The Social and Cultural Growth of Ancient River Civilizations

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The Social and Cultural Growth of Ancient River Civilizations

Mesopotamia had no natural cover and was prone to attacks from antagonistic neighboring nations / Photo by David Stanley via Flickr


Water is an important resource, especially back in the days of our ancient ancestors, who made most of their living through agriculture. It was a source of life and sustenance, which may be why so many, if not nearly all ancient civilizations came to grow next to enormous rivers.


Growing Civilizations

Many of the most successful early civilizations resided in river valleys, such as the Indian culture next to the Indus and Saraswati River, and the Olmecs near the Coatzacoalcos and San Juan. Each civilization had its own circumstances by which their people lived. These often become the precursor for the following generations of civilizations and nations that came after them. Interestingly, only one of these ancient civilizations, the Minoans of Crete, would not reside near a river.

It was possible to form cities and towns in areas that were not directly beside a part of the river, as explained in, as the regular rainfall in these areas could help sustain agriculture. However, towns in these places never grew into powerful cities, nor did towns that were culturally connected ever unify into whole nations in these areas. Civilizations always tended to form in the low-lying areas near at least one river.

Agriculture back in ancient times was the single most important factor for creating a civilization / Photo by Eden, Janine and Jim via Flickr


Agricultural Success

The most obvious and important reason that civilizations tended to flourish near rivers was due to the irrigation water it provided for crops and the fresh water it provided for inhabitants. Agriculture back in ancient times was the single most important factor for creating a civilization. A surplus of food allowed those with it to barter for other goods and make their lives better. More food also attracted more people, who brought with them their own sets of skills and specialties.

Of course, it also worked the other way around. The increase in the population around these rivers created the demand for more agricultural innovation to keep up. Especially in times of great migration, such as when the Sahara dried up and people from those areas needed to seek homes near the Nile, development was needed to deal with the influx of people.

The result was the creation of complex human societies that continued to grow through the increase of the population and the improvement of infrastructure and trading. In fact, many of the river civilizations were developed from the ground up, with no preceding civilization to borrow from.


The Spread of Knowledge and Trade

Another reason was that the rivers facilitated and encouraged trade through the waterways to other civilizations up or down the river. This allowed traders to acquire new knowledge, such as better technology and agricultural practices like irrigation canals, for example. This knowledge was then put to its best use in these expanding areas, especially to maximize the potential of the rivers.

They were also able to share their own knowledge with people from other lands. Some of the most important inventions propagated through trading that were created by these civilizations were calendars, the alphabet, the concept of divisions of time, and even the wheel.


Ancient River Civilizations

The civilizations of Egypt were founded next to the Nile River. Egypt itself was greatly protected in this location. Aside from that, the Nile River flooded at around the same time each year, which naturally fertilized the lands and allowed for abundant crops. In fact, the Nile was so important to the Egyptians that their calendar was centered around the seasons when the waters flooded, and they had gods dedicated to the Nile itself.

Though Mesopotamia was settled near two rivers, this did not turn out great in their favor.  Both Rivers would flood frequently and violently. Due to this, their culture developed a pessimistic view of life and the gods, which was in stark contrast to the optimistic views of the Egyptians. Unlike Egypt, Mesopotamia had no natural cover and was prone to attacks from antagonistic neighboring nations. The civilization itself was made up of independently operating city-states that were weak individually, thus they were constantly invaded, according to History

Despite these difficulties, however, many of the cities were still able to grow in abundance and wealth due to the extensive trade offered by the river. These individual city-states were also able to work together to develop and create the irrigation canals that would prevent major flooding. The creation of the Code of Hammurabi also helped unify the empire.

The Shang Dynasty of China resided near the Yellow River. The name of the Middle Kingdom, as it was called by its subjects, came to be due to the geographical isolation of the civilization that caused limited contact with other nations, which created an ethnocentric outlook in their people. Due to the fertility of the land from the river, irrigation systems were unneeded to allow agriculture to flourish.

It was the improvement of technology and bureaucracy in these river settlements that eventually led to our way of living today.



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