Table of Contents
According to cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, the earliest sign of a civilization that has been found so far is a 15,000 old, fractured femur that had been healed, found in an archaeological site. The fact that the bone had healed suggests that the injured person had been taken care of by someone else until their femur had healed.
What makes a civilization? At which point can it be said that a civilization is being formed? According to some historians, the earliest sign of civilization is the evidence of objects such as a clay pot, bones, or tools such as arrows used to hunt animals. Others say that it’s the ruins of archaeological sites.
In this article, we’ve listed ten of the oldest civilizations ever to exist.
The Mesopotamian Civilization
The Mesopotamian civilization is the oldest recorded civilization in the world. It originated around the area of the Arabian Peninsula and the Zagros mountains in what we know today as Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The name Mesopotamia comes from the words ‘meso’ meaning ‘between’ and ‘potamos’ which means river. Together, it translates to”between two rivers“, referring to the two rivers Euphrates and Tigris.
The Mesopotamian civilization is considered by many historians to be the first human civilization to emerge. This bustling civilization existed from c. 3200 BCE to 539 BCE, when Babylon was seized by Cyrus the Great, also known as Cyrus II, the founder of the Achaemenian Empire.
The rich plateaus of Mesopotamia were perfect for humans who decided to permanently settle in the area. The soil was ideal for crop production on a seasonal basis which made agriculture possible. Along with agriculture, people began to domesticate animals.
Mesopotamians gave the world the first cereal crops, developed mathematics, and astronomy, which were a few of their many inventions. Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians lived for centuries in this area and wrote down some of the earliest recordings of human history.
The Assyrians were the first to develop a taxation system and Babylon became one of the world’s greatest centers of science and learning. This is where the world’s first city-states began to shape and humanity started waging the first wars.
The Indus Valley Civilization
During the Bronze Age, a civilization started to emerge in the Indus Valley in the north-western region of South Asia and it lasted from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE. Known as the Indus Valley Civilization, it was one of the first human civilizations to become established along with Mesopotamia and Egypt. It covered an expansive area from Afghanistan to India. It grew rapidly around an area bustling with life and nestled between the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra rivers.
The Indus Valley civilization gave the world the first drainage systems, clustered buildings, and new forms of metalwork. There were large cities such as Mohenjo-Daro with populations of up to 60,000 residents.
The reason for the eventual collapse of the empire remains a mystery. According to some historians, the Indus civilization was destroyed as the result of a massive war. However, some say that it plummeted because of climate change as the area began to dry and water became scarce, forcing the population of the Indus Valley to leave the region. Others say that the civilization’s cities collapsed due to natural disasters.
The Egyptian civilization began to develop around 3100 BCE in the region of North Africa, along the river Nile. The rise of this civilization was marked by the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under Pharaoh Menes, the first Pharaoh of unified Egypt. This event started a period of relative political stability under which this civilization began to flourish.
Egypt produced an immense amount of knowledge and science that spanned centuries. At its most powerful stage during the New Kingdom, it was a large country that slowly started to overstretch its capacity.
The divine power of Pharaohs was constantly threatened by different tribes trying to invade it, like the Libyans, Assyrians, and Persians. After Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt, Greek Ptolemaic Kingdom was established, but with the demise of Cleopatra, Egypt became a Roman province in 30 BCE.
Regardless of its demise, the Egyptian civilization flourished due to regular flooding of the river Nile and the skilled technique of irrigation that led to the creation of dense populations that developed the Egyptian society and culture. These developments were aided by robust administration, one of the first writing systems, and powerful militaries.
The Chinese Civilization
The Chinese civilization is one of the world’s oldest civilizations that’s continues to thrive even today. It began developing around 1046 BC as small farming communities and continued to develop under the Zhou, Qin, and Ming dynasties. All of the dynastic changes in China had essential parts to play in the development of this civilization.
The Zhou dynasty standardized the Chinese writing system. This is the period of Chinese history when the famous Confucius and Sun-Tzu lived. The great terracotta army was made during the Qin dynasty and the Great Wall of China protected the nation from the Mongol attacks during the Ming dynasty.
The Chinese civilization gravitated around the Yellow River Valley and the Yangtze River. The development of art, music, and literature parallels the modernization that connected the ancient world with a Silk Road. The modernization and cultural significance of China lead to it being labelled both as the world’s factory and one of the nests of humanity. Today, China is viewed as one of the greatest cradles of humanity and civilization.
The history of China is a history of how a civilization can thrive, unite, and reinterpret itself century after century. The Chinese civilization saw different dynasties, monarchies, empires, colonialism, and independence under a Communist system. Regardless of the historical turbulences, tradition and culture were regarded as an essential part of the Chinese mindset.
The Incan Civilization
The Incan civilization or the Incan empire was the most developed society in the Americas before Columbus and is said to have emerged in the Peruvian Highlands. It thrived in the area of modern-day Peru between 1438 and 1533, in the city of Cusco.
The Incans were known for expansion and peaceful assimilation. They believed in Inti, the sun god, and revered him as their national patron. They also believed that Inti created the first humans that emerged from Lake Titicaca and founded the city of Cusco.
Not much is known about the Inca as they did not have a written tradition. However, it’s known that they developed from a small tribe into a bustling nation under Sapa Inca, who was not only the Emperor but also the ruler of the Kingdom of Cuzco and the Neo-Inca State.
The Inca practiced a form of policy of appeasement that ensured peace and stability by offering gold and protection to the land that decided to join the Empire. Inca rulers were famous for indoctrinating the children of their challengers into the Incan nobility.
