What Is The World's Oldest Known Civilization?
Countless civilizations were born and collapsed over thousands of years. So what is the oldest civilization we know?
About 30 years ago, this question seemed to have a simple answer. Around 4000 BC, the earliest phase of Sumerian culture emerged in the Mesopotamian region as the oldest civilization found mostly in present-day Iraq.
The Sumerians take their name from the ancient city of Sumer, a few kilometers south of the modern city of Kut in eastern Iraq.Archaeologists call the oldest Sumerian phase the Uruk period, after the ancient city of Uruk, about 80 kilometers southwest, where many of the earliest Sumerian artifacts were found.
But evidence unearthed in the past few decades suggests that the Sumerians had several rivals, including ancient Egypt, for the title of "oldest civilization."
The definition of what constitutes a civilization is unclear, but a culture in general must have many distinctive features, particularly urbanism, irrigation, and writing; and the Sumerians had all three.
After 2000 BC, the Sumerian civilization led to the birth of Babylonian civilization in Mesopotamia, known for its discovery of trigonometry and mathematical facts such as prime, square, and cube numbers. These were concepts that were further developed by the ancient Greeks more than 1000 years later.
According to historian Samuel Noah Kramer, the Sumerians may have also invented religion by building high temples in their cities, called ziggurats, and by founding castes of priests dedicated to the ritual worship of certain deities. Which god was most powerful in the vast Sumerian pantheon depended on place and time: for example, the sky god Anu was popular in early Uruk, while the storm god Enlil was worshiped in Sumer.
Inanna – “Queen of Heaven” – may have originally been a fertility goddess in Uruk; her worship spread to other Mesopotamian cities, where she was known as Ishtar, and may have influenced goddesses of later civilizations such as Astarte among the Hittites and Aphrodite among the Greeks.
A story very similar to the story of Noah in the Hebrew Bible, who built an ark full of animals to protect his family during a great flood caused by divine wrath, is told in the Epic of Gilgamesh.Archaeologists think this is a Sumerian story originally from 2150 BC.
Some scientists argue that other civilizations may be as old as the Sumerians or even older. "I would say that the origins of Egypt and Sumer were fundamentally contemporary," said Philip Jones, co-curator of the collections in the Babylon section of the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.
Decades of war and unrest in Iraq meant archaeologists were unable to access many Mesopotamian sites, Jones says, but Egyptologists continue to dig.
As a result, archaeologists in Egypt have discovered writings as early as the earliest writings from Sumer, which suggest that the earliest phase of ancient Egyptian civilization emerged roughly at the same time as the earliest phase of Sumerian civilization: around 4000 BC.
Yet another possibility is the Indus Valley civilization, which originated in what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northwestern India, and dates back to at least 3,300 BC, according to the earliest artifacts found there.
“But we can find very early things in the Indus Valley. It wouldn't surprise me if something came up this early." says Jones.
Jones suspects that early trade along the shores of the Indian Ocean helped these earliest civilizations (The Egyptians by the Red Sea, the Sumerians at the northern end of the Persian Gulf, and the Indus Valley civilization further east) flourish by bringing resources and ideas to them from the pre-civilized peoples who lived there before them.