A civilization or civilisation has a variety of meanings related to human society. The term comes from the Latin civis, meaning "citizen" or "townsman."

Missing image
The Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, Mexico. Building projects of this size require the social organization found in civilizations.
The ruins of , "the Lost City of the Incas," has become the most recognizable symbol of the  civilization.
The ruins of Machu Picchu, "the Lost City of the Incas," has become the most recognizable symbol of the Inca civilization.

In the technical sense, a civilization is a complex society in which many of the people live in cities and get their food from agriculture, as distinguished from band and tribal societies in which people live in small settlements or nomadic groups and make their subsistence by foraging, hunting, or working small horticultural gardens. When used in this sense, civilization is an exclusive term, applied to some human groups and not others.

In a broader sense, civilization often can refer to any distinct society, whether complex and city-dwelling, or simple and tribal. This definition is often perceived as less exclusive and ethnocentric than the first. In this sense civilization is nearly synonymous with culture.

"Civilization" can sometimes refer to human society as a whole, as in "A nuclear war would wipe out Civilization" or "I'm glad to be safely back in Civilization after being lost in the wilderness for 3 weeks." Additionally, it is used in this sense to refer to the potential global civilization.

Civilization can also mean the standard of behavior, similar to etiquette. "Civilized" behavior is contrasted with "barbaric" or crude behavior. In this sense, civilization implies sophistication and refinement.


What makes a civilization

In the technical sense, a civilization is a complex society, as distinguished from simpler societies. Everyone lives in a society and a culture, but not everyone lives in a civilization. In general, civilizations share some or all of the following traits:

  • Intensive agricultural techniques, such as the use of human power, crop rotation, and irrigation. This enables farmers to produce a surplus of food that will not be needed for their own subsistence.
  • A significant portion of the population that does not devote most of its time to producing food. They can go into other occupations and trade for the food they need. This is called "specialization of labor". It is possible because of the food surplus described above.
  • The gathering of these non-food producers into permanent settlements, called cities.
  • A social hierarchy. This can be a chiefdom, in which the chieftain of one noble family or clan rules the people; or a state society, in which the ruling class is supported by a government or bureaucracy. Political power is concentrated in the cities.
  • The institutionalized ownership of food by the ruling class, government or bureaucracy
  • The establishment of complex, formal social institutions such as organized religion and education, as opposed to the less formal traditions of other societies.
  • Development of complex forms of economic exchange. This includes the expansion of trade and may lead to the creation of money and markets.
  • The accumulation of more material possessions than in simpler societies.
  • Development of new technologies by people who are not busy producing food. In many early civilizations, metallurgy was an important advancement.
  • Advanced development of the arts by those who don't have to farm for a living. This can include writing.

By this definition, some societies, like Greece, are clearly civilizations, whereas others like the Bushmen clearly are not. However, the distinction is not always clear. In the Pacific Northwest of the US, for example, an abundant supply of fish guaranteed that the people had a surplus of food without any agriculture. The people established permanent settlements, a social hierarchy, material wealth, and advanced artwork (most famously totem poles), all without the development of intensive agriculture. Meanwhile, the Pueblo culture of southwestern North America developed advanced agriculture, irrigation, and permanent, communal settlements such as Taos. However, the Pueblo never developed any of the complex institutions associated with civilizations. Today, many tribal societies live inside states and under their laws. The political structures of civilization have been superimposed on their way of life, so they too occupy a middle ground between tribal and civilized.

Early civilizations

The earliest known civilizations originated in the Nile valley, China's Peiligang culture (discovered in 1977), Fertile Crescent, the Indus Valley (namely Mehrgarh and Harappa) and West Africa, where ancient peoples grouped together to form the first developed societies between the 10th and 4th millennia BC. However ongoing excavations reveal that an ancient civilization may also have originated in Jomon at around the same time or before.


