Civilization is an advanced stage of human culture that allows people to live with a reasonable degree of comfort and safety and to focus on things like art and education. It is characterized by a high degree of social specialization, technological progress (albeit slow in the pre-modern world), and cultural sophistication, including organized religion, writing, architecture, mathematics, metallurgy, and advanced arts.
Civilized people are also more likely to have cities, a large population, and specialized labor. The term civilization first appeared in the mid-18th century and was used to mean “the bringing out of a savage state into an enlightened one,” an elitist view that echoed the age’s growing sense of colonization. Today, the word carries less of the connotations of elitism and is often used more generally to refer to a specific region or group of people (European civilization, Mayan civilization).
Early civilizations appear to have developed in river valleys, since water is a necessary resource for life and human hunter-gatherers tend to gravitate toward freshwater sources. In addition, the fertile silt that washes down rivers from floods helped people to grow crops. As civilizations grew, they developed complex institutions to rule over their citizens and manage agriculture. The earliest civilized societies also invented a system of writing, which allowed rulers, priests, merchants, and artisans to keep accurate records.
As civilizations expanded, they needed to develop ways to get food from distant places. This led to the emergence of a class system, with different groups divided by income and types of work, such as kings, nobles, freemen, and serfs. People could move between classes as their circumstances changed, but the process was often difficult and happened over generations.
Many ancient civilizations developed highly sophisticated arts, ranging from pottery to metallurgy to architecture and sculpture. Whether it was the pyramids of Egypt, the temples of the Maya, or the palaces of Shang China, these were works that were created by highly trained specialists. It was the combination of all these innovations – writing, state organization, cities, class division, specialized labor, and advanced religion – that gave rise to the concept of civilization.
These elements of civilization have been woven into the fabric of our lives, as shown by the fact that almost all humans today are part of a civilization. But it’s important to understand how these things came together in a few regions of the world, starting with what is now known as the Bronze Age in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Mesoamerica. The result was a package of technologies, hierarchies, and ways of life that now surrounds all the world’s seven billion people.