While modern civilizations span every continent except Antarctica, most scholars place the earliest cradles of civilizations – in other words, where civilizations first emerged – in present-day Iraq, Egypt, India, China, Peru, and Mexico, beginning between about 4000 and 3000 BC.
These complex ancient societies, beginning with Mesopotamia, formed cultural and technological advances, many of which are still present today. “A lot of the details of modern life, not just in the Middle East and the West, but around the world, have origins that go back thousands of years to the ancient cultures of their respective regions,” says Amanda. Podany, author. and professor emeritus of history at California State Polytechnic University.
Here’s a look at six of the earliest civilizations and the legacy they left to the world.
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1. Mesopotamia, 4000-3500 BC
Meaning “between two rivers” in Greek, Mesopotamia (located in present-day Iraq, Kuwait and Syria) is considered the cradle of civilization. The culture that developed between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is known for its significant advances in literacy, astronomy, agriculture, law, astronomy, mathematics, architecture and more, despite an almost constant war. Mesopotamia was also home to the world’s first urban cities, including Babylon, Ashur, and Akkad.
“Mesopotamia is the world’s first literate urban civilization — and the Sumerians, who established the civilization, set the ground rules,” says Kenneth Harl, author, consultant, and professor emeritus of history at Tulane University. “Those who know how to research and write lead civilization and everyone [else] does the grunt work.
The cuneiform writing system, used to establish the Code of Hammurabi, is one of the most famous Mesopotamian advances. They also created the base 60 number system, which led to the 60-second minute, the 60-minute hour, and the 360-degree circle. And it was Babylonian astronomy that first divided the year into 12 periods named after the constellations – what the Greeks would later turn into the zodiac.
Persia finally conquered Mesopotamia in 539 BC. AD Centuries of upheaval followed.
“During the three millennia that ancient Mesopotamia flourished, countless individual kingdoms have come and gone, and a few empires have risen and fallen for various reasons,” says Podany, author of the forthcoming book. Weavers, Scribes and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East. “But at the base the civilization was obviously the same from about 3500 BCE to as late as 323 BCE – and, many would say, beyond that. The region was rarely unified, but the civilization was very steady.
2. Ancient Egypt, 3100 BC.
Perhaps the most romanticized of past civilizations, ancient Egypt was one of the most powerful empires in history for over 3,000 years. Located along the fertile Nile and stretching at one time from present-day Syria to Sudan, the civilization is best known for its pyramids, tombs and mausoleums and the practice of mummification to prepare corpses for the afterlife. .
Harl, author of the forthcoming book, Steppe Empires: How Steppe Nomads Shaped the Modern World, asserts that Egypt’s use of labor to undertake architectural projects, such as the pyramids, was unparalleled. “The ability to muster 100,000 men to assemble the Great Pyramid in 2600 BC is unmatched anywhere,” he says.
Egyptians also proved to be extremely skilled in agriculture and medicine, he adds. And they also developed exquisite traditions of carving and painting.
The ancient Egyptians also left a legacy of monumental writing and mathematical systems. The cubit, a measure of length roughly equivalent to the span of a forearm, was key to the design of pyramids and other structures. They developed the 24-hour, 356-day calendar during this time. And they established the hieroglyphic pictorial writing system, followed by the hieroglyphic system which used ink on papyrus paper. The civilization ended in 332 BC when it was conquered by Alexander the Great.
READ MORE: 14 Everyday Objects From Ancient Egypt
3. Ancient India, 3300 BC.
In ancient India, where Hinduism was founded, religion was of great importance, Harl says, along with great literary traditions and incredible architecture. The Upanishads, or Hindu scriptures, include the ideas of reincarnation and the birthright-based caste system, both of which have endured into modern times.
