8 Oldest Ancient Civilizations in World History
The term civilization can be defined as a society that is complex enough to have advanced social, political and economic structures as well as a system of communication, most likely writing, used for the betterment of its inhabitants.
The civilizations we are about to explore below hold the record of being the first humans on earth to properly organize their daily lives in such a way that it spurred on further division of labor, domestication of animals and humans, massive architectural projects, taxation, agriculture/farming, expansion, and conquests of surrounding areas. Although these civilizations date back thousands of years ago, it is impossible to say that there was one single cradle of civilization. Many of them developed fairly independently of each other, with the oldest one beginning around 10,000 to 8,000 years ago.
World History Edu presents the 8 oldest civilizations of all time, as well as what life was like in those cradles of civilization.
8. The Ancient Persian Civilization (the Achaemenid Empire)
Period: 550 BCE – 331 BCE
Ancient location: Mesopotamia area through to Egypt in the west and Turkey in the North
Current location: Present-day Iran
Cultural hub: Royal road; Persepolis (present-day Shiraz, Iran)
Major religion/gods: Zoroastrianism
Most famous ruler: King Cyrus the Great and Xerxes the Great
Most known for: one of the greatest civilization in history; very powerful military and wise rulers
Before going into decline following their defeat to Alexander the Great, the Persian Empire had been unified for centuries. This civilization first lodged in the valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris. Those rivers were the lifeblood of the empire, providing fertile lands for more farming and raising of livestock.
The Persians unified under their great leader Cyrus the Great (Cyrus II) who would later lead the empire to conquer ancient Babylon and invade India. His successors followed in his footsteps and made the Persian civilization a real force to be reckoned with.
At the height of this civilization, the Persian kings (the “shah”) could boast of controlling areas of present-day Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.
Leaders like Cyrus the Great allowed for diversity, human rights, and religious tolerance in the Persian Empire. This trait of Cyrus was evident when he freed several thousands of slaves after conquering the City of Babylon in 539 BCE. His decision to grant religious freedoms and rights to the conquered areas was recorded in cuneiform script on a clay cylinder called the Cyrus Cylinder.
Inheriting the throne after Cyrus was Darius I (Darius the Great). Darius instituted more structural reforms that allowed him to manage the empire in a structured and efficient manner. For example, Darius I saw the importance of smooth and swift communication. He therefore set up a postal service in the empire. And from the vast resources he acquired during his conquests of surrounding city-states, he constructed roads, temples, and canals.
Shortly before Alexander the Great dealt a crushing blow to the Persians, the Persian Empire had started to decline. This was primarily due Darius I’s successors not living up to the greatness and standards of great Persian rulers of the Achaemenid era (550 BCE to 330 BCE).
Their label as one of the most advanced and oldest civilizations is certainly deserved due to their many astounding inventions, including backgammon and a refrigerator (known as the yakhcal).
Did you know: Many scholars regard Cyrus the Great’s beyond-the-era religious freedoms and human rights as the world’s first declaration of human rights? Cyrus relied heavily on Zoroastrian law of Asha (truth and honesty) during his reign.
7. The Phoenicians
Period: c. 1500-300 B.C.E
Ancient location: the Levant (modern-day Lebanon)
Current location: parts of modern-day Syria, Israel, and Lebanon
Cultural hub: Tyre, Sidon, and Berot (modern-day Beirut)
Major gods: El (the father of the gods), Astarte (also known as Ashtart), Mot (the god of death)
Most famous rulers: King Ahab, General Jehu
Most known for: Introduced the ancient Greeks to alphabets
Bursting onto the scene as fierce seafaring traders, the Phoenicians (particularly the Phoenician city of Byblos) of the ancient world occupied parts of present-day Lebanon, Syria and Israel around 3200 BCE. Phoenician cities started thriving properly as major trading and manufacturing centers around the middle part of the second millennium BCE.
As a result of their mastery in ship building and navigation, the Phoenicians were able to trade extensively with communities as way beyond the Mesopotamian region. Some archeological findings show that they even made it to the inner parts of Western Europe and Britain. Much of the items they traded were cedar, wine, linen from places like Tyre and Berytos, and precious minerals and pottery.
