Ancient Civilizations: River Valleys

Figure 1.--Egypt was not the first society to develop agriculture and civilization. It is perhaps the most famous of the four early river valley civilizations, pecause of the pyramids, tombs, and mummies have fascinated the public. Most of the royal tombs were plundered before archeologists found them. An exception was the tomb of the boy king Tutankamen.

We have collected some information on the history and clothing technology of several important early civilaztion. The first major civilizations arose along fertile river vallies which supported the first major agriculture systems. Conditions in river valleys profuced extrodinary yields even with primative technology. Agriculture would take longer to develop in areas where agriculture was dependant on rainfall. River valley agriculture could produce high yields with low technology. The rivers provided not only water, but also spring floods fertilized the fields. And the rivers also provided a means of transport. Thus the first true civilizations all appeared in river valleys. Actual information on boys' clothing is extremely limited, but we will add what ever information becomes available. For the first time in history we know a great deal about these people because they invented writing and left a fascinating written record of their civilitaions. Writing was developed here because records were needed to account for the wealth created by productive agriculture. The first true civilization was Mesopotamia which appears to have influenced both Egypt and abchient India. China appears to have developed independently of the other three civilizations.

Four River Valley Civilizations

There were four great river valley civilizations. The first was Mesopotamia which developed on the basis of wheat and barley civilization in the Tygrus and Euphrates valleys. This basic agricultural sysytem was subsequently adopted by the Eyptins in the Nile Valley and th Harapan people in the Indus Valley. This occurred because these peoples were in contact with each other, at least after the invention of agriculture and civilization in Mesopotamia. Somewhat later civilization developed in China based on rice agriculture, entirely independntly. This first occured along the Yellow River, but ubsequently spread to the south along the Yellow River. These two rivers valleys and the area between then gave rise to the concpt of the Middle Kingdom. These civilizations had both similarities and differences. While these civilizations declined in the 1st century BC, some of these differences impactd subsequent civilizations and major historical devlopmnts.

Mesopotamia: Tigris Euphrates Rivers

The Neolithic Revolution and civilization first appeared in Mesopotamia. Historians believe that settlement of the Fertle Cressent creaetd by the Tigris Euphrates Rivers began about 7000 BC. Several important civilizations developed in the Fertile Cressent. The generic name for the cultures of Fertile Cresent is Mesopotamia. The first major civilization was the Sumerians who devloped a loose coaltion of independent city states. Their civilization was concentrated in the marshy south where a thriving civilization emerged about 3500 BC. Summerians developed the pottery wheel from which they mad clay untensils. They also developed an early lunar calendar and advanced mathematics. An inovative irrigation system permitted the first intesive cultivation of the Tigris Euphrates. The Summerians also developed the first primitive writing, cuniform writing first used for commercial records, but evolving into literature such as poetry. The Summerians with their advanced agricuture were able to support the first first urban centers. The first city appears to be Ur. It apparent was fom Ur that Biblical Patiarch left to find Canaan. The Amorite King Hammurabi unified the Sumerian city states. He is know or enacting the fist written legal code. The Amorites and other war-like people from the hearding socities of the north blended blended with agraian Sumerian civilization. Babylon developed as the most important city of the region. Babylon was destroyed by the Assyrians, another war-lik northern peolpe, in 669 BC. Nebuhadnezzar II rebuiltBabylon as the worlds most beautiful and advanced city. It was the sit of the Hanging Gardens and Tower of Babel. Babylon was conquered by Alexader the Great in 331 BC who then set out to Hellanize it. The Persians after defeating Roman armies led by Anthony, conquered Mesopotamia in 64 AD.

Egypt: The Nile River

Clothing in ancient Egypt was almost always linen which is made from flax. Clothes were made of linen because flax was the only plant growing in Egypt that was used for clothing. The actual weaving of linen fabric was done on a loom, usually by women. Textile manufacture and dressmaking were actually the only areas of the economy that remained predominantly in female hands. White linen needed constant washing. It was washed in the river or canal, rinsed, then pounded on a stone, and, bleached in the sun. Linen clothes needed to be repleated every time they were washed. Important Egyptians were often depicted with pleated skirts. Only high status individuals had pleated clothes because the pleating process involved so much labor. Pleating required pressing the linen into grooves on a wooden board and letting it dry. The most interesting feature of Egyptian clothes is that styles changed so little over the long sweep of Egyptian history. Since there were no new styles, Egyptians took great pride in keeping themselves and their garments immaculately clean. Of course clothing is affected by climate. The warm weather in Egypt meant that ancient Egyptians wore little or no clothes at all. If they did wear clothes they were very thin and light. Even in Egypt, however, it could be cool at night during the winter. The basic garments worn by men was a loincloth or a shenti. A shenti was a kilt-like piece of linen fabric tied around the waist and kept in place by a girdle. While poor Egyptians had a simple shenti, the wealthy had shentis pleated and decorated with gold thread. Women might wear a simple shift for women. Many low status individuals, like slaves and children, did not wear any clothes at all. Children might wear earrings or protective amulets. In general, shoes were not worn. Egyptian children in the summer usually went around without any clothing at all. During the winter the children might be wrapped in cloaks and other wraps. One interesting aspect of Egyptian clothing is how little fashions changed over very long periods of time.

