1.3.2- Geography of First Wave Civs.

By: Jasmine Sholapurwalla, Ashley Jacobs, Mitch Rhodes, & Farha Hanif

1.3.2- Geography of First Wave Civs. | Geographical & Environmental Settings | Shang Civilization (2200 B.C.E. - 1766 B.C.E.) | Harappa (3,000-1,500 B.C.E) | Mohenjo Daro (3,500-1,700B.C.E) | Egypt (3150 B.C.E-30 B.C.E.) | Chavin (900- 300 B.C.E) | Olmec (1200-1400 B.C.E) | Mesopotamia (6000 B.C.E. - 500 B.C.E) | Summary | Citations

Geographical & Environmental Settings

Egypt, Mesopotamia, Shang, Mohenjo Daro & Harappa, and the Olmec & Chavin civilizations are characterized as the “first wave civilizations.” The geographical and environmental settings of these empires influenced the lifestyles of people and contributed to the development of the various cultures.

Shang Civilization (2200 B.C.E. - 1766 B.C.E.)


  • Located in northeastern China
    Map of Shang Dynasty
    Map of Shang Dynasty

  • In Yellow River Valley (Hwang Ho River)
    • Led to a stable agricultural surplus
      • Building of a trade centered community
  • Very isolated
  • Limited contact with other civilizations


  • Allowed for the cultivation of rice
  • Farming done with spades, sickles, and stone plows
    • Millet & wheat
    • Fields well watered without massive irrigation systems
  • Oracle bones
    • Suggests that environment allowed for rice cultivation
      • Because of the character for rice in script
    • King announced the time for planting

Oracle Bones:

  • Bones typically from the shell of a turtle inscribed with a bronze pin
  • Written in a fully developed script
  • Most literate culture of time
  • Recorded divination for the Shang king
    • Used to predict future events
    • Recorded activities and results of divination on subjects such as:
      • Weather, health, farming, fortune
  • Oracle bones proved existence of Shang dynasty

ritual wine container made of bronze
ritual wine container made of bronze

The Shang civilization had an advantage by being located on the Yellow River. Like many other first wave civislizations, the river basin allowed for the increased agricultural surplus (perhaps of rice). Oracle bones allowed for the inference about the environment in the region because of the character for rice in the oracle bone script. If there was a character for rice, it must have been cultivated in the region.
Oracle bone
Oracle bone

These bones provide the most concrete evidence about the Shang dynasty. Each bone contains the date of the divination, the name of the diviner, and the divination itself. Many times, the bones would also contain a record of the result of the divination. The diviners would use these oracle bones until the kings themselves began acting as diviners. Because of these bones, we now have brief knowledge about the weather, farming, family, and fortune of the people in this empire. It also created a record of the genealogy of the entire Shang royal family.

This leads us to conclude that the Shang dynasty was divided by social classes. The Kings seem to be on the top and the priests directly below them. Farmers are near the bottom of the social hierarchy.

The time period of the Shang dynasty is also characterized as part of the “Bronze Age” of China. Oracle bones and many ritual artifacts have guided us in this discovery. As societies began to live together in cities and in more permanent settings, religion and spiritualization became a part of life. Bronze was increasingly used to construct ritual materials. Because rituals were such a major function in life, the main concerns and ideas of the priests and rulers can be seen through this bronze work. Due to limited information about the Shang dynasty, historians are still unsure about the religious beliefs of the people and their views on god.

Bronze spouted ritual wine vessel
Bronze spouted ritual wine vessel

The ritual artifacts from this civilization suggest a complexity in their artwork. They had many intricate details carved onto their bronze work. The ritual wine vessels are examples of this. Also, the Shang must have had a degree of job specialization. After food surpluses, with the emergence of permanent housing and religion, it was necessary for certain people to specialize in creating the ritual items. They needed to be learned on bronze carving. Priests or “diviners” also emerged and needed to know the oracle bone script in order to create the divination for the kings. However, the majority of the population remained farmers.

Due to the limited historical resources from the Shang dynasty, there is little concrete information about the civilization, including its geography, environment, and religion.

Harappa (3,000-1,500 B.C.E)


  • Along the Indus river, in Northern Pakistan

  • Nutrient rich lands

  • surrounded by highlands and desert.


  • This civilization depended on the Indus river for agriculture and fresh water.
    • The Indus River flooded unexpectedly, so they used an irrigation system for farming and daily use.

