Thus, human beings have existed all over the world for many thousands of years. Human civilization, however, has not. The word civilization is tied to the Greek word for city, along with words like “civil” and “civic.” The key element of the definition is the idea that a large number of people come together in a group that is too large to consist only of an extended family group. Once that occurred, historically, other discoveries and developments, from writing to mathematics to organized religion, followed.
Up until that point in history, however, cities had not been possible because there was never enough food to sustain a large group that stayed in a single place for long. Ancient humans were hunter-gatherers. They followed herds of animals on the hunt and they gathered edible plants as well. This way of life fundamentally worked for hundreds of thousands of years - it was the basis of life for the very people who populated the world as described above. The problem with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, however, is that it is extremely precarious: there is never a significant surplus of caloric energy, that is, of food, and thus population levels among hunting-gathering people were generally static. There just was not enough food to sustain significant population growth.
Starting around 10,000 BCE, humans in a handful of regions around the world discovered agriculture, that is, the deliberate cultivation of edible plants. People discovered that certain seeds could be planted and crops could be reliably grown. Sometimes after that, people in the same regions began to domesticate animals, keeping herds of cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats in controlled conditions, defending them from predators, and eating them and using their hides. It is impossible to overstate how important these changes were. Even fairly primitive agriculture can produce fifty times more caloric energy than hunting and gathering does. The very basis of human life is how much energy we can derive from food; with agriculture and animal domestication, it was possible for families to grow much larger and overall population levels to rise dramatically.
One of the noteworthy aspects of this transition is that hunting-gathering people actually had much more leisure time than farmers did (and were also healthier and longer-lived). Archaeologists and anthropologists have determined that hunting-gathering people generally only “worked” for a few of hours a day, and spent the rest of their time in leisure activities. Meanwhile, farmers have always worked incredibly hard for very long hours; in many places in the ancient world, there were groups of people who remained hunter-gatherers despite knowing about agriculture, and it is quite possible they did that because they saw no particular advantage in adopting agriculture. There were also many areas that practiced both – right up until the modern era, many farmers also foraged in areas of semi-wilderness near their farms.
Agriculture was developed in a few different places completely independently. According to archeological evidence, agriculture did not start in one place and then spread; it started in a few distinct areas and then spread from those areas, sometimes meeting in the middle. For example, agriculture developed independently in China by 5000 BCE, and of course agriculture in the Americas (starting in western South America) had nothing to do with its earlier invention in the Fertile Crescent.
The most important regions for the development of Western Civilization were Mesopotamia and Egypt, because it was from those regions that the different technologies, empires, and ideas that came together in Western Civilization were forged. Thus, it is important to emphasize that the original heartland of Western Civilization was not in Greece or anywhere else in Europe; it was in the Middle East and North Africa. Many of the different elements of Western Civilization, things like scientific inquiry, the religions of the book (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), engineering, and mathematics, were originally conceived in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Early agriculture, the kind of agriculture that made later advances in civilization possible, consisted of people simply planting seeds by hand or with shovels and picks. There were some important technological discoveries that took place over time that allowed much greater crop yields, however. They included:
- Crop rotation, which people discovered sometime around 8000 BCE. Crop rotation is the process of planting a different kind of crop in a field each year, then “rotating” to the next field in the next year. Every few years, a field is allowed to “lie fallow,” meaning nothing is planted and animals can graze on it. This process serves to return nutrients to the soil that would otherwise be leached out by successive years of planting, and it greatly increases yields overall.
- The metal plow, which people invented around 5000 BCE. Plows are hugely important; they opened up areas to cultivation that would be too rocky or the soil too hard to support crops normally.
- Irrigation, which happened in an organized fashion sometime around the same time in Mesopotamia.
The early civilization of Mesopotamia consisted of fairly small farming communities. A common theory is that they may have originally came together in order to coordinate the need for irrigation systems; the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are notorious for flooding unpredictably, so it took a lot of human effort to create the dikes and canals necessary to divert floodwaters and irrigate the farmlands near the rivers. Recent archaeological evidence suggests other motives, however, including the need for protection from rival groups and access to natural resources that were concentrated in a specific area.
