The Beginnings of Human History

The story of humanity is an epic saga. It begins with the evolution of primates and the rise of modern homo sapiens. It took millions of years for human beings to change biologically .  This change resulted in higher order thinking skills and a new consciousness. That resulted in the rise of early civilizations and complex societies. The rise of civilization would also see new ideas, a change in culture, and more conflict. Technology such as the rise of stone tools and more sophisticated metallurgy propelled human advancement forward. From a common genetic ancestor, humans arose and are the last of a particular primate species. Agriculture shifted humanity’s settlement patterns. They could now remain in one area instead of migrating with the animals they hunted. Hunter- gatherers were gradually disappearing, except in only a few other places of the globe. Humanity’s early inception combines both history, science, and anthropology.

       Human evolution did not follow a linear path. It functioned more so like a tree with branches. All primates share a common genetic ancestor from which they branched off. Human beings did not go from apes to homo sapiens. Humans and apes are part of a superfamily. The term used to describe apes and humans is hominoids. It has been speculated that the common genetic ancestor was present around the Cretaceous period. Humans are closely related to chimpanzees, which an evolutionary  divergence occurred about five to eight million years ago. Other relatives include the gorilla and the orangutan. The ancestors and early humans were ones that migrated across the globe. The earliest hominin species have been located in the continent  Africa.  Sites in East Africa have provided vast fossil records and it continues to grow. Fossil remains have been located in Lake Turkana, Koobi Fora, Bodo, Konoso-Gardula, Oulduvai Gorge, and Broken Hill.


The first human migration was out of Africa and resulted in settlement in Europe, Asia, and Oceania. According to DNA evidence, modern humans evolved in Africa before exploring other continents.  There still is debate. The opposing view is mutiregional evolution.  This theory states that different populations of homo erectus produced homo sapiens specific to a particular area. DNA analysis has been critical to uncovering this mystery. All human beings regardless of race, have similar DNA. Humans have not existed long enough as a species to have major differences to emerge. There is variation, which can be seen in African groups. This means these groups have been established the longest in terms of evolutionary history. Knowing this, allows an estimation of the time period of the ancestor of all humans. They could have lived between 270,000 and 200,000 years ago.  It has been thought that the starting point of the migration was Herto and Omo Kibish. Homo erectus  was know to frequently navigate, but the multiregional  theory lacks the number of fossil sites to produce solid evidence. With the discovery of more extinct  primates anthropologists and biologist are just scratching the surface of a vast body of knowledge.

         Homo sapiens were not alone when they emerged. The homo neanderthalensis  was a contemporary primate. The homo genus went through the homo habilius, homo erectus, and around 200,000 years ago the homo sapien. The neanderthals were able to adapt to the freezing climate of the Ice Age. They has mastery of stone tools, which indicates they had some reasoning skills.  It is possible they had some ability in language, but not as developed. The Neanderthals did not survive and eventually vanished around 28,000 years ago. There are many theories in regards to their disappearance. They could have gone extinct, unable to compete with cro-magnons. They emerged from the Middle East and could have exterminated the neanderthals. The other theory is that there was some breeding between both of these primates. This is not an impossibility. Some modern humans could carry neanderthal DNA, but it is so diminutive it could not reveal anymore relevant information. Neanderthals did not have much of a language or method of recording their history. The cro-magnons around 40,000 years ago began creating artworks. Cave paintings reveal what life was like during the period of 40,000 to 10,000 B.C.E.  when humanity’s mental capacity grew. Cave paintings have been found in Spain, the Sahara, France, and South Africa. Tools, hunting weapons, and shelters began to emerge.


The animals that first emerged from Africa were now ready to master other parts of the globe. Higher order thinking skills allowed humans to solve problems. New technology would emerge, but it would become a source of conflict as time advanced.

