliest humans like? Many people have asked this question. Because there are no written records of prehistoric peoples, scientists have to piece together information about the past. Teams of scientists use a variety of research methods to learn more about how, where, and when early humans developed. Interestingly, recent discoveries provide the most knowledge about human origins and the way prehistoric people lived. Yet, the picture of prehistory is still far from complete.

Humans Try to Control Nature

By about 40,000 years ago, human beings had become fully modern in their physical appearance. With a shave, a haircut, and a suit, a Cro-Magnon man would have looked like a modern business executive. However, over the following thousands of years, the way of life of early humans underwent incredible changes. People developed new technology, artistic skills, and most importantly, agriculture.


Agriculture marked a dramatic change in how people lived together. They began dwelling in larger, more organized communities, such as farming villages and towns. From some of these settlements, cities gradually emerged, forming the backdrop of a more complex way of life—civilization.

Early River Valley Civilizations, 3500 B.C.–450 B.C.

The earliest civilizations formed on fertile river plains. These lands faced challenges, such as seasonal flooding and a limited growing area. Projects such as irrigation systems required leadership and laws—the beginnings of organized government. In some societies, priests controlled the first governments. In others, military leaders and kings ruled. Early civilizations developed bronze tools, the wheel, the sail, the plow, writing, and mathematics. These innovations spread through trade, wars, and the movement of peoples.

City-States in Mesopotamia

Two rivers flow from the mountains of what is now Turkey, down through Syria and Iraq, and finally to the Persian Gulf. Over six thousand years ago, the waters of these rivers provided the lifeblood that allowed the formation of farming settlements. These grew into villages and then cities.

Pyramids on the Nile

To the west of the Fertile Crescent in Africa, another river makes its way to the sea. While Sumerian civilization was on the rise, a similar process took place along the banks of this river, the Nile in Egypt. Yet the Egyptian civilization turned out to be very different from the collection of city-states in Mesopotamia. Early on, Egypt was united into a single kingdom, which allowed it to enjoy a high degree of unity, stability, and cultural continuity over a period of 3,000 years.

Planned Cities on the Indus

The great civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt rose and fell. They left behind much physical evidence about their ways of life. This is the case in what today is the area known as Pakistan and part of India where another civilization arose about 2500 B.C. However, historians know less about its origins and the reasons for its eventual decline than they do about the origins and decline of Mesopotamia and Egypt, because the language of the culture has not been translated.

River Dynasties in China

The walls of China’s first cities were built 4,000 years ago. This was at least 1,000 years after the walls of Ur, the great pyramids of Egypt, and the planned cities of the Indus Valley were built. Unlike the other three river valley civilizations, the civilization that began along one of China’s river systems continues to thrive today.

People and Ideas on the Move, 2000 B.C.–250 B.C.

Early peoples often migrated from their lands to find new homes that promised a better life. Once they moved, they had to deal with a new environment. Three major world religions developed during this time. Hinduism and Buddhism originated in India, while Judaism developed in Southwest Asia. Traders transported their goods to other parts of the world. Among the early trading peoples were the Phoenicians, who dominated the Mediterranean. Sea traders also traveled between India and Arabia.

The Indo-Europeans

In India and in Mesopotamia, civilizations first developed along lush river valleys. Even as large cities such as Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa declined, agriculture and small urban communities flourished. These wealthy river valleys attracted nomadic tribes. These peoples may have left their own homelands because of warfare or changes in the environment.

Hinduism and Buddhism Develop

At first, the Aryans and non-Aryans followed their own forms of religion. Then as the two groups intermingled, the gods and forms of their religions also tended to blend together. This blending resulted in the worship of thousands of gods. Different ways of living and different beliefs made life more complex for both groups. This complexity led some people to question the world and their place in it. They even questioned the enormous wealth and power held by the Brahmin priests. Out of this turmoil, new religious ideas arose that have continued to influence millions of people today.

Seafaring Traders

Buddhism spread to Southeast Asia and to East Asia mainly through Buddhist traders. In the Mediterranean, the same process took place: traders in the region carried many new ideas from one society to another. They carried new ways of writing, of governing, and of worshiping their gods.

The Origins of Judaism

The Phoenicians lived in a region at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea that was later called Palestine. The Phoenicians were not the only ancient people to live in Palestine. The Romans had given the area that name after the Philistines, another people who lived in the region. Canaan (KAY•nuhn) was the ancient home of the Hebrews, later called the Jews, in this area. Their history, legends, and moral laws are a major influence on Western culture, and they began a tradition also shared by Christianity and Islam.

First Age of Empires, 1570 B.C.–200 B.C.

Groups from Africa to China sought to conquer other groups and spread their influence across vast regions. These societies built the world’s first great empires. For a long period, Egypt ruled Kush and the two cultures interacted. When the Kush Empire conquered Egypt, therefore, the Kushites adopted many Egyptian cultural values and ideas. After the warring states period, Chinese philosophers developed different ethical systems to restore China’s social order.

The Egyptian and Nubian Empires

As you learned in Chapter 2, Egyptian civilization developed along the Nile River and united into a kingdom around 3100 B.C. During the Middle Kingdom (about 2080–1640 B.C.), trade with Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley enriched Egypt. Meanwhile, up the Nile River, less than 600 miles south of the Egyptian city of Thebes, a major kingdom had developed in the region of Nubia. For centuries, the Nubian kingdom of Kush traded with Egypt. The two kingdoms particularly influenced each other culturally.

The Assyrian Empire

For more than two centuries, the Assyrian army advanced across Southwest Asia. It overwhelmed foes with its military strength. After the Assyrians seized control of Egypt, the Assyrian king Esarhaddon proclaimed, “I tore up the root of Kush, and not one therein escaped to submit to me.” The last Kushite pharaoh retreated to Napata, Kush’s capital city.

The Persian Empire

The Medes, along with the Chaldeans and others, helped to overthrow the Assyrian Empire in 612 B.C. The Medes marched to Nineveh from their homeland in the area of present-day northern Iran. Meanwhile, the Medes’ close neighbor to the south, Persia, began to expand its horizons and territorial ambitions.

The Unification of China

The Zhou Dynasty, as you read in Chapter 2, lasted for at least eight centuries, from approximately 1027 to 256 B.C. For the first 300 years of their long reign, the Zhou kings controlled a large empire, including both eastern and western lands. Local rulers reported to the king, who had the ultimate power. By the latter years of the Zhou Dynasty, the lords of dependent territories began to think of themselves as independent kings. Their almost constant conflict, which is known as “the warring states period,” led to the decline of the Zhou Dynasty.


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