Work on dikes and irrigation ditches had to be organized and managed. Historians think that the need for complex flood control and irrigation projects led to the rise of strong, well-organized governments, another foundation of civilization.

Civilizations in the Americas

Unlike the first civilizations in Asia and Africa, early civilizations in the Americas did not develop in river valleys. The earliest civilizations in the Western Hemisphere developed in Mexico and Central America, home to the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec civilizations. This region is sometimes called Mesoamerica.

There, Neolithic farmers cultivated corn in the fertile, humid lowlands. In many places, they worked together to fill in swamps to create more land for farming. Far to the south, the Inca civilization emerged in the highlands of Peru in South America. There, people learned to farm the steep sides of mountains.

Life Away From Cities

Away from the first cities, many people continued to hunt, gather food, or live in farming villages. On some less fertile lands or on sparse, dry grasslands called steppes, nomadic herders tended cattle, sheep, goats, or other animals. Because the lands did not have abundant water or grass, these nomads had to keep moving to find new pastures.

Features That Define Civilization

What did the early civilizations that rose in different parts of the world have in common? While cities are the central feature of civilization, historians distinguish seven other features found in most early civilizations: (1) well-organized governments, (2) complex religions, (3) job specialization, (4) social classes, (5) arts and architecture, (6) public works, and (7) writing.

Organized Governments

As cities grew, they needed to maintain a steady food supply. To produce large amounts of food and oversee irrigation projects, new forms of government rose. City governments were far more powerful than the councils of elders and local chiefs in farming villages.

At first, priests probably had the greatest power. In time, warrior kings emerged as the chief political leaders. They replaced the old councils of elders and set themselves up as hereditary rulers who passed power from father to son.

A map shows river valley civilizations.
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How did river valleys help civilizations to prosper?


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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