Oldest Civilization: What is the name of the world’s oldest civilization?
Throughout the millennia, numerous civilizations have risen and fallen. But which one is the oldest on record?
This question appeared to have a simple answer about 30 years ago. Around 4000 B.C., the Sumerian culture emerged as the oldest civilization in the Mesopotamia region, which is now mostly Iraq. The Sumerians were named after the ancient city of Sumer, which was located in eastern Iraq a few miles south of the modern city of Kut. The Uruk period (opens in new tab) is named after the equally ancient city of Uruk about 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the southwest, where many of the oldest Sumerian artifacts were discovered.
However, evidence discovered in recent decades suggests that the Sumerians are not the only contenders for the title of “oldest civilization,” including ancient Egypt.
The definition of what constitutes a civilization is hazy, but generally, a culture must achieve several hallmarks, most notably urbanism — that is, cities — irrigation, and writing, all of which the Sumerians possessed. After around 2000 B.C., the Sumerian civilization gave way to the Babylonian civilization in Mesopotamia, which is credited with discovering mathematical truths such as trigonometry and prime, square, and cube numbers — concepts that were later developed by the ancient Greeks over 1,000 years later.
According to American historian Samuel Noah Kramer, the Sumerians may have invented religion by erecting towering temples known as ziggurats in their cities and establishing priestly castes devoted to the ritual worship of specific deities (opens in new tab). Which god was the most powerful in the vast Sumerian pantheon depended on location and time: for example, the sky god Anu was popular in early Uruk, while the storm god Enlil was worshiped in Sumer. Inanna, the “Queen of Heaven,” may have begun as a fertility goddess in Uruk; her worship spread to other Mesopotamian cities, where she was known as Ishtar, and may have influenced later civilizations’ goddesses, such as Astarte among the Hittites and Aphrodite in Greece.
A story very like that of the Hebrew Bible’s Noah, who built an ark stocked with animals to preserve his family during a great flood caused by divine wrath, is related in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Archaeologists think(opens in new tab) it was originally a Sumerian story from about 2150 B.C. — centuries before the Hebrew version was written.
Some scholars argue that other civilizations may be as old or even older than that of the Sumerians. “I would say that Egypt and Sumer were basically contemporary in their emergence,” said Philip Jones, the associate curator and keeper of collections at the Babylonian section of Philadelphia’s Penn Museum.
Decades of war and unrest in Iraq have meant that archaeologists haven’t been able to access many Mesopotamian sites, but Egyptologists have kept digging, Jones told Live Science. As a result, archaeologists in Egypt have discovered writings (opens in new tab) that are just as old as the earliest Sumerian writings, implying that the oldest phase of the ancient Egyptian civilization emerged around the same time as the Sumerian civilization: around 4000 B.C.
Another possibility is the Indus Valley civilization, which arose in what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northwestern India and dates back to at least 3300 B.C., based on the earliest artifacts discovered there. But, according to Jones, “we might find very early stuff in the Indus Valley.” “It wouldn’t surprise me if we dug up something that was just as early.”
Jones believes that early trade along the Indian Ocean’s edges aided the development of the earliest civilizations — the Egyptian beside the Red Sea, the Sumerians at the northern end of the Persian Gulf, and the Indus Valley civilization further east — from the pre-civilized people who lived there before them, by bringing resources and ideas from further afield.
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