Mesopotamia: The First Civilization

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Candace Keener: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Keener, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there.

Candace Keener: And Jane, sadly, is still suffering from her cold.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I have to apologize.

Candace Keener: But I have faith that she's going to shake it very soon.

Jane McGrath: Um-hum.

Candace Keener: So today, we are going to go back to basics with you guys. We're not going to review all the fun definitions of things like isthmus and peninsula, but I think every now and then it's very helpful to think about terms we use very casually and consider where they came from. And the one we're going to talk about today is civilization because we're going to discuss whether or not Mesopotamia was in fact the cradle of civilization as we like to refer to it.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, a lot of people do refer to it as the cradle of civilization because it started a lot of things that we now consider part of the definition of civilization, which didn't exist beforehand.

Candace Keener: Which, if I can pipe in and be a total brownnoser, I actually have the definition of civilization from Merriam-Webster. And again, in back to basics spirit, I will read it for everyone out there. civ·i·li·za·tion a relatively high level of cultural and technological development; specifically :

the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attainedJane McGrath: Yeah, and there's a lot of arguments about what makes civilization. Obviously, if you disagree with that definition, you're not alone. There are a lot of arguments from historians and archeologists. And one archeologist, V. Gordon Childe, suggests some criteria for what makes a civilization. He says it has to be large, a concentrated population, specialized occupation, public buildings, social classes and rankings, writing, government trade over long distances, and the ability to produce and store food for a long period of time. To think about a time when this didn't exist is good for trying to wrap your mind around the beginning of civilization and what it means to have a civilization.

Candace Keener: Preciesely. And if we look at a timeline of ancient history, we can see that agricultural practices really began in 8000 b.c. and prior to this time people primarily were nomads and they travel from place to place looking for food. Whether they hunted animlas or they foraged for vegetables and plants, that was up to that particular tribe - perhaps they did both. But as far as actually being rooted and fixed to a place, it meant much more than farming. It meant that you had a cooperative society at that point, because people in your tribe had to designate who would plant what, how it would be harvested and when, and how to disseminate the bounty of your crops. And you see in this sort of cooperative society, the very beginnings of what civilization is.

Jane McGrath: Right, and they mark 8000 BC as the beginning of agriculture. Obviously, you need the technology and understanding to grow things and crops to sustain a small or large tribe. And also the domestication of animals, which I know a little bit about, actually, I actually wrote How Domestication of Animals Works, which was one of my favorite articles and exposes the dork that I am. But it's just interesting to think about all these things that the settled life offers a group - the ability to use milk and meat and have all this around you without having to forage and hunt and gather.

Candace Keener: It frees you up to do so much more with your life.

Jane McGrath: Right, like art.

Candace Keener: Like art and practicing organized religion and building a fixed structure that's going to be there for some time. And the people of the fertile crescent were actually lucky because they happened upon some indigenous crops like wheat and wild barley. And they were so plentiful that they settled there. And that is when the Mesopotamians began their civilation. It was, again, by happenstance that they found these indigenous bountiful crops, and they could actually become farmers using the land.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and it's not exactly an accident about where civilation began, because we should mention Mesopotamia actually comes from the Greek for between two rivers. And it was a very fertile place, even though not all of the area got a lot of rainfall, the soil was very fertile.

Candace Keener: From the Tigris and Euphrates.

Jane McGrath: Right. The Tigris and Euphrates. I'm sorry, we should mention that. And although originally civilization started very near these rivers, once the civilization started perfecting irrigation and canals, they were able to expand this farming and agriculture much further out.

Candace Keener: And that's what so huge. Because if you take up a farming plot near very fertile land, you can feed your tribe - sure. But once the people of Mesopotamia perfected the idea of irrigation and building canals, they were able to experience a huge boom in population. And so, instead of having one very concentrated group of people in a specific area, they were able to grow to the surrounding parts.

Jane McGrath: Which could sustain and provide food for a city.

Candace Keener: Exactly.

