Ancient Civilizations

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    2K E Y T O P I C S

    The First Humans The earliest human cultures. Art of nature and the dead. Megaliths.

    Mesopotamia Sumerian writing and a war

    of the gods. Sacred mountains. Near Eastern empires,

    from Babylon to Persia.

    Ancient Egypt Pyramids and temples. Akhenatens brief

    revolution. Art of the afterlife.

    Asia and America Indus Valley cities. The mystic Vedas and

    Hindu epics. Bronze Age China. Ancient America

    The Ancient World

    2.1 Funerary mask of King Tutankhamen, c. 1340 B.C.Gold inlaid with enamel and semiprecious stones, height 21 ins (54 cm). Egyptian Museum, Cairo.The coffin of King Tutankhamen contained his mummified body beneath this splendid gold mask.The belief that the human soul lived on after death was one of the first and most important religious ideas of humans in the ancient world. Ancient tombs in Egypt, China, and the Aegean areessential sources for our knowledge of ancient civilizations.

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    they developed a culture that shares much with laterhuman civilizations. They built monumental struc-turesmystic circles of stone and swelling mounds ofsoilto commune with the powers of heaven and thedark earth. They buried their dead with provisions toconsole their spirits in the next life. Around their fires,they must have chanted stories of cosmic battles andheroic deeds.

    Early humans made their most rapid cultural progressduring the Upper Paleolithic period, or Late Stone Age(see chart page 26). In this span, barely a tenth of theirhistory, humans learned to make tools, sew clothing,build dwellings, bake clay, andmost spectacularlydraw and paint. In the caves of southwest Europe, artistspainted and engraved images of great animals of powermammoths, bison, lions, and rhinoceroswith uncannyrealism. At Lascaux [LAH-skoh] in France, oxen andhorses seem to thunder across the cave wall (Fig. 2.2).

    In 1922 a British archaeologist and his Egyptian assis-tants were the first to look on King Tutankhamen (Fig.2.1) in nearly 3,500 years. In the 1970s, millions morewould file through the exhibition of King Tutankhamenstomb. What was the fascination of this god-king, dead atage nineteen, buried in such glittering splendor in Egypts fertile valley? Perhaps, King Tutankhamen could revealthe secrets of the ancient world: its stories of creationand the gods, its rulers worshiped as gods, its monumentsto divine power and the mystery of death. In the eyes ofKing Tutankhamen, so ancient yet so familiar, perhapswe see the elemental beginnings of human civilization;from his lips, perhaps we hear the tales of the first adven-tures of the human spirit.

    The First HumansCharacterize the likely purpose or function of Stone Age art.

    The first modern humans appeared some 200,000 yearsago in Africa, eventually migrating to Asia and Europeand beyond. The earliest humans sustained themselvesin small clans by hunting and gathering food; eventually,

    The First Humans 25

    2.2 Hall of Bulls, Lascaux, France, c. 15,00013,000 B.C.Paint on limestone.Paleolithic artists may have applied paint by chewing charcoal andanimal fat, and spitting the mixture onto the cave walls. Note how the animal forms at center left are superimposed on one another,perhaps a representation of spatial depth.

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    By the Neolithic period, or New Stone Age (see chart),humans had begun to shape the physical environmentitself, creating megalithic (large stone) structures. One ofthe earliest, begun about 10,500 B.C., has been found atGbekli Tepe [guh-BECK-lee TEPP-ee], in modern-dayTurkey. Here early Neolithic builders constructed suc-cessive sacred rings, containing gigantic T-shaped pillarscarved with animal figures. The most famous megalithicshrine, Stonehenge in England (Fig. 2.3), was built muchlater. Its circular outer ring is composed of standingmegaliths in post-and-lintel form. The stones astronomi-cal alignment indicates that Stonehenges builders wor-shiped cosmic forces; on-site burials, recentlydiscovered, suggest a belief in its healing powers.

