Teacher Guidance – Early Civilizations


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

Teacher notes are in blue.

This unit introduces the earliest civilizations to students. Please note that it will take at least two lessons to complete. The aim is to get students doing research themselves to get acquainted with this key period of world history.

Alternatively, our premium unit, Ancient Civilizations, will give students a quick panoramic overview of the topic. It can also be used as a way of wrapping up this unit and reinforcing the points covered below. The resource can be used either as a class presentation or as a resource for students to access themselves (for which they will need to be student members).


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. 

This unit 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 seeks to give practice in critical thinking skills such as interpretation, analysis and significance.


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

Follow the links through to the following regions: Europe, the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia.

If used in class, it may be best to divide students up into groups, with each group taking a specific region.

If this activity is being done as project work, allocate students only one region each (unless they have plenty of time!).


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 extract food from it?

What technologies did they use?

For the World in 3500 BC, points should include the following.

Europe: stone age farmers, small villages, hunter-gatherers, especially in northern parts

The Middle East: first cities in world history emerging in Mesopotamia and Nile Valley; development of writing; civilization

South Asia: stone age farming spreading; villages (some large); hunter-gatherers, especially in south

East Asia: stone age farming spreading; some hunter-gatherers (e.g. Japan)

In a plenary:

The point of this class discussion is to synthesis the findings of the different groups, and give students a broad understanding of what was going on in all the different regions.

From your exploration of the world in 3500 BC,

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

No great cities with millions of people, nor cars, aeroplanes, machines of any kind, electricity, TVs, computers or all the other things we take for granted in a modern society.

Far fewer people – only a few million humans across the whole planet.

Most people were farmers or hunter-gatherers (all in sub-Saharan Africa were hunter-gatherers at this time); they had only Stone Age tools (i.e. made of stone, wood, horn or bone).

But in one small part of the world, the Middle East, large communities which we call cities were emerging.

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

No; in most regions people were still living in small farming villages or hunter-gatherer bands.

Only in the Middle East were people beginning to live in cities, and to develop writing and other technologies.

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

Farming, which has created settled farming villages, allowed more food to be grown and larger populations to form.

….what critical turning point in history occurs at around the time of this map (3500 BC)?

The rise of cities, and the beginnings of literacy. This is only in one small area, but it will determine the future of the human race.

Supplementary question:

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

The Sumerians are the first people to live in cities, develop writing, organise proper states with centralised governments, and produce fine arts and crafts.

Give reasons for its rise.

Irrigation has allowed the arid land of the Euphrates and Tigris river plain to become very fertile.

This has not only allowed populations to expand enormously, it has enabled farmers to produce a surplus of food over and above their own needs.

This has led to the formation of small groups of people who need not farm for their living. These are officials, priests and soldiers, and also full-time craftsmen producing far higher quality goods than before.

The small groups of officials, priests and soldiers have imposed their rule on the rest of the population, to form a number of organised states. 

People have been concentrating together in large communities which we call cities. These are defended by walls, and at their centre stand temples, palaces and public storehouses.

The officials are beginning to develop a new technology to help them organise the rest of the people.

In sum: People were either farmers or hunter-gatherers; they had only Stone Age tools; but in one small part of the world, the Middle East, “civilization” was emerging.

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

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

Students should again divide into their groups, or focus on one region.

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

  • which states vanished, and which new ones appeared?
  • 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 from one region to another?
  • what migrations occurred?
  • what new beliefs or teachings appeared?

Suggested items might be as follows (those in bold should definitely be there):


spread of farming;

coming of Indo-European speakers as a ruling class;

trade routes cross the region and from Middle East;

rise of metallurgy – copper- and bronze-working;

Mediterranean trade with Middle East leads to emergence of civilization in the Aegean – on Crete (Minoans) and in Greece (Mycenaean);

migrations: Sea Peoples;

renewed trade in the Mediterranean;

the alphabet (Phoenicians);

iron-using technology;


emergence of Greek civilization;


cultural advance;


What remains the same since 3500 BC? Most people still earn their living from farming or hunter-gathering. 


The Middle East:

rise of earliest civilizations in world history: Sumerians of Mesopotamia, Egyptians of Nile Valley;

development of writing;

trade routes radiating out from Mesopotamia: linked to development of bronze technology;

results in spread of civilization;

Great Pyramids constructed in Egypt;

earliest empire in world history (Sargon of Akkad);

new kingdoms: Hittites, Mitanni;

Indo-European speaking peoples;

the chariot;


fall of Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, the Hittites by c. 1000 BC;

emergence of Phoenicians, Israelites;

technological and cultural advances c. 1000 BC: iron; the alphabet; monotheism (Israelites); the camel (Arabia);

trade routes in Mediterranean; across Arabian desert;

rise and fall of great multinational empires c. 900-500 BC (Assyrian, New Babylonian, Persian);

spread of trade within Middle East and with other regions.