Jane McGrath: So not everyone needed to be a farmer, for instance. Cities is one of the huge things that comes into the definition of what makes a civilization. A lot of people think that you have to have cities in order to be civilization. Obviously, these were the first. So to think about it, this civilization of the Mesopotamians flourished before the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans. It was the predecessor to all of these. But also, we should distinguish this kind of civilization from those in that it wasn't very unified. The Mesopotamians were usually city states, cities that lived independently. They had their own structure. They weren't ruled by anything bigger than them, unlike the Egyptians and the Romans. It wasn't very unified at this point. And it consisted of many languages and cultures, as well. Out of the Mesopotamians came so many innovations and things that also came to help what civilization meant and sustain the civilization in general.

Candace Keener: And like we've mentioned before, there were basic differences between nomadic tribes that had a sense of culture, those who created cave drawings or those who we have relics from that showed they obviously worshiped some sort of god because they fashioned things in that shape or form to allude to that fact. But as far as being rooted in place, the Mesopotamians were able to start building temples and started an organized religion around their faith. So we see all these sturdy and cool zurot structures throughout Mesopotamia and Babylon. And we can tell that they had organized religion. We know that they developed cuneiform, and then later a type of phonetic writing. We have records to show that they did things like accounting and they kept track of their finances. And it's indicators like these that show these people weren't going anywhere. They were very much settled in a spot. Like, you wouldn't pay rent if you were a bum who was just going to abandon town. If you were going to be living in a place for awhile, you pay rent. You pay your electricity bills and you probably keep a tally in your checkbook of where this money goes to.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and accounting was one of the most important things that our earliest records of known writing has to do with accounting - obviously, out of necessity. But in addition to that, out of that came writing that was more literary. They actually had epic stories and poetry even, which formed - part of the first book was actually in Gilgamesh, which is an epic story about a Sumarian king's quest for immortality. They also had, relating to religion, a story very like the Noah and the Ark story of the great flood. Obviously writing is very connected to religion, but these are both things that, once they got formalized, were the first of their kind of civilization.

Candace Keener: And so along with the idea of law and society comes written codes. And you'll probably remember the podcast we did about the code of Hammurobi and some important themes from Hammurobi's coe are pretty evident in the Mesopotamian settlements, too. The ideas of restititution and retaliation and justice, punishment for doing wrong to your neighbors. And this shows that, again, this is a cooperative society. And in addition to living lawfully and living spiritually, they also created their own system of time. They had a calendar. They did mathematics, by which they kept their tax records and accounting.

Jane McGrath: Time is really interesting, because they started a system that we still use today, and that is based on the number 60. We have 60 seconds, 60 minutes, and an hour. And so to think that has existed to this day is astounding. They also came up with the idea of dividing a circle into 360 degrees. So you definitely see the foundings of science in this civilization.

Candace Keener: Precisely. But again, there's a dark side to this massive technological advancement, too. And that's the idea that if you have power and you have leisure time afforded you by living in a place and having a very fixed system of farming and domestication of animals and different trades around town, you get the idea that you can go out and conquer other territories that may be close by. And that perhaps your civilation is superior - and so we see evidence of impericism in ancient Mesopotamia, which people going out and expanding their empire and engaging in wars. And they even instilled systems of slavery in their society.

Jane McGrath: That's right. You have the first empire coming out of this time. At least in the third millinium BC, the city states - which were often battling each other at this point - were taken over and unified by the Alkeds, who built the first empire known to humanity.

Candace Keener: And if you remember the podcast we did about the terra cotta army and the first emperor of China, you know that amassing great wealth, power, and land is as much of a curse as it is a blessing, because - for instance, in 2300 BC Sumer was unified under one ruler. Before it had been multiple cities and was brought together. And with unification, I think, comes a great deal of hostility sometimes. People can balk at the idea of their own culture being subjugated for another culture coming in.

