The cradle of civilization is any of the possible locations for the emergence of civilization. It is usually applied to the Ancient Near Eastern Chalcolithic (Ubaid period, Naqada culture), especially in the Fertile Crescent (viz. Lower Egypt, the Levant and Mesopotamia), but also extended to sites in Anatolia and the Persian Plateau, besides other Asian cultures situated along large river valleys, notably the Indus River in India and the Yellow River in China.
Civilization is usually taken to presuppose the presence of agriculture and urban settlements, and as such is a consequence of the Neolithic Revolution. This entails that there isn't a single "cradle", but several independent developments of civilization, of which the Near Eastern Neolithic was the first. The extent to which there was significant influence between the early civilizations in the Fertile Crescent and East Asia is disputed, while the civilizations of Mesoamerica are accepted as having emerged independently from those in Eurasia. If writing is taken as a prerequisite for civilization, the earliest "cradle" is Early Dynastic Egypt and Sumer (Jemdet Nasr).
The figurative use of cradle in the sense of "the place or region in which anything is nurtured or sheltered in its earlier stage" is traced by the OED to Spenser (1590). Rollin's Ancient History (1734) has "Egypt that served at first as the cradle of the holy nation."
The phrase "cradle of civilization" plays a certain role in national mysticism, and has been employed, for example, in Hindu nationalism (In Search of the Cradle of Civilization 1995), Armenian nationalism (Armenia: Cradle of Civilization 1970), Taiwanese nationalism (Taiwan - The Cradle of Civilization 2002), but also in esoteric pseudohistory such as the Urantia Book claiming the title for "the second Eden" or pseudoarchaeology surrounding Megalithic Britain (Civilization One 2004, Ancient Britain: The Cradle of Civilization 1921).
The Chinese scholar Liang Qichao put forward a theory in 1900 that there were four great ancient civilizations rather than a single cradle. The civilizations were Babylon, India, Egypt, and Ancient China.
The Columbia Encyclopedia in its article titled "civilization" described the earliest civilizations developed in the following parts of the world: "Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, India, the central Andes, and Mesoamerica.
The Encarta in its article about the development of early civilizations states: "some of these civilizations are the Andeanone, which originated about 800 BC; the Mexican (about the 3rd century BC); the Far Eastern, which originated in China about 2200 BC and spread to Japan about AD 600; the Indian (about 1500 BC); the Egyptian (about 3000 BC); the Sumerian (about 4000 BC); followed by the Babylonian (about 1700 BC); the Minoan (about 2000 BC); the Semitic (about 1500 BC); the Greco-Roman (about 1100 BC)...
In the United States and Canada, the AP World History teaches the five early civilizations as the foundation of human culture are: "Mesopotamia, Egypt, Indus, Shang (or Yellow River valley), Mesoamerica and Andean South America. These five "civilizations" are also discussed in this article.
The earliest signs of a sedentarization process can be traced back to the Mediterranean region to as early as 12000 BC, when the Natufian culture became sedentary and evolved into an agricultural society by 10000 BC. The importance of water to safeguard an abundant and stable food supply, due to favourable conditions to hunting, fishing and gathering resources including cereals, provided an initial wide spectrum economy that triggered the creation of permanent villages.
The earliest proto-urban settlements with several thousand inhabitants emerge in the Neolithic, while the first city to house several tens of thousands were Memphis and Uruk, by the 31st century BC (see Historical urban community sizes).
Historic times are marked apart from prehistoric times when "records of the past begin to be kept for the benefit of future generations";, that is, with the development of writing. If the rise of civilization is taken to coincide with the development of writing out of proto-writing, the Near Eastern Chalcolithic, the transitional period between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age during the 4th millennium BC is the earliest incidence, paralleled by Chinese proto-writing evolving into the Oracle bone script by the beginning of the Chinese Bronze Age from around 1200 BC, and again by the emergence of Mesoamerican writing systems from about 200 BC.
