4.IV: Civilization

ancient civilizations Mesopotamia Egypt China India Olmec Norte Chico

The world’s earliest civilizations arose in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). This stone relief is an early depiction of organized religion, with a Mesopotamian god at the tree of life. It is overlain with praises to a king carved in cuneiform, the world’s first full writing system.

A. Country, Nation, Church and State

B. Cradles of Civilization

C. Three Key Inventions

D. Citations

A. Country, Nation, Church and State

Scholars all agree that social organization reached the scale of “states” or “civilizations” by the -4th millennium, though they have not standardized the definitions of these terms.  One thing that all early civilizations had in common, and that distinguished them from what came before, was sheer size.  This book will consider a civilization to be any stably unified polity with population on the order of 100,000 or more, including at least one city on the order of 10,000 or more.  Each civilization is identified with its land, its people, and its government, respectively defined as its country, its nation, and its state, which reinforce each other in forming a community identity.

People who conceive of themselves as a nation speak a common language.  National identity transcends a human lifespan, forming a collective consciousness of a shared past (history, mythology, birthright) and future (destiny, offspring).  At the same time, the class structure is even more stratified than in chiefdoms.  The upper and lower classes are so distinct that it is easy to forget that they are interdependent.

A state is a government capable of sustaining a civilization.  It is by necessity large and complex.  With very few exceptions, states had their apex at a single executive, a monarch.  The monarch delegated authority to a multi-layered bureaucracy of civil servants (for earthly affairs) and priests (for sacred rituals).  Until very recently, every civilization had an organized state religion.  Church and state were inseparable, as the king was answerable only to the gods or was revered as a god himself.

One of a state’s most important privileges is its monopoly of force.  In earlier societies, individuals commonly decided when they were wronged and how to retaliate.  Murder was rampant because of endless cycles of revenge killings.  States formulated laws to decree matters of right and wrong, and they established courts to adjudicate them.  They also centralized military decisions.  Public dispute resolution is one of the hallmarks of what we call a “civilized” society, though many governments certainly abused this power too.

Anthropologists and historians spend a lot of time wondering how the first civilizations formed out of chiefdoms.  If we accept the definitions given here, then the answer is outwardly simple:  they grew!  All of the remarkable achievements that we associate with civilizations are only found in large populations, so they could well be natural consequences of organization on the 100,000-person scale.  Complex bureaucracies and legal codes were necessary to manage all levels of society.  Magnificent palaces and temples proved claims to power. 1 Feats of engineering were undertaken to solve problems of scale (“how do we irrigate all these fields?”) and were enabled by the social apparatus they served (full-time engineers, a broad tax base, and large slave labor forces). 1

But just because a population grows doesn’t guarantee that it will remain organized as a coherent unit.  The earliest civilizations were unusually effective at remaining unified.  Consider the environment in which they evolved: civilizations grew out of regions crowded with warring chiefdoms.  Ironically, they had to cooperate to compete. 2 A group that was larger or more internally organized could defeat a smaller or more unstable neighbor.  Multiple chiefdoms could ally together to rout a competitor.  In that cut-throat setting, each political body had only two options: grow or vanish.

The ultimate question, then, is, “How did ever-larger chiefdoms and civilizations achieve large-scale cooperation?”  An important key to cooperation was organized religion.  As civilizations grew into large, anonymous societies, their gods became more personal and powerful thought police. 3 As these cooperative civilizations grew, so did their religions.

B. Cradles of Civilization

There are only a few spots on Earth where chiefdoms grew spontaneously into cities and states.  They were all located in the previously identified cradles of agriculture, nurtured by rivers.  Their countries are today called Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, China, Mexico, and Peru.  No Old World civilization remained completely isolated from all the others, so they all developed under some mutual influence in the long term.  However, their earliest city-states were localized and appear to be largely independent.  The New World civilizations were clearly isolated from the Old and most likely independent of each other.

