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What Is a Civilization, Anyway?

Cynthia Stokes Brown


     We often teach early civilizations without taking time to discuss with our students what a civilization really is. The California History-Social Science Framework does not ask us directly to analyze or define what a civilization is; rather it asks that students "analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious and social structures of the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Kush." (Standard 6.2) The National Standards in World History are more explicit; they specify that students should understand "the major characteristics of civilization and how civilization emerged in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley." (Era 2, #1) They further specify that students should demonstrate their understanding by "analyzing the various criteria that have been used to define 'civilization' and explaining the fundamental difference between civilizations and other forms of social organization such as hunter-gatherer bands and Neolithic agricultural societies." (1A). For grades 5/6 they suggest: "Create a list of the defining characteristics of a 'civilization."1

     Whether motivated by professional standards or by the standards of clear thinking, we need to begin our teaching about civilizations with some analysis and discussion of what they are. This topic is highly controversial, thus interesting. In this short article I hope to use the perspective of big history to provide sufficient background to support effective discussions at any grade level of what a reasonably value-free understanding of "civilization" might be.

     Just exactly why do we seek a value-free definition of civilization? The word "civilization" apparently first appeared in a French book in the mid-eighteenth century (L'Ami des hommes (1756) by Victor de Riqueti, marquis de Mirabeau, the father of the French revolutionary politician). Since then, it has had close associations with the West's sense of its own superiority. In order to see the past clearly, we must try to avoid this assumption built into the word. By examining the past in as neutral and value-free way as possible, we can see the past as it actually was; then we can use our understanding of it to make value judgments about what to do in the present.2

Definition of Civilization

     Popular usage defines "civilization" along these lines: "an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry and government have been reached." This definition is problematic for archeologists, anthropologists, and historians, because it contains an overt value judgment that civilization is better, more advanced, and superior to other forms of social organization.

     Yet we know that some aspects of civilization seem in our judgment quite negative; large-scale warfare, slavery, coerced tribute, epidemic disease, and the subordination of women may come to mind. One renowned contemporary scholar, Jared Diamond, has even called agriculture leading to civilization "the worst mistake humans made in the history of the human race."3

     Serious students of archaeology, anthropology, and history use a technical definition of civilization that describes without conveying value judgments. Civilizations, in this technical sense, are a specific type of human community: large, complex societies based on domestication of plants, animals, and people, plus other typical characteristics. (Culture is everything about a human community, its knowledge, beliefs, and practices; civilizations are a particular kind of culture.)

     What are the characteristics of civilization carefully defined? The most influential theorist of civilization in the Western world during the first half of the twentieth century was a professor of prehistoric archeology, V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957), who taught at Edinburgh University from 1927-46 and at London University 1946-56. Childe's checklist for what constitutes a civilization still influences our thinking; here is his list summarized briefly:

  • Large urban centers
  • Full-time specialist occupations
  • Primary producers of food paying surpluses to deity or ruler
  • Monumental architecture
  • Ruling class exempt from manual labor
  • System for recording information
  • Development of exact, practical sciences
  • Monumental art
  • Regular importation of raw materials
  • Interdependence of classes (peasants, craftspeople, rulers)
  • State religion/ideology
  • Persistent state structures4

     This list seems, on the face of it, much too positive—-what about warfare, slavery, and mass suffering? Childe still used terms like "savagery" and "barbarism" to describe other forms of human communities, revealing his assumption that civilization represented progress. By the 1960's anthropologists had dropped the concept of human progress and tried to find value-free ways to classify and compare human societies, as the way to see more clearly what really was happening.

     In 1962 a U.S. anthropologist, Elman Service, proposed a way to classify human societies that remains influential. He used the following categories and mentioned two other kinds of societies—bureaucratic states and industrial societies—without characterizing them:

Bands: small groups of 25-60 individuals who are related through family and marriage ties, typically mobile hunters/gatherers.

Tribes: settled farmers or pastoralist herders, from a few hundred to a few thousands individuals whose identity is based on a concept of descent from a common ancestor; they are loosely organized without central control or strongly developed social hierarchy.

Chiefdoms: may number over 10,000 individuals, in which institutionalized differences in rank and status are embedded in a hierarchy of lineages ruled over by a chief; a key feature is redistribution, in which subordinate sectors pay tribute to the chief who redistributes it to his followers.5

To have an up-to-date taxonomy of different types of human communities, I would use Service's first three categories, replace "bureaucratic state" with "agrarian civilization," and then add "industrial society" and "modern global society," for a total of six, as follows:          

Band, Tribes, Chiefdoms, then …

Agrarian civilizations: large (over 60-100,000), complex societies ruled by kings, with social stratification and coerced tribute, cities fed by surrounding farmers

Industrial nations: highly complex societies with large-scale governmental presence in lives of citizens

Modern global society: world-wide human society interconnected by rapid communications (airlines, Internet, e-mail)

     Any such evolutionary scheme must, of course, be used cautiously, for it can easily be seen as suggesting progress if present-day bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and agrarian civilizations are seen as fossils of earlier forms. We must remind ourselves to think of these as examples of human social diversity, rather than as failed industrial nations or worthless parts of global society.

