Civilizations Past And Present
Edited By: R. A. Guisepi
The Development Of The Human Race
The Civilizations Of The Ancient Near East
Paleoanthropologists estimate that between three and four million years
ago, ancestors of the human race appeared on earth, naked in a world of
enemies. The skills necessary for survival were mastered over many hundreds of
thousands of years. Agriculture and the ways of life it engendered were the
most important achievements. The first farmers scattered kernels of grain on
the earth and waited patiently for harvest time. Wild beasts were tamed as
work animals or kept for their meat and hides. Because their fields and
flocks could supply most of their wants, a settled life in villages became
possible; people were no longer compelled to move on endlessly in search of
food, as their food-gathering ancestors had done for countless generations.
It was along the banks of great rivers that villages first grew into
towns and cities. In early Egyptian picture writing a town is shown as a cross
within a circle - the intersection of two pathways enclosed by a wall. The
symbol is an appropriate one, for in the history of the human race the town
marks the spot where civilization as we know it began.
Within the towns the business of living took new turns. While the
majority still farmed, there were now more craftsmen turning out specialized
wares, merchants trading for metals and other needed raw materials, priests
conducting religious ceremonies, and administrators planning and supervising
the necessary cooperative effort for the common good. Specialization allowed
leisure time for intellectual and artistic pursuits that enriched the lives of
the participants and developed a cultural heritage.
A culture can endure only if the knowledge necessary for its survival is
passed on from generation to generation. Early peoples relied on information
transmitted by word of mouth. But as cultures became increasingly complex,
methods for keeping records were needed and systems of writing were created.
To most authorities, the development of writing is a prerequisite to
The four earliest civilizations - Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indian, and
Chinese - arose between c. 3100 B.C. and c. 1500 B.C., in each case in the
valley of a great river system. In this chapter we shall trace the progress of
civilization, including the earliest advances in technology and creation of
writing systems, in Mesopotamia and Egypt. In chapter 4 we shall examine the
stirrings of civilization in India and in China.
The Development Of The Human Race
Did God create humanity "in His own image," or was our species itself the
product of physical change and adaptation no less than the rocks, plants, and
animals of this planet? This question - so basic in nineteenth-century thought
that it caused anguish and bitter controversy among theologians and scientists
alike - came to the fore when Sir Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830)
provided evidence that the earth was the product of a tremendously long period
Evolution: A Major Theory
The issue of human evolution became critical with the appearance of
Charles Darwin's two treatises, The Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of
Man (1871). The controversy surrounding the theory of human evolution has
raged on into the twentieth century, although with decreasing intensity as
more fossil evidence has come to light. Of course, the fossil record can
probably never be complete, and paleontologists have only skeletal remains
(usually partial ones) to analyze. The evidence for evolution appears
overwhelming, but the theory by no means precludes the presence of a guiding
intelligence ultimately responsible for a progressive development of organic
life from simple to more complex forms, culminating in the intelligence and
creativity of our own species.
Evolution Of The Hominids
Who the ancestors of early humans were and when and where tools were
first made are much debated questions in scholarly circles. According to the
theory of evolution, a crucial development occurred when the ape family became
differentiated into the tree-dwelling apes and the ground-dwelling types known
as hominids ("pre-humans" or "protohumans"). The remains of Australopithecines
("Southern Apes"), the earliest known hominids, were first discovered in South
Africa in 1924. Autralopithecus had an erect posture but an apelike brain.
Since World War II, and especially during the 1970s, our knowledge of the
hominids and their relation to the genus Homo ("man") has been rapidly
growing. The dominant present view is that Australopithecus was succeded by
three species of the genus Homo: Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens.
(A genus contains one or more species. The genus name is capitalized and
precedes the species name, which is not capitalized.)
Three major sites in East Africa have produced a remarkable collection of
Australopithecine fossils. Between 1972 and 1977, an expedition led by C.D.
Johanson worked at Hadar in Ethiopia. The Hadar collection comprises at least
thirty-five individuals, with one female skeleton - named Lucy after the
Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" - nearly 40 percent complete and
between 3.0 and 3.5 million years ago.
During this period, too, the British anthropologist Mary D. Leakey
discovered at Laetoli, in northern Tanzania, the fossil jaws and teeth of
eight adults and three children, between 3.35 and 3.75 million years old.
