Culture: The First Cities Timeline

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From the first settlements to empires.

Culture Series: March to Civilization | Pre-Sumer | First Cities

First Cities/Areas: This timeline shows the first cities and pre-cities including occupied areas and monuments. When a continuously occupied area transformed into a city is often an ambiguous question. For this reason, we’re including continuously occupied areas that became modern cities as well as historically known monuments. Meaning, if an area was continuously occupied through today and is a thriving city, it’s on the list. If an area was a thriving area for at least centuries, it’s on the list and this last one is frequently marked by a monument. To aid clarity, each is marked as a city, area, or monument. For clarity, what defines a city? A city is a large and permanent human settlement characterized by its significant population density, social infrastructure, and economic activity. Typically, this means a sustained population of at least a few thousand and either complex infrastructure or significant economic activity. As always, if you have suggestion, Contact Us. Even if the suggestion is just a tweaking of nuance. Our goal is for these timelines to be the best available.

Culture Series: First Cities/Areas

Olduvai Gorge Site: A Glimpse into Early Organizational Behavior
Olduvai Gorge Site: A Glimpse into Early Organizational Behavior
2 Million Years Ago (Up to about 15,000 years ago)

The Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania stands as a testament to early human ingenuity and foresight, illustrating a rudimentary form of organizational behavior that predates modern civilization. Utilized extensively over two million years, the site functioned akin to a “factory,” where early humans systematically crafted a variety of stone tools. They strategically selected specific locations that optimized their tool-making efforts. This specialization of space for specific activities suggests a significant cognitive leap—recognizing the efficiency of designated work areas. Such spatial organization reflects the emergence of complex thinking, where early humans not only made tools but also thought strategically about where to make them, hinting at the early development of proto-civilizational structures.

Analysis: Interestingly, remarkably few human remains have been directly associated with the primary tool-making areas. This separation implies that while the site was pivotal for tool production, other aspects of daily life, such as habitation and burial practices, occurred elsewhere. The diverse array of tools found at Olduvai, from simple Oldowan choppers to more advanced Acheulean hand axes, marks significant milestones in technological advancement. The absence of human remains, coupled with the diversity of artifacts, provides crucial insights into the early human capacity for planning, foresight, and possibly, social stratification.

The Sentinelese people on North Sentinel Island
The Sentinelese people on North Sentinel Island
70,000 BCE
circa 60 to 70 thousand BCE

The Sentinelese are believed to have been isolated since the last major initial human migrations out of Africa 60 to 70 thousand years ago. Their isolation has likely preserved unique genetic traits. The Sentinelese are related to other indigenous peoples of the Andaman Islands, such as the Onge, Jarwa, and Great Andamanese. Studies on these groups indicate that they have some of the earliest genetic markers found in Asia. The genetic diversity among the Andamanese tribes, including the Sentinelese, is thought to be low due to their small population sizes and long-term isolation. Due to their isolation, the Sentinelese may lack immunity to common diseases found elsewhere–a significant concern.

Czeck: Dolní Věstonice Community
Czeck: Dolní Věstonice Community
30,000 BCE
29 to 32 thousand years ago.
The Dolní Věstonice people thrived in a harsh Ice Age landscape. They built sturdy huts from mammoth bones, crafted intricate art, and developed symbolic expression. They honored their dead with elaborate burials and likely held spiritual beliefs. With early ceramics and resourceful hunting practices, they demonstrated remarkable adaptability and creativity, leaving behind a lasting legacy of their resilience and ingenuity.
Ukraine: Mezhyrich Community
Ukraine: Mezhyrich Community
18,000 BCE
15 to 20 Thousand Years Agao

The Mezhyrich community thrived in Ukraine, living in huts built from mammoth bones. These resourceful people used mammoth skulls, tusks, and bones to construct shelters covered with animal skins. They engaged in daily activities such as cooking, tool-making, and socializing, showcasing a harmonious, bustling life. The nearby rivers provided resources and sustenance, while their sophisticated structures indicated advanced social organization and cooperation.

Seasonal Settlements at Monte Verde
Seasonal Settlements at Monte Verde
circa 14,800 BCE

Earliest Known Semi-Permanent Settlement in the Americas: Located in the lush landscapes of southern Chile, Monte Verde marks one of the earliest known human settlements in the Americas. Dating back to around 14,800 years ago, this site provides compelling evidence of early human ingenuity and adaptability far from the commonly accepted Eurasian cradles of civilization.

The archaeological remains at Monte Verde reveal a picture of a well-established community, whose inhabitants constructed semi-permanent structures using local materials such as wooden stakes and animal hides, combined with an array of insulating local vegetation. This level of architectural development suggests a shift from nomadic lifestyles to more settled, albeit seasonally influenced, habitation patterns.

Monte Verde is distinguished not only by its age but also by the variety of artifacts discovered on site, including tools, remnants of wooden structures, and evidence of medicinal plant use, indicating a sophisticated understanding of the local environment. The presence of these items points to a diversified economy, with a blend of hunting, gathering, and possibly early forms of plant processing that would precede true agriculture.

