We are the creatures of the institutions we have made, and this is no less so because we have
made them. There is a helix of interaction between man and his works so that the effects on him
of his works spur him to further works which have further effects, and so on until it is impossible
to tell which is man qua man and which is his work.
J. K. Feibleman
The general consensus that the inception of civilization marked a major advance for man, „the turning point in
the changes which mankind has undergone‟ implies inescapably that the early civilizations in different parts of the world had certain things in common, that their development was in each case a particular instance of some more general process, that transformation from „primitive‟ to „civilized‟. Any understanding of the emergence of one of
the world‟s early civilizations which we may reach would therefore throw some light on the early origins of them all.
There is little agreement among anthropologists as to just what it was that these early societies did actually hold in common to distinguish each as a civilization, and still less agreement about how this great transformation came about. The first step, then, must be to indicate what it is that we are trying to explain: to say what is meant here by civilization, and how a civilization may be recognized. Clearly there will be almost as many definitions of civilization as there are archaeologists making them. But it is important to justify the use of this term to indicate human societies of a particular kind??????
Civilization and Civilizations
„Civilization‟, like „culture‟, has a colloquial meaning. A man is „civilized‟ if he behaves decently and
ethically. „Savagery‟ is frequently equated with brutality, and enemies are described as „barbarian‟. This is, of
course, not simply anthropocentric but egocentric – like the arrogant lumping together of the art forms of all
non-civilized communities as „primitive‟.
In this sense, it is perfectly logical that the Aztecs, for instance, should be regarded as uncivilized in view of their practice of human sacrifice. Equally we might so qualify the Greeks because they exposed unwanted babies to die. But these are value judgments, and „civilized‟ in this sense can only mean conforming to our own standards
of morality and conduct. For the anthropologist the definition is too subjective to be useful.
The archaeologist makes a valuable distinction between culture, a general attribute of man, and cultures, each a specific adaptation of a human group to the particular problems of its environment. Culture, in the generalized sense, has been well defined as „man‟s extra-somatic means of adaptation‟. More than anything else it
distinguishes man from other animals, being learnt and not inherited as part of one‟s genetic composition. A
culture on the other hand (and note the indefinite article) designates a specific human adaptation at a given time and place. The archaeologist gives the term a special meaning: „a consistently recurring assemblage of artifacts‟.
This definition is particularly convenient, couched as it is in operational terms relating to what the archaeologist actually finds. It assumes that the different specific adaptations may be recognized and distinguished by means of the different artifacts which the members of the group habitually used.
Just as a distinction can be made between culture and cultures, the latter being localized in time and space, so we can distinguish between civilization and civilizations. Civilization is a stage, level or state of cultural
development, and the main purpose of this chapter is to characterize it more clearly.
Anticipating that definition for a moment, and assuming that it can be formulated, we can be specific about civilizations. A civilization (and the indefinite article implies the possibility of specifying its geographical and chronological position) is a culture of a particular kind. A civilization is then, in the operational language of the archaeologist, „a constantly recurring assemblage of artifacts‟ – of a particular kind. Understanding the operational
definition, again, is the notion of a group of people sharing a unique way of life, a unique adaptation.
The craft specialization and social stratification which we shall find to be features of all civilizations imply that, strictly speaking, there is no single recurrent assemblage, but several interrelated assemblages of artifacts (as indeed is often the case for cultures in general). But otherwise a civilization resembles a culture in requiring spatial and temporal definition. The Sumerian civilization, for instance, is defined by the distribution of artifact assemblages predominantly and specifically of Sumerian type. And the definition can be extended to cope with traded products, or with discontinuities, like that documented by the Assyrian trading colony at Kultepe, many miles from the continuous distributions of the Mesopotamian homeland.
It is more difficult to specify the temporal boundaries than the geographical ones-the decision is an arbitrary one, although in rare cases the end may be sudden. But no new civilization ever had a sudden beginning or „birth‟.
