Subtest I: History and Social Science Study Guide for the CSET Multiple Subjects Test

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General Information

These questions serve as the other half of CSET® Multiple Subject Subtest I, which also includes the Reading, Language Arts, and Literacy questions. There are also 26 multiple-choice History and Social Studies questions and two extended-response questions on these areas of study. Please see this resource for an explanation of that type of question and how to best address it. Just go to the end of that study guide (page 7) and look for “Answering Constructed Response Questions.”

To do well on these questions, you’ll need to not only have a firm understanding of historical events and their significance but also be able to utilize the study skills necessary for studying the social sciences. There is more about that at the end of this study guide.

Here is an outline of what you’ll need to know:

World History

The first subsection of the History and Social Studies covered on this test is world history. We have conveniently broken down this section into many subheadings to help you contextualize the themes and big ideas from world history.

Ancient Civilizations

Hopefully, you remember learning about ancient civilizations at some point. These civilizations were some of the first people to transition to agriculture and many of these groups made major cultural and scientific contributions to the modern world. In a way, you can contextualize these civilizations as the bridge between prehistory (cavemen) and modern history (what has happened since these civilizations).


The Mesopotamian civilizations originated in the region that is modern-day Iraq (including parts of Syria and Turkey) and included the great empires of the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. People first settled between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers here because it provided particularly fertile land compared to the surrounding arid region and the rivers provided for both transportation and protection.

The people groups living in Mesopotamia over the course of about 3,000 years of ancient history gave rise to many advancements including the wheel, mathematics, astronomy, as well as legal and ethical guidelines (Code of Hammurabi). Religion throughout the region was characterized by many different deities, potentially more than 1,000. Writing was widely practiced and many manuscripts were copied and preserved. Literature remains one of the greatest contributions of this region. However, language varied greatly over geographic space and time in this region, contributing to disunity among the groups in the region.

Finally, Mesopotamian empires thrived on trade, which allowed them to become powerful and influential. Exports were largely agricultural as many raw materials valuable during the time period were not abundant in the region.


Perhaps one of the most well-known ancient civilizations was that of the Egyptians. Settled within the Nile River Valley, the Egyptians were greatly confined by their geography and did not expand their influence much beyond the Nile River because it was essentially an oasis in the desert.

The Egyptian civilization dates back to about 4,000 BCE and contributions include plant and animal domestication, irrigation, writing, stone building (most evident through lasting monuments like the pyramids), architecture, and art. The Egyptians were very religious and superstitious. They had many gods that each controlled various aspects of nature, like floods on the Nile river, which impacted daily life and the success of crop yields.

Finally, trade and commerce in Egypt was limited early on (mostly people nearby were attracted due to the prosperity of the empire) but greatly expanded over time, especially via the Mediterranean. Egypt had nearly everything it needed to be successful aside for timber, which was largely obtained from Lebanon via Mediterranean trade routes.


The Kush civilization was located just south of the Egyptian in what is today Sudan. The Kush are also sometimes referred to as the Nubians. Their proximity to Egypt, and existence during largely the same time period, makes this group far less widely known.

The Kush were under Egyptian control off and on for centuries but were largely independent in their culture and art. They had many similarities to Egyptian culture but practiced their religion, art, and language in their own unique ways. They were essentially the bridge between the Egyptian culture to the north and the African cultures to the south. Their extensive gold and mineral wealth coupled with their proximity to the Red Sea as well as the Nile river allowed them to prosper.


The history of the Hebrew people, or Israelites, is best known and preserved through the religious writings of the Jewish Torah and Christian Bible. Developed in what is today Israel, the Hebrews are the ancestors of modern-day Jews. The history of this group living in the region of Palestine dates back to about 2,000 BCE with the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the patriarchs of the people and religion.

The most significant contribution of this group is undeniably their monotheistic religion which is today Judaism and out of which both Chrisianity and Islam were born. The Hebrews enjoyed centuries of prosperity, especially during the reign of King David and King Solomon, when wealth was unmatched in the known world. The decline of the empire would come with the subsequent invasion of the Greeks and later the Romans, which resulted in the Jewish diaspora, or dispersion. This occurred when the Romans ransacked Jerusalem in 70 CE and Jews were forced to flee their homeland.


The ancient Greek civilization lasted roughly between 1,200 BCE to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. It began prior to this period with the development of Greek city-states, which were often at odds with each other but were also great centers of culture and trade. Eventually, the city-states were united into a confederation, which allowed the Greeks to expand their influence through trade and conquest, resulting in the largest empire to that period under Alexander the Great.

Greek religion was polytheistic with many different gods that controlled various aspects of nature. Some of the most powerful influences the Greeks had on modern society were that of government (democratic ideas), poetry, art, philosophy, literature, and even the Olympic Games. Greek philosophical thought heavily influenced Enlightenment philosophy in Europe, which in turn influenced many of the founding documents of the United States.


The Indus River Valley in modern-day Northern India and Pakistan is another cradle of civilization, or location where people first transitioned to agrarian society. People settled in this region because of the availability of water and fertile soil in an otherwise mountainous and arid climate.