Unlike other ancient civilizations, the Indus Valley Civilization, built in the Indus Valley (now India, Afghanistan and Pakistan) does not appear to have been torn apart by war . Rather, historians and archaeologists speak of sophisticated, organized urban planning, with uniform fired-brick houses, a grid structure, and drainage, sewage, and water supply systems.
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The collapse of the Indus Valley around 1700 BC is often attributed to migration caused by climate change or possible tectonic movement that caused the Saraswati River to dry up. Others cite a great flood.
4. Ancient China, 2000 BC.
Protected by the Himalayan Mountains, the Pacific Ocean and the Gobi Desert, and situated between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, China’s early civilizations thrived away from invaders and other outsiders for centuries. To stop the Mongols from the north, they built barriers considered by some to be the earliest precursors to the Great Wall of China, later built in 220 BC.
Generally divided into four dynasties – Xia, Shang, Zhou and Qin – ancient China was ruled by a succession of emperors. Civilization is credited with the development of the decimal system, the abacus and the sundial, as well as the printing press, which enabled the publication and distribution of Sun Tzu. The art of Warstill relevant more than 2,500 years later.
Like the Egyptians, the ancient Chinese knew how to mobilize populations to build massive infrastructure projects. The construction of the 5th-century Grand Canal, which connects the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, for example, allowed large numbers of military forces and goods to move across the country.
“China is perhaps the most successful centralized state in human history,” says Harl. “And at many times in the history of mankind, it is without a doubt the greatest civilization that has remained on the globe.”
READ MORE: China: A Timeline
5. Ancient Peru, 1200 BC.
Peru has been the cradle of civilization for a number of cultures including the Chavín, Paracas, Nazca, Huari, Moche, and Inca. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of metallurgy, ceramics, and advanced medical and agricultural practices within these groups.
Civilization culminated with the great Inca Empire, which stretched from present-day Colombia to Chile and is known for the Andean city of Machu Picchu, with its elaborate urban grid.
The Incas did not develop a writing system; instead they used images and symbols. But they used a node-based accounting system, built paved roads over rugged terrain connecting towns and settlements, and created sophisticated agricultural and architectural innovations.
Smallpox and other diseases, brought to South America by the Spaniards, ravaged the Inca populations, Harl says, causing an internal weakening that aided the conquest led by Francisco Pizarro in 1532. “Immunity,” he says. “Thus, rather than the state itself weakening significantly, it was disease introduced from outside that helped pave the way for the overthrow of the Inca civilization in Peru.”
READ MORE: This little-known Peruvian civilization built pyramids as old as those in ancient Egypt
6. Ancient Mesoamerica, 1200 BC.
Parts of today’s Mexico and Central America were once home to a number of indigenous cultures, beginning with the Olmec around 1200 BC. BC, followed by the Zapotecs, Mayas, Toltecs and, finally, the Aztecs.
Fertile farmland led to agricultural advances, with corn, beans, vanilla, avocado, peppers, squash, and cotton becoming important crops. Pyramid-style temples, intricate pottery, stone monuments, turquoise jewelry, and other fine art have been uncovered. Scholars believe the Zapotecs developed the first written calendar and writing system in Mesoamerica, while the Maya are known for their advancements in mathematics, hieroglyphics, architecture, and astronomy.
Nomadic Aztecs founded Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in 1325 on small islands in Lake Texcoco, and the city became a thriving commercial market. The Aztecs used a 365-day solar calendar as well as a 260-day ritual calendar, practiced human sacrifice and bloodletting, used a form of picture writing, and created works of art with terracotta, feathers, mosaics and stone.
The 1519 Spanish invasion led by Hernán Cortéz, aided by Mesoamerican enemies of the Aztecs, ended Aztec civilization in 1521. “When Cortez arrived, the Aztecs had great difficulty maintaining control over their subject tribes” , Harl said. “They were much hated, and Cortez gave enough advantage to all these underprivileged subjects to overthrow the Aztec Empire.”
READ MORE: How the Aztec Empire Was Forged Through a Triple Alliance