     How can we ever arrive at a value-free description of the characteristics of civilization? One approach is to distinguish between directionality and progress. Directionality is change over time, the forward movement of history, without judging the value of that change. For human history, and for cosmological history, this change has not consisted of random fluctuations but of incremental and cumulative processes. Progress, on the other hand, is directionality toward improvement, or movement in a desirable direction, an idea currently not in favor because of the current impossibility of reaching global consensus on issues of value.6

     Another approach to value-free historical descriptions is to think through the process by which some human groups moved from agricultural villages and towns into cities and states; by clarifying this process we can arrive at a more nearly neutral checklist that reflects the complexity of our thinking.

The Process of Urbanization

     The startling fact revealed by big history about states and civilization is that they emerged independently in many places—at least seven—around the world at about the same time, when viewed on a large time scale. The first city/state probably emerged in Mesopotamia about 3200 bce. Egypt and Nubia constituted states by 3100 bce, the Indus Valley and China, probably in two places, by about 2000 bce, with Mesoamerica and Peru having simple states by about 1000 bce. Smaller centers of independent agriculture likely emerged in numerous other places, like the Amazon, Southeastern Asia, Ethiopia, and eastern North America.

     How did these cities evolve out of villages and towns? Why did this happen at about the same time everywhere, give or take a few thousand years? How did elite rulers acquire enough power to coerce the masses of people? Why did people allow this to happen? These are questions that can help us understand what civilization is.

     Cities cannot survive without a surplus of food being available, since there is not space within a city for everyone to grow their own food. Over time surplus food became available as the climate changed and as people accumulated their learning and techniques.

     The last Ice Age peaked at about 20,000 BP (before the present, with the present defined as 1950 ce). After that, the climate warmed rapidly to about 6000 bce and since then has warmed very slowly, until the recent rapid warming began, at least partially induced by humans. As the climate warmed after the last ice age, agriculture became possible and necessary, as human density increased and large mammals disappeared.

     At the same time, human ingenuity produced cumulative strategies for survival. As people and animals domesticated each other, humans learned not to eat their animals at once but to use their products—milk for food, wool for clothes, waste for fertilizer, and muscle power for pulling plows and carts. Plows, irrigation, pottery for storage, and metallurgy helped make surplus food possible.

     Recent evidence has shown that as the climate warmed, it also dried in many areas, forcing people to migrate to sources of water. This may be the main reason that most early civilizations developed in river valleys. Of course, they also turned out to be phenomenally fertile from the silt deposited during floods, and irrigation schemes by humans magnified the fertility, first as small projects and later, under state organization, as monumental projects.

     Ripe grain must be harvested and stored. When there is a surplus, it must be collected, centrally stored, and re-distributed. Archeologists believe that possibly priests were initially responsible for this, as part of their responsibilities for keeping the calendars, specifying the days for planting, and praying for abundant harvests. Surplus grain allowed human density to increase to the level of cities (tens of thousands) in certain places, always dependent on their outlying regions for their food.

     Yet priests could not manage the process for long. As density increased, the surplus grain had to be protected against internal robbers and external raiders. Land use had to be allocated; people needed protection for their fields and they needed services, such as large-scale irrigation projects, beyond the scope of neighborhood groups. In one possible scenario, some of the priests, who controlled the surplus wealth, used it to become elite rulers, or kings. These early kings acquired enough power to maintain standing armies of warriors or to call up warriors when needed. As private property developed and land was divided up, people without land, migrants perhaps from arid areas, became landless peasants or independent craftspeople, dependent on others for their livelihood. Rulers worked closely with priests, often from their family, to establish state religions and ideologies, binding people together. Rulers also demanded tribute to pay for all this, from landowners as well as from landless peasants and specialized craftspeople. The collected tribute increased the ruler's power and enabled him to defend his city and/or to instigate warfare against rival cities, usually over rights to land and water.

     Unlike chiefs, who had supporters but no armies, kings had sufficient power to coerce tribute from their subjects by using their warrior class, made possible by surplus food. Kings were also responsible for organizing the collection of tribute and for keeping track of records of land ownership and exchanges, which led to some form of writing. (The only civilization without the usual kind of writing was the Inca in Peru; they used a system of knots on ropes (khipu) to record transactions. Some scholars are convinced that these knots recorded words and literature as well, but no one now is able to do this.7

     Kings were busy people; in addition to the activities mentioned above, they were also responsible for building large-scale public buildings and monuments to themselves, taking part in religious ceremonies, settling disputes, and leading battles. Naturally a single ruler could not carry out all these activities alone; structures of government developed, with elite families, about five to ten percent of the population, coming to have immense power over the remaining people.

     How did this happen? Why did people permit others to take power over them, force them to pay tribute and serve in armies and state production centers? Make them slaves if they couldn't pay? Did elite leaders take power from the community in their greed for dominance, wealth, and power? Or did the community give power to elite leaders in its need for specialized occupations, leadership, and protection?