    The Neolithic saw perhaps the most important shift inhumans way of life, from food-gathering to food-growingeconomies. Human domestication of crops and ani-malstoday called the Neolithic revolutionenabledthe first large-scale human settlement, first in Asia andeventually across the globe.

    MesopotamiaIdentify similar religious themes and artistic features inancient Near Eastern civilizations.

    The largest citiesand the first centers of human civi-lizationarose in the ancient Near East (southwest Asiafrom present-day Turkey to Iran and Arabia). At thisregions heart were the easily irrigated plains ofMesopotamia (literally between the rivers, located inpresent-day Iraq)a region justifiably called the cradleof human civilization (Fig. 2.4). In Mesopotamia [mez-oh-po-TAY-mee-uh], cities arose along the Tigris andEuphrates [yoo-FRAY-teez] rivers that nurtured achieve-ments in the arts, writing, and law. Mesopotamias richcities were also the prize for a succession of empires thatdominated the ancient Near East and northern Africaduring ancient times.

    The SumeriansBy 3500 B.C., Mesopotamias fields and pastures sup-ported a dozen cities inhabited by the Sumerians [soo-MER-ee-uns], the first people to use writing andconstruct monumental buildings. Sumerian writing(called cuneiform) originally consisted of picturespressed into clay tablets, probably used to record con-tracts and tabulate goods. Sumerian cuneiform eventu-ally evolved into a word-based and then a sound-basedsystema rapid and important progress for human civi-lization. The final stage would be alphabetic writing, fullyachieved in Mycenaean Greece (see page 41).

    Sumers riches supported a substantial ruling class and

    The walls of Chauvet (SHOH-vay) in France, discoveredin 1994, are densely decorated with more than four hun-dred animal images. These Paleolithic chambers were probably the site of ritual worship and painted by tribalmembers skilled in hallucinatory and magical techniques.

    Late Stone-Age sculptors rendered the human imagein vivid and stylized forms carved in stone or molded inclay. Most of the figures so far unearthed are female, oftenpregnant or with exaggerated sexual features (see Fig.2.7). Scholars speculate about the function of these firstsculptures: were they religious objects, adornment, or perhaps magical charms to induce fertility and easechildbirth ?

    26 The Ancient World

    2.3 Stonehenge, Salisbury Plain, England, c. 21002000 B.C.The largest stones of this megalith, weighing 50 tons, were hauledfrom a site 150 miles away. The outer circle of standing stones,topped by lintels or beams, was oriented to mark the solstice.

    P R E H I S T O R I C C U L T U R E S

    Upper Paleolithic (Late Stone Age)

    40,00010,000 B.C.Chipped stone tools; earliest stone sculptures; cave paintings;migration into America

    Neolithic (New Stone Age)

    10,0002300 B.C.Polished stone tools; domestication of plants and animals;Stonehenge; potters wheel (Egypt); rock art (Africa)

    Bronze Age

    23001000 B.C.Metal tools and weapons; development of writing (China, India)

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    In their sacred buildings, the peoples of ancientMesopotamia honored the divine forces that controlledthe rain and harvests. The first monumental religiousstructures were Sumerian stepped pyramids called ziggurats. Often made of mud-brick, the ziggurat wasactually a gigantic altar. In mounting its steps, worshipersrose beyond the ordinary human world into the realm ofthe gods. The great ziggurat at Ur-Nammu (c. 2100 b.c.)was dedicated to the moon-god and was probably toppedby a temple for sacrifices (Fig. 2.6).

    Empires of the Near EastThe myths and art of the ancient Near East reflected thesuccession of conquerors and empires that governed theregion. Typically, rulers were regarded as gods, sons of

    the leisure time necessary for fine arts. In a Sumeriantomb at Ur, archaeologists have found the sound box of aspectacular lyre, decorated with a bulls head (Fig. 2.5).The head itself is gold-covered wood, with a beard of lapislazuli, a prized blue stone. The lyre was probably used ina funeral rite that included the ritual sacrifice of themusician who played it.

    The Sumerian religion, as with most ancient belief, isknown through surviving fragments of myth (see KeyConcept, page 29). The Su