How Did the First Cities Begin?
Before the Neolithic Period, humans led harsh lives. They lived in caves, foraging, searching for food from dawn until dusk. They hunted wild animals. Sometimes wild animals hunted them. Life was very uncertain, and humans always worried about where their food will come from next. Fortunately, somebody figured out that certain seeds could be planted, and grown, and cultivated, and harvested; and if they could do it in a more or less permanent and hospitable place, it would be much better! They would not have to search for those hard-to-find wild plants that grew near swampy and marshy lands that were so often filled with unfriendly creatures. This time they could settle down in places where it would be easier to cultivate crops.
Finally, humans learned to control their environment and to control and contain the food source. They also learned to domesticate some animals. This meant that people did not have to spend so much time hunting for food. Now they have time to do other things, other than hunting and foraging. They now have the time, and the resources, to build their first cities.
Most anthropologists and historians believe that civilization started with the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals; among other things, it allowed people to grow more than they would need. The surplus food made it possible for people to do other things than be always looking for food. Some became merchants, potters, artisans, weapon makers, carpenters, and others.
In addition, because of this surplus, it meant that population could grow. Society became more stratified as occupations became more specialized—all these made possible the creations of cities.
The word “civilization” comes from the Latin civis, which means “inhabitant of a city.” Essentially, civilization is the ability of people to live harmoniously in cities and other social groupings. Social groupings alone, however, cannot be the basis of civilization; bees, ants and other animals also live in social groups. They, too, live and work together, as do some microorganisms. Human civilization means much, much more than this. Beyond social groupings, civilization signifies the triumph of humanity’s reason over instinct, of humanity’s mastery of the environment. Hand-in-hand with the development of civilization is culture—its necessary companion. Civilization cannot flower without it.
The main characteristics of civilizations are urbanization, literacy, complex economic, political, social systems, and an advanced technology. The building of cities, the development of writing, the discovery of metallurgy—all these are indications of an advanced technology. Of course, for a civilization to develop, the land must be rich and fertile enough to support an ever-increasing population. How can a land be fertile? The presence of nearby freshwater source ensures this. It is no wonder then that Asia’s earliest civilizations grew in areas near rivers.
As civilizations arose, human evolution entered into a very different phase; before civilization, humans lived in small, family-centered groups, groups that lived no better than animals, at the mercy of the elements, controlled by the forces of nature. Now, thousands of years later, humanity lives in societies consisting of millions of people, protected from the natural environment, living inside houses, apartments, buildings, traveling in automobiles, using modern appliances and technologies unimaginable to the cave people who are our ancestors. And it all started with the cultivation of agricultural crops, like rice.
The transition to agriculture occurred around 10,000 years ago, and took place in several regions of the world. Great civilizations developed as a result. The firsts of these civilizations however occurred in Asia.