The record of human settlements on earth dates back to roughly 10,000 B.C. which is quite a short amount of time considering how old the earth is.
Civilization had to have a starting point, a reference point for all future generations, and in this list, we will explore the ten most influential and important ancient civilizations.
It is nearly impossible to “rank” civilizations based on importance because each of the cultures listed gave so much to the world. Instead of a ranking system, this list will be provided in chronological order.
To be considered for the list, the civilization must have left a lasting impression on the arts, architecture, warfare, or another visible mark. Dating these civilizations is not always an exact science, dates are a rough guideline for the period.
The more accurate representation of time is by era, such as the Neolithic Era or Bronze Age, and those designations are used when applicable.
Here are the 15 oldest ancient civilizations that ever existed on earth.
1. Mesopotamian Civilization- Iraq
Dates back to 10,000 B.C., Mesopotamia was a shining example of early civilization.
Settled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the area is known as the “land between the rivers” and saw many of the first recorded instances of writing, literature, and the use of essential tools such as the wheel.
Creators of the first written language, cuneiform, the Mesopotamians settled in current-day Iraq and had a flourishing culture.
What may be the most impressive aspect of Mesopotamia is that it gave birth to written literature and several other inventions and discoveries.
The Babylonians who lived in the area had a famous epic poem known as the “Epic of Gilgamesh” where the hero travels throughout the land slaying monsters. The Epic set the standard for all future stories written by famous Greek and Roman writers.
Remembered today for its contributions to the arts and culture, Mesopotamia will forever be one of the most important early civilizations in history.
2. Ancient Egypt- Northern and Central Africa
Organized civilization boomed in this African Empire around 3,000 B.C. The first dynasty of Egypt was led by Narmer, who united the Kingdoms of Lower and Upper Egypt into a cohesive, political force.
As time went on, Egyptian culture blossomed into a culture rich with writing, art, and architecture. What is so impressive about the ancient Egypt is the fact that we know so much about their culture today, which is a testament to their record keeping abilities and the vibrancy of their culture.
Arguably the most significant and lasting contributions to society are Egyptian hieroglyphs and the pyramids. It is quite impressive that, even today, there are still reminders of the once mighty Empire dotting the Egyptian desert.
Tourists from all over the world still travel to Egypt to see the mighty pyramids and immerse themselves in the ancient culture.
3. Indus Valley Civilization- India and Pakistan
Beginning around the same period as the first dynasty of Egypt, the Bronze Age civilization of the Indus Valley was the earliest settlement in India and Pakistan.
The people of the Indus Valley were renowned for their contributions to math and science.
Believed to be some of the most skilled mathematicians of the ancient world, some of the most precise and correct measurements of distance and time were achieved in the Indus Valley.
Also gifted in bronze pottery and weaponry, there are many artifacts surviving today that show the prowess of Indus Valley artisans.
Not to be outdone by the people of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the people of the Indus Valley also developed a system of writing known as Sanskrit.
The Indus Valley was an easy choice for this list, very few cultures could boast such a well-rounded contribution to the world.
4. Chinese Civilization- China
The history of China is difficult to pinpoint because they were late to the writing game.
While the other cultures listed above had developed their system of writing, by 2000 B.C. the Xia Dynasty in China was still without written records.
While the Xia is thought to be the first dynasty of China, the actual history of Ancient China began with the Shang. The Shang Dynasty is also the first Chinese Dynasty to have archeological sites definitively dated to their period.
The Shang were renowned for their contributions to warfare, being skilled warriors and blacksmiths.
Many bronze weapons have been recovered that show the Shang were heads and shoulders ahead of other cultures in regards to weapon-making together with other Chinese inventions.
5. The Maya Civilization- The Americas
The first appearance of a Mesoamerican culture on this list. The Mayan culture began around the same time as the Shang Dynasty in China.
The Maya were the only culture in the Americas to create a writing system this early in history. Also renowned for their calendar and work in mathematics, the Mayan were truly the first real and lasting culture in the Americas.
The Mayan people developed one of the most accurate and well-known calendars in the ancient world.
Gifted astronomers, the Mayans calculated dates based on the movements of the heavens.
6. Minoan Civilization- Crete
Believed by many historians and archeologists as the first Greek Culture, the Minoans of Crete were lost to history until the 20th century.
British archeologist Arthur Evans uncovered the palace of Minos and many other key sites of the Minoans. Flourishing throughout the Bronze Age, the Minoans were creators of a written language that is still indecipherable.
The most important legacy of the Minoans is their gift for architecture. It was on Crete that some of the earliest examples of Greek columns had been unearthed.
It was also the island of Crete and the Minoan culture that gave Greek mythology one of its most lasting stories, the tale of the Minotaur.
King Minos was punished with a son that was half man, half bull, and this son, known as the Minotaur, had a taste for human blood.
The tale of Theseus slaying the Minotaur is one of the most enduring stories from the Greek canon.
7. Mycenean Civilization- Mainland Greece
The Myceneans were the culture of mainland Greece in the Bronze Age. The Myceneans were skilled fighters and political organizers.