The Incan empire thrived on community work and high politics until it was overrun by the Spanish conquistadors led by the Spanish explorer Francisco Pizzaro. The Incan empire ended in ruins, and much of the knowledge of their sophisticated farming systems, culture, and art was destroyed in this process of colonialization
The Mayan Civilization
The Mayans lived on the territory of modern-Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. In 1500 BCE, they began to turn their villages into cities and develop agriculture, cultivating beans, corn, and squash. At the height of their power, the Mayans were organized into more than 40 cities with a population of up to 50,000 inhabitants.
The Mayans developed pyramid-shaped temples for religious purposes and were renowned for their stone-cutting techniques as well as their advanced methods of irrigation and terracing. They became famous for creating their own hieroglyphic writing and a sophisticated calendar system. Record-keeping was a highly important part of their culture and was essential for astronomy, prophecy, and farming. Unlike the Incas, the Mayans thoroughly wrote down everything about their tradition and culture.
Mayans were among the first to develop advanced mathematics and astronomy. One of the pinnacles of their abstract thinking is being among the first civilizations to work with the concept of zero. The Mayan calendar was differently organized than the calendars in the modern world and they were successful in predicting natural floods and eclipses.
The Mayan civilization declined because of wars over agricultural land and climate change caused by deforestation and droughts. Their destruction meant that the rich culture and architecture were consumed by thick jungle vegetation. The civilization’s ruins encompass royal tombs, dwellings, temples, and pyramids. The most famous Mayan ruin is Tikal, which is located in Guatemala. What can be seen of this ruin are several mounds and small hills that most likely conceal what could be great, massive temples.
The Aztec Civilization
The Aztec civilization flourished in 1428 when the Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan united in a confederation. The three city-states flourished as a united country and worshiped a complex pantheon of gods.
The Aztecs organized their lives around the practice of calendar rituals and their culture had complex, rich religious and mythological traditions. The empire was a vast political hegemony that could easily conquer other city-states. However, it also practiced appeasement to other client city-states that would pay taxes to the political center in exchange for protection.
The Aztec civilization thrived until the Spanish conquistadors overthrew the Aztec emperor in 1521 and founded the modern-day Mexico City on the ruins of Tenochtitlan. Before its destruction, the civilization gave the world a complex mythological and religious tradition with remarkable architecture and artistic accomplishments.
The Aztec legacy lives on in modern Mexican culture in echoes. It is echoed in the local language and customs and survives in many forms as a part of the national identity of all Mexicans that are open to reconnecting with their indigenous identity.
The Roman Civilization
The Roman civilization started emerging around 753 BC and lasted roughly until 476, marked with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. According to Roman mythology, the city of Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus, twin boys who were born to Rhea Silvia, princess of Alba Longa.
Rome saw its rise as the world’s greatest Empire that encompassed the entire Mediterranean at the height of its power. It was a powerful civilization that was responsible for many great inventions such as concrete, Roman numerals, newspaper, aqueducts, and the first surgical tools.
Rome went from humble beginnings and through several phases of its history as a kingdom, a republic, and a mighty empire. The Empire allowed the conquered peoples to maintain some degree of cultural autonomy. However, it was plagued by the overstretching of capacities. It was almost impossible to ensure that all of its parts would bow to a single ruler.
As it happened with many other empires that struggled with imperial overstretch, the Roman Empire fell apart due to its sheer size and power. Rome was overrun by barbarian tribes in 476, symbolically marking this ancient civilization’s collapse.
The Persian Civilization
The Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire, started its ascension during the 6th century BCE when it began to be ruled by Cyrus the Great. The Persian civilization was organized in a powerful centralized state that became a ruler over large parts of the ancient world. Over time, it expanded its influence as far as Egypt and Greece.
The success of the Persian Empire was that it was able to assimilate the neighbouring tribes and proto states. It was also able to incorporate different tribes by connecting them with roads and establishing a central administration. The Persian civilization gave the world the first system of postal service and algebra.
The Empire began to decline after a series of failed attacks on Greece that wasted its financial resources and caused heavy taxation on the population. It fell apart after the invasion of Alexander the Great in 330 BC.
The Greek Civilization
The Greek civilization began to develop around the 12th century BCE after the downfall of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete. It’s considered by many to be the cradle of western civilization.
A large part of what we know about ancient Greeks was written by the historian Thucydides who tried to faithfully capture the civilization’s history. These historical accounts are not entirely correct, and some are a thing of myths and legends. Still, they serve as crucial insights into the world of the ancient Greeks and their pantheon of gods that continue capture the imagination of people around the world.
The Greek civilization was not entirely unified in a centralized state but more into city-states called the Polis. These city-states had complex systems of governments and harbored some early forms of democracy as well as constitutions. They defended themselves with armies and worshiped their many gods on whom they counted for protection.
The decline of the Greek civilization was caused by the constant conflicts between the warring city-states. The perpetual wars between Sparta and Athens caused a breakdown of a sense of community and prevented Greece from unifying. The Romans took the chance and conquered Greece by playing against its weaknesses.
The decline of the Greek civilization was sped up after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. Although Greece survived as a society, it was a much more different community today in comparison to the peaks of its civilizational development.
Civilizations rise in creativity, joint interest, and a sense of community. They disintegrate when they are enshrined in expansionistic empires that overstretch their limits, due to climate change, colonization, and lack of unity.
Today’s civilizations and cultures owe a lot to the ancient civilizations that came into existence millions of years after humans evolved. The individual civilizations mentioned in this article were all powerful and contributed to the development of humankind in many ways: new cultures, new ideas, lifestyles, and philosophies.