Why is Mesopotamia called the cradle of civilization?

1979 excavation of Babylon, one of the ancient cities of Mesopotamia.
1979 excavation of Babylon, one of the ancient cities of Mesopotamia.
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Situa­ted in a vast expanse of delta between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, Mesopotamia was the wellspring from which modern societies emerged. Its people learned to tame the dry land and draw sustenance from it. Tanks tread there now, and companies pump oil from beneath the ancient soil. Today, much of the area lies in present-day Iraq. Were it not for the Mesopotamians, that country -- or any other -- possibly wouldn't exist, at least not in a way we would recognize.

Mesopotamia is generally credited with being the first place where civilized societies truly began to take shape. People around the world had been developing the groundwork for civilization for millennia: Agriculture was established around 8000 B.C. The domestication of animals for labor and food develop­ed simultaneously [source: Ohio State University]. People had been creating art for thousands of years already. Early laws had been established in the form of mores and folkways. All of these were parts of human culture, but not civilization. Mesopotamians refined, added to and formalized these systems, combining them to form a civilization.

­It's interesting to think about what might not exist had the Mesopotamians not blazed the trails they did. The choices they made, the risks they took, the energy they invested into their ideas and pursuits lead to the world we know today. Would people have thought to organize oral traditions into written collections of pages had the Mesopotamians not produced Gilgamesh, the first book in recorded history? Perhaps so, but who knows how long it would have taken if the Mesopotamians hadn't done it first?

This achievement alone is significant, but their collection of written stories is just the beginning. Read the next page to find out why else Mesopotamia is called the cradle of civilization.

The Foundation of Civilization

 The Mesopotamians placed a lot of importance on religion. This carving is actually a nail used in one of the great temples in Mesopotamia.
 The Mesopotamians placed a lot of importance on religion. This carving is actually a nail used in one of the great temples in Mesopotamia.

To understand why Mesopotamia is considered the cradle of civilization, it's important have understand exactly what civilization is. This is more difficult than you might think. Scholars still debate exactly what must be present in a culture for it to be considered a civilization.

For the most part, a group of people who live together in a single place, and have social, political, economic and religious structure qualifies as a civilization. The setting is usually a city, and the people there use technology to carry out economic activity. The fruits of this labor are divided among the population by a ruling class, which may be religious in nature, political or both. The division of goods isn't necessarily even, which leads to social classes -- the haves, the have-nots and those in the middle.

Civilization, then, is the organization of all of the systems people use to interact with one another -- whether that's to the benefit of all, as in the protection of an organized army, or to the detriment of the people, for example when a few are able to exploit the work of the masses to grow more powerful. "If culture is behavior, civilization is structure," explains scholar Matthias Tomczak.

By this definition, Mesopotamia was indeed a true civilization. Beginning around 4000 B.C., cities began to pop up between the Tigris and Euphrates. Agriculture drew the earliest people to the banks of Mesopotamia's rivers. But as they figured out how to reroute some of the water through canals, they were able to irrigate fields farther away. With a food supply capable of sustaining large numbers of people, cities began to develop.

We might imagine these early city dwellers were visionaries. But the truth is much less dramatic. Mesopotamia became a civilized powerhouse largely out of necessity. Take, for example, their writing. The Sumerians produced some of the earliest writing discovered, on baked clay tablets. These tablets captured the more mundane aspects of life, such as accounting and tax records.

This writing eventually led to phonetic writing, which uses symbols to represent sounds rather than objects. "With a phonetic system, scribes could now represent words for which there were no images … thus making possible the written expression of abstract ideas," writes historian Steven Kreis.

This is a good example of how the civilization of Mesopotamia developed. Necessity bore invention, which after refinement, lead to the organized integration of these creations -- civilization.

So now we know that the Sumerians and other Mesopotamians developed writing and literature. But not everything civilization brings to the world helps humanity. Read about more innovations -- good and bad -- on the next page.

Is Mesopotamia the Real Cradle of Civilization?

