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Just how old is civilization?

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

  1. Ajidica

    Ajidica High Quality Person

    Nov 29, 2006
    At that point, every human society becomes a civilization, which seems to defeat the entire purpose of having "civilization" as a term.

    Its ambiguity like that which makes me favor "was the society able to write about itself" as the determinant.
    PiR likes this.
  2. Traitorfish

    Traitorfish The Tighnahulish Kid

    Sep 14, 2005
    If we see "civilisation" as a characteristic which is attributed to a society, a set of criteria that need to be satisfied in order to access the Civilised Cool Kids Club, then sure. But maybe we should see "civilisation" as a process, as something a society does, and the point of distinguishing "civilisations" is to distinguish the different ways in which a human population mould their environment to their needs.

    This is pretty much the argument advanced by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, that "civilisation" is something that almost every human society beyond the simplest hunter-gatherers has produced to some degree. I don't know if I agree, but it's worth considering. There's certainly nothing in particular that says we must define "civilisation" such that it excludes a certain portion of all human societies to that definition as workable.
  3. innonimatu

    innonimatu Deity

    Dec 4, 2006
    I agree with that argument. In fact I would have the dawn of civilization put as far back as some 40000 years ago, or even more. Time is unforgiving and we have little more than stone tools found from that era. But we do have statues, spears, the beginnings of fired clay objects, musical instruments, and paintings. There must have been languages already, and oral traditions, teaching how to produce these tools. There's evidence of ritual burial, therefor the beginnings of religious ideas: other things that must be maintained, passed down. They didn't build monuments, they didn't write in anything hat survived for us to find so far, but these humans already had civilizations. The Inca "wrote" in strings, if they had vanished a thousand years before contact with another literate civilization to write histories that have reached us, would he know? What would be there to find?
    Last edited: May 28, 2021
  4. Tee Kay

    Tee Kay Silly furry

    Aug 21, 2005

    This discussion necessarily entails talking about what different societies have in common. If you want to spin that uncharitably as "erasing distinction" then yeah whatever.

    My working definition doesn't take into account how people self-identified, specifically because we can't know that for certain for many older cultures - or even some contemporary ones arguably - and it feels kinda silly to exclude let's say the Indus Valley because they might identify more with their individual city-states or whatever.

    Hang on, are we measuring civilisation by whether they have an arbitrary large impact on history? Is variola major a civilisation?

    Yes, that can be argued over.

    Our contemporary civilisation writes more than ever about how they understand themselves and I still have no idea how we understood each other.

    Sure there's a vast difference between those two, but you're correct both can plausibly be described as "social direction", and I'm fine with that personally.

    I did exclude steppe nomads to a point, and smaller groups of hunter gatherers of the kind most of us probably were prior to about 10,000 BC. Again you're right it hinges on the "extensive" qualifier. I would say having civilisation as a synonym for literate also defeats the purpose of having a separate term though.

    I basically agree with this take; not coincidentally I've read a lot of Fernandez-Armesto.

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