Subsequently, she uncovered fifty-seven footprints made by two individuals -
the oldest known marks of human-like creatures on earth.
Meanwhile, in 1972 at a site on the east side of Lake Rudolph, Kenya,
Mary Leakey's son Richard had made yet another major discovery. Of special
interest was his discovery of a skull (labeled KNM-ER 1470), probably 2.9
million years old. Leakey's claim that 1470 is a representative of the genus
Homo has been challenged. The find made earlier (1964) by his father, L.S.B.
Leakey, however, has been generally accepted as the earliest representative of
our own genus, Homo.
L.S.B. Leakey had made his discovery at Olduvai Gorge, in Tanzania, at a
site some 1.75 million years old. Homo habilis ("skillful man"), as Leakey
named his find, was about four feet tall, walked erect, and had a
well-developed opposable thumb. Significantly, these fossil remains were found
in association with crude tools. With the advent of a hominid capable of
making tools, Leakey felt confident in assigning his find to the genus Homo.
The first evidence of the more advanced group known as Homo erectus was
discovered in Java in 1891. Peking man and other members of this group, whose
earliest fossils are about 1.5 million years old, have been discovered in
Asia, Africa, and Europe. Homo erectus had a brain size larger than Homo
habilis but smaller than our own. The members of Homo erectus were about five
feet tall, had heavy brows, and a receding forehead. They developed the
ability to control and use fire, a major step in mastering the environment and
setting humans apart from the rest of the natural world. They also perfected
the first major standardized all-purpose tool, the hand ax, made by striking
flakes from a flint stone that had been hardened in fire to make it flake
easily. Its cutting edge was as effective as steel in cutting meat. The hand
ax remained a favored tool for over a million years, long after the extinction
of Homo erectus about 300,000 years ago and the gradual emergence of Homo
From about 100,000 to 40,000 years ago, just before and during the early
part of the last glaciation of the Ice Age, the Neanderthals were the
principal inhabitants of Europe and adjacent parts of Asia and Africa.
Somewhat taller than five feet, Neanderthals had sloping foreheads with
prominent brow ridges and thickset bodies. They invented tools of advanced
design, were able hunters, and adapted to extreme cold by using fire, wearing
clothes, and living in caves.
Despite a brain capacity averaging slightly larger than our own,
Neanderthals were long considered to be brutish, dimwitted, slouching
creatures - the stereotypical "cave man" of modern cartoonists. Recent
reconstructions of the fossil evidence, however, have determined that
Neanderthals are a subspecies of Homo sapiens and deserve the label Homo
sapiens neanderthalensis. "If he could be reincarnated and placed in a New
York subway - provided he was bathed, shaved, and dressed in modern clothing -
it is doubtful whether he would attract any more attention than some of its
other denizens." ^1
[Footnote 1: Richard E. Leakey, The Making of Mankind (London: Michael Joseph,
1981), p. 148.]
The culminating phase of the development of the genus Homo occurred some
40,000 years ago when the Cro-Magnons, a subspecies of Homo sapiens called
Homo sapiens sapiens, replaced Homo sapiens neanderthalensis in Europe. What
happened to the Neanderthals can only be conjectured.
Named after the locality in southern France where their bones were first
unearthed in 1868, Cro-Magnon skeletons are virtually indistinguishable from
human skeletons of today. Skillfully made flint and bone tools and polychrome
paintings found on the walls of caves reflect an advanced culture. By 20,000
B.C. Cro-Magnon and other representatives of Homo sapiens sapiens inhabited
Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, and had moved across the Bering Strait to
America. Today, Homo sapiens sapiens is the only existing species of the genus
Benjamin Franklin is credited with first defining the human being as a
"tool-making animal." The making and using of tools is the first evidence of
the human ability to use reason to solve problems. Since the use of stone
implements was the most distinctive feature of early human culture,
(Anthropologists use the term culture for a primitive people's way of life.)
this first cultural stage is known as the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. It was
a food-collecting stage, characterized by hunting, fishing, and the collecting
of wild fruits, nuts, and berries.
