History of the First Cities: Mesopotamia, Indus River Valley, and Yellow River Valley

Do you live in a big city? Or do you live in a small town? Or do you live far away from everyone else? I grew up in a medium-sized town, but it always fascinates me to visit big cities. It’s amazing to see a city be able to function with so many people in such a small area. For example, if you visit one of the biggest cities in the United States like New York, many people live and work in skyscrapers, which reach very high into the sky. They do this so more people can fit within a small geographical area. And usually, everything you need to survive such as grocery stores is nearby. If you grew up in a small town, you may have lots of space but also have to drive a little further for groceries.

Before Cities

Have you ever wondered how big cities came to be? Throughout human history, cities didn’t always exist. If you were to travel back into history 10,000 years ago most people lived in small tribes or communities and either hunted and gathered or farmed a small area of land. Even for many years before farming early humans moved often, hunting animals for or gathering nuts and seeds, and berries for survival. It was a pretty hard life! They were always on the move because once the animals and other food in the area were gone, they had to be on their way. They lived in shelters or caves and did whatever they could to just barely get by. It’s hard to imagine, but humans lived this way for a VERY, VERY long time. Just think about that a moment and then think of where we are today. How did that change happen? It has taken about 12,000 years. Big changes in history often take time.

Early Farming

But eventually, these humans who hunted and gathered food for a living figured out ways to plant seeds to grow their own food! It seems obvious how to go about it today but it wasn’t for them. But once they did figure this out, instead of always having to move they could stay in one place and plant wheat and harvest it, which means to cut it down, then turn it into something like bread to eat. They also figured out new ways of watering their crops using irrigation. Irrigation is digging a ditch from a stream or river to their farms. Domesticating animals was another way they survived. Domesticating means to keep animals in an enclosed area and grow the group of animals so they didn’t have to hunt them. Animals such as goats, pigs, and cows were domesticated. So over time some humans moved less and were able to live in small towns living off their farms and animals in the same place. This is often called the Neolithic Age, which means New Stone Age.

In some areas of the world, these small communities began to grow into larger ones. This usually happened because they lived in an area with lots of water, like a river, and very good soil. Good soil made their crops grow and gave them more food. There was also lots of fish to eat and fresh water for drinking. It was easy to move around using the river and easy to trade with other towns. For these reasons and others, the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East was a popular area for humans to settle 10,000 years ago. It was called The Fertile Crescent because it’s shaped like a crescent or moon. It has fertile, or good, soil because of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that flow around it. 

First settlements

People in these areas settled down and soon many people were making lots of food and living nearby each other. The amazing thing about humans is when many humans are living and working nearby each other and putting their minds together, they share ideas, and come up with new ideas about how to solve problems! This is what happened in the Fertile Crescent. People became better at farming, better at domesticating animals, and soon figured out better ways to build things like pots for their food and bricks for their homes. They shaped clay into stronger bowls. This is called pottery. Bricks were made using clay and mud and other materials and then cooked in the sun or hot furnace to make them rock hard. 

Eventually, their homes changed from small huts to strong brick buildings that didn’t fall over as easily. They built buildings to keep their grain safe. They built beautiful temples to their gods. They built walls to keep their cities safe. Other humans who were still hunting and gathering and on the move saw the nice things of the city and wanted to take them. The people of the cities designed better weapons and better walls to protect themselves from these tribes and from other cities. 

Sumerians of the Fertile Crescent

In the Fertile Crescent in a region called Mesopotamia, many of these big cities grew very, very big. These people are often called the Sumerians, but they lived in many different cities with names such as Eridu, Uruk, Kish, Ur, and Akkad. Some of these cities had tens of thousands of people living in them, which was huge at the time! In the center of each of the cities was a gigantic temple. There the priests who ran the city lived and worked. Big cities required many people to make decisions and keep track of all of the work that needed to be done. They traded items with nearby cities and began to keep track of their money and other goods by using sticks to make marks on clay tablets. This early version of writing was called cuneiform.

As people in cities put their heads together they became better at shaping metals, too. This is called metallurgy. Very hot fires were created in furnaces and used to extract and mold the metal. Advances in metallurgy led to what is called The Bronze Age. Bronze was a very hard metal made from combining tin and copper. Bronze gave them stronger tools, made stronger bowls, vehicles such as chariots, and weapons when needed. This is also the time when the wheel became very popular and was used for carts and chariots, which made it much easier to move things around.  

Indus River Valley

The Sumerians weren’t the only people to build big cities during the Bronze Age. In what is now India, the people of the Indus River Valley built very impressive cities, too. Most big cities were very dirty and didn’t have clean water. You can imagine with all of the body waste that goes into toilets what a stinky and dirty place some big cities became. The people of Mohenjo-Doro recognized this problem and designed their city with canals on every street to move the dirty toilet water out and the clean water in. Their homes had clean water, bathtubs, and the city stayed very orderly and clean.

Two of the major cities were Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, which had around 30,000 people living there. The Harappans traded goods with the Sumerians and other nearby cities. They created their own beautiful style of pottery and used an early form of writing. Like the Sumerians, they made hard bricks by heating them in a fire and used these bricks and math to build their orderly cities. They dug deep into the earth to bring water up and into their homes. This is called a well. They found ways to store the water when there was lots of rain to use later. Unlike other cities, the Harappan people lived fairly equally and yet comfortably. The Indus River Valley people were very advanced for their time.

Yellow River Valley of China

Moving further east, in what is now China, the big cities formed around the Yellow River. Like the Tigris and Euphrates River, the Nile, and the Indus River, the Yellow River gave the people of China water to drink and often flooded to provide rich soil to plant their crops. Like the other cities, the Chinese learned how to mine deep in the earth and mined minerals such as tin and copper. They used these to make bronze, the very hard metal we talked about before. This gave them stronger tools, which helped them farm and mine and cut trees better. The ancient Chinese also developed their own form of writing and beautiful pottery. They wove better cloth for better clothing. Their cities slowly grew and became powerful in the area and with them came more inventions such as the compass, papermaking, the waterwheel, and gunpowder. Some of these technologies weren’t invented in Europe and other places in the world until a thousand years later.  

The Americas

Big cities weren’t only springing up in the Old World — China, the Near East, and India. Far across the ocean in the New World, the Americas, cities were popping up in areas like the Andes, which is modern-day Peru. These people also figured out how to plant huge farms for food. These farms gave them enough food so not everyone had to be a farmer, but could become an expert at a craft like making pottery, making cloth, or different kinds of tools. Some of the people in the cities became very good at math and used their knowledge to build amazing buildings and roads that connected their cities. Others used their tall stone temples to study and create maps of the stars. This is called astronomy. 

Other places that saw growth at this time were Mesoamerica and of course, Egypt, which we’d love to get into but not in this episode. If you want to learn more about Ancient Egypt be sure to check out our episode about Pyramids.  

Take a moment to think about how these places and people grew from small groups of farmers into major cities. Then think about the size of cities today. What is different about cities now? In what ways are they the same?  

Be sure to check out our related episodes about Mayan Civilization, Ancient Greece, Great Wall of China, and the Pyramids.