     The balanced answer to this question seems to most big and world historians to be that these are two aspects of the same process. Power was given from below and taken from above more or less simultaneously, in a back and forth transaction, although power from below (consensual power) probably preceded power from above (coercive power) in most cases. A hierarchical structure, with extreme power at the top, possibly was the only way to integrate and support large, dense populations. People at the dawn of civilization chose to pay coerced tribute rather than to reduce their population, apparently their only other option.

Rebooting the Checklist

     Now we can return to making a list of the characteristics of civilization. Teachers might want to do this with their students at the beginning of a discussion of civilization and then again after they have studied a few early ones. As big historians, we are seeking a list that delivers no judgment, either for or against civilization, simply a description of what constitutes most actual civilizations.

     Here is my stab at a descriptive, balanced list:

  • surplus food
  • density of population
  • specialized occupations
  • social classes topped by small elites
  • subordination of women
  • coerced tribute, collected by force if necessary
  • state religions
  • monumental public buildings
  • standing armies
  • frequent warfare
  • notable modification of the natural environment
  • lavish tombs and burial goods for rulers and elites
  • system of writing and numbers
  • regular foreign trade
  • representative art
  • calendars, math, other science
  • some slavery
  • epidemics of disease

     This is my short list:                         

  • surplus food
  • density of population
  • stratified social ranks
  • coerced tribute
  • state systems
  • accumulated learning

     By now it seems clear that any given civilization need not have all the characteristics on a list, only most of them, maybe all of those on a short list. It is also clear that, while there is a core of common characteristics of civilization, any list of them will reflect the judgment and point of view of its author(s). Making such a checklist seems a worthwhile activity, for it helps students think through the process of how towns turned into cities and civilizations and it reveals to students that studying history is an interpretative activity. They may have their own interpretations and share in the excitement of making sense of the past.

     Most big historians have chosen to use the word "civilization" rather than to reject it, but they define it carefully as a particular type of human community with specific features. Why do all these features come together in this type of community but not in others? Big historians are still wondering about this profound question.

Analogy with Ants

     Several scholars thinking on the largest scale of history have called our attention to the analogies of human societies with those of the most social insects: ants, termites and bees.8 Ants have evolved over a hundred million years from a solitary wasp to creatures living in the most complex of social structures, now being called a super-organism. Ants have achieved a success that rivals that of humans in terms of sheer mass—each group has about ten percent of the animal biomass on the planet. (The animal biomass is only about two percent of plant biomass, which is only about one percent of the bacterial biomass.)

     Ant societies have several features in common with human civilization. They have a rigid, hierarchical caste system. They have communication, consisting of ten to twenty chemical signals (but no writing or numeration!). Some ants herd aphids. The leafcutter ants of South America have agriculture; they chew their cuttings of huge leaves, fertilize them with their feces to produce a mushroom-like fungus, which they eat. Most ant societies have aggressive warriors; their societies are even more aggressive and war-like than human societies, sometimes attacking their own species over food and territory. Individual ants have relinquished their reproductive roles to the central queen, making their super-organism possible. Ants have a significant effect on their environment, moving around as much dirt as earthworms do, enriching the soil. If all ants died, extinctions would increase; if all humans died, extinctions would decrease.

     Are human societies headed in the direction of ant societies as our density increases? Do humans have any choice in the matter, or is this a process beyond our control? Where else but in large-scale history do these questions even arise?

Cynthia Stokes Brown is professor of education and history emerita at Dominican University of California. She is author of Ready From Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement (Wild Trees Press, 1986, American Book Award, 1987, re-issued by Africa World Press, 1990); Refusing Racism: White Allies and the Struggles for Civil Rights (Teachers College Press, 2002); and Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present (New Press, 2007). She can be contacted at



I worked out many of these ideas as I drafted a chapter for a forthcoming college textbook of big history (McGraw-Hill, 2011). Other authors of this textbook are Craig Benjamin and David Christian, to whom I am deeply grateful for collaboration and feedback.

1 History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools Kindergarten through Grade Twelve. California Department of Education, 2005; National Standards for World History (Grades 5-12). (Los Angeles, CA National Center for History in the Schools, 1994).

2 See Bruce Mazlish, Civilization and Its Contents. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004).

3 Jared Diamond "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race." Discover (May 1987) or Goggle "Jared Diamond Worst Mistake."

4 Bruce G. Trigger, Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 43, based on V. Gordon Childe, "The Urban Revolution," Town Planning Review 21: 3-17.

5 Elman Service, Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective. (New York: Random House, 1962).

6 David Christian, "Directionality or Betterment?" in "Forum on Progress in History," Historically Speaking, vol .VII, no. 5 (May/June 2006), 22-25. See also David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley, CA: University of California

Press, 2004).

7 Gordon Brotherson, Book of the Fourth World: Reading the Native Americas Through Their Literature. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

8 Russell Merle Genet, Humanity: The Chimpanzees Who Would Be Ants. (Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press, 2007), and Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson, The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009.



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