2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Culture and Diversity

Cities are a major hallmark of human civilization.
Cities are a major hallmark of human civilization.
The Parthenon in Athens is an example of classical Greek Civilization.
The Parthenon in Athens is an example of classical Greek 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.

The word civilization (or civilisation) has a variety of meanings related to human society. The word "civilization" comes from the Latin word for townsman or citizen, civis, and its adjectival form, civilis. To be "civilised" essentially meant being a townsman, governed by the constitution and legal statutes of that community. Roman civil law was gathered together into a consolidated body of the “ Corpus Juris Civilis” in the 6th Century for Emperor Justinian ( AD 483- AD 565). Justinian's code was rediscovered and used by law professors at the first University established in Western Europe, at Bologna in the 11th century. From 1388 the word “civil” appeared in English, while “civilisation” as a “law which makes a criminal process civil," appeared in 1704, closely followed in 1722 with “civilisation” - meaning the opposite of “ barbarity” and coming probably from the French language. This article follows the American usage, "civilization," in accordance with Noah Webster's Dictionary of 1828.

Senses of the word

Literal and technical definitions

By the most minimal, literal definition, a civilization is a complex society. Technically, anthropologists distinguish civilizations in which many of the people live in cities and get their food from agriculture, from band societies, in which people live in nomadic or semi-nomadic groups, and tribal societies, in which people may live in small semi-permanent settlements. Bands usually subsist by hunting and gathering, and tribes often by working small horticultural gardens, sometimes also supplemented by hunting or fishing. Simple and more complex tribes are distinguished by the presence or absence of Chieftains, who take specialist leadership roles, unlike in bands which are more egalitarian, where decision making structures are less formal and power is more evenly shared. Civilizations are more complex again than chieftain societies, as, in addition to a variety of specialist artisans and craftspeople, civilizations are all characterised by a social elite, with status inherited, determined largely from birth. When used in this sense, civilization is an exclusive term, applied to some human groups and not others.

Broader sense

The term "civilization" is used in common parlance with both a normative and a descriptive dimension. In the past, to be "civilized," was linked to the feeling of being "civil" - a term for politeness and propriety. To be "uncivilized" in this usage means to be "rude," " barbaric" or a " savage." In this sense, civilization implies sophistication and refinement. People that all work in a small village or settlement could be civilized. This normative use has been used to justify many forms of imperialism, for instance in Late Victorian times it was specifically seen as "bringing civilization to the savages," a task referred to with indigenous cultures in Africa, the Pacific and other peoples today recognised as " Third World," as "taking up the white man's burden" when engaged in by Modern Europeans. Alternatively, it can be said that most people choose to live in increasingly complex societies because of increased standards of living: since the beginnings of civilization there has been the migration of people from outlying rural and undeveloped areas to cities (See Dick Whittington syndrome).

This article will mainly treat civilizations in the first, narrow, sense. See culture, society, etiquette, and ethnocentrism and for topics related to the broader senses of the term. See also Problems with the term.

To remove these pejorative uses the meaning of civilization has been broadened so that "civilization" often can refer to any distinct society, whether complex and city dwelling, or simple and tribal (for example " Australian Aboriginal civilization"). This sense of the term is often perceived as less exclusive and ethnocentric, not making the distinction between civilized or barbaric, common to these meanings of the word. The weakness of this less ethnocentric approach is that the descriptive power of the word "civilization" has been significantly weakened. Anthropologists and archaeologists for instance argue that such a useage is alternatively less useful and meaningful, than the first. In this sense, civilization becomes nearly synonymous with culture.

Human society as a whole

In this broader sense "Civilization" can sometimes refer to human society as a whole, as in "A nuclear war would wipe out Civilization" (see End of civilization) or "I'm glad to be safely back in Civilization after being lost in the wilderness for weeks." Additionally, it is used in this sense to refer to the global civilization. Such a usage is often used in the context of discussions about so-called " globalisation," again often used in a normative sense. Critics of "globalisation" reject such a coupling of the terms, saying that what is called "globalisation" is in fact a form of "global corporatisation" and that other forms of globalisation are possible, (for example, in respect for International Human Rights, and the Geneva conventions against torture of political and prisoners of war). Violations of such international principles today is widely considered "barbaric." The descriptive sense of "global civilization" would consider, with William McNeill's thesis of "the Rise of the West," that at least since the age of the great voyages of discovery of Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan, that the world comprises a single socio-economic and political system (see " World Systems Theory"). Recently it has been suggested that there are in fact three waves of the globalisation of civilization.

The First Wave: was associated with technologies of "Wind and Water" energies. Leadership of this phase passed from Spain and Portugal to the Netherlands, and then Britain, in what Lewis Mumford calls the Eotechnic phase.

