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The Rise of Civilizations

Many people have the impression that either China or Egypt was the first center of "civilization." Both of these areas have the image of being very, very ancient and of having "discovered things first." In truth, however, neither China and Egypt were the first to discover most aspects of civilization. Egypt in particular, to say nothing of Western Europe which is so dominant in modern times, was largely a derivative civilization dependent on the influence of the region that really did discover things first. This distinction actually belongs to the area known as the Fertile Crescent, mainly in modern Iraq, but, more broadly, spanning from Iran, through Iraq into what is now Turkey, Syria and Israel/Palestine. Almost all aspects of civilization developed here before it developed anywhere else.

What do we generally mean when we talk about "civilization" in its earliest form? I think this term, as well as being unfortunately loaded, is also very vague. However, I think it is an important concept because it is comprised of a package of developments that were very significant for the evolution of human societies and which often developed together. This package, to my mind, includes the development of agriculture and pastoralism (the Neolithic Revolution; i.e. domestication of plants and animals), specialization of labor (the development of craftsmen, warriors and leaders), pottery (which allows efficient storage of surplus food and, in many ways, is a precursor to metallurgy), urbanization (the development of towns and cities), and writing. I present these in roughly the chronological order in which they are likely to have developed in any given society since, to some degree, one develops from the former ones. Where, when and how did each of these develop?

The Neolithic revolution first occurred in Mesopotamia, the core of the Fertile Crescent, around 8500 B.C. and may even have started there as far back as 10000 B.C. I discuss this further in my article on the Neolithic Revolution and it is brilliantly described in the book Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond. China reached a Neolithic level of technology about 1000 years after Mesopotamia reached it, though there is some debate about this. Some would argue for an almost contemporaneous development of agriculture in both China and the Fertile Crescent, but the evidence for early development of agriculture in China is weak. So here, at the very beginning of what I am defining as "civilization" China probably comes in second to or, at best, tied with Mesopotamia. However, China is solidly the second, and probably developed agriculture independently of Mesopotamia. Following China is the Indus Valley (Pakistan and part of India) which almost certainly acquired Neolithic technology from Mesopotamia around 7000 B.C. Interestingly, at about the same time, forms of agriculture developed, probably independently, in parts of New Guinea. Why New Guinea did not develop further along the line of "civilization" is discussed in Guns, Germs and Steel. Briefly it has to do mainly with the size and isolation of New Guinea as compared with all of Eurasia as well as the lack of very good available crops and animals for domestication. New Guinea may have developed this earliest aspect of civilization, but it did not have the immediate resources to go much further. Egypt and Greece only acquired Neolithic technology, again from Mesopotamia, around 6000 B.C., more than 2500 years after Mesopotamia. Egypt and Greece were, at this early date, comparative backwaters.

Agriculture led directly to the availability of food surpluses. When a person working in the fields can produce more food than he can eat himself, then this allows the society as a whole to support individuals who are not food producers. This would include craftsmen, warriors and leaders. This is not to say that craftsmen, warriors and leaders are absent from hunting-gathering societies, simply that an agricultural society is far better able to develop specialization of labor to a more elaborate degree. The advantages of specialization of labor are better defense, better technology, more goods for trade, the ability to support traders, and better social coordination and cohesion due to specialized leadership. I am not sure where specialization is thought to have developed first to any great extent, so I do not presume to compare China, Egypt and Mesopotamia on this factor. However it is clear that the society that first developed agriculture would have the first opportunity to develop more highly specialized labor. So Mesopotamia might have had 1000 years to develop this before China would have had the opportunity. However, since specialization of labor can be developed to some degree by hunting-gathering societies, it is hard to compare. So on this second criterion for "civilization" I defer judgment.