       The next major step in human history was the birth of agriculture and the rise of farmers. The allowed for permanent settlements to develop. Hunting and gathering were being replaced with a life style that was more sedentary. While this did create a surplus, which allowed for food security it also created inequality. The root of much inequality in modern day society is the result of the disparity in property ownership. This was the early stage which would later divide the poor classes and the ruling classes. People who could sell their agricultural surpluses would have more influence over people who had none. A gradual system of dependence emerged. The Agricultural Revolution would have negative and positive effects on human life. The shift to agriculture (9500 to 8500 B.C.E) occurred in Turkey, Iran, and most of the Middle East. This process was slow in pace and was restricted solely to the Levant. It should be noted that other early human civilizations were having agricultural advancements of their own. Archaeology has uncovered numerous sites in which agricultural revolutions emerged independently. What has been discovered so far are sites in North America ( 2000 B.C.E), South America ( 3500 B.C.E), Central America (4500 B.C.E) , Africa ( 3000 B.C.E), East Asia ( 7000 B.C.E), and Oceania (6000 B.C.E). foragers and hunter-gatherers did remain in small numbers. There are still  societies that exist today on this model in Oceania, Latin America, and some parts of Africa. There were down sides to mastering the land. Farmers had to do more labor and powerful elites would dominate emerging societies. Diets became worse, because now farmers could produce more of the food they liked, instead of what they needed.  The cultivation of wheat, rice, and potatoes did not only cause dietary issues, but physical aliments. Ancient skeletons show that people of the time suffered from arthritis, hernias, and slipped discs. Besides health, there was the problem of protecting property. Raiders could easily take possession of the land, if farmers did not have adequate protection. Once humanity mastered agriculture life changed immensely.

        Agriculture allowed for humanity to settle in on place. This resulted in the rise of settlements, then towns, and cities. The rise of cities would result in the birth of empire. Ancient empire became the basis for civilization. The domestication of certain animals species also made this possible. Animals such as oxen and dogs were used for farm labor and other functions. As early as 10,000 B.C.E dogs were used or herding, including guarding of property.  The Middle East farmers bred animals to suit their needs. Chickens and pheasants originated in the Levant. Irrigation was another technological marvel that humanity used to build civilization. Supplying cultivated land with a source of water expanded agricultural output. Mesoamerican farmers and people who occupied the Fertile Crescent began developing new techniques for irrigation. The digging of channels allowed for the transport of mass amounts of water. The manipulation of reservoirs and sluiceways  created the perfect conditions for lands to be fertile. Egypt and China used their knowledge of astronomy to predict floods, so it would work to the advantage of their irrigation system. Climates that were wetter in certain locations required drainage as a top priority. Extra crops from new irrigation methods lead to the expansion of trade. City-States flourished on this trade in Mesopotamia and soon the world’s first empire would rise.

     Mesopotamian civilization was based around the Euphrates and the Tigris Rivers. The area in which the two rivers made contact was known as Babylonia. This also had two parts that were known as Akkad and Sumer. Sumerians mastered metallurgy, which gave them a technological advantage. merging copper and tin allowed for the creation of more lethal weapons. Around 3500 B.C.E war chariots emerged. Then came the potters wheel. There was a class of workers becoming prominent due to their skills. Artisans would soon occupy an important place in economies of states. Knowledge became valuable, which is why it had to be recorded. The Protoliterate period (3200-2800 B.C.E) saw the rise of a writing system. Sumerian is not related to the Semitic or Indo-European language family. This has led some scholars to believe that Sumerians most likely migrated from another area. It has been suggested that their place of origin was the Indus Valley. There is no solid evidence, so it remains speculative. Sumerian innovations soon spread to Egypt and the Indus Valley. The birth of cuneiform was a standardized writing system, which enabled scribes to maintain records. The earliest Sumerian symbols appear on clay tablets . This early form of writing was  a system pictographs and evolved into phonetic system.


When the writing system became more developed scribes rose to a higher position in society.  When scribes wrote a reed stylus was used to make impressions on clay. Humanity no longer needed to memorize large amounts of information, due to the fact it could be recorded. Those who could read and write had control of information. It was 3200 B.C.E when clay tablets were fully utilized. Scribes gained power in trade, law, and religion becoming a pillar of society. The Sumerian system of writing was adopted by  the Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians. Sumer was not united, but a collection of city-states . There were city-states that lasted as long as 3,000 years. The common Sumerian city-state consisted of public buildings, markets, water systems, a palace for the king, and a ziggurat.  The ziggurat was important to religion, for it was a shrine that was dedicated to the god of the city. The shrine was designed to give thanks and praise to the gods. The Old Sumerian Period ( 2800 B.C.E- 2300 B.C.E) witnessed the development of larger cities and a more complex societal structure. This period was full of warfare and change. City-states were theocracies and it was though that the gods ruled over the lands. The gods according to the Sumerian system appointed a mortal representative known as ensi. The high priest and the city governor were the ensi  designated to do the work of the gods.  This allowed the ensis class to rule autocratically over the population. As the city-state grew so did social stratification. Each temple owned a certain amount of land and they justified this by claiming it was to serve the gods. Clans also were land owners, who controlled it through a network of extended family and kinship groups. The lugal class had private estates in which they would exploit dependent laborers. The temple authorities were able to control the dependent laborers through force and manipulation. Lugals mastery of the system allowed them to dominate the society overtime. Slavery became a feature of Mesopotamian civilization. This slavery was not based on race or difference in culture. People who were the victims of conquest or had to pay off debts were enslaved. Slaves served as farmers, urban laborers,  temple servants, house servants, and even civic positions. The laws gave slaves some rights. Women, although they could attain high status  men still had authority over them in legal and economic matters. Sumer had gone through political and social transformation, but would later be rivaled by Akkad.

