Discover the 5 Oldest Civilizations in the World

Written by Alan Lemus
Updated: July 9, 2023
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Much of today’s technology originated from civilizations that existed thousands of years ago. Countless civilizations have emerged, dominated the world, and disappeared, leaving a mark on history. While some of these civilizations left behind monuments such as the Pyramids of Egypt that prove their existence, others disappeared and left behind ruins and relics that archaeologists later discovered. 

Archeologists also helped us to determine when these civilizations existed, allowing us to pinpoint the oldest, their cultures, and their contributions to the world. Do you know the origins of the printing press, irrigation, and animal domestication? 

Let’s look at the five oldest civilizations that ever existed, and you’ll be surprised how some of their innovations have inspired today’s technologies.   

1. The Mesopotamia 

Mesopotamia means “land between two rivers” in Greek. It is the oldest civilization discovered. Mesopotamia emerged in approximately 10,000 BC and was located where present-day Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, and Turkey lie. 

The Greeks labeled this ancient culture Mesopotamia after the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. These rivers provided fertile ground and enabled civilization to thrive. 

Mesopotamia was not a single civilization but a combination of different cultures that lasted for several millennia. These cultures had different aspects but were united by their common gods, scripts, and attitudes toward women. Unlike many civilizations that followed, the Mesopotamians were keen on ensuring women’s rights.    

Historians refer to Mesopotamia as humanity’s cradle for two main reasons. Firstly, its characteristics facilitated the emergence of the city concept. Their food production, construction, and urban planning technologies enable people to live sustainably in groups. Consequently, Mesopotamia was home to the first urban centers in the world, including Babylon, Akkad, and Ashur. 

Secondly, Mesopotamians invented the concept of writing, even though the Chinese, Egypt, and Indus Valley civilizations that emerged later also developed writing techniques unrelated to the Mesopotamians. Their discoveries influenced the world’s progress and culture, and some of their innovations continue to be used today.

Have you ever wondered about the origin of the wheel, 24-hour day, writing, sailing, civil rights, beer brewing, irrigation, and code of laws? 

Sumerians invented the wheel in the fourth millennium BC in what was then Lower Mesopotamia — present-day Iraq. In this invention, rotating axles would be inserted into wooden solid discs. They began hollowing the discs in 2000 BC to make the wheel lighter, leading to significant advances in transport, agriculture, and craft industries.

In transport, the wheel was used on battle chariots and carts. In agriculture, it greatly contributed to its mechanization. Crop irrigation and animal traction were much easier with the magic wheel. In the craft industry, the wheel’s centrifugal force is the primary mechanism in windmills.

Similarly, in Mesopotamia, day and night were divided into 12 equal hours. Their length would vary depending on the season as daylight hours changed. 

The Mesopotamians were responsible for these and many more innovations.

Historians also refer to Mesopotamia as the source of learning. Much of today’s knowledge in agriculture, astronomy, astrology, literacy, mathematics, architecture, and law originated from this era.

Dara Ancient City, one of the most important settlements of Mesopotamia.

Mesopotamia is the oldest civilization discovered emerging in approximately 10,000 BC.

©Resul Muslu/Shutterstock.com

2. Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt emerged around 3100 BC and assumed the position of the most powerful civilization for three millennia when Alexander the Great conquered it in 332 BC.

Like present-day Egypt, ancient Egyptians predominantly settled around River Nile and used the fertile soil around it to grow food. Farmers developed irrigation systems along the Nile valley, allowing them to control water flow to support crop growth during wet and dry seasons.

The fertile Nile valley soils produced a crop surplus that facilitated the financing of incredible constructions such as the Luxor temples and the giant pyramids. The excess harvests also financed the luxurious lives of the elite and paid for war and conquests.

Ancient Egypt was much larger than present-day Egypt since it occupied a land area ranging from where present-day Sudan, Egypt, and Syria occupy.

The most well-known and popular aspects of ancient Egypt are its unique pyramids, mausoleums, tombs, and mummification processes. The mysteries of ancient Egypt have long attracted the attention of historians and archeologists, as demonstrated by the development of Egyptology. 