I should note at this point that not all aspects of "civilization" are unequivocally "good." The benefits of specialization of labor are obvious. But with a little thought the disadvantages are almost equally obvious. Out of specialization of labor come class structure, slavery, sexism and exploitation. Agriculture, by allowing one group of people to feed other groups, allows a division of labor between men and women, food-producers and non-food-producers, warriors and non-warriors, and leaders and non-leaders. Out of this comes a great deal of social inequality that barely exists in most hunting-gathering societies but which plague us even today.

A development that made agriculture much more efficient and able to produce far higher surpluses was that of the plow. Again, archaeological evidence indicates that Mesopotamia came first here, too. The plow was probably developed in Mesopotamia around 4500 BC. Very soon after, or possibly around the same time, it is found around the lower Danube, presumably due to diffusion. It spread further into Europe by around 3500 BC, reaching Spain by 3000 BC. China developed (probably independently) the plow around 3000 BC. Interestingly, the plow spread from Mesopotamia to India and Egypt only around 2600 BC. This is easy to understand for Egypt since high crop yields were possible without plowing due to the annual flooding of the Nile. Plowing would only be needed in more marginal areas which were only settled later. It is harder to understand why it took so long for plow technology to reach India.

Pottery allows efficient storage of the surplus produced by agriculture. This means that not only can the surplus be used to feed mouths that are not themselves producing food, but the surplus can be stored to feed everyone at times when crops fail. This allows the population to be more stable and less subject to feast/famine cycles than are hunting-gathering societies. Possibly, the earliest known pottery is from Iran, an extension of the Fertile Crescent, from about 7000 BC (see Jaqutta Hawkes’ Atlas of Early Man). It reaches Mesopotamia and Europe by about 6000 B.C. and only reaches Egypt at about 5500 B.C. This time Egypt is even more of a backwater than is Greece and some other parts of Europe. References I find to pottery in China seem to vary. One source (Jaquetta Hawkes’ Atlas of Early Man) indicates pottery is found in China only after 5000 B.C. Other sources indicate there was pottery in China by 7500 B.C. (even before the Fertile Crescent).

More recently I have found a different chronology presented in Past Worlds, the Harper Collins Atlas of Archaeology. Here Japan is presented as being unquestionably the first place to develop pottery, long before Japan even had agriculture, around 10,500 BC. This is the famous "Jomon" pottery which was made, through various stages of development, for 10,000 years. This same reference puts the development of pottery in China and Indo-China at 9000 BC. I have never seen a reference that suggests pottery reached China from Japan, but it seems that, given the early developments of pottery in both places, it is likely that the idea diffused from Japan to China, in a reversal of the commonly viewed direction of influence in East Asia. Africa and the Fertile Crescent (starting in Iran) developed pottery around 7000 BC and it reached India around 5000 BC. Here China comes in before the Fertile Crescent and Japan, otherwise remaining a hunting/gathering/fishing "backwater" culture for many thousands of years before agriculture diffused in from China.

Next to the development of agriculture, urbanization was the most significant development in human history. There is no single explanation for why towns and, later, cities developed, but there are clear reasons why they may have done so and why agriculture and specialization of labor would be necessary. Urbanization requires specialization of labor, and, hence, agricultural surpluses, both to provide the builders of the town as well as the leadership necessary for organizing a town and the warriors for defense. But even more clear than this, urbanization and specialization of labor co-evolved since further specialization can occur in a town due to the higher density of population and further specialization produces further economic opportunities for migrants to the urban center. Why might a town develop in the first place? Probably there are many reasons and combinations of reason for each urban center in history. Contributing factors might be the collection, storage and defense of surplus food, as meeting places for traders who can exchange surplus food and crafts items, and the defense of water supplies that will be so necessary for agriculture in dry areas such as Mesopotamia. Easier defense and better organization seem, to me, to be the most obvious benefits of urbanization. Once established, an urban center tends to grow since it becomes a focus of migration for a growing agricultural population.