The Harappan peoples city was very similar to the Mohenjo Daro city. They also built their homes out of brick, and they also used bronze tools. The Harappans also grew cereal crops and had some domesticated animals. They were also the first civilization to cultivate cotton for the production of cloth. They had a language known as Dravidian, and they were also literate. It’s believed that the Harappans also left their city because of the change in course of the Indus river.

Mohenjo Daro (3,500-1,700B.C.E)


  • Located in modern day southern Pakistan

  • Located in the Indus river’s flood plain

  • Surrounded by highlands and desert


  • It was a river valley, so it depended on rivers to help fertilize the soil and give them drinking water.
    • The River would flood unexpectedly, and cause damage to the city.
    • Because of the unexpected flooding they built an irrigation system for their agricultural and everyday needs.

It’s thought that the civilization consisted of at least 35,000 people. They ate cereal crops, and had domesticated some animals. They also had a sophisticated sewer system that allowed them to have public latrines for every block. The plumbing was made of clay, and their homes were made of brick. They also had stone tools, as well as bronze tools, which indicates some form of job specialization.It is believed that the reason they left the city was because the Indus River’s course had changed.

Egypt (3150 B.C.E-30 B.C.E.)


Map of the Nile River Valley
Map of the Nile River Valley

  • Along the Nile, above is Mediterranean (Great Sea), to the right is the Red Sea surrounded by deserts, mountains, seas, and cataracts
    • Less vulnerable to attacks


  • River valley, depended on rivers to sustain a productive agriculture in otherwise arid lands
  • Floods
    • Predictable time
    • Relatively predictable stages
  • Could follow very stable agricultural cycle
  • Agricultural system lasted for thousands of years
  • Stable environment led to positive thinking
    • There was an afterlife.
    • Life prevails over death

Predictable flooding of the Nile in Egypt allowed people to follow stable agricultural cycles. They used techniques that were not intrusive on the environment, instead they regulated the natural flow of the Nile. These techniques avoided salinization of the soil, which permitted the Egyptians to emphasize wheat production.

The plow: typical farming equipment used by the Egyptians to plant wheat
The plow: typical farming equipment used by the Egyptians to plant wheat

The Nile River Valley was surrounded on the North and East by the Great Sea (now called the Mediterranean) and Red Sea. On the South and West there was deserts, mountains and cataracts. Because of these environmental barriers, the Egyptians lived a relatively protected area. They had a sense of security from external attacks.

The agreeable environment directly related to the positive outlook the Egyptian people had on life. This is seen through their religion. Egyptians believed in eternal life; they buried their Pharaohs under large Pyramids with many of their possessions. This included food, gold, and even a boat to travel to the afterlife. Eventually common people could also gain eternal life.

Detailed statue of Egyptian goddess
Detailed statue of Egyptian goddess

The stable environment allowed job specialization. This job specialization is evident through the art Egyptians produced. Specialized Egyptians made detailed works in 2-D and 3-D (as seen in the sculpture to the right). Job specialization then led to class systems and unequal treatment of genders.

Chavin (900- 300 B.C.E)

Map of the Chavin Civilization
Map of the Chavin Civilization


  • In the Andes


  • Did not develop around large source of water
  • There were small streams, and small rivers
  • To avoid flooding from rain, they developed a successful drainage system
  • Stable environment led to...
    • Complex religion
      • Small elite have divine connections
    • Job specialization
    • Art such as carvings, sculptures and pottery

Olmec (1200-1400 B.C.E)


The Olmec Civilization in Meso-America
The Olmec Civilization in Meso-America

  • In what we know today as Mexico


  • Did not develop around large source of water
    • Because of need of water, rain gods were worshipped
  • There were small streams, and small rivers
  • Relatively stable environment led to...
    • Pyramids
    • Great busts of rulers, which were transported across great distances.
    • A writing system
        • Limited artifacts leave some skeptical
    • Job specialization

Although the Chavin and Olmec civilizations were in two different areas, they both developed without a large source of water. Even with this absence of water, both the Olmec and Chavin were able to develop successful civilizations. This is especially evident though the highly sophisticated art they produced. Because of this stable environment, these civilizations were also able to contract large projects, such as statues and pyramids, that could not be built without a surplus of food.
external image mexicotabolmechead01.jpg

Mesopotamia (6000 B.C.E. - 500 B.C.E)


Map of Mesopotamia
Map of Mesopotamia

  • Located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers

  • Part of the Fertile Crescent

  • Open environment
    • Vulnerable to invasion
  • Desert in the west
  • Surrounded by mountains in the north and east
  • Persian Gulf in the south


