Just how old is civilization?

innonimatu

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Not the game :D

Which would you call the oldest human civilization? Which is the breakthrough tech for the dawn of it?

Does it require written records to be counted as civilization? Of perhaps urbanization? Might artistic expression suffice? Or just took-making, which might or might not be older?

I have come to believe that the dawn of civilization lies hundreds of thousands of years back. All of these are probably as old, it's just that the evidence decayed away, and the population so sparse generally that any remains which survived were either subsequently destroyed by new development or lost. Civilization probably started with "per-modern" hominid species!

There is one interesting piece about the history clothing that I wanted to mention here. This actually sticks to the convention that civilization is about 10,000 years old, with the agriculture urbanization in the fertile crescent, etc.

When the Pleistocene ended 12,000 years ago, there was a new development with clothes. Global temperatures increased dramatically and, along with the melting of continental ice sheets and the rise in sea levels, environments became wetter and more humid. Adapting to these moist conditions, people shifted to making their clothes with fabrics woven from natural fibres such as wool and cotton. Compared with leathers and furs, fabrics are better at managing moisture. The woven structure is permeable to air and moisture and, in warm climates, wind penetration can help to cool the body. Moisture from higher sweating rates could evaporate more easily from the skin and also from the fabric, adding to the cooling effect. The warm and wet period after the last ice age, called the Holocene, coincides with a momentous transition, the beginning of the Neolithic era when people started to engage in agriculture.
The agricultural transition was a turning point in humanity’s relationship to the natural world, altering the environment profoundly and enabling the rise of cities and civilisations. My surprising suggestion is that there was a connection between the textile revolution and the agricultural revolution. By implication, this technological change in clothes led to the Anthropocene, a phase of humanly induced global warming that started with agriculture and was accelerated by the Industrial Revolution.
The novel hypothesis that fibre production stimulated the transition to agriculture signifies a radical departure from conventional thinking.

But in mentioning the previous known history of clothing worn by humans, the use and processing of animal skins, I believe a strong case is made for civilization having started with those. Technologies were developed,, transmitted, sometimes lost, sometimes kept and developed further as humans pushed into more hostile borderlands, harsher climates. This already required a developed culture and its transmission, social organization, trade and relatively large groups.

While clothing is one of the most visible of all human technologies, in the field of archaeology it’s almost invisible. Compared with stone tools surviving from the Lower Palaeolithic more than 3 million years ago, clothes perish rapidly and rarely survive beyond a single millennium. Among the notable exceptions are a pair of 3,000-year-old trousers worn by nomadic horse-riders in Central Asia, and a 5,000-year-old linen tunic from ancient Egypt. We have only a few precious cloth fragments from the early Neolithic, in Peru and Turkey. Not a shred of clothing survives from the Pleistocene, with just a few twisted flax fibres – used perhaps for strings or thread – found at a 34,000-year-old site in Georgia.

All the evidence we have for ice-age clothing is indirect but, nonetheless, the available evidence shows that people had tailored clothes in the last ice age. The world’s oldest eyed needles are found in southern Russia 40,000 years ago, and one needle in Denisova Cave is said to be 50,000 years old. In the vicinity of Moscow at a site called Sunghir, 30,000-year-old human burials have thousands of beads neatly arranged on the skeletons. Russian archaeologists think that these beads were sewn on to fitted garments, including trousers with legs and shirts with sleeves. Some of the skeletons appear to have two layers of garments, indicating the presence of multiple layers, so the Sunghir burials document the world’s oldest underwear. Artworks across Eurasia begin to show people wearing clothes from that time, including the so-called ‘Venus’ figurines.
[...]
Research teams in Germany and the United States analysed the genomes of head and clothing lice to estimate when the clothing parasites split from the head ones. One advantage of the lice research is that the results are independent from other sources of evidence about the origin of clothes, such as archaeology and palaeoclimatology. The German team, led by Mark Stoneking at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, came up with a date of 70,000 years ago, revised to 100,000 years ago, early in the last ice age. The US team led by David Reed at the University of Florida reported a similar date of around 80,000 years ago, and maybe as early as 170,000 years ago during the previous ice age.
Our ancestors probably started to wear clothes long before the last ice age, when species such as Neanderthals and Homo erectus endured cold winters during earlier glacial cycles dating back to the Early Pleistocene, more than 1 million years ago. [...]The genetic analysis of modern clothing lice can inform us only about clothes worn routinely in some human populations up until the present day. Earlier hominins could have adopted clothes (and acquired clothing lice in the process) and then discarded clothes during warm climate phases, without leaving any genetic trace in modern-day lice.

