The First Civilizations

Ten thousand years ago, the physical shape of the world was much what it is today. The outlines of the continents were broadly those we know and the major natural barriers and channels of communication have remained constant ever since. By comparison with the upheavals of the hundreds of millennia preceding the end of the last Ice Age, climate, too, was from this time stable; from this point the historian need only regard its short-term fluctuations. Ahead there lay the age (in which we still live) in which most change was going to be man-made.

Civilization has been one of the great accelerators of such change. It began at least seven times according to one historian, meaning by that that he could distinguish at least seven occasions on which particular mixes of human skills and natural facts came together to make possible a new order of life based on the exploitation of nature. Though all these beginnings fell within a span of three thousand years or so - barely a moment by comparison with the vast scale of prehistory - they were neither simultaneous, nor equally successful. They turned out very differently, some of them racing ahead to lasting achievements while others declined or disappeared, even if after spectacular flowerings. Yet all of them signified an increase in the rate and scale of change dramatic by comparison with anything achieved in earlier times.

Some of these early civilizations are still real foundations of our own world. Some of them, on the other hand, now exercise little or no influence, except perhaps upon our imaginations and emotions when we contemplate the relics which are all that is now left of them. None the less, together they determined much of the cultural map of the world down to this day because of the power of the traditions which sprang from them even when their achievements in ideas, social organization or technology had long been forgotten. The establishment of the first civilizations took place between about 3500 BC and 500 BC and provides the first of the major chronological divisions of world history.

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