Indus Valley
Image Credit: By Avantiputra7 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Early Development of Religion

It is no coincidence that historically important civilizations of Mesopotamia are defined by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which surrounded them. The ancient history of the Middle East shaped and was shaped by the interrelated histories of religion and global agriculture.

Religion as we know it could not have come about without a major shift that occurred globally around 10,000BC (Price,1995). Economically, the shift entailed wealth collection transferring from community to household; politically, it meant egalitarian leadership changing to hierarchical leadership, and the reorganization of local power to the formation of states. These enormous changes in human life were predicated on the shift to large-scale crops in agriculture, and the ability to store food. The most significant of these civilizations also included those of the Indus, or Sindh River, and the Yangze and Yellow rivers in China, because this new lifestyle depended upon the reliability and abundance of river water.

The area known as the “Fertile Crescent" because of its rich soil, and propensity for agriculture, was also the birthplace of new forms of religion around this time. New religious institutions were formed to meet the needs of the larger group organization. This meant priestly classes formed, initially as part of polytheistic religions, Wallace (1966) categorized as “Olympian" (after the Greek pantheon). The monotheistic religions which formed in the Fertile Crescent (now commonly known as “The Middle East") also possessed a priestly class, and a larger collective identity than previous religions - they were perhaps the world’s first “nations". They viewed their identity beyond a particular tribe or city.


?-10,000BC Tribal Shamans Hunter-Gatherers Tribe Paleolithic Era
10,000BC-8,000BC Polytheistic, or “Olympian" (Wallace,1966) Priests, Zeus Early settled agriculture Archaic States, States Neolithic Era
1,000BC-now Monotheistic Magi, Zoroaster Agriculture, large crops States Antiquity - today


Price, T. D., Gebauer, A. B., & School of American Research (Santa Fe, N. M. . (Eds.). (1995). Last hunters, first farmers: new perspectives on the prehistoric transition to agriculture. Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press : Distributed by the University of Washington Press.

Wallace, A.F.C. 1966. Religion: An Anthropological View. New York: McGraw-Hill.

*The major civilizations required by Ohio curriculum standards all grew up around major rivers: the Yangze, the Indus Valley, and the Euphrates-Tigris river basins.