Ancient River Valley Civilizations

Forgot everything about the ancient River Valley Civilizations from high school history? Of course you did – it’s ancient! Let’s review the society, politics, interaction with the environment, culture, and economy of Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and China!

(Listen to the full episode here!)

SPICE themes

Once civilizations rise, we enter officially the Ancient Era. This lasts from around 4000 BCE to 600 BCE and it consists of four main civilizations: Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and China. Because, honestly, you don’t really need to know every last detail about these civilizations, instead I want to talk about a few characteristics according to SPICE themes.

SPICE stands for Social Political Interaction w/ environment Cultural and Economic – it’s one of many tools teachers use to help kids understand and simplify massive concepts in history. I chose SPICE because it gives me the opportunity to tell the kids to “SPICE up the Romans!” which they love, I’m sure.

Social Structures

Socially, things get pretty rigid in the Ancient Era and they basically stay that way for most of the rest of history. As jobs get specialized, society gets divided up into varying degrees of privilege. Even though agricultural work is the most important job of this time, it typically is the lowest on the social ladder – just above slaves. The further you were from agricultural work or manual labor, the more highly regarded you were.

I’ve tried to find a decent theory on how this all started – who keeps working on the farms and who gets to go become a king? My best guess is that the more intelligent members of society figured out how to work less and talk more and they became politicians, but really I have no idea.

What we do know is that the patriarchy – or the dominance of men in a society – gets firmly established during this time period. We know this by the fact that there are very few records of female rulers in any of these ancient civilizations. There are a few exceptions and the biggest exception that proves the rule is Hatshepsut, the female Egyptian pharaoh. Pharaoh-ess? I guess they never really needed a name for it since it was just the one.

She ruled as a queen alongside her husband in the 15th century BCE. When he died, she ruled as regent for her stepson until her death. This is a key trend that happens throughout history: typically when women want to rule they have to do it in the name of a man in their life. Typically they’ll rule for their young son. Her reign was marked by peace, monument building, and the general flourishing of Egypt – nicely done Hatshepsut.

Unlike earlier rulers, she was less concerned with conquering new lands and more interested in improving the land that Egypt already controlled. Unfortunately, her stepson didn’t seem too keen on the idea that his legacy would be tarnished by the embarrassment that his stepmom ruled for him so when she died, he tried to erase her from the archaeological record.

Hatshepsut died when she was around 50 years old – recently scientists have speculated that her death was caused by a salve to fix a chronic skin condition that may have had toxins or carcinogens in it. What a stereotypically female way to go – death by lotion. 

Political Development

Politically, these river valley civilizations were pretty straightforward. They were theocracies, or more specifically,  autocracies rooted in religion. In all civilizations, the kings were considered messengers of the gods but in Egypt the pharaoh went one step further and was seen as the representation of a god on earth. King Tut, for example, is short for “Tutankhamun” or “the living image of Amun” who was the main god of the Egyptian Empire. 

When the pharaoh died he became divine and passed on his sacred powers to his son – creating these epically long dynasties that provided stability for Egypt. I always think about this when I watch the news and see everyone flabbergasted at how much the Middle East is struggling to create western-style democracy. Like, give them some space! They’ve been used to authoritarian theocracy for about 6,000 years – it may take them a few tries to figure it out.

Anyway, on the topic of leaders justifying their rule, China is the outlier here because their religion is different from the others. While Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley (we think – again we can’t read their writing) were all pretty standard-issue polytheistic religions, China focused more on ancestor worship. Instead of seeing their rulers as messengers of the gods, they believed that the king had received a Mandate from Heaven.

This idea is so important to Chinese history – it is the divine right of dynastic rule but it is ALSO used to justify overthrowing those rulers. This is a really cool loophole that exists in Chinese history. Whereas other civilizations only focused on the top-down approach (the gods have chosen the king so shut up and do what he says or else you’ll suffer forever in the afterlife. It’s a pretty compelling campaign ad.)

But in China, the Mandate of Heaven could be lost if a ruler had grown corrupt or unfit to rule. If the people of China saw that he was losing his mandate – maybe there were environmental disasters or discontent among the people – then a new leader could claim that they must honor the heavens by overthrowing him and establishing a new government with a new mandate.

If I’m being cynical – which is where I feel the most at home – if I lived in ancient China, I would wait for a bad crop year and then go around to the peasants and talk about how terrible the emperor must be for the heavens to punish us like this. Then, when they inevitably rebel, I would go to the elites and say, “See! Peasant revolts – he’s lost his mandate” Cue full scale dynastic overthrow, and boom – I’m the new emperor.

As I’m writing this I’m realizing that this is essentially what Mao Zedong did. I’m not sure how I feel that my instinct so quickly turned to a corrupt personality cult but I’m just going to breeze past it…

Back to the Mandate of Heaven, this is a surprisingly advanced idea for the Ancient Era. It’s essentially an early version of the social contract between a government and its people that guys like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes will claim to have invented during the Enlightenment. This is a recurring theme in history: Asia does something cool and doesn’t make a big deal about it, so Europe steals it, tweaks it, and then freaks out over how great they are.

