The Elements of Evolution – Early Civilizations

Early Civilizations

Agriculture radically modified the habitat. In the arid regions of the Levant where crops were first grown, irrigation facilitated cultivation, reaping surplus food. This allowed higher population densities, labor diversification, trading economies, polity, accumulative culture, ideologies, and depersonalized systems of knowledge, including writing.

Ingrained territoriality birthed property regimes. Whereas foragers had no need for forced labor, those who sought wealth did. Morality evolved to succor materialism and rationalize exploitation, including slavery.

The transition from settlements to political city-states took many millennia. Fertile Crescent homesteads of foragers and craft workers date to at least 12 TYA. The earliest evidence of state authority is 8 thousand years later. In Europe, most peoples were not imposed upon by states until the end of the 15th century.

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Warfare is ultimately not a denial of the human capacity for social cooperation, but merely the most destructive expression of it. ~ English anthropologist Lawrence Keeley

War drove human social evolution. Societies evolved from small tribes which integrated by face-to-face cooperation; their cohesiveness reinforced by the need to further consolidate and defend local resources.

Settlements initially arose on the most fertile lands. Even early on, driven by the social psychology that possession inherently indicated utility, these areas were coveted by others.

As humans settled down, then war becomes more dominant and present. ~ Finnish sociologist Patrik Söderberg

Aggressive competition among tribes grew in scale. This ushered enhanced social specialization and political organization, whereby society layered into a hierarchy.

The minority marshaling the forces of defense and aggression were in position to enforce the invariable inequalities that arose. Ambition and greed are the two sides of the same coin, as economics and politics still demonstrate. Civilization was founded (and still runs) upon the principle that might makes right.

Plutocracies invariably arose in all early civilizations. Socially, obdurate socioeconomic stratification defined early civilization as much as it does in the post-industrial world today. Some things never change.


The Sumer civilization in southern Mesopotamia – in the delta between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – started around 5000 bce. The earliest settlers drained the marshes for agricultural land. They started industries, including weaving, leather work, masonry, metal work, and pottery, and developed trade.

Southern Mesopotamia is an odd spot for civilization to be cradled. The flat, river-made land of Sumer had no minerals, no stone. Typical summer temperature was 40 °C, often climbing to 50 °C. Annual rainfall averaged 150 mm, and it was bone dry for 8 months of the year. Winter nights are shivering cold. Strong north winds deliver squally rainstorms. The melting snows of spring bring flash floods, which in bad years sweep everything away.

But the alluvial soil was rich. There was timber. Nearby was a great primeval forest, stocked with sturdy cedar.

The forest was felled as quickly as it could be, though that took 2 millennia, so great was the abundance. Thanks to such careless disregard for Nature, future generations were to inhabit a forbidding place.

The key to Sumer civilization came in water delivery. Sumer cities were the first to practice year-round intensive cultivation, with organized irrigation, mono-cropping, and specialized labor. The emergence of greater social organization was driven by the need for large public works to overcome the climactic challenge, and to exploit in an unsustainable way the agricultural potential. Like countless civilizations since, Sumer was bound to fail.

Inequality powered the Neolithic Revolution, which Mesopotamia and Sumer exemplified. However savage hunter-gathers had been to outsiders they were relatively egalitarian in sharing their bounty within the tribe.

Control of irrigation in Sumer created labor classes. Those in control of water profited from those who were not.

Sexual inequality took root with agrarian society. Men made women do much of the arduous work. While this may not have been much of a change from hunter-gatherers, settlements settled exploitative inequity as an acceptable norm. Religions helped in this regard.

By 3,500 bce Sumer was carved into a dozen city-states, divided by canals and boundary stones. Each was administered by a priestly governor or king, ruling under the aegis of a patron god or goddess of the city. Religion was ever the handmaiden of politics.


Sumer was exemplary of nascent regimes where decisions made in isolation affected the lives of people thou-sands of kilometers distant. By virtue of personal connection and influence, this invariably led to concentration of wealth and political power. In a larger historical frame, this pattern has only been sporadically broken by revolt of a sorely oppressed populace before again reforming into another hierarchy.