This civilization was also largely agricultural and domesticated many animals such as cats, dogs, cattle, birds, pigs, and elephants. It is speculated that the Mesopotamian civilizations influenced the agricultural techniques of this region, or vice versa, as their approaches to agriculture on river flood plains are very similar.

There is evidence that they had some limited written language and their artistic contributions are evident in their seals that depict animals, people, or gods on small terra-cotta tiles. It is suspected that the Hindu religion originated at some point, long ago, in this region.


Ancient Chinese empires have had significant impacts on the modern world. The geography of eastern China is considerably flat and fertile, which has allowed it to support high populations for a long time. Also notable, the climate of China is suitable for people to live relatively comfortably.

Though there were earlier stages of Chinese civilization, the Han Dynasty (roughly 200 BCE - 220 CE) was the most influential in shaping modern Chinese culture. So influential, in fact, that Han became the Chinese word to describe someone of Chinese ethnic descent. The Han Dynasty was characterized by a highly literate society and it also contributed to music, dance, art, and sculpture.

The ancient Chinese were also heavily involved with trade through the Silk Road in which they exported a wide variety of high-end items, like porcelain, to Europe.


Of all the empires covered here, the Roman Empire has arguably had the greatest impact on modern society. This impact largely comes through the romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.) that stem from Latin, the language of the Romans. Additionally, Roman government, infrastructure, and administration was unparalleled in the ancient world and many of our ideas today come from their example.

The Romans built and improved upon many Greek ideas. Their gods were essentially the same as the Greeks, with different names. The Romans, originating in Rome, were able to extend their influence as far as Scotland to the north, Egypt to the south, and Iran to the east. Their governing structure and advanced transportation networks allowed them to maintain control and relative peace over such a wide geographic area.

Medieval and Early Modern Civilizations

For historical analysis and study, we consider the current era (CE) to begin somewhere around the time of Jesus. Until about 1400, we generally consider Europe to be in the Medieval ages, characterized by disease, intellectual darkness, and war. However, other parts of the world were thriving during this time.

Civilizations and the Influence of Geography

Physical geography plays an important and active role in the development of culture and society. The theory that the environment controls human development is called environmental determinism. Today, we believe that people can overcome and adapt to their environment, but we still recognize that geography can place limitations on the choices people can make based on what is available to them where they are.


Ancient China was relatively isolated from the rest of the world with deserts to the north and west, the Pacific Ocean to the east, and the Himalayian Mountains to the south. This isolation allowed China to develop independently from the rest of the world.


The Japanese are isolated on a series of islands. For a very long time, this allowed them to develop a unique culture in isolation from the rest of the world. This also shielded them from outside attack or invasion. Additionally, the Japanese archipelago is volcanic and mountainous. These characteristics have led to the development of a dense population situated near the coasts.


The physical geography of much of Africa is not conducive to human settlement. Most of the coastline is flat with few natural harbors for ships to dock for trade. Much of the continent is a high plateau with few navigable rivers. Almost the entire north half of the continent comprises the largest desert on earth, larger than the continental U.S. Therefore, African populations have developed in isolated areas where resources are available. This has led to the development of many different tribal groups with varying languages and cultures. The diversity found in Africa is astounding, and it is largely due to the geography of the continent.


The Arabian peninsula is largely desert and arid. However, there are some precious resources found there that have contributed to the rise of this region, especially in modern times. The presence of oil in Arabia in modern history has allowed it to become a wealthy and prosperous society.


Mesoamerican civilizations include those of the Aztecs, Mayans, and Olmec. All were located in Central America, largely characterized by tropical climates and coastal plains. The geography of the region was well suited for growing food and was able to support a large population. One major flaw of the geography of Mesoamerica is that it lies on a fault line, which makes it very susceptible to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Andean Highland

The Incan civilization developed in the Andean Highland in South America, an area mainly characterized by the rugged Andes Mountains. Due to the terrain, the Incas developed an advanced system of roads and communication networks to travel across the mountains. One of the most famous settlements in this civilization is Machu Picchu, situated high in the mountains of modern day Peru.


The physical geography of Europe is temperate, and Northern Europe enjoys a warmer climate than it should, thanks to warm ocean currents. There are many navigable rivers that have connected Europe and allowed for extensive trade. The temperate climate here long forced people to plan ahead and store up provisions for the colder winter months. There is an argument that this quality made European civilizations more innovative and enabled them to conquer other places. Finally, Europe has always had a very diverse population, which can be attributed to the mountains and waterways separating people groups and influencing the development of the region over time.

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire

The Western Roman Empire experienced a slow decline from about 350 to 500 CE. The empire became weak and ineffective from within throughout this period. Decline in central authority and the inability to defend far reaching borders against attacks from Northern European barbarians proved to be the demise of the empire. A crippled military, weak finances, and little political power ultimately led to the end of the Western Roman Empire as smaller barbarian, largely Germanic tribes, established their own dominance in small pockets throughout the empire.