  • Lush vegetation and abundant wildlife
  • Rivers caused unpredictable flooding of marshy, low lying land
    • Resulted in canals, dikes, and creation of city-states farther uphill
    • Salinization of soil
    • Created negative outlook on current and after life
  • Farming supported with irrigation systems

Because of the unpredictable flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the agricultural system of Mesopotamia had irrigation that was based on complex systems of canals and dikes. This led to an increased salinization of the soil. Because of the extensive salt accumulation in the soil, Mesopotamia had to switch its main crop from wheat to barely which is more tolerant of the salt. Also, with deforestation and soil erosion, the amount of crops yielded decreased by about 65% from 2400 BCE to 1700 BCE.

Unpredictable flooding and the sometimes violent environment led to a different type of spiritual beliefs. In many Mesopotamian literature, the destructive environment is looked upon as the result of god’s wrath or of quarreling gods. As a result of this belief of angry gods, temples called ziggurats were built to please them. Most people did not believe in a possible eternal life or life beyond death. The Epic of Giglamesh is one such document reflecting this view.

Tell Asmar statues of gods/godesses
Tell Asmar statues of gods/godesses

In addition, the geography of Mesopotamia was very vulnerable to invasions. Mesopotamia was not surrounded by natural barriers that prevented neighboring civilizations from conquering it. As a result, Mesopotamia was ruled by a number of different empires. However, even without a completely cooperative environment, the Mesopotamians were able to advance as a civilization. They had scribes who could use a form of writing called cuneiform for laws and religious customs. Job specialization was common throughout Mesopotamia. There were scribes who could read and write. There were also people who specialized in the creation of ritual items or artwork. From this time period, the artwork seems to be complex because of the details and dimensions of statues. Also, there were many people required to construct monuments such as ziggurats. This describes the power of the government as well. The government needed be powerful in order to regulate all of these workers and direct them in the construction.

Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Olmec Case Study

Every civilization had a different environment and geographical region. A comparison of the Shang, Egypt, and Mesopotamia will allow one to see how geography can affect a civilization’s progress.


  • Predictable river floods & agreeable environment
    • Positive view on life
      • Eternal life (life after death)
      • Constructed pyramids for the eternal life of pharaohs
  • Surrounded by mountains, cataracts, deserts
    • Not vulnerable
    • Protected from invasion of other civilizations
  • Sustainable agricultural system (
    • Grew wheat
    • Lasted thousands of years
    • Continuity of civilization


  • Unpredictable river floods & violent environment
    • Negative view on life
    • Did not believe an afterlife was possible
  • Open environment
    • Vulnerable to invasions
  • Deforestation, soil erosion, and increasing Stalinization of soil
    • Decreased crop yields
    • Because of salt accumulation, barley grown instead of wheat
  • Environmental/geographical deterioration
    • Weaken city-states
    • Helped conquest by foreigners
    • Shifted center of civilization to the north


  • No large source of water
    • Worshipped rain gods
  • Along coastline
  • Stable environment
    • First to build pyramids
    • Large busts of rulers that were transported across great distances.
    • Believed to have developed a writing system
      • However, limited artifacts leave some skeptical
  • Rulers were most important religious figures


First Wave Civilizations

A major continuity from these first wave civilizations is the effect of geography on human survival. Throughout history, humans have been dependant on their geography and environment. If the environment is violent and completely uncooperative, it may be impossible for humans to progress their civilizations. An example of this is seen most prominently in the comparison between Mesopotamia and Egypt. Mesopotamia had to endure many environmental hardships whereas Egypt did not. As a result, Egypt built itself as a strong empire while Mesopotamia was unable to. Also, religion continued to play a major role in the lives of humans. As people settled down in these civilizations, religion shaped their day-to-day lives. Humans gave major importance to pleasing the Gods and practicing certain rituals. The priests and kings who seemed to have a stronger connection with God also were at the top of the social hierarchy. During these civilizations, there were many agricultural surpluses. This led to job specialization in the arts, as priests, scribes, etc. Also, the government had much more power than before because of the increased population size. This fact is also evident because of the construction of large monuments. In addition, there was a social hierarchy forming. Farmers typically were near the bottom while priests and kings belonged at the top. Religions were also starting to get more complex as more of them started believing in an afterlife. There was much more metal work being done during these civilizations as well, especially with bronze. The geography and environment of these civilizations were important for the history of humans because it affected practically every aspect of human life.