Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Emergence of Civilization
Part I 

Great Bath at Mohenjodaro
Indus Civilization c. 2300 B.C.E.

The emergence of Civilization is without a doubt one of the great mysteries of human history. We know far too little about the process by which civilization emerged and then spread. However let us first go through a few definitions.

Civilization – Sadly this is a very loaded word that carries with it a great deal of baggage. For example we talk about “civilized” standards of conduct and associate “civilization” with proper behavior, decorum, a good aesthetic sense etc. In other words “civilization” is associated with the good, the proper and the ethical. This is to put it mildly NOT what is meant by the term civilization when applied to human culture.

To put it in its most basic form “civilization” means from a historical and archaeological point of view a type of human social organization, characterized by a collections of attributes. It has NO moral content whatsoever.1

In fact “civilization” is basically a material attribute of a certain type of human society; morals have nothing to do with it.

In order to be called a “civilization” a society must have some if not all of the following characteristics.

1. Farming, agriculture as the primary means of sustaining the population.

2. A large settled population, some of them in urban conglomerates i.e., cities.

3. Different, largely statuses, or classes in society.

4. A hierarchy of command and control.

5. Monumental building projects of some kind.

6. A unit of land etc., under the control of a centralized, hierarchical organization, (a bureaucracy), also called the state.

7. Record keeping, generally in the form of a writing system.

8. Some sort of state religion as a binding agent among the peoples unified in the state.

9. A standing force of some kind to enforce obedience to the state. – Army, police force.

10. An organized, hierarchical, centralized religious priesthood to run the state religion.2 

Tomb of Pharaoh Den
Egypt c. 2900 B.C.E.

It would be very easy to multiply the attributes of a “civilization”, suffice to say that a civilization must have some of the above.

Of course some of them are essential. It appears that 2 to 7 are in fact absolutely essential to defining a society as a “civilization” in so far as all the civilizations ever known have had those characteristics.3

Now why is farming not listed as an essential characteristic of “civilization”, actually because we have one example, so far, of a “civilization” not based on agriculture. It is the truly remarkable Peruvian Coastal civilization that emerged by 2000 B.C.E. Instead of basing its subsistence strategies on agriculture, it based its subsistence on the harvesting of abundant maritime resources. Although it did practice agriculture, such as cultivating cotton.4

Iraq c. 3000 B.C.E.

Another example is the quite extraordinary North West Coast Indian Societies such as the Haida, Bella Colla etc., Indian nations, who traditionally lived in permanent villages and lived off the abundant maritime and forest resources, without having to practice agriculture. Of course they were not a “civilization”, but they showed a degree of complexity in their social arrangements which is quite startling for a people without agriculture.5

Regarding no. 7, the reason I say record keeping is because it is possible that the Incas of Peru did not have a true writing system and it appears that the Aztec system of writing was not used as a complete writing system either. However both societies had record keeping. The Aztecs had a codified system for keeping track of tribute etc., in folded books. The Inca used knotted strings called khipu. To help the bureaucrats of the state keep track of items.6

The other reason is because the earliest versions of writing in the Old World seemed to have mainly used it to keep records and the scripts initial ability to reproduce spoken language was minimal, because that purpose was not the purpose the script was devised for. So the earliest versions of the various scripts worldwide were quite deficient at reproducing spoken language although excellent for keeping records.7

In the Old World perhaps one of the best examples of a script that was used for record keeping and little else and seemed to stay there is Linear A and B. Whereas Cuneiform and Egyptian Hieroglyphs changed overtime so that they could eventually reproduce language fairly effectively, Linear A and B remained at the level of an accounting script.

It appears that writing a poem or reproducing prose in Linear A and B would have been very difficult for any but the shortest samples of same. The result was a script caught permanently at the script for the accountant’s stage.8

Pyramid at Caral
Peru c. 2300 B.C.E.

The state is however much harder to define than record keeping. Generally the state has a monopoly of coercive authority and the ability to enforce obedience through coercion. Including such things as the collection of taxes and obedience to its laws.

Perhaps to make the whole thing simpler perhaps it should be contrasted with a complex non civilized society. The Indians of the Pacific North West lived in settled communities and had a rich cultural life based on abundant natural resources. The Chiefs who ruled the society could be very wealthy indeed. However here is the catch a chiefs authority depended on a network of obligations and consent. The Chiefs actually could not force anyone to obey them. And consent could be withdrawn at any time. Practices like the Potlatch, whereupon a chief gave away masses of goods cemented reciprocal obligations that augmented a Chief’s status and cemented his authority. However maintaining that status was a never ending struggle and no Chief could rest secure. For example there was no system of taxation or tribute collection, things were personalized by means of personal obligation and as I said consent could be withdrawn at any time. A Chief’s authority was charismatic based not on position but on the ability to get willing consent, persuasion, based on the distribution of goods and on personal magnetism. Of course there were features of the social system that showed the development was towards a state. One important feature was the existence of slavery.9

Something similar is operating in the case of the society depicted in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey which seems to describe a society on the edge of becoming a state. Here the Kings seem to have no ability to enforce their will except through persuasion. Where warriors can withdraw their consent at any time. The Kings rely on their own personal resources and apparently do not have access to tribute or taxation as resources. Their authority is strongly based on charismatic authority and the ability to persuade. For example when Odysseus comes back to Ithaca he as to rely on his own personal resources and personal friends in order to regain control of his home and his status as king.10

In other words the state has the ability to coerce obedience against the will of its subjects. Further the state co-ops or creates means by which obedience is enforced. Everything from tax – collectors, police, bureaucrats can all exercise coercive authority.