The earliest known urban center, without a doubt, is Jericho in the Levant (Israel/Palestine—another extension of the Fertile Crescent). Jericho had about 2000 people around 8000-7500 B.C. (these people would have been of the group called Nautufian) and a population of 7000 by about 7000 B.C. By then it had a stone wall and tower for defense of its water supply, the first known example of fortification. The second earliest urban center known is Catal Huyuk in Anatolia (modern Turkey—-yet another extension of the Fertile Crescent). This center dates from about 6250 B.C. after Jericho had already declined. Other sites similar to Catal Huyuk (e.g. Hacilar) also developed in Anatolia. This Anatolian culture declined around 3000 B.C. Everywhere else little more than villages existed until after 4500 B.C. when the urban centers of Mesopotamia began to develop with the Ubaidian migrations and the founding of towns like Ur, Eridu, Uruk, Lagash and Nippur. It is unclear if there is any connection at all between the earliest urban centers (Jericho and Catal Huyuk) and the later, Mesopotamian urbanization. Urbanization in Egypt really only began after unification around 3500 under the first "Pharaoh" Menes (or Narmer, or, maybe, they are the same person). The pyramids were built around 2700 B.C. The Indus Valley cities were already maturing by 2500 B.C. In this case, China was way behind, urbanizing only in the Bronze Age around 1500 B.C. with such centers as Anyang and Loyang. By then even centers like Troy, Knossos and Mycenae had developed in Europe and Stonehenge had already been built. Why was urbanization, one of the most definitive aspects of "civilization" delayed in China until the Bronze Age, Shang culture when agriculture and pottery did not lag so far behind the Fertile Crescent? There is no clear explanation for this, but two possibilities exist. First of all, the Fertile Crescent crop and animal domesticates (wheat, barley, lentils, goats, sheep, etc.) provide a better diet than the native Chinese domesticates (millet, rice and pigs initially, between the independent centers of North and South China, and later soybeans). The Fertile Crescent crops also can thrive in a wider variety of environments (barley and wheat do best in somewhat different environments, as do goats and sheep). Also, the development of wool-bearing sheep around 4000 BC in the Fertile Crescent gave urban development a further boost by giving it earth's first industry. This industry was often state run and many of the earliest written records refer to the wool and textile industries. So the Fertile Crescent agriculture and husbandry may have allowed a faster build up of population than the earliest Chinese crops and animal domsticates. However, I am not sure I am convinced by this. The delay seems too long. Another possibility is that land and water were more available in the Yellow River and Yangtze regions of China and the broad plains between than in the semi-desert and dry mountains of the Fertile Crescent. This would have the consequence that competition would initially be less and so defense less of an issue in China. This would remove a major impetus for urbanization until a later date when the population got high enough for defense to be important. I propose this merely as a theory, not as any sort of accepted fact.

I should also note another glaring delay in the development of Chinese civilization, even though I do not list it as one of my main characteristics of civilization. That is the widespread use of metal rather than stone. Metalworking is thought to develop from pottery since the firing process in pottery is similar to the process required for the smelting of copper and tin, the earliest metals used for tools and weapons. For the moment let’s consider pottery to have originated at similar times in the Fertile Crescent and in China, around 7500-7000 BC. Mesopotamia had widespread use of metals by 4000 BC with elaborate, sophisticated bronze working by 2600 BC. Egypt was actually far behind this, remaining largely stone age while Mesopotamia was in the Chalcolithic (Copper Age), and relying mainly on copper while Mesopotamia was well into the Bronze Age. It was mainly the conquest of Egypt by the Hyksos in 1640 BC that Egypt was forced into the "modern" Bronze Age. China did not have widespread use of metals until about 2000-1500 BC, well after Mesopotamia. Again, it is not clear why there was such a delay between the invention of pottery and the development of smelting in China—probably 5000 years in between as opposed to at most 3000 years in the Fertile Crescent.

