GED Social Studies Practice Test: The Early Civilizations

The first human beings originated in southern and central Africa 100,000 to 30,000 years ago. They were hunter-gatherers and eventually began to develop the rudimentary aspects of civilization (art, belief systems, belief in an afterlife). During the Stone Age (approximately 500,000 – 5,000 years ago), people began to chip rocks into tools and weapons, and people migrated to Europe, Asia, and the Americas.  The last part of the Stone Age (8,000 to 5,000 years ago), the Neolithic Revolution occurred. People learned how to grow plants to feed themselves — agriculture — and therefore did not depend solely on hunting and gathering. With farming, people could store food they did not immediately consume (known as surplus) and people could trade food. This also led to the development of specialization. Some people were farmers, some priests (who interpreted and taught religious beliefs) became craftsmen, and others engaged solely in trade. Another important development was the taming and use (domestication) of animals such as sheep, cattle, pigs, and goats for food.

This is what we would called civilization. As a result of differentiation of types of work, social classes (known as stratification) developed.

The earliest civilizations began along rivers, as they provided a source of water for irrigation (providing water for crops).  Two of the earliest civilizations are the Egyptian,  based on and around the Nile River  and the Sumerians, based on and around the area between the Tigris and Euphrates River (a region known as Mesopotamia). Both began around 4000 B.C. E. (before the modern era, which we mark as the birth of Christ).

Both civilizations developed canal systems in order to bring river water great distances in order to water crops. Flooding was important because it brought the rich minerals of the rivers to the farmland and fertilized it.

There was no such thing (yet) as an empire. Each settlement became its own city-state, which encompassed a center of trade and activity and the farmland around it. In the early city-states, writing systems developed. This meant that ideas and beliefs could be permanently recorded and not subject to the changing interpretations (and distortions) of the oral tradition. One of the first comprehensive works of writing was the comprehensive system of laws written by King Hammurabi of the Babylonian Empire (in modern-day Iraq). This is known as Hammurabi’s Code and served as a crucial basis for later legal systems in many civilizations.

In North Africa, by the Nile River, the Egyptian civilization arose. It depended upon of the annual flooding to bring rich nutrients to the agricultural land. Egypt was similar to the Sumerian civilizations in that it had a writing system, a body of spiritual beliefs, artwork, and a system of social classes. However, as the civilization was centered around just one river, it was easier for the Egyptians to develop cities. Eventually, cities became empires, each ruled by a king known as a pharaoh. Around 3,000 B.C.E., the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were united under one ruler. This formed a dynasty (a family of royals in which the throne passed from relative to relative).

In both Mesopotamia and Egypt there were strict social hierarchies: kings and priests were the highest class; followed by nobles (often relatives of the rulers), and then landowners. Artisans and tradesmen were the next class. At the bottom of the pyramid were criminals and slaves. It was the slaves who build Egypt’s famed pyramids, which were complex tombs that both held the bodies of dead rulers and honored the spirits of ancestors. In both Mesopotamian and Egyptian societies, religions were polytheistic, with a wide variety of gods, each believed to be responsible for a particular force of nature or aspect of the earth.

Mesopotamian civilizations were the first to use the wheel for transportation (you are probably familiar with the wheels of the famed Egyptians chariots) and the use of clay for pots and storage vessels. They began to study the stars and planets (astronomy) and produced a calendar based on their observations of the moon. Egyptians, with a complex theology of the afterlife, practiced mummification of bodies and built elaborate tombs, which were believed to be necessary to accompany the departed to the next life. The Egyptians also invented surgery and practiced surprisingly complex medicine.

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