Any distinguishable culture whose institutions and material achievements fulfill the defining criteria which we choose to adopt is properly termed a civilization. We can thus speak of the Sumerian civilization, the Indus civilization, the Maya civilization and so forth. But always the precise definition employed is based upon criteria which are essentially arbitrary: the Minoan civilization and the Mycenaean civilization can be redefined so as jointly to constitute the Minoan-Mycenaean civilization; the Olmec, Maya and Aztec civilizations can be lumped together as Mesoamerican; in the same way the classical world can be divided into „Greece‟ (until the second or
first century B.C.) and then „Rome‟. It remains to decide what distinguish this state or form of culture known as civilization from other states or kinds of culture. Various criteria have at times been put forward, and some of these will now be considered.
In his book Man Makes Himself, Gordon Childe elaborated his notion of an „urban revolution‟ by which
civilization was created in the Near East: this was a pioneering attempt to explain the process in detail. For Childe, a key feature was the formation of the city, the beginning of urban life – as indeed it has been for most thinkers
and historians from the time of Sophocles to the present. „In the Near East the Bronze Age is characterized by
populous cities wherein secondary industries and foreign trade are conducted on a considerable scale. A regular army of craftsmen, merchants, transport workers, and also officials, clerks, soldiers and priests is supported by the surplus foodstuffs produced by cultivators, herdsmen and hunters. The cities are incomparably larger and more populous than Neolithic villages. A second revolution has occurred, and once more it has resulted in a multiplication of our species‟.
For Lewis Mumford too, the essential feature of civilization is the city, the „container‟ as he graphically terms
it, for all the new activities of civilized life. For him the urban revolution was „the implosion of many diverse and
conflicting forces in a new kind of container, the nucleated city‟. „the city is the means of transforming power and
productivity into culture and translating culture itself into detachable symbolic forms that can be stored and transmitted‟. Yet there is no one-to-one correspondence between civilization and cities. Several authors have emphasized „that: there is now excellent evidence that many early cultures which possessed all the other criteria of civilization seem to have been non-urban. Among them are the Maya, Khmer, Mycenaean and pre-eighteenth Dynasty Egyptian civilizations‟. The great temples of the Maya, the elaborate calendar, and the monumental
sculpture, which testify to an elaborate religion and very developed technology, were not accompanied by a particularly high population density or by recognizable urban units. It would seem difficult to deny to Tikal, the
great Mayan ceremonial center, the appellation „civilized‟, or indeed to Angkor Wat. Yet Tikal contrasts markedly
with the huge early city of Teotihuacan, likewise in Mexico. The central area alone of Teotihuacan exceeded in size the entire agglomeration of buildings at Tikal, and Teotihuacan unlike Tikal was the seat of a very large population.
Although the densely populated city is the most obvious symptom of civilization, it is not an essential component. On the other hand, probably no civilization lacks the monumental public buildings – whether
granaries, palaces or temples – which seem indeed to be present in every community which one would wish to
The presence of writing is another key feature, whose importance has frequently been underlined. But several cultures upon which it seems appropriate to bestow the term civilized, such as that of the Incas of Peru, had no effective form of writing. And indeed the glyphs of the Olmecs and Mayas seem to have been employed principally for calendrical notations.
The cultural significance of a state religion has often been stressed, but this again is hardly a satisfactory
universal criterion. No temples are yet known in the Indus civilization for instance, and the little shrines of Crete and Mycenae are not greatly impressive. On the other hand, the massive monumental temples of Malta belonged to a culture which had few other advanced features.
Social organization and craft specialization are features emphasized by nearly all historians of early culture.
As Robert Adams has written: „I also believe that the available evidence supports the conclusion that the
transformation at the core of the Urban Revolution lay in the realm of social organization; …in the case of
complex state societies, their rise is accompanied by the progressive dissociation of major institutional spheres from one another.‟ It dose indeed seem that all civilized societies have a well-defined social organization, where craft specialization is generally also seen. But it is, on the other hand, not easy to formulate universal criteria by which these features may be recognized from the archaeological record.
It appears then that no single feature or symptom of civilization, which can be singled out and sought for in the archaeological record, can be used as the overriding and defining criterion.
