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Ancient Civilizations

Civilization (or civilisation) is a sometimes controversial term that has been used in several related ways. Primarily, the term has been used to refer to the material and instrumental side of human cultures that are complex in terms of technology, science, and division of labor. Such civilizations are generally urbanized. In classical contexts civilized peoples were called this in contrast to "barbarian" peoples, while in modern contexts civilized peoples have been contrasted to "primitive" peoples.

In modern academic discussions however, there is a tendency to use the term in a less strict way to mean approximately the same thing as "culture" and can therefore refer more broadly to any important and clearly defined human society, particularly in historical discussions. Still, even when used in this second sense, the word is often restricted to apply only to societies that have attained a particular level of advancement, especially the founding of cities, with the word "city" defined in various ways.

Ancient civilizations are the basis of the world as we know it today, built on the ruins of 10,000 years of advanced cultures such as the Greek, Roman, Mesopotamia, Mayan, Indus, Egyptian, and others that we know primarily through archaeology and some written records.

The level of advancement of a civilization is often measured by its progress in agriculture, long-distance trade, occupational specialization, and urbanism. Aside from these core elements, civilization is often marked by any combination of a number of secondary elements, including a developed transportation system, writing, standards of measurement (currency, etc.), contract and tort-based legal systems, characteristic art styles (which may pertain to specific cultures), monumental architecture, mathematics, science, sophisticated metallurgy, politics, and astronomy.

All civilizations have depended on agriculture for subsistence. Growing food on farms results in a surplus of food, particularly when people use intensive agricultural techniques such as irrigation and crop rotation. Grain surpluses have been especially important because they can be stored for a long time. A surplus of food permits some people to do things besides produce food for a living: early civilizations included artisans, priests and priestesses, and other people with specialized careers. A surplus of food results in a division of labor and a more diverse range of human activity, a defining trait of civilizations. However, in some places hunter-gatherers have had access to food surpluses, such as among some of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest and perhaps during the Mesolithic Natufian culture. It is possible that food surpluses and relatively large scale social organization and division of labor predates plant and animal domestication.[8]

Civilizations have distinctly different settlement patterns from other societies. The word civilization is sometimes simply defined as "'living in cities'".[9] Non-farmers tend to gather in cities to work and to trade. Compared with other societies, civilizations have a more complex political structure, namely the state[citation needed]. State societies are more stratified[citation needed] than other societies; there is a greater difference among the social classes. The ruling class, normally concentrated in the cities, has control over much of the surplus and exercises its will through the actions of a government or bureaucracy.

Economically, civilizations display more complex patterns of ownership and exchange than less organized societies. Living in one place allows people to accumulate more personal possessions than nomadic people. Some people also acquire landed property, or private ownership of the land. Because a percentage of people in civilizations do not grow their own food, they must trade their goods and services for food in a market system, or receive food through the levy of tribute, redistributive taxation, tariffs or tithes from the food producing segment of the population. Early civilizations developed money as a medium of exchange for these increasingly complex transactions. To oversimplify, in a village the potter makes a pot for the brewer and the brewer compensates the potter by giving him a certain amount of beer. In a city, the potter may need a new roof, the roofer may need new shoes, the cobbler may need new horseshoes, the blacksmith may need a new coat, and the tanner may need a new pot. These people may not be personally acquainted with one another and their needs may not occur all at the same time. A monetary system is a way of organizing these obligations to ensure that they are fulfilled fairly.

Aided by their division of labor and central government planning, civilizations have developed many other diverse cultural traits. These include organized religion, development in the arts, and countless new advances in science and technology. Through history, successful civilizations have spread, taking over more and more territory, and assimilating more and more previously-uncivilized people. Nevertheless, some tribes or people remain uncivilized even to this day. 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), that it has not changed since the dawn of mankind, though this has been demonstrated not to be true. Specifically, as all of today's 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.

Civilization has been spread by colonization, invasion, religious conversion, the extension of bureaucratic control and trade, and by introducing agriculture and writing to non-literate peoples. Some non-civilized people may willingly adapt to civilized behaviour. But civilization is also spread by the technical, material and social dominance that civilization engenders.

Many different elements must come together before a human community develops to the level of sophistication commonly referred to as civilization. The first is the existence of settlements classifiable as towns or cities. This requires food production to be efficient enough for a large minority of the community to be engaged in more specialized activities - such as the creation of imposing buildings or works of art, the practice of skilled warfare, and above all the administration of a centralized bureaucracy capable of running the machinery of state.