These revolutions only proved that such stratification was an inevitable consequence of civilization as structured, as it invariably emerged again, albeit with a different ruling clique. The established culture of materialism made this ineluctable.


The key to inequality lies in worldly goods. Nothing in the development of human society appears more significant than this ascription of meaning and value; first associated with things, but came also to be associated with people, so that a relationship developed between high value among goods and high rank among people. In the creation of inequality, nothing succeeds like success. ~ English archeologist Colin Renfrew

Materialism originated with crafts of skill. Accomplishment prompted a sense of ownership. A million years ago an adept Homo erectus hung on to some of the flaked stone hand axes he made, bartering others, even if only for social standing.

With the onset of trade came a clearer conceptualization of material goods having fungible value. This faith was furthered as sedentism set in. As soon as a parcel of land became property it became heritable. Real estate became the foundation of wealth inequality.

Inequality arose before agriculture. The Natufians lived in settlements in the Levant 15–12 TYA. The bounty of food resources was abundant, at least early on: wild game, fruits, nuts, and wild cereals. Surpluses were hoarded by the ambitious.

Those surpluses could allow people to begin manipulating things, giving away food and so establishing some dominance behaviors. ~ American archeologist Douglas Price

An ancient village on Keatley Creek in northwest Canada was occupied by up to 1,500 hunter-gatherers 2.5–1.1 TYA. An ambitious few claimed possession to the richest salmon runs and fenced land where deer could be trapped. Lower-status families had to fish from public areas. Some of the surpluses were shared, to foster inequality while quelling rebellion against confiscatory practices. The valuable spots were passed from one generation to the next. Possession became ownership. Similarly, farming allowed those who claimed the most fertile acreage to gain material and social advantage.

The seeds of inequality were sown back in the Neolithic with heritable property. After that, there was no looking back: through the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Industrial era, wealth inequality increased. ~English anthropologist & archeologist Alexander Bentley

Social stratification became a matter of social connection, which was primarily a product of possessions. By the onset of agricultural settlements, material assets were correlated with social rank.

If the multitudes scatter and cannot be retained, the city-state will become a mound of ruins. ~ early Chinese manual of governance

Along with the materialist mindset came valuing people as commodities. Tribal conflicts over real estate made subjugation a norm. From this slavery was a small step.

Slavery was not invented by the state. Various forms of enslavement, individual and communal, were widely practiced among nonstate peoples. ~ James Scott

War helped to a great discovery – that men as well as animals can be domesticated. Instead of killing a defeated enemy, he might be enslaved; in return for his life he might be made to work. By early historic times slavery was a foundation of ancient industry and a potent instrument in the accumulation of capital. ~ Australian archeologist Gordon Childe

By the rise of the Romans, a yawning gulf separated rich from poor. Inequality during the Roman Empire rivaled that of the United States in the 2010s. Roman slaves that had to be fed were replaced millennia later by underpaid wage slaves working at fast-food outlets.

The basic precepts of materialism are now so imbued that it is considered the natural order: that certain individuals and groups should have exploitative dominion over natural resources to the exclusion of others. Even for socialists the only issue is about who is divvying up the spoils.

The human experience has been that materialism not only impoverishes the many for a few, it also ensures environmental destruction. The only possible stop – polity – is invariably corrupted into a conservative plutocracy. Such is the continuity of human history until its ignoble terminus.


That the nexus between cosmic order and sanctified power had a convincing reality in many early state societies cannot be doubted. ~ Colin Renfrew

One’s insignificance is most poignant with a lingering gaze at the night sky, teeming with twinkling light; though the sight of a range of mountain peaks or endless ocean inspires similar apperception. Even the wondrous workings of Nature close at hand may inspire awe. A restlessness within yearns to comprehend one’s place in this vast cosmos.

The earliest belief of astral spirits was animism: that Nature itself in its multifold manifestation was spiritually alive. In time, animism was stirred with a more emotively potent brew. Shamanic beliefs were an extension of animism. In shamanism, a shaman may act as an intermediary between earthly existence and the spirit world: driving out evil spirits, healing by mending the soul.