Art of course is documented in caves for some 40,000 years ago. Large wood sculptures has been found tens of thousands of yeras old, but only by very lucky chance was this one preserved. How was the culture of the people who produced these, possibly the same people who ritually buried their clothed dead 30,000 years ago, we cannot know, it's lost. But it was civilization. It didn't all spring up suddenly 10,000 years ago. We're heirs to a very old history of slow development.
 

Birdjaguar

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Without doubt humanity has a long timeline of gradual change with punctuated periods of faster action. the question is how one defines civilized. If writing is the key feature, then we are looking at 5000+ years ago in Uruk. If it's agriculture, then we can push that back another 5000 years and into Anatolia. If one chooses clothing, burial or art, then it is even older. The further one back one goes, the fewer options there are for who, what, when. Some might say brewing beer is the first key tech of any civilization since it combines both cooperative work (agriculture) and community fun (getting drunk together). Others might say that it did not begin in central Asia until horses were domesticated.
 

Buster's Uncle

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...I suspect that if the continental shelves were not under water, we'd know about considerably more of human pre-history...

I wouldn't expect Conan/Hyperborian Age-type crap, but people, especially cities and other population concentrations, tend to settle along coasts. -Those were considerably further out during the Ice Ages. I imagine there's considerable Old Stone Age settlements along the bottom of the Black Sea alone.
 

Kyriakos

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Civilization has the same age as Greece, tldr.
Prior to that it was just plebs and shadowy elites with some knowledge (egyptian priests, chaldeans in Mesopotamia, magi in Persia etc). Even the first use of a concept of a theorem is attributed to Thales.
 

PiR

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Well I could also say Mankind is not fully civilized yet, if that is to ever come.
Civilization represents also a set of ideals that we'd like to target as a species, but which is in conflict with our primal nature.
And sometimes civilization can also represent everything humans build: when I was a kid and we came back from a trip to the nature, my parents said "we're back to civilization!", with all its benefits and drawbacks.
 

Tee Kay

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This is a tricky term to define and probably we'll keep debating it until the end of civilisation... whatever that is

My personal definition which is of course the correct one is "socially-directed extensive reshaping of the environment for human benefit". This includes all cultures that a reasonable person would recognise as civilisations but lack certain characteristics like writing, urbanisation, or state organisation, while extending civilisation status to groups that did extensively modify the land but not in a way the Eurocentric perspective would recognise as "agriculture" such as Aboriginal Australians. Tool use/making is not sufficient - lots of animal species use and fashion tools and hominid species have been doing so for millions of years, whereas we need a word that distinguishes the intensification of human modification of the environment that we have evidence for over the last few tens of thousands of years. My definition still has problems over that hedge word "extensive" and leaves open the argument that ants and beavers have civilisations, but it will do.
 

Ajidica

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This might be a tad controversial, but I would say a culture becomes a "civilization" when they have a adopted a written language to write down their own history and culture as opposed to relying on other to filter it through their understanding.
 

Tee Kay

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This might be a tad controversial, but I would say a culture becomes a "civilization" when they have a adopted a written language to write down their own history and culture as opposed to relying on other to filter it through their understanding.

That would mean there was no pre-Columbian civilisation in the Americas outside of bits of Mesoamerica which feels somehow wrong

Put the Incan Empire in the middle of Eurasia and, well, others around them might still have viewed them as contemptible heathens, but they'd recognise intensive agriculture, urban life, high culture, state organisation

The Incans also introduce the complication of lost writing; assuming quipus might well have been readable as a kind of "writing" but the knowledge was lost, and now we rely on written accounts of their conquerors and those who lived under them, would that count? Writing was in most places in most societies only accessible by the elite anyway - the culture of the kings was hardly the culture of the peasantry, and it's the peasantry that formed the bulk of society and did most of the work.

To me a written language is a civilisational booster pack - nice to have, essential even if you want an edge over other civilisations, but not part of the starter kit.
 

schlaufuchs

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Don't forget the Vedic tradition, which fulfils the requirement of "[record] their own history and culture" but as an oral tradition for a least a millennium before it was finally written down.