1. The Fertile Crescent
2. China
3. The Indus Valley
4. American Civilizations

1. The Fertile Crescent

Mesopotamia is a geographic term meaning “between the (Tigris and Euphrates) Rivers”.  The region was agriculturally fertile but poor in other resources, necessitating constant trade between the river valleys and the highlands 4 and war over access to metal, wood, and stone.  This bustling activity stimulated several civilizations, starting with Sumer in the -4th millennium.  Uruk was the world’s first true city.  It was an important Sumerian power center, and its name still survives in the form Iraq.  Sumer is known for its advanced women’s rights, including the rights to conduct business and declare divorce.  The Akkadian civilization, at its largest extent in the -3rd millennium, was multi-national and was thus considered the world’s first empire.  Mesopotamian culture peaked with the Babylonian civilization of the -2nd and -1st millennia. Babylon gave us the quadratic formula and the sexagesimal system with 60 seconds in a minute and 360 degrees in a circle.  Other important Mesopotamian civilizations included the Assyrians and Hittites.

Egypt traces its identity to the unification of the upper and lower Nile Valley civilizations in the -4th millennium.  For thousands of years, it was as stable as its iconic pyramids.  It benefited from a predictable river, natural geographic defenses, and a “provider state” system that kept civil unrest to a minimum. 5 Egypt’s rulers, the pharaohs, were completely deified.  The pyramids were elaborate tombs for a series of pharaohs in the -2nd millennium.  Egyptians embalmed their dead to preserve their bodies for the afterlife.  (Only the wealthiest mummies were wrapped in linen). 6 Though we often associate Egypt with its extinct exotica, it was a very pragmatic civilization that produced several fundamental innovations still used today.  Egyptian contributions included surveying and the Pythagorean Theorem, ink and papyrus, police, and even surgery.

The Fertile Crescent was one continuous cultural zone.  Its history remains influential today, as it shaped the world view that was eventually expressed by Hebrews in the bible.  Though the bible was traditionally dated to the -2nd millennium, external evidence indicates that it was written in the -1st, as discussed further in Chapter 3.  Many biblical tales, including the stories of Eden 7 and the fall of man 8 , Noah’s flood 9 , infant Moses 10 , and Job 11 have elements found millennia earlier in Mesopotamian narratives.  The ancient Canaanites of the Levant worshipped many gods, including El and Yahweh.  Those gods’ identities would eventually merge into the single God of Israel.

2. China

The earliest Chinese state known by name was the Shang Dynasty of the -2nd millennium Yellow River Valley.  History tells of an earlier Xia Dynasty, but it is questionable history written centuries later, blatantly wrapped up in legend and myth.  Enticingly, archaeologists have indeed identified a civilization that predates the Shang.  They call it the Erlitou culture, and its existence is undeniably attested by advanced bronze work and roads rutted with wheel tracks. 12 It is not yet known if Erlitou culture can be associated with the Xia Dynasty.

The Shang Dynasty was founded by King Tang, a benevolent ruler, and persisted over a period of prosperity punctuated by famine.  The general state of abundance enabled construction of countless towns and a few great cities such as Erligang and Angyang.  Shang craftsmen excelled at bronze and jade objects and the production of musical instruments.

Compared to the other classic civilizations, China stands out as being the most continuous and humanistic.  No foreign empire has ever erased the foundations of Chinese culture.  Dynasties have come and gone, but the Chinese identity is traced without interruption to the Shang and beyond.

The Shang practiced divination, the art of communicating with ancestral spirits for guidance.  One common form of divination was oracle bones.  A diviner would crack an animal bone or turtle shell in fire, and would then interpret the pattern of fractures as messages from the spirit world.  Only ancestral spirits could communicate directly with Shangdi, the most powerful spirit, who directly controlled the weather and earthly fortunes.  However, the Shang did not ascribe creative powers to Shangdi.  They believed that humans made their own advances in civilization and technology.  This “optimistic humanism” has always been central to Chinese philosophy. 13

3. The Indus Valley

The first civilization in South Asia occupied Pakistan’s Indus River Valley in the -3rd millennium.  Like the Erlitou, this civilization is known only from archaeology, not written history, so it often goes by the name given to it by modern archaeologists, the Harappan civilization.

The Harappans were a standout for their urban planning.  They constructed wide streets laid out in neat grids.  They excelled at brick work, and their cities had wells and extensive sewers.

The Harappans were only discovered in the 20th century, and many mysteries remain.  Their political structure is unknown; large-scale organization is inferred by their massive public buildings, widespread standards, and far-flung trade with China and Mesopotamia.  They had a written language, but it is found only in fragments and has never been deciphered.  They probably spoke a language from the Dravidian family, now associated with southern India. 14 Most mysteriously, this civilization suddenly vanished in -1900.

