What is Civilization?
To decide what a civilization might look like, first, we must decide what “civilization” means.
Too often such a fundamental question gets skipped over, as if we already know the answer.
But we don’t.
This confusion owes partly to the fact “civilization” has both a popular and an academic definition. How we use the term in casual conversation—“That wasn’t very civilized”—isn’t how anthropologists and historians employ it. Not to mention even anthropologists and historians can’t fully agree on a definition, as ideas about civilization have evolved over the past hundred-plus years or so. We’ve learned more about the rise of civilization in various places around the globe, which includes new discoveries that challenge previous assumptions.
Some might think history a very static discipline, never changing…after all, it’s history, right? How can the past change?
Yet history is fluid because—if the past may not change—what we know about it does. New discoveries pop up, new questions are asked, and new perspectives reorient our research.
To quantify “civilization,” then, is tricky. At times, I’d like to throw out the term altogether because it drags along so much horrific historical baggage. Nonetheless, we’re stuck with it, so historians and anthropologists/sociologists look for the best (most generic) way to define it.
A civilization coalesces when a complex culture reaches such a level of development that specialization of work is created, and social hierarchy emerges. As part of this, civilizations may (often do) exert control over neighboring territories in order to access needed resources.
This is nicely broad—but some civilizations defy even such generic parameters. Take the Hohokum Pueblo peoples of the American Southwest. These cultures focused inward, not outward, and as such, did not practice regional dominance. The why has been debated, but whatever the cause, some would say they don’t qualify as a “civilization.” Yet anyone who’s actually seen Pueblo Benito (et al.) might find it astonishing not to label such an advanced and diverse society as a civilization.
So it’s important, I think, to allow a certain amount of flexibility in our definitions. We should never underestimate the importance of geography on human historical development. Ergo, we should not be surprised to find great diversity in human civilization, just as we have vast diversity in global environments.
Let’s pick apart, then, the basics of “civilization.”
First, why settlements, then civilizations developed is a point of contention. V. Gordon Childe once theorized that full agriculture was necessary for permanent settlements. As the world warmed and environments became increasingly hostile, or at least difficult (Holocene period), humans needed to know where their next meal was coming from. Abandoning hunting-gathering lifestyles, they began to farm, first using horticulture, then full-fledged agriculture. These farmers stayed put, settlements grew in size, and eventually, in select river-valley areas, the first cities emerged. The path to civilization thus seemed set and logical…
…until discoveries such as the temple at Göbekli Tepe and the Natufian civilization of the Levant and Syria threw a spanner in the works.
At Göbekli Tepe, a temple was built around the same time as or even before farming developed in the Ancient Near East. (The earliest structures date c. 12,000-11,500 BCE.) More curiously, the temple wasn’t part of any settlement or city. It’s just…there. Çatalhöyük is (sorta) next door, but it developed later than the earliest structures at Göbekli Tepe, and lacks ritual centers. Did it emerge as a sort of Neolithic suburbia for those who worshiped at Göbekli Tepe? Perhaps the two are related; perhaps they’re not. We don’t have enough evidence to say. But certainly the temple calls into question Childe’s idea that farming was invented, settlements followed, and then public projects such as temples and palaces were constructed as settlements grew.
The earliest known temple in the world, with very fine carvings and precise astronomical layout (it’s not “primitive” by any stretch), was constructed in the middle of nowhere and associated with no town. It seems to be a site of pilgrimage.
So did agriculture birth cities and religion, or did religion birth agriculture?
Likewise, the Natufians in the same basic region maintained a hunting-gathering lifestyle even while settling down in places such Damascus or Jerico (the oldest continually inhabited site in the world). Farming came later.
So did agriculture birth settlement, or did settlement birth agriculture?
The answer owes to the peculiarities of each unique environment.
In short, there’s not ONE answer. Chicken, egg, chicken-god—they all came first, at least somewhere. It’s not that Childe was wrong, but that his theory was too constrictive. The real story is BIGGER.
