What Is A Civilization?

Forgot all the requirements to be a civilization from your high school history class? Of course you did! Let’s review the definition of a civilization including a surplus, institutions, and record keeping!

(Listen to the full episode here!)

requirements of a civilization

After the Neolithic Revolution comes the rise of civilization which really just means that there are more of things than there were before and they’re more complex. But historians do this annoying thing where they create lists to quantify what it means to be a civilization. Historians have tried to turn history into a science whenever possible because trying to understand people, and the decisions they make, and the nonsense that ensues is really overwhelming.

Every historian and textbook has a slightly different version of this but I subscribe to the Gospel of a woman named Ethel Wood. She is, I imagine, a 92 year old woman who wrote and self-published a bunch of AP social studies course books and my students and I all just lovingly refer to her as Ethel. She has a list of seven characteristics that you need to be categorized as a civilization. To be clear, I think that calling these things requirements is problematic, but for now, let’s just go with it.

food surplus and social hierarchy

The first is the only one that I agree is totally necessary and that’s a stable food supply. Because when you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from, it’s hard to spend time on anything else – especially things like diverting rivers and building pyramids. But once you have a stable food supply or a surplus, not everyone in the tribe has to focus on finding food, so some people can start to do other jobs. This leads to #2 – specialized occupations. In ancient civilizations most people were engaged in one of the three jobs – farmer artisan or trader, creating the ridiculous acronym of FAT occupations. This is helpful for growth because you can delegate tasks and get more done and it often leads to #3 on the list…

Clear social class distinctions. This is something I take issue with – the idea that people need to be divided into a social hierarchy to be civilized bothers me. Yeah, it’s what happens, but can’t we give future civilizations some hope that they don’t have to divide everyone up? I don’t know – maybe I’ve just looked at the picture of young Stalin one too many times and it’s turned me into a communist.

urban areas and institutions

The fourth requirement to be a civilization is a central city that serves the outlying agricultural areas. The earliest city that we know of was called Ur – this is supposedly where Abraham was from. You know Abraham, the guy from all the religions? My favorite thing about this first city is how ridiculously lazy they were in naming it. I like to imagine a bunch of dudes sitting around trying to think of names – Uh… I don’t know… Er… Ur? Sure. Ur sounds great let’s move on.

Another thing you need, according to Ethel, are institutions – these are things that help you organize your society – government, religion, legal system, etc. Speaking of government, I’ve always thought it was weird that governing fell to men after the Neolithic Revolution. If you think about it, women were sitting around at home caring for the children while the men were out working on the farms all day. It might have made more sense for them to get involved in the organization of society and governing because that’s something that is not physical and would allow the women to stay close to home. But the first governments were developed to settle disputes about farming – men arguing about who’s taking too much water from the river or who’s stalk of wheat is bigger. So since men were the ones primarily engaged in farming, those early venting sessions between farmers slowly turned into a government with men in power.

trade and interaction

Once you have an organized central city with institutions then you might start trading with other cities around you. This is another “requirement” – trade. We know that the various river valley civilizations traded with each other because we’ve found seals from the Indus Valley in modern-day Pakistan all the way in Mesopotamia in modern Iraq. There beautiful artifacts with images of women with horned headdresses and bulls and unicorns 1 and a lot of them have script but unfortunately we still can’t decipher the writing of the ancient Indus Valley. One of my biggest dreams is that someone will figure out how to read the ancient Indus language before I die – if you’re interested, there is a really great Ted Talk about the cryptologists who are working right now to decode it.2 I knew I should have majored in cryptology in college!

record keeping

The final requirement that bothers me is an organized writing system. This one keeps me up at night. According to historians, in order to be civilized you have to document what you’re doing in writing. This emphasis on written records is going to create a lot of problems for African societies. They have a long tradition of oral history that is transmitted through griots, or official storytellers (they’re like The Giver in the book, The Giver). But western historians don’t trust oral history. For some reason we think that just because someone wrote something down that automatically makes it reliable. Well then explain the entire Internet to me, historians. But back to the need to write things down, what about the Inca? Their only form of recordkeeping was a system called khipu which was a series of knots in rope that was used for basic accounting. I mean, sure, they built Machu Picchu on the top of a freakin’ mountain – without wheels or useful domesticated animals, I might add – but since they didn’t write out their grocery list they can’t be civilized? That’s dumb.

Or is it dumb? This last requirement is a really good study in point of view. Remember, this list was created by western historians. All of whom highly value written works. In fact, their entire job depends on having access to primary documents. From that perspective, it makes sense that they so heavily favor societies that also valued recordkeeping. Because, if a civilization exists and does incredible things but no one writes any of it down, did it really happen? I mean, yes. But if you’re a historian then, kind of, no.

If you’re interested in reading more about the question of Who Gets to Write History? and the problems with the way we quantify world history, check out my new post!

in conclusion

So these are the seven requirements of a civilization. Take them or leave them, but those processes occur around the world after the Neolithic Revolution. And civilization rises especially in areas near rivers. We call them – wait for it… The River Valley Civilizations.

What Is A Civilization | Anti-Social Studies - A History Podcast + Blog Source: The British Museum
Indus Valley Seal Impressions, The British Museum

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