In the -2nd millennium, Indo-European speakers called Aryans migrated into northern India.  They established a system of social classes or castes, with themselves on top.  Their literary tradition is remembered as the Vedas, verses that honor the gods and ritualize ceremonies from weddings to animal sacrifice.  This Vedic religion was the precursor to Hinduism.

4. American Civilizations

The Norte Chico civilization was found in the river deltas of coastal Peru as long ago as the -4th millennium.  Norte Chico architecture included platform mounds, sunken plazas, and terracing, features that remained prevalent in the region for millennia.  What little remains of this civilization’s artifacts includes cotton textiles, musical instruments, and possibly a very early example of a quipu, a system of ropes tied in knots to represent numbers. 15 Most intriguingly, as of yet there is no evidence of war in pre-ceramic Norte Chico archaeology, making this possibly the world’s only civilization to grow peacefully. 16

By contrast, Mexican chiefdoms were highly belligerent.  There is no clear consensus on which one was the first to achieve the scale of “civilization”.  The -2nd millennium Olmecs are the most ancient commonly cited candidate, based on large gulf coast settlements at San Lorenzo and La Venta.  The Olmecs left behind captivating stone sculptures, including the famous “colossal heads”.  They also exhibited early appearances of Mesoamerican icons such as the were-jaguar, the feathered serpent, and the ceremonial ball game.  Even if the Olmecs were not the first Mesoamerican civilization, at least they were the best-known representatives of its culture.

C. Three Key Inventions

Most of the earliest civilizations used basic necessities such as irrigation, clocks and calendars, “intermediate” mathematics 2 , and codes of law.  Other critical inventions included the sailboat and the plow.  Three particular breakthroughs especially revolutionized the human experience.

1. Metallurgy
2. The wheel
3. Writing

1. Metallurgy

Metals as they occur in nature are difficult to exploit.  Most are very rare and / or  stubbornly difficult to extract from the earth.  Due to such challenges, metal working did not exist until the Neolithic period, and only about ten elementary metals were ever known before the scientific revolution.  Gold, silver, and copper were mined and used to some extent in early villages, even before civilization.  These precious metals are soft and effective only for luxurious jewelry and art.

True metallurgy began with the controlled melting of metals, which dates back as surprisingly far as 7 KYA (Serbia and Turkey). 17 An early application was the creation of bronze by blending copper with a secondary metal.  Bronze, unlike pure copper, is hard and rigid enough to use as tools, weapons, and armor.  It became gradually more refined and widespread throughout the Old World from the -5th to -2nd millennia  18 , with tin becoming the secondary metal of choice.  The impact on formative civilizations was so great that archaeologists refer to this period as the Bronze Age.  Bronze found numerous applications in art and music, the construction of ships, and even mirrors.  Bronze fish hooks and metal-tipped plows were vastly superior to their organic precursors.  And only with the availability of chisels, saws, and rivets did it become possible to craft wooden wheels! 19

In Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia, iron began to overtake bronze in the -2nd millennium.  Iron was stronger than bronze and much more plentiful, though it required difficult new techniques for smelting and shaping.  Iron swords, armor, and arrowheads were a critical part of the war package that swept through the Fertile Crescent toward the very end of this “Chapter 4” period.

2. The wheel

The earliest wheeled vehicles are found in central Europe, Mesopotamia, and the northern Caucasus.  These findings all date to the late -4th millennium.  Because of their proximity in time and place, it is probable that they all derived from one single invention, most likely in the PIE homeland. 20 Wheels rolled across the entire Old World over the next 2,000 years.  Vehicles were personalized and beloved by their Bronze Age owners just as much as they are today; they were one of the personal possessions most often buried with the dead.

Despite the deceptive simplicity of the wheel, neither its conception nor its construction was trivial.  The real breakthrough was not the wheel per se but the axle that affixed it to a vehicle.  Aside from the matter of having metal tools on hand, a wheelwright must balance considerations of weight, speed, friction, durability, ease of steering, availability of wood, and simplicity of construction.