This settlement reflects a significant phase in human migration and adaptation, showcasing how early peoples in the Americas were able to create enduring communities in challenging new landscapes. Monte Verde stands as a testament to the resilience and resourcefulness of these early Americans, highlighting a pivotal moment in the march of civilization across continents.

Significance: Monte Verde challenges previous conceptions about the timing and progress of human settlements in the New World, pushing back the dates of human presence in the Americas and showing an advanced level of social and technological development long before the widespread adoption of agriculture. This site helps us understand the complexity of early human societies and their capacity to adapt to and thrive in diverse and distant environments.

Imagined Image: Monte Verde site around 14,800 BCE showing a thriving early human settlement in a lush forested environment, with semi-permanent structures and a community engaged in daily activities.

Göbekli Tepe (circa 9600 BCE)
Göbekli Tepe (circa 9600 BCE)
circa 9600 BCE

Located in modern-day Turkey, Göbekli Tepe is one of the world’s oldest known temples. This site features massive carved stones and complex architectural structures that predate Stonehenge by some 6,000 years. The sophistication and scale of Göbekli Tepe suggest that the community was able to coordinate large-scale projects, indicating a high level of social organization and spiritual or communal life. Without evidence of permanent residential structures from this site, these people were more likely hunter-gatherers that stuck to the area, and not farmers.

Under Investigation: Yonaguni Monument
Yonaguni Monument Terraces midpart NWW
circa 8000 BCE (speculative)

Possible lost city off Japan: Discovered in 1985 off the coast of Yonaguni, Japan, it has captivated archaeologists, geologists, and conspiracy theorists alike. Characterized by its monolithic, terraced structures, this submerged rock formation resembles architectural craftsmanship that some suggest could date back to around 8000 BCE, a time when global sea levels were significantly lower. This date remains highly speculative, as definitive scientific consensus on the monument’s origins—natural or man-made—has yet to be established.

The debate hinges on the monument’s peculiar features, such as precise angles and straight edges that evoke images of human-made pyramids and temples. Proponents of the man-made theory argue that these features are too structured to be products of natural geological processes and suggest a lost civilization’s handiwork.

City of Catalhoyuk
City of Catalhoyuk
7,100 BCE
7,100 to 5,700 BCE

The city of Çatalhöyük was a very large Neolithic city in the southern Anatolia peninsula in modern day Turkey. The population of 5,000 to 10,000 lived in mudbrick buildings. Some of the larger buildings have ornate murals. A painting of the village, with the twin mountain peaks in the background is frequently cited as the world’s oldest map, and the first landscape painting.

No sidewalks nor streets were used between the dwellings. The clustered honeycomb-like maze of dwellings were accessed by holes in the ceiling and by doors on the side of houses. The doors were accessed by ladders and stairs. The rooftops were effectively streets. I can imagine on good whether days the rooftop of the massive honeycomb building was similar to a Roman forum some 5,000 years in the future–a place to meet, socialize, and perform business.



Early Sumer Civilization
Early Sumer Civilization
6500 BCE
6500 through 1900 BCE

From 6500 to 4000 BCE, the Sumer civilization increased in social polarization. For example, central houses in the settlements became bigger. This early Sumer culture is characterized by large unwalled villages with multi-roomed rectangular mud-brick houses. The village featured public buildings including temples and centralized government. They had fine quality greenish colored pottery decorated with geometric designs in brown or black paint. Their known tools that survived the test of time included sickles made of hard fired clay, stone, and metal and the use of ploughs. Villages included craftspeople, potters, weavers and metalworkers, but the bulk of the population were farm workers.

The known Sumerian city-states written history goes back to before 2700 BCE, and starting about 2300 BCE the records are fairly complete.

Sumerian City of Kish” by D-Stanley is licensed under CC BY 2.0
The Rise of the Maya Civilization
Aerial view of Chichen Itza
By 2600 BCE

The Maya civilization, emerging around 2600 BCE in what is now Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras, represents one of the most complex societies of ancient America. Renowned for their achievements in mathematics, astronomy, art, and architecture, the Maya developed a sophisticated calendar system and constructed towering pyramids and cities that blended harmoniously with the surrounding landscape. The Classic Period (250–900 CE) saw the peak of Maya civilization, with large city-states engaged in intricate political, economic, and military networks. The Maya’s contributions to knowledge, particularly their understanding of the cosmos and time, remain a lasting legacy of indigenous American ingenuity.

The Lapita Culture
The Lapita Culture
1500 BCE
1500 BCE to 500 BCE

The Lapita culture, named after a site in New Caledonia, was an Austronesian people known for their intricate pottery and advanced navigation skills. Around 1500 BCE, they began spreading eastwards across the vast Pacific, reaching as far as Tonga and Samoa. The Lapita are considered the ancestors of many modern Pacific Islanders, including Polynesians, Micronesians, and some coastal Melanesian populations. Their remarkable journey across the ocean, covering thousands of kilometers in outrigger canoes, stands as a monumental achievement in human exploration and settlement, laying the foundations for the rich cultural tapestry of the Pacific Islands.


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