Much of our knowledge of Paleolithic culture comes from groups that have
survived into modern times - Indians in the rain forests of Brazil, for
example. Labor was divided according to sex. Men hunted, fished, and protected
the group. Women gathered wild plants, fruits, and nuts, and prepared the food
for eating, they processed animal hides and wood into household objects, and
cared for the children. Men and women shared such tasks as building dwellings,
making ornaments and tools and training children for adult life.
To withstand the cold, late Paleolithic peoples made garments from skins
and erected building in areas where natural caves did not exist. The reindeer
and mammoth hunters of what is today Czechoslovakia and Russia lived in tents
and huts made of hides and brush or in communal houses partially sunk into the
ground with mammoth's ribs for roof supports. There is evidence that they used
coal for fuel.
One of the highest achievements of late Paleolithic culture was art.
Animated, realistic paintings of bison, reindeer, primitive horses, and other
animals, colored in shades of black, red, yellow, and brown, have been found in
more than a hundred Cro-Magnon caves in Spain and France, dating from about
28,000 to 10,000 B.C. Cave art rivals that of civilized artists not only
stylistically but also as an expression of significant human experience. It
represents the Paleolithic response to complete dependence on an abundance of
game animals and success in hunting them. By drawing pictures of food animals -
sometimes shown pregnant or pierced by spears and arrows - the artists may
have believed that they could wield a mystical power over the spirits of the
animals to ensure the animals' multiplication and human mastery over them.
Like the religious art of civilized peoples, the magico-religious basis of
Paleolithic art in no way detracts from its esthetic qualities as true art.
Paleolithic artists also modeled in clay and chiseled pictures on rock and
With the final retreat of the glaciers about 10,000 B.C., Europe became
covered with dense forests. Because of their highly specialized adaptation to
cold weather, the reindeer moved north while the hairy mammoth and other
animals hunted by late Paleolithic peoples became extinct. Humans, however,
adjusted to postglacial conditions by developing new cultures called
Mesolithic or Transitional. Many of these Mesolithic groups lived along the
coast, fishing and gathering shellfish. Others lived inland, where they made
bows and arrows for hunting and devised skis, sleds, and dugout canoes. Our
Mesolithic forebears also domesticated the dog.
The Neolithic Revolution
While the Mesolithic peoples of Europe were adjusting to the postglacial
environment by developing new food-gathering techniques, something of far
greater consequence - a shift from food gathering to food producing - was
taking place in the Near East (now generally called the Middle East). Here, on
the hilly flanks of the mountains bordering the Fertile Crescent there was
sufficient rainfall to nourish wild forms of wheat and barley and to provide
grass for wild sheep, goats, and pigs. By 7000 B.C., people in this region had
domesticated these grains and animals and were living in villages near their
herds and fields. (At about the same time, yams were domesticated in Southeast
Asia; and the cultivation of rice in China dates back to about 6500 B.C.) This
momentous change, the most far-reaching breakthrough in the relationship of
people to their environment, ushered in the Neolithic or New Stone Age.
One of the oldest Neolithic village sites to be excavated is jarmo in
northern Iraq. The 150 people of the village lived in twenty mud-walled
houses, reaped their grain with stone sickles, stored their food in stone
bowls, and possessed domesticated goats, sheep, and dogs. The later levels of
settlement contain evidence of domesticated pigs and clay pottery. Since many
tools were made of obsidian, a volcanic rock from beds 300 miles away, a
primitive form of commerce must have existed.
The best preserved early village so far uncovered [is] by Catal Huyuk in
southern Turkey, excavated in 1961. The large, 32-acre site, first occupied
shortly before 6000 B.C., contains some of the most advanced features of
Neolithic culture: pottery, woven textiles, mudbrick houses, shrines honoring
a mother goddess, and plastered walls decorated with murals and carved
It is generally thought that because of their earlier role as gatherers
of wild foods, women were responsible for the invention of agriculture. As
long as the ground was prepared by hoeing rather than by plowing, women
remained the cultivators. They also invented and performed the making of pots
from clay, and the spinning and weaving of textiles from cultivated flax and
The Neolithic revolution spread to the Balkan Peninsula by 5000 B.C.,
Egypt and central Europe by 4000 B.C., and Britain and northwest India by 3000
B.C. The Neolithic cultures of Middle America and the Andes are independent
developments, and a possible relationship between China and the Near East is
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