Early River Valley Civilizations

Approximately 5000 years ago the first complex, politically centralized civilizations began to crystallize independently along a number of river valleys throughout the southern half of Asia and northern Africa .  These civilizations constitute the next step in the organization and centralization of human economic, political, religious, and social institutions and practices.

Why did the first complex, politically centralized civilizations materialize along rivers?  Because rivers supplied a continuous if not always dependable flow and supply of water for farming and human consumption.  These rivers along with climate, vegetation, geography, and topography shaped the development of the early river valley civilizations.  However, while people of these civilizations were dependent on the rivers, the rivers also inspired new technological, economic, institutional, and organizational innovations and developments.

Between 3000 and 2000 B.C.E. such river valley civilizations formed independently of each other along the Indus, the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, and the Yellow Rivers.  These civilizations shared certain characteristics that distinguished them from the collections of Neolithic communities that preceded them.

Nile River valley civilizations

The Nile River was the axis of two early African civilizations, Egypt and Nubia .  The Nile River shaped the development of both civilizations, providing a reliable source of water for farming and linking them to sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean Sea .  The Nile gave them limited access to various Bantu peoples to the south and various Mediterranean peoples to the north.  Although both civilizations crystallized along the Nile , they developed along different lines.  Egypt unified politically earlier and more effectively than Nubia .  The ruler-conqueror first united Egypt about 3100 B.C.E.  Subsequently, the institution of the pharaoh as deified ruler developed during a period known as the Archaic Period(3100-2660 B.C.E.).

Ancient Egyptian history is chronologically divided by dynasty and “kingdom”.  The three principle periods are the Old Kingdom(2660-2160 B.C.E.), the Middle Kingdom(2040-1640 B.C.E.), and the New Kingdom (1550-1070 B.C.E.).  In a number of ways the Old Kingdom is considered the classic era in ancient Egyptian history.  This period is marked by the power and influence of the pharaoh being at its height, as manifest in the construction of massive pyramids for burial of the pharaohs.  While pyramids were constructed during all three kingdom periods, Egyptians built the largest pyramids for their pharaohs during the Old Kingdom .  Of course, these massive monuments have come to define ancient Egypt in popular culture.  Arguably the most famous pyramids were constructed between 2600 and 2500 B.C.E. at Giza , two of the best known being the Great Pyramid of the ruler Khufu and the Great Sphinx.

The periods of the Middle and the New Kingdoms are defined by greater contact with various peoples around the Mediterranean .  During the period of the New Kingdom ancient Egypt was at the height of its imperial power in northern Africa and the Mediterranean basin.  After the end of the New Kingdom Egypt came under the control of a succession of foreign powers in northern Africa, the Mediterranean basin, Anatolia, and western Asia.  Despite long periods of political and/or military subjugation, significant remnants of ancient Egyptian culture survived and even thrived.


Mesopotamia is a Greek word that means “land between the rivers”, referring to the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers.  These two rivers were the axes of one of the most influential ancient civilizations in history.  With the development of irrigation around 6000 B.C.E. farming villages appeared and grew into larger communities and then cities along these rivers.

Political centralization first occurred in Mesopotamia in much the same way that it took place along the Nile River .  From approximately 3200 to 2350 B.C.E. various Sumerian cities dominated Mesopotamia .  During this period these cities, ruled by monarchs, came to control surrounding economic hinterlands, and, in the process, evolved into city-states.  These city-states were rivals who vied for influence throughout, even dominance of Mesopotamia .  In the twenty-fourth century B.C.E. Sargon, the ruler of the city of Akkad , became the first man to unify Mesopotamia under his control.  From 2350 to 1600 B.C.E. Mesopotamia was dominated by Babylon , a city that straddled the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Mesopotamia left a number of important cultural legacies for Western civilization.  Mesopotamia culture was a synthesis of both Sumerian and Semitic forms.  One of these legacies was various legal codes developed by a succession of Mesopotamian rulers.  Most notably among these rulers was Hammurabi(r. 1792-1750 B.C.E.), a Babylonian ruler who had various legal codes, guidelines, and precedents compiled.  This compilation was part of his larger effort to standardize the administration of his kingdom.  Another legacy was the Epic of Gilgamesh, a collection of stories about ancient Mesopotamia which centered around a legendary king of Uruk, who was part god.  These stories became one of the models for later heroic epics which celebrated the exploits of rulers and their champions.

Harappan civilization

From roughly 3000 to 1500 B.C.E. a complex, urbanized civilization existed along the Indus River in what is today northern India .  This ancient Indus River valley civilization was dominated by several large cities, including Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, and today is known by the name of the former.  The people of this civilization were known as Dravidians.

For a number of different reasons we don’t know as much about Harappan civilization as we do about its counterparts along the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, and the Yellow Rivers .  Unlike these other civilizations the language of ancient Harappan civilization cannot be deciphered.  Our knowledge of this civilization is based almost entirely on various physical remains.

The Xia, the Shang, and the Zhou Dynasties of Early China

Early Chinese civilization developed along the same lines as that of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia .  Between 7000 and 5000 B.C.E. agricultural villages appeared and grew along the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers .   Ancient Chinese history is marked by three successive dynasties that would become the roots of Chinese culture and civilization.  Little is known about the Xia Dynasty(2200-1766 B.C.E.), the first of these dynasties.  The Shang Dynasty(1766-1122 B.C.E.) built on the base established by its predecessor, with the help of various technological advances, including bronze metallurgy and horse-drawn chariots.  The Zhou Dynasty(1122-256 B.C.E.) expanded upon Shang accomplishments.  One of the Zhou Dynasty’s best known achievements was articulation of the concept of the Mandate of Heaven as a justification for the overthrow of an unpopular and/or unsuccessful dynasty.   These three dynasties established many of the threads of Chinese civilization.

The Legacies of the Ancient River Valley Civilizations

These civilizations laid the foundations for political centralization and organization upon which nearly all subsequent civilizations are built.  They also provided many of the roots of human civilization all the way to the present including the practices of monument building, written articulation of legal codes, and the construction of the legal and political infrastructures necessary to run a central government of a state.  If one were transported back in time to one of these early civilizations, one would find much that was familiar.



Katherine Bolman, BS, MFA, MEd, MSW, EdD.