I should add an interesting note here. It is often argued, with good evidence, that China developed urbanization and metalurgy independently and that both took off around 1500 BC during the Shang dynasty. About the same time, China came into contact with the Indo-Aryan groups that had spread from Southern Russia, to Iran and through Central Asia to the Tarim Baisn by around 2000 BC. Contact with Chia occurred around 2000-1500 BC at about the same time that Chinese Shang culture was developing. The Indo-Aryan culture was a bronze-working culture, but was not urbanized. It is almost certain that China got the idea for chariots from this Indo-Aryan culture, but the timing also suggests that metal working was also an idea received from the Indo-Aryans. Urbanization at about the same time might have developed either because of the need for centers of industry (metal-working as well as wool industry which may also have arrived with the Indo-Aryans who had the wool-bearing sheep from Mesopotamia). Alternatively, the need for defense against the chariot and metal using Indo-Aryans would also have favored urbanization. All of this is mere speculation on my part, though is also suggested by the book the Mummies of Urumchi.

Writing is the last of my components of "civilization." Writing developed slowly, like most of the other "civilizing" developments I am discussing. As society grew more complex and as surpluses and trade developed, people had to keep records of things—mainly items and numbers of those items—and they wanted to mark things as belonging to them. Pictures of items, increasingly simplified and standardized, would be marked in clay along with marks indicating numbers to show an inventory. To mark an item as one’s property, carved stone seals were made with pictures that a person would recognize as his personal "mark" (similar to a brand on cattle, but the seals were used to make an impression in clay). These seals were found in great profusion from around 4000 B.C. all through the extended Fertile Crescent and the Indus Valley. By 3500 B.C. palace records of an inventory nature were being kept throughout this region as well. This developed into a pictographic writing in Mesopotamia by 3200 B.C. and this slowly developed into the then ubiquitous "cuniform" writing of Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Persia. This then seems to have inspired the Egyptian writing system (developed for writing on papyrus rather than for impressions in clay) and an Indus writing system either developed independently or through the inspiration of the cuniform writing. Interestingly, none of these early writing systems, nor the most of the languages they were used to represent, are really closely related to any writing or language system in use today. They all were replaced long ago by other systems that, though ultimately deriving from them, were based on very different principles and languages. As with urbanization, China was way behind, developing its writing system (the direct ancestor to modern Chinese writing) independently in the Bronze age (Shang period) after 1500 B.C., possibly as late as 1300 BC. Again, why the delay? This time I think the explanation comes directly from the delay in urbanization. Until the level of towns and small cities is reached, record keeping can remain simple and so there would be little impetus for the development or writing.

My intention in this article has been two-fold. First I hope to have outlined roughly how complex urban civilizations got started. Second, I wished to illustrate how remarkable the Fertile Crescent was in developing almost all attributes of "civilization" long before anyone else did. The Fertile Crescent was almost certainly first in all of these developments. Egypt and, espescially, Europe acquired almost all of the attributes of "civilization" from the Fertile Crescent and thus were, in essence, derivative cultures of the Mesopotamian and Levantine cultures. The Indus Valley was also largely derivative, though some aspects of culture may have developed independently at a later date. China developed many characteristics of "civilization" considerably later than the Fertile Crescent and its derivative societies, though it may have developed most or all of them independently. I haven’t mentioned the Mesoamerican or Andean civilizations. These developed much later, though completely independently, and in many ways remained less advanced than the Eurasian and North African cultures. Why is this? Probably due to the relative isolation of the cultures and the relative paucity of easily domesticatable plants and animals, as outlined in Guns, Germs and Steel.

