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Ancient Civilizations

The Foundations of Civilization

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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Civilization is a human act, an act of human creativity. The word "civilization" ultimately comes from the Latin word civitas, i.e. the community which gave the townsman the refinement that was lacking in his barbarous contemporaries.

The idea of city is therefore somehow attached to the term although there were some ancient civilizations like Egypt which did not have cities in the accepted sense.

Another criterion which archaeologists and historians favour is the ability to write although it's not clear whether or not the ancient Meso-American civilization had this ability.

Perhaps one should place the emphasis neither on technology nor literacy but rather on social and political organization. After all, the earliest civilizations arose where food production had first taken place, and advanced social and political organizations were the only means by which those cultures could cope with the problems raised by rapidly growing populations.

Strangely enough, another hallmark of civilization is warfare, which is a luxury which few tribal people can afford. Fighting conducted by primitive peoples is usually of a limited nature, often ceremonial and sometimes carried out mainly for prestige.

Most of the adult males participate in it. Civilizations, on the other hand, breed warriors with definite codes of ferociousness and chivalry.

Another approach is to question how much a society has worked out a solution to the problem of living in a relatively large permanent community, at a level of technological and social development above that of the hunting group, the family agricultural unit, the rural self-sufficient village or the pastoral tribe.

Civilization is something artificial, the result of making tools of increasing complexity in response to the enlarging concepts of community life evolving in people's minds.

The great civilizations never evolved in a void. Their tremendous cultural and material achievements were due, not to the emergence of superior human beings, but rather to the methodical application and development of skills and technologies inherited from those who preceded them.

The historian Brinton supplies a list of ten points which characterize a civilization, of which several but not necessarily all should exist. These include:

  • Some form of government;
  • Some development of urban society and no longer nomadic;
  • Some form of literacy;
  • The development of tool-making through the use of metals (technology);
  • Some degree of specialization of function;
  • The emergence of social classes, antagonistic or mutually sustaining;
  • A concept of leisure time;
  • The concept of a higher being to explain events and find purpose (religion and science);
  • A concept of a link with the past and the future (history);
  • The development of the faculty of criticism.
  • (C Brinton, A History of Civilization, Vol. I, Englewood Cliffs, 1984)

Nevertheless Brinton really cheats. What he in fact does is to present a number of hallmarks of civilization and then to say "take your pick". He attempts no real definition and gives no clue as to how many of the characteristics must exist in order to constitute a civilization.

Brinton is of course deeply aware that any attempt to define "civilization" would plunge one into controversy and he attempts to avoid that by not offering any definition at all but leaving it to some form of lucky dip.


The last Ice Age reached its coldest from about 65 000 BC through to 16 000 BC. Then it began a sudden melt-down. As the ice receded, fertile plains were left in the area of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Nomadic hunting tribes began to move out onto these plains and slowly, over several thousand years, formed agricultural communities, thus spearheading the Agricultural Revolution.

By about 4 000 BC, small urban communities began to form, quickly turning into city states like Ur, Babylon, etc. People were therefore able to turn away from agriculture so as to pursue trading, sculpturing, building, carpentry, etc. Writing was invented to enable a more widespread form of communication.

With the increased leisure time that was now available, elite groups were able to devote themselves to speculation. In this way, writing turned into poetry, while worship of gods turned into religious speculation and theology. Shamans became High Priests who ruled many of the city states.

In this way, between about 4000 to 2000 BC the first civilizations came into being, like Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. As the desert began to strangle these areas, civilization would move northwards to Greece and later Rome.


There are some major problems with this interpretation. In the first place, it does not explain how it was that a civilization that was still very much in its infancy could produce such mammoth sculptural feats as the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

Even today scientists are at a loss as to how an apparently primitive people could invent a technology that is still not available in the present day.

Furthermore, there are maps apparently housed in the US Library of Congress which were copied in the 15th century from far older maps. These depict an accurate outline of the continent of Antarctica as it would appear without its ice cap.

These maps are intriguing. In the first place, Antarctica was only discovered in the 19th century. Then again, sonar scans revealed for the first time only in the 1960s what the continent would look like without its ice cap.

Who sketched these original maps? After all, the last time that Antarctica was without ice was at least 20 000 years ago. Was there therefore an ancient civilization which was already seafaring as long ago as that?

Were they dislocated by the great flood which accompanied the melt-down of the Ice Age? Was it perhaps their knowledge and expertise which enabled the building of the sphinx and the pyramids?

If so, then orthodox historical interpretation must be stood on its head because there is an indication that civilization existed already before the last Ice Age! Which would, in turn, suggest that there is a strong element of truth in some of the early stories of Genesis, such as Noah and his Ark, and the civilization that preceded the Flood.

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