Markers of Early Civilizations Summaries

Civilization Definition:

As the College Board says:
"Key Concept 1.3: Development and Interactions of Early Agricultural, Pastoral + Urban Societies
From about 5,000 years ago, urban societies developed, laying the foundations for the first civilizations.
The term civilization is normally used to designate large societies with cities and powerful states. While
there were many differences between civilizations, they also shared important features. They all produced agricultural surpluses that permitted significant specialization of labor. All civilizations contained cities and generated complex institutions, such as political bureaucracies, including armies and religious hierarchies. They also featured clearly stratified social hierarchies and organized long-distance trading relationships. Economic exchanges intensified within and between civilizations, as well as with nomadic pastoralists.

As populations grew, competition for surplus resources, especially food, led to greater social stratification, specialization of labor, increased trade, more complex systems of government and religion, and the development of record keeping. As civilizations expanded, they had to balance their need for more resources with environmental constraints such as the danger of undermining soil fertility. Finally, the accumulation of wealth in settled communities spurred warfare between communities and/or with pastoralists; this violence drove the development of new technologies of war and urban defense." (College Board)

Key Concepts Sub-Points:
II. The first states emerged within core civilizations.
1.1.2.A. States were powerful new systems of rule that mobilized surplus labor and resources over large
areas. Early states were often led by a ruler whose source of power was believed to be divine or
had divine support, and/or who was supported by the military.
1.1.2.B. As states grew and competed for land and resources, the more favorably situated had greater
access to resources—including the Hittites’ access to iron, produced more surplus food and
experienced growing populations. These states were able to undertake territorial expansion and
conquer surrounding states.
I.Culture played a significant role in unifying states through law, language, literature, religion,
myths and monumental art.
A. Early civilizations developed monumental architecture and urban planning (such as ziggurats,
pyramids, temples, defensive walls, streets and roads or sewage and water systems).
B. Elites, both political and religious, promoted arts and artisanship (such as sculpture, painting,
wall decorations or elaborate weaving).
C. Systems of record keeping (such as cuneiform, hieroglyphs, pictographs, alphabets or quipu)
arose independently in all early civilizations and subsequently were diffused.
D. States developed legal codes, including the Code of Hammurabi, that reflected existing
hierarchies and facilitated the rule of governments over people.
E. New religious beliefs developed in this period continued to have strong influences in later
periods, including the Vedic religion, Hebrew monotheism and Zoroastrianism.
F. Trade expanded throughout this period, with civilizations exchanging goods, cultural ideas and
technology. Trade expanded from local to regional and transregional, including between Egypt
and Nubia, Mesopotamia and the Indus valley.
G. Social and gender hierarchies intensified as states expanded and cities multiplied.
As Richard Bulliet says on page 5 of our textbook:
"Scholars agree that certain, political, social, economic and technological traits are indicators of civilization:
1. Cities as administrative centers
2. a political system based on control of a defined territory rather than a kinship connection
3. many people engaged in specialized, non-food producing activities
4. status distinctions based largely on accumulation of substantial wealth by some groups
5. monumental architecture
6. system of records (writing)
7. long distance trade
8. major advances on science
9. major advances in the arts"
(Bulliet, p 5)

World in Third Millenium BCE at Worlds Together Worlds Apart, 2nd Edition

Examples of Key Concepts in Mesopotamia

5500 to 2500 BCE

A Reverse SCHEP Chart (Because the definition of civilization is all about the creation of political order)



According to the map, Mesopotamia had the political and administrative requirements to be a civilization. Here you see urban centers that could have functioned as administrative hubs, which demonstrated political control beyond the clan level. In order to execute large projects like building cities or canals, each civilization needed a complex government with someone in charge. Thus we have... bureaucrats. The "lugal" (Big-Man) was an early form of king who led armies during wartime and possibly took power during the peaceful years to.This included the gathering of crops and administrative work as well.

Sumerians(5000 to 2600) - "The people who dominated southern Mesopotamia through the end of the third millennium B.C.E. They were responsible for the creation of many fundamental elements of Mesopotamian culture, such as irrigation technology, cuneiform, and religious conceptions, taken over by their Semitic successors." (Bulliet, Pg. 16)

Mesopotamian Kings (EXAMPLE BABYLON):
1. Was the gods' religious representative and was responsible for temple/ cult maintenance. Supports the priests.
2. Led the army and managed the defense system against outside aggressors.
2.5 Led the aggression against other states when feasible to create empires.
2.75 Negotiated for trade with other states.
3. Kept the internal peace by establishing laws and justice systems (Hammurabi's Code), keeping infrastructure like canals maintained

  • Bureaucracy, a form of government with state officials making most decisions of the state, included "obsessive" record keeping - using cuneiform (an early form of writing which became standardized throughout the empire) to keep grain records and track tax revenue among other things according to the textbook.
  • Code of Hammurabi- The first known example of law being standardized and made public for all to see and abide by.
This link takes you to an image viewer that shows you 15 political, economic and religious examples from Mesopotamian, including: cuneiform administrative records, models of ziggurats, city plans, royal seals, statues of kings and gods, luxury goods and artifacts from royal tombs. (To make a collection like this: Go to Artstor. If you are on campus, you can create an account and create image collections that can be shared via URL(or downloaded to powerpoint). This is a super handy way to embed images and avoid having to cite them, because the citation is automatically attached to each image.)