In the absence of written documents, most aspects of the rise of early civilizations are contained in archaeological assessments involving the development of formal institutions and the material culture. A "civilized" way of life is ultimately linked to conditions coming forth almost exclusively from intensive agriculture. Gordon Childe defined the development of civilization as the result of two successive revolutions: the Neolithic Revolution, triggering the development of settled communities, and the Urban Revolution that enhanced tendencies towards dense settlements, specialized occupational groups, social classes, exploitation of surpluses, monumental public buildings and writing. Few of those conditions, however, are unchallenged by the records: dense settlements were not attested in Egypt's Old Kingdom and absent in the Maya area, the Incas lacked writing altogether and often monumental architecture precede any indication of village settlement at all. Rather than a succession of events and preconditions, the rise of civilization could equally be hypothesized as an accelerated process that started with incipient agriculture and culminated in the Oriental Bronze Age.
The Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer emerges in the Ubaid and Uruk periods, culminating in the mid 3rd millennium before giving rise to the Akkadian Empire in the 23rd century BC, often identified as the first empire in history.
Eridu was the oldest Sumerian site, settled during the proto-civilized Ubaid period. Situated several miles southwest of Ur, Eridu was the southernmost of a conglomeration of early temple-cities, in Sumer, southern Mesopotamia, with the earliest of these settlements carbon dating to around 5000 BC. By the 4th millennium BC, in Nippur we find, in connection with a sort of ziggurat and shrine, a conduit built of bricks, in the form of an arch. Sumerian inscriptions written on clay also appear in Nippur. By 4000 BC an ancient Elamite city of Susa, in Mesopotamia, also seems to emerge from earlier villages. Whilst Elam originally adopted their own script from an early age they adapted the Sumerian cuneiform script to their own language. The earliest recognizable cuneiform dates to no later than about 3500 BC. Other villages that began to spring up around this time in the Ancient Near East (Middle East) were greatly impacted and shifted rapidly from a proto-civilized to a fully civilized state (eg. Ebla, Mari and Assur).
By 6000 BC predynastic Egyptians in the southwestern corner of Egypt were herding cattle. Symbols on Gerzean pottery, c.4th millennium BC, resemble traditional hieroglyph writing. In ancient Egypt mortar was in use by 4000 BC, and ancient Egyptians were producing ceramic faience as early as 3500 BC. There is evidence that ancient Egyptian explorers may have originally cleared and protected some branches of the Silk Road. Medical institutions are known to have been established in Egypt since as early as circa 3000 BC. Ancient Egypt gains credit for the tallest ancient pyramids and early forms of surgery, mathematics, and barge transport.
The earliest-known farming cultures in South Asia emerged in the hills of Balochistan, on the border between modern-day India and Pakistan. These semi-nomadic peoples domesticated wheat, barley, sheep, goat and cattle. Pottery was in use by the 6th millennium BC. The oldest granary yet found in this region was the Mehrgarh in the Indus Valley.
Their settlement consisted of mud buildings that housed four internal subdivisions. Burials included elaborate goods such as baskets, stone and bone tools, beads, bangles, pendants and occasionally animal sacrifices. Figurines and ornaments of sea shell, limestone, turquoise, lapis lazuli, sandstone and polished copper have been found. By the 4th millennium BC, Technologies included stone and copper drills, updraft kilns, large pit kilns and copper melting crucibles. Button seals included geometric designs.
By 4000 BC, a pre-Harappan culture emerged, with trade networks including lapis lazuli and other raw materials. The Indus civilization is known to have comprised two large cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, and more than 100 towns and villages, often of relatively small size. The two cities were perhaps originally about a mile square in overall dimensions, and their outstanding magnitude suggests political centralization, either in two large states or in a single great empire with alternative capitals. Or it may be that Harappa succeeded Mohenjo-daro, which is known to have been devastated more than once by exceptional floods The southern region of the civilization in Kathiawar and beyond appears to be of later origin than the major Indus sites. Villagers also grew numerous other crops, including peas, sesame seed, dates, and cotton. The Indus valley civilization is credited for a regular and consistent use of decimal fractions in a uniform system of ancient weights and measures.
