Skip to ContentGo to accessibility pageKeyboard shortcuts menu
OpenStax Logo

3.1 Early Civilizations

For tens of thousands of years, humans lived largely as mobile, subsistence hunter-gatherers. But with the innovation of agricultural production in a few areas around the world, some groups began to settle, and a new agricultural and sedentary lifestyle gave rise to early civilizations characterized by urban settings, the specialization of labor, and increasing social stratification. The earliest examples appeared in Neolithic settlements like Jericho, Çatalhöyük, Mehrgarh, and others in China, Mesoamerica, and the Andean region of South America.

3.2 Ancient Mesopotamia

The city of Uruk in the land of Sumer was one of the first true cities in world history. Advances in technology such as the invention of bronze-making techniques, a writing system called cuneiform, and a sophisticated religion with a pantheon of deities spread and facilitated the development of a complex Mesopotamian culture and the rise of other city-states there. The Sumerian city-states under the rule of their lugals or kings commonly waged war against one another and against a stream of foreign invaders.

The period of independent city-states came to an end with the rise of the world’s first empire, the Akkadian Empire of Sargon of Akkad. While it lasted only about a century and a half, this empire inaugurated a new era in the region, which later saw the emergence of other powerful realms. These included the Third Dynasty of Ur and the famous Babylonian Empire of Hammurabi, who created an influential law code. These later empires preserved many elements of the earlier Sumerian civilization, including cuneiform and works of literature like the Epic of Gilgamesh.

3.3 Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt arose as an early civilization along the Nile River valley in the fourth millennium BCE. A polytheistic society with a great assortment of deities and its own writing system, Egypt was united under the pharaohs for much of its ancient history. Its people held that order, truth, and justice (Ma’at) ruled the day and ordered the universe.

The Old Kingdom was the era of pyramid building. The Middle Kingdom was a time of renewed strength and territorial expansion. “Intermediate” periods of weakened centralized control followed and preceded these kingdoms. The First Intermediate Period was a time when regional governors gained power at the expense of the pharaohs. During the Second Intermediate Period, traditional Egyptian nobles lost control of the Nile delta to the Hyksos people and control of far upper Egypt to the kingdom of Kush. These areas were later reconquered with the inauguration of the New Kingdom.

3.4 The Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus valley culture emerged as an early civilization in the early third millennium BCE. It drew inspiration from contacts with Mesopotamia, but its people also developed large well-planned cities such as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro that were quite different from contemporary cities in ancient Sumer. Since the written script of the Indus peoples remains undeciphered, historians can only speculate about how these great cities arose and why they fell in the early second millennium, perhaps as a result of trade disruptions, changes in the course of rivers, the arrival of Indo-European–speaking nomads, climate change, environmental degradation, disease, or some combination of these factors.

Order a print copy

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.


This book may not be used in the training of large language models or otherwise be ingested into large language models or generative AI offerings without OpenStax's permission.

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book uses the Creative Commons Attribution License and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at
Citation information

© Mar 25, 2024 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License . The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.