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Early Civilization in Mesopotamia Essay



The development of complex and stratified societies can be considered a great leap forward for humanity since it acted as the cornerstone behind the creation of human civilization as we know it today. In this paper, what will be explored are the factors that contributed towards the development of early civilization in Mesopotamia and how they brought about a great leap forward in human society, which contributed significantly towards the core structures of modern-day civilization.

The necessity of Population Concentration

Chavalas presents the notion that one of the drawbacks behind the hunter and gatherer stage that existed prior to the development of complex and stratified societies was the lack of sufficient concentrations of native populations (Chavalas, 192-193). Since the various hunter-gatherer groups were stratified, limited in number, and lived a nomadic lifestyle, this limited the capacity of such groups to enhance their level of communication, socialization, and the development of new and more complex behaviors. It was only through the Neolithic revolution which brought about the development of agricultural societies that the necessary elements were in place for the “great leap forward” in human society that characterized the creation of the Tigris-Euphrates Civilization within Mesopotamia (Chavalas, 192-193).

Chavalas explains that a greater concentration of individuals within a single area results in the necessity of developing more complex levels of social interaction. This manifested itself through the stratification of social roles (i.e., leaders, followers, etc.) in order to better manage the complexities associated with providing sufficient food, shelter, and protection for a large group of people within a select area. It was the necessity behind the development of more complex behaviors that can be stated as the origin behind modern-day social norms and civil codes. Complex behaviors evolved into codified rules of interaction (ex: the code of Hammurabi), which helped to implement a certain degree of the organization behind the chaos of early human settlements within Mesopotamia. When taking all these factors into consideration, one of the “great leaps forward” in the development of human society as we know it today was basically the creation of a widely accepted set of social norms that applied to a large population set.

This early manifestation of human social norms was, in part, due to the concentration of individuals within a single area that brought about the need behind the development of such codes and rules. In comparison, the hunter-gatherer stage of human social development did not need a similar line of development. Through the analysis of Frangipane, it was noted that the hunter-gatherers were primarily concerned with finding food for the day and protecting themselves from predators. Social interaction was limited to cooperation during a hunt or for arranging a means of protecting their tribes in hostile environments. A lack of needed complexity in their daily interactions resulted in a fairly limited method of communication (Frangipane, 415 – 417).

Frangipane explains that the development of methods of communication as they are known today was, in part, due to the need to explain a broad range of concepts and ideas when dealing with multiple individuals within a limited environment. As a result, with the incorporation of more complex behaviors and social norms came the need for more complex methods of communication to better address the need for cooperation within an agrarian-based society (Kearns, 82). This rate of development can be considered as a type of “revolution” which Vere Gordon Childe delved into in his work on the development of ancient civilizations. This will be tackled in the next section and should shed some light on why the development of complex stratified societies is considered as a leap forward for human social development.

Views of Vere Gordon Childe

In his work examining the development of ancient societies, Childe posited that wide-scale change within a society can actually occur within a relatively short period of time in a process that he called a “revolution”. For Childe, a revolution can be defined as the development of new processes or new inventions which “elevated” human society towards the next phase of development. Within the context of the development of civilizations within Mesopotamia, the “revolution” that caused an evolution in social development came in the form of agricultural development (Bolger, 503-531).

This shift from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one that focused on the cultivation of plants and livestock resulted in the “revolution” of higher population numbers within specific regions. This form of behaviour did not exist during the hunter-gatherer phase due to the necessity of having to constantly travel as well as the complications associated with having to feed and protect a large group of people. It was only when the Neolithic revolution occurred (i.e. the development of agrarian lifestyles) that such complications were addressed through the use of mass production of meat and edible plants which created the means by which large population groups can be sustained within a relatively small area of land (Bolger, 503-531).

It should be noted though that the development of new processes/inventions can be considered as the first step towards even greater social development since they act as the base by which subsequent developments are founded upon. For example, through the agricultural revolution large populations came about which resulted in the development of more permanent settlements which evolved slowly over time into towns, cities and even empires within Mesopotamia. This led to the development of various methods of organizational management involving the upkeep and continued prosperity of the community that had been developed (Bolger, 503-531).

Over time organizational management evolved into levels of social stratification which divided society into leaders and ordinary citizens. This facilitated the earliest form of government which became the basis of the present day systems that are currently in place. Not only that, this also lead to the initial stratification in society that continues on till the present wherein there was a clear delineation between the rich and the poor based on an individual’s importance within a society, the amount of land they controlled and their capacity to maximize the fruits of the land (i.e. produce meat and plants for consumption). When comparing the “revolutionized” complexity of agricultural development with the simplicity of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, it can be seen that the “leap forward” in this case came in the form of the capacity to sustain large groups of people which the hunter-gatherer lifestyle simply could not do (Bolger, 503-531).

