Cultural Hearths

According to the title of a classic book by Samuel Noah Kramer, "history begins at Sumer."1 Why is that? Because Sumer, the first in a long line of Mesopotamian urban civilizations, was responsible for "39 firsts in recorded history," as his book's subtitle informs us. Sumer was a cultural hearth par excellence. Law, philosophy, art, science, medicine, government: you name it, the Sumerians thought of it. Perhaps they weren't actually the first for all of those things, but they did invent cuneiform, so they wrote down their achievements. Arguably, their invention of writing was the greatest cultural innovation ever.

Cultural Hearths Cultural Hearths

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    In reality, human history didn't start with writing nor in any single place. Nowadays, it is recognized that humans, who kept oral histories long before Sumer, independently made myriad innovations in hundreds of cultural hearths, sometimes even inventing the same crop (like rice), or writing, or weaving, or ceramics, more than once and thousands of miles apart. It's a fascinating subject, and we have space here to just give you a brief taste to pique your curiosity.

    Map of Cultural Hearths

    The six primary cultural hearths of the ancient world are found in Mexico, Peru, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, and China.

    Cultural hearths map StudySmarterFig. 1 - Major ancient cultural hearths

    Cultural Hearths Definition

    A hearth, literally, is a place in a home where one has a fireplace. More broadly, it refers to the home or origin place. Though culture per se doesn't have a single home, certain locations have produced a greater number of cultural innovations over time than others.

    Cultural Hearth: the place of origin of a cultural trait (mentifact, sociofact, or artifact). Typically, the term refers to places where many aspects of culture originated, from language and religion to urbanization, art, and agriculture.

    People spread mentifacts, sociofacts, and artifacts from cultural hearths (also called "culture hearths") through expansion diffusion and relocation diffusion. The more prominent hearths over time, including the ones everyone has heard of like Ancient Egypt, are those that have generated large numbers of cultural innovations, sometimes over a very long amount of time.

    Characteristics of Cultural Hearths

    Certain geographical and demographic features characterize cultural hearths.

    Where Many Can Live

    Cultural hearths are found in areas where a relatively dense human population can exist, usually in one or more permanent settlements. These can be seaports, agricultural areas, and other areas with either enough food growing in them or a beneficial relationship to trade routes and hinterlands for the import of food.

    Where Paths Cross

    Cultural hearths are found in "crossroads" areas because many people pass through, stopping and interacting with local people. Cultural innovations thus have multiple routes for diffusion, and the constant coming and going of outsiders contribute to cultural ferment as well.

    Inversely, out-of-the-way places are unlikely to be significant hearths.

    Where Freshwater is Permanent

    Crossroad areas that support large populations are typically those that support intensive and irrigated agriculture such as the fertile plains along rivers. A large amount of intensive agriculture can produce a surplus that can support non-farmer classes and enable the rise of the state, a bureaucracy, a military, artisan classes, and diversification of labor that leads to innovations.

    Let's apply what we've learned so far to some of the earliest known hearths.

    Ancient Cultural Hearths

    The main cultural hearths of the "ancient world," as traditionally defined, are the river valleys where dense agriculture supported the formation of states, urban areas, and stratified societies that lasted for millennia. The principal ones, which evolved independently of each other over 5,000 years ago, are also referred to as the "cradles of civilization."


    The flat, fertile, well-watered lands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq are at a crossroads of the ancient world. The Sumerian civilization that emerged more than 5,000 years ago there saw the invention of writing and thus the beginning of written history, at urban centers such as Uruk. Akkad, Babylon, and many other civilizations later thrived here.

    Ancient Egypt

    Also before 3,000 BC, agricultural communities along the fertile Nile Valley were able to harness the river's annual floods and became organized into states that use organized labor to create giant stone edifices such as the pyramids and obelisks. The area was at the crossroads of the vast continents of Africa and Asia. Numerous cultural innovations made the Egyptians, over several millennia, one of the most influential societies in human history.

    Ancient India

    The Indus Valley civilization emerged before 3,000 BC thanks to the fertile agricultural land watered by the Indus River in what is now Pakistan. Cities such as Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa contained up to 60,000 people. Like the other ancient hearths, writing systems and a wide range of technological innovations and art forms arose here.

    Cultural Hearths Indus StudySmarterFig. 2 - the Indus Valley civilization, one of the most important cultural hearths of the ancient world

    Ancient China

    Domestication of rice, millet, and other crops enabled dense populations to thrive along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers more than 5,000 years ago. The first states arose and eventually, the quasi-mythical Xia Dynasty emerged along the upper Yellow River some 4,000 years ago. A succession of better-documented dynasties were based there or along the Wei (a tributary). Unlike the other ancient hearths, Chinese civilization and dynastic successions continued largely unbroken all the way until the early 20th century.

    Caral-Supe Civilization (Ancient Andes)

    As in the other ancient hearths, domestication and other innovations predated urbanization and states by several thousand years. Along desert river valleys on the western slopes of the Andes, the Norte Chico or Caral-Supe civilization emerged on the northern Pacific coast of what is now Peru over 5,000 years ago.

    This was the oldest urban civilization in the Americas, largely overlooked until quite recently. Despite existing along narrow ribbons of greenery tucked between some of the driest deserts on Earth, Caral-Supe saw the largest monuments and among the densest human populations of the ancient world. Its cultural influence stretched unbroken through many civilizations up through the Inca, who were toppled and replaced by invaders from the Old World.