Ongoing excavations reveal Jomon of ancient Japan as having produced the earliest known pottery in the world, dating to the 11th millennium BC. More stable living patterns gave rise by around 10,000 BC to a Mesolithic or Neolithic culture. The Jōmon people also created the earliest ground stone tools known (Imamura). The manufacture of pottery typically implies some form of sedentary life, since pottery is highly breakable and therefore is useless to hunter-gatherers who are constantly on the move. Therefore the Jōmon probably were some of the earliest sedentary or at least semi-sedentary people in the world. They used chipped stone tools, ground stone tools, traps, and bows and were probably semi-sedentary hunters-gatherers, and skillful coastal and deep-water fishermen. They practised a rudimentary form of agriculture and lived in caves and later in groups of either temporary shallow pit dwellings or above-ground houses, leaving rich kitchen middens for modern anthropological study. Because of this, the earliest forms of farming are sometimes attributed to Japan (Ingpen & Wilkinson) in 10000 BC, two thousand years before their widespread appearance in the Middle East. See Jomon.


Anthropological and archaeological evidence both indicate a grain-grinding culture farming along the Nile in the 10th millennium BC using the world's earliest known type of sickle blades. But another culture of hunters, fishers and gathering peoples using stone tools replaced them. Evidence also indicates human habitation in the southwestern corner of Egypt, near the Sudan border, before 8000 BC. Climate changes and/or overgrazing around 8000 BC began to desiccate the pastoral lands of Egypt, eventually forming the Sahara (c.2500 BC), and early tribes naturally migrated to the Nile river where they developed a settled agricultural economy and more centralized society. There is evidence of pastoralism and cultivation of cereals in the East Sahara in the 7th millennium BC.

The Sahara included ancient West Africa, as the Sahara became a desert only since around 3000 BC (see Sahara). By the 6th millennium BC, organized and permanent settlements in regions of Africa were producing artifacts of metal to replace prior ones made of stone. Jewelry and tableware (made of ivory or bone) also appear in this era. By 6000 BC ancient Egyptians in the southwestern corner of Egypt were herding cattle and constructing large buildings. Recent archaeological finds indicate that sedentary farming began to take place in West Africa in the 5th millennium BC, with evidence of domesticated cattle having been found for this period as well as limited cereal crops (see West Africa: Prehistory). In Ancient Egypt, mortar (masonry) was in use by 4000 BC. Ancient Egyptians were producing ceramic faience as early as 3500 BC. Medical institutions are known to have been established in Egypt since as early as circa 3000 BC, spawning our earliest indications of the use of the scientific method. Egyptian pyramids, barge transportation and sea-faring followed only centuries later, and later our earliest mathematical formularizations (see Ancient Egypt: Ancient Achievements).

Around 3000 BC, a major change began to take place in West African society, with microlithic stone tools becoming more common in the Sahel region, including the invention of primitive harpoons and fish-hooks. In the 3rd millennium BC, indigenous West African pastoralists encountered migrating, but developed, hunter-gatherers of the Guinea region.

Fertile Crescent

The earliest settlement in Jericho (9th millennium BC) was a PPNA culture that eventually gave way to more developed settlements later, which included in one early settlement (8th millennium BC) mud-brick houses surrounded by a stone wall, having a stone tower built into the wall. In this time there is evidence of domesticated emmer wheat, barley and pulses and hunting of wild animals. However, there are no indications of attempts to form communities (early civilizations) with surrounding peoples. Nevertheless by the 6th millennium BC we find what appears to be an ancient shrine and cult, which would likely indicate intercommunal religious practices in this era. Findings include a collective burial (with not all the skeletons completely articulated, jaws removed, faces covered with plaster, cowries used for eyes). Other finds from this era include stone and bone tools, clay figurines and shell and malachite beads. Around 1500 to 1200 BC Jericho and other cities of Canaan had become vassals of the Egyptian empire.

Several miles southwest of Ur, Eridu was the southernmost of a conglomeration of early temple-cities, in Sumer, southern Mesopotamia, with the earliest of these settlements carbon dating to around 5000 BC. The Sialk ziggurat of Kashan, Iran, also dates to this era. By the 4th millennium BC, in Nippur we find, in connection with a sort of ziggurat and shrine, a conduit built of bricks, in the form of an arch. Sumerian inscriptions written on clay also appear in Nippur. By 4000 BC an ancient city of Susa, in Mesopotamia, seems to emerge from earlier villages. Sumerian cuneiform script may pre-date any other form of writing and dates to no later than about 3500 BCE. Other villages begin to spring up around this time in the Ancient Near East as well.


