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The Birth of Civilization

Updated on April 18, 2014
Pottery from Mesopotamian cities is often of a very high quality, thin, well-shaped and with elegant decoration.
Pottery from Mesopotamian cities is often of a very high quality, thin, well-shaped and with elegant decoration. | Source

All around the globe, small towns were growing into cities. Their inhabitants were putting up large temples and palaces, inventing written languages and creating complex societies in which there were many different jobs for people to do.

There were farmers, craftworkers, priests, governors and kings. This new city-based way of life is what we now call civilization.

The place where civilization first began was Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq. This was part of the Fertile Crescent, where farming had started. It was the reliable food supply produced by farming that made the developments that followed possible.

As farmers grew more experienced, they worked out how to irrigate their fields so that they could bring water to the drier areas. This made the food supply more constant. The farmers could also increase the size of their fields by cultivating previously difficult areas.

Houses, like this one in modern Iraq, became larger and more complex in the 'Ubaid Period. They were still made of mud-bricks, but had a large central hall, many smaller rooms, a staircase, and drainage into open gullies outside.
Houses, like this one in modern Iraq, became larger and more complex in the 'Ubaid Period. They were still made of mud-bricks, but had a large central hall, many smaller rooms, a staircase, and drainage into open gullies outside.
This figure of a mother holding a baby is made of clay. It dates from the 'Ubaid period, which lasted from 5500 to 4000BC. At this time, towns were growing into cities, craftworkers were becoming more skilled, and local leaders were gaining in power.
This figure of a mother holding a baby is made of clay. It dates from the 'Ubaid period, which lasted from 5500 to 4000BC. At this time, towns were growing into cities, craftworkers were becoming more skilled, and local leaders were gaining in power.

At the same time, the people of Mesopotamia began to build large, comfortable mud-brick houses. They created beautiful painted pottery, fine clay sculptures, intricate copper implements and elegant jewelry with turquoise beads. People from other areas wanted these items, so the Mesopotamians traded with their neighbors, carrying their cargo by boat down the rivers and along the Persian Gulf.

Gradually, the traders of Mesopotamia became rich and their towns grew into cities. With cities came more power and more complex government. The priests, who were among the most powerful people, build bigger temples, another mark of civilization.

Then came writing. At first, this was only a few simple symbols to show who owned what. Later people developed more complicated writing systems that people used to record stories and religious texts.

The development of writing marks the end of prehistoric society. This happened at different times in different parts of the world. During the lifetimes of some of the prehistoric peoples, civilization was already present in Mesopotamia and other parts of the globe. Civilization came early to the Middle East, Egypt, Indus Valley in India and parts of China. Elsewhere, in Europe, America and much of Africa, societies based on cities came much later.

In Western Europe for example, it was only with the arrival of the Romans that cities and writing appeared. The Romans took over the area they called Gaul (modern France) in the 1st century BC, some 3000 years after the first cities were built in Mesopotamia.

Today, people in some parts of the world lead successful traditional lifestyles, adapted to their environment just like their prehistoric ancestors. But even they are affected by the decisions of governments and businesses based in the world's cities.

Key Dates

3500 BC: The first cities are built in Mesopotamia. Among the most important are Uruk and Ur on the banks of the Euphrates River.

3200 BC: Civilization spreads to Egypt.

3100 BC: Writing is developed in and around the city of Uruk; people write on clay tablets.

2500 BC: The first cities are built in the Indus Valley, Pakistan.

2300 BC: Several of the Mesopotamian cities unite as a single kingdom under Sargon of Agade.

1800 BC: Civilization develops separately in northern China.

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    • Danida profile image
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      Danida 3 years ago from London

      @billybuc: I'd love to take part in those classes; Ancient history is one of my passions. Thanks!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sounds like one of the classes I taught. Good job!