After all that, most terrains are still more difficult to traverse by wheel than on foot.  Vehicles must have come into being only where specialized needs made them worth the trouble.  (Tellingly, Olmecs made wheeled toys but never scaled them up).  The first vehicles may have found utility as mining carts in the mountains or ox-pulled covered wagons on the steppe. 21

By the -2nd millennium, wheelcraft had progressed to veritable mechanical engineering with the spoked wheel and the chariot.  Horse-drawn chariots, especially when bearing archers, were formidable and unstoppable weapons.  They shaped the military history of the Fertile Crescent and became the status symbol of choice for kings and gods alike.

3. Writing

The concept of writing grew out of the ages-old art of drawing.  Since some words sound like others, pictures can assume multiple meanings:

ancient civilization invention writing rebus principle cuneiform hieroglyphics

This rebus principle hinted at the idea that visual symbols could represent sounds regardless of meaning.  When special symbols came to represent the elementary sounds of speech – syllables, consonants, and vowels – they became the first systems of full writing.

Writing was probably invented independently by only two civilizations: the -4th millennium Sumerians and -1st millennium Olmecs. 22 Egyptians and Indians borrowed the idea from Mesopotamia. 23 Egyptian hieroglyphics was the first system to use alphabetic characters, later extracted by Phoenicians into the strictly-alphabetic scripts used by most of the world today.  Chinese writing followed millennia later, and (though hotly debated) the preponderance of evidence suggests that the Chinese also adopted writing from western Asia. 24

The earliest writing was mostly for mundane record-keeping.  Merchants wrote bills of sale while scribes recorded the accomplishments of their kings.  Such records give us the first known individual names, from the Scorpion King to a slave named Enpap-X. 25 Still, very little literature survives from before -1000.

Writing had enormous impact not only for the people who used it, but for present perceptions of the past.  Until very recently, the only known evidence of ancient civilizations was their written records.  Since writing seemed to come from nowhere about 5,000 years ago, there was absolutely no conception of pre-history.  The creation myths recounted in the earliest literature were taken at face value, and most people alive today still believe them.  Ironically, committing religion to writing made it inflexible.  Oral traditions can change quickly and fluidly to keep up with conventional wisdom. 26 Scripture is (sometimes literally) carved in stone, forcing it to eventually grow old-fashioned.

In any event, writing disseminated and preserved knowledge like never before.  In the historic age, there are now five ways to change the world:  authority, wealth, arms, organized numbers, and ideas.