The primary sources of information on ancient Egypt are hieroglyphs-covered archeological sites. These indicate ancient Egyptian culture was rich in art, beauty, and religious traditions.

Ancient Egypt had a governance system headed by a pharaoh, the religious and political leader. The pharaoh ruled over lower and upper Egypt and was also a high priest in every Egyptian temple as he was a representative of the gods. Ancient Egyptians considered their pharaoh a god since he filled the gap between the gods and humanity. 

Ancient Egyptians had many goddesses and gods. For example, Ra was the sun god, Horus was in charge of wars, Isis controlled magic and nature, and Osiris was the god of the dead.  

The influence of the gods changed as new gods emerged and others diminished in importance. For instance, these dynasties elevated Amun to be their chief god. Later, the principal god status became Amun-Ra following the merging of the sun god Ra and Amun. 

Although ancient Egypt had many temples, these were never public worship sites. Instead, the ancient Egyptians worshipped their gods in their homes using smaller statues that represented the gods. Apart from praying for protection from their gods, ancient Egyptians wore charms and amulets to shield them against evil. 

Ancient Egypt pyramids and Sphinx

Ancient Egypt is known for its unique pyramids, mausoleums, and tombs. 

©iStock.com/pius99

3. Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Civilization is the third-oldest civilization, and it existed in the northern section of present-day India during the Bronze Age and lasted between 3300 BC and 600 BC.  

The political and cultural entity, also known as Harrapan Civilization or Indus-Sarasvati Civilization, got its name from its location in the Indus River’s valleys. It got its alternative names from its proximity to the Sarasvati River and Harappa, one of the ancient cities that marked the beginning of this civilization. 

Not much is known about the Indus Civilization compared to Egypt and Mesopotamia. But archeological excavations have revealed its Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa cities, where Pakistan lies today.  

Archeologists believe these cities had populations of approximately 50,000 people, which is comparatively high considering that many ancient cities could only support 10,000 people. 

The land occupied by this civilization stretched approximately 900 miles along the Indus River banks and likely encompassed regions located in present-day Afghanistan, Nepal, and Delhi. 

The reasons behind the civilization’s decline between 1900 BCE and 1500 BCE remain unknown, although several theories were developed to explain this deterioration. The Aryan Invasion theory explained that Aryans, a white ethnic community from the north, raided the native dark-skinned Dravidian population. 

The other theory points to a combination of factors such as climate change, River Sarasvati drying up, changes in monsoon patterns that they depended on for irrigation and overpopulation. Archeologists are still digging up the area, hoping to learn more about the Indus Civilization, including what caused their demise.

So far, archeologists have unearthed unique artifacts that indicate that the Indus Civilization had a writing system. However, they are yet to decipher these texts, making it difficult to establish the community’s origin. As a result, all that scientists have explained about the Indus Civilization comes from archeological analyses. 

The excavations demonstrated that the people who lived in these cities were merchants, farmers, and artisans. The archeologists have not discovered evidence of military, monarchy, or major religious affiliations. Instead, they unearthed the Mohenjo-daro Great Bath, and they believe the civilization likely used it for ritual purifications.

The Indus Valley residents used flat-bottomed boats, wheeled carriages, and sailboats. They also employed irrigation via canals and developed various farm implements.

Mohenjo-daro of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization

Mohenjo-daro was one of the largest settlements of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization and one of the world’s earliest major cities.

©iStock.com/CameraCoy

4. Ancient China

Ancient China emerged around 2000 BC occupying the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers region and was shielded from enemies by the Pacific Ocean, Himalayan mountains, and Gobi Desert.

These natural features allowed them to flourish in isolation from foreigners and raiders for centuries. Their primary threat was the Mongols, who resided on the northern side of their territory.

The Chinese kept the Mongols away by constructing barriers. Later, they built the Great Wall of China to make it even more difficult for the Mongols to raid their territory.