The lasting legacy of the Myceneans were their conquests of neighboring areas such as Asia Minor and the trade organizations they developed throughout the area.
Many historians credit the Myceneans for destroying number 6 on our list, but there are differing theories about the fall of Minoan civilization ranging from Volcanos to Tsunamis.
8. The Olmec- The Americas
Developing in and around present-day Guatemala and Mexico, the Olmec flourished around 1500 B.C.
The Olmec did not leave much to the written record but are fondly remembered for their unique and outlandish artwork and architecture.
Famous for the massive heads that they carved, the footprints of the Olmec still dot the landscape of the area.
9. The Kingdom of Israel- Israel, and Jordan
No list of great Ancient Civilizations would be complete without the Kingdom of Israel.
Founded around 1050 B.C., the tale of the Israelite Kingdom has been told for generations through the Christian and Jewish Bibles and other religious texts.
The story of the Israelites weaves throughout the Egyptian Empire with their exodus from slavery led by Moses.
The cultural significance of the Israelites can not be overstated, the Israelite tale has been told and re-told throughout the generations through different religious texts.
10. The Greek Civilization- Greece
I decided to lump classical Greece together because of the varying time periods in which the Greeks were at power.
The Greeks are arguably the most important western culture in history because of their contributions to our lives even today.
Credited with being master builders, writers, artists, and benefactors to culture, they gave us everything from literature to architecture.
11. The Persian Civilization- Middle East
The Persian Empire didn’t last a very long time, falling around 300 B.C., but the lasting imprint that the Empire left in undeniable.
The Persians were gifted political organizers, being one of the first Empires to break their land into political divisions known as Satraps.
While their political organization skills were impressive, the Persians are most remembered for their conquests of Asia and Europe and their military prowess.
The most famous conflicts the Persians participated in were the Greco-Persian wars that included such battles as Marathon and the Last Stand of the 300 at Thermopylae Pass.
Eventually, the Greeks would have their revenge as Alexander the Great conquered much of the Persian Empire in the 300s B.C. leaving the Persian Empire little more than a shell of its former self.
12. The Roman Civilization
The history of Rome is unique as it followed a very untraditional path. Usually, a civilization starts as a monarchy or ruled by a totalitarian and then, slowly, the people gain autonomy and gain their source of power.
The Roman people were subjected to a King but developed a republic sometime around 500 B.C.
This republic would last for the better part of 500 years before Rome would, once again, fall to the rule of tyrants and dictators in the Roman Empire period.
The contributions of Rome are almost too many to name; they were able politicians, artists, writers, statesmen, and soldiers. Conquering much of the known world throughout the height of the Empire, the thumbprint of Rome is seen all the way to Britain.
Eventually, Rome would crumble under its weight and tyrannical leaders, but the lasting imprint of Rome can still be seen all over Europe as classical sites are still major tourist attractions.
13. Maurya Civilization- India
India was home to many Empires throughout its history, but the largest and most powerful Empire on the subcontinent was the Maurya civilization.
Gifted traders and economists, the Maurya are remembered for their vast trade expansions throughout Asia. Another aspect of Maurya Culture that is important to note is the amount of religious that were allowed to thrive in the Empire.
Home to three major religions, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, the people of the Empire had autonomy in worshiping their deities.
That freedom would not last, though, as infighting and outside incursion led to religious persecution and the eventual fall of power.
14. Aztec Civilization-Mexico
While the Aztecs were not an “ancient civilization” by European standards, they were some of the earliest and most powerful organized people of the Americas.
Mostly based on present-day Mexico City, the center of power for the Aztecs would eventually stretch into much of Central America. The Aztecs had a rich culture and are remembered today for their practice of human sacrifice.
The Aztecs believed that their Gods required human blood to remain happy, so the Aztecs would take victims of conquered lands to the top of their pyramids, and ritualistically cut out their hearts for all to see.
Gifted builders, the Aztecs are remembered for their pyramids and unique architecture that still dots the land of Mexico. The Aztecs would fall victim to what many native cultures of the Americas fell victim to, European invasion.
The Spanish conquistadores would take over the Aztecs, and very few would survive to tell the tale.
15. Anglo-Saxon Britain- British Isles
Another culture that technically was after the classical period of Europe, but was one of the original civilizations of its land.
The Anglo-Saxons took over Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire when the Roman legions left the island to their own devices.
The Anglo-Saxons were a conglomeration of Germanic-speaking groups that had migrated to the island during the Roman period, and the transition to power was bloody.
Constant infighting between the Kingdoms and Viking incursions weakened the Anglo-Saxons and left many of the Kings powerless to unite the entire island.
In 1066, William of Normandy claimed the throne after Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor died, temporary king Harold Godwinson, was killed by William’s forces and the throne of England fell to the Normans.
There you have them, the most lasting and influential cultures and civilizations of the ancient world.
While this is not a comprehensive list, it was intended to give a broad overview of the most influential and lasting civilizations of the Ancient world.
When looking at an ancient culture, it is important to notice achievements and lasting imprints on society. Many of these cultures had much in common, writing systems, profound innovations in architecture, weaponry, art, literature, etc.
It is that type of influence that indeed made a civilization important and grand.