Teacher Guidance – Early Civilizations

The river valley civilizations and their offshoots, 3500 BCE to 500 BCE

This unit introduces the earliest civilizations to students. The aim is to get students acquainted with this key period of world history by researching it themselves, using the Timemap of World History. Please note that it will take at least three, probably four lessons to complete.

If you do not have this time available, a speedier overview of the period is provided by our Premium unit, Ancient Civilizations. This can also be used as a way of wrapping up the unit and reinforcing the points covered below.

Accompanying this teachers’s guidance are:

  • Student worksheet, with instructions for students, and
  • Premium supplement, offering guidance to teachers as to what the website will enable students to cover in their responses.


This unit aims to introduce students to the early civilizations of the Ancient World; to encourage them to compare and contrast different regions and periods in ancient history; to help them understand what developments took place over time. 

It addresses

  • chronology,
  • change and continuity,
  • cause and consequence,
  • similarity and difference,
  • connections and linkages.

It looks at the role of geography and the environment in shaping human society, and asks students to look at technological developments, as well as developments in governmental, economic and belief systems. The unit gives practice in critical thinking skills such as interpretation, analysis and significance.

1. Activity

If used in class, it may be best to divide students into groups, with each group taking a specific region. Only if you’ve got time should each group look at all four regions.

If this activity is being done as project work, unless they have sufficient time, allocate students only one region each.

Students should have the Student Worksheet open on their computers (if you have not printed them), and/or the TimeMaps website home page open in a separate window or tab.

1. Go to the map of the world in 3500 BCE.

To do this, they either follow the above link (open in a new tab or window), or they go to the Atlas (on the main menu at the top of the page) and use the “TimeMaps by Region” column to find the entry “World”. Select the appropriate date.

Follow the in-map links through to the following regions: Europe, the Middle East, South Asia or East Asia.


What’s going on in this region? How did different peoples live in their environment:

  • what communities and houses did they live in?
  • how did they gain their food?
  • what technologies did they use?

As a rough guide, this task should take only 10 to 15 mins, with the discussion afterwards taking the rest of the lesson.

In a plenary:

The point of this class discussion is to synthesize the findings of the different groups, and give students a broad understanding of what the world was like at the very beginnings of world history. (World history is here defined in its traditional sense, as “written” history: i.e. that part of the human story which occurred after the development of writing. This distinguishes it from pre-history.)

From their exploration of the world in 3500 BCE, the class looks at the following questions:

What was the world like? How was it different from ours?

Are they all at the same stage of development? If not, which is the most advanced, technologically? – politically?

What major change has affected the way humans relate to their environment over the previous few thousand years?

What critical turning point in history occurs at around the time of this map (3500 BCE)?

Supplementary question:

Why do we call the Sumerians the “first civilization” ?

Give reasons for its rise.

This might be a good moment to discuss with students the whole notion of what “civilization” means. You might find it useful to read the Timemaps article, What is Civilization?

2. Now move forward 1000 years to the next map, dated 2500 BCE, and then to 1500 BCE, 1000 BCE and finally 500 BCE.

Students should again divide into their groups, or focus on one region. This task should take up a whole lesson.

For the period covered by these maps, they note what key changes occur, including…

  • did new kinds of state or governing institutions appear?
  • what technological developments were there, and when?
  • how did the major trade routes change over time, both within and between regions?
  • what cultural or technological exchanges were there within the region?
  • what cultural or technological exchanges were there between regions?
  • what migrations occurred?
  • what new beliefs or teachings appeared?

Students should mainly use the regional maps and information, but feel free to follow the in-map links to the countries in the region, if you wish. These will give you more details.

Using the above points as a check list, they distill their notes into a concise presentation for the rest of the class. This could be by way of a PowerPoint or other presentation tool, or a simple talk. The presentation should be 5-10 minutes in length.

2. Presentations and follow-up

One or more members of each group present the group’s findings to the whole class. 

After this, a whole class session covers the following points – a task to take you to the end of the lesson and perhaps into the next lesson.

Did new kinds of state or governing institutions appear?

What major technological developments were there? 

How did the major trade routes change over time, both within and between regions?

What cultural or technological exchanges were there within regions? – between regions?

What major migrations occurred?

What new beliefs or teachings appeared?

3. Class discussion

This should complete the unit. Take as long or as short a time as you have budgeted for. If you do not have much time, focus on the third question, key trends.

To start this final stage of the unit, you might like to run through the premium unit, Ancient Civilizations. This will give students a quick panoramic overview of the topic and remind them of the key features. 

Alternatively, they could access this unit themselves, and answer the questions below in groups or as individuals.

  • What were the most dynamic regions of the world at the time?
  • What were the major civilizations of this period?
  • Identify key trends in world history during this long period, shaping the future.
  • What has remained the same between 3500 and 500 BCE?

Wrap up and reinforcement:

If you’ve not done this above, you may like to run through the premium unit presentation, Ancient Civilizations, with the class.