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Midtown New York City. Cities are a hallmark of human civilization.

Civilization ( or civilisation) is a sometimes controversial term which has been used in several related ways. Primarily, the term has been used to refer to human cultures which are complex in terms of technology, science, politics and division of labour. Such civilizations are generally urbanized. In classical contexts civilized peoples were called this in contrast to "barbarian" peoples, while in modern contexts civilized peoples have been contrasted to "primitive" peoples.

In modern academic discussions however, there is a tendency to use the term in a more neutral way to mean approximately the same thing as "culture" and can refer to any human society (for example, "Ancient Greek Civilization") associated with any particular geographical location at a particular time, historical or current. Still, even when used in this second sense, the word is often restricted to apply only to societies that have attained a particular level of advancement, especially the founding of cities, with the word "city" defined in various ways.

The level of advancement of a civilization is often measured by its progress in agriculture, long-distance trade, occupational specialization, and urbanism. Aside from these core elements, civilization is often marked by any combination of a number of secondary elements, including a developed transportation system, writing, standards of measurement (currency, etc.), contract and tort-based legal systems, characteristic art styles (which may pertain to specific cultures), monumental architecture, mathematics, science, sophisticated metallurgy, politics, and astronomy.


The word civilization comes from the Latin civilis, meaning civil, related to the Latin civis, meaning citizen, and civitas, meaning city or city-state.

The ancient city of Ur of Sumer, in present day Tell el-Mukayyar in Iraq is known to be one of the world's earliest Cities

In the sixth century, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian oversaw the consolidation of Roman civil law. The resulting collection is called the Corpus Juris Civilis. In the 11th century, professors at the University of Bologna, Western Europe's first university, rediscovered Corpus Juris Civilis, and its influence began to be felt across Western Europe. In 1388, the word civil appeared in English meaning "of or related to citizens." In 1704, civilization was used to mean "a law which makes a criminal process into a civil case." Civilization was not used in its modern sense to mean "the opposite of barbarism" — as contrasted to civility, meaning politeness or civil virtue — until the second half of the 18th century.

According to Emile Benveniste (1954), the earlist written occurrence in English of civilization in its modern sense may be found in Adam Ferguson's An Essay on the History of Civil Society (Edinburgh, 1767 - p. 2): "Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization."

It should be noted that this usage incorporates the concept of superiority and maturity of "civilized" existence, as contrasted to "rudeness", which is used to denote coarseness, as in a lack of refinement or "civility."

Huntington's map of world civilizations (1996).

Before Benveniste's inquiries, the New English Dictionary quoted James Boswell's conversation with Samuel Johnson concerning the inclusion of Civilization in Johnson's dictionary:

On Monday, March 23 (1772), I found him busy, preparing a fourth edition of his folio Dictionary... He would not admit civilization, but only civility. With great deference to him I thought civilization, from to civilize, better in the sense opposed to barbarity than civility, as it is better to have a distinct word for each sense, than one word with two senses, which civility is, in his way of using it.

Benveniste demonstrated that previous occurrences could be found, which explained the quick adoption of Johnson's definition. In 1775 the dictionary of Ast defined civilization as "the state of being civilized; the act of civilizing", and the term was frequently used by Adam Smith in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Beside Smith and Ferguson, John Millar also used it in 1771 in his Observations concerning the distinction of ranks in society.

The history of the word in English appears to be connected with the parallel development in French, which may be the original source. As the first occurrence of civilization in French was found by Benveniste in the Marquis de Mirabeau's L'Ami des hommes ou traité de la population (written in 1756 but published in 1757), Benveniste's query was to know if the English word derived from the French, or if both evolved independently — a question which needed more research. According to him, the word civilization may in fact have been used by Ferguson as soon as 1759.