The ancient Chinese originated several technologies, some still in use today. They created the decimal system, sundial, abacus, and printing press. Their printing press was critical in facilitating the mass distribution of Sun Tzu’s famous book The Art of War

The ancient Chinese stand out from other civilizations in having developed the most successful centralized government. Several powers ruled over ancient China under dynasties, including the Ming (1368 BC to 1644 BC), Shang (1600 BC to 1050 BC), Zhou (1046 BC to 256 BC), and Qin (221 BC to 206 BC) dynasties.

The ancient Chinese leaders mobilized their people to construct massive infrastructural projects such as the 5th-century Grand Canal. The canal joined the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, facilitating the navigation of goods and the military across its territory.

The ancient Chinese leaders valued and put an emphasis on education and arts, particularly paintings and music. They also produced great scientists who invented gunpowder and cast iron. 

The Great Wall of China

Ancient Chinese built the Great Wall of China to make it more difficult for the Mongols to raid their territory.

©iStock.com/SeanPavonePhoto

5. The Andean Civilizations 

The Andean Civilization was a complex society that lived along the coastal deserts and river valleys in present-day Peru. This civilization emerged in 3500 BC but began to thrive around 3100 BC.

Andeans domesticated the llama to transport goods across the various Andean communities. They also formed complex urban cities after inventing agricultural practices that could provide sufficient food to support huge populations.  

Unlike other civilizations that developed writing systems, the Andeans never had one, but they created the quipu, an intricate record-keeping technique. The quipu used knots and strings to store data. 

Like the Mesopotamians, the Andeans comprised several communities, including the Inca, Caral, and Chavin. 

The Caral emerged in 2300 BC and formed the oldest urban dwelling in North and South America. The Caral lived in dozens of cities whose headquarters was the Caral-Supe stone monuments complex. They created several carved stone sculptures and monumental architectural pieces, but they are best remembered for their textiles and painted ceramics. Their decline began in 1800 BC, but archeologists have yet to determine the reason for their demise.

The Chavin existed between 900 and 200 BC in the northern Peru highlands. The Chavin are remembered for their architecture, particularly the Chavin de Hunter Temple. The Teolo Obelisk, Lanzon, and Tenon heads also demonstrate their architectural and construction prowess. The Chavin also demonstrated advanced knowledge in soldering, metallurgy, acoustics, and temperature control. 

The Inca are among the best-known Andean people due to their complex roadway and agricultural systems. The Inca emerged in 1100 in the Cuzco Valley and used diplomacy to expand their territory. At their peak, the Inca occupied the region where present-day Argentina, Colombia, Peru, and Chile lie. The vast size of their empire allowed several cultures to exist side by side within their territory. The Inca reinforced cohesion through a centralized administrative, language, and religious system. However, the Spanish invasion in 1500 caused the end of the Inca. 

Ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu in Peru

The Inca are among the best-known Andean people and creators of several great cities including Machu Picchu in Peru.

©Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock.com

Summary of 5 Oldest Civilizations in the World

Here’s a recap of five of the world’s most ancient civilizations that we took a look at.

RankCivilizationTime of ExistenceLocation
1MesopotamiaEmerged around 10,000 BCPresent-day Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, and Turkey
2Ancient EgyptEmerged approximately 3100 BCPredominantly around River Nile, where present-day Sudan, Egypt, and Syria are
3Indus ValleyBetween 3300 BC and 600 BCAbout 900 miles along the Indus River banks; likely in present-day Afghanistan, Nepal, and Delhi
4Ancient ChinaEmerged around 2000 BCOccupying the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers region
5Andean CivilizationsEmerged in 3500 BC but began to thrive around 3100 BCAlong coastal deserts and river valleys in present-day Peru

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Don Mammoser/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Alan is a freelance writer and an avid traveler. He specializes in travel content. When he visits home he enjoys spending time with his family Rottie, Opie.

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Sources
  1. SPICE, Available here: https://spice.fsi.stanford.edu/docs/the_shang_dynasty_1600_to_1050_bce
  2. UNLV Department of Physics & Astronomy, Available here: https://www.physics.unlv.edu/~jeffery/astro/babylon/babylon.html
  3. Citeco, Available here: https://www.citeco.fr/10000-years-history-economics/the-origins/invention-of-the-wheel