The oldest and earliest civilisations of all time

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs inscribed on a wall
Ancient Egypt was one of the most powerful of its time and left an enduring legacy whose cultural influence continues to this day | Image: Shutterstock.com

In 1994, one of the most surprising and game-changing archaeological discoveries was made in south-eastern Turkey. Huge carved stones, believed to be up to 12,000 years old, were uncovered at a site now known as Gobekli Tepe. To put that into perspective, that’s around 6,000 years before Stonehenge was built.

These megaliths were crafted by prehistoric people who had yet to invent metal tools, pottery, or even the wheel. The discovery was so startling that it threw the conventional beliefs surrounding the rise of civilisations out of the window. Previously it was believed that religious sites were created after a civilisation had established itself. Now there’s an argument that the monoliths at Gobekli Tepe demonstrate how religious monuments were the foundations from which complex societies developed.

Whilst historians debate this point, it begs the question what are the current recognised earliest civilisations known to man? Let’s take a look…

Minoan Civilisation

Arising around 3,000 BC, the Bronze Age civilisation known as the Minoans was based on the island of Crete as well as the other Aegean Islands. It was the first advanced civilisation in Europe and kick-started the rise of Ancient Greece. Their name derived from King Minos, a king of Crete in Greek mythology.

Famous for their remarkable cities, palaces, and sophisticated art, the Minoan civilisation flourished through a network of trade across the Mediterranean. The society peaked around 1600 BC before declining a couple of hundred years later and finally ending around 1100 BC during the Greek Dark Ages. The reasons behind their decline remain a mystery with various hypotheses put forward by historians, including foreign invasion and volcanic eruptions.

Ancient Egyptians

The civilisation of Ancient Egypt was one of the most powerful of its time and left an enduring legacy whose cultural influence continues to this day. As a result, modern-day Egypt is one of the most ancient, continuous civilisations in the world.

The dynasties of Ancient Egypt can be dated back as far as 3100 BC, with the Egyptian Empire reaching its peak during the period of the New Kingdom (c. 1150 – 1069 BC). This time is described as the golden age of Ancient Egypt. It was a period of wealth, prosperity, and international prestige and included one of Egypt's most famous pharaohs, Tutankhamun.

The dynastic period ended with the suicide of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC, famously said to have been bitten by an asp, a venomous Egyptian cobra. After her death, Egypt was absorbed by the Roman Empire.

The Ancient Egyptians were serial inventors credited with introducing several 'firsts', including the solar calendar, toothpaste, taxation, wigs, door locks, bowling, basin irrigation and even inspiring the Romans to create the world’s first paved roads.

Indus Valley Civilisation

Flourishing in the northern region of the Indian subcontinent, the Indus Valley Civilisation is one of the oldest and most widespread on this list. Urbanisation began in approximately 3300 BC as the Indus Civilisation developed around the basins of the Indus River – one of the major rivers in Asia.

At its peak in 2500 BC, the total population of the civilisation was believed to be 5 million with a territory stretching some 900 miles - from today's north-east Afghanistan through Pakistan and into north-western India. Uncovered artefacts depict a society rich in culture and very technologically advanced for the time.

Two of the civilisations’ best-excavated cities (both in modern-day Pakistan) demonstrate sophisticated systems of water supply and drainage and are believed to have held populations in the region of 40-60,000 individuals. This is a staggering number considering most ancient cities only contained 10,000 people.

The civilisation began to decline between 1900 and 1500 BC for reasons unknown. As with so many other extinct civilisations, foreign invasion and environmental changes have been suggested as reasons behind the decline, but historians still don’t know for sure.

Caral-Supe Civilisation

Situated in what is now north-central coastal Peru, the Caral-Supe Civilisation is the oldest-known civilisation in the Americas that flourished along three rivers - the Fortaleza, the Pativilca, and the Supe.

Around 3500 BC, its first city emerged called Huaricanga. The city was one of the earliest in the world and demonstrated the ancient people's ability to construct complex and monumental buildings, including large pyramid-shaped structures that rival in age those built in ancient Egypt.

Archaeologically, the Caral-Supe Civilisation has been described as a pre-ceramic culture, completely lacking in pottery and also artwork. However, it has been uncovered to be a society that used textiles, including string-based recording devices known as quipu.

The civilisation declined around 1800 BC with more powerful societies appearing in the north, south, and east.

Sumerians

Arguably the oldest civilisation known to man, the Sumerians are credited with creating the very definition of a civilisation. Heralding from the region of southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), the Sumerians first settled between 4500 and 4000 BC. By 3000 BC, a group of city-states had been established, beginning an era that allowed the Sumerians to flourish for the next 2,000 years.

One of the most important cultural achievements of the Sumerians was their written language. Archaeological evidence has found proof of written Sumerian dating back to at least 3500 BC, making it the first language in the history of the world.

The Sumerians are also credited with numerous other inventions including irrigation techniques, schools, monumental architecture, and even time. They are credited with inventing modern day timekeeping, splitting the day into two 12-hour periods and with each hour containing 60 minutes.

By 2000 BC, competing cultures challenged the authority of the Sumerians and the eventual invasion led to the absorption of the Sumerian population, ending their time as a distinctive civilisation.