Furthermore, Benveniste notes that, contrasted to civility, a static term, civilization conveys a sense of dynamism. He thus writes that:

It was not only a historical view of society; it was also an optimist and resolutely non theological interpretation of its evolution which asserted itself, sometimes at the insu of those who proclaimed it, and even if some of them, and first of all Mirabeau, still counted religion as the first factor of 'civilization.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, both during the French revolution, and in English, "civilization" was referred to in the singular, never the plural, because it referred to the progress of mankind as a whole. This is still the case in French. However more recently "civilizations" is often used as a synonym for the broader term "cultures" in both popular and academic circles. This is understandable, because each distinct civilization tends to have a distinct culture, and generally anyone who is a part of a civilization is also a part of that civilization's culture. However, the words are not always interchangeable. For example, a small nomadic tribe may be judged not to have a civilization, but it would surely be judged to have a culture (defined as "the arts, customs, habits... beliefs, values, behaviour and material habits that constitute a people's way of life").

Civilization is not always seen as an improvement. One historically important distinction between culture and civilization stems from the writings of Rousseau, and particularly his work concerning education, Emile. In this perspective, civilization, being more rational and socially driven, is not fully in accordance with human nature, and "human wholeness is achievable only through the recovery of or approximation to an original prediscursive or prerational natural unity". (See noble savage.) From this notion was developed especially in Germany, first by Johann Gottfried Herder, and later by philosophers such as Nietzsche. This sees cultures (plural) as natural organisms which are not defined by "conscious, rational, deliberative acts" but rather a kind of pre-rational "folk spirit". Civilization, in contrast, though more rational and more successful concerning material progress, is seen as un-natural, and leads to "vices of social life" such as guile, hypocrisy, envy, and avarice. During World War II, Leo Strauss, having fled Germany, argued in New York that this approach to civilization was behind Nazism and German militarism and nihilism.

In his book The Philosophy of Civilization, Albert Schweitzer outlined the idea that there are dual opinions within society: one regarding civilization as purely material and another regarding civilization as both ethical and material. He stated that the current world crisis was, then in 1923, due to a humanity having lost the ethical conception of civilization. In this same work, he defined civilization, saying that it "is the sum total of all progress made by man in every sphere of action and from every point of view in so far as the progress helps towards the spiritual perfecting of individuals as the progress of all progress."


26th century BC Sumerian cuneiform script in Sumerian language, listing gifts to the high priestess of Adab on the occasion of her election. One of the earliest examples of human writing.

Social scientists such as V. Gordon Childe have named a number of traits that distinguish a civilization from other kinds of society. Civilizations have been distinguished by their means of subsistence, types of livelihood, settlement patterns, forms of government, social stratification, economic systems, literacy, and other cultural traits.

All human civilizations have depended on agriculture for subsistence. Growing food on farms results in a surplus of food, particularly when people use intensive agricultural techniques such as irrigation and crop rotation. Grain surpluses have been especially important because they can be stored for a long time. A surplus of food permits some people to do things besides produce food for a living: early civilizations included artisans, priests and priestesses, and other people with specialized careers. A surplus of food results in a division of labour and a more diverse range of human activity, a defining trait of civilizations.

Civilizations have distinctly different settlement patterns from other societies. The word civilization is sometimes simply defined as "'living in cities'". Non-farmers tend to gather in cities to work and to trade.

Compared with other societies, civilizations have a more complex political structure, namely the state. State societies are more stratified than other societies; there is a greater difference among the social classes. The ruling class, normally concentrated in the cities, has control over much of the surplus and exercises its will through the actions of a government or bureaucracy. Morton Fried, a conflict theorist, and Elman Service, an integration theorist, have classified human cultures based on political systems and social inequality. This system of classification contains four categories:

  • Hunter-gatherer bands, which are generally egalitarian.
  • Horticultural/ pastoral societies in which there are generally two inherited social classes; chief and commoner.
  • Highly stratified structures, or chiefdoms, with several inherited social classes: king, noble, freemen, serf and slave.
  • Civilizations, with complex social hierarchies and organized, institutional governments.

Economically, civilizations display more complex patterns of ownership and exchange than less organized societies. Living in one place allows people to accumulate more personal possessions than nomadic people. Some people also acquire landed property, or private ownership of the land. Because a percentage of people in civilizations do not grow their own food, they must trade their goods and services for food in a market system, or receive food through the levy of tribute, redistributive taxation, tariffs or tithes from the food producing segment of the population. Early civilizations developed money as a medium of exchange for these increasingly complex transactions. To oversimplify, in a village the potter makes a pot for the brewer and the brewer compensates the potter by giving him a certain amount of beer. In a city, the potter may need a new roof, the roofer may need new shoes, the cobbler may need new horseshoes, the blacksmith may need a new coat, and the tanner may need a new pot. These people may not be personally acquainted with one another and their needs may not occur all at the same time. A monetary system is a way of organizing these obligations to ensure that they are fulfilled fairly.

