Culture of Early Civilizations: c. 5000 BCE - 600 BCE

AP Concept: 1.3 The Development and Interactions of Early Agricultural, Pastoral, and Urban Societies
Key Concepts
  • Culture was a significant force in unifying civilizations
  • Religion helped unify disparate peoples and explained natural events
  • Early civilizations were primarily polytheistic, as they believed in multiple gods
  • Egypt believed gods judged humans' lives and determined whether their spirits would live in the afterlife
  • Led Egyptians to develop complex system of mummification and burial in pyramids and tombs
  • Believed pharaohs, the rulers of Egypt, were living gods on earth and buried them in pyramids to help them access the afterlife
  • Indus Valley civilization had a complex religion that focused on fertility
  • Chavin culture unified its surrounding civilization with large temples
  • Chinese civilizations developed key beliefs in the importance of ancestors
  • Shang dynasty used oracle bones, or bones of animals, to communicate with ancestors and ask questions about the future
  • Zhou dynasty (1122 - 256 BCE) emphasized the veneration of ancestors and the importance of family
  • Believed in the Mandate of Heaven, which held that the gods signaled their choice of ruler through natural events such as floods and earthquakes
  • Most early writing began as pictographs, or images that reflected their meaning, and later developed into more symbolic characters
  • Writing typically developed as a means of communication over long distances
  • In most early civilizations, only a specialized class of scribes could learn to write, primarily because written language was so complex
  • Sumer (c. 3000 BCE) developed cuneiform, which later Mesopotamian civilizations adopted
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh, written in cuneiform, is one of the earliest surviving works of literature
  • Egypt developed a written language made up of pictographs, called hieroglyphics, around 3100 BCE
  • Shang dynasty in China developed a written language of pictograph characters, which later evolved into ideographs (symbols)
  • Indus civilization developed a still un-deciphered writing system that used around 400 symbols
  • The Phoenicians developed the first alphabet (c. 1100 BCE), which used letters to represent sounds rather than ideas or images
  • In the Americas, the Maya civilization (250 - 950 CE) developed writing much later, around 250 CE
Social Structure
  • Civilizations typically used social structure to divide their peoples
  • Social structures gave people a sense of belonging and order
  • Aryan civilization (1700 BCE) developed a rigid social structure that later became the basis for India's caste system
  • People were divided into 4 varnas depending on occupation, with scholars and priests at the top and a class of servants at the bottom
  • Zhou dynasty operated under a feudal-like system, where peasants farmed lands for lords, who owed service and loyalty to the Zhou ruler
  • The ruling class was primarily connected through kinship ties

Related Links:
AP World History Quizzes
AP World History
AP World History Notes
Codification of Traditions: c. 600 BCE - 600 CE