Settled Agriculture:
  • Using irrigation systems to create field system is a difficult ecology. Leaving fields fallow (rotational agriculture). Using ox-drawn plows
  • Actively cultivating barley and date palms, fibrous plants (for string), veggies, other grains
  • Harvesting reeds, wood from marshes
  • Fishing, herding and connecting with pastoralists

Being successful at the list above means surplus goods, which need to be counted and stored, can be used to support an artisan and literate class and can be traded with pastoralists and other societies.

  • See map for examples of goods
  • Using rivers for transport and communication
  • Merchants are employed by the government and the temples to get goods that would demonstrate power
  • At the local level most people barter for what they need
  • Precious metals and measures of grain are standardized to operate as currency
  • Govt. controls raw materials, thus guilds

Labor supply:
  • Almost everyone is working in agricultural labor
  • Conscription by gvt. gets "big stuff" done
  • Some specialists in textiles, pottery, metal working and tool making work in shops
Primary Source Examples:
  • Hammurabi's Code makes it illegal to ignore upkeep of irrigation systems.
  • Hammurabi's Code stresses protecting grain. (Which tells us that the agricultural system was fragile.)
  • Hammurabi's Code talks about tavern operations. -
  • Epic of Gilgamesh describes items that are taken into the boat: grain, domesticated animals, oil
  • Epic of Gilgamesh describes paying labor in wine

Humans and their environments:

Human interaction with the environment is defined in this case by the ways in which the Mesopotamians tamed their environment.
As mentioned above, lots of labor keeping up lots of canals, plowing fields and creating agricultural surplus. Alluvian plains are fertile soil made by silt. The soil is great, but the region is too hot, too dry and floods unpredictably. Thus, you need a civilization if you are going to cultivate it. And, cultivating it gives you the resources needed for a bigger civilization!

Bulliet defines technology as "the specialized knowledge that allows for the transformation of the natural environment and human society." (Bulliet, p. 21)
In Mesopotamia technologies enable control of the environment. They include: boats, barges, domestication of donkeys and , creation of bronze tools, pottery, bricks, wheeled carts, engineering, military training, chariots, base-60 number system, and religious texts. (This is his list from p. 23 and 24.)

Cuneiform - a system of writing - allowed people to keep records! Making wedge-shaped impressions allowed them to account for transactions.

Migration is facilitated by the rivers. As populations increased they spread out, or they took over their neighbors.


Sumerian gods were anthropomorphic representations of forces of nature. They were moody. Their emotional state explained what was happening in nature. Thus, they needed to be appeased.

Cities built temples and staffed them with priests. The temples were complexes that included shrines to a main god and sub-gods, and a host of buildings for the staff. The ziggurat was the most notable feature. (See the slideshow for examples). Its actual purpose is debated. Bulliet notes that the temples operated like the residence of the god, and that priests treated the image as they would a person.

The priesthood was a hierarchical profession passed through the generations of men.



Creation of social stratification is one of the hallmarks of civilization. There are generally three classes: elites, free and slaves. Bulliet makes the point that slavery was less critical to the economy. Most people lived in mud brick buildings, worked hard and had little that remained. Scribes left records of themselves and of male society. Thus, our understanding of Mesopotamia is biased toward the writers' interpretations of what life was like.
  • Hammurabi's Code protects the interests of slave holders.
  • The monetary damages described in Hammurabi's Code suggest commoners are worth more than slaves and less than elites. Code defines three classes of people: free landowners, dependent farmers and slaves. You are punished based on your class.

Below are some interesting examples of how women are presented in those texts. What kind of restrictions are they placing on women?

From Hammurabi's Code (Examples about Women):

"If a married lady who is dwelling in a man's house sets her face to go out of doors and persists in behaving herself foolishly wasting her house and belittling her husband, they shall convict her and, if her husband then states that he will divorce her, he may divorce her; nothing shall be given to her as her divorce-money on her journey." (Law #141.)

"If a married lady is caught lying with another man, they shall bind them and cast them into the water. If her husband wishes to let his wife live, then the king shall let his servant live." (#129)"

"If the husband of a married lady has accused her but she is not caught lying with another man, she shall take an oath by the life of a god and return to her house." (#131)

"If a man wishes to divorce his first wife who has not borne him sons, he shall give her the amount of her purchase money and the dowry which she brought from her father's house, and let her go." (#138)

"If a woman quarrel with her husband, and says: "You are not congenial to me," the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her father's house." (#142)



Bulliet, Richard, et al. Earth and Its People, AP Edition, (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011) p. 5
College Board, AP World: Course and Examination Description, 2011. published at:
Code of Hammurabi Excerpts, Ancient Tablets, Ancient Graves: Accessing Women's Lives in Mesopotamia, Women in World History Curriculum,
Historyteachers, Civilization, (YouTube:Historyteachers Channel, 2011.
Tignor, Robert. Map of World in 3000 BCE,Worlds Together Worlds Apart, 2nd Edition (New York: Norton, 2009)
Tignor, Robert, Map of Trade in Mediteranian at 3000 BCE, WTWA,
Tignor, Robert. Map of Spread of Cities in Mesopotamia, WTWA,
They Might Be Giants, The Mesopotamians on YouTube.