8 Oldest Ancient Civilizations in World History
5. Ancient China
Period: c. 2200 BCE – 1912 A.D
Ancient location: Yellow River and Yangtze region
Current location: Modern-day China
Cultural hub: Anyang (capital city of the Shang Dynasty); Luoyang Xi’an (the first imperial capital of china – during the Qin era), Nanjing (from 265 AD), Hangzhou (during the Southern Song Dynasty)
Major gods: the supreme god Shangti
Most famous rulers/emperors: Yu the Great, Shi Huangdi (founder of the Qin Dynasty), Tang (founder of the Shang Dynasty), Wu (founder of the Zhou Dynasty)
Most known for: the invention of paper, the compass, and silk
As it was common with many major civilizations of the ancient world that relied heavily on rivers and canals to sustain them, the ancient Chinese came to immense prominence kind courtesy to the Yellow River around the third millennium BCE. The diverse communities that settled around the Yellow River gradually coalesced into cities and then full-grown empire led by powerful dynasties. The first dynasty to rule ancient China was the Xia dynasty (c. 2020-1600 BCE) while the last dynasty – the Qing (1644-1912) – ended in 1912 following the Xinhai Revolution which established the Republic of China (1912-1949).
For close to four millennia, ancient China came out with some amazing inventions such as paper, gunpowder, alcohol, silk, porcelain, and printing. Unlike other civilizations whose growth was constantly affected by foreign elements and invaders, ancient China had the rare privilege of not been disrupted by major events aside internal rife and conflicts. This allowed the empire to last up until the 20th century A.D*. And we know this because the Chinese have the longest continuous history (written history) of any society in the world.
* China’s last emperor – Emperor Puyi of the Qing dynasty – was forced to abdicate the throne in 1912, bringing to an end millennia-year-old monarchy.
Did you know: It was during the reign of Shi Huangdi, also known as the ‘First Emperor’, that the construction of the Great Wall of China was begun? Shi Huangdi was also the founder of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE).
4. The Ancient Maya Civilization
Period: c. 2700 BCE – 900 A.D.
Ancient location: Yucatan
Current location: Yucatan, Chiapas in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Belize
Cultural hub: Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Calakmul,
Major gods: Acan (the god of intoxication and art), Tohil (the god of fire), Nacon (the god of war), Acat (the god of tattooing), Akhusthtal (the goddess of childbirth), Kukulkan (a serpent deity)
Most famous rulers: B’alaj Chan K’awiil (c. 625 AD), Pakal the Great (K’inich Janaab Pakal) (603-683 A.D.), Yuknoom Ch’een II (600- c. 680 A.D.)
Most known for: the Mayan Calendar, Deep exploration of astronomy and the construction of several buildings
Based on archeological findings, the Mayan people became relatively organized starting around 2600 BCE. Their culture most likely evolved from the Olmecs – a pre-classic Maya people that lived in the region before 2000 BCE.
The Mayans are considered the oldest of all the major civilizations to have emerged from Mesoamerica. They were most for their spectacular architecture as well as their deep understanding of astronomy. The Mayans came to be known for their complex calendar and dating systems, many of which were accurate to a great deal. The Mayans held the belief that the world was created around 3114 BCE.
By 1000 BCE, the settlements in the Maya highlands and lowlands had become very advanced to allow for the large-scale construction, such as pyramids and temples. At its peak, the Maya civilization is believed to have reached about 19 million inhabitants. By 700 BCE, they could boast of having a properly developed writing system.
Read More: Complete timeline of the Maya Civilization
3. The Ancient Egyptians
Period: 3150 BCE – 30 BCE
Ancient location: Banks along the Nile
Current location: Egypt
Cultural hub: Memphis, Alexandria, Thebes, Aswan, Edfu, Kom Ombo
Most famous rulers: Ramesses II (reign 1279-1213 BCE), Pharaoh Djoser (c. 2686 BCE-2649 BCE), Hatshepsut (reign 1478-1458 BCE), Tutankhamun (reign 1332-1323 BCE)
Most known for: Magnificent pyramids and structures
While many ancient civilizations shove and push each other for the title of the oldest civilization in history, the ancient Egyptians claim of being the most advanced and organized ancient civilization remains uncontested. Spanning from around 3200 BCE to 30 BCE, when it was gulped up by Alexander the Great, ancient Egypt gifted the world several fantastic innovations, many of which are still in use today.
The Egyptians benefited enormously from the River Nile – Africa’s longest river – which would have sustained everything from agriculture to construction. Such was the Nile’s importance that the Egyptians took to worshipping it. And who could blame them? Archeologists reason that the over 2 million building blocks of stones that went into the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza had to be transported along the Nile. Many of awe-inspiring monuments of ancient Egypt often leave archeologists scratching their heads as to how such an ancient civilization could pull them off.
Did you know: cave drawings, which date to around 17,000 BCE (long before the first Egyptian dynasties), were found the desert regions of Egypt?
In addition to the monumental architectural feats, the ancient Egyptians had arguably the most refined writing and language system – the Egyptian hieroglyphics. Also, the Egyptians had extremely well-organized religious and social structures with the pharaohs (who were literally treated like gods on earth) on top of the hierarchy. Ancient Egypt is believed to have peaked around the New Kingdom period – an era which included rulers like Ramesses the Great (Ramesses II).
2. The Indus Valley Civilization (the Harappans)
Period: 3300 BCE – 1900 BCE
Ancient location: Around the Indus River
Current location: Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwest India
Most known for: one of the biggest civilizations of all time, covered over 1.25 million square kilometers
Spanning areas in present-day South Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) had some of the world’s oldest cities. Archeologists estimate that this civilization, also known as the Harappan civilization, sprouted around the 4th millennium BCE and had its cultural and economic hub in two main cities – Harappa and Mohenjo-daro – that were as advanced as the ones in say ancient Egypt or ancient China.
With majority of its population living on the flood plain of the Indus River, the society could farm by deploying irrigational canals to feed their farmlands. What this meant was that they could then trade the surplus food with people from surrounding areas, as is shown on the merchant seals carved from stone which was excavated outside those major cities.
The IVC had a writing system that enabled records of transactions between merchants to be kept. Although, it must be noted that scholars are yet to decipher the Harappan language. All of these systems allowed the culture to flourish and for population growth in cities like Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. The latter city for example could boast of over 40,000 inhabitants.
At the top of the social and economic hierarchy of the Indus Valley Civilization were most likely the artisans, merchants, state officials and landowners. It remains unclear as to whether there were powerful monarchs during that era.
In terms of physical structures, the Indus Valley civilization made their houses, citadel, bath and public buildings out of cut bricks and gypsum. Feeding from several water wells across the region into their houses was an advanced plumbing system. What this means is that they had sewage network underground to take the waste out of the houses. There were also workshops littered with skilled artisans in the art of making pots (both clay and metal), wheels, and jewelry.