River valleys were important to ancient civilizations, and water was essential to the development and growth of societies. Early civilizations were dependent on river valleys for survival in many respects, as these bodies of water played a pivotal role in the revolution of food production, population and economic growth and, eventually, structured governments.

Impact of Water on Food Production

The emergence of food production, made possible by a reliable water supply, had a profound effect on the evolution of human society. Initially, people obtained food through hunting and gathering methods to meet individual needs. However, when they discovered the usefulness and practicality of using water to produce and distribute food, relying solely on hunting and gathering was no longer a necessity means for survival. Since food production is essentially what makes civilization possible due to the fact it opens up avenues for trade and economic development, it is easy to see why early civilizations were so dependent upon the rivers.  Ancient Mesopotamia ("the land between the rivers" - that is the Tigris and the Euphrates - in modern day this land is primarily in Iraq) was the region settlers chose. The first-known civilization emerged in Sumer, a region in the southern section of Mesopotamia.

Map of the Tigris - Euphrates Watershed
Credit: Karl Musser, based on USGS data/Creative Commons License with Attribution-Share Alike

Mesopotamia was part of the "Fertile Crescent" and housed early civilizations.

At the end of the last Ice Age, approximately 10,000 - 15,000 years ago, the climate warmed. Over time, this permitted people to shift from hunting and gathering to find alternate ways to utilize the natural environment. The detection of seeds led to the introduction of agriculture because plants could be grown intentionally, and this wonderful discovery alleviated the need to search for plants and gather food. It took a lot of work and time for this concept to revolutionize, by about 7000 BC towns had emerged, along with populations with as many as 1,000 people or more. 3

Domestication of Animals

As a result, a food-producing revolution was initiated. Next came the domestication of animals, and this replaced humans needing to consume wild game as their meat source, as they no longer had to hunt down sources for meat. Domesticating animals provided an avenue for people to learn how to manipulate animal breeding to use for controlled purposes. Herding was introduced, and this discovery removed the burden of human labor for obtaining food and shifted it to animals. Water played a vital role in this transition as well.

Trade Networks and Increased Growth of Agriculture

Approximately 10,000 years ago in the region of Mesopotamia, humans learned to domesticate animals, cultivate crops and established trade networks between the Tigris, Euphrates and Nile River Valleys. Since farming and herding proved more productive than hunting and gathering, more people began to use these methods. This resulted in abundance in food supply which was totally dependent upon the solid water supply the river valleys provided.

Running sheep
Credit: Leigh Goessl

Historians say ancient Mesopotamians had domesticated sheep goat and pigs by 7000 BC. Later came cattle, donkeys and horses.

Although agriculture was hard work, the people in these growing civilizations found it yielded huge benefits. The larger food supply allowed the population to expand even further; starvation decreased and humans were surviving longer than they had in the past. This larger population led to increased settlements of people congregating in groups which grew into communities and later, cities. With more settlements developing, and extra food available to barter, trade routes were established which led to increased interaction between peoples. These trade routes enabled people to exchange food for other resources available in different regions. These changes led to increased economic development. As humans honed their agricultural skills, they learned they could also rotate crops, which led to more expansion of food supplies. Cultivating crops was also increasing during this time; some theories say this practice was developed in Jericho around 8500 B.C. A 2006 study also suggested the ancient city of Jericho had cultivated figs before grains after archaeologists discovered evidence of figs in an 11,400-year-old house. 5

Cultivating crops involved allocating some fields to remain dormant for a season which yielded richer soil and an even larger production of crops. This ability increased wealth and led to the transformation of communities to establish higher levels of political, religious and economic structures, all of which had a huge impact in the development towards modern human societies. As skills grew and people continued to learn ways to manipulate the environment, commerce and economic significantly increased as well. Engineering techniques were developed which utilized ditches and walls being constructed to protect villages from floods and unwanted intruders.

Societal Growth and Sharing of Ideas

All of these developments had a profound impact on society and, over time, set a perception of ownership of land and other assets. As wealth and trade increased, huts were replaced by houses and methods for cooking (i.e. ovens) were developed, which further shaped what would be perceived today as a "more civilized" existence. With trade expanding and becoming more common, people began to have more interaction with each other which led to the spread and sharing of ideas and practices amongst varying regions, creating a culture. The widespread growth of agriculture led to work, and a clear division of labor emerged.

The men were responsible for hunting and harvesting, while the women were designated to work with grains and prepare the food. This created a foundation for gender identities, which eventually led to complex social situations and perhaps even planted the seeds for inequality in later societies.

The emergence of food production affected the development of societies from a social, economic and political perspective. With the introduction of manipulated food production, avenues of trade opened up, larger societies materialized and the intermingling of diverse peoples. The delegation of labor represented a clear definitive authoritative action, which would be the foundation of later political establishments and governing bodies.

All of this revolution was made possible because of the abundance of water located in the nearby rivers in ancient civilizations. It's interesting to think about how civilization would have evolved without the proximity and availability of the river valleys. Much like it still is today, in ancient societies, water was an essential component which initiated the tremendous growth which occurred throughout these early civilizations.

Babylon, Iraq, 1932
Credit: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress/Public Domain

Photo of Babylon taken between Sept. 26 and Oct. 12, 1932.