Mother Earth: From Savagery to Civilization

Welcome to post number 13 in the series we’re calling Mother Earth.

urThe ancient ziggurat at Ur

Today we’re going to be discussing the beginnings of civilization.

Civilization at its most basic is a complex society that features both agriculture and urban settlements. To have a civilization you must have both farms and cities. So let’s take a closer look at the two most important markers of civilization.



The longest and most successful form of society in human history has been that of hunters and gatherers. For the vast majority of mankind’s history, we have hunted game and gathered wild plants for our sustenance. These groups were mostly nomadic or semi-nomadic and based around kinship groups. These societies still exist in some places in the world today, and life is surprisingly good for the hunter-gatherers. A study of the Kalahari bushmen ( yes, they were the ones in The Gods Must be Crazy), found that those who still practice the traditional lifestyle have plenty of leisure time, sleep a lot, and have to work less than 20 hours a week to get enough food. They actually have it easier than many farmers in the area.

The benefits of agriculture are easy to see, however. Compared to the effort it takes to hunt and kill wild game and gather wild plants, farming is immensely more efficient. Agriculture in the sense of farming domesticated crops developed around 10,000 years ago in several locations at roughly the same time. The first farms were mostly in the Fertile Crescent, located in present day Iraq and Syria between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. The first crops were wheat, both the emmer and einkorn varieties. These were followed by six other crops, which together with wheat make up the founder crops. They are: barley, peas, lentils, chickpeas, flax, and bitter vetch.

After the development of agriculture, it began to pop up all over the place. Around 7000 BCE it showed up in Egypt, India, and the Far East. In 5,000 BCE or so, the inhabitants of the New World were planting crops like manioc in Peru and elsewhere. About the same time, we had the first animal edition of agriculture. Wild aurochs and mouflons were domesticated to become today’s cows and sheep respectively.

The efficiency of farming methods led to a new development, large scale surplus of food stocks. When you have extra food, you can start doing all sorts of things: for one thing, not everyone has to grow it. And you need to trade it, otherwise it will just rot. To trade, you need to have a place to trade. And there’s where you start to have cities


catalhoyukThe ruins of Catalhoyuk. Photo via Natural History Mag

The oldest cities appeared in the near and middle east after the development of agriculture. We aren’t really sure where exactly the very first city was. There are settlements as far back as 9000 BCE in Catalhoyuk in Turkey and Jericho in Israel, but some dispute their definition as cities. They were possibly just larger settlements, without a government or other characteristics of cities. Some other candidates for the world’s oldest city are Ur and Uruk, both in present day Iraq.

The development of cities marked a major change not just in where humans lived, but in how they lived. For the first time ever, we begin to see population density, and all the problems and progress that entails. Cities need a central government, which was usually in the form of a King. And that king controlled most of the surplus resources that agriculture allowed to exist. With his riches, he was part of the ruling class which presided over a culture with a new concept called division of labor.

Before cities, you didn’t have things like professional artisans or merchants. When you’re a hunter-gatherer you might carve something in your spare time, but try and do it all day and see how fast you die. And when you’ve barely got enough food to survive, it’s hard to say “I’ll trade you my 5 nuts for your 5 nuts” and profit. But with surplus, you can begin to trade. Obviously you don’t have the type of monetary trading system you have today, but people who did other jobs other than farming were compensated, usually with food. You’ve also got to have a system of writing if you’re going to live in a city and be a proper civilization. It’s no good recording transactions and dictates to your subjects in your head. It’s debatable, however, when writing came into existence.

It’s not all positive though. With cities you also start seeing some negative things you haven’t seen before. With a high population density disease spreads more easily. You can now have epidemics and plagues. And with a division of labor, you start getting more stratified upper and lower classes. While the chief and the poorest person in a hunter-gatherer society are not that different in terms of actual wealth, that changes with the development of cities and civilization.

As you can see, man has come a long way since it evolved out on the African plains over 100,000 years ago. What might be our next step?

Join us tomorrow for the next post in our Mother Earth series.

Join us next time on Mother Earth when we discuss the next step. The easiest way of keeping up with the rest of the series is probably by subscribing to our RSS feed… and if you do that we’ll also give you a free album! What a bargain.