Review of World Civilizations

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This paper will summarize the topics I found most informative and interesting while reading Voyages in World History, Volume 1: To 1600, Third Edition by Valerie Hansen and Kenneth R. Curtis.  It will cover information I learned about the first modern humans, when and where they settled new lands, the first complex societies in Mesopotamia, Egypt, South Asia, China and the Americas as well as the Aztec and Incan Empires.

The first anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa around 200,000 BCE.  Their build, size of their brains and physical appearance were very similar to ours.

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  They began speaking sometime between 100,000 BCE and 50,000 BCE.  Scientists debate when these members of our species first began to act like modern humans.  In order to be considered modern humans, they had to be able to plan ahead, modify and improve tools, have trade networks, make art and speak.  Our ancestors settled many different areas of the globe.  Starting around 50,000 BCE they began to leave Africa.  Asia was settled between 80,000 and 60,000 BCE, followed by Australia, ca. 50,000 BCE, then Europe between 50,000 and 25,000 BCE and lastly the Americas ca. 14,000 – 12,000 BCE.

The first complex societies in the eastern Mediterranean developed around 4000 – 550 BCE.  In order to be considered complex a society must have a large urban center with specialized labor, social stratification, surpluses (both material goods and labor) and believe their rulers gods or priests were entitled to a large share of these surpluses.  The world’s first complex societies appeared in Mesopotamia and Egypt around the same time, 3000 BCE.

Mesopotamian farmers had tools made of bronze, used the wheel, drank beer, and developed a writing system.  The first written documents were called Sumerian, which overtime developed into cuneiform. They also believed in many gods. The first ruler to unify the region was Sargon of Akkad (r. 2334-2279).  He ruled the world’s first empire.

Complex societies arose in Egypt about the same time as in Mesopotamia, but under much different circumstances.  The people of Egypt lived in kingdoms rather than city-states.  They believed in multiple deities, but their god-king was called the pharaoh.  Their society was highly stratified with great differences between the rich and the poor.  And the Egyptians wrote in hieroglyphs, which consisted of different symbols, some pictorial and some phonetic.

The Indus River Valley was the largest complex society of its time on the Indian subcontinent.  Unlike other cities of the ancient world, the cities of the Indus River Valley provided drinking water, bathing facilities, and sewer drains to all their residents, they were heavily involved in trade, and they developed ships capable of traveling across the Indian Ocean to Australia.  Very little is known about the ancient Indians because they wrote on perishable palm leaves.  However, we know of Ashoka, the ruler of the Mauryan Dynasty (ca. 320 – 185 BCE), because he chose to embrace the teachings of Buddhism.  Ashoka’s decision to support Buddhism marked a crucial turning point in the religion’s history. Buddha means “enlightened or awakened one”.  According to Buddhism one could escape the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth by following the Noble Eightfold Path.  When one followed the Noble Eightfold Path and understood the Four Noble Truths, one could achieve nirvana.  The support of Ashoka transformed Buddhism into the most influential religion of its day.  Buddhism spread to modern-day Sri Lanka, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and eventually to China and Japan.

The Qin and Hand dynasties created a blueprint for imperial rule in China that lasted for two thousand years.  The Qin dynasty was one of the most important as it would be the first to unify China.  Legalist reforms made the Qin dynasty more powerful than any other regional states in China.  Legalism was a school of thought, originating in the fourth century BCE.  It emphasized promotion for officials and soldiers alike on the basis of merit and job performance, not heredity.  In 221 BCE the Qin ruler defeated his final rival and then named himself First Emperor (r. 221-210 BCE).  His Blueprint for empire would keep China together for much of the next 2000 years.  The Qin ruler saw the establishment of laws as one of his most important accomplishments.  In 206 BCE, a new emperor founded the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 200 CE).  Han rulers denounced legalist governance, but adopted much of the Qin blueprint for empire.  Because of its long rule, the Han dynasty was a model for all subsequent dynasties.

The peoples of the Americas and the Pacific islands took paths to complex society different from those taken by peoples of Eurasia.  They farmed, used metal and navigated differently.  Large urban centers first appeared in Mexico around 1200 BCE.  The Olmec peoples (1200 – 400 BCE) built the first larger settlements along a 100-mile stretch on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. They are known for the massive colossal heads built from basalt.  The largest city in the Americas before 1500 was Teotihuacan.  It was a complex society that included apartments and craft specialization and it had complex water-sewage systems.  It was occupied from around 200 BCE to 650 CE and had an estimated population at its height of 40,000 – 200,000.

The Maya created a remarkable complex society in the Americas unaided by the wheel, plow, draft animals, or metal tools.  One of the greatest intellectual breakthroughs of the twentieth century was the decipherment of the Mayan script.  The Mayan script can be written several ways, including via sounds and pictures.  At the peak of Maya power in 750 the population reached 8-10 million.

One of the first complex societies in North America, dating to after 700 CE was the Mississippian culture in the Central United States.  Occupying over a hundred different sites concentrated in the Mississippi River Valley the Mississippian peoples (800-1450) built the first large urban centers that characterize complex society in the North.  They were also the first in the Americas to develop the bow and arrow sometime around 900.

The Aztec empire started sometime around 1325, when the Mexica, a people based in western Mexico moved into central Mexico to Tenochtitlan, which became the Aztec capital.  They believed in a pantheon of gods, headed by Huitzilopochtli , warrior god of the sun, that demanded blood sacrifices from their devotees.  To sustain these gods, they continually went to war and conquered many of the city-states in central Mexico to form the Aztec Empire.  The Aztec empire consisted of 450 city-states called Altepetl. Each had its own leader and government, a place for its ruler, a pyramid shaped temple and a market.

The Mexica spoke the Nahuatl language, which did not have a written form.  Nahuatl text combines pictures with rebus writing.  When the first Franciscans arrived they created a new alphabet for Nahuatl and taught it to their students.

The “Great Speaker” was the leader of the Mexica.  He was treated like a god.  He was in charge of all external matters including war, the receipt of gifts and relations with other altepetl.  They ruled over 4 to 6 million people at their peak.  While the Mexica were very successful in conquering new territory they had one major weakness.  They didn’t incorporate conquered peoples into their empire.

The Inca empire was an Andean empire founded in 1438 by Pachakuti, which ruled over a peak population of 1- to 12 million.  The Inca lived in kin groups called ayllu.  Most ayllu were divided into smaller subgroups.  Men tended to marry women from a different subgroup.

The Inca differed significantly from the Aztec empire.  They integrated conquered peoples into their empire.  They worked the land in several adjacent ecological zones, so if a crop failed they had a backup.  They conquered neighboring lands because they desired the goods produced in each ecological zone.

The Sun god became their most important Incan deity.  The Inca ruler, Sapa Inca, claimed descent from the sun god.  The ruler was believed to continue to live even after he died.   The Inca believed that their ancestors and hundreds of spirits inhabitied places in the landscape such as streams, rocks and hills.

One major legacy of the Inca empire was its magnificent road system.  Messengers working in shifts could move at a rape of 150 miles per day far faster than the Persians 90 miles per day or the Mongols’ 60 miles per day, both of which traveled by horse.  Most travel done by the Incas was done by foot, but llamas could carry small loads.

One major weakness of the Inca Empire was that each time an Inca ruler died, the ensuing succession disputes threatened to tear the empire apart.

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Review of World Civilizations. (2019, Jun 01). Retrieved from