The Second Wave: was associated with technologies of coal, iron and steel, and steam power. (See "Industrial Revolution." Lewis Mumford refers to this as a " Paleotechnic" phase. Leadership was contested between England and France in the first half of this period in the Napoleonic and Revolutionary Wars, linked in part to the contest between old and new technological and social systems.

The Third Wave: (of which we are approaching the end), is based upon the technologies of oil, electricity, plastics, chemicals, and the automobile. Mumford refers to this as the age of " Neotechnic" civilization. Like earlier phases, world leadership of this phase was contested, initially by Germany and Britain, but then by Japan (See "World War I" and "World War II"), the United States, and the Soviet Union (See "Cold War").

In each case, the transition between one technology and the next has required an often revolutionary reorganization of society, and these revolutions have had social, economic and political dimensions as well as technological ones.

It is argued that contemporary global civilization is beginning to undergo yet another transition, beyond the dependence on oil (See " Peak oil") once again towards sustainable or renewable technologies not dependent upon parasitic dependence upon fossil fuels. The current War on Terrorism in this context would seem to be a part of such a transitional pattern, where existing great powers first try to monopolise the declining stock of depleting strategic resources.

As a way of characterizing human cultures

Morton Fried, a conflict theorist, and Elman Service, an integration theorist, have produced a system of classification for all human cultures and societies based on the evolution of social inequality and the role of the state. 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 with several inherited social classes;king, noble, freemen, serf and slave.
  • civilizations, with complex social hierarchies and organized, institutional governments.

What characterizes civilization

An Egyptian farmer using a plough drawn by domesticated animals, two developments in agriculture that started the Neolithic Revolution and led to the first civilizations.
An Egyptian farmer using a plough drawn by domesticated animals, two developments in agriculture that started the Neolithic Revolution and led to the first civilizations.

Literally, a civilization is a complex society, as distinguished from a simpler society. Everyone lives in a society and a culture, but not everyone lives in a civilization. Historically, civilizations have shared some or all of the following traits (some of these were suggested by V. Gordon Childe):

  • Intensive agricultural techniques, such as the use of human power, crop rotation, and irrigation. This has enabled farmers to produce a surplus of food that is not necessary for their own subsistence.
  • A significant portion of the population that does not devote most of its time to producing food. This permits a division of labour. Those who do not occupy their time in producing food may instead focus their efforts in other fields, such as industry, war, science or religion. This is possible because of the food surplus described above.
  • The gathering of some of these non-food producers into permanent settlements, called cities.
  • A form of social organization. This can be a chiefdom, in which the chieftain of one noble family or clan rules the people; or a state society, in which the ruling class is supported by a government or bureaucracy. Political power is concentrated in the cities.
  • The institutionalized control of food by the ruling class, government or bureaucracy.
  • The establishment of complex, formal social institutions such as organized religion and education, as opposed to the less formal traditions of other societies.
  • Development of complex forms of economic exchange. This includes the expansion of trade and may lead to the creation of money and markets.
  • The accumulation of more material possessions than in simpler societies.
  • Development of new technologies by people who are not busy producing food. In many early civilizations, metallurgy was an important advancement.
  • Advanced development of the arts, especially writing.

Epidemics among both humans and animals are also characteristics of civilization.

By this definition, some societies, like Greece, are clearly civilizations, whereas others like the Bushmen clearly are not. However, the distinction is not always clear. In the Pacific Northwest of the US, for example, an abundant supply of fish guaranteed that the people had a surplus of food without any agriculture. The people established permanent settlements, a social hierarchy, material wealth, and advanced artwork (most famously totem poles), all without the development of intensive agriculture. Meanwhile, the Pueblo culture of southwestern North America developed advanced agriculture, irrigation, and permanent, communal settlements such as Taos. However, the Pueblo never developed any of the complex institutions associated with civilizations.

All civilizations, as sedentary cultures have a problem in that they deplete important local resources in the vicinity of their first settlements. As a result civilizations, if they are to survive, are inherently expansive, as they require to draw resources essential to their survival from progressively further and further away from their core. This leads " World Systems Theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein to propose that civilizations can be geographically divided between are "core," a hinterland or "semi-periphery" and a "periphery," in which the core draws upon the resource base of the other two areas.

The evolution of most civilizations has been summarized as follows:

  1. All civilizations start small, establishing their genesis with the creation of state systems for maintaining the elite.
  2. Successful civilizations then flourish and grow, becoming larger and larger in an accelerating fashion.
  3. They then reach a limiting maximum extent, perhaps managing to hold a degree of stability for a length of time.
  4. Competition between states in a civilization may result in one achieving predominance over the others.
  5. Dominance may be indirect, or may formalize into the structure of single multi-ethnic empires.
  6. Over the long term, civilizations either collapse or get replaced by a larger, more dynamic civilization.