    Cultural Hearths Caral StudySmarterFig. 3 - Pyramids of the Caral-Supe civilization in Peru


    The Olmec, famous for carving giant stone heads, emerged on the Gulf Coast of what is now Mexico by 1700 BC, the latest of the independent major cultural hearths to develop cities. As with the others, they built on millennia of innovations by farmers, including the domestication of maize, evolving into states with segmented and stratified societies. The heritage of the Olmec stretched unbroken through numerous state-level Mesoamerican civilizations such as Teotihuacan, the Toltecs, the Maya, the Zapotecs, and the Aztecs, finally collapsing with the arrival of Old World society and its diseases in the 1500s AD.

    Beyond these few examples are many more cultural hearths that were important to the formation of later civilizations throughout the world, from the Minoan civilization in Crete to Great Zimbabwe in southern Africa.

    Modern Cultural Hearths

    The production of culture in the modern world is less based on geography with each passing year, as cyberspace takes on more and more importance. Nevertheless, certain places, by virtue of their size, diversity, governance, or other factors, are typically seen as modern cultural hearths.

    World Cities

    London, New York, Los Angeles, and Paris are global centers of cultural innovation because of their high concentration of culture industries (e.g., Hollywood and the music industry in LA, fashion in Paris and New York), tolerance for diversity of beliefs, opinions, and practices, concentration of wealth, and number and prominence of sociofacts (institutions such as foundations, museums, orchestras, and bands).

    Other Communities

    Cities with smaller populations and little economic importance at the global scale can still be considered cultural hearths. Austin, Texas is a great example. It has been a longtime bastion of cultural innovation with a stable economy, a large university, and one of the most important independent music scenes in the US, on a par with cities many times its size.

    College towns such as Athens, Georgia, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and so forth can become cultural hearths due to their economic vibrancy, interchange of ideas, and tolerance for diversity.

    Religious centers across the world, because of the concentration of scholars and others associated with the maintenance and propagation of belief systems, whether or not they are in urban areas, can be cultural hearths.

    Religious Cultural Hearths

    The exact reasons for certain places becoming the hearths of multiple religions is difficult to pin down. Because many religions are syncretic, incorporating cultural traits of other religions, including pre-existing ones, it is possible to trace certain features and beliefs backwards in time and space to their hearths.

    The most famous example of this is the "Holy Land," a relatively tiny area in the Levant involved with the origins of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism and Samaritanism and later Christianity, Islam, Druzism, and Baháʼí).

    The Jews and Samaritans were Israelites, a Semitic tribe who followed a god they called Yahweh prior to 1,000 BC (thousands of years after the beginnings of the ancient world mentioned above). The Samaritans, who still exist today, hold Mount Gerizim to be sacred; the Jews assign sacred status to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Both groups claim descent from Abraham.

    Christians and Muslims also revere the Temple Mount, as part of their heritage from Judaism. Muslims believe that Muhammad was taken to the Temple Mount and raised to heaven to receive the Quran scriptures from the angel Gabriel, thus the site is one of the holiest spots in Islam. For their part, the Jews built the First and Second temples on the spot (they supposedly held the Ark of the Covenant; the Western Wall is a remnant of the Second Temple). The top of the Mount holds the al Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, and the Well of Souls and is off-limits to Jews and reserved for Muslims.

    It is possible that the Temple Mount, the center point of this major religious hearth, predates all these religions and was a sacred site farther back in time. This would not be unusual for an axis mundi. The phenomenon is known elsewhere as well.

    Mount Kailash, in the Tibetan Himalayas of China, is sacred to Hinduism as the home of their god Shiva. It is also a highly sacred mountain for Buddhists, Jains, and Bon (a Tibetan folk religion).

    Religions need these sacred spaces and axis mundi to be retained as their hearths, so pilgrims are able to visit them and keep their faith alive as they experience landscapes tied to ancient stories and mythologies. This is why Muslims visit Mecca, Christians visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Hindus visit the holy city of Varanasi along the Ganges, Sikhs visit Amritsar and its Golden Temple, and so forth.

    Many secondary and tertiary hearths also exist for religions.

    In Christianity, minor hearths include ancient European pilgrimage spots such as Rome and Santiago de Compostela and a large number of shrines in churches across the Christian world.

    Cultural Hearths - Key takeaways

    • Cultural hearths are centers of human cultural innovation.
    • Hearths of the ancient world are the cradles of civilization that arose over 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and elsewhere.
    • Modern cultural hearths include certain world cities but also smaller communities such as US college towns.
    • Religious cultural hearths include famous examples like the Holy Land where Judaism and other Abrahamic religions began.


    1. Kramer. S. N. 'History begins at Sumer, 39 firsts in recorded history.' Doubleday. 1959.
    2. Fig. 2 Indus map (,_Mature_Phase_(2600-1900_BCE).png) by Avantiputra7 ( licensed by CC BY-Sa 3.0 (
    3. Fig. 3 Caral ( by Håkan Svensson Xauxa ( licensed by CC BY-Sa 3.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Cultural Hearths

    What is a cultural hearth?

    A cultural hearth is a geographic area where a cultural innovation originated and then diffused from.

    What are 3 examples of cultural hearths?

    Examples of cultural hearths include cradles of civilization such as Mesopotamia, religious cultural hearths such as the Holy Land in the Levant, and modern cultural hearths such as New York and Austin.

    What is an ancient cultural hearth?

    An ancient cultural hearth was an agricultural and urban region where several important cultural innovations occurred that had a large impact on the world; there are six major ones and many others.

    Where are the modern cultural hearths located?

    Modern cultural hearths are typically world cities such as Paris and London but can also include US college towns and religious centers.

    What is a religious cultural hearth?

    A religious cultural hearth is an area where one or more major religion originated.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Cuneiform writing was invented by

    The urban civilizations of the New World evolved much later than those of the Old World.

    Three preconditions for ancient cultural hearths were:


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