1.3 Civilization Begins

The Neolithic Revolution led to the rise of civilization. A civilization is an advanced stage of human society marked by a well-organized government and high levels of culture, science, and industry. At different times in different parts of the world, food surpluses allowed some Neolithic villages to grow into cities, the central feature of civilization.

Photo of ancient Egyptian painting showing farmer driving yoked cattle through a field.

Apply Concepts

Why was farming so crucial to the development of river valley civilizations, including those that flourished in Egypt?


  • Analyze the conditions under which the first cities and civilizations arose.
  • Outline the basic features that define civilization.
  • Understand the ways in which civilizations have changed over time.

Key Terms

  • traditional economy
  • civilization
  • steppe
  • polytheistic
  • artisan
  • pictograph
  • scribe
  • cultural diffusion
  • city-state
  • empire

The First Cities and Civilizations

River Valley Civilizations

The world's earliest civilizations developed independently in four river valleys. The civilization of Sumer rose along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Middle East. A second river valley civilization developed along the Nile River in Egypt. The Indus River in present-day Pakistan was home to the Indus Valley civilization. A fourth river valley civilization, the Shang, emerged along the Huang, or Yellow River in China.

These four river valleys offered benefits to Neolithic farmers. The soil was fertile, and the rivers provided a regular water supply as well as a means of transportation.

The animals that gathered to drink at the rivers offered a source of food. These favorable conditions helped farmers produce the food surpluses needed to support the growing populations in cities.

Other conditions in the river valleys affected farming. Floodwaters from the rivers spread silt—fine sand, soil, or other material—across the valleys. The silt renewed the soil in the river valleys, keeping it fertile. Flooding posed problems, however, to early farmers, just as it does today.

Floodwaters could destroy crops and even whole villages. People had to learn to control floodwaters and redraw boundaries washed away by the water. They also needed to take water from the rivers to irrigate crops.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments