Civilization

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Culture and Diversity

Central New York City. Cities are a major hallmark of human civilization.
Central New York City. Cities are a major hallmark of human civilization.
The ruins of Machu Picchu, "the Lost City of the Incas," has become the most recognizable symbol of the Inca civilization.
The ruins of Machu Picchu, "the Lost City of the Incas," has become the most recognizable symbol of the Inca civilization.

Civilization or civilisation is a kind of human society or culture; specifically, a civilization is usually understood to be a complex society characterized by the process of state formation, the practice of agriculture and settlement in cities. Compared with less complex cultures, members of a civilization are organized into a diverse division of labour and an intricate social hierarchy. The term civilization is often used as a synonym for culture in both popular and academic circles. Every human being participates in a culture, defined as "the arts, customs, habits... beliefs, values, behaviour and material habits that constitute a people's way of life". Civilizations can be distinguished from other cultures by their high level of social complexity and organization, and by their diverse economic and cultural activities.

The term civilization has been defined and understood in a number of ways different from the standard definition. Sometimes it is used synonymously with the broader term culture. Civilization can also refer to society as a whole. To nineteenth-century English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor, for example, civilization was "the total social heredity of mankind;" in other words, civilization was the totality of human knowledge and culture as represented by the most "advanced" society at a given time. Civilization can be used in a normative sense as well: if complex and urban cultures are assumed to be superior to other "savage" or " barbarian" cultures, then "civilization" is used as a synonym for "superiority of certain groups." In a similar sense, civilization can mean "refinement of thought, manners, or taste". However, in its most widely used definition, civilization is a descriptive term for a relatively complex agricultural and urban culture.

Etymology

The word Civilization comes from the Latin word civilis, the adjective form of civis, meaning a "citizen" or "townsman" governed by the law of his city.

In the 6th century, the Roman Emperor Justinian oversaw the consolidation of Roman civil law. The resulting collection is called the Corpus Juris Civilis. In the 11th century, professors at the University of Bologna, Western Europe's first university, rediscovered Corpus Juris Civilis, and its influence began to be felt across Western Europe. In 1388, the word civil appeared in English meaning "of or related to citizens". In 1704, civilisation began to mean "a law which makes a criminal process into a civil case." Civilization was not used in its modern sense to mean "the opposite of barbarism" — as contrasted to civility, meaning politeness or civil virtue — until the 18th century.

According to Emile Benveniste (1954), the first occurrence in English of civilization in its modern sense may be found in Adam Ferguson's An Essay on the History of Civil Society (Edinburg, 1767 - p.2):

Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization.

Before Benveniste's inquiries, the New English Dictionary quoted James Boswell's conversation with Samuel Johnson concerning the inclusion of Civilization in Johnson's dictionary:

On Monday, March 23 (1772), I found him busy, preparing a fourth edition of his folio Dictionary... He would not admit civilization, but only civility. With great deference to him I thought civilization, from to civilise, better in the sense opposed to barbarity than civility, as it is better to have a distinct word for each sense, than one word with two senses, which civility is, in his way of using it.

Benveniste demonstrated that previous occurrences could be found, which explained the quick adoption of Johnson's definition. In 1775 the dictionary of Ast defined civilization as "the state of being civilized; the act of civilising", and the term was frequently used by Adam Smith in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Beside Smith and Ferguson, John Millar also used it in 1771 in his Observations concerning the distinction of ranks in society.

As the first occurrence of civilization in French was found by Benveniste in the Marquis de Mirabeau's L'Ami des hommes ou traité de la population (written in 1756 but published in 1757), Benveniste's query was to know if the English word derived from the French, or if both evolved independently — a question which needed more researches. According to him, the word civilization may in fact have been used by Ferguson as soon as 1759.

Furthermore, Benveniste notes that, contrasted to civility, a static term, civilization conveys a sense of dynamism. He thus writes that...

It was not only a historical view of society; it was also an optimist and resolutely non theological interpretation of its evolution which asserted itself, sometimes at the insu of those who proclaimed it, and even if some of them, and first of all Mirabeau, still counted religion as the first factor of 'civilization.

Characterizing civilization

26th century BC Sumerian cuneiform script in Sumerian language, listing gifts to the high priestess of Adab on the occasion of her election. One of the earliest examples of human writing.
26th century BC Sumerian cuneiform script in Sumerian language, listing gifts to the high priestess of Adab on the occasion of her election. One of the earliest examples of human writing.

Social scientists such as V. Gordon Childe have named a number of traits that distinguish a civilization from other kinds of society. Civilizations have been distinguished by their means of subsistence, types of livelihood, settlement patterns, forms of government, social stratification, economic systems, literacy, and other cultural traits.

All human civilizations have depended on agriculture for subsistence. Growing food on farms results in a surplus of food, particularly when people use intensive agricultural techniques such as irrigation and crop rotation. Grain surpluses have been especially important because they can be stored for a long time. A surplus of food permits some people to do things besides produce food for a living: early civilizations included artisans, priests and priestesses, and other people with specialized careers. A surplus of food results in a division of labour and a more diverse range of human activity, a defining trait of civilizations.

Civilizations have distinctly different settlement patterns from other societies. The word civilization is sometimes defined as "a word that simply means 'living in cities'". Non-farmers gather in cities to work and to trade.

Compared with other societies, civilizations have a more complex political structure, namely the state. State societies are more stratified than other societies; there is a greater difference among the social classes. The ruling class, normally concentrated in the cities, has control over much of the surplus and exercises its will through the actions of a government or bureaucracy. Morton Fried, a conflict theorist, and Elman Service, an integration theorist, have classified human cultures based on political systems and social inequality. This system of classification contains four categories:

  • Hunter-gatherer bands, which are generally egalitarian.
  • Horticultural/ pastoral societies in which there are generally two inherited social classes;chief and commoner.
  • Highly stratified structures, or chiefdoms, with several inherited social classes: king, noble, freemen, serf and slave.
  • Civilizations, with complex social hierarchies and organized, institutional governments.

Economically, civilizations display more complex patterns of ownership and exchange than less organized societies. Living in one place allows people to accumulate more personal possessions than nomadic people. Some people also acquire landed property, or private ownership of the land. Because many people in civilizations do not grow their own food, they must trade their goods and services for food in a market system. Early civilizations developed money as a universal medium of exchange for these increasingly complex transactions.

Ten Indus scripts discovered near the northern gate of Dholavira 5000 years ago
Ten Indus scripts discovered near the northern gate of Dholavira 5000 years ago

Writing, developed first by people in Sumer, is considered a hallmark of civilization and "appears to accompany the rise of complex administrative bureaucracies or the conquest state." Traders and bureaucrats relied on writing to keep accurate records. Aided by their division of labor and central government planning, civilizations have developed many other diverse cultural traits. These include organized religion, development in the arts, and countless new advances in science and technology.

Civilization as a cultural identity

"Civilization" can also describe the culture of a complex society, not just the society itself. Every society, civilization or not, has a specific set of ideas and customs, and a certain set of items and arts, that make it unique. Civilizations have even more intricate cultures, including literature, professional art, architecture, organized religion, and complex customs associated with the elite. Civilization is such in nature that it seeks to spread, to have more, to expand, and the means by which to do this.

Nevertheless, some tribes or peoples remained uncivilized even to this day (2007). These cultures are called by some " primitive," a term that is regarded by others as pejorative. "Primitive" implies in some way that a culture is "first" (Latin = primus), and as all cultures are contemporaries today's so called primitive cultures are in no way antecedent to those we consider civilized. Many anthropologists use the term " non-literate" to describe these peoples. In the USA and Canada, where people of such cultures were the original inhabitants before being displaced by European settlers, they use the term " First Nations." Generally, these people do not have hierarchical governments, organized religion, writing systems or money. The little hierarchy that exists, for example respect for the elderly, is mutual and not instituted by force, rather by a mutual reciprocal and customary agreement. A specialized monopolizing government does not exist, or at least the civilized version of government which most of us are familiar with.

The civilized world has been spread by invasion, conversion and trade, and by introducing agriculture, writing and religion to non-literate tribes. Some tribes may willingly adapt to civilized behaviour. But civilization is also spread by force: if a tribe does not wish to use agriculture or accept a certain religion it is often forced to do so by the civilized people, and they usually succeed due to their more advanced technology, and higher population densities. Civilization often uses religion to justify its actions, claiming for example that the uncivilized are "primitive," savages, barbarians or the like, which should be subjugated by civilization.

It has been difficult for the uncivilized world to mount any counter-assault on civilization since that would mean complying to civilization's standards and concepts of advanced violence (war). Guerilla struggles have been waged, and American Indians fought a long and bitter struggle against Anglo-American invaders of their lands, who successively violated treaties signed with them, supposedly protecting their territories from European invaders. In other cases they have needed to become civilized in order to engage in any sort of war.

Thus, the intricate culture associated with civilization has a tendency to spread to and influence other cultures, sometimes assimilating them into the civilization (a classic example being Chinese civilization and its influence on Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and so forth), all of them sharing the fact that they belong to an East Asian civilization, sharing Confucianism, Mahayana Buddhism, a " Mandarin" class an educated understanding of Chinese ideograms and much else. Many civilizations are actually large cultural spheres containing many nations and regions. The civilization in which someone lives is that person's broadest cultural identity. A female of African descent living in the United States has many roles that she identifies with. However, she is above all a member of " Western civilization (or not, she would belong to a mix between her own African Civilization blended with Western Civilization)." In the same way, a male of Kurdish ancestry living in Iran is above all a member of " Islamic civilization."

Whereas the etiology of civilization is Latin or Roman, defined above as the application of justice by "civil" means, one must also examine and reflect upon Jewish or Hebrew civilization - the history of a people running separate but parallel to, Egyptian, Greek and Roman "civilizations." To the contrary, a Hebrew "civilization" is defined not as an expression or extension of the subjective trappings of culture and society, but rather as a human society and/or culture being an expression of objective moral and ethical moorings as they are known, understood and applied in accordance with the Mosaic Covenant. A "human" civilization, in Hebrew terms for instance, may contrast sharply with conventional notions about "civilization." A "human" civilization, therein, would be an expression and extension of the two most basic pillars of human "civilization." These two pillars are, honest standardized weights and measures and a moral and healthy constitution. Everything else, whether technology, science, art, music, etc., is by this definition considered as commentary. Indeed, to the degree the surface terrain of a human society, i.e., culture is "civilized," is to the degree the internal terrain (characteristics, personality or substance) of the people and leadership must also have been inoculated by, and inculcated with a moral foundation. The Biblically described Sodom, for instance, while being a society comprised of people with a culture, would by Jewish or Biblical standards of "civility" have been uncivilized. And while the Roman sentiment is largely focused upon how justice must "appear" to be done in a "civil" manner, the Hebrew or Biblical approach to justice, in principle, is never limited to subjective pretenses or appearance, but more importantly, justice must be predicated upon objective principles. Ultimately, there is no true or lasting "civility" for any man in the absence of moral composure.

Many historians have focused on these broad cultural spheres and have treated civilizations as single units. One example is early twentieth-century philosopher Oswald Spengler, even though he uses the German word "Kultur," "culture," for what we here call a "civilization." He said that a civilization's coherence is based around a single primary cultural symbol. Civilizations experience cycles of birth, life, decline and death, often supplanted by a new civilization with a potent new culture, formed around a compelling new cultural symbol.

This "unified culture" concept of civilization also influenced the theories of historian Arnold J. Toynbee in the mid-twentieth century. Toynbee explored civilization processes in his multi-volume A Study of History, which traced the rise and, in most cases, the decline of 21 civilizations and five "arrested civilizations." Civilizations generally declined and fell, according to Toynbee, because of moral or religious decline, rather than economic or environmental causes.

Samuel P. Huntington similarly defines a civilization as "the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species." Besides giving a definition of a civilization, Huntington has also proposed several theories about civilizations, discussed below.

Civilizations as complex systems

Another group of theorists, making use of systems theory, look at civilizations as complex systems or networks of cities that emerge from pre-urban cultures, and are defined by the economic, political, military, diplomatic, and cultural interactions between them.

For example, urbanist Jane Jacobs defines cities as the economic engines that work to create large networks of people. The main process that creates these city networks, she says, is "import replacement". Import replacement is the process by which peripheral cities begin to replace goods and services that were formerly imported from more advanced cities. Successful import replacement creates economic growth in these peripheral cities, and allows these cities to then export their goods to less developed cities in their own hinterlands, creating new economic networks. So Jacobs explores economic development across wide networks instead of treating each society as an isolated cultural sphere.

Systems theorists look at many types of relations between cities, including economic relations, cultural exchanges, and political/diplomatic/military relations. These spheres often occur on different scales. For example, trade networks were, until the nineteenth century, much larger than either cultural spheres or political spheres. Extensive trade routes, including the Silk Road through Central Asia and Indian Ocean sea routes linking the Roman Empire, Persian Empire, India, and China, were well established 2000 years ago, when these civilizations scarcely shared any political, diplomatic, military, or cultural relations. The first evidence of such long distance trade is in the ancient world. During the Uruk phase Guillermo Algaze has argued that trade relations connected Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran and Afghanistan. Resin found later in the Royal Tombs of Ur it is suggested was traded northwards from Mozambique.

Many theorists argue that the entire world has already become integrated into a single " world system", a process known as globalization. Different civilizations and societies all over the globe are economically, politically, and even culturally interdependent in many ways. There is debate over when this integration began, and what sort of integration – cultural, technological, economic, political, or military-diplomatic – is the key indicator in determining the extent of a civilization. David Wilkinson has proposed that economic and military-diplomatic integration of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations resulted in the creation of what he calls the "Central Civilization" around 1500 BC. Central Civilization later expanded to include the entire Middle East and Europe, and then expanded to a global scale with European colonization, integrating the Americas, Australia, China and Japan by the nineteenth century. According to Wilkinson, civilizations can be culturally heterogeneous, like the Central Civilization, or relatively homogeneous, like the Japanese civilization. What Huntington calls the "clash of civilizations" might be characterized by Wilkinson as a clash of cultural spheres within a single global civilization. Others point to the Crusades as the first step in globalization. The more conventional viewpoint is that networks of societies have expanded and shrunk since ancient times, and that the current globalized economy and culture is a product of recent European colonialism.

The future of civilizations

Political scientist Samuel Huntington has argued that the defining characteristic of the 21st century will be a clash of civilizations. According to Huntington, conflicts between civilizations will supplant the conflicts between nation-states and ideologies that characterized the 19th and 20th centuries.

Currently, world civilization is in a stage that has created what may be characterized as an industrial society, superseding the agrarian society that preceded it. Some futurists believe that civilization is undergoing another transformation, and that world society will become an informational society.

Some environmental scientists see the world entering a Planetary Phase of Civilization, characterized by a shift away from independent, disconnected nation-states to a world of increased global connectivity with worldwide institutions, environmental challenges, economic systems, and consciousness. In an attempt to better understand what a Planetary Phase of Civilization might look like in the current context of declining natural resources and increasing consumption, the Global scenario group used scenario analysis to arrive at three archetypal futures: Barbarization, in which increasing conflicts result in either a fortress world or complete societal breakdown; Conventional Worlds, in which market forces or Policy reform slowly precipitate more sustainable practices; and a Great Transition, in which either the sum of fragmented Eco-Communalism movements add up to a sustainable world or globally coordinated efforts and initiatives result in a new sustainability paradigm.

The Kardashev scale classifies civilizations based on their level of technological advancement, specifically measured by the amount of energy a civilization is able to harness. The Kardashev scale makes provisions for civilizations far more technologically advanced than any currently known to exist. (see also: Civilizations and the Future, Space civilization)

The Dialogue among Civilizations

The term first was widely used by Mohammad Khatami, Iranian president (1997-2005) suggesting an opposition approach to those who believe in "clashes among civilizations". The idea was welcomed by the United Nations in order to make solidarity among nations and help the global community choose peace and dialogue over clashes and war. Hence, the year 2001 was named 'the year of Dialogue among Civilizations' and annually lots of conferences and meetings are held around the world to promote the level of understanding and tolerance among peoples.

The fall of civilizations

There have been many explanations put forward for the collapse of civilization.

Edward Gibbon's massive work " The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" began an interest in the Fall of Civilizations, that had begun with the historical divisions of Petrarch between the Classical period of Ancient Greece and Rome, the succeeding Medieval Ages, and the Renaissance. For Gibbon:-

"The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long."[Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 2nd ed., vol. 4, ed. by J. B. Bury (London, 1909), pp. 173-174.] Gibbon suggested the final act of the collapse of Rome was the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD.

Theodor Mommsen in his " History of Rome", suggested Rome collapsed with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD and he also tended towards a biological analogy of "genesis," "growth," "senescence," "collapse" and "decay."

Oswald Spengler, in his " Decline of the West" rejected Petrarch's chronological division, and suggested that there had been only eight "mature civilizations." Growing cultures, he argued, tend to develop into imperialistic civilizations which expand and ultimately collapse, with democratic forms of government ushering in plutocracy and ultimately imperialism.

Arnold J. Toynbee in his " A Study of History" suggested that there had been a much larger number of civilizations, including a small number of arrested civilizations, and that all civilizations tended to go through the cycle identified by Mommsen. The cause of the fall of a civilization occurred when a cultural elite became a parasitic elite, leading to the rise of internal and external proletariats.

Joseph Tainter in " The Collapse of Complex Societies" suggested that there were diminishing returns to complexity, due to which, as states achieved a maximum permissible complexity, they would decline when further increases actually produced a negative return. Tainter suggested that Rome achieved this figure in the 2nd Century AD.

Jared Diamond in his recent book " Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" suggests five major reasons for the collapse of 41 studied cultures.

  • Environmental damage, such as deforestation and soil erosion
  • Climate change
  • Dependence upon long-distance trade for needed resources
  • Increasing levels of internal and external violence, such as war or invasion
  • Societal responses to internal and environmental problems

Peter Turchin in his Historical Dynamics and Andrey Korotayev et al. in their Introduction to Social Macrodynamics, Secular Cycles, and Millennial Trends suggest a number of mathematical models describing collapse of agrarian civilizations. For example, the basic logic of Turchin's "fiscal-demographic" model can be outlined as follows: during the initial phase of a sociodemographic cycle we observe relatively high levels of per capita production and consumption, which leads not only to relatively high population growth rates, but also to relatively high rates of surplus production. As a result, during this phase the population can afford to pay taxes without great problems, the taxes are quite easily collectible, and the population growth is accompanied by the growth of state revenues. During the intermediate phase, the increasing overpopulation leads to the decrease of per capita production and consumption levels, it becomes more and more difficult to collect taxes, and state revenues stop growing, whereas the state expenditures grow due to the growth of the population controlled by the state. As a result, during this phase the state starts experiencing considerable fiscal problems. During the final pre-collapse phases the overpopulation leads to further decrease of per capita production, the surplus production further decreases, state revenues shrink, but the state needs more and more resources to control the growing (though with lower and lower rates) population. Eventually this leads to famines, epidemics, state breakdown, and demographic and civilization collapse (Peter Turchin. Historical Dynamics. Princeton University Press, 2003:121–127).

Peter Heather argues in his book The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians that this civilization did not end for moral or economic reasons, but because centuries of contact with barbarians across the frontier generated its own nemesis by making them a much more sophisticated and dangerous adversary. The fact that Rome needed to generate ever greater revenues to equip and re-equip armies that were for the first time repeatedly defeated in the field, led to the dismemberment of the Empire. Although this argument is specific to Rome, it can also be applied to the Asiatic Empire of the Egyptians, to the Han and Tang dynasties of China, to the Muslim Abbasid Caliphate, and others.

Bryan Ward-Perkins, in his book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization shows the real horrors associated with the collapse of a civilization for the people who suffer its effects, unlike many revisionist historians who downplay this. The collapse of complex society meant that even basic plumbing disappeared from the continent for 1,000 years. Similar Dark Age collapses are seen with the Late Bronze Age collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean, the collapse of the Maya, on Easter Island and elsewhere.

Arthur Demarest argues in Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization, using a holistic perspective to the most recent evidence from archaeology, paleoecology, and epigraphy, that no one explanation is sufficient but that a series of erratic, complex events, including loss of soil fertility, drought and rising levels of internal and external violence led to the disintegration of the courts of Mayan kingdoms which began a spiral of decline and decay. He argues that the collapse of the Maya has lessons for civilization today.

Jeffrey A. McNeely has recently suggested that "A review of historical evidence shows that past civilizations have tended to over-exploit their forests, and that such abuse of important resources has been a significant factor in the decline of the over-exploiting society."

Thomas Homer-Dixon in " The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization", considers that the fall in the energy return on investments; the energy expended to energy yield ratio, is central to limiting the survival of civilizations. The degree of social complexity is closely linked, he suggests, to the amount of disposable energy environmental, economic and technological systems allow. When this amount falls civilizations either have to access new high energy sources or they will collapse.

Negative views of civilization

Civilization has been criticized from a variety of viewpoints and for a variety of reasons. Some critics have objected to all aspects of civilization; others have argued that civilization brings a mixture of good and bad effects.

The best known opponents of civilization are people who have voluntarily chosen to live outside it. These include hermits and religious ascetics who, in many different times and places, have attempted to eliminate the influence of civilization over their lives in order to concentrate on spiritual matters. Monasteries represent an effort by these ascetics to create a life somewhat apart from their mainstream civilizations. In the 19th century, Transcendentalists believed civilization was shallow and materialistic, so they wanted to build a completely agrarian society, free from the oppression of the city.

Civilizations have shown an inclination towards conquest and expansion. When civilizations were formed, more food was produced and the society's material possessions increased, but wealth also became concentrated in the hands of the powerful. Depletion of local resources also increased dependence upon more distant resources so compelling expansion, by either invasion or trade with neighbouring peoples. The communal way of life among tribal people gave way to aristocracy and hierarchy. As hierarchies are able to generate sufficient resources and food surpluses capable of supplying standing armies, civilizations were capable of conquering neighbouring cultures that made their livings in different ways. In this manner, civilizations began to spread outward from Eurasia across the world some 10,000 years ago - and are finishing the job today in the remote jungles of the Amazon and New Guinea.

Many environmentalists criticize civilizations for their exploitation of the environment. Through intensive agriculture and urban growth, civilizations tend to destroy natural settings and habitats. This is sometimes referred to as "dominator culture". Proponents of this view believe that traditional societies live in greater harmony with nature than civilizations; people work with nature rather than try to subdue it. The sustainable living movement is a push from some members of civilization to regain that harmony with nature.

Primitivism is a modern philosophy totally opposed to civilization. Primitivists accuse civilizations of restricting human potential, oppressing the weak, and damaging the environment. They wish to return to a more primitive way of life which they consider to be in the best interests of both nature and human beings. Leading proponents are John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen, whereas a critic is Roger Sandall.

However, not all critics of past and present civilization believe that a primitive way of life is better. Some have argued that a third alternative exists, which is neither primitive nor "civilized" in the current sense of the word. This may be described as a radically different form of civilization. Karl Marx, for instance, argued that the beginning of civilization was the beginning of oppression and exploitation, but also believed that these things would eventually be overcome and communism would be established throughout the world. He envisioned communism not as a return to any sort of idyllic past, but as a leap forward to a new stage of civilization. Conflict theory in the social sciences also views present civilization as being based on the domination of some people by others, but makes no moral judgements on the issue.

Among Eastern schools of thought, Taoism was one of the first to reject the Confucian concern for civilization.

Given the current problems with the sustainability of industrial civilization, some, like Derrick Jensen, who posits civilization to be inherently unsustainable, argue that we need to move towards a social form of "post-civilization" as different from civilization as the latter was with pre-civilized peoples.

Problems with the term "civilization"

As discussed above, "civilization" has a number of meanings, and its use can lead to confusion and misunderstanding.

However, "civilization" can be a highly connotative word. It might bring to mind qualities such as superiority, humaneness, and refinement. Indeed, many members of civilized societies have seen themselves as superior to the " barbarians" outside their civilization.

Many anthropologists backed a theory called unilineal evolution. They believed that people naturally progress from a simple state to a superior, civilized state. John Wesley Powell, for example, classified all societies as Savage, Barbarian, and Civilized; the first two of his terms would shock most anthropologists today. The early 20th century saw the first cracks in this world view within Western Civilization: Joseph Conrad's 1902 novel " Heart of Darkness," for example, told a story set in the Congo Free State, in which the most savage and uncivilized behaviour was initiated by a white European. This hierarchical world view was dealt further serious blows by the atrocities of World War I and World War II and so on.

Today, multilinial views of cultural evolution are the norm within the social sciences, as is a greater level cultural relativism, the view that complex societies are not by nature superior, more humane, or more sophisticated than less complex or technologically advanced groups. This view of relativism has its roots in the writings of Franz Boas.

A minority of scholars reject the relativism of Boas and mainstream social science. English biologist John Baker, in his 1974 book Race, gives about 20 criteria that make civilizations superior to non-civilizations. Baker tries to show a relation between the cultures of civilizations and the biological disposition of their creators.

Many postmodernists, and a considerable proportion of the wider public, argue that the division of societies into 'civilized' and 'uncivilized' is arbitrary and meaningless. On a fundamental level, they say there is no difference between civilizations and tribal societies; that each simply does what it can with the resources it has. In this view, the concept of "civilization" has merely been the justification for colonialism, imperialism, genocide, and coercive acculturation.

On the other hand, critics of this view argue that there are real differences between civilizations and tribal or hunter-gatherer societies. The modes of social organization, they say, are fundamentally altered in complex, urban societies that gather large amounts of unrelated people together into cities. Additionally, it is argued that the complex division of labor and specialized economic activities that characterize civilizations produce better standards of living for their inhabitants.

For all of the above reasons, many scholars today avoid using the term "civilization" as a stand-alone term; they prefer to use urban society or intensive agricultural society, which are much less ambiguous, more neutral-sounding terms. "Civilization" however remains in common academic use when describing specific societies, such as "Mayan Civilization."

Development of early civilizations

African and Eurasian civilizations of the "Old World"

The earliest known civilizations (as defined in the traditional sense) developed from proto-civilized cultures in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq, the Nile valley of Egypt, while other civilizations arose in Elam in modern-day Iran (especially those parts considered to be the "Fertile Crescent"), the Mehrgarh and Sindhu Valley region of modern-day Pakistan and Northwest India, and the parallel development of Chinese civilizations in the Huang He River (Yellow River) and Yangtze River valleys of China, and on the island of Crete and in Mycenaean Greece in the Aegean Sea, Persia in modern-day Iran, as well as the Olmec civilization and the Caral civilization in modern day Mexico and Peru. The inhabitants of these areas built cities, created writing systems, learned to make pottery and use metals, domesticated animals, and created complex social structures with class systems. Proto-civilized cultures developed as a late stage of the Neolithic Revolution, and pioneered many of the features later associated with civilizations. The oldest granary yet found, for instance, dates back to 9500 BC and is located in the Jordan Valley. The earliest known settlement in Jericho ( 9th millennium BC) was a Pre-Pottery Neolithic A culture that eventually gave way to more developed settlements later, which included in one early settlement ( 8th millennium BC) mud-brick houses surrounded by a stone wall, having a stone tower built into the wall. In this time there is evidence of domesticated emmer wheat, barley and pulses and hunting of wild animals. However, there are no indications of attempts to form communities (early civilizations) with surrounding peoples. Nevertheless, by the 6th millennium BC we find what appears to be an ancient shrine and cult, which would likely indicate intercommunal religious practices in this era. Findings include a collective burial (with not all the skeletons completely articulated, jaws removed, faces covered with plaster, cowries used for eyes). Other finds from this era include stone and bone tools, clay figurines and shell and malachite beads. Despite considerable urban development in the Early and Middle Bronze Ages, these sites only became part of the fully civilized world around 1500 to 1200 BC when the pre-literate sites of Jericho and other cities of Canaan had become vassals of the Egyptian empire.

In Anatolia, the first urban complex has been identified at Çatalhöyük, having many of the characteristics found in later cities and towns in the Near East. It has been hypothesized that this culture came to an end when nearby forests were depleted of timber, a fate similar to that of the Anasazi in America. At Mersin, an early fortress has been identified guarding the Cicilian Gates trade route through the Taurus Mountains. At Hamoukar in Syria, evidence of an early battle has been found circa 4,500 BC, with those benefiting from the struggle being members of the Uruk culture from Southern Iraq. From Uruk comes the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known literary works, which pairs the beastial Enkidu with the demigod king Gilgamesh in a story reflecting civilization's advent. Whilst civilization at Hamoukar and nearby Tell Brak previously had been independent from Southern Iraq, henceforth Southern Iraq developed more rapidly with a higher population density.

Various literate and pre-literate civilizations and proto-civilizations also developed in southern Sahel, Sudan and Africa">East African regions prior to European contact (for example, the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire, the Songhai Empire, and the Empire of Great Zimbabwe).

Sumer (4000-3500 BC)

The Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer is officially believed to have begun around 4000-3500 BC, and although some claim it ended in 2334 BC with the rise of Akkad, the following Ur III period saw a Sumerian renaissance. This period came to an end with Amorite and Elamite invasions, after which Sumerian retained its importance only as a written language (similar to Latin in the Middle Ages). It is generally recognized that Sumer, in what is now Iraq, was the world's first civilization.

Eridu was the oldest Sumerian site, settled during the proto-civilized Ubaid period. Situated several miles southwest of Ur, Eridu was the southernmost of a conglomeration of early temple-cities, in Sumer, southern Mesopotamia, with the earliest of these settlements carbon dating to around 5000 BC. By the 4th millennium BC, in Nippur we find, in connection with a sort of ziggurat and shrine, a conduit built of bricks, in the form of an arch. Sumerian inscriptions written on clay also appear in Nippur. By 4000 BC an ancient Elamite city of Susa, in Mesopotamia, also seems to emerge from earlier villages. Whilst Elam originally adopted their own script from an early age they adapted the Sumerian cuneiform script to their own language. The earliest recognizable cuneiform dates to no later than about 3500 BC. Other villages that began to spring up around this time in the Ancient Near East (Middle East) were greatly impacted and shifted rapidly from a proto-civilized to a fully civilized state (eg. Ebla, Mari and Assur).

Indus Valley and the Indian subcontinent (3500 BC-Present)

An early farming culture developed in India. These people domesticated wheat, barley, cow, sheep, goat and other cattle. Pottery was in use by the 8th millennium BC. The oldest granary yet found in this region was the Mehrgarh in the Indus Valley, which dates from 7000 BC.

Their settlement consisted of mud buildings that housed four internal subdivisions. Burials included elaborate goods such as baskets, stone and bone tools, beads, bangles and pendants. Figurines and ornaments of sea shell, limestone, turquoise, lapis lazuli, sandstone and polished copper have been found. By the 4th millennium BC, technologies included stone and copper drills, updraft kilns, large pit kilns and copper melting crucibles. Button seals included geometric designs.

By 4000 BC, a pre- Harappan culture emerged, with trade networks including lapis lazuli and other raw materials. The Indus civilization is known to have comprised two large cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, and more than 100 towns and villages, often of relatively small size. The two cities were perhaps originally about a mile square in overall dimensions, and their outstanding magnitude suggests political centralization, either in two large states or in a single great empire with alternative capitals. Or it may be that Harappa succeeded Mohenjo-daro, which is known to have been devastated more than once by exceptional floods . The southern region of the civilization in Kathiawar and beyond appears to be of later origin than the major Indus sites. Villagers also grew numerous other crops, including peas, sesame seed, dates, and cotton. The Indus valley civilization is credited for high level mathematics, astrology, astronomy, geometry and regular and consistent use of decimal fractions in a uniform system of ancient weights and measures.

Major cities of the civilization included Harappa (3300 BCE), Dholavira (2900 BCE), Mohenjo-Daro (2500 BCE), Lothal (2400 BCE) and Rakhigarhi. Streets were laid out in grid patterns along with the development of sewage and water systems. This civilization of planned cities came to an end around 1700 BC perhaps due to drying of rivers flowing from the Himalayas to the Arabian sea and geological/climatic changes in the Indus valley civilization area which resulted in the formation of the Thar desert. As a result, the cities were abandoned and populations reduced and people moved to the more fertile Ganga-Yamuna river area. The Indus script remains un-deciphered. The theory proposed is the Out of India theory, according to which there was no Aryan invasion into India, but a continuity between the Indus Valley Civilization and the Vedic Age and that the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization was related to geological events. Besides, the theory postulates that there was a migration of Indo-Aryans culture out of India rather than the reverse as is the case with the Aryan Invasion Theory, reviving the obsolete Urheimat theories of 18th and 19th century linguists.

The early Vedic period (from ca. 1500 BCE) is the period in the history of India when the sacred Vedic Sanskrit texts such as the Vedas were documented from their oral tradition. Some of these religious texts describe the gradual settlement and consolidation of Aryan tribes into a series of minor kingdoms on the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh culture began to emerge around this time.

In the late Vedic period (from ca. 700 BCE), it saw the rise of the Mahajanapadas, or the Great kingdoms, and was succeeded by the golden age of Hinduism and classical Sanskrit literature, the Maurya Empire (from ca. 320 BCE) and the Middle kingdoms of India.

In modern India, around 85% of the population practices Hinduism and associated Dharmic religions while the rest of the populace practices Abrahamic religions. Most modern Indian languages, except Tamil, derive heavily from Sanskrit, the language of devas according to some Hindus.

Ancient Egypt (3200–343 BC)

The rise of dynastic Egypt in the Nile Valley occurred with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in approximately 3200 BC, and ended at around 343 BC, at the start of the Achaemenid dynasty's control of Egypt. It is one of the three oldest civilizations in the world. Anthropological and archaeological evidence both indicate that the Kubbaniya culture was a grain- grinding culture farming along the Nile before the 10th millennium BC using sickle blades. But another culture of hunters, fishers and gathering peoples using stone tools replaced them. Evidence also indicates human habitation in the southwestern corner of Egypt, near the Sudan border, before 8000 BC. From around 7000 BC to 3000 BC the climate of the Sahara was much moister, offering good grazing land even in areas that are now very arid. Natural climate change after 3000 BC led to progressive arification of the region. It has been suggested that as a result of these changes, around 2500 BC early tribes from the Sahara were forced to concentrate along the Nile river where they developed a settled agricultural economy and more centralized society. However it should be borne in mind that indigenous tribes would always have been present in the fertile Nile Valley and may have developed complex societies by themselves. Domesticated animals had already been imported from Asia between 7500 BC and 4000 BC (see Sahara: History, Cattle period), and there is evidence of pastoralism and cultivation of cereals in the East Sahara in the 7th millennium BC. The earliest known artwork of ships in ancient Egypt dates to 6th millennium BC.

By 6000 BC predynastic Egyptians in the southwestern corner of Egypt were herding cattle. Symbols on Gerzean pottery, c. 4th millennium BC, resemble traditional hieroglyph writing. In ancient Egypt mortar was in use by 4000 BC, and ancient Egyptians were producing ceramic faience as early as 3500 BC. There is evidence that ancient Egypt acquired lapis lazuli from Badakhshan, Afghanistan. Medical institutions are known to have been established in Egypt since as early as circa 3000 BC. Ancient Egypt gains credit for the tallest ancient pyramids and early forms of surgery, mathematics, and barge transport.

Elamite (Iran) (2700–539 BC)

The Elamite Kingdom is one of the oldest civilizations on record, beginning around 2700 BC and discovered and acknowledged very recently. This civilization was a hub of activity in the Middle East and would probably have been in contact with the civilizations of Sumer. There is evidence of an even older civilization called the Jiroft Kingdom, but not everybody acknowledges this civilization. There are records of numerous ancient and technologically advanced civilizations on the Iranian plateau before the arrival of Aryan tribes from the north, many of whom are still unknown to historians today. Archaeological findings place knowledge of Persian prehistory at middle palaeolithic times (100,000 years ago). The earliest sedentary cultures date from 18,000-14,000 years ago. In 6000 BC the world saw a fairly sophisticated agricultural society and proto-urban population centers. 7000 year old jars of wine excavated in the Zagros Mountains (now on display at The University of Pennsylvania) are further testament to this. Scholars and archaeologists are only beginning to discover the scope of the independent, non-Semitic Elamite Empire and Jiroft civilizations (2) that flourished 5000 years ago].

Canaan (2350 BC-100 AD)

The Canaanite civilization of the Early Levant, associated with the small city states and regional nations that existed in the region from the end of the Early Bronze Age, down to the final disappearance of the Canaanite script and language in the 1st century AD, was a specific civilization that tied Mediterranean trade into the larger regional states of the fertile crescent. It had its roots in the Chaclolithic Ghassulian culture of the Syro-Palestinian region, which pioneered a destinctive Mediterranean economy comprising subsistence horticulture, extensive grain agriculture, commercial production of wine, pistaccios and olives, and transhumance pastoralism. At periods of desiccation and climate change, Canaanite civilization was impacted by nomadic pastoralists (eg. Amorites, Aramaeans, Arabs)normally confined to the semi-desert circum-Arabian zone.

The area received its name from the Akkadian Kanahhu, or perhaps the Hurrian knaa, meaning "purple", the colour of the dye produced from the local murex mollusc, that provided a distinctive and expensive coloured textile. Canaanite culture is known to the Greeks as Phoenician (from the same source). Incorporated into the Egyptian Empire in the New Empire period, as maritime traders in the Early Iron Age, Canaanites were responsible for establishing colonies in North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, Spain and the Balerics. They may even have circumnavigated Africa.

Incorporated into Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman Empires, in the Levant, Canaanite Carthaginians managed to maintain their independence until the Punic Wars with the Roman Empire.

China (2200 BC–Present)

China is one of the world's oldest civilizations and one of the oldest continuous civilizations. The oldest pre-civilized Neolithic cultures found in China to date are the Pengtoushan, the Jiahu, and the Peiligang, all dated to about 7000 BC. Pengtoushan has been difficult to date and has a date variance from 9000 BC to 5500 BC, but it was at this site that remains of domesticated rice dated at about 7000 BC were found. At Jiahu, some of the earliest evidence of rice cultivation was found. Another notable discovery at Jiahu was playable tonal flutes, dated around 7000 BC to 6600 BC. Peiligang was one of the earliest cultures in China to make pottery. Both Jiahu and Peiligang developed millet farming, animal husbandry, storage and redistribution of crops. Evidence also indicates specialized craftsmenship and administrators in these Neolithic cultures (see History of China: Prehistoric times).

Longshan culture ( traditional Chinese: 龍山文化; simplified Chinese: 龙山文化; pinyin: Lóngshān wénhuà) was a late Neolithic culture centered on the central and lower Yellow River in China. Longshan culture is named after Longshan, Shandong Province, the first excavated site of this culture. It is dated from about 3000 BC to 2000 BC.

The Erlitou culture ( traditional Chinese: 二里頭文化; simplified Chinese: 二里头文化; pinyin: Erlitou wénhuà ) ( 2200 BC to 1500 BC) is a name given by archaeologists to an Early Bronze Age society that existed in China. The culture was named after the site discovered at Erlitou in Yanshi, Henan Province. The culture was widely spread throughout Henan and Shanxi Province, and later appeared in Shaanxi and Hubei Province. Most Chinese archaeologists identify the Erlitou culture as the site of the Xia Dynasty, while most Western archaeologists remain unconvinced of the connection between the Erlitou culture and the Xia Dynasty since there are no extant written records linking Erlitou with the official history.

The Yellow River was irrigated around 2205 BC, reputedly by an Emperor named Yu the Great, starting the semi-mythical Xia Dynasty. Archaeologists disagree whether or not there is archaeological evidence to support the existence of the Xia Dynasty, with some suggesting that the Bronze Age society, the Erlitou culture, was the site of this ancient, first recorded dynasty of China.

The earliest archaeologically verifiable dynasty in recorded Chinese history, the Shang Dynasty, emerged around 1750 BC. The Shang Dynasty is attributed for bronze artifacts and oracle bones, which were turtle shells or cattle scapula on which are written the first recorded Chinese characters and found in the Huang He valley in Yinxu, a capital of the Shang Dynasty.

Another source of ancient Chinese civilization is Sanxingdui, which demonstrated astonishing bronze craftwork, but suddenly disappeared around 1000 BC leaving no historical records.

Greece (2000 BC–146 BC)

The "Saffron-gatherers": fresco found at Akrotiri on the island of Santorini.
The "Saffron-gatherers": fresco found at Akrotiri on the island of Santorini.

The first signs of civilization in Greece are on the island of Crete from around 2600 BC, and by 1600 BC it had risen to become a larger civilization across much of Greece. Aegean civilization is the general term for the prehistoric civilizations in Greece, mostly throughout the Aegean Sea. It was formerly called "Mycenaean" because its existence was first brought to popular notice by Heinrich Schliemann's excavations at Mycenae starting in 1876. It is more usual now to use the more general geographical title. The Mycenaean civilization is now known to have succeeded the earlier Minoan, which flourished on the Greek island of Crete, for which the most representative site explored up to now is Knossos. The site of Knossos has yielded valuable and the most various and continuous evidence from the Neolithic age to the twilight of classical civilization. Human habitation at the site began with the founding of the first Neolithic settlement in ca 7000 BC. Remains of food producing societies in Greece have also been found at the Franchthi Cave, and a number of sites in Thessaly, carbon-dated to ca 6500 BC. The list of significant archaeological sites includes Akrotiri on the island of Santorini. The oldest signs of human settlement there are Late Neolithic ( 4th millennium BC or earlier), but from ca. 2000 – 1650 BC Akrotiri developed into one of the Aegean's major Bronze Age ports , with recovered objects that had come not just from Crete but also from Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria and Egypt, from the Dodecanese islands and the Greek mainland.

The language of the Minoans may have been written in the Cretan hieroglyphs and the Linear A script, but both remain un-deciphered. Approximately 3,000 tablets bearing the writing have been discovered so far, many apparently being inventories of goods or resources. In the Mycenean period, Linear A was replaced by Linear B. The latter was successfully deciphered by Michael Ventris in the 1950s, proving to be a very archaic version of the Greek language.

Regarding Aegean art, many items have been excavated. One Aegean sculpture (a face figure) has been greatly popularized due to its appearance in the Athens 2004 opening ceremony. Another one was the idea behind the game's mascots. Aegean figures are intriguing, since they bear a high resemblance to modern sculptures (e.g. Henry Moore's works).

Korea (900 BC-Present)

Korea started developing an important culture in the first millennium BC, making it one of the oldest continuous civilizations in the world. Limited linguistic evidence suggests possible Altaic origins of these people, whose northern Mongolian Steppe culture later absorbed refugees and cultural influence from northern China.

Agriculture and more complex societies developed during the Mumun pottery period (c. 1500-300 BC), and the Bronze Age began around 1000 BC, with its distinct Liaoning bronze dagger culture. An archaeologist and an agricultural specialist have suggested that rice cultivation may have reached Korea from southern China in the first century AD. Around 900 BC, evidence emerges of a walled-city political structure and labor-intensive dolmen burial sites. The Korean civilization taught Japan wet-rice farming, iron and bronze-making and a new style of pottery. However, the contributions of the Korean civilization to the evolution of Japanese culture were downplayed during the Japanese occupation for political reasons.

Etruscans and Ancient Rome (900 BC-500 AD)

The Roman Forum was the central area around which ancient Rome developed.
The Roman Forum was the central area around which ancient Rome developed.

Ancient Rome was a civilization that grew from an Etruscan city-state founded on the Italian Peninsula circa the 9th century BC to an empire straddling the Mediterranean. The Etruscan civilization developing from Piombino throughout Tuscany as a series of independent city states was eclipsed by its Latin speaking Roman neighbour, and incorporated within its republic. In its twelve-century existence, the Roman civilization shifted from a monarchy to an oligarchic republic to an empire. It came to dominate Western Europe and the entire area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea through conquest and assimilation. Nonetheless, a number of factors led to the eventual decline of the Roman Empire. The western half of the empire, including Hispania, Gaul, and Italy, eventually broke into independent kingdoms in the 5th century; the eastern empire, governed from Constantinople, is usually referred to as the Byzantine Empire after 476, the traditional date for the " fall of Rome" and for the subsequent onset of the Early Middle Ages, also known as the Dark Ages.

Persia (550 B.C-650 A.D.)

The Achaemenid Empire (559 BC–330 BC), founded by Cyrus the Great, was the first of the Persian Empires to rule over significant portions of Greater Iran. It also eventually incorporated the following territories: in the east modern Afghanistan and beyond into central Asia, and portions of Baluchistan; in the north and west all of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), the upper Balkans peninsula ( Thrace), and most of the Black Sea coastal regions; in the west and southwest the territories of modern Iraq, northern Saudi-Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, all significant population centers of ancient Egypt and as far west as portions of Libya. Encompassing approximately 7.5 million square kilometers, the Achaemenid Empire was territorially the largest empire of classical antiquity. When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire in 330 BC, Persian civilization experienced fundamental changes. Along his route of conquest and destroying the Persepolis, Alexander founded many colony cities, that he often named "Alexandria". For the next several centuries, these cities served to greatly extend Greek, or Hellenistic, culture in Persia. The recovery of Persian civilization under the Parthians and Sassanid Empires saw a renaissance of the Iranian Zoroastrian religion and the Persian monarchy and bureaucracy down to Muslim times.

American Civilizations of the "New World"

Norte Chico (3000–1600 BC)

Caral of the Norte Chico, the oldest known civilization in the Western Hemisphere.
Caral of the Norte Chico, the oldest known civilization in the Western Hemisphere.

The oldest known civilization in South America, as well as in the Western Hemisphere as a whole, the Norte Chico civilization comprised several interconnected settlements leading to the Peruvian coast, including the urban centers at Aspero and Caral. The presence of Quipu (an Andean recording medium) at Caral indicates its potential influence on later Andean societies, as well as the antiquity of this unique recording system. The stone pyramids on the sites are thought to be contemporary to the great pyramids of Giza. Unusually among Andean cities, no evidence of fortifications, or of other signs of warfare, have yet been found in the Norte Chico.

Olmec (1200–450 BC)

The Olmec civilization was the first Mesoamerican civilization, beginning around 1200 BC and ending around 400 BC. By 2700 BC, settlers in the Americas had begun to grow their first crop, maize, and a number of cities were built. Around 1200 BC, these small cities coalesced into this civilization. A prominent civilization thus emerged. The centers of these cities were ceremonial complexes with pyramids and walled plazas. The first of these centers was at San Lorenzo, with another one following it at La Venta. Olmec artisans sculpted jade and clay figurines of Jaguars and humans, and giant heads of the emperor stood in every major city. The domestication of maize is thought to have begun around 7,500 to 12,000 years ago (corrected for solar variations).. The earliest record of lowland maize cultivation dates to around 5,100 calendar years BC. The ruling families, however, eventually lost their grip on the surrounding regions, and the civilization ended in 400 BC, with the defacing and destruction of San Lorenzo and La Venta, two of the major cities. This civilization is considered the mother culture of the Mesoamerican civilizations. It spawned the Mayan civilization whose first constructions began around 600 BC and continued to influence future civilizations.

Alleged prehistoric civilizations

Since the days of Plato there has been the suggestion at different times that there were in fact a number of additional ancient civilizations that disappeared as a result of major catastrophes, including Atlantis, Lemuria and Mu. No evidence for any of these so-called civilizations exists.

Subsequent Developments of Civilizations

Karl Jaspers, the German historical philosopher, proposed that the ancient civilisations were greatly affected by an Axial Age during which a series of historical developments in the period between 600 BCE-400 BCE during which a series of male sages, prophets, religious reformers and philosophers, from China, India, Iran, Israel and Greece, changed the direction of civilizations forever. Julian Jaynes proposed that this was associated with the "collapse of the bicameral mind", during which the voice of the subconscious was recognized as subjective, rather than being seen as a voice of a divinity or disembodied spirit. William H. McNeill proposed that this period of history was one in which culture contact between previously separate civilisations saw the "closure of the oecumene", and led to accelerated social change from China to the Mediterranean, associated with the spread of coinage, larger empires and new religions. This view has recently been championed by Christopher Chase-Dunn and other world systems theorists.

Civilisations affected by these developments include

  • Mediterranean Civilisations of the Classical Period
  • Middle Eastern Civilisations
  • Indian Hindu and Buddhist Civilisations
  • Mauryan and Post-Mauryan Indian Civilization
  • Gupta Empire in North India
  • Chola Empire in South India
  • Civilisations of ancient Ceylon
  • East Asian Civilisations
  • Chinese Civilization
  • Korean Civilization
  • Vietnamese Civilization
  • Japanese Civilization
  • The Civilisations of South East Asia
  • Funan and Chen-la
  • Angkor Cambodia
  • Sri Vijaya, Shailendra and Majapahit Civilisations
  • Burmese, Thai and Lao Civilisations
  • Central Asian Civilization
  • Tibetan Civilization
  • Turkic and Mongol Civilisations
  • European Civilisations
  • Western Christendom
  • Byzantium and Eastern Orthodox Christendom
  • Russian Civilization

Since the voyages of discovery by European explorers of the 15th and 16th century, another development has occurred whereby which European forms of government, industry, commerce and culture have spread from Western Europe, to the Americas, South Africa, Australia, and through colonial empires, to the rest of the planet. Today it would appear that we are all parts of a planetary industrializing world civilization, divided between many nations and languages.

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