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 it the means by which to do this.

Nevertheless, some tribes or peoples remained uncivilized even to this day (2006). 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 specialised monopolising 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." In the same way, a male of Kurdish ancestry living in Iran is above all a member of "Islamic civilization."

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, Persia, India, and China, were well established 2000 years ago, when these civilizations scarcely shared any political, diplomatic, military, or cultural relations.

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 P. 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.

Historian William McGaughey, for instance, interprets world history in terms of five civilizations which have appeared in succession, each introduced by a new communication technology. Civilization itself began with writing in an ideographic form. Alphabetic writing, printing, electronic recording and broadcasting, and computer communication have introduced the remaining four civilizations, the last being in its infancy. The future of this civilization depends on organic processes similar to those in earlier ones. To a certain degree, we are able to predict the future by reviewing the course of past civilizations. Computer-based communication will shape the future of global society.

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 Fall of Civilizations

See Societal collapse

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 collapse 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 monumental " 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 proletariat.

Joseph Tainter in " The Collapse of Complex Societies" suggested that there was 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 collectable, 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 in his book The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians argues that this civilization did not end for moral or economic reasons, but due to the fact that 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 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 Empires of China, to the Muslim Abbasid Caliphate, and others.

Bryan Ward Perkins in his book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, unlike many revisionist historians who downplay the suffering of the collapse of a civilization shows the real horrors associated with it for the people who suffer its effects. 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 in Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization using a holistic perspective to the most recent evidence from archaeology, palaeoecology, and epigraphy, argues 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.

Generally, explanations for the collapse of civilization have shifted from inherent biological analogies to more systemic ecological understandings which show that sustainable cultures fail to be built.

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. A leading proponent is John Zerzan, 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 quantum 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 19th-century anthropologists backed a theory called cultural 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 most social scientists believe at least to some extent in 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 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."

Early civilizations

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, Persia in modern-day Iran, the Indus Valley region of modern-day Pakistan and North India, the Nile valley of Egypt, and the parallel development of Chinese civilizations in the Huang He River (Yellow River) and Yangtze River valleys of China, while smaller civilizations arose in Elam in modern-day Iran, and on the island of Crete in the Aegean Sea, 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.

It is also important to note various literate and pre-literate civilizations developed in southern Sudan and East African regions prior to European contact (eg. See Ghana Empire, Mali Empire, Songhai Empire, Great Zimbabwe, Munhumutapa Empire).

Sumer 3500–2334 BC

The Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer officially is believed to have begun around 4000-3500 BC, and although some claim it ended at 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 recognised that Sumer 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 adopted the Sumerian cuneiform script to their own language. The earliest recognisable cunieform dates to no later than about 3500 BC. Sumer, which was Mesopotamia's first civilization in what is now Iraq, is recognized as the world's earliest civilization. Other villages begin to spring up around this time in the Ancient Near East (Middle East) as well, were greatly impacted and shifted rapidly from a proto-civilized to afully civilized state (eg. Ebla, Mari amd Asshur).

Ancient Egypt 3200–343 BC

The Egyptian civilization of the Nile Valley began at around 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. Climate changes and/or overgrazing around 8000 BC began to desiccate the pastoral lands of Egypt, and, in 2500 BC, early tribes naturally migrated to the Nile river where they developed a settled agricultural economy and more centralized society. 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 6000 BC.

By 6000 BC predynastic Egyptians in the southwestern corner of Egypt were herding cattle. Symbols on Gerzean pottery, c. 4000 BC, resemble traditional hieroglyph writing . In ancient Egypt mortar (masonry) was in use by 4000 BC, and ancient Egyptians were producing ceramic faience as early as 3500 BC. There is evidence that ancient Egyptian explorers may have originally cleared and protected some branches of the Silk Road. 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.

Indian subcontinent 3300–1700 BC

Marine scientists in India have discovered an archaeological site off India's western coast as old as 7000 BC. The revelation comes after images from the sea-bed suggested the presence of built-up structures resembling the Harappan civilization.

Another civilization of the Indian subcontinent, the Indus valley civilization traces it's origins to Mehrgarh Period I (7000 BC-3500 BC). By 2800 BC, it had developed into one of the largest and most advanced civilization of that time, covering almost all of modern day Pakistan and much of northern India. The earliest-known farming cultures in South Asia emerged in the hills of Balochistan, Pakistan. These semi-nomadic peoples domesticated wheat, barley, sheep, goat and cattle. Pottery was in use by the 6th millennium BC. The oldest granary yet found in Mehrgarh in the Indus Valley dates from 6000 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, pendants and occasionally animal sacrifices. Figurines and ornaments of sea shell, limestone, turquoise, lapis lazuli, sandstone and polished copper have been found. By the 4th millennium BC much evidence of manufacturing emerges. 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. Villagers domesticated numerous other crops, including peas, sesame seed, dates, and cotton, plus a wide range of domestic animals, including the water buffalo which still remains essential to intensive agricultural production throughout Asia today. There is also evidence of sea-going craft. Archaeologists have discovered a massive, dredged canal and docking facility at the coastal city of Lothal, India, perhaps the world's oldest sea-faring harbour. Judging from the dispersal of artifacts the trade networks integrated portions of Afghanistan, the Persian coast, northern and central India, Mesopotamia (see Meluhha) and Ancient Egypt (see Silk Road).