Indeed when seeking an operational, working definition, it seems preferable to take a polythetic criterion –
that is to say one that is based on the presence of a certain number, but not necessarily of all, of a series of defining features. Gordon Childe listed ten such features which distinguish the earliest cities from villages, yet it was Clyde Kluckhohn who first formulated a definition in explicitly polythetic terms:
„City dweller‟ and „urban‟ loosely designate societies characterized by at least two of the following features:
(i) towns of upward of, say, 5,000 inhabitants
(ii) a written language
(iii) monumental ceremonial centers.
If we are to formulate such an operational definition, with criteria which are inevitably somewhat arbitrary, this seems a very acceptable one. It embraces all those early cultures which are usually designated civilizations. And it excludes societies with only a single astonishing feature, like Stonehenge, or the temple of Malta, or indeed the Tartaria tablets of Romania.
One would wish to go further, however, and seek a statement of something more central to the idea of civilization than a mere choice of its symptoms……Kluckhohn‟s general definition, while capable of objective
and rigorous application, is hardly a satisfying one either. Surely, one feels, there must be some central, core idea, some unifying concept to make our definition of civilization something more than a polythetic bundle of apparently ill-assorted culture traits.
In the next section such a concept is outlined. As a definition it is certainly not as rigorous as Kluckhohn‟s,
which remains perhaps the most convenient for practical, operational use. Yet it does, I would claim, give a more
satisfactory general statement of what we mean by civilization, and of what different civilizations hold in common……
Man’s multi-dimensional environment
Many of man‟s activities are conditioned by his cultural environment, and satisfied by certain interrelations with it. The term „environment‟ here is not intended as a metaphor: when man comes into the world he rapidly
comes into contact with things, people and ideas outside himself. If a man lives among people, these are part of his environment as much as the local geology, or plant life, or the weather. If he lives in a house, this is part of his environment. If he is taught a religion, this too is part of his environment, since his behavior and activities are conditioned by the forces which he believes act upon him rather than by those which the sceptic may recognize.
To some extent these different aspects of the environment may be regarded as independent. A man‟s social
actions do not necessarily impinge directly on his quest for food, nor his religious beliefs and activities on the interior design of his home. Ultimately, as the functionalists would hold, there may be a relationship, but these different fields of activity can be distinguished. In this sense man‟s environment is multi-dimensional and,
consequently, his culture – his adaptation to his environment – is multi-dimensional too. As Lewis Binford has put
it, „Archaeologists…are measuring along several dimensions simultaneously, …culture is neither simple nor
To say that culture is multi-dimensional does not of course mean that the dimensioins are precisely analogous to the three spatial and one temporal dimension with which we describe space-time, and the definition of these dimensions will always perhaps be an arbitrary one – a situation which will not dismay the mathematician who is
used to transforming his variables or rotating his sets of variables.
The environment to which a man is born is not static – it is dependent on the religion and social beliefs and
customs, the technology, mores and language of his society, that is to say on its culture, as well as on nature. And this environment is itself largely the product of human actions, over a long period of time, themselves shaped by the heritage of customs and tradition of the society. It is, indeed, an artifact – or rather a complex amalgam of
many artifacts, as well as of natural objects and processes. Language, of course, is an artifact, although not a material one, and not the product of a single craftsman. But its form is uniquely determined by human action and convention just as much as that of a Sumerian temple or a British teapot. Religion (seen from the standard of an
anthropologist rather than of a believer) is an artifact in the same way, as are all explicit theories about the world. Once again, this is not a metaphor – these things are made by man.
