Ancient Civilizations – Ancient Empires

The single, decisive factor that made it possible for humankind to settle in permanent communities was agriculture. A turning point in human history, the invention of farming and the tremendous changes it brought about have been called the agricultural revolution. After farming was developed in the Middle East about 6500 bc, people living in tribes or family units did not have to be on the move continually searching for food or herding their animals. Once people could control the production of food and be assured of a reliable annual supply of it, their lives changed completely.

People began to found permanent communities in fertile river valleys. They settled around rivers for a number of reasons. Rivers were an important source of fresh water for drinking. They could be used for transportation. Settlers also learned to use the water supply to irrigate the land for farming. Sedentary settlement, or being settled in one place, made it possible to domesticate animals in order to provide other sources of food and clothing.

Farming was indeed a revolutionary discovery. It not only made settlements possible—and ultimately the building of cities—but it also made available a reliable food supply. With more food available, more people could be fed. Populations therefore increased. The growing number of people available for more kinds of work led to the development of more complex social structures. With a food surplus, a community could support a variety of workers who were not farmers. The agricultural revolution thus resulted in a division of labor, with some people farming, while others worked at various crafts, such as making pottery, cloth, or tools. Craftspeople traded the goods they made to farmers for food.

Farming the world over has always relied upon a dependable water supply. For the earliest societies this meant rivers and streams or regular rainfall. The first great civilizations grew up along rivers. Later communities were able to develop by taking advantage of the rainy seasons.

All the ancient civilizations probably developed in much the same way, in spite of regional and climatic differences. As villages grew, the accumulation of more numerous and substantial goods became possible. Heavier pottery replaced animal-skin gourds as containers for food and liquids. Cloth could be woven from wool and flax. Permanent structures made of wood, brick, and stone could be built.

The science of mathematics was an early outgrowth of agriculture. People studied the movements of the Moon, Sun, and planets to calculate seasons. In so doing they created the first calendars. With a calendar it was possible to calculate the arrival of each growing season. Measurement of land areas was necessary if property was to be divided accurately. Measurements of amounts—for example, of seeds or grains—was also a factor in farming and housekeeping. Later came measures of value as commodity and money exchange became common.

The use of various ways of measuring led naturally to record keeping, and for this some form of writing was necessary. The ancient civilizations all seem to have used picture-writing—pictures representing both sounds and objects to the reader. The best known of the ancient writing systems is probably Egyptian hieroglyphics, a term meaning “sacred carvings,” since many of the earliest writings were inscribed on stone.

All the major ancient civilizations—in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus valley, and China—emerged in the 4th millennium bc. Historians still debate over which one emerged first. It may well have been in the Middle East, in an area called the Fertile Crescent. This area stretches from the Nile River in Egypt northward along the coast of the historical region of Palestine, then eastward into Asia to include Mesopotamia. In this area people settled along the riverbanks and practiced field agriculture. This kind of farming depended on the reproduction of seed, normally from grain crops.

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