It is also problematized by the question of what part of a "culture" is civilized, as until very recently, notwithstanding a few notable exceptions, written culture was predominantly the domain of an exclusive elite that largely wrote for, about, and amongst themselves. If the sole criterion for "civilization" is about preserving one's own culture in writing (as opposed to being described by some other), then how are we to understand this conceptually? Was all of Medieval Europe a civilization? Or just the part which includes the monks and nobles who could write stuff down? For instance, we know about the Albigensians only because Catholic clerics wrote about them. That certainly sounds to me like an example of "relying on an other to filter it through their understanding." Does that mean, then, that the Albigensians were not civilized or are not to be included in some "Frankish" or "European" civilization?
 

Ajidica

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That would mean there was no pre-Columbian civilisation in the Americas outside of bits of Mesoamerica which feels somehow wrong
Is there a requirement that all geographic regions must be represented in the list of civilizations?

Writing was in most places in most societies only accessible by the elite anyway - the culture of the kings was hardly the culture of the peasantry, and it's the peasantry that formed the bulk of society and did most of the work.
But then what records do we have of those cultures? Almost our entire knowledge of those cultures - on any level beyond "people lived here and farmed"- is driven by archaeological and architectural finds from said high status individuals.

Take the Goths for example. Until the mid 400s, to my knowledge we, don't have any texts that originated among the Goths talking about themselves. In archaeological terms, the Chernagov culture is more or less identical to other material cultures in that region. While Heather argues that the evolution of the Chernagov culture shows a movement of Goths to that region, Kulikowski quite rightly points out that is an inherently circular argument: The development of Chernagov culture is a sign of the Goths because the Goths are associated with the development of the Chernagov culture. The relation between the Weilbark and Chernagov culture is constantly under discussion. Should the pre-Roman Goths be considered a civilization?

How about the Huns? The focus on settled cities and agriculture effectively eliminates nomad cultures from being a civilization, even though we know that several of them had developed unique metalworking styles (or used captured artisans to make the items) and later many developed a writing system while only semi-comfortably grafting themselves on to a settled agrarian society.

For instance, we know about the Albigensians only because Catholic clerics wrote about them. That certainly sounds to me like an example of "relying on an other to filter it through their understanding." Does that mean, then, that the Albigensians were not civilized or are not to be included in some "Frankish" or "European" civilization?
I'm not sure why a specific religious/geographic identifier like Albigensian should itself constitute a civilization, unless we want to declare Northumbrian a civilization.
Though people who identified as Albigensian were fully capable of writing things down, that no physical documents survived is not an indication they were without a writing system.
 

Absolution

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Don't try to hang on one specific criteria, as it will never cover what we all mean when we rightfully use the term "civilisation".
Either writing, urban living, residential establishments, government, proffesional craftsmen, or which ever other criteria you may stick to - are all parts of what we concieve as a civilisation.

Thus we may have to look where many of these phenomenons occured simultanouosly. And even still, we may miss some cases that seem to us very civilised.

I'd reference two other sources:
  • Plotinus' great comment in an old similiar discussion in 2012:
    Personally I'd be inclined to say that one cannot define "civilisation" any more than one can define "sport". Any definition that one produces will inevitably exclude some cases that one would like to include, and include some that one would like to exclude. That doesn't mean that the term can't be used meaningfully any more than "sport" can, it just means that one has to judge on a case-by-case basis without clear criteria. But that's all right, we do that all the time. The assumption that you can't have a meaningful discussion about something without having a watertight definition of it is a Platonic one, and it's wrong.
 

Tee Kay

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Is there a requirement that all geographic regions must be represented in the list of civilizations

No but I clarified what I meant in the next sentence

But then what records do we have of those cultures? Almost our entire knowledge of those cultures - on any level beyond "people lived here and farmed"- is driven by archaeological and architectural finds from said high status individuals.

Would you say "civilisation" then was the sole preserve of the literate elites of almost exclusively Eurasian societies and their descendents, except for the past couple hundred years where mass literacy has in turn spread mass civilisation?

If so and civilisation is literacy then we don't really need a different term though.

Take the Goths for example. Until the mid 400s, to my knowledge we, don't have any texts that originated among the Goths talking about themselves. In archaeological terms, the Chernagov culture is more or less identical to other material cultures in that region. While Heather argues that the evolution of the Chernagov culture shows a movement of Goths to that region, Kulikowski quite rightly points out that is an inherently circular argument: The development of Chernagov culture is a sign of the Goths because the Goths are associated with the development of the Chernagov culture. The relation between the Weilbark and Chernagov culture is constantly under discussion. Should the pre-Roman Goths be considered a civilization?