Why did some areas develop so much earlier than others and why did some areas never develop beyond hunting and gathering at all? There should be no implication that the areas that developed slower or not at all were in any way "inferior" or "primitive" or "bad" by comparison. The richness of many hunting-gathering cultures belies any such impression. What is clear is that when hunting-gathering cultures came into direct competition with agricultural civilizations, they almost invariably were replaced or absorbed by the agricultural civilization. Why then was development so uneven across the globe, leading to the modern discrepancies between atomic/computer age cultures of Eurasia and the still stone age societies of parts of places like New Guinea and the Amazon. A detailed explanation of this is beyond the scope of this article, but is the focus of the book Guns, Germs and Steel to which I often refer. All I will say here is that the reasons for different rates of development in different areas has to do with the availability of domesticatable plants and animals, the degree of contact (influence and competition) with other cultures versus the degree of isolation, and, as a corollary to this, the degree of need (in an evolutionary sense) for development in order to compete against other societies. Eurasia, and the Fertile Crescent in particular, was rich in available resources for early agriculture, and cultures in Eurasia were in direct contact/competition with other cultures, leading to a rapid spread of technology and the need for rapid development of technology in order to keep up with one’s neighbors.

A final point, again beyond the scope of this article but also in obvious need of mention, is why the Fertile Crescent area lost it place at the forefront of civilization to, first, China and the Greco-Roman Mediterranean societies and, later, to China and Western Europe. There is no single reason for this. Contributing factors, however, include the fact that the best conditions for first DEVELOPING the attributes of civilization may not be the same as the best conditions for PERFECTING those same attributes. I think this is an often overlooked, though obvious, point. The Mediterranean and China may have been more fertile ground for the perfection of civilization with ancient technology than was the Fertile Crescent which had all the advantages for developing civilization first. The Fertile Crescent had the raw materials (the wild ancestors of wheat, barley, goats, sheep, etc) but is ecologically a fragile area, and its productivity has declined a great deal from ancient times due to deforestation and, possibly, overgrazing. China and Europe, by contrast, have more resilient ecologies which can stand up better to human abuse (though probably not indefinitely). Western Europe and China seem to have had more advantages for perfection of the Medieval and Modern versions of civilization than even the Mediterranean area did. Again, the Mediterranean coastal areas are ecologically fragile and have suffered a great deal from deforestation and overgrazing. China and Western Europe remain rich ecologically even today. There is fairly strong evidence for environmental degradation due to human activity for the Indus Valley. Later, fairly clear examples of this also include the American Southwest (the Anasazi) and, probably, Greek and Roman lands around the Mediterranean. The Sahara has changed ecologically as well, but there is little evidence for human activity as the cause of this. The Sahara probably has developed towards a desert ecosystem naturally. A final contributing factor, which is often ignored by historians for the simple reason that it somewhat defies study, is random, mathematically chaotic aspects of both environment and social development. Often a society will rise or collapse simply because it happens to have the opportunity to do so and not because of any set, irresistible cause. The migrations of many nomadic groups such as the Huns and Mongols, for example, may well have had their origin in such mathematically chaotic fluctuations in population, rainfall, etc rather than in any predictable root causes. Some major changes may also have to do with the individual choices of particularly influential people. A single bad decision by a leader has been known to doom an entire culture to collapse.

A good reference for comparing the development of technology, architecture, art and society in different areas of the world from the Paleolithic to Roman/Han China/Gupta India/Mayan times is Jaquetta Hawkes’ Atlas of Early Man.

Past Worlds, Harper Collins Atlas of Archaeology (1998). Goes into nothing in any great depth, but it is a great reference on world archaeology.

Barber, E. W., The Mummies of Urumchi (1999). A fascinating analysis of mummies found in the Tarim basin. Using physical characteristics, textile analysis and linguistic evidence the author explains how we can trace Indo-European expansion into Asia back to 2000 BC and how we can observe its mixture with Altaic and Chinese peolpes.

A more limited resource, covering only the Mediterranean area, is Michael Grant’s The Ancient Mediterranean. This is also a rather old book (from the late 1960’s) but remains a good resource.

A pretty good reference for the development of early technology is Technology in the Ancient World, by Henry Hodges. (may be out of print)

And, of course, I must refer to Guns, Germs and Steel, as the origin or catalyst for many of my ideas on this subject.

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