What is civilization? This is a term that refers to any complex society with some sort of ruling system, different social classes, and developed writing and formal social institutions. These civilizations often expand trade and money. Throughout history, civilizations have been the foundations of many other cultures. In other words, civilizations are the foundations of modern civilizations. If you are a modern human being, your civilization is your largest cultural identity. Here are some definitions of civilization.
The first human settlements were located in river valleys because they were fertile and offered easy access to water for food, irrigation, transportation, and trade. The first city/state was probably found in Mesopotamia, which was about 3200 BCE, and later spread to Egypt, Nubia, and the Indus Valley. By the year 2000 BCE, the same cities had complex civilizations in Mesoamerica and eastern North America, as well as in the southeast Asian and Indian subcontinents.
A civilization has a social hierarchy, state-level political structures, and a common culture. Agriculture is a vital component of civilization, as it allows people to specialize in different non-agricultural activities. This increases population, trade, and production. Agricultural civilizations are also characterized by social stratification. As rulers of larger areas took control of vast territories, they incorporated their own religious beliefs and practices to keep their social hierarchies intact.
Toynbee’s A Study of History explored the processes of civilizations in the past. He traced the rise of twenty-one civilizations, but also outlined the decline of five. According to Toynbee, the rise and fall of civilizations were due to the failure of the creative minority, moral decline, and environmental challenges. However, he also pointed out that each civilization’s emergence was the result of a synthesis of many different processes.
Writing was an important part of early civilizations. It enabled people to keep records, trade goods, and govern complex institutions. During Mesopotamia, cuneiform writing was the first type of writing to be used in economic transactions. The Oracle bone inscriptions were tied to divination and possibly had spiritual associations. Quipu, on the other hand, was a system used for keeping records and calculations. In ancient times, literacy was limited to a small number of educated elites.
A recent book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, by Joseph Tainter, suggests that states reach a limit of complexity. Further complexity would lead to negative returns to the states. Rome reached its maximum complexity in the 2nd century CE. The reasons for the decline of these civilizations are varied, and may vary from one civilization to the next. A sudden shift in population can weaken infrastructure, causing civilizations to crumble. For example, extreme weather can lead to a population shift. Cities may separate from rural areas.
In contrast, a civilization displays more complex ownership and exchange patterns. While living in one location, people accumulate more personal possessions. Some of them acquire private land and landed properties. Others obtain food through a market system. Others get food from others, including farmers. Early human civilizations operated on a barter economy and gift economy. In contrast, contemporary civilizations use money as a medium of exchange for increasingly complex transactions. The first civilizations emerged on wetlands.