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Just how old is civilization?

Discussion in 'World History' started by innonimatu, May 15, 2021.

  1. innonimatu

    innonimatu Deity

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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.

    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.

    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.
     
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  2. Birdjaguar

    Birdjaguar Hanafubuki Super Moderator Supporter

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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.
     
  3. Buster's Uncle

    Buster's Uncle AC2 Co-Owner

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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.
     
  4. Kyriakos

    Kyriakos Alien spiral maker

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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.
     
  5. PiR

    PiR King Supporter

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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.
     
  6. Tee Kay

    Tee Kay Silly furry

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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.
     
  7. Ajidica

    Ajidica High Quality Person

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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.
     
  8. Tee Kay

    Tee Kay Silly furry

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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

    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.
     
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  9. schlaufuchs

    schlaufuchs La Femme Moderne

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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?
     
  10. Buster's Uncle

    Buster's Uncle AC2 Co-Owner

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  11. Ajidica

    Ajidica High Quality Person

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

    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.

    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.
     
  12. Absolution

    Absolution King

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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:
    • Youtube's most brilliant single video, 4:39-5:06.
      It is the best explaination of what is a human civilisation, that I've seen so far.
    • Plotinus' great comment in an old similiar discussion in 2012:
     
  13. Tee Kay

    Tee Kay Silly furry

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    No but I clarified what I meant in the next sentence

    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.

    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.

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

    Ajidica High Quality Person

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    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.

    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.

    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:
    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.
     
    Last edited: May 21, 2021
  15. Traitorfish

    Traitorfish The Tighnahulish Kid

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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.)
     
  16. AmazonQueen

    AmazonQueen Virago

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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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  17. Ajidica

    Ajidica High Quality Person

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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.
     
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  18. Absolution

    Absolution King

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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.
     
  19. GinandTonic

    GinandTonic Saphire w/ Schweps + Lime

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    I read that as librarians.

    Still works.
     
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  20. Traitorfish

    Traitorfish The Tighnahulish Kid

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    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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