Premium teachers supplementary guidance – Early Civilizations

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

This Premium guide suggests points students should be covering in their responses to questions.

1. Activity

1.1. The world in 3500 BCE

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:

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

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

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).

[You could stress here that there were far fewer people – only a few million humans across the whole planet. Humans simply could not produce enough food to feed more.]

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 large settlements which we call 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 BCE)?

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 questions:

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

The Sumerians are the first people to live in cities, develop writing, organize proper states with centralized 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 organized states. 
  • People have been concentrating together in large communities which we call cities. These are defended by walls, and at their center stand temples, palaces and public storehouses.
  • The officials are beginning to develop a new technology to help them organize 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?


1.2. 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, 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?

Using the above points as a check list, distill your 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. Aim to make the presentation 5-10 minutes in length.

Suggested points for inclusion 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 BCE?
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 BCE;

Emergence of Phoenicians, Israelites;

Technological and cultural advances c. 1000 BCE: 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 BCE (Assyrian, New Babylonian, Persian);

Spread of trade within Middle East and with other regions.

What remains the same since 3500 BCE?
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 BCE?
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 BCE) 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 BCE and 500 BCE;

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 BCE?
Most people still earn their living from farming. 

2. Presentations and follow-up

Did new kinds of state or governing institutions appear?

Most of these early states were monarchies, but in the Mediterranean region (notably the Greeks) and perhaps in India, republics came into existence sometime before 500 BCE.

What major technological developments were there? 

  • Metallurgy – first 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? 

 Trade networks appeared within 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;
  • 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).
  • Long-distance trade routes also began to link some regions together 
    • The Middle East and Europe (as we have seen above) were linked by a land route going up Asia Minor into SW Europe, and by a sea route along the coast of the Mediterranean. 
    • The Middle East and South Asia were also linked by two routes, a land route across Iran into NW India, and a sea route along the coast of the Indian Ocean between the Gulf and the west coast of India. 
    • The Middle East and East Asia were linked by a trade route across central Asia which involved many small-scale, local exchanges rather then merchants carrying their goods from west to east (or vice versa).  

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

  • 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. 
  • Bronze, and later iron working spread throughout Europe.
  • Farming expanded southwards through South Asia.
  • Farming and metallurgy spread out from the Yellow and Yangtze valleys in East Asia, to Korea and later Japan. 

   –  between regions? 

  • The Middle East gave the other regions bronze technology and later iron; and it gave the alphabetic script to Europe and South Asia.
  • Central Asia gave the domesticated horse and the chariot to all the other regions; it also acted as a conduit for cultural and technological exchange between the Middle East and East Asia.

What major migrations occurred? 

  • Two major migrations originated in southern China c. 3500 BCE – 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) and the Indian subcontinent (the Aryans).
  • On a smaller, but perhaps more violent scale, the upheavals at the end of the second millennium BCE were probably caused by a migration of peoples (Peoples of the Sea) eastward across the Mediterranean; the Philistines were a result of this.
  • There were regular migrations of pastoral groups into the settled farming lands of Mesopotamia (in fact this was probably a continual process, but sometimes became a surge which disrupted settled life over a wide area).

What new beliefs or teachings appeared? 

  • Judaism in Israel
  • Buddhism and Jainism in India
  • Confucianism in China. 

3. Class discussion

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; 
  • 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 BCE?

Most obviously, the vast majority of people were still illiterate farmers or hunter gatherers at the end of the period, as at the beginning.