Origins of the First Civilization

This video was made possible by WIX. If you’re ready to create a website, head
over to to try out one of their premium plans right now. According to Greek mythology, an immortal
being named Prometheus stole fire from the gods and bestowed it upon humanity, the first
of many gifts to enable the beginning of civilization. Early Chinese histories tell of a succession
of eight semi-divine leaders who in turn taught hunting, farming, music, working with silk,
and all of the practical arts. In similar fashion, the Sumerian god Enki
shared the wisdom needed for governing the earliest cities with a group of seven sages3. Stories of heroes like these are common around
the world. When ancient storytellers looked back, trying
to imagine the beginnings of technology, communications systems, and religious customs, the complexity
seemed best explained as gifts from a divine intelligence. And they had good reason to wonder about their
own origins: writing, as far as we know, arose as a product of civilization. The earliest phases of the first civilizations
left no written records. So, where did civilization really come from? Once writing arises in a civilization, it
may offer a big spike in the amount of data available to scientists. But not necessarily. The writing systems of the Indus Valley civilization
and the Minoan civilization of Crete are just two examples that are still a mystery. Unless we manage to make sense of these symbols,
much of their culture and history will remain opaque. The decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics,
Maya glyphs, and the cuneiform writing of the Mesopotamian empires each opened up entire
worlds of literature, chronicles of dynasties, and a high level of scientific knowledge among
these ancient peoples. But the earliest phases of each of these civilizations
don’t have writing. In a way, when it comes to eras with no written
history, we have a similar problem to the authors of the ancient myths. But rather than appeal to divine intervention,
modern researchers can literally dig for the evidence, building upon a century of increasingly
sophisticated archaeological methods. One of the central questions in piecing together
the history of civilization is the extent to which ideas and technologies spread from
one region to another6. In the most extreme view, called “hyperdiffusionism,”
civilization started once, in a single location, and then gradually spread everywhere else7. Social scientists have long abandoned the
single-origin model, instead seeing various societies developing in parallel8 9. On the other hand, there’s a great deal of
evidence for trade10, war11, and other forms of contact between many cities of the ancient
world within their respective regions, over considerable distances for pack animals or
early navigators. Jewelry from the valley of the Indus River
in South Asia turns up in Mesopotamia12. The striking blue stone lapis lazuli makes
its way from Afghanistan to Egypt13. Some of the most significant diffusion came
in the spread of domesticated crops and animals. Wheat, for instance, started out as a wild
grass in the Middle East14. More than 10,000 years ago, people were already
planting it as a staple crop in that region, beginning the process of breeding varieties
better suited for consumption and harvest than their wild cousins15. Over time, these crops, and the knowledge
to grow and process them spread outward, reaching Southeastern Europe by as early as 9,000 years
ago16, and other parts of Europe over the course of the following 3,000 years17. Similarly, corn, or maize, starts out as a
much scrawnier wild grain called teosinte in southern Mexico18. As early as 10,000 years ago, ancient farmers
there began breeding maize into varieties resembling the modern crop19. From there, corn made its way northward via
trade networks or other inter-regional contact to the desert Southwest, the Mississippi,
and beyond20 21. Other innovations spread through a literal
arms race. The phrase Bronze Age refers to different
actual periods of time in different locations. Archaeologists use the term to describe a
span of time beginning when bronze tools show up in a region, and lasting until iron implements
make their local debut22. The manufacturing of bronze can only happen
if you have a supply of copper, tin, and sometimes other metals, one or more of which may require
long-distance trade23. And of course, you have to understand the
process of casting bronze once you have the materials. But if you know that neighboring states are
arming themselves with bronze weapons, you have a strong incentive to figure out a way
to make that happen24. Its utility in both weapons and tools encouraged
the spread of bronze technology through West Asia, Northern Africa, and the Mediterranean. Bronze also spread within East Asia, starting
in China, where its manufacture seems to have arisen independently25. A similar process of military competition
spread the use of horses and war chariots26. In archaeological terms, before the Bronze
Age came the Neolithic, and in some ways, this is where the greatest mystery lies. Whereas the transition from stone tools to
metal is partial, gradual, and not even essential (the Maya and the Aztec did just fine with
razor-sharp obsidian), the Neolithic represented a basic break from what had been the normal
social model that was in place even before the arrival of modern Homo sapiens27. The beginning of the Neolithic, or New Stone
Age, is sometimes called a revolution28. In a Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, society,