Writing, developed first by people in Sumer, is considered a hallmark of civilization and "appears to accompany the rise of complex administrative bureaucracies or the conquest state." Traders and bureaucrats relied on writing to keep accurate records. Like money, writing was necessitated by the size of the population of a city and the complexity of its commerce among people who are not all personally acquainted with each other.

Aided by their division of labor and central government planning, civilizations have developed many other diverse cultural traits. These include organized religion, development in the arts, and countless new advances in science and technology.

Through history, successful civilizations have spread, taking over more and more territory, and assimilating more and more previously-uncivilized people. Nevertheless, some tribes or people remain uncivilized even to this day. These cultures are called by some " primitive," a term that is regarded by others as pejorative. "Primitive" implies in some way that a culture is "first" (Latin = primus), that it has not changed since the dawn of mankind, though this has been demonstrated not to be true. Specifically, as all of today's cultures are contemporaries, today's so-called primitive cultures are in no way antecedent to those we consider civilized. Many anthropologists use the term " non-literate" to describe these peoples. In the USA and Canada, where many people of such cultures were displaced by European settlers, the term " First Nations" is used. Generally, the First Nations of North America had hierarchical governments, religion, a barter system, and oral transmission of their traditions, cultures, laws, etc. Respect for the wisdom of elders and for their natural environment (7th Generation decision-making) sustained these cultures for over 10,000 years.

Civilization has been spread by invasion, genocide, religious conversion, the extension of bureaucratic control and trade, and by introducing agriculture and writing to non-literate peoples. Some non-civilized people may willingly adapt to civilized behaviour. But civilization is also spread by force. If a non-civilized group does not wish to use agriculture or to accept a "civilized" religion, it is often forced to do so by the civilized people, who usually succeed due to their more advanced technology and greater numbers. Civilizations often use religion to justify their actions, claiming for example that the uncivilized are "primitive," savages, barbarians or the like, who should be "elevated" by "a civilized religion."

Cultural identity

"Civilization" can also refer to 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 manufactures and arts that make it unique. Civilizations tend to develop intricate cultures, including literature, professional art, architecture, organized religion, and complex customs associated with the elite.

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 Chinese civilization and its influence on Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and other nearby countries). 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.

Many historians have focused on these broad cultural spheres and have treated civilizations as discrete units. One example is early twentieth-century philosopher Oswald Spengler, even though he uses the German word "Kultur," "culture," for what we here call a "civilization." He said that a civilization's coherence is based on 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 civilization 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 the failure of a "creative minority", through moral or religious decline, to meet some important challenge, rather than mere 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.

Complex systems

Another group of theorists, making use of systems theory, looks at a civilization as a complex system, i.e., a framework by which a group of objects can be analyzed that work in concert to produce some result. Civilizations can be seen as networks of cities that emerge from pre-urban cultures, and are defined by the economic, political, military, diplomatic, social, and cultural interactions among them. Any organization is a complex social system, and a civilization is a large organization. Systems theory helps guard against superficial but misleading analogies in the study and description of civilizations.

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, Persian Empire, India, and China, were well established 2000 years ago, when these civilizations scarcely shared any political, diplomatic, military, or cultural relations. The first evidence of such long distance trade is in the ancient world. During the Uruk phase Guillermo Algaze has argued that trade relations connected Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran and Afghanistan. Resin found later in the Royal Tombs of Ur it is suggested was traded northwards from Mozambique.

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 BC. Central Civilization later expanded to include the entire Middle East and Europe , and then expanded to a 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 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.


Active regional blocs, which enhance nations' cooperation and form modern civilizations

Political scientist Samuel 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. These views have been strongly challenged by others like Edward Said and Muhammed Asadi. Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris have argued that the "true clash of civilizations" between the Muslim world and the West is caused by the Muslim rejection of the West's more liberal sexual values, rather than a difference in political ideology.

