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Humanities LibreTexts

3.1: Overview

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  • By 5000 BCE, people lived around the globe in small family groups, tribes, or larger communities. Some people were still in the Stone Age, some were transitioning to the Bronze Age, and the rest were well entrenched in the Bronze Age. Agricultural and societal development was distributed through four major areas; Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, the Andes, and China. Progress in these broad areas included farming, irrigation, pottery, the written word, and some form of government.

    As part of the Neolithic period and the last phase of the Stone Age,  clusters of people still employed stone tools; they adopted agriculture, moving from food gathering to food production. The Neolithic use of stones was sophisticated; the people made stone into grinding tools, chopping, and cutting. To harvest or move large rocks, cooperation between groups was necessary. In other parts of the world, civilizations were beginning to form or remained in a hunter/gatherer culture. Still, they may have settled into small communities and utilized their surroundings for food. Historians generally find enhanced information from the more developed civilizations; for example, written language or logograms relay a great deal about daily life instead of the guesswork left by more unaffected artifacts. 

    As people changed from hunter-gathers to stable population centers and localized food production during this period, they developed suitable methods to control rivers, construct specialized buildings, and sophisticated tools. The development and styles of art changed with refined social and technical skills. The prevailing principles and elements of design used in this set of cultures were a shape, volume, and balance. For example, in the images of the pyramids, the triangular pyramids form the shapes with secondary profiles in the spaces or inverted triangles. The pyramid has outlines or boundaries of multiple meanings.

    Archeologists use the clues of shape to identify artifacts; for instance, the Jomon vessels have a definite form; they are primarily round, steep sides with coil rope imprints and an open-top. The shape is an integral part of the design. The different cultures used similar materials to construct buildings or make pots; however, each culture used the materials differently. For example, most civilizations used the riverbed silt for clay; however, their pottery's shape and volume differed. The use of an object determined the amount of work required, and each culture designed the size of their pottery based on the culture's requirements for storage or cooking. Some civilizations made extensive use of rock to create specialized edifices. The stones of the pyramid were cut to balance and form a triangular shape without mortar, a ziggurat in the desert made of mud bricks had stones set in mortar to maintain permanent balance. The enormous boulders of Stonehenge were balanced to distribute the weight across space. 

    These cultures used natural materials of clay, marble, and stone found locally or transported by some mechanism over long distances for buildings, everyday requirements, and artwork. Clay was the most abundant and located along the waterways, a convenient and natural material to gather and use. The use of clay pots was significant in human development and provided the ability to cook the raw grain. The vessels are also an essential tool for archeologists to reconstruct how these ancient cultures lived. Early vessels were probably coil pots, clay rolled into a long piece and coiled into layers and tempered in open fires, later evolving into more sophisticated methods with potters' wheels and kilns. In some regions, marble was quarried, providing a hard, long-lasting material for buildings or sculptures, particularly in the cultures around the islands in the Aegean Sea. In addition to clay, stone was the other common material easily obtainable in many locations and used to carve sculptures, stack into buildings, or create walls. Many parts of the ancient buildings remain today, providing a method for archeologists to study the civilizations.

    This chapter, The First Civilizations and Their Art (5000 BCE – 1900 BCE) discusses seven different growing civilizations or tribal groups, including:



    Time Frame

    Starting Location


    3000 BCE – 1000 BCE

    Aegean Sea, Sea of Crete, Greece and Turkey

    Early Egyptian Dynasty

    3150 BCE – 2686 BCE

    Nile Valley, Egypt

    Early Mesopotamia –

    Sumerian, Akkadian

    3100 BCE – 2000 BCE approx.

    Arabian Plateau


    3300 BCE – 1700 BCE



    3000 BCE – 1700 BCE


    Early Jomon Period

    5000 BCE – 2500 BCE


    Neolithic England

    3100 BCE – 1600 BCE approx.