Imitating the topological psychologists, we can compare the developing environment of a culture with the changing environment of life-space of a child. Fig.1.4 from Kurt Lewin‟s Field Theory in Social Science (1952？
136) , illustrates graphically how certain „areas‟ of existence are open to a child, others to an adult: the „life-space‟
is different. Geographers today, in the same way, use the concept of perceptual space. We can apply this image directly to man‟s environment. Let the unshaded area in fig.1.4, a be the natural world accessible to an Upper Palaeolithic hunter. And let the unshaded area in fig.1.4,b be the natural world accessible to an Early Dynastic Sumerian. Nos.2, 3, 4 and 6 represent the areas accessible to both (wild plant and animal resources, flint for chipped stone etc.). Areas 7 to 23 designate fields of activity always potentially open to the hunter, such as cereal plants, copper and resources overseas. But these elements of the world only become effectively part of man‟s
environment after the domestication (or at least intensive exploitation) of the plants and animals, the discovery of the smelting of copper ore and the construction of boats. Man‟s environment has then been greatly enlarged, and
the increase has been the result of cultural acquisitions, of the production of what are in the broader sense new artifacts. Boats, for example, are artifacts, as is smelted copper and, indeed, the technical skills required for its smelting. In a meaningful sense, so too are domestic plants and animals, since the most satisfactory criterion of domestication is controlled breeding. An artifact can, in the same way, be the work of many generations, and can be formed without any prior and
deliberate plan, the accretion of
the efforts of many different
periods. Many medieval
cathedrals are artifacts of this
Certain areas in the
environment of the hunter may
no longer be accessible to
civilized man: 1 and 6 may be
taken to refer to skills in
collecting certain animals and
plants, or craftsmanship in
chipped stone which may have
been lost between the Upper
Palaeolithic and the Early
Dynastic period, effectively
closing off parts of the potential
environment. This image of the
life-space of man can be
extended into the other
dimensions of the environment,
referring to the whole field of
social activities as well as
activities relating to the natural
component of the environment.
It takes little reflection to see
how many new social and religious relationships, for instance, become possible in a more „advanced‟ society; the
environment is enlarged in several dimensions.
It is now possible to make a statement about civilizations which does not seek to define them in terms of a single principal culture trait, or even polythetically, in terms of, for example, two out of three traits. Nor does it appeal to „form‟ or „culture style‟. We can see the process of the growth of a civilization as the gradual creation by man of a larger and more complex environment, not only in the natural field through increasing exploitation of a wider range of resources of the ecosystem, but also in the social and spiritual fields. And, whereas the savage hunter lives in an environment not so different in many ways from that of other animals, although enlarged already by the use of language and of a whole range of other artifacts in the culture, civilized man lives in an environment very much of his own creation. Civilization, in this sense, is the self-made environment of man, which he has fashioned to insulate himself from the primaeval environment of nature alone. All the artifacts which he uses serve as intermediaries between himself and this natural environment and, in creating civilization, he spins, so to speak, a web of culture so complex and so dense that most of his activities now relate to this artificial environment rather than directly to the fundamentally natural one.
If we consider life in a Minoan palace, for instance, the material dimension of the environment represents a considerable enlargement on that of the Neolithic villager, although in both the man-made environment mediates to some extent between man and nature. In the palace, for instance, there was running water, drainage, toilets even, and provision for light and heat. The decoration and art were the product of skill and the subject of admiration, and this represents a new man-artifact relationship, an enlargement of the environment.
The throne room at Knossos is the symbol of the enlarged social environment of each member of society, where social stratification and craft specialization introduced new relationships between men. The Sumerian religion (which is better understood than the Minoan) substituted an explicit cosmology, rationalizing the world by its objectifications, and allowing man to participate in efficient maintenance of the world order. Such a religion is a projection by man, an artifact, which mediates (or is believed to mediate, which in this context is the same thing) between himself and the observed realities of nature.
Writing itself, man‟s subtlest artifact, not only permits new kinds of communication from man to man (and, hence, new relationships). In a temple or palace economy it allows new man-artifact relations: the store of products (artifacts) and foodstuffs (many of them also in a sense artifacts) can now take place on a more systematic basis. When used for calendrical purposes, writing permits predictive astronomy, and thus again is artifact mediating between man and nature.
A developed art style is also an improved form of communication: like writing it transmits information symbolically. And, as in writing, the symbol does not have to be representationally complete. The colossal statue of an Egyptian Pharaoh with his emblems of kingship is, by virtue of its convention, intelligible to all members of Egyptian civilization as a statement about the social order (as well as the religious order). The symbolism of power and kingship is part of the human environment in all highly ordered societies. The development of these coherent systems which we may term projective or symbolic, – writing, a coherent art style, and a framework of
religious beliefs – is something seen already, to a considerable extent, in all human societies, and in a much more developed form in all civilizations. As Ernst Cassirer has observed, „the functional circle of man is not only
quantitatively enlarged; it has also undergone a qualitative change. Man has, as it were, discovered a new method of adapting himself to his environment. Between the receptor system and the effecter system, which are to be found in all animal species, we find in man a third link which we may describe as the symbolic system. This new
acquisition transforms the whole of human life. As compared with the other animals man lives not merely in a broader reality; he lives, so to speak, in a new dimension of reality‟.