Some environmental scientists see the world entering a Planetary Phase of Civilization, characterized by a shift away from independent, disconnected nation-states to a world of increased global connectivity with worldwide institutions, environmental challenges, economic systems, and consciousness. In an attempt to better understand what a Planetary Phase of Civilization might look like in the current context of declining natural resources and increasing consumption, the Global scenario group used scenario analysis to arrive at three archetypal futures: Barbarization, in which increasing conflicts result in either a fortress world or complete societal breakdown; Conventional Worlds, in which market forces or Policy reform slowly precipitate more sustainable practices; and a Great Transition, in which either the sum of fragmented Eco-Communalism movements add up to a sustainable world or globally coordinated efforts and initiatives result in a new sustainability paradigm.

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: Civilizations and the Future, Space civilization).

Fall of civilizations

There have been many explanations put forward for the collapse of civilization.

Edward Gibbon's work " The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" began an interest in the Fall of Civilizations, that had begun with the historical divisions of Petrarch between the Classical period of Ancient Greece and Rome, the succeeding Medieval Ages, and the Renaissance. For Gibbon:-

"The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long."[Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 2nd ed., vol. 4, ed. by J. B. Bury (London, 1909), pp. 173–174.-Chapter XXXVIII: Reign Of Clovis.--Part VI. General Observations On The Fall Of The Roman Empire In The West.] Gibbon suggested the final act of the collapse of Rome was the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD.

  • Theodor Mommsen in his " History of Rome (Mommsen)", suggested Rome collapsed with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD and he also tended towards a biological analogy of "genesis," "growth," "senescence," "collapse" and "decay."
  • Oswald Spengler, in his " Decline of the West" rejected Petrarch's chronological division, and suggested that there had been only eight "mature civilizations." Growing cultures, he argued, tend to develop into imperialistic civilizations which expand and ultimately collapse, with democratic forms of government ushering in plutocracy and ultimately imperialism.
  • Arnold J. Toynbee in his " A Study of History" suggested that there had been a much larger number of civilizations, including a small number of arrested civilizations, and that all civilizations tended to go through the cycle identified by Mommsen. The cause of the fall of a civilization occurred when a cultural elite became a parasitic elite, leading to the rise of internal and external proletariats.
  • Joseph Tainter in " The Collapse of Complex Societies" suggested that there were diminishing returns to complexity, due to which, as states achieved a maximum permissible complexity, they would decline when further increases actually produced a negative return. Tainter suggested that Rome achieved this figure in the 2nd Century AD.
  • Jared Diamond in his 2005 book " Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" suggests five major reasons for the collapse of 41 studied cultures: environmental damage, such as deforestation and soil erosion; climate change; dependence upon long-distance trade for needed resources; increasing levels of internal and external violence, such as war or invasion; and societal responses to internal and environmental problems.
  • Peter Turchin in his Historical Dynamics and Andrey Korotayev et al. in their Introduction to Social Macrodynamics, Secular Cycles, and Millennial Trends suggest a number of mathematical models describing collapse of agrarian civilizations. For example, the basic logic of Turchin's "fiscal-demographic" model can be outlined as follows: during the initial phase of a sociodemographic cycle we observe relatively high levels of per capita production and consumption, which leads not only to relatively high population growth rates, but also to relatively high rates of surplus production. As a result, during this phase the population can afford to pay taxes without great problems, the taxes are quite easily collectible, and the population growth is accompanied by the growth of state revenues. During the intermediate phase, the increasing overpopulation leads to the decrease of per capita production and consumption levels, it becomes more and more difficult to collect taxes, and state revenues stop growing, whereas the state expenditures grow due to the growth of the population controlled by the state. As a result, during this phase the state starts experiencing considerable fiscal problems. During the final pre-collapse phases the overpopulation leads to further decrease of per capita production, the surplus production further decreases, state revenues shrink, but the state needs more and more resources to control the growing (though with lower and lower rates) population. Eventually this leads to famines, epidemics, state breakdown, and demographic and civilization collapse (Peter Turchin. Historical Dynamics. Princeton University Press, 2003:121–127).
  • Peter Heather argues in his book The Fall of the Roman Empire: a New History of Rome and the Barbarians that this civilization did not end for moral or economic reasons, but because centuries of contact with barbarians across the frontier generated its own nemesis by making them a much more sophisticated and dangerous adversary. The fact that Rome needed to generate ever greater revenues to equip and re-equip armies that were for the first time repeatedly defeated in the field, led to the dismemberment of the Empire. Although this argument is specific to Rome, it can also be applied to the Asiatic Empire of the Egyptians, to the Han and Tang dynasties of China, to the Muslim Abbasid Caliphate, and others.
  • Bryan Ward-Perkins, in his book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, shows the real horrors associated with the collapse of a civilization for the people who suffer its effects, unlike many revisionist historians who downplay this. The collapse of complex society meant that even basic plumbing disappeared from the continent for 1,000 years. Similar Dark Age collapses are seen with the Late Bronze Age collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean, the collapse of the Maya, on Easter Island and elsewhere.
  • Arthur Demarest argues in Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization, using a holistic perspective to the most recent evidence from archaeology, paleoecology, and epigraphy, that no one explanation is sufficient but that a series of erratic, complex events, including loss of soil fertility, drought and rising levels of internal and external violence led to the disintegration of the courts of Mayan kingdoms which began a spiral of decline and decay. He argues that the collapse of the Maya has lessons for civilization today.
  • Jeffrey A. McNeely has recently suggested that "A review of historical evidence shows that past civilizations have tended to over-exploit their forests, and that such abuse of important resources has been a significant factor in the decline of the over-exploiting society."
  • Thomas Homer-Dixon in " The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization", considers that the fall in the energy return on investments; the energy expended to energy yield ratio, is central to limiting the survival of civilizations. The degree of social complexity is associated strongly, he suggests, with the amount of disposable energy environmental, economic and technological systems allow. When this amount decreases civilizations either have to access new energy sources or they will collapse....