Jane McGrath: And you have this idea that one race is better than another race because you have the idea that slavery is welcoming out of this. It should be mentioned that they had a particular class system where, as one of the archeologists I mentioned - that's one the criteria - they had an upper class with nobles and landowners and government officials and priests and kings. And in the middle you had the merchants, the farmers, the artisans, the tradespeople - you can see middle class coming out of there. And the lowest, you had slaves. And this was the beginning of slavery as well.

Candace Keener: And classes are further designated by the fact that the ruler at the very top gets to dessiminate the goods that are produced in society. So it's very hard to move up in this type of system when you're being dictated how to live and you're given the sustenance you need to live. But many scholars would argue that, while the Mesopotamian civilization certainly did give birth to facets of civilization that we still consider important to the definition today, there are other ancient civilizations out there that could be even odler.

Jane McGrath: Historians argue that other city states and stuff should be the cradle of civilization as we refer to it today. And that existed in the about the late third or early second millinia BC. It was a vast city in now Turkmanistan, and it was about 1,000 square miles. It had canals and palaces, so you can see obviously they had a civilization there.

Candace Keener: They had an irrigation system in place, and there was even some evidence that they traded in Egypt. And then over in Turkey, in about 7,000 BC in Catal Huyuk, there's eveidence of 10,000 people living in a cooperative society farming and domesticating animals. And not unlike the city in Turkmanistan, there are also shrines here and centers for religion. So there's evidence that these people were settled in place. They were spiritual people; however, the clincher, there's really no evidenciary support that they had an organized government.

Jane McGrath: And my favorite part, I think I would rather call the Sumerians the cradle of civilization. Because I think there's evidence they invented the wheel. And it's like, "That's the ultimate invention." In addition to that, they had mass production of pottery, they brewed the first beer - that's very important to me. And they made the first glass. I think the Sumerians just made so many - I guess because their civilization actually sustained throughout the years, they have so many claims to fame. And I guess that's why most people consider them the -

Candace Keener: The cradle of civilization. And to me, it's just another argument of who gets to be first. Jane and I have talked before about who was first to America. Who invented the first car or the first assembly line? And it's a silly squabble if you ask me, because every society in history has really contributed something important, whether it's a positive contribution that we've modeled and infused with our latest technology to improve our standards today. Or it's a negative contribution that helps us use that age old maxim, "You have to learn from history it'll repeat itself." We learn not engage in certain types of warfare and discrimination. So all contributions from all people have made some sort of impact.

Jane McGrath: That is true. I have to play devil's advocate, though. It is cool to see who was the first, to give credit where credit is due and know where ideas began and know how astoundingly old they are really gives you a conception of understanding. You can understand civilization when you know where it began.

Candace Keener: That's true. I think there's also something to be said for being very fortunate for settling in an area like the fertile crescent where the land is obviously ripe for a civilization to grow out of it. I wonder how many civilations out there - or almost could be civilizations - nomadic tribes of people tried and failed because they were in the wrong type of land and it couldn't support them.

Jane McGrath: True. One interesting side note to this is, I remember in my research for this podcast that some historians think that the myth of the Garden of Eden - that Eden actually was located in Mesopotamia, in the fertile crescent. And that makes sense when you think about it.

Candace Keener: That makes sense to me. Right. Well, I could keep this debate going forever, but all of you out there are probably anxious to put your paws on your own dictionaries to look up civilation and city and town and other riveting definitions, so we will cut it short. But I would like to encourage all of you, if you have not already - to visit our brand new Stuff You Missed in History Class blog.

Jane McGrath: Candace and I each write on the blog each day, and it has to do with a range of subjects, stuff that interests us that we think will inerest you. News in the field of history and archeology and everything like that. We also address all of your questions on the Mondays of every week as well, so check that out.

Candace Keener: And on Fridays we do a little podcast recap, so a chance for you to all get your comments in about the stuff we've been talking about on air with you. And if you have a piece of feedback for us or an idea for a future podcast, be sure to email us at And if you'd like to see the article on which this podcast was based called Why Was Mesopotamia Called the Cradle of Civilization?, you can find it on our website at

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