the group size is limited to a few dozen individuals29. Life revolves around the procurement of food
from the land, gathering wild plants, catching fish, and hunting game. This is not always a bad thing. In a region and time when resources are plentiful,
the effort needed for subsistence can be low, allowing people to live a varied, fulfilling,
and meaningful life30. But there’s not always a safety net if circumstances
take a bad turn. Storing a surplus is a challenge if you’re
frequently on the move31. If for some reason the supply of game dwindles,
you may have a hard time. Lots of large mammal species died off at the
end of the last Ice Age. Evidence suggests that Homo sapiens might
have been a little too skillful at hunting for their own good, leaving populations too
small to recover in one region after another32. Whatever the reason, the strategies for survival
among many groups of people had to change in the millennia between 20,000 and 10,000
years ago. After the last Ice Age, for the first time,
people began putting down roots in a literal sense. Agriculture seems to have been one of the
most important adaptations to the new environmental challenges. The early agrarian societies could stockpile
some surplus. The extra food allowed some members of a community
to invest labor in specialized activities such as pottery and tool manufacture, which
in turn could help grow and store crops. Populations rose along with increased harvests. Another innovation: organized violence. One community might raid a neighbor’s stockpiles,
or fight over control of limited resources33. Defence became important34. Conflict may have helped bring on another
side effect of sedentary life: the development of social hierarchies35. Some individuals became leaders in combat,
and also, ultimately, for projects such as the digging of irrigation canals for crops,
and building of public structures, like religious sites and fortifications. Leadership seems to have fostered privilege,
either through voluntary acknowledgement, or as coerced tribute36. High status might then pass from one generation
to the next37. But even if you could defend your supplies,
a prolonged drought or a deluge held the prospect of slow starvation. And so two tasks became paramount: an understanding
of the seasons, and making sure the gods of the harvest were pleased–or at least appeased. Both religious ritual and cycles of planting
and harvest involved reading the signs in the sky38. Exactly how the heavens ruled the Earth was
a matter for the storytellers; but it was a demonstrable fact that nature of the seasons
held sway over life and death. The procession of the constellations, the
phases of the moon, the lengths of the days, and the direction of the sun all somehow related
to the yearly changes in rainfall and the growth of plants. In the isolated villages of hunter-gatherers,
shamans could intercede between the world of human beings and the spirits, answering
questions as they arose39. But as towns grew, they required a more institutionalized
approach to maintaining the cosmic order, and with it, the rainfall, the harvests, even
the daily procession of the sun40. The gods needed priests. And often, they needed blood41. In places where farming developed, a culture
of sacrifice seems to have followed. Some of the grain, some of the alcohol, the
fruits of the field were reserved for the gods, returned in thanksgiving to ensure that
the earth would continue to provide. And where animals were raised, their slaughter
was in some measure dedicated to the patron deities of the tribe. Of course, giving the best part of a precious
resource back to the gods could be counterproductive. Hence another myth of Prometheus: he once
tricked Zeus into accepting a sacrifice of bones and fat, reserving the meat for human
beings, and setting a precedent that the Greeks could follow thereafter. Zeus wasn’t amused. And the gods could demand much more. If they needed human blood, they would get
it42. And so a pattern followed: populations grew
as food security increased. Settlements exceeded 10,000 people, first
in Western Asia, and soon in Egypt, South Asia, and China, eventually in Europe, Southeast
Asia, Mesoamerica, and South America, and finally in North America. And in general, once a critical mass arrived,
a professional priesthood emerged, often along with the grim business of human sacrifice43. Still, if civilization became a stage for
the conflicts between human and cosmic, life and death, it also became a platform for an
ever expanding repertoire of innovations. As they studied the skies, the Sumerians and
Babylonians not only intuited the will of the heavens, but also established the beginnings
of science. The same characters that the kings of China’s
Shang state had etched into bones for divination allowed for the composition of the philosophies
of Confucius and Laozi. Baking bread naturally led to baking exquisite
clay pottery44, and the same melted alloy of ores could allow one to cast a sword or
a sublime work of classical sculpture. So what led to civilization? Necessity, coercion, community, inertia, fear,
pragmatism, and imagination.In short, humanity. Phew, that was a complicated one. Not everything in life needs to be so complicated
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in the description or going to Are there mysteries about the ancient world
that fascinate you? Let us know in the comments. Also, be sure to check out our other video
called “Unbelievable Stuff They Didn’t Teach You About Ancient Egypt ” Thanks for watching,
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