Although houses, kilns, pottery, turquoise carvings, stone and bone tools, and bone flutes all appear in ancient Chinese villages in the 8th millennium BC, we have no evidence of these villages forming communities until the 7th to 6th millennia BC. Discovered in 1977, in the Peiligang culture of Henan, China, and characterized by developed agriculture -- including storing and redistributing crops, millet farming and animal husbandry (pigs) -- and specialized craftsmen and administrators, this region constitutes China's earliest known civilization (see History of China: Prehistoric times). This culture is also one of the oldest in ancient China to show evidence of pottery-making. Attributed to a later Chinese culture, in the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), are bronze artifacts and oracle bones, which were turtle shells or cattle scapula on which are written the first recorded Chinese characters and found in the Huang He valley, Yinxu (a capital of the Shang Dynasty).

India & Pakistan

The earliest farming in Mehrgarh, Pakistan, was developed by semi-nomadic people using wheat, barley, sheep, goat and cattle. The settlement was established with simple mud buildings with four internal subdivisions. Numerous burials have been found, many with elaborate goods such as baskets, stone and bone tools, beads, bangles, pendants and occasionally animal sacrifices, with more goods left with burials of males. Ornaments of sea shell, limestone, turquoise, lapis lazuli, sandstone and polished copper have been found, along with simple figurines of women and animals. An ancient Indus Valley Civilization emerges in Mehrgarh, Pakistan, no later than by the 4th millennium BC, where we find much evidence of manufacturing. Technologies included stone and copper drills, updraft kilns, large pit kilns and copper melting crucibles. Button seals included geometric designs.

Traveling routes along the Persian Royal Road (constructed 5th century BC) may have been in use as early as 3500 BC. There is evidence that Ancient Egyptian explorers may have originally cleared and protected some branches of the Silk Road, traveled over land and by sea. Lothal, India, may be the oldest sea-faring harbor known. The origins of medicine and dentistry trace back to the Indus Valley Civilization, as archaeologists studying the remains of two men from Mehrgarh, Pakistan, discovered that these peoples had knowledge of medicine and dentistry as early as circa 3300 BC. The Indus Valley Civilization gains credit for the earliest known use of decimal fractions in a uniform system of ancient weights and measures, as well as negative numbers (see Timeline of mathematics). Ancient Indus Valley artifacts include beautiful, glazed stone fa葉ce beads. The Indus Valley Civilization also boasts the earliest known accounts of urban planning, and the ancient Indus systems of sewage and drainage that were developed and used in cities throughout the Indus Valley were far more advanced than that of contemporary urban sites in the Middle East.

See also

Civilization as a cultural identity

"Civilization" can also describe the culture of a complex society, not just the society itself. Every society, civilization or not, has a specific set of ideas and customs, and a certain set of items and arts, that make it unique. Civilizations have even more intricate cultures, including literature, professional art, architecture, organized religion, and complex customs associated with the elite. Civilization is such in nature, that it seeks to spread, to have more, to expand, and it has the means by which to do this.

Nevertheless some tribes or peoples still remained uncivilized even to this day (2005). These cultures are called primitive. They do not have hierarchical governments, organized religion, writing systems or controlled economy exchange for that matter. That little hierarchy that exists, for example the respect for the elderly, is mutual and not instituted by force, rather by a sort of mutual agreement. Government does not exist, or atleast the civilized version of government which most of us are all familiar with.

The civilized world is spreading by introducing the mentioned concepts to primitive tribes, agriculture, writing system, religion and so forth. The barbarian, primitive or un-civilized people adapt the civilized behaviour. Civlization is also spread by force, if a tribe does not wish to use agriculture or accept a certain religion it is forced to do so by the civilized people, and they usually succed due to their advance killing and subjugation-methods. Civilization uses usually religion to justify its behaviour, for example claiming that the un-civilized are savages, barbarians or the like, which, for their own good, should subjugate to the civilization, or their God(s).