Here then is the created environment of man which, in a civilization, takes on a new complexity. Not only is there a whole new range of material artifacts but these various symbolic artifacts of which Cassirer has written, the artifacts of the projective systems, also find expression in material form. It is now that we see a written language; it is now that we see temples as visual symbols of man‟s religious beliefs, and palaces as a concrete
expression of his social order. Robert Redfield, in his admirable book The primitive World and its Transformations,
likewise stressed the importance of the non-material aspects of culture and described the progress from what he termed „the primary condition of mankind‟ to civilization as a series of „great transformations‟. „The great
transformations of humanity are only in part reported in terms of the revolutions in technology with resulting increase in the number of people living together. There have also occurred changes in the thinking and valuing of men which may also be called “radical and indeed revolutionary innovations”. Like changes in the technical order
these changes in the intellectual and moral habits of men become themselves generative of far-reaching changes in the nature of human living‟.
Civilization can be compared to a space rocket: the men within it are to a large extent encapsulated, insulated from direct contact with nature. The problems of securing food and shelter, although they are present, are now eclipsed by other preoccupations which could not exist outside of this civilization.
Of course not every participant of a civilization is insulated so effectively as the Minoan prince in his palace. The large proportion of agricultural workers have a life in many ways similar to those of a Neolithic community or to a modern „folk‟ society. But the existence of the palace or the city, and the social and religious contacts which these people have with it, make them members of civilization and enlarge their environment just as the environment of all men is enlarged by the first man to set foot upon the moon.
In an attempt to match the concision of Leslie White‟s definition of culture as „man‟s extra-somatic means of
adaptation‟ this position may be summarized: Civilization is the complex artificial environment of man; it is the insulation created by man, an artifact which mediates between himself and the world of nature. Since man‟s
environment is multi-dimensional so too is civilization.
This definition is, of course, not an operational one: defining criteria such as Kluckhohn‟s have to be chosen.
It may thus be entirely satisfactory to say „civilization is a constantly recurring assemblage of artifacts including two out of three of the following: written records, ceremonial centers, cities of at least 5,000 inhabitants‟, but this
is only an operationally effective way of saying „a civilization is a constantly recurring assemblage of artifacts
documenting a human environment effectively insulating the individual from the world of nature‟. It seems logical
to select as criteria the three most powerful insulators, namely ceremonial centers (insulators against the unknown), writing (an insulator against time), and the city (the great container, spatially defined, the insulator against the outside).
This definition expresses what all these various and agreed defining features – writing, cities and so forth –
have in common. It makes clear why these are important criteria, where metal-working, for instance, although not irrelevant, is something of a technological detail. We see, too, how the celebrants in a Maya temple were much more thoroughly encapsulated in an environment of their own construction than the sun-watchers of Stonehenge. Both, of course, were far from the palaeolithic cave-painter who, for a brief moment, created a world of his own before emerging into the harsher reality of day.
A man born into the world is shaped by his environment. We may say that civilization, like language, „far
from being simply a technique of communication, is itself a way of directing the perception of its speakers and it provides for them habitual moulds which analyze experience into significant categories‟. Culture has been
regarded as „patterned behavior‟ but with the behavior patterns which he learns the civilized man or child inherits a ready-made world-view: we are all children of our time. And yet, on the other hand, civilization and this world view are made by man. The situation is like the old parable, „Which came first, the chicken or the egg?‟, which
has a structure analogous to „The child is father of the man‟.
In the case of a civilization the situation is continuous; both man and civilization co-exist and they influence each other mutually. There is „feedback‟. As we shall see in the next chapter, the feedback is positive. As Sapir put it, again speaking of language: „the instrument refines the product, the product refines the instrument‟. That is
what Gordon Childe understood so well when he called his study of the origins of civilization Man makes
——Chosen from Colin Renfrew‟s The Emergence of Civilization (London 1972), Chapter 1