When it comes to history, we lock ourselves on a collision course with error when we insist on a single cause or single outcome. Human beings do things for a lot of reasons—sometimes even mutually contradictory reasons—and it behooves us to remember that.
Back to “civilization.”
The two most consistent elements seem to be 1) specialization of work, and 2) stratification of society. If everything else might look different, these two things lie at the heart of the definition of a civilization.
Specialization of work requires the ability to produce food in enough abundance to feed even those members of a society who are not directly involved in food acquisition. That means food SURPLUS and food STORAGE. These are very basic requirements, and don’t seem to change, whatever else a civilization may look like. Such a society must then find a means to redistribute the food surplus to those involved in tasks other than food production. That generally means taxation in some form. (Death and taxes….)
Yet taxes need not equate to the suppression of the masses under the heel of a privileged elite. Again, we must allow for nuance. Most of these early elites lacked the means to enforce any crippling inequality. (That came later, with armies.) Still, social hierarchy did emerge.
With specialization of work, human nature seems inclined to create a value system related to that work. Which jobs matter more? The farmer growing the barley/wheat/millet/maize, or the priest who convinces the gods to bring annual floods or rain that allow those fields to produce? Most early societies favored the priest over the farmer, because gods were more powerful than human beings. Ergo, in the majority of early civilizations, priests (not warlords) occupied the top echelon.
But not in all (exceptions, exceptions). And even in those where priests did dominate initially, rule transitioned from priests, to priest-kings, to warrior kings, or tribal chieftains establishing dynasties of rule-by-clan. Occasionally kings became gods (Pharaoh), or the Son of Heaven (the Zhou). And sometimes civilizations defied all of these to develop oligarchic councils where rule was shared among elite families.
Human societies develop according to the needs of their environment and historical situation. At the root of it, we’re practical survivalists. We’re also glorious in our sheer variety.
Yet this is also why we cannot define “civilization” by specifics, nor isolate a single trajectory that leads to it. Too many possible rivers feed that ocean.
Finally, we should address the tendency for civilizations to exercise dominance over neighbors. As mentioned above, such dominance should not, I think, be integral to defining a group as a civilization. Yet dominance, or attempts at it (more or less successful), is a characteristic of most civilizations.
Sometimes that dominance was expressed militarily, by putting neighbors under vassalage and demanding tribute. But sometimes dominance was expressed via economics.
We think of the latter less often when we talk about control/influence, yet the earliest (known) large city—Uruk in Sumer (Mesopotamia)—dominated the Euphrates and Tigris by trade. Uruk exported Sumerian culture along with trade goods, carried by merchants on river boats. It resulted in what we call the First Urbanization. And no armies strong-armed anybody. Military dominance had to wait for Sargon of Akkad.
Likewise in the Americas, for a variety of reasons, wars were fought for captives—not land control. The major cultures of Mesoamerica, such Teotihuacan and the Maya, or of North America, such as Cahokia on the Mississippi, dominated their neighbors via trade. They, too, exported their culture with goods, just as Uruk had long before them.
We could even say modern US dominance is fueled as much by the American economy as by the military industrial complex. McDonalds, Apple, and Coca-Cola rule the world more effectively than the Marines. (Don’t tell the Marines that.)
In fact, throughout history, trade creates more effective bonds between civilization centers and their client kingdoms than military suppression. The latter is built on fear and intimidation (which only goes so far), while the former is built on desire (to acquire). In short, trade is positive, war is negative. Or as my mother used to say, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
Cultures work the same way.
So when thinking about cultural construction in alternate worlds, history can be one’s friend, as long as we recognize the wide variety that history has to offer.
Programmatic History (that which seeks a single model, explanation, or driving force) is positivist and simplistic, and breaks apart on the cliffs of our vast human variety. As a historian, I am continually amazed by human ingenuity and creativity. When facing obstacles of environment or situation, we excel at finding a way around, over, or under it. Humanity doesn’t listen to “No” well. I think that’s a virtue more often than it’s a fault.
And it leads to a lot of shapes that “civilization” might take around the globe throughout history.