India: The Indus River

Ancient India is less well studied than the other great cradles of civilization. Settlement of the Indus Valley is believed to have begun before 4000 BC. Archeologists have divided the history of ancient India into three principal eras. The early Indus River civilization dominated India for a millenium (3000-1500 BC). This civilization was notable for planned cities which had straight streets. Cotton is known to have been grown in India as early as 3,000 BC, but was almost ceratinly grown much earlier. Ancient Indians are known to have worn brightly colored clothes. Ancient India was conquered by the Aryans about 1500 BC by the Aryans, a nomadic people from from Central Asia. They entered the Indus Valley through the Khyber pass--the traditional invasion route into the Southern Asian sub-continent. As in so many cases, the Aryans were a war-like hearing people that conquuered a more sophisticated settled agaraian civilization. The Aryans employed chariots and engaged in constant warfare. They did not have sophisticated governmental structures and were instead still organized in tribal clans and warrior chiefs called rajas. They left few structures that archeologists could study. They did leave a rich setof stories at first sng and told orally. The principal Aryan beliefs as well as descriptions of daily life were set down in the Vedic Scriptures, a collection of poems and sacred hymns, about 1500 BC. Veda meant simply knowledge and include four parts: the Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas. The ancient warriors caste, the Kashtriya, are described in the Vedic scriptures. The Aryan dominance gave way with the age of empire which began about 500 BC. There were numerous empires in different regions of India. The greatest of these empires was the Gupta Empire (320 AD to about 500 AD). The Gupta Empire existed at about the same time as the final yearsof the Roman Empire in the the West. The Gupta Empire controlled northern India. The Gupta Empire brought law and order to northern India. Elephants were incorporated into the imperial army. Some call the Gupta period, the "Golden Age" of ancient India. There was religious freedom and the Empire promoted education, literature and art.

China: Yellow River

China is one of the oldest civilizations on earth. Civilization appeared in China about 3000 BC in the Yellow River valley. The early emperors are legendary figures. The founder of Chinese social order was Fu Hsi. Organized agriculture appears about 2737 BC under Shen Nung. Many of the invention of Chinese cultural life occur under the Yellow Emperors (2704-2585 BC) which many scholars consider the golden age of China. They were followed by the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC) who are remembered for their cruelty. They were followed by the Chou Dynasty which is regarded as the classical period of Chinese history. Agriculture became universal and the arts florished. The great sages including Confucius, Lao-tse, Mencius, and Mo Ti appeared. The feudal system developed in China at this time. Despite the humanitarian doctrines of these sages, a devestaing series of feudal wars marched the last years of the Chou. They were replaced by the Ch'in Dynasty. The Ch'in restored order, abolished the feydal system, and drove Hun Tartars back into the Asiatic desert. They also began construction of the Great Wall. The Empire was exte nded south of the Yangtze valley. Shih Huang Ti is sometimes regaded as the "First Emperor". To symbolize a break with the past, Shih ordered the burning of all but practical books on medicine and agriculture--for which he is generally held in repriach by Chinese scholars. The first Han emperor seized power about 202 BC. The Han were the last emperors of Ancient China and ruled until 220 AD. The Mongul hordees were again driven back to Centtal Asia and Mongolia was added to thee Empire. Overland trade routes, chiefly in silks, were established with the West. Competitive examinations in the civil service were adopted. Chinese writing was standarized and printing invented. Buddhism was introduced from India, the first major foreign influence on China. We know little about historic Chinese clothing worn in the societies of ancient China at this time, but we eventually hope to add such information to HBC. Almost as old as Chinese civilization itself is the history of silk--the oldest textile fabric known to man. We note that the fine clothes worn by the elite often had magnificent embroidery with important imagery. One of the most important images was the drag on which came to symbolize the unity of the Chinese people.

Exception: Meso-America

Civilization first arose from agriculture in one area that was not a river valley. That was Meso-America, more specifically along the southern Gulf of Mexico where the Olmecs developed the first civilization based on corn--the thirs major domesticatd grain and agricultural system. Mow while there was not one great river valley, consditions in this area were simolar to the great river valeys. There were many small rivers in a concntrated area. The climate and rich alluvian soil was ideal for agriculture. Like thevHarapan civilization, it is unclear why the Olmec civilization declined and disappeared.


These river valley civilzations dominated world history for some five millenia. And about the same time they suddenly declined. This occured early in the first second mellenum BC and the reasons for it are not fully understood. The center of Mesoptamian society shifted from the Tyris Eurphates Valley to thevnorth with the assuruans nd east to the Persians. Egypt began to decline with the poorly understood advent of the Sea People and the evntually rise of classical Greece and Rome. The Harapan (Indus River) civilzation simply collapsed and it is not understood why. China is more complicated. The Chou Dynasty which is regarded as the classical period of Chinese history. The dynasty indured over 8 centuries. Aguculture became universal and the arts flirished. The great sages including Confucius, Lao-tse, Mencius, abd Mo Ti appeared. The feudal system developed in China at this time. Despite the humanitarian doctrines of these sages, a devestaing series of feudal wars marched the last years of the Chou. They were replaced by te Ch'in Dynasty. Here there is more continuity with subsequent civilizations than with the other great river civilizations.


James, Peter and Nick Thorpe. Ancient Inventions (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994).


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Created: December 27, 1999
Spell checked: December 1, 2001
Last updated: 6:27 PM 4/15/2017