A tribe’s shaman was its spiritual and cultural focal point: storyteller, fortune teller, healer, mediator, psychopomp (soul guide). Owing to superior social skills and a cultivated mystique the earliest shamans were women.

Awe of natural forces is primordial. Its basest internalization is fear; but then, fear is the basest emotion.

Fear played a larger part in human life as materialism took hold. Early humans could not be impoverished. Only those with valued possessions to which social status was linked could suffer such a fate.

As Neolithic societies stratified and men took the helm politically, spiritual myths kept pace. Gods arose.

Beginning to conquer Nature by his buildings, irrigated agriculture, and domesticated animals, man stupidly considered himself the most intelligent of all life. As such, tales of the gods were naturally like men, albeit gods were preternatural. Like men, gods could be capricious. Like men, gods could be appeased. As men led city-states and kingdoms, so too the most powerful gods were male.

According to the myths of the time, the Sun, the Moon, and the firmament was where the ultimate powers lie, affecting the dynamics on Earth. The gods were celestial spirits.

Codifying cosmic myths begat religion. Religion rose with the state, each reinforcing the other.

The sociality of the gods reflected the society which they served. The gods were fashioned to meet the practical needs of daily life. They also reflected political fashion. Reflecting civil society, the Roman gods were hierarchically organized: each god had an office, a purview of deity.

In some societies, religion progressed from polytheistic hierarchy to monotheistic simplicity. Attempted appeasement of various gods gave way to supplication to a single supreme being. This transition echoed political autocracy.

Such was the instance of Judaism, which transitioned from a vague polytheism to monotheism with the ascent of King Josiah, who took the throne of Judah ~640 bce. Josiah’s consolidation of political power included religious reform: mandating worship of the single god Yahweh, who, not incidentally, endowed Josiah with his power.

The state sanctioned specific myths and the men who related them, while religious leaders sanctified those who led the state. The ruler – whether king, emperor, or pharaoh – held a divinely-ordained role. This view persisted into the late 18th century with the idea of “the divine right of kings.”

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While the size and shape of Earth were first correctly surmised by Greek astronomer Eratosthenes in the 3rd century bce, the invention of the Galilean telescope in the 17th century opened a new chapter in astronomical knowledge, forging a schism between ancient and modern comprehension.

Each early civilization thought itself at the center of the universe, and cosmologically privileged in its relations with the forces that forged the cosmos. In city-states, every capital city claimed cosmological significance.

The cosmography of early civilizations was not only anthropocentric but also ethnocentric. ~ Canadian anthropologist Bruce Trigger

Both the Chinese and indigenous tribes in North America believed that the underworld was a realm of raw life forces, whereas the sky was inhabited by more self-controlled, intellectual powers. Contrariwise, native Mexicans viewed the underworld as a domain of death and disappearance. The common belief that supernatural forces and spirits moved between the cosmic levels engendered elaborate myths.

Inhabitants of early civilizations believed Earth and the cosmos tiny by modern standards. Earth was generally conceptualized as a flat surface, either square or circular in outline, and only a few thousand kilometers across. The land was assumed surrounded by ocean, which at its outer extremity transitioned to the lower or higher supernatural realms.

There was the widespread belief that the Sun returned from its setting in the west to its eastern rise by traveling either below the Earth or above the visible sky. This accorded with the idea that both Earth and sky were opaque bodies which rendered such celestial movements furtive.

Unsurprisingly, the east-west axis, which corresponds with the Sun’s path, was generally esteemed over a north-south axis. Entire cities in some ancient civilizations were laid out with cosmic geometry in mind.

The main interface points between the lower, middle, and upper worlds were located at their common center and 4 corners. Primary contact points were in sacred locations, including temples, which were on hallowed ground. Within this generic conceptual framework were elaborated versions of a spiritualized cosmos in various cultures and civilizations.

The cosmological models propounded by the early civilizations have striking similarities. ~ Bruce Trigger

Observations of Nature, the dilemmas of living, and social dynamics played their part in crafting religious concepts. Religion has always been an elaborate empire of the mind: an otherworldly realm buttressed by tangents with the mundane, shared with others and serving as social glue.