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Old November 19th, 2012, 04:14 AM   #1
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What makes a civillisation?


I've been reading recently quite a few "History of the World" type books, particularly older ones whose copyright has expired because I'm cheap. Aside from the disturbing obsession with which race ancient people were (which still seems to get a worrying amount of airtime on this forum), the primary concern of the opening chapter is usually deciding where civillisation first arose.

The standard answer in the older books is one of two (although sometimes they hedge their bets) - Egypt or Sumeria. In more recent works, the Indus Valley civillisation starts to creep in as a contender; presumably ignored in earlier works through a combination of its discovery being more recent; an underestimation of its age; an overestimation of the age of the Middle Easten civllisations and the absence of readable written records.

With these thoughts in mind, I found myself watching some of the lectures from Richard Boulliet's world history course at Columbia university - available on Youtube, In this, he makes the claim that the oldest civillisation in the world should be found in neither Egypt nor Sumer but, rather, in Eastern Europe. He describes this civillisation as "Old Europe", but a bit of Wikipedia hunting suggests that he appears to be talking about the Cucuteni-Tyrpillian culture.

All this got me thinking. What is it that actually makes something classifiable as a civillisation? Many of the things we associate with civillisation predate any of these proposed 'first; civillisations. Agriculture precedes them all by millenia, and people were already living settled in towns and cities. Writing, or at least some form of proto-writing, had already arisen, while on the other hand some civillisations, like that of the Inca, might not have had any writing.

I am at a loss to come up with a criterion, or a set of criteria, that clearly define when something becomes civilisation. Does the term have any useful definition, or is it a vague and outdated concept best done away with?
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Old November 19th, 2012, 04:27 AM   #2

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The problem here is that the word 'civilization' is loosely used in history books and documentaries. To begin with, literacy is required, which differs from writing in its origins. While some groups of people had symbols that they communicated with, they were not completely literate. Cities are the other factor. Yet, even though it is technically incorrect to refer to a group of people without this as a civilization, it is commonly done.
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Old November 19th, 2012, 04:32 AM   #3

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I dont think there is any eureka moment or one criterea for the start of a civilisation. A civilization is basically an advanced form of human living, to achieve this a community must have a surplus of food, a common language, specialisation of labor, writing/art, law, government, and a class system together with a means of defence.
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Old November 19th, 2012, 11:20 AM   #4
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I think the key element to transform barbarism to civilization is literacy.
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Old November 19th, 2012, 11:32 AM   #5

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IMHO The key factor has to be excess food production. If you society can acvieve regular food surplus all the other necessary factors like wtiting have time to flourish.
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Old November 19th, 2012, 12:05 PM   #6

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Mode of production- the totality of all productive methods and arrangements in a given society, the ways in which surplus value is extracted and distributed, and how objects for use are produced, distributed and/or exchanged.

Civil society- the cumulative networks by which the citizens or inhabitants of a society interract and relate and wherein ideological and political currents are expressed.

The state- the function of the governmental body that is responsible for the maintenance of that society, i.e. for standing above, regulating, and effectively alienating itself from the society. Acts as a mediator of social conflict within that society.
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Old November 19th, 2012, 12:07 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by funakison View Post
IMHO The key factor has to be excess food production. If you society can acvieve regular food surplus all the other necessary factors like wtiting have time to flourish.
Yes, but your society is still Barbarous even if you produce more food than you need. Without literacy there is so little you can do.

An illiterate tribe is uncivilized, its past isn't recorded, it can't lay down laws. It is Barbarous.
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Old November 19th, 2012, 12:50 PM   #8

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Poly View Post
Yes, but your society is still Barbarous even if you produce more food than you need. Without literacy there is so little you can do.

An illiterate tribe is uncivilized, its past isn't recorded, it can't lay down laws. It is Barbarous.

What you say is true, but , surplus of food is the most important because it allows for everything else to become attainable. Without food, people cannot function. When one person can supply food for many, the others that would have been farming could instead focus on other aspects of life. This is called specialization of labor. These people can become artisans, working in different crafts which they can sell for profit. Besides just profit, these crafts are history, showing the culture of the people from whence they came.

Common language is also very important because, without a common language, people wouldn't be able to run an effective civilization. If you cannot speak to your neighbor, how are you to grow physically and mentally. How are you to advance as a civilization? You cant. This leads right into law, government, and the class system. As a civilization, the people must be governed, which brings us to writing.

Writing was indeed very important in developing every aspect of civilization. Without writing, you couldn't keep track of what belongs to you and what doesn't. You cant effectively disperse laws throughout the country with a few people running around and making public declarations. With writing, you were able to achieve this much easier. Writing is the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle, shared language and excess food production are the driving forces that allow the development of writing.
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Old November 19th, 2012, 04:24 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by funakison View Post
What you say is true, but , surplus of food is the most important because it allows for everything else to become attainable. Without food, people cannot function. When one person can supply food for many, the others that would have been farming could instead focus on other aspects of life. This is called specialization of labor. These people can become artisans, working in different crafts which they can sell for profit. Besides just profit, these crafts are history, showing the culture of the people from whence they came.

Common language is also very important because, without a common language, people wouldn't be able to run an effective civilization. If you cannot speak to your neighbor, how are you to grow physically and mentally. How are you to advance as a civilization? You cant. This leads right into law, government, and the class system. As a civilization, the people must be governed, which brings us to writing.

Writing was indeed very important in developing every aspect of civilization. Without writing, you couldn't keep track of what belongs to you and what doesn't. You cant effectively disperse laws throughout the country with a few people running around and making public declarations. With writing, you were able to achieve this much easier. Writing is the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle, shared language and excess food production are the driving forces that allow the development of writing.
I agree with you.

There are three accepted stages of man's development:

Savagery
Barbarism
Civilized

I accept you can't pass from savagery to civilized...

A tribal group has to become stabilized...it has to have enough food, shelter, clothing to survive...it has to have a common identity to form a tribe (language, ethnic grouping etc)

Only when a barbaric society has become stable can a civilization emerge...and the key moment for that, is literacy.
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Old November 19th, 2012, 04:26 PM   #10

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This should be of some help:
Civilization Defined
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