Up to Chapter 4

Back to Section 4.III: Agriculture

Continue to Ch. 4 Summary

D. Citations

  1. Charles Spencer, “Territorial expansion and primary state formation”, PNAS vol. 107 no. 16 (4/20/2010), pp. 7119-7126, http://www.pnas.org/content/107/16/7119.full (accessed and saved 10/04/2017).
  2. The field of multi-level selection, or the spread of cultural traits such as cooperation through non-genetic means, is traced at least to David Wilson and Elliott Sober, “Reintroducing Group Selection to the human behavioral sciences”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences vol. 17 issue 4 (December 1994), pp. 585 – 608, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X00036104 (accessed and saved 10/15/2017).  It is often justified by the statistical Price Equation.  As a caveat, the whole principle of group selection is highly controversial.  However, I find it compelling that when groups must cooperate to compete, there is a non-genetic evolutionary pressure toward cooperation.
  3. Ana Norenzayan, Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, Princeton University Press, 2013.
  4.  David Warburton, Macroeconomics from the Beginning:  The General Theory, Ancient Markets, and the Rate of Interest, Recherches et Publications (2003), p. 49 (Wikipedia “History of Economics”) fn 20 (accessed 11/26/16).
  5. Barry J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, 2nd edition, Taylor and Francis (2005), Part II.
  6. Herodotus, The Histories Book 2 Chapters 86-88.  English translation by Henry Cary, Herodotus: A New and Literal Version, Harper & Brothers (New York, 1859), pp. 126 – 127, https://archive.org/stream/herodotusnewlite00hero#page/126/mode/2up (accessed and saved 11/07/2017). 
  7. Archibald H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origins and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, AMS Press (New York, 1887) pp. 237-241, https://archive.org/stream/LecturesOnTheOriginAnd#page/n247/mode/2up (accessed and saved 11/07/2017).
  8. “The Myth of Adapa”, -4th millennium Akkadian myth, translated by R.W. Rogers, Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament, Oxford University Press (London, 1912)  pp. 67-76, https://archive.org/stream/cuneiformparalle00rogerich#page/66/mode/2up (accessed and saved 11/07/2017).
  9. “The Babylonian Flood Story”, translated by R.W. Rogers, Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament, Oxford University Press (London, 1912)  pp. 90 – 102, https://archive.org/stream/cuneiformparalle00rogerich#page/90/mode/2up (accessed and saved 11/07/2017).
  10. Similar to the infancy of Emperor Sargon of Akkadia.  Analyzed by Otto Rank, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (1914), Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing Company (New York, 1914), translated by F. Robbins and Smith Ely Jelliffe, http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/mbh/index.htm (saved 11/07/2017).  See Sargon and Moses.
  11. “Man and His God”, Sumerian, c. -2000.  Translation with original transliteration and sources at http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section5/tr524.htm (accessed and saved 11/07/2017). 
  12. Li Liu and Hong Xu, “Rethinking Erlitou: legend, history and Chinese archaeology”, Antiquity vol. 81, issue 314 (12/01/2007), pp. 886-901, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003598X00095983 (accessed and saved 11/07/2017).
  13. Paul S. Ropp, China in World History, Oxford University Press (New York, 2010) p. 1.
  14. Asko Parpola, “A Dravidian solution to the Indus script problem”, lecture notes from World Classical Tamil Conference (6/25/2010).  http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= (accessed and saved 11/07/2017). 
  15. Charles C. Mann, “Unraveling Khipu’s Secrets”, Science vol. 309 (8/12/2005), 1008-1009, http://www.charlesmann.org/articles/Science-khipu-decipher-08-05.pdf (accessed and saved 11/07/2017).
  16. Jonathan Haas et al, “Power and the Emergence of Complex Polities in the Peruvian Preceramic”, Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association vol. 14, issue 1 (January 2004) 37-52, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/ap3a.2004.14.037/abstract  (accessed and saved 11/07/2017).
  17. Miljana Radivojevic et al, “On the origins of extractive metallurgy: new evidence from Europe”, Journal of Archaeological Science 37 (2010) 2775-2787, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2010.06.012 (accessed and saved 11/19/2017).
  18. Christopher Thornton et al, “On Pins and Needles: Tracing the Evolution of Copper-base Alloying at Tepe Yahya, Iran, via ICP-MS Analysis of Common-place Items”, Journal of Archaeological Science 29 (2002), 1451-1460, https://doi.org/10.1006/jasc.2002.0809 (accessed and saved 11/19/2017).
  19. David Anthony as interviewed by Natalie Wolchover, “Why It Took So Long to Invent the Wheel”, Live Science 3/02/2012, https://www.livescience.com/18808-invention-wheel.html (accessed and saved 11/12/2017). 
  20. Asko Parpola, “Formation of the Indo-European and Uralic (Finno-Ugric) language families in the light of archaeology: Revised and integrated ‘total’ correlations”, A Linguistic Map of Prehistoric Northern Europe, Suomalais-Ugrilaisen Seuran Toimituksia, ed. By Riho Grünthal & Petri Kallio (Helsinki 2012), 119-184 at 125-127.  http://www.sgr.fi/sust/sust266/sust266_parpola.pdf (accessed and saved 11/11/2017).
  21. Richard Bulliet, The Wheel: Inventions & Reinventions, Columbia University Press (New York, 2016), chapters 3 & 4.
  22. Carmen Rodriguez Martinez et al, “Oldest Writing in the New World”, Science vol. 313 Issue 5793, pp. 1610-1614 (9/15/2006), http://science.sciencemag.org/content/313/5793/1610 (accessed and saved 12/03/2017).
  23. Steven Roger Fischer, A History of Writing, Reaktion Books (2001), Kindle version, location 413.
  24. Steven Roger Fischer, A History of Writing, Reaktion Books (2001), Kindle version, location 2335.
  25. Cuneiform tablet # OIM A2513, in possession of the Oriental Institute Museum, Chicago, IL.  Translated and analyzed by Christopher Woods, “The Earliest Mesopotamian Writing”, in Visible Writing, ed. Woods et al, Oriental Institute Museum Publications (2015), p. 39.  https://oi.uchicago.edu/sites/oi.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/shared/docs/oimp32.pdf  (accessed 12/03/2017).
  26. Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality, Harvard University Press (2012), Kindle edition, pp. 59 – 60.
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