It is difficult for the un-civilized world to mount any such assault on civilization since that would mean complying to civilizations standards and concepts of advance violence (war). They would need to become civilized in order to engage in any sort of war.

Thus, the intricate culture associated with civilization has a tendency to spread to and influence other cultures, sometimes assimilating them into the civilization (a classic example being Indian civilization and its influence on China, Xanadu, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Southeast Asia and so forth). Many civilizations are actually large cultural spheres containing many nations and regions. The civilization in which someone lives is that person's broadest cultural identity. A female of African descent living in the United States has many roles that she identifies with. However, she is above all a member of "Western civilization". In the same way, a male of Kurdish ancestry living in Syria is above all a member of "Islamic civilization".

Many historians have focused on these broad cultural spheres and have treated civilizations as single units. One example is early twentieth-century philosopher Oswald Spengler. He said that a civilization's coherence is based around a single primary cultural symbol. Civilizations experience cycles of birth, life, decline and death, often supplanted by a new civilization with a potent new culture, formed around a compelling new cultural symbol.

This "unified culture" concept of civilization also influenced the theories of historian Arnold J. Toynbee in the mid-twentieth century. Toynbee explored civilizational processes in his multi-volume A Study of History, which traced the rise and, in most cases, the decline of 21 civilizations and five "arrested civilizations". Civilizations generally declined and fell, according to Toynbee, because of moral or religious decline, rather than economic or environmental causes.

Samuel P. Huntington similarly defines a civilization as "the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species." Besides giving a definition of a civilization, Huntington has also proposed several theories about civilizations, discussed below.

Civilizations as complex systems

Another group of theorists, making use of systems theory, look at civilizations as complex systems or networks of cities that emerge from pre-urban cultures, and are defined by the economic, political, military, diplomatic, and cultural interactions between them.

For example, urbanist Jane Jacobs defines cities as the economic engines that work to create large networks of people. The main process that creates these city networks, she says, is "import replacement". Import replacement is when peripheral cities begin to replace goods and services that were formerly imported from more advanced cities. Successful import replacement creates economic growth in these peripheral cities, and allows these cities to then export their goods to less developed cities in their own hinterlands, creating new economic networks. So Jacobs explores economic development across wide networks instead of treating each society as an isolated cultural sphere.

Systems theorists look at many types of relations between cities, including economic relations, cultural exchanges, and political/diplomatic/military relations. These spheres often occur on different scales. For example, trade networks were, until the nineteenth century, much larger than either cultural spheres or political spheres. Extensive trade routes, including the silk road through Central Asia and Indian Ocean sea routes linking the Roman Empire, India, and China, were well established 2000 years ago, when these civilizations scarcely shared any political, diplomatic, military, or cultural relations.

Many theorists argue that the entire world has already become integrated into a single "world system," a process known as globalization. Different civilizations and societies all over the globe are economically, politically, and even culturally interdependent in many ways. There is debate over when this integration began, and what sort of integration - cultural, technological, economic, political, or military-diplomatic - is the key indicator in determining the extent of a civilization. David Wilkinson has proposed that economic and military-diplomatic integration of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations resulted in the creation of what he calls the "Central Civilization" around 1500 BCE. Central Civilization later expanded to include the entire Middle East and Europe, and then expanded to global scale with European colonization, integrating the Americas, Australia, China and Japan by the nineteenth century. According to Wilkinson, civilizations can be culturally heterogeneous, like the Central Civilization, or relatively homogeneous, like the Japanese civilization. What Huntington calls the "clash of civilizations" might be characterized by Wilkinson as a clash of cultural spheres within a single global civilization. Others point to the Crusades as the first step in globalization. The more conventional viewpoint is that networks of societies have expanded and shrunk since ancient times, and that the current globalized economy and culture is a product of recent European colonialism.

The future of civilizations

Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington has argued that the defining characteristic of the 21st century will be a clash of civilizations. According to Huntington, conflicts between civilizations will supplant the conflicts between nation-states and ideologies that characterized the 19th and 20th centuries.

