The first six civilizations–Mesopotamia, Egypt, Indus Valley (Harappa), Andes, China, and Mesoamerica– are supposed to have arisen independently of each other approximately 6,000 to 3,500 years ago.
Of course, we can’t be absolutely sure they arose completely independently of each other–people from the Andes could have traveled to Mesoamerica and influenced people there, or people from Mesopotamia could have been in contact with people from the Indus Valley or Egypt. But these civilizations are thought to have probably arisen fairly independently of each other, as mostly spontaneous responses to local conditions.
I set out to research the big six because I realized that I know approximately nothing about the Indus Valley civilization, despite it actually being significantly older than the Chinese–for that matter, it turns out that Andean civilization is also older than China’s.
Wikipedia has an interesting definition of “civilization“:
Civilizations are intimately associated with and often further defined by other socio-politico-economic characteristics, including centralization, the domestication of both humans and other organisms, specialization of labor, culturally ingrained ideologies of progress and supremacism, monumental architecture, taxation, societal dependence upon farming as an agricultural practice, and expansionism.
Read that carefully.
(Sorry this map is too small to be really useful, but the next one one is better:)
Interestingly, while Mesoamerica has corn and the Andes have beans, potatoes and peanuts, Egypt and Mesopotamia have… not a lot of locally domesticated crops.
It’s understandable how Chinese civilization, which got started much later, might have originally imported rice from further south. But if Egypt and Mesopotamia are the world’s first centers of agriculture, where did they get their wheat from?
Anyway, I have been reading about Gobekli Tepe, an archaeological site in the Southeastern Anatolia Region of modern-day Turkey, about 7 miles from Şanlıurfa, which radiocarbon dating suggests was constructed by 11,000 years ago:
[The site] includes two phases of ritual use dating back to the 10th – 8th millennium BCE. During the first phase, pre-pottery Neolithic A (PPNA), circles of massive T-shaped stone pillars were erected. More than 200 pillars in about 20 circles are currently known through geophysical surveys. Each pillar has a height of up to 6 m (20 ft) and a weight of up to 20 tons. They are fitted into sockets that were hewn out of the bedrock. …
All statements about the site must be considered preliminary, as less than 5% of the site has been excavated, … While the site formally belongs to the earliest Neolithic (PPNA), up to now no traces of domesticated plants or animals have been found. The inhabitants are assumed to have been hunters and gatherers who nevertheless lived in villages for at least part of the year. …
The surviving structures, then, not only predate pottery, metallurgy, and the invention of writing or the wheel, they were built before the so-called Neolithic Revolution, i.e., the beginning of agriculture and animal husbandry around 9000 BCE.
Hewing enormous monoliths out of the rock and then hauling them uphill to form some sort of mysterious structure that doesn’t even appear to be a house takes a tremendous amount of work:
But the construction of Göbekli Tepe implies organization of an advanced order not hitherto associated with Paleolithic, PPNA, or PPNB societies. Archaeologists estimate that up to 500 persons were required to extract the heavy pillars from local quarries and move them 100–500 meters (330–1,640 ft) to the site. The pillars weigh 10–20 metric tons (10–20 long tons; 11–22 short tons), with one still in the quarry weighing 50 tons. It has been suggested that an elite class of religious leaders supervised the work and later controlled whatever ceremonies took place. If so, this would be the oldest known evidence for a priestly caste—much earlier than such social distinctions developed elsewhere in the Near East.
Eastern Turkey (modern Kurdistan): the first civilization?
There are several other sites in the area, though not as old as Gobekli Tepe, such as Nevalı Çori.
So where did domesticated wheat come from? Einkorn wheat’s closest wild relatives have been found in Karaca Dag, Turkey, about 20 miles away. Wild emmer wheat appears to be a hybrid between a wild Einkorn variety and a not-quite identified species and grows from Israel to Iran, though our first evidence of domestication come from Israel and Syria. (Of course, we may have excavated more archaeological sites in Israel than, say, Iraq or Turkey, for obvious recent geopolitical and religious reasons.)
Regardless, we know that these first Anatolian farmers made a huge impact on the European genetic landscape:
The guys on the left, the ones with “blue” DNA, are European hunter-gatherers who occupied the continent before farmers arrived. The guys in the middle, “orange,” are farmers. The farmers appear to have arrived initially in Europe around Starcevo (in the Balkans) and spread out from there, eventually conquering, overwheliming, or otherwise displacing the hunter-gatherers. (The teal-blue group is “Indo-Europeans” who lived out on the Asian steppe and so did not get conquered by farmers.) From Europedia.com:
Of course, people have been referring to the region from the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates to the Nile valley as the “Fertile Crescent” for a hundred years, though the major differences of Egyptian and Sumerian civilization make it sensible to speak of them separately. But it looks to me that they may both owe their origins (at least their crops) to some highly-organized Turkish hunter-gatherers.