A society considered by scholars to be a civilization has high levels of cultural complexity – including refined art, architecture and literature as well as organized religion and a state-based decision-making apparatus. Many societies, however, have no such complex culture and are viewed as primitive, savage or barbaric. Whether or not the term civilization is an accurate description of human society remains an ongoing debate among historians.
A key characteristic of a civilization is the presence of a food surplus, which allows non-farmers to pursue other occupations than growing crops. This is necessary because the development of a civilization requires people to live in cities, which can only exist where there is enough surplus food for those living in them to eat without having to work the fields. A surplus also enables people to devote time to other activities such as trade, metallurgy and the production of refined arts.
Historians have long disagreed about the precise characteristics of civilization, but a consensus has developed that there are five essential facets: food surpluses, urbanization, social stratification and systems of taxation and labor specialization. It is also thought that a civilization must have a centralized authority, which may be a monarchy, an empire or a republic.
Civilization was once seen as a way to improve the lives of humans. During the Late Victorian period this led to what was known as “the white man’s burden” in which Western imperialism sought to bring civilization to indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia and elsewhere. In the 20th century this view was rejected, and there are now calls for a new definition of civilization that is less ethnocentric.
Early civilizations were likely to have sprung up along river valleys, as it is widely believed that farming required the cultivation of soil rich in silt. In addition, these early river valleys provided a ready source of water for transport and irrigation.
As the population of a village grew and people developed an ability to grow more crops than they could consume, surpluses became available for other occupations. This allowed artisans and craftsmen to focus their efforts on more refined forms of production, such as pottery and cloth weaving. People with enough wealth could become priests, merchants and government officials, while others devoted their lives to military service.
This accumulated wealth enabled some individuals to acquire the right to rule, as the kings of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and other great civilizations did. They gathered the power to tax their subjects and control the supply of resources, and were able to call up armies for protection and war against the uncivilized.
As civilizations became more advanced they were able to spread their techniques of agriculture, writing and religion to non-literate tribes. In some cases the uncivilized would willingly adopt these changes but in other cases the conquering dynasties used force to subjugate the populations they considered primitive, savage or barbarian and thus worthy of being “civilized.” This was accomplished by taking over their land, forcing them to pay tribute or serve in armies or as slaves in state production centers.