Thus, it can be stated that the early development of complex and stratified societies can be considered as a leap forward since one of its manifestations was the creation of the means by which large population sets could be maintained through self-sustainable agricultural practices. In relation to the development of agricultural practices, the next section of this paper will delve into how the creation of an agrarian based society actually led to the development of social stratification and the creation of different classes within human society.

Views of Wittfogel

Unfortunately, not all aspects of the “great leap forward” can be considered wholly positive since one of its manifestations was the creation of social entities that maintained power through control over access to resources. Karl Wittfogel presented the idea that the creation of certain civilizations around the world was inherently influenced by the climate of that specific region (Stride, 73). Within the context of the Tigris-Euphrates civilization, the climate was relatively arid and, as such, a vast majority of their farming needs was met through access to the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers that fed into the Fertile Crescent that Mesopotamia was known as at the time. It was access to the life giving waters of the rivers as well as the means to properly control irrigation and thus the production of agricultural goods that brought forth social stratification within the area resulting in the initial creation of classes within society (Stride, 73).

Under the ideas of Wittfogel, this in effect created a hydraulic empire government with a select group of individuals ruling the masses below them by controlling the means by which irrigation to their lands can be achieved. This development within Mesopotamia can be considered as a manifestation of “the great leap forward” since it signifies the initial development of social classes which continue to exist till today (Stride, 73).

What must be noted is that under the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that existed prior to the development of agricultural based societies, there was no social stratification evident in the individual groups at the time. People were considered equals and contributed towards hunting food, gathering fruits, and other such activities. It was only through the development of agriculture, the creation of large societies, and the establishment of complex rules of behaviour and interaction that social stratification occurred as a direct result of levels of control being implemented over the means by which people could grow their crops. From a certain perspective, it must be questioned whether social stratification can actually be considered a leap forward since it has lead to the accumulation of wealth at the expense of other individuals. However, in response to such a query Stride explains that social stratification can actually be considered as a necessary element in the development of human civilization since it in effect resulted in the creation of a means of organizing and influencing masses of people towards particular goals (Stride, 73).

Without such a mechanism in place, the manifestation of complex civilizations such large cities, a stable food supply as well as the creation of roads and trade with other local empires simply would not have been feasible due to the lack of cooperation between the various factions within a group. It was only through the implementation of an overarching imperative from those in power that the trappings of modern day civilization could have been made possible in the first place.

Views of Service

In relation to the ideas presented by Wittfogel are the concepts developed by Elman Service which focus on the apparent “benefits” inherent in the creation of chiefdom’s for early Mesopotamian societies. Service presents the notion that chiefdom (i.e. creating a centralized leadership structure for a society) had “managerial benefits” for societies which benefitted that society as a whole (Bong Won, 22-35).

The chief in effect acted as a central authority figure which helped to implement complex plans for the society in question through the establishment of rules and guidelines of behaviour, creating plans related to the expansion of agricultural practices as well as helped to promote trade between different societies. As a result, this benefitted societies immensely which resulted in the chief being able to keep their position of power and actually expanding the bureaucratic organization of the society as a whole (Bong Won, 22-35).

This led to the creation of individual district chiefs, the establishment of armies for defence as well as the allocation of resources towards the creation of public works projects (i.e. roads, well, irrigation systems, etc.). This differs significantly from the hunter-gatherer era wherein there was no central authority that dictated the actions of other members of the tribe. What existed was cooperation based on shared benefits rather than a central authority figure commanding people to cooperate with one another towards a goal he/she dictated (Bong Won, 22-35). It is within this context that the development of complex and stratified societies can be considered as a great leap forward since they acted as a means by which the creation of centralized authority mechanisms could be developed within society.


Based on what has been presented so far, it can be seen that the development of complex and stratified societies can be considered as a “great leap forward” since they acted as the initial core structures behind the creation of social organization and centralized authority that have become the cornerstone behind the development of modern day civilization. Without such structures in place, it would have been unlikely that human society would have developed the way it did due to the decentralized nature of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle which did not promote the development of complex social behaviours and methods of interaction.

Works Cited

Bolger, Diane. “The Dynamics Of Gender In Early Agricultural Societies Of The Near East.” Signs: Journal Of Women In Culture & Society 35.2 (2010): 503-531. Print

Bong Won, Kang. “An Examination Of An Intermediate Sociopolitical Evolutionary Type Between Chiefdom And State.” Arctic Anthropology 42.2 (2005): 22-35. Print

Chavalas, Mark W. “First Civilizations: Ancient Mesopotamia And Ancient Egypt. 2D Ed.” Journal Of Near Eastern Studies 67.3 (2008): 192-193. Print

Frangipane, Marcella. “On Models And Data In Mesopotamia.” Current Anthropology 42.3 (2001): 415-417. Print

Kearns, Jodi. “Ancient Civilizations.” Library Media Connection 30.5 (2012): 82. Print

Stride, SebastianRondelli, BernardoMantellini, Simone. “Canals Versus Horses: Political Power In The Oasis Of Samarkand.” World Archaeology 41.1 (2009): 73. Print

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