Of the areas in which agriculture developed, The Fertile Crescent enjoyed significant advantages. Many nutritious staple crops like wheat and barley grew naturally in the region. Several of the key animal species that were first domesticated by humans were also native to the region, including goats, sheep, and cows. The region was also much more temperate and fertile than it is today, and the transition from hunting and gathering to large-scale farming was possible in Mesopotamia in a way that it was not in most other regions of the ancient world.
The food surplus that agriculture made possible in the Fertile Crescent eventually led to the emergence of the first large settlements. Some of the earliest that were large enough to quality as towns or even small cities were Jericho in Palestine, which existed by about 8000 BCE, and Catal Huyuk in Turkey, which existed by about 7500 BCE. There were certainly many others in the Fertile Crescent, but due to their antiquity the remains of only a few - Jericho and Catal Huyuk most importantly - have survived to be studied by archaeologists.
From their remains it becomes possible to piece together certain facts about ancient societies on the cusp of civilization. First, it is clear that the earliest settlements (already) had significant social divisions. Hunter-gatherer societies have very few social divisions; there may be chiefs and shamans, but all members of the group are roughly equal in social power. One of the traits of civilization is the increasing complexity of social divisions, and with them, of social hierarchy. In Catal Huyuk, tombs have revealed that some people were buried with jewelry and wealth, while others were buried with practically nothing. It is very clear that even at such an ancient time, there were already major divisions between rich and poor.
That wealth was based on access to natural resources. Catal Huyuk was built on a site that had a large deposit of obsidian (also called volcanic glass). Obsidian could be chipped to create extremely sharp tools and weapons. Tools made from Catal Huyuk's obsidian have been discovered by archaeologists hundreds of miles from Catal Huyuk itself; thus, it is clear that Catal Huyuk was already part of long-distance trade networks, trading obsidian for other goods with other towns and villages. In essence, Catal Huyuk's trade in obsidian proves that specialized manufacturing (in this case, of obsidian tools) and trade networks have been around since the dawn of civilization itself.
In turn, the social divisions revealed in Catal Huyuk’s graves reveal another key aspect of civilization: specialization. Social divisions themselves are only possible when there is a food surplus. If everyone has to work all the time to get enough food, there is little time left over for anyone to specialize in other activities. The reason that hunter-gatherer societies produce little in the way of scholarship or technology is that they do not have the resources for people to specialize in those areas. When agriculture made a food surplus possible for the first time in history, however, not everyone had to work on getting enough food, and soon, certain people managed to lay claim to new areas of expertise. Even in a settlement as ancient as Catal Huyuk, there were craftsmen, builders, and perhaps most interestingly, priests. In the ruins of the settlement archaeologists have found dozens of shrines to ancient gods and evidence of there being a priesthood.
The existence of a priesthood and organized worship in Catal Huyuk is striking, because it means that people were trying in a systematic way to understand how the world worked. In turn, priests were probably the world's first intellectuals, people who use their minds for a living. Priests probably directed the efforts to build irrigation systems and made the decisions about building and rebuilding the town since they had a monopoly on explaining the larger forces at work in human life. Especially in a period like the ancient past when natural forces – forces like floods and disease - were vastly more powerful than the ability of humans to control them, priests were the only people who could offer an explanation.
Not just in Mesopotamia, but all around the ancient world, there is significant evidence of religious belief systems centered on two major themes: fertility and death. One example of this are the “Venus figurines” depicting pregnant women with exaggerated physical features. Similar figures can be seen from all over the ancient Middle East and Europe, demonstrating that ancient peoples hoped to shape the forces that were most important to them. Early religions hoped to ensure fertility and stave off the many natural disasters that ancient peoples had no control over.
The earliest surviving work of literature in the world, the Mesopotamian story known as The Epic of Gilgamesh, was obsessed with the theme of human mortality. Ancient peoples already sensed that human beings were in the process of accomplishing things that had never been accomplished before, namely the construction of large settlements, the creation of new technologies, and the invention of organized religions, and yet they also sensed that the human experience could be fraught with misery, despair, and what seemed like totally unfair and arbitrary disasters. And, as the Epic of Gilgamesh demonstrates, ancient peoples were well aware that no matter how great the accomplishments of a person during life, that person would inevitably die. That concern – the challenge of making sense of human existence in the face of death – is sometimes referred to by philosophers “the human condition,” and it is one that ancient peoples grappled with in their religious systems.