02 September 2015
World Civilization Tour, Day Two
How did the physical environment shape Mesopotamian civilization? As a result of this environment, what characteristics did Mesopotamia exhibit?
Situated between two great rivers, the Mesopotamians had two indispensable elements for the successful development of agriculture: abundant water and fertile soil. Much of what they accomplished in creating a relatively bountiful food supply would not have worked in poorer soil and a drier clime. Although regular flooding brought good soils, its unpredictability led to frequent disasters and lost crops. The development of levees and artificial irrigation made it possible to exert greater control over their environment, leading to greater and more stable crop yields. By stabilizing their food supply, they were free to devote time and effort to occupations other than subsistence: priests, soldiers, artisans, builders, etc.
Controlled irrigation and urban living made it necessary for members of the local society to work together on large-scale projects that benefited the whole group, like levees, dams, canals, temples, and defensive city walls. Private ownership of land and crops made the accumulation of wealth possible, leading to a stratified society. To keep order, and to ensure cooperation among inhabitants for the common good, laws were codified and enforced, such as the Code of Hammurabi. Various government officials and judges were needed to enforce justice, coordinate large-scale projects, secure the expected blessings (and avoid the expected curses) of the gods, long-range planning, and common defense against raiders and rivals.
What were some of the important inventions and technological contributions developed in Mesopotamia?
Probably the most important invention that arose in Mesopotamia was writing. Created in Sumer around 3000 BC, this cuneiform (meaning “wedge-shaped” for the way the marks were made with a pointed stylus in soft clay) was the earliest form of record keeping with consistent phonetic and grammatical rules. It enabled accurate historical records, the memorialization of business transactions and contracts, and the dissemination of laws and religious/cultural rituals. Historians disagree about who first invented the wheel, but the widespread use of wheeled carts appears in Mesopotamia around the fourth millennium BC. This enabled human and domesticated transport animals to carry much larger loads over much greater distances, and greatly enhanced long distance trade and cultural interchange.
Advancements in shipbuilding and water navigation further expanded these opportunities. Mesopotamians first discovered bronze by mixing copper and tin, making much stronger, more durable metal objects, and the Bronze Age saw great innovations in weapons, armor, and somewhat later, agricultural and artisan tools. They were among the first textile weavers, glassmakers, woodworkers, and potters. All of this was made possible by advances in farming through controlled irrigation and crop selection, leading to excess food supplies, which allowed the inhabitants to devote time and energy to these pursuits, rather than daily subsistence foraging.
01 September 2015
World Civilization Tour, Day One
I’ve decided to take a one-month break from the daily haikus to share some writings I recently submitted for a history class I took during the summer quarter at Chemeketa Community College. I love history, and took the class just for fun. I already have a bachelor’s degree, so the only payoff to the class was to learn, and I was surprised by the amount of material that was new to me. Or at least I didn’t remember most of it from taking college history classes the first time around.
All questions in bold are © 2015 by Mike Balyo, Instructor, Chemeketa Community College.
Therefore, without further ado, I introduce my whirlwind tour of World Civilization from Neolithic Society to the Middle Ages.
The Paleolithic Era and the Rise of Agriculture
Describe the basic features of a Paleolithic society. How did the emergence of agriculture contribute to the rise of civilization?
Paleolithic society was distinguished by the organizing of early humans into small bands, probably no larger than a few dozen people (likely extended family), for the purpose of hunting, fishing, and the gathering of edible plants for subsistence. They were nomadic, roaming in search of good hunting grounds, probably following the seasonal migration of herds and the ripening of fruits and berries. This made private ownership of goods and land, and therefore relative wealth, impossible. Indeed, the concept of land ownership would have been meaningless to them, as they never stayed in one place very long. They likely had no personal possessions beyond a few tools, weapons, clothing, and rudimentary jewelry.
There was no way to preserve food or gather a surplus, so everyone but the very young was involved in the activities of hunting and foraging daily. In Neolithic times, men were mostly hunters and women and children were gatherers. Hunting was dangerous and uncertain work. The men likely came back empty-handed, if they came back at all, with some regularity. If you’ve ever been hunting with a group of men, you’ll know things haven’t changed that much. We still often come back to the fire at night with more tall tales than meat. Neolithic men probably sat around the fire at night drinking beer and embellishing stories while everyone ate what the women had gathered that day.
Life expectancy was likely no more than 50 or 60 at best and infant mortality was high. The old and infirm would have been handled with harsh pragmatism. Survival depended on everyone contributing their efforts, so distinctions among members of the groups were unlikely, beyond perhaps the best hunter or the eldest member being somewhat loosely regarded as a tribal leader, deciding where to go and when to stop, likely in concert with the other adult members.
The development of agriculture made it possible to stabilize their food source, making it advantageous to stay in one place longer. More durable shelters could be sought or built, making survival easier and more comfortable. Cultivated crops and domesticated animals produced a more abundant food supply, supporting larger populations in larger, more densely populated settlements, and allowing some people to devote effort to things other than subsistence, like potters, skilled tool/weapons makers, religious and civic leaders, craftsmen, and artisans. This meant groups could trade excess goods with other groups, receiving different foods and other items that were scarce locally, but abundant in other places. A more diverse diet would have been healthier and more enjoyable, enhancing their quality of life. Trade opportunities made interaction with other cities and peoples advantageous, while giving rise to competition for resources, rivalries, and warfare.