The spread of civilization
Early civilizations were created as water storage and agricultural techniques enabled growing settled populations. But there was a new issue encountered when this many people congregated and settled in one place – dealing with their waste. No longer could it be left in the wake of nomadic perambulations, it built up around any settlement. Visit third-world countries today and this accumulation of rubbish and waste on the outskirts of towns and villages is often evident – and in some first-world places too!
Accumulating human waste and dead bodies close to a settlement soon began to affect its water supply. The simple approach was to toss it all in the river and let it do the work of carrying the ordure away downstream. But as the number of communities grew there was often another settlement downstream. The flow and tidal nature of rivers had consequences too, often it did not clear away the detritus effectively.
Sometime around the third millennium BCE, and almost simultaneously across a number of regions, these issues appears to have come to a head (pun intended). This led to a number of the early civilizations being forced to develop drainage and sewerage systems – and to develop the earliest latrines!
The first significant human civilizations emerged In Mesopotamia, the Indus region, in Egypt and in China where a ready supply of water and good soil fertility attracted and was able to sustain ever-larger settled communities.
These regions each learned that to serve a growing number of people required a large workforce to construct water management systems that could protect their crops from floods, irrigate them and create water storage systems that would serve in periods of drought. This would have started as cooperation between groups for mutual benefit with community sizes expanding as a result.
It was not always beneficial. Some settlements would be washed away by floods. Others were left water-less by changes in river courses. Droughts and crop failures would lead to hardships given the growing community expanding needs. The proximity and static nature of lots of people and their herded animals led to spread of disease.
This early living and working cheek-by-jowl also forced the evolution of social, moral and religious concepts and rules that would make for a peaceful community. The management of these settlements, often on a tribal basis, soon led to the requirement for a system of measures, for weights and counting and from that it proved to be a short step to developing forms of writing.
History features many joiners, but there were also those who did not want to compromise their way of life by living within the constraints of a community. This included those who would prefer not to work communally but instead would use force to steal the fruit of others’ labour. Thus (as we saw) settlements needed to defend themselves from outsiders and invaders and this gave a military dimension to their organisation. Some settlements would covet nearby communities and militarily set out to control or conquer them. This had a useful side-effect in that those they defeated could then be put to work as slaves, providing a low-cost labour resource for the vital water management and agricultural schemes.
This expanded community prosperity later permitted an artisan class to emerge, individuals permitted the luxury of time to develop arts and crafts. This in turn prompted a movement towards aesthetic appreciation of colour and form that was then used in decorating the architecture and artefacts.
Successful settlements with their distinct religions and charismatic leaders would grow a sense of territorial ownership, success militarily would lead to expansionism and their artisans would develop a ‘brand’ as the focus for their distinct identity as a people.
These early civilizations are interesting as pioneers of the developments in our subject area.
Progress with harnessing water and with sanitation began very early but in a number of locations and to some extent simultaneously.