Ancient Civilizations: River Valleys (02 of 18) cover

Ancient Civilizations: River Valleys (02 of 18)

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Rivers were attractive locations for the first civilizations because they provided a steady supply of drinking water and made the land fertile for growing crops. Moreover, goods and people could be transported easily, and the people in these civilizations could fish and hunt the animals that came to drink water.
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Ancient Civilizations: River Valleys (02 of 18)

Objectives and Key Points

The first civilizations rose in river valleys and were characterized by a caste system and a strong government that controlled water access and resources.

Learning Objective

• Explain why early civilizations arose on the banks of rivers

Key Points

• Rivers were attractive locations for the first civilizations because they provided a steady supply of drinking water and game, made the land fertile for growing crops, and allowed for easy transportation.

• Early river civilizations were all hydraulic empires which maintained power and control through exclusive control over access to water. This system of government arose through the need for flood control and irrigation, which requires central coordination and a specialized bureaucracy.

• Hydraulic hierarchies gave rise to the established permanent institution of impersonal government, as changes in ruling were usually in personnel, but not in the structure of government.

Water Access

Water Access

© iStock

Key Terms

hydraulic empire

a social or government structure which maintains power and control through exclusive control over access to water.

Crescent

a crescent-shaped region containing the comparatively moist and fertile land of otherwise arid and semi-arid Western Asia, and the Nile Valley and Nile Delta of northeast Africa. Often called the cradle of civilization.

caste

a form of social stratification characterized by endogamy, hereditary transmission of a lifestyle. This lifestyle often includes an occupation, ritual status in a hierarchy and customary social interaction and exclusion based on cultural notions of purity and pollution.

Rivers

The first civilizations formed on the banks of rivers.

The most notable examples are the Ancient Egyptians, who were based on the Nile, the Mesopotamians in the Fertile Crescent on the Tigris/Euphrates rivers, the Ancient Chinese on the Yellow River, and the Ancient India on the Indus.

Each of these civilizations will be discussed in greater detail in later sections and chapters.

Advantages

Rivers were attractive locations for the first civilizations because they provided a steady supply of drinking water and made the land fertile for growing crops.

Moreover, goods and people could be transported easily, and the people in these civilizations could fish and hunt the animals that came to drink water.

Additionally, those lost in the wilderness could return to civilization by traveling downstream, where the major centers of human population tend to concentrate.

The Nile River and Delta

The Nile River and Delta

Most of the Ancient Egyptian settlements occurred along the northern part of the Nile pictured in this satellite image taken from orbit.

Image by Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team,NASA/GSFC

Hydraulic Empires

Though each civilization was uniquely different, we can see common patterns amongst these first civilizations because they were all based around rivers.

Most notably, these early civilizations were all hydraulic empires. A hydraulic empire (also known as a hydraulic despotism, or water monopoly empire) is a social or government structure which maintains power and control through exclusive control over access to water.

This system of government arises through the need for flood control and irrigation, which requires central coordination and a specialized bureaucracy.

Political Structure

This political structure is commonly characterized by a system of hierarchy and control based around class or caste.

Power, both over resources (food, water, energy) and a means of enforcement such as the military are vital for the maintenance of control. Most hydraulic empires exist in desert regions, but imperial China also had some such characteristics, due to the exacting needs of rice cultivation.

Rice Cultivation

Rice Cultivation

© iStock

Control

Karl August Wittfogel, the German scholar who first developed the notion of the hydraulic empire, argues that strong government control characterized these civilizations because a particular resource

(in this case, river water), was both a central part of economic processes and environmentally limited. This fact made controlling supply and demand easier and allowed the establishment of a more complete monopoly, and prevented the use of alternative resources to compensate as well.

However, it is also important to note that complex irrigation projects predated states in Madagascar, Mexico, China and Mesopotamia, and thus it cannot be said that a key, limited economic resource necessarily mandates a strong centralized bureaucracy.

Contrast

The typical hydraulic empire government, in Wittfogel's thesis, has no trace of an independent aristocracy – in contrast to the decentralized feudalism of medieval Europe.

Though tribal societies had structures that were usually personal in nature, exercised by a patriarch over a tribal group related by various degrees of kinship, hydraulic hierarchies gave rise to the established permanent institution of impersonal government.

Popular revolution in such a state was very difficult: a dynasty might die out or be overthrown by force, but the new regime would differ very little from the old one. Hydraulic empires were usually destroyed by foreign conquerors.

Question

Which of the following is a feature of a hydraulic empire?

A) A social or government structure which maintains power and control through water access

B) Existence in a fertile region

C) Lack of enforcement to preserve societal structure

D) Alternative resources in addition to those provided by rivers

Answer

A A social or government structure which maintains power and control through water access

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