From Example Problems
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This article is about . For , see Civilization (disambiguation).

A civilization or civilisation has a variety of meanings related to human society. The term comes from the Latin civis, meaning "citizen" or "townsman".

The Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, Mexico. Building projects of this size require the social organization found in civilizations.
The ruins of Machu Picchu, "the Lost City of the Incas," has become the most recognizable symbol of the Inca civilization.

Senses Of The Word

1: 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 and tribal societies in which people live in small settlements or nomadic groups and subsist by foraging, hunting, or working small horticultural gardens. When used in this sense, civilization is an exclusive term, applied to some human groups and not others.

2: Broader sense

In a broader sense, civilization often can refer to any distinct society, whether complex and city-dwelling, or simple and tribal. This sense is often perceived as less exclusive and ethnocentric than the first. In this sense civilization is nearly synonymous with culture.

3: Human society as a whole

"Civilization" can sometimes refer to human society as a whole, as in "A nuclear war would wipe out Civilization" or "I'm glad to be safely back in Civilization after being lost in the wilderness for 3 weeks". Additionally, it is used in this sense to refer to the potential global civilization.

4: A standard of behavior

Civilization can also mean the standard of behavior, similar to etiquette. "Civilized" behavior is contrasted with "barbaric" or crude behavior. In this sense, civilization implies sophistication and refinement.

5: Superior vs. less complex societies

Another use of civilization combines the first and fourth meanings of the word, implying that a complex society is naturally superior to less complex societies. This point of view has been used to justify racism and imperialism; powerful societies have often believed it was their right to "civilize," or culturally dominate, weaker ones ("barbarians"). This act of civilizing weaker peoples was sometimes called the "White Man's Burden".

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.

What characterizes civilization

An Egyptian farmer using a plow 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:

  • 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 labor. Those who do not occupy their time in producing food may obtain their food through trade as in modern capitalism or may have the food provided to them by the state as in ancient Egypt. 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 social hierarchy. 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, including writing.

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. Today, many tribal societies live inside states and under their laws. The political structures of civilization have been superimposed on their way of life, so they too occupy a middle ground between tribal and civilized.

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 has the means by which to do this.

Nevertheless some tribes or peoples still remained uncivilized even to this day (2005). These cultures are called primitive. They do not have hierarchical governments, organized religion, writing systems or controlled economy exchange for that matter. The little hierarchy that exists, for example respect for the elderly, is mutual and not instituted by force, rather by a sort of mutual agreement. Government does not exist, or at least the civilized version of government which most of us are all familiar with.

The civilized world is spread by introducing agriculture, writing system, and religion to primitive tribes. The un-civilized people adapt to the civilized behaviour. Civlization is also spread by force, if a tribe does not wish to use agriculture or accept a certain religion it is forced to do so by the civilized people, and they usually succeed due to their more advanced technology. Civilization often uses religion to justify its actions, claiming for example that the un-civilized are savages, barbarians or the like, which, for their own good, should subjugate to the civilization, or their God(s).

It is difficult for the un-civilized world to mount any such assault on civilization since that would mean complying to civilizations standards and concepts of advanced violence (war). They would need 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 Indian civilization and its influence on China, Xanadu, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Southeast Asia and so forth). 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 "Persian 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. 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 civilizational 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 when 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, 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 BCE. Central Civilization later expanded to include the entire Middle East and Europe, and then expanded to 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.

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

Negative views of civilization

Religious ascetics in many times and places have attempted to curb the influence of civilization over their lives in order to concentrate on spiritual matters. Over the years many members of civilizations have shunned them, believing that civilization restricts people from living in their natural state. 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.

Karl Marx "believed that the beginning of civilization was the beginning of oppression". As more food was produced and the society's material possessions increased, wealth became concentrated in the hands of the powerful. 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 neighboring 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. In addition, some feminists believe that civilization is the source of men's domination over women. Together, these ideas make up modern conflict theory in the social sciences.

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 for all of the above reasons: they accuse civilizations of restricting humans, oppressing the weak, and damaging the environment. A leading proponent is John Zerzan. Published Oct 21, 2002.

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 worldview 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 worldview 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.

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) arose in Mesopotamia, the Nile valley of Egypt, the Indus Valley region of modern Pakistan, in the Huang He (Yellow River) valley of China, and on the island of Crete in the Aegean Sea. 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.


Anthropological and archaeological evidence both indicate a grain-grinding culture farming along the Nile in 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 southwstern 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, eventually forming the Sahara (c.2500 BC), and 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 BCE.

By 6000 BC predynastic Egyptians in the southwestern corner of Egypt were herding cattle and constructing large buildings. Symbols on Gerzean pottery, c.4000 BC, resemble traditional hieroglyph writing [1]. 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 (see Ancient Egypt: Ancient Achievements).