What remains the same since 3500 BC? Most people still earn their living from farming. 


South Asia:

spread of farming around the sub-continent;

rise of the Indus Valley civilization;

earliest know sewage and drainage systems in Indus Valley cities;

a writing script;

disappearance of the Indus Valley civilization;

Indo-European-speaking peoples (Aryans) migrate into the region from central Asia;

the Vedas: at first oral poetry – early Hinduism;


spread of iron technology;

rise of urban civilization;

influences from Middle East: spread of trade routes; Sanskrit writing system;

emergence of states: kingdoms and “republics”; 


What remains the same since 3500 BC? Most people still earn their living from farming or hunter-gathering. 


East Asia:

spread of agriculture, especially rice farming, from China to Korea and then Japan; and into South East Asia;

two major migrations from southern China into South East Asia and beyond (including the ancestors of the Polynesians);

spread of trade routes around the region; and, on a smaller scale, across central Asia to the Middle East;

influences from the west: metallurgy – bronze, then (after 1000 BC) iron; chariots;

emergence of urban civilization and Chinese pictographic writing system;

the Shang dynasty, then the Zhou dynasty; 

government remains monarchical;

expansion of trade, industry and food production in China between 1000 BC and 500 BC;

spread of technologies in food production and metallurgy (bronze, later iron) from China to Korea, and later Japan;

migration from Korea to Japan;


What remains the same since 3500 BC? Most people still earn their living from farming or hunter-gathering.


So, to revisit that list above, of points to be noted:

  • Which states vanished, and which new ones appeared? – vanished included: Indus Valley states; Mitanni; Hittites; Minoans, Mycenaean; Phoenician; Israelite; Assyrian; New Babylonian. Appeared included: all the above, plus Persian Empire.
  • Did new kinds of state or governing institutions appear? Most of these early states were monarchies, but in India and the Mediterranean region republics came into existence.
  • What technological developments were there? metallurgy – copper, then bronze and later iron; writing – cuneiform (Mesopotamia), hieroglyphic (Egypt), pictographic (China) and alphabetic (Canaan); the chariot.
  • How did the major trade routes change over time, both within and between regions?  Networks of trade routes grew to span all the regions. In the Middle East they radiated out from Mesopotamia and later Egypt; in the Indian subcontinent they spread from the north; in China they linked the valleys of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, and in Europe they spread from the Middle east, along the Mediterranean and then Atlantic coasts, as well as inland from the south-east (the part of Europe nearest the Middle East). 
  • What cultural or technological exchanges were there within the region? Urban settlement and technological innovations such as in bronze work and literacy radiated out along trade routes from Mesopotamia to Canaan, Asia Minor and Iran in the Middle East; and farming and metallurgy spread out from the Yellow and Yangtze valleys in East Asia, to Korea and later Japan. 
  • What cultural or technological exchanges were there from one region to another? Central Asia gave The Middle East gave the other regions bronze technology and later iron; and it gave the alphabetic script to Europe and South Asia.
  • What migrations occurred? Two major migrations originated in southern China c. 3500 BC – the one to the southwest into South East Asia, and the other to the coasts and islands of South East Asia and then onwards into the Pacific, where it became the Polynesian migration. Indo-European speaking tribes expanded out of central Asia into Europe (to dominate groups which became ancestral to the Greeks, Italians, Celts and others), the Middle East (ancestral to the Hittites, and Mitanni and Iranians) the Indian subcontinent (the Aryans).
  • What new beliefs or teachings appeared? Judaism in Israel, Hinduism, Buddhims and Jainism in India and Confucianism in China. 

3. Class discussion:

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 individually.

What were the most dynamic regions of the world at the time? Surely the Middle East – the point of origin of city life, writing, metallurgy (both bronze and iron) and the alphabet.

What were the major civilizations of this period? My list would be Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, early China, the Minoans, the Phoenicians, the Israelites and the Greeks.

Identify key trends in world history during this long period, shaping the future. I would suggest the spread of farming; the rise of city life; the development of metallurgy; the development of writing; the spread of regional and inter-religional trade routes; and the rise of new belief systems – for example, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Judaism and Greek thought.

What has remained the same between 3500 and 500 BC? Most obviously, the vast majority of people were still illiterate farmers or hunter gatherers at the end of the period as at the beginning.