Interaction with the Environment

The I in SPICE themes stands awkwardly for Interaction with the Environment. The Type A in me desperately wants it to be one word so that it matches the other four themes but that’s an issue for my therapist. In the Ancient Era this theme is 100% the most important. The natural environment dominates ancient life and dictates everything else about your civilization.

The best example of this is with the flooding of rivers. The river is key to your success as a civilization – again, they’re called River Valley Civilizations – and how it floods has enormous ripple effects (see what I did there?) For example, the Nile River is relatively straight and it floods predictably – so much so that they could set their calendar to it, and by that I mean that they were able to create a surprisingly accurate 365-day calendar using the annual floods as the marker event.

Meanwhile, in Mesopotamia the Tigris and Euphrates flood unpredictably and uncontrollably. Remember that ancient civilizations believed that everything in their natural world was dictated by the gods. So, if your river floods predictably every year, producing highly fertile soil in its wake, then the gods must be pretty pleased with you. Life is good – and so is the afterlife.

That’s why the Egyptians were so obsessed with mummifying and entombing dead people – the afterlife was so great that you should bring your cats! On the other hand, the Mesopotamians developed a really dark outlook on the gods and the afterlife. And documents detailing the Mesopotamian concept of the afterlife are dark as hell – literally.


Culturally, religion was the most important factor in ancient life but they also had other things going for them too. Some great literature was produced during this era – the Epic of Gilgamesh is considered the first  work of literature and it centers around a massive flood – a story that we find in almost every other early civilization (think: Noah’s Ark).

Mesopotamia also produced Hammurabi’s Code, one of the earliest law codes that is documented on a massive black stone pillar that you can visit in the Louvre. This is the famous “eye for an eye” legal system but it was a little more complicated than that. For example, if you poke out the eye of an equal, then your eye gets poked out too but if you put out the eye of a slave you only have to pay the owner ½ the slave’s value. Now that’s a bargain!

In the Indus Valley, even though we know so little about them, their main cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro tell us that they were incredibly advanced technologically. Their cities were laid out on a perfect grid system that must have required extreme government planning, they had multi-story buildings (which is a big deal, I promise) and even a rudimentary plumbing system.

But my favorite cultural artifact from the ancient era is easily the oracle bone. In China, part of the practice of ancestor worship consisted of divination to communicate with your ancestors. Fortune-tellers (and if you’re not picturing Professor Trelawney from Harry Potter then you may be listening to the wrong podcast) would carve symbols on an ox bone or tortoise shell. They would heat it up until it cracked and then interpret the patterns for answers. 

These are such cool artifacts because they give us insight into some of the deepest concerns and questions that people were having during the Shang Dynasty. I guess that’s how future historians will feel about being able to use all of those transcripts of our Google searches to write a book on how the 21st century world was inordinately interested in single-serving microwave mug brownie recipes and cat worship (because some things never change. Instead of the sphinx, we honor them by putting slices of bread on their face.)


The last theme is Economics which is by far my least favorite. But there is an interesting theory that comes up in the real world more often than you think. So there was this book published in 1997 called Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. It was all the rage if you were a geographer and a… nope, really just geographers. Diamond is a biologist/geographer who wanted to get to the bottom of why Eurasia – and Europe more specifically – was able to seemingly “win” history. What he comes up with is the theory that Eurasia’s success was predicated on its east/west axis.

So if you look at a map of the world you’ll notice that every continent except Eurasia is taller than it is wide – meaning they are oriented on a north-south axis. To travel from one end to the other, you would have to cross a lot of different latitudes or longitudes – whichever one is horizontal – and also a lot of different climate zones. So if I had just domesticated this really strong new type of corn, for example, it wouldn’t be able to grow in as much of the landmass because so much of the continent is in a different climate zone. And to reach the other climate zone where it could grow, I would have to cross the equator and possibly other zones where the plant wouldn’t survive.

But, Jared Diamond points out that Eurasia is wider than it is tall and so there are these loooong stretches of land that are all in the same climate zone. This makes it easier for exchange to occur – exchange of plants, animals, people, ideas, innovation, etc. So Diamond’s theory on why Eurasia was able to “get ahead” of the rest of the world was because of their geography. All these different river valley civilizations were situated in relatively similar climate zones and so they were able to share ideas and develop faster because of it.

It’s important to note that there has been some criticism of this theory by other academics – for one, it assumes that Europe has consistently “won” history which really isn’t true – for most of world history, East Asia and the Middle East are dominating.

But it also pushes the blame associated with things like conquest and imperialism back to some long-ago environmental factor – in a way making it easier to excuse the terrible things that Europeans did in the name of their superiority as geographically predetermined or inevitable.

At the end of the day it’s a pretty good theory that has some problematic implications – but for now you can just impress people at your next party by asking them their opinion on Jared Diamond’s theory of geographical determinism in world history. And just hope to god that no one else at the party has actually read the book or listened to this podcast.


Oracle bone (divination on tortoise shell), National Museum of China [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“The Code of Hammurabi”, L.W. King (transl.), The Avalon Project, Lillian-Goldman Library, Yale Law School, 2008

Emily Mark, “Oracle Bones”, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2/26/2016

“Hatshepsut”, Biography.com, 2018

“King Tut”, Biography.com, 2018