A civilization is an enduring ancient large-scale, territorial cultural formation that transcends political regimes in space and time. It has three main components: foundational culture, cosmology (a view of the world and its origins and meanings) and religion. It may have a single religious tradition, such as Judaism, Christianity or Islam, or it might be polytheistic, combining a number of traditions and beliefs. Its cultural configuration is embedded in characteristic trans-ethnic affinities of economic and social practices that developed as it interacted with the natural environment which the population had to adjust to. It has a sense of unity and shared identity, and its institutions include laws, education and culture.
Civilizations develop when hunter-gatherers settle into semi-permanent communities and then move into agrarian lifestyles that produce surplus food. This allows people to spend more time on other activities, such as building houses and making pottery or weaving cloth. It also allows people to work together in a more specialized fashion, dividing labor among various occupations and buying or selling their products. Early civilizations also developed a social hierarchy based on people’s jobs, with rulers and priests at the top, merchants in the middle and artisans below them. They also developed a written language and an administrative system to record records of their society, such as land titles and property deeds.
As civilizations grew, they often extended their influence to other regions and created empires, requiring an effective system of government to manage the administration of a huge territory. They also needed an infrastructure of roads to get goods from one part of the country to another. This included canals to transport water and grain. Civilizations also developed metallurgy, agriculture, writing, and art and architecture, which set them apart from less advanced societies.
While the exact conditions under which civilizations arise remain a mystery, researchers do know that they develop in areas where fresh water is abundant. This is hardly surprising, since prehistoric hunter-gatherers tend to gather near water sources for obvious reasons. Civilizations can also disappear, usually because they fail to meet a particular environmental challenge, such as running out of resources or suffering from war or disease.
A key concept in understanding civilizations is that they are essentially unified cultures, a concept elaborated by Arnold J. Toynbee in his multivolume A Study of History. He theorized that a civilization’s culture is defined by a combination of its faith, religion, language, and its ideas, traditions, and customs. This concept was reinforced by studies of West Asian Arab-Muslim civilizations, for example, which are linked not only by their Islamic faith and culture but also by the High Arabic language above local vernaculars and by Persian imperial court culture and conceptions of political power.
It is not always possible to determine when a culture has reached civilization status, but it generally means that the culture is able to organize itself in a complex manner. Nevertheless, there are exceptions: the Inca, for instance, did not develop metallurgy or writing, but they certainly were a civilization.