Civilization requires at least a rudimentary civil service. In the organization of a civil service, a system of writing is an almost indispensable aid. This is not invariably the case because at least one civilization, that of the Incas in Peru, will thrive without writing. But the development of writing greatly enhances civilization. And with a script comes history. Our knowledge of prehistory derives from surviving objects - the evidence of archaeology. History, by contrast, is based on documents. These various interconnections mean that history, civilization and writing all begin at the same time. That time is about 3100 BC.

In about 3200 BC the two earliest civilizations develop in the region where southwest Asia joins northeast Africa. Great rivers are a crucial part of the story. The Sumerians settle in what is now southern Iraq, between the mouths of the Euphrates and the Tigris. Egypt develops in the long narrow strip of the Nile valley. Rivers offer two main advantages to a developing civilization. They provide water to irrigate the fields, and they offer the easiest method of transport for a society without paved roads. Rivers will play an equally important role in two other early civilizations - those of the Indus and of northern China.

It is not known whether contact with Mesopotamia inspires the first civilization of India or whether it is a spontaneous local development, but by about 2500 BC the neolithic villages along the banks of the Indus are on the verge of combining into a unified and sophisticated culture. The Indus civilization, with its two large cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, expands over a larger region than Egypt and Mesopotamia combined. It will survive, in a remarkably consistent form, for about 1000 years.

The next region to develop a distinctive civilization centres on the Aegean Sea. The bays and inlets of the rugged coastal regions of Greece, and the many small islands strung like pearls across this relatively sheltered sea, combine to make this an ideal area for trade (and piracy) among people whose levels of nautical skill make short hops a necessary precaution. The Aegean civilization stands at the start of the very lively tradition of Mediterranean culture. It begins in the large island which is perfectly placed to guard the entrance to the Aegean - Crete.

The longest consistent civilization in the human story so far is that of China. This vast eastern empire seems set apart from the rest of the world, fiercely proud of its own traditions, resisting foreign influences. Its history begins in a characteristically independent manner. There are no identifiable precedents for the civilization of the Shang dynasty, which emerges in China in about 1600 BC. Its superb bronze vessels seem to achieve an instant technological perfection. Its written texts introduce characters recognizably related to Chinese writing today. This is a civilization which begins as it will continue - with confidence.

Around 1200 BC the earliest American civilizations have their beginnings, with the Olmecs in central America and the Chavin in the Andes. Both these cultures develop large towns, centred on temples. Both are now famous for their sculpture. And each, in its own region, is at the start of a succession of civilizations leading directly to the two which are discovered and destroyed in the 16th century by the Spanish - the Aztecs in central America and the Incas in the Andes.

The first distinctively Mediterranean civilization, that of the Aegeans, comes to a sudden and still unexplained end in around 1200 BC. Some 200 years later an energetic seafaring people, the Phoenicians, become extensive traders. From their base in Lebanon they establish colonies along the coast of Africa and even into the Atlantic. Their example, as Mediterranean imperialists, will be followed by the Greeks and then by the Romans. The Mediterranean becomes the world's most creative arena for the clash and synthesis of civilizations - a status which it has never entirely lost.

With the dominance of Greece and Rome in the west (both successfully managing a transition from pagan to Christian empires), of China in the east, and of strongly individual cultures in central and south America, each successive civilization in any region tends at this time to be a variation on local traditions. But sometimes there are upheavals which introduce an entirely new culture within already long-civilized parts of the world. One such is Islam. The establishment of the caliphate in Damascus and then Baghdad leads to distinctively Muslim civilizations in an unbroken belt from north Africa to north India.

The first sustained contact between Europe and America, in the 16th century, opens the door to a new concept - world-wide civilizations, evolving through colonies and empires. Spanish civilization is exported to Latin America. English culture spreads even further, in an empire which includes India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and eventually many parts of Africa. From the 16th to the 19th century it is this imperial impulse which carries European civilization round the world, often as a thin veneer over older and very robust local cultures. But by the 20th century there are different forces at work.

For much of the 20th century ideology has been the driving force in the export of two very different concepts of civilization, American capitalism and Russian Communism. At the same time mass communication has made it possible to export a region's popular culture to the rest of the world - notably that of America through radio, cinema and television. Other influences have a similar effect. The danger is of a worldwide sameness. But there is a corresponding benefit. Within economic limits, human communities are now free as never before to adopt the aspects of civilization which appeal to them - regardless of where they happen to be on the planet.

Bamber Gascoigne. History of Civilization. HistoryWorld. From 2001, ongoing.

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