Part of the way the state creates the means of enforcing obedience is the creation / co-option of religion. The Ruler and / or the state is assimilated to religion thus validating obedience to the state with obedience to the deities or deity. Thus we get the idea of the Inca Emperor as a God descendant from the Sun. The Egyptian Pharaoh is similar. The Chinese Emperors ruling under the mandate of heaven and so forth.11

Shang King's Tomb
China c. 1400 B.C.E.

Of course what is also evident is that the emergence of the state is not a particularly pleasant process. It seems to go through a period of sanctified violence. Like the human sacrifices associated with the Shang kings, the early Egyptian Pharaohs and the human sacrifices associated with the royal graves of Ur.12

In fact civilization in many respects sucks as a way of life in its early stages. It generally is not healthier, safer than the life of man before it.13

Civilization is also characterized by in the early phase by the building of great monuments. We have for example the huge pyramids of the 3rd and fourth dynasty of Egypt which were developments of the great mastaba tombs of the first two dynasties.14 The Shang tombs were also great projects. We also have the ziggurats of Mesopotamia. And of course the monumental construction of various types of temples all over the world. For example the huge pyramids of the Americas.

Such constructions are often characterized by their sheer uselessness. Exactly what purpose did they serve except to satisfy the vanity of the rulers of the state.

Perhaps that is the key. The simple fact that a ruler could command the resources to build such monuments to him / herself certainly advertised his / her power but it also served the purpose of helping to cement these societies together by the use of great collective projects. That in the end may have been their most important function.15

At another time I will go into other aspects of the origins of civilization.

Pyramid at La Venta Mexico
Olmec Civilization c. 900 B.C.E.

1. Daniel, Glyn, The First Civilizations, Penguin Books, London, 1968, pp. 19-43, Trigger, Bruce G, Understanding Early Civilizations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, pp. 40-52.

2. IBID.

3. See Glyn & Trigger, and Harris, Marvin, Cannibals and Kings, Vintage Books, New York, 1977, pp. 101-146.

4. Moseley, Michael E, The Maritime Origins of Andean Civilization: An Evolving Hypothesis, 2004, at In the Hall of Maat Here.

5. Farb, Peter, Man’s Rise to Civilization, Second Revised Edition, Bantam Books, New York, 1978, pp. 140-162, Driver, Harold E, Indians of North America, University of Chicago Press, Chicago IL, 1961, pp. 26-27.

6. See Urton, Gary, Signs of The Inca Khipu, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2003, pp. 1-36, Townsend, Richard F, The Aztecs, Third Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2009, pp. 206-212.

7. Doblhofer, Ernst, Voices in Stone, Paladin, London, 1973, Roux, Georges, Ancient Iraq, Third Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1992, pp. 72-76.

8. Doblhofer, pp. 238-270, Robinson, Andrew, Lost Languages, BCA, Toronto, 2002, pp. 74-103.

9. Farb, pp. 140-162, Driver, pp. 331-334, 386-391, Harris, Marvin, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, Vintage Books, New York, 1974, pp. 94-113.

10. See Finley, M.I, The World of Odysseus, Second Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1978.

11. Rice, Michael, Egypt’s Making, Routledge, London, 1990, pp. 82-145, Roux, pp. 133-138, Chang, Kwang-Chih, Shang Civilization, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 1980, pp. 166-167, 183-189, Morris, Craig, and von Hagen, Adriana, The Incas, Thames and Hudson, 2011, pp. 25-28, Trigger, pp. 79-91. Baines, John, & Yoffee, Norman, Legitimacy and Wealth in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, in Fienman, Gary M, & Marcus, Joyce, Archaic States, SAR Press, Santa Fe NM, 1998, pp. 199-260. For more about the origins of the state see Yoffee, Norman, Myths of the Archaic State, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.

12. Chang, pp. 114-117, 121-124, 331-332, Hoffman, Egypt Before the Pharaohs, University of Texas Press, Austin TX, 1991, pp. 272-279, Roux pp. 136-138.

13. Harris, 1978, pp. 11-28.

14. Hoffman, pp. 267-347, Rice, pp. 169-187.

15. For an intriguing example of this type of argument see Mendelssohn, Kurt, The Riddle of the Pyramids, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1986.

Pierre Cloutier

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