The Origins of Civilization

In the river valleys

A small number of major river valleys in different parts of the Eastern Hemisphere played a critical role as cradles of civilization where all the “foundational” civilizations emerged. The great civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and China all belonged to this category.

River valleys offer areas of well-watered, fertile soil. With high agricultural productivity, river valleys can support large human populations concentrated in a comparatively small area. But why did they lead to a completely new kind of society, very different from what had gone before? Why didn’t the rise of large populations in river valleys simply result in a multiplication of small-scale farming villages, closely scattered across the plains?

The answer to this question is partially guesswork, since no records have survived from these times. However, modern scholars have developed explanations that are supported by archeological evidence.

Spring floods in dry climates

In the fertile river valleys, large rivers provide plentiful water and huge amounts of fresh, fertile mud. In the spring, the rain and mountain snowmelt cause the rivers to flood large areas of land. The water and mud creates some of the most fertile farmland in the world.

The floodwaters only cover the plains for a few weeks before flowing to the sea. In places such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the northwest Indian subcontinent, the rest of the year is hot and dry, so that crops soon die. Early farmers therefore found these areas difficult to settle. Agriculture began to flourish when they started digging pools and constructing dams to keep some of the floodwater from flowing away, and irrigation channels to carry the stored water to their fields. The population grew in the valleys, becoming dense concentrations of people.

Conflict and co-operation

  1. The increasing density of the population multiplied opportunities for conflict between villages, especially where several communities drew water from the same rivers.
  2. While conflict increased, so did the need for communities to cooperate with each other. The spring floods brought not only life-giving water and mud, they also brought life-threatening surges that could sweep away whole villages. Dams and dikes had to be constructed to control the flow of the rivers. Cooperation enabled more people to build better dams.
  3. These water-control measures led to more productive agriculture. The surplus crops allowed a growing segment of the population to work in non-agricultural activity, such as government, administration, warfare, art, and craft work.

Source: The Origins of Civilization
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