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The Pyramid of the Moon in , Mexico. Building projects of this size require the social organization found in civilizations.
The Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, Mexico. Building projects of this size require the social organization found in civilizations.

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

1. In a technical sense, a civilization is a complex society in which many of the people live in cities and get their food from agriculture, as distinguished from band and tribal societies in which people live in small settlements or nomadic groups and make their subsistence 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. In a broader sense, civilization often can refer to any distinct society, whether complex and city-dwelling, or simple and tribal. This definition is often perceived as less exclusive and ethnocentric than the first. In this sense civilization is nearly synonymous with culture.

The ruins of , "the Lost City of the Incas," has become the most recognizable symbol of the civilization.
The ruins of Machu Picchu, "the Lost City of the Incas," has become the most recognizable symbol of the Inca civilization.

3. 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. 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. 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 is associated with 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 makes a civilization

In the technical sense, a civilization is a complex society. It is distinguished from simpler societies but is not considered superior to them. Everyone lives in a society and a culture, but not everyone lives in a civilization. In general, civilizations share the following traits:

  • Intensive agricultural techniques, such as the use of animal power, crop rotation, and irrigation. This enables farmers to produce a surplus of food that will not be needed for their own subsistence.
  • A significant portion of the population that does not devote most of its time to producing food. They can go into other occupations and trade for the food they need. This is called "specialization of labor". It is possible because of the food surplus described above.
  • The gathering 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 ownership 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 by those who don't have to farm for a living. This can include writing.

By this definition, some societies, like China, 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.

The first civilization was that of the Sumerians, who became an urban society around 3500 BCE.

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. 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, South-East-Asia and so forth).

So 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 Syria 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. 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 agricultural 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.

Negative views of civilization

Over the years many members of civilizations have shunned them, believing that civilization restricts people from living in their natural state. 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. 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.

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.

Today most social scientists understand that complex societies are not by nature superior, more humane, or more sophisticated than less complex groups. The cultural relativism of Franz Boas helped lead to this belief. When they speak of a civilization, they do not mean a superior or better society, just a complex and urban one.

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; each simply does what it can with the resources it has. 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" to refer to a specific kind of people. 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, especially when talking about specific societies such as "Mayan Civilization."

Some civilizations in human history

Civilizations can be distinguished from one another in several ways, and the number of distinct civilizations, their duration, and extent, are the subject of some debate. Historians may emphasize cultural distinctiveness, or may distinguish civilizations by degree of economic, political, and diplomatic integration. The list below includes a number of civilizations commonly identified by historians. Many cultures evolve through the fusion of elements from other cultures, so discerning sharp divisions between civilizations on the basis of culture is difficult indeed, and subject to varying interpretations. Civilizations may be lumped or split.

Most of the civilizations below possess cities, specialized occupations, political entities larger than a single settlement, extensive trade networks, and writing, but not all of the civilizations include all of these criteria. A number of cultures that possess certain of these characteristics are not included here.

Most of these civilizations are now gone; some disappeared, their people returning to a pre-urban way of life; others were conquered by or merged into other civilizations. How many distinct civilizations exist at present is also a subject of some debate.