Scientists studying the remains of human beings from Mehrgarh, Pakistan, discovered that the people of the Indus valley civilization had knowledge of medicine and dentistry as early as 7000 BC. The Indus valley civilization is credited for a regular and consistent use of decimal fractions in a uniform system of ancient weights and measures, as well as negative numbers (see Timeline of mathematics). Ancient Indus Valley artifacts include beautiful, glazed stone faïence beads.

The Indus valley civilization is known to have very early accounts of urban planning. Major cities included Lothal (2400 BC), Harappa (3300 BC), and Mohenjo-Daro (2500 BC), Rakhigarhi and Dholavira. Urban planning in these cities included the world's first urban sanitation systems. Evidence suggests efficient municipal governments. Streets were laid out in grid patterns. The sewage and drainage systems developed and used in cities throughout the Indus Valley were more advanced than that of contemporary urban sites in Mesopotamia and Egypt and also more advanced than that of any other Bronze Age or even Iron Age civilization. This civilization of planned cities came to end around 1700 BC due to drying of rivers flowing from the Himalayas to the Arabian sea and geological/climatical changes in the Indus valley civilization area which resulted in the formation of the Thar desert. Due to this aridity, the cities were abandoned and people disintegrated and moved to more fertile Ganga-Yamuna rivers area.

Elam 3100–539 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. Archeological 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 centres. 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.

Caral ( New World) 3000-1600 BC

Caral, the oldest known urban settlement in the Western Hemisphere.
Caral, the oldest known urban settlement in the Western Hemisphere.

The oldest known civilization in South America, as well as in the Western Hemisphere as a whole, the Caral Supe valley was the site of several interconnected settlements leading to the Peruvian coast, centred around the urban centre at Caral. Caral is the largest recorded urban site in the Andean region, and the presence of a Quipu (Andean recording medium) indicates its potential influence on later Andean societies (as well as the antiquity of this unique recording system). The stone pyramids on the site 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 at the site.

China (Yellow River) 2200–214 BC

China is one of the world's oldest civilizations on record. According to ancient dialects, the Yellow River was irrigated at around 2200 BC by an Emperor named Yu the Great, starting the supposed Xia Dynasty. It is not known if this dynasty ever existed, but the earliest verifiable dynasty, the Shang Dynasty, emerged around 1750 BC. Developed agriculture appears in the 7th millennium BC in the Peiligang culture (discovered in 1977) of Henan, China, including storing and redistributing crops, millet farming and animal husbandry (pigs). Evidence also indicates specialized craftsmenship and administrators (see History of China: Prehistoric times). This culture is one of the oldest in ancient China to show evidence of pottery-making. China's first historical dynasty, the Xia Dynasty, emerged in 2033 BC and may have been a late Neolithic or early Bronze Age culture.

Attributed to a later Chinese culture, in the Shang Dynasty ( 1600- 1046 BC), are bronze artefacts 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, Yinxu (a capital of the Shang Dynasty). One of the few innovations to reach China from the outside world was the chariot, introduced at around 1300 BCE. The Shang Dynasty collapsed when western Chinese led a rebellion and started the Zhou Dynasty, which marked the end of the original civilization.

Another source of ancient Chinese civilization is Sanxingdui, which demonstrated astonishing bronze craftwork, but suddenly disappeared around 1000BC leaving no historic records. 1

Mycenaean Greece 2000–1450 BC

The first signs of civilization in Greece was 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, flourished in the Greek island of Crete, for which the most representative site explored up to now is Cnossus. The site of Cnossus has yielded valuable and the most various and continuous evidence from the Neolithic age to the twilight of classical civilization. Human habitation on 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 include the Akrotiri at the island of Thera. The oldest signs of human settlement in Thera are Late Neolithic ( 4th millennium BC or earlier), but since 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 undeciphered. 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).

Olmec (New World) 1200–400 BC

The Olmec civilization was the first Mesoamerican civilization, beginning at around 1200 BC and ending at 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 centres of these cities were ceremonial complexes with pyramids and walled plazas. The first of these centres 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 were standing at 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 and 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.

Ancient Rome 900BC-500AD

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 a city-state founded on the Italian Peninsula circa the 9th century BC to an empire straddling the Mediterranean. 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.

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