In order to learn about prehistoric people and cultures, scientists have teamed up with archaeologists and other researchers to piece together clues about the life of early man. Artifacts and human remains are most helpful in understanding prehistoric cultures. Early man was remarkably resourceful, however, and created tools from stone. Most impressive was the Neolithic Age or New Stone Age when people became sedentary and learned to make specialized tools. Gradually, prehistoric man ceased hunting and gathering and turned to agriculture which was more reliable and sustainable for larger groups of people.
The result of agriculturalism was the creation of civilizations. The earliest civilizations sprang up along the Nile River in Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, the Indus River in India, and the Huang River in China. Each of these cultures learned to irrigate their crops using the water from the nearby rivers and maintain a crop surplus.
With larger groups of people staying in one place, it became apparent to these early people that some sort of organization was imperative. Soon, a division of labor was created and new social classes emerged. Some became artisans while others became merchants or farmers. Early forms of government also emerged in an effort to help structure and guide people's behavior and to enforce the rules.
Eventually, these ancient people found it necessary to keep records and so systems of writing emerged in each of the original river valley civilizations. Writing allowed them to not only keep track of payments and taxes but also to write down the rules and laws that were to govern life in the ancient world.
One of the earliest and most significant ancient civilizations was that of Egypt, "the gift of the Nile." The Nile River, the longest river in the world, measures over 4000 miles and flows south to north, emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. The Nile River Valley boasted fertile soil as well as deposits of limestone, granite and other minerals. The Nile was not only a tremendous natural resource but also a valuable natural defense as well. In its pre-dynastic years, Egypt had two distinct kingdoms: Upper and Lower Egypt. Circa 3200 BCE, Menes unified the region and created a powerful empire that lasted for many centuries.
The Old Kingdom was characterized by the developing system of pharaohs and dynasties. It witnessed the building of the Sphinx and the pyramid complex at Giza. The First Intermediate Period marked the end of the Old Kingdom and was an era of unrest and chaos prior to the reunification of Egypt by the first pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom. The invasion of the Hyksos brought about another Intermediate Period prior to the New Kingdom which saw the reign of Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh, King Tut, and Ramses II. Following Ramses II's death, a series of ineffective pharaohs ruled Egypt and the once-great empire declined and gave way to foreign rulers. Despite its inconsistent politics, ancient Egypt boasted many achievements such as the invention of hieroglyphics, the building of architecturally perfect pyramids, advances in science, math, medicine, and a formal religion.
Another important civilization was that which arose along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia. The Sumerians, though unable to reliably predict the rivers' flood cycles like the Egyptians, were nevertheless successful farmers and they were able to sustain a large population. The Sumerians, too, developed a system of writing called cuneiform which entailed over 600 signs. Cuneiform was used to maintain trade and tax records and, most importantly, to communicate laws later in Mesopotamia's history. The Sumerians also designed the arch, created a lunar calendar and worked with a base 60 math system that is still used today to tell time. Mesopotamia was divided into city-states which were small, independent, self-governing units. The Sumerians eventually experienced conflict with other Mesopotamian city-states like Assyria and Akkad. Perhaps the most-powerful and longest-lasting Mesopotamian culture was that of the Persians. The Persians were one of the greatest threats to the ancient world including the Greeks and the Romans who came along much later in history.
Another important early culture was that of the Hebrews. Abraham, according to the Bible, was told by God to take his followers out of Ur in Mesopotamia and to lead them into Canaan where they would be God's chosen people. Ultimately, the Hebrews were widely persecuted throughout the ancient world for their divergent religious beliefs and adherence to the notion that they were God's chosen people.
Settled nearly 5,000 years ago, the Indus River Valley was home to one of the world's earliest civilizations. Ruins found at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, two ancient Indian cities, indicate that the people who planned these developments took a strategic and organized approach. Cities were characterized by wide streets in a grid pattern, an advanced sewer system, and large homes, some of which even had bathrooms. Fortresses and storehouses were also present. The Indus River Valley was agrarian, which allowed the people to be self-sufficient and to produce what they needed for trade. These people left no written records and no evidence of how they disappeared.
Circa 1750 BCE, the Indus River Valley became home to people who crossed the Hindu Kush mountain range. The Rig-Veda is a text that tells the history of these people and their behaviors. Their deities were based on nature, and each element was personified. Called Indo-Aryans, they settled in small, independent states that were ruled by rajas (chiefs). Marriage was an important institution, and people were limited in terms of who they could and could not marry based on social class. Eventually, the caste system was established, and four separate classes were created. The pariahs, a fifth class, were viewed as outside of the system because they were considered "untouchable."
Religion played a significant role in the development of the region. Hinduism taught that the world human beings experience is an illusion that needs to be rejected in order to attain salvation. Reincarnation is a critical element of the religion: Hindus believe that the soul never dies but is reborn over and over again. Buddhism also became popular sometime in the sixth century BCE. The Buddha taught that there are Four Noble Truths that can be achieved only by following the Eightfold Path. Buddhism experienced a schism at some point between 200 BCE and 200 CE, splitting into Theravada (practiced mainly in Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka) and Mahayana Buddhism (practiced in China, Korea, and Japan).
Ancient Indians made many contributions to the fields of math and science, inventing algebra and furthering our knowledge of astronomy. In addition, they also developed the idea of inoculation, which is still practiced worldwide.
China presents some of the world's greatest geographical resources and challenges. Ancient people wisely chose to settle along the Huang River, which was rich with fertile soil.
Invaders called the Shang descended upon the Huang River valley sometime around 1600 BCE, bringing with them irrigation techniques which allowed them to control the people's food supply. These wise people created the first dynasty in Chinese history. This kingdom spanned more than 40,000 square miles. The Shang introduced a complex bureaucratic system ruled through dynastic succession. Although most people were farmers under the Shang rule, many artisans contributed to the thriving economy as well. The Shang religion was based on animism: the belief that everything in the world is inhabited by a spirit. Priests were important in both religious and political affairs during the Shang rule.
Around the first millennium BCE, the Shang were overthrown by the Zhou who asserted that the Shang were corrupt and unworthy of ruling China. The Zhou ruled for nearly eight hundred years and brought China unprecedented power and success. Zhou rulers believed that they ruled through divine right which they termed the "Mandate of Heaven." The Zhou were replaced by the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE when the ruler, Cheng, took the title "first emperor." It was during the Qin dynasty that the Great Wall of China was built. Fifteen years later, the Qin were overthrown by Liu Bang, a commoner turned general, who ushered in the Han dynasty. Under the reign of the Han, China's empire surpassed that of the Romans in size. It was also during the Han that the notion of civil service was first introduced and that the Silk Road prospered.
Several significant philosophies developed in ancient China. Confucianism emphasized the importance of family and respect for elders and ancestors. Daoism also emerged around the fifth century BCE. Daoists focused on seeking "The Way" through contemplation of nature. Legalism was a belief system which encouraged harsh laws in response to man's innate selfish nature. Chinese reverence for family life had an impact on the culture's economic, social and educational development. Theirs was a patriarchal society in which women had few rights but were viewed as vitally important to raising children.
The invention of paper, advances in medicine, and scientific discoveries made during the Golden Age of ancient China remain significant even today.