  • Mesopotamian civilization (also called the Fertile Crescent civilization): begins with Sumerian city-states c. 3500 BCE, which developed cuneiform writing. Elements of the civilization were transmitted to neighboring and conquering states and peoples, including Akkad, Elam, Mitanni, Assyria, Babylonia. After sixth century BCE Mesopotamian civilization dominated by Hellenic-Roman and Iranian civilizations.
  • Egyptian civilization: developed in the Nile valley c. 3300 BCE. Includes Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, as well as neighboring Nubia. After fourth century BCE dominated by Hellenic-Roman civilization.
  • Indic civilization: consisted of two distinct societies.
  • Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations: emerged c. 2000 BCE around the Aegean sea and on its islands. Minoan writing has not been deciphered. Mycenaean culture took hold after the collapse of Minoan culture, and went into decline after 1100 BCE. The degree to which Aegean civilization is autochthonous, having emerged from the culture of Old Europe, or is derived from Afroasiatic cultures of Egypt and the Levant is subject to debate.
  • Chinese (Sinic) civilization: emerged in the second millennium BCE in northern China, later spread to the rest of China, Korea, and Japan. Indigenous philosophical systems include Confucianism and Taoism, later supplemented by Buddhism, which were introduced from India.
  • Greco-Roman civilization: emerged around the Aegean after the Greek dark ages, 1000 BCE. Greek settlement around the Mediterranean and Black seas, and Alexander's conquest of the Persian empire in the fourth century, spread Hellenic civilization around the Mediterranean, where it was absorbed by non-Greek peoples, including the Romans. The Roman Empire adopted Christianity after the fourth century CE, and collapsed around the western Mediterranean during the sixth century.
    • Western civilization: evolved from the Christian Latin-speaking portion of the Roman Empire, which grew to include most of western and central Europe during the Middle Ages. Generally understood to include Roman Catholic and Protestant nations of Europe, and the areas they later settled such as North America, Latin America, and Australia. This civilization was the first to develop into an industrial society.
    • Byzantine civilization: the Greek-speaking portion of the Roman Empire continued after its collapse in the west, fusing Hellenic and Christian elements, and its culture was adopted by neighboring peoples. Historians who characterize Byzantium as distinct from Western civilization usually focus on the institution of Caesaropapism, which fused religious and state authority. Byzantine culture spread to eastern Slavic peoples, including Russia. Byzantium itself was conquered by Turkish armies in 1453.
  • Southeast Asian civilization: includes the urban cultures that emerged in Southeast Asia and Indonesia during the first millennium CE, including Mon, Khmer Champa, Thailand, Burma on the mainland, and Srivijaya and Majapahit in Indonesia. Southeast Asian civilization absorbed cultural influences from India, including Hinduism and Buddhism, and from China, and later from Islam.
  • Mesoamerican civilization: emerged with the first Olmec cities in the lowlands along the Gulf of Mexico in the first millennium BCE. Later developed in two centers: the Valley of Mexico , home to Teotihuacan, the Toltecs, and Aztecs, and the Maya civilization of Guatemala and the Yucatan. Conquered in the 16th century by the Spanish, see also Spanish conquest of Yucatán.
  • Andean civilizations: developed in the second millennium BCE in the central Andes and the central Pacific coast of South America. While oldest artefacts carbon date around 9750 BCE, evidence of a significant economic surplus begins around 2000 BCE. The Andean civilizations included the urbanized cultures of Chavín, Moche, Ica-Nazca, Chimu, Tiwanaku, Aymara, Chachapoya, and other Pre-Inca cultures. The semi-urbanized Inca conquered greater Peru in the 15th century. The Inca empire fell to Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century during the Spanish conquest of Peru.
  • Japanese civilization: initially developed as a fusion of indigenous (i.e. Shinto) and Chinese cultural elements, transmitted via Korea.
  • Islamic civilization: emerged from the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century CE, and later spread to include most of western and Central Asia, northern Africa, and Indonesia. Early states include the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates; later examples include Seljuk and Ottoman Turkey.
  • Chibchan civilization: developed in the Cauca and Magdalena river valleys of the northern Andes, in modern Colombia. Conquered in the 16th century by Spanish colonists.
  • West African civilization: Large cities emerged c. 1000 CE, funded by wealth from the trade of gold and salt with other civilizations. First major kingdom was Ghana Empire; other early states included Mali, Kanem-Bornu, the Hausa cities, and the Songhai Empire.
  • Mississippian civilization: Developed in the Mississippi River Valley and spread throughout the Eastern United States in c. 1000 CE. Mississippian peoples returned to a tribal level of organization sometime in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Historians are divided over whether European contact contributed to the civilization's decline.
  • Munhumutapa civilization: Great Zimbabwe was the capital of a country that governed what are today Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe was improved continuously from c.400 CE to c.1440 CE.

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