Major cities of the civilization included Harappa (3300 BC), Dholavira (2900 BC), Mohenjo-Daro (2500 BC), Lothal (2400 BC), , and Rakhigarhi. The Indus Valley Civilization was mainly centered in what is now Pakistan and western India. Streets were laid out in grid patterns along with the development of sewage and water systems. This civilization of planned cities came to an end around 1700 BC either through external invasion and perhaps due to drying of rivers flowing from the Himalayas to the Arabian sea and geological/climatic changes in the Indus valley civilization area which resulted in the formation of the Thar desert. The origins of the invaders are a matter of conjecture. As a result, the cities were abandoned and populations reduced and people moved to the more fertile Ganga-Yamuna river area. The Indus Valley script remains un-deciphered. This theory is called the Aryan Invasion Theory. An alternative theory proposed is the Out of India theory, according to which there was no Aryan invasion into India, there was a continuity between the Indus Valley Civilization and the subsequent Vedic Age and that the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization was related to geological events.
The oldest pre-civilized Neolithic cultures found in China to date are the Pengtoushan, the Jiahu, and the Peiligang, all dated to about 7000 BC. Pengtoushan has been difficult to date and has a date variance from 9000 BC to 5500 BC, but it was at this site that remains of domesticated rice dated at about 7000 BC were found. At Jiahu, some of the earliest evidence of rice cultivation was found. Another notable discovery at Jiahu was playable tonal flutes, dated around 7000 BC to 6600 BC. Peiligang was one of the earliest cultures in China to make pottery. Both Jiahu and Peiligang developed millet farming, animal husbandry, storage and redistribution of crops. Evidence also indicates specialized craftsmanship and administrators in these Neolithic cultures (see History of China: Prehistoric times).
The early history of China is complicated by the lack of a written language during this period coupled with the existence of documents from later time periods attempting to describe events that occurred several centuries before. The problem in some sense stems from centuries of introspection on the part of the Chinese people which has blurred the distinction between fact and fiction in regards to this early history. By 7000 BC, the Chinese were farming millet, giving rise to the Jiahu culture. At Damaidi in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, 3,172 cliff carvings dating to 6,000-5,000 BCE have been discovered "featuring 8,453 individual characters such as the sun, moon, stars, gods and scenes of hunting or grazing." These pictographs are reputed to be similar to the earliest characters confirmed to be written Chinese.. Later Yangshao culture was superseded by the Longshan culture around 2500 BC. Archaeological sites such as Sanxingdui and Erlitou show evidence of a Bronze Age civilization in China. The earliest bronze knife was found at Majiayao in Gansu and Qinhai province dated 3000 BC.
Chinese civilization originated with city-states in the Yellow River valley. 221 BC is the commonly accepted year when China became culturally and politically unified under a large centralized empire, the Qin Dynasty. Successive dynasties in Chinese history developed bureaucratic systems that enabled the Emperor of China to control the large territory from the center.
The oldest known civilization in South America, as well as in the Western Hemisphere as a whole, the Norte Chico civilization comprised several interconnected settlements leading to the Peruvian coast, including the urban centers at Aspero and Caral. The presence of Quipu (an Andean recording medium) at Caral indicates its potential influence on later Andean societies, as well as the antiquity of this unique recording system. The stone pyramids on the sites are thought to be contemporary to the great pyramids of Giza. Unusually among Andean cities, no evidence of fortifications, or of other signs of warfare, have yet been found in the Norte Chico.
The domestication of maize is thought to have begun around 7,500 to 12,000 years ago. The earliest record of lowland maize cultivation dates to around 5100 BC
The Olmec civilization ended in 400 BC, with the defacing and destruction of San Lorenzo and La Venta, two of the major cities. This civilization is considered the mother culture of the Mesoamerican civilizations. It spawned the Mayan civilization whose first constructions began around 600 BC and continued to influence future civilizations.
The Chinese scholar Liang Qichao put forward a theory in 1900 that there were four great ancient civilizations in his verse essay, The Pacific Ocean in the 20th Century (二十世纪太平洋歌). The four civilizations were ancient China, Babylon, India and ancient Egypt. Liang Qichao divided the history of the world into three ages: "river age", "sea age", and "ocean age". The four great civilizations were in the river age and all of them developed along rivers.
This was an early version of the "Four great ancient civilizations" theory which is used in the study of history in China. This theory refers to four civilizations (China, Babylon, India and Egypt) as cradles of civilization.