The earliest settlement in Jericho (9th millennium BC) was a PPNA 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. Around 1500 to 1200 BC Jericho and other cities of Canaan had become vassals of the Egyptian empire.

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. The Sialk ziggurat of Kashan, Iran, also dates to this era. 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 city of Susa, in Mesopotamia, seems to emerge from earlier villages. Sumerian cuneiform script dates to no later than about 3500 BCE. Other villages begin to spring up around this time in the Ancient Near East as well.


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.

Attributed to a later Chinese culture, in the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), are 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, Yinxu (a capital of the Shang Dynasty).

South Asia

The earliest known farming cultures in south Asia emerged in the hills of Balochistan, Pakistan, which included Mehrgarh in the 7th millennium BC. These semi-nomadic peoples domesticated wheat, barley, sheep, goat and cattle. Pottery was in use by the 6th millennium 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 we find much evidence of manufacturing. 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 harbor. 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).

Archaeologists studying the remains of two men from Mehrgarh, Pakistan, discovered that these peoples in the Indus Valley Civilization had knowledge of medicine and dentistry as early as circa 3300 BC. The Indus Valley Civilization gains credit for the earliest known 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 boasts the earliest known accounts of urban planning. As seen in Harappa, Mohenjo-daro and (recently discovered) Rakhigarhi, their urban planning included the world's first urban sanitation systems. Evidence suggests efficient municipal governments. Streets were laid out in perfect grid patterns comparable to modern New York. Houses were protected from noise, odors and thieves. The sewage and drainage systems developed and used in cities throughout the Indus Valley were far more advanced than that of contemporary urban sites in Mesopotamia.

See also

Further reading

  • BBC on civilization
  • Wiktionary: civilization, civilize
  • Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, 2001, Civilizations, Free Press, London.
  • Brinton, Crane, John B. Christopher, Robert Lee Wolff, and Robin W. Winks. A History of Civilization: Prehistory to 1715. Volume 1. Sixth Edition. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1984.
  • Casson, Lionel. Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
  • Chisholm, Jane, ed. The Usborne Book of the Ancient World. London: Usborne, 1991.
  • Colcutt, Martin, Marius Jansen, and Isao Kumakura. Cultural Atlas of Japan. New York: Facts on File, 1988.
  • Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 BC. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
  • Edey, Maitland A. The Sea Traders. New York: Time-Life Books, 1974.
  • Fairservis, Walter A., Jr. The Threshold of Civilization; An Experiment in Prehistory. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975.
  • Ferrill, Arther. The Origins of War: From the Stone Age to Alexander the Great. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1986.
  • Fitzgerald, C. P. The Horizon History of China. New York: American Heritage, 1969.
  • Gowlett, John. Ascent to Civilization: The Archaeology of Early Man. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.
  • Hawkes, Jacquetta. The Atlas of Early Man. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976.
  • Hawkes, Jacquetta. Dawn of the Gods: Minoan and Mycenean Origins of Greece. New York: Random House, 1968.
  • Hicks, Jim. The Empire Builders. New York: Time-Life Books, 1974.
  • Hicks, Jim. The Persians. New York: Time-Life Books, 1975.
  • Johnson, Paul. A History of the Jews. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
  • Keppie, Lawrence. The Making of the Roman Army. Totowa: Barnes & Noble, 1984.
  • Lansing, Elizabeth. The Sumerians. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971.
  • Lee, Ki-Baik. A New History of Korea. Translated by Edward W. Wager with Edward J. Shultz. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.
  • Nahm, Andrew C. A Panorama of 5000 Years: Korean History. Elizabeth: Hollym International, 1983.
  • Oliphant, Margaret. The Atlas of the Ancient World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
  • Rogerson, John. The Atlas of the Bible. New York: Facts on File, 1985.
  • Sansom, George. A History of Japan to 1334. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967.
  • Southworth, John Van Duyn. The Ancient Fleet: Naval Warfare under Oars. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968.
  • Thomas, Hugh. A History of the World. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.
  • Yap, Yong, and Arthur Cotterell. The Early Civilization of China. New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1975.
  • J.F.C. Fuller. A Military History of the Western World. Three Volumes. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1954. Reprinted 1987 and 1988.
    • v. 1. From the earliest times to the Battle of Lepanto; ISBN 0306803046.
    • v. 2. From the defeat of the Spanish Armada to the Battle of Waterloo; ISBN 0306803054.
    • v. 3. From the American Civil War to the end of World War II; ISBN 0306803062.

ar:حضارة da:Civilisation de:Zivilisation et:Tsivilisatsioon es:Civilización eo:Civilizo fr:Civilisation gl:Civilización ko:문명 he:ציביליזציה lt:Civilizacija hu:Civilizáció ms:Tamadun nl:Beschaving ja:文明 pl:Cywilizacja pt:Civilização fi:Sivistys sv:Civilisation ta:நாகரிகம் zh:文明