How about the Huns? The focus on settled cities and agriculture effectively eliminates nomad cultures from being a civilization, even though we know that several of them had developed unique metalworking styles (or used captured artisans to make the items) and later many developed a writing system while only semi-comfortably grafting themselves on to a settled agrarian society

Based on my preferred definition I would say the Chernagov culture counts as a civilisation, and as for the Goths it depends on what you meant by Goths.

Steppe nomads are an interesting edge case.

Don't try to hang on one specific criteria, as it will never cover what we all mean when we rightfully use the term "civilisation".

You are absolutely correct but I like to argue with strangers on the internet
 

Ajidica

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Would you say "civilisation" then was the sole preserve of the literate elites of almost exclusively Eurasian societies and their descendents, except for the past couple hundred years where mass literacy has in turn spread mass civilisation?
Lumping the myriad societies from the Straits of Gibraltar to Kyushu, and from the North Sea to the Straits of Malacca as merely "Eurasian" seems to be trying to erase distinctions between them.

Based on my preferred definition I would say the Chernagov culture counts as a civilisation, and as for the Goths it depends on what you meant by Goths.
I'm not sure how one could count the Chernagov culture as a civilization. A common material culture does not imply a shared identity unless we want to fall into the Imperialist viewpoint of dividing people up based on surface characteristics rather than how they identified.

Steppe nomads are an interesting edge case.
Given their effect on world history, I would say they are a little more than an edge case!

EDIT:
Your original working definition of civilization was:
My personal definition which is of course the correct one is "socially-directed extensive reshaping of the environment for human benefit".
Which of course raises what constitutes "extensive". The Roman Republic and Empire engaged in civil works projects whose scale and scope wouldn't be matched until the Industrial Revolution, which would seem to put Frankish Europe to shame in the civilization competition.

Its stuff like that, and the difficulties in dealing with material cultures, is that we have no idea how people understood each other. At least "can write about how they understand themselves and preserve" is a pretty bright line, historically and archaeologically speaking.
 
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Traitorfish

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Is there a requirement that all geographic regions must be represented in the list of civilizations?
I think the objection is that a definition of "civilisation" which excludes Cuzco at the height of its imperial glory but includes, for example, an anonymous fourteenth century Icelandic fishing village, seems counter-intuitive to how the word is used colloquially; that most people would not look at the Sapa Inca and his court, at a medieval Icelandic villager and his sheep, and then conclude that the latter represented a more "civilised" form of society than the former, simply because one was literate and the other was not.

(I mean, libertarians might.)
 

AmazonQueen

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I'd suggest civilisation is a process, one thats never complete so theres no yes/no answer to if a culture is civilised or not.
It was the Goths who ended the Roman tradition of gladiatorial games so who was the more civilised?
 
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Ajidica

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I think the objection is that a definition of "civilisation" which excludes Cuzco at the height of its imperial glory but includes, for example, an anonymous fourteenth century Icelandic fishing village, seems counter-intuitive to how the word is used colloquially; that most people would not look at the Sapa Inca and his court, at a medieval Icelandic villager and his sheep, and then conclude that the latter represented a more "civilised" form of society than the former, simply because one was literate and the other was not.

(I mean, libertarians might.)
I mean, TK's working definition leaves out vibrant nomadic cultures but includes isolated jungle-tribes that dragged logs into a stream to make a fish pond.
 

Absolution

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I would suggest that writing is not a charactersitic that makes some a civilisation, but it is associated with civilisation.

Think of it this way:
Uncivilised people who happen to he writing things are not, by a single bit, more civilised than if they weren't writing things.
But uncivilised people who happen to be settled down, are indeed a bit more civilised than if they were not settled down.
Am I right?

According to what I think is the widespread understanding of the idea of a civilised society.
 

Traitorfish

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I mean, TK's working definition leaves out vibrant nomadic cultures but includes isolated jungle-tribes that dragged logs into a stream to make a fish pond.
I think that depends on how we define "environment". If we consider livestock animals to be part of the human environment, then I'd tend to consider the cultivation of large domesticated populations- not least the creation of the horse as we understand it- to qualify as "extensive reshaping".

The sticking point I'd have with TK's definition is is "socially-directed": directed by who, with what degree of deliberateness? There is a vast difference between a god-king supervising the creation of extension waterworks, and a diffuse set of traditions and taboos around livestock breeding, but both could be plausibly described as forms of "social direction".
 
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