The Foundation of Civilization
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.