Early first millennium BC and before

Old world

Map of the Fertile Crescent.


Caral of the Norte Chico, the oldest known civilization in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Norte Chico, Caral, or Caral- Supe Civilization
  • Olmec
  • Zapotec civilization

Axial Age

Karl Jaspers, the German historical philosopher, proposed that the ancient civilizations were affected greatly by an Axial Age in the period between 800 BC-200 BC during which a series of male sages, prophets, religious reformers and philosophers, from China, India, Iran, Israel and Greece, changed the direction of civilizations forever. Julian Jaynes proposed that this was associated with the "collapse of the bicameral mind", during which subconscious ideas were recognized as simply subjective, rather than being voices of spirits. William H. McNeill proposed that this period of history was one in which culture contact between previously separate civilizations saw the "closure of the oecumene", and led to accelerated social change from China to the Mediterranean, associated with the spread of coinage, larger empires and new religions. This view has recently been championed by Christopher Chase-Dunn and other world systems theorists.

Axial and Post-Axial civilizations

  • African civilizations
  • Kemet
  • Axum
  • Ghana Empire
  • Mali Empire
  • Songhai Empire
  • Great Zimbabwe
  • Kanem Empire
  • Bornu Empire
  • Kingdom of Kongo
  • Mediterranean civilizations of the Classical Period
  • Greek Civilizations
  • Middle Eastern civilizations
  • Mehrgarh Culture
  • Mauryan and Post-Mauryan Indian Civilization
  • Gupta Empire in North India
  • Chola Empire in South India
  • Shatavahana Empire in South Central India
  • Chalukya Empire in South West India
  • Civilizations of ancient Ceylon
  • East Asian civilizations
  • Chinese Civilization
  • Korean Civilization
  • Vietnamese Civilization
  • Japanese Civilization
  • South East Asian civilizations
  • Funan and Chen-la
  • Angkor Cambodia
  • Srivijaya, Singhasari and Majapahit Civilizations
  • Burmese, Thai and Lao
  • Central Asian civilization
  • Tibetan Civilization
  • Turkic and Mongol Civilizations
  • European civilizations
  • Meso-American civilizations

Since the voyages of discovery by European explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries, European forms of government, industry, commerce, and culture have spread from Western Europe to the Americas, South Africa, Australia, and through colonial empires to much of the rest of the planet. Today it would appear that we are all parts of a planetary industrializing world civilization, comprising many nations and languages, save for a few uncontacted people.

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