Owing to their location in the Mesopotamian region, the Phoenicians initially used cuneiform; however, they also had their own writing system known as the Phoenician alphabet, which had 22 letters. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Phoenician method of writing was later adopted by the ancient Greeks.
The Phoenicians time on the top was increasingly challenged by the Assyrian kings beginning around the 900 BCE. About 400 years later, the Persian Empire engulfed large parts of Phoenicia. Prior to Rome’s reign over the area (beginning around 64 BCE), the Phoenicians had capitulated to Alexander the Great’s rule in 322 BCE.
Did you know: The Phoenicians were sometimes known as ‘purple people’ because of all the dye that stained their skins as they manufactured exquisite robes for exports?
6. Minoan Civilization
Period: c. 2000 BCE – c.1100 BCE
Ancient location: Italy, North Africa and Sicily – i.e. places in the Mediterranean
Current location: Greece
Cultural hub: Knossos, Malia, Zakros and Phaistos
Major gods/mythical figures: King Minos, Daedalus, the Snake Goddess
Most known for: the most influential civilization; democracy and the Senate, Olympics, medicine, mathematics, etc
Long before city states like Athens and Sparta came to prominence, an ancient civilization in Europe known as the Minoan civilization dominated the landscape. Emerging around 2,000 BCE, the Minoans are generally regarded as Europe’s earliest civilized society. This Bronze Age civilization clustered around the island of Crete and the Aegean Islands. Up until when they made way for the ancient Greeks around 1100 BCE,
In addition to the ancient Greeks, it’s been revealed that the Minoans exercised tremendous influence across the Mediterranean (i.e. in places like the Old Kingdom of Egypt and ancient Anatolia) up until around 1100 BCE. They have been praised for their stunning skills in architecture, farming and other craftsmanship. Based on the excavations (in 1900) by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, we now know that many of their magnificent palaces were located at Knossos.
It has been hypothesized that the Minoans mainly used Linear A (between 1800 and c. 1450 BCE) and Cretan hieroglyphs (during the early Bronze Age) in writing.
Their successor – the ancient Greeks – built on their ideas and introduced the world to many inventions and belief system. Our modern would have looked completely different had it not been for the important contributions made by the Minoan civilization to the development of Western civilization.
Did you know: The Minoan name was derived from name of the king of Minos? King Minos, the son of the god Zeus and Phoenician princess Europa, was the mythical king of the island of Crete.
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.
1. The Sumerian Civilization of ancient Mesopotamia
Period: 5000 BCE – 500 BCE
Ancient location: Zagros mountains and the Arabian plateau
Current location: Iraq, Syria, and Turkey
Cultural hub: Uruk and Ur
Major gods: The moon god Nanna, Anu (the sky father), Inanna (goddess of love and war), Utu (god of law and order)
Most famous rulers: King Gilgamesh
Most known for: cuneiform writing, inventing the wheel, astronomy, mathematics, chariot and the plow
Coming in at number one on the list of Oldest Ancient Civilizations is the Sumerian civilization. The Sumer people lived in southern Mesopotamia region – a vastly rich and fertile land between two rivers.
And as early as 10,000 to 8,000 BCE, the people in that region had agriculture and had even taken to domesticating animals for their daily sustenance. As one of the oldest cradles of civilization, this Mesopotamian region had refined arts and systems of government. They were skilled at building structures, including canals, irrigation systems, temples and markets. The excavations of those areas have revealed that the Sumer people used pottery and jewelry. They were also craftsmen skilled in the art of making weapons.
The Sumer people are also credited with inventing: the wheel, the base 60 for time measurement, mathematics, astronomy, chariot, and rudimentary agricultural equipment like the plow. Most importantly, they invented a writing system called the Cuneiform script. The writing system is considered the earliest of its kind in history. Their inventions in writing, arts, language, religious activities, and culture in general inspired subsequent Mesopotamian civilizations such as the Assyrians and the Babylonians.