Currently, world civilization is in a stage that has created what may be characterized as an industrial society, superseding the agrarian society that preceded it. Some futurists believe that civilization is undergoing another transformation, and that world society will become an informational society.

The Kardashev scale classifies civilizations based on their level of technological advancement, specifically measured by the amount of energy a civilization is able to harness. The Kardashev scale makes provisions for civilizations far more technologically advanced than any currently known to exist.

See also

Negative views of civilization

Religious ascetics in many times and places have attempted to curb the influence of civilization over their lives in order to concentrate on spiritual matters. Over the years many members of civilizations have shunned them, believing that civilization restricts people from living in their natural state. Monasteries represent an effort by these ascetics to create a life somewhat apart from their mainstream civilizations. In the 19th century, Transcendentalists believed civilization was shallow and materialistic, so they wanted to build a completely agrarian society, free from the oppression of the city.

Karl Marx "believed that the beginning of civilization was the beginning of oppression". As more food was produced and the society's material possessions increased, wealth became concentrated in the hands of the powerful. The communal way of life among tribal people gave way to aristocracy and hierarchy. As hierarchies are able to generate sufficient resources and food surpluses capable of supplying standing armies, civilizations were capable of conquering neighboring cultures that made their livings in different ways. In this manner, civilizations began to spread outward from Eurasia across the world some 10,000 years ago - and are finishing the job today in the remote jungles of the Amazon and New Guinea. In addition, some feminists believe that civilization is the source of men's domination over women. Together, these ideas make up modern conflict theory in the social sciences.

Many environmentalists criticize civilizations for their exploitation of the environment. Through intensive agriculture and urban growth, civilizations tend to destroy natural settings and habitats. This is sometimes referred to as "dominator culture". Proponents of this view believe that traditional societies live in greater harmony with nature than civilizations; people work with nature rather than try to subdue it. The sustainable living movement is a push from some members of civilization to regain that harmony with nature.

Primitivism is a modern philosophy totally opposed to civilization for all of the above reasons: they accuse civilizations of restricting humans, oppressing the weak, and damaging the environment. A leading proponent is John Zerzan. Published Oct 21,2002

Problems with the term "civilization"

As discussed above, "civilization" has a number of meanings, and its use can lead to confusion and misunderstanding.

However, "civilization" can be a highly connotative word. It might bring to mind qualities such as superiority, humaneness, and refinement. Indeed, many members of civilized societies have seen themselves as superior to the "barbarians" outside their civilization.

Many 19th-century anthropologists backed a theory called cultural evolution. They believed that people naturally progress from a simple state to a superior, civilized state. John Wesley Powell, for example, classified all societies as Savage, Barbarian, and Civilized; the first two of his terms would shock most anthropologists today. This worldview was culturally discredited by Joseph Conrad in his major novel set in the Congo Free State, Heart of darkness where the "darkest", most savage and uncivilized behaviour in the Dark continent is initiated by a brilliant and much praised paragon of European civilization, and the attitude faded from presentability at all in face of atrocities during World War II.

Today most social scientists understand that complex societies are not by nature superior, more humane, or more sophisticated than less complex groups. The cultural relativism of Franz Boas helped lead to this belief. When they speak of a civilization, they do not mean a superior or better society, just a complex and urban one.

A minority of scholars reject the relativism of Boas and mainstream social science. English biologist John Baker, in his 1974 book Race, gives about 20 criteria that make civilizations superior to non-civilizations. Baker tries to show a relation between the cultures of civilizations and the biological disposition of their creators.

Many postmodernists, and a considerable proportion of the wider public, argue that the division of societies into 'civilized' and 'uncivilized' is arbitrary and meaningless. On a fundamental level, they say there is no difference between civilizations and tribal societies; each simply does what it can with the resources it has. The concept of "civilization" has merely been the justification for colonialism, imperialism, genocide, and coercive acculturation.

For all of the above reasons, many scholars today avoid using the term "civilization" to refer to a specific kind of people. They prefer to use urban society or intensive agricultural society, which are much less ambiguous, more neutral-sounding terms. "Civilization," however, remains in common academic use, especially when talking about specific societies such as "Maya Civilization."


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