The end of the Roman Empire ushered in the medieval era in Europe, characterized by feudalism. In a feudalist society, landowners have power, and small kingdoms are formed based on loyalty and protection. The landowner allows peasants to farm the land. The landowner gets food while peasants get protection from the owners hired soldiers, knights. The landowner also pays tribute to nobles or monarchs by paying taxes or lending his knights to their service when needed in exchange for protection from rival kingdoms. A similar system of feudalism occurred in Japan in which the Samurai, or warrior class, were devoted to their warlords, who enjoyed most political and economic power in society.

Pre-Columbian America

You need to be able to identify pre-Columbian American art, architecture, and science. Most of this can be attributed to the Aztec, Incan, or Mayan civilizations, which were highly advanced in math and science. Their calendars dated far into the future and architecture was similar to that of the Egyptian pyramids. There is evidence that several pre-Columbian cities had populations that numbered into the millions.


Religion played a foundational role in society’s current era. This can be seen as a good example in both Christian and Islamic society throughout the medieval and modern world. The role of religion in both of these cultures is perhaps best exemplified in the Crusades that took place during the medieval period.


Christianity formed the base of society in Europe for hundreds of years. The Catholic Church was extremely powerful as priests and church officials were typically the only educated people in society, aside from nobility and the ruling class. As a result, the average person in society was dependent upon the priest for the interpretation of Scripture (the Bible was written in Latin only).

Society as a whole was reliant on the church, as they were the social network that provided for those who were sick, poor, elderly, etc. (Keep in mind, there was no Social Security.) As a result, the Church enjoyed a great deal of power and wealth. This influence spread beyond Europe with the expansion of colonial powers, especially the Spanish empire and the conquest of the New World. The Spanish took their culture with them, i.e., the Catholic Church, and the lasting impact can still be seen throughout Latin America as Roman Catholicism is still the main religion of the region.


Islam spread rapidly after its founding in Mecca in the seventh century. It quickly became the state religion of the Ottoman Empire which exerted control over much of the Middle East and North Africa at the time. Islam was even able to penetrate into Christian Europe though the invasion of the Moors into Spain during the Middle Ages (roughly 700 CE). It was after the Islamic empires took the Holy Land (Jerusalem) that Christian Europeans set about gaining control of it for Christianity. A series of wars called the Crusades ensued, and the Europeans were unable to fully and permanently regain control.

Islamic empires were able to spread so quickly because they generally allowed people to continue practicing their own religion in exchange for higher taxes. If a person did not want to pay the higher rates, they could simply convert to Islam and enjoy the benefits of lower rates. Islam split into two factions shortly after its inception, Sunni and Shia. Today, this Sunni-Shia split is most evident in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Major Movements

The following movements took place over a long period of time but are categorized as they are because it helps to contextualize history. These movements represent turning points in history when new ideas challenge the status quo and alter the course of history.

The Renaissance

Renaissance means rebirth, and the Renaissance in Europe refers to the period between roughly 1400 and 1600 in which the classical views of Greek and Roman societies were reborn in Europe. This was largely made possible in Europe at this time by the expansion of trade and the wealth of Northern Italian city-states after the Black Death swept through Europe. The loss of such a large portion of the population led people to seek new ways of thinking outside of the teachings of the Catholic Church at the time.

The Scientific Revolution

Beginning in the 1500s and extending throughout the 1600s, the Scientific Revolution was characterized by major discoveries in science and technology that ushered in the modern era of scientific research and understanding that we have today. Major advances in the fields of medical science, mathematics, astronomy, and physics changed the way society viewed nature and the world. This was all made possible during this time period largely due to the Protestant Reformation. Because the Catholic Church had lost power and influence in society as a result of the Reformation, scientists were more bold in their study and dissemination of their findings.

Early Modern Capitalism

Early modern capitalism began with the Industrial Revolution. Capitalist ideas like those of Adam Smith (everyone will work for their own self-interest) drove business owners at the time to compete with each other for customers. This competition led to owners doing anything they could to beat their competitors. In some cases, this was good as a business owner might find ways to improve and provide a superior product to consumers. In other cases, it was negative in that workers were paid less or required to work longer hours. In any case, modern capitalism gave rise to its main competition: communism. The spread and difference between these theories led to the Cold War. Today, these (or a combination of them) tend to be the two main economic ideas that societies pursue.

Early Ideas of Representative Democracy

Many of the wars in Europe’s history were fought over who would maintain power, influence, or control over an area. Over time, as monarchs gained and consolidated more power, people became frustrated with the way many monarchs ruled—which was typically characterized by high taxes, little freedoms, and no voice in government matters. Eventually, people began to revolt and demand that the monarch’s power be limited. These ideas are exemplified in the Magna Carta and The Enlightenment.

The Magna Carta

Signed by King John of England in 1215, the Magna Carta is one of the most significant documents in world history. It stated that everyone in society was subject to the law, including the king, and that everyone had certain rights that could not be denied. This was the foundation for future constitutional monarchies in which the powers of the monarch would be limited by a document.

The Enlightenment

Also known as the Age of Reason, The Enlightenment was a period of philosophical change that took place throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe. It was characterized by a focus on reason, science, intellect, and individualism. Enlightenment philosophy was very influential in the crafting of the United States Constitution. Some famous Enlightenment thinkers include Locke, Hobbs, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu.


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