The birth of human culture predates writing. Evidence of culture can be found in the earliest Homo sapiens called Homo Neanderthals, who were toolmakers, wore animal skin clothing, cooked with fire, and possibly performed ritual burials of their dead. Culture, as we know it today, can be described as a specific way of life developed by a civilization and helps classify particular groups of people based on a common language, religion, cuisine, social habits, social structure, and even music.
In another category, Various Non-Western Socitial Developments, we will be discussing various non-western cultures from China to India and Native American to West African. However, we should take a moment to pause and realize that the evidence of culture did not have specific origins in Western or Non-Western cultures. Instead humankind was simply striving to create what would become known as culture and civilization. In many ways, the below discuss is a refresher about the ancient cultures who would lay the foundation for helping pull humankind out of the caves and into daylight. The below images are used as our primary examples that cultures, of some sort, lived and roamed the Earth in the distant past.
The cave paintings of Lascaux, France are located deep within the caves instead of at the opening where people might have lived and where natural light was available. Their technical sophistication “testifies to…early discovery [and] complete mastery of most of the graphic arts which we know today” (The Cave of Lascaux, n.d.).
Fig. 1 Wall painting wuth bird-headed man, bison, and rhinoceros. Lascaux Cave, Dordogne, France. ca. 15,000-13,000 BCE. (Sayre, 2013, p.3)
The Venus of Willendorf, a tiny statue depicting a woman, dates from around 25,000–20,000 BCE. Many believe her enlarged breasts and abdomen, suggesting pregnancy, may have a connection to human fertility.
Fig. 4 Venus of Willendorf, found in Willendorf, Austria ca. 24,000-21,000 BCE. (Sayre, 2013, p. 4)
Map 1. Major of Mesopotamia capitals between 2500 – 500 BCE. (Sayre, 2013, p. 15)
About 9,000 BCE, three important revolutions of humanity occurred: agricultural cultivation in the Fertile Crescent, which led to urbanization, which in turn led to the invention of writing. The people of Mesopotamia will also create and document the first laws on the stele Code of Hammurabi. According to the code, there were three social classes in Babylonia (1) upper class of nobles, (2) class of freemen, and (3) lower class of slaves. The code also outlines the penalties for variety of crimes from stealing to building codes and family affairs from marriage arrangement to adultery.
Fig. 3 Stele of Hammurabi, from Susa (modern day Shush, Iran). ca. 1760 BCE. (Sayre, 2013, p.18)
Mesopotamian history is divided among a variety of cultures: Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Neo-Babylonian. Each was unique but adopted traditions from the predecessors. Cuneiform was invented by the Sumerians about 3000 BCE and became the standard for writing throughout the region.
Fig. 4 Example of cuneiform writing from the Fragment of Tablet 11 of the Epic of Gilgamesh, containing the Flood Story. Seconf millennium BCE (Sayre, 2008)
About 5,000 BCE, another vastly different civilization was forming in Egypt. While Mesopotamian cultures continuously evolved, Egypt barely changed over thousands of years. Egypt’s geography gave protection while allowing the culture to develop. The annual floods provided a lush, fertile valley where agricultural development was able to flourish.
Map 2. Nile River Basin. (Sayre, 2008)
Ancient Egypt was ruled by a pharaoh, an absolute ruler who was considered divine. He had a vast network of priests and bureaucrats to impose his will, and this helps explain the stability and permanence of Egyptian life.
Fig. 5 Seated statue of Khafre, Pharoh from Dynasty 4, ca. 2500BCE (Sayre, 2008)
Although pyramids and hieroglyphics are associated with ancient Egypt, these are only one aspect of the civilization. Like in Mesopotamia, the society was polytheistic, but Egyptians never discarded any gods or beliefs, and two deities could merge to form a third. The Mesopotamian belief in an afterlife was an encompassing part of their culture.
About 2,500–2,000 BCE, the Cycladic culture developed in the islands in the Aegean Sea called the Cyclades. Little is known about these people. Many are nude females and probably represent the Mother Goddess, a main deity in the ancient Aegean. Often found in graves, they are thought to have played a ritualistic funerary role. Wall paintings, which are a stylistic departure from Egyptian and Mesopotamian art, have also been found.
Fig. 6 Figurine of a woman from Cyclades ca. 2500BCE (Sayre, 2013, p.41)
The Minoans inhabited the Isle of Crete between 2800–1400 BCE and are among the most intriguing cultures of the ancient world. Palaces with maze-like layouts such as Knossos are considered the basis for the Greek myth of the Minotaur.
Fig. 7 Reconstruction drawing and floor plan of the new palace complex at Knossos, Crete. (Sayre, 2013, p. 43)
The use of color and frescoes show a people who were close to nature.
Fig. 8 Bull Leaping, from the palace complex at Knossos, Crete. Ca. 1450-1375BCE. (Sayre, 2013, p. 42)
Their most famous statues are of the Snake Goddess, thought to be the goddess of fertility, and the Mother Goddess.
Fig. 9 Snake Goddess or Priestess, from the palace at Knossos, Crete. ca. 1500 BCE. (Sayre, 2008)
After the decline of the Minoans, the Mycenaean became the power in the region. A more militaristic people, they are most famous for the Trojan War and have become immortalized in Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Fig. 10 Botkin Class Amphora, Greek, black –figure decoration on ceramic, ca. 540-530 BCE. (Sayre, 2008)
Each of the previously mentioned cultures had its own unique development, and each played a role in the development of Western culture as we know it today. It is incumbent upon us to understand and appreciate those roles. These cultures and others demonstrated complex planning abilities, the authority to mobilize large labor forces to complete the construction of these massive projects, and sufficiently centralized power structures to allow for the execution of such projects.
The Cave of Lascaux. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/arcnat/lascaux/en/.
Sayre, H. M. (2013). Discovering the humanities. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.
——-, H. M. (2008). The humanities: Culture, continuity & change. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice Hall.