         Akkad grew into a dominant empire (2300 B.C.E to 2150 B.C.E). Prior to this Akkad was like other city-states descended into conflict. The increase in population and the decline of the power of the ensis created a hostile atmosphere. This occurred around 2900 B.C.E and was exacerbated by invasions by Persians, Arabia, and Turkey. Akkad was the city that surpassed others in power and expanded. The Akkadians were originally from the Arabian peninsula, but migrated to Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium B.C.E .A powerful ruler emerged to establish the world’s first empire Sargon I. The empire consisted of  areas around the Persian Gulf extending to the Mediterranean Sea. The birth of the Akkadian Empire was around 2334 B.C.E . Sargon was known for his conquests, but also reforms. He was concerned about the lower classes and supported the rise of a private merchant class. Sargon would send troops with merchants when they were going to foreign lands. Akkadian merchants could easily do business in Asia Minor free form potential harm. Akkad brought a level of stability to Mesopotamia. Even though Akkad became dominant it did not dismantle the Sumerian culture. That was the foundation of the empire. Sargon created a powerful state, but his successors could not effectively maintain it.A sharp decline in power occurred around  2100 B.C.E. There would then be another empire based around a city.

          Ur became the next city to be a major power in Mesopotamia. This marked the period known as the Neo-Sumerian ( 2150 B.C.E to 2000 B.C.E). Authority became centralized to reduce warfare and strife. Ur did this to stop Akkad and Sumer from separating. Governors were given more power in temple based cities as a method to counter rebellion. Records have been preserved of their highly regulated system. The government had regulation of commerce, agriculture,  and social standards. Culture and the arts  had been a major part of society and it flourished. Mesopotamian civilization also made advances in geometry, arithmetic, and algebra. Ur was successful for a century, yet it could not defeat its enemies . The Elamites invaded from Iran. Sumer was no longer a political force. Ur was slowly destroyed and the Sumerians disappeared. Their contributions to science and culture still remained. The Sumerian language remained as a tool of scholarship and religious rituals. Mesopotamia was in complete disorder for two centuries. Merchants exploited the lands and people. Lugals were fighting for water resources and control. Out of this power void Babylonia and Assyria would become the two predominant states.

     The   Babylonian period lasted from 2000 B.C.E to 1600 B.C.E.  The Amorites built a dynasty that was to last 300 years. A powerful king in the manner of Sargon I, united the land. Hammurabi was a warrior, but kept control through more than just conquest. The legal code he developed kept order. The 300 laws were meant to protect citizens against abuse. The reality was that members of the upper class were usually given the least harsh punishments for offenses. Slaves and members of the lower class were faced with extreme penalties. Punishments did not suit the crime. Corporal punishment was utilized and mutilation was a part of the criminal justice system. The state did attempt to protect women and children. However, men still had legal authority over them. Besides family law , Hammurabi’s code covered property , prostitution, adultery, and inheritance. The “eye for an eye” concept was not about justice, but controlling large amounts of people. Another political shift or major form of strife would lead to destruction of Babylonia. Decline for empires was inevitable and between 1600 to 1200 B.C.E. Babylonia reached its waning years. The Hitties invaded in 1595 B.C.E crushing the Babylonian Empire. Human history would march on with different individuals, wars, and socio-cultural  changes.


Edgar, Robert. Civilizations Past and Present. New York: Pearson Education, 2008.

Harari, Yuval. Sapiens a Brief History. New York: Harper Collins, 2015.

Hills, Ken. The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia. New York : Kingfisher Publications ,1999.


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