Civilization also spawned war, as is depicted in this 7th c. B.C. carving of an Assyrian invasion.
Civilization also spawned war, as is depicted in this 7th c. B.C. carving of an Assyrian invasion.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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With a sede­ntary lifestyle based on agric­ulture, spiritual practices that once were spread out became more centralized and refined, leading to organized religion. People built huge temples, and a priestly ruling class took its place high up in the power structure. After all, these were the people who knew the intentions of gods like Enlil (wind) and Utu (sun).

Organized religion also produced moral codes of conduct, which gave birth to formal laws. Legal concepts like restitution, retaliation and punishment for false accusations were streamlined.

Freedom from the necessity of foraging for food also allowed early agricultural societies to engage in other pursuits with less tangible rewards. Chief among these is science. The Babylonians are believed to be the first civilization to document time. They created minutes and seconds, and produced a calendar. This breakthrough provided the foundation for astronomy and math [Britannica].

But Mesopotamian civilization is also credited with negative innovations, like expansionism, empires, slavery and war. In 2300 B.C., the independent cities of Sumer were brought together under a single ruler. The capitol city, Ur, was invaded and leveled by another Mesopotamian group, the Elamites, just a few hundred years later. And epidemics and plagues were now viable, since, with so many people living together in a small area, they could be transmitted easily from person to person. Prior to cities and agriculture, epidemics couldn’t take hold among the hunter-gatherer bands that lived spread out and far apart.

For all the positive and negative contributions of Mesopotamian civilization, some archaeologists believe there are other groups in contention for the title of cradle of civilization.

Read about these ancient groups on the next page.

The First Civilization

If Mesopotamia wasn't the beginnings of civilization, then what was? There are several candidates.

Gonur-depe, a vast city of about 1,000 square miles located in present-day Turkmenistan, has re-emerged from a forgotten past. These people farmed, built irrigation canals and palaces, and are believed to have traded with people as far away as Egypt [source: Eurasianet].

Catal Huyuk in southern Turkey is another city that some archaeologists think may have been the true origin of civilization. This city was home to about 10,000 people who raised livestock and farmed here about 7000 B.C. They also built shrines for worship and created art [source: Stockton]. But there is no evidence of a hierarchy or a social stratification, which, unfortunately, is necessary for a civilization to exist.

If simply living in a city is the only criterion for civilization, then other groups may have the Mesopotamians beaten. But there's more to civilization than building cities, and until more evidence comes to light, Sumer, Assyria, Babylon and the other cities of Mesopotamia will stand as the groups who gave birth to civilized life.

It's difficult to say whether civilization would have developed without the work of the Mesopotamians and prior groups. Do we as humans have a natural urge to live together in large groups? It's interesting to note that people seemed to have experienced the same impulse to band together in cities around the same time in different places. But what do we make of the fact that for the first several million years of human existence, people lived together only in small wandering bands? Is civilization a natural process of human evolution? If so, what's our next step?

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Sources

  • Diamond, Jared. “The worst mistake in the history of the human race.” Discover. May 1987. http://ecr.lausd.k12.ca.us/staff/fbeerstein/Diamond,%20The%20Worst%20Mistake.doc
  • Kreis, Steven. “What is civilization?” February 28, 2006. http://www.historyguide.org/ancient/lecture1b.html
  • Kreis, Steven. “Ancient Western Asia and the civilization of Mesopotamia.” February 26, 2006. http://www.historyguide.org/ancient/lecture2b.html
  • Tomczak, Matthias. “Introduction: What is science? What is civilization?” Flinders University. 2004. http://www.es.flinders.edu.au/~mattom/science+society/lectures/lecture1.html
  • “Domestication.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition. 1990. http://hcs.osu.edu/hcs/TMI/HCS210/HortOrigins/BrDomestic.html
  • “Turkmenistan: Making a bid for cradle-of-civilization status.” EurasiaNet. May 21, 2007. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav052107_.shtml