Human Journey

What Is “Civilization”?

The “Dialogue of Civilizations” conference in Guatemala brought together archaeologists studying five ancient cultures to discuss their similarities and differences and what they can tell us about human society as a whole. You can still be a part of the conversation, commenting on this post or tweeting using #5Civilizations.

One of the most striking aspects of attending the Dialogue of Civilizations was hearing experts on one ancient culture express how much they were learning about other cultures through this experience. In particular, several of them said their eyes were opened to the richness of the Maya civilization in a way they hadn’t been before. This was I think due to two main factors: the conference was held in Guatemala so there was a lot of attention to and information about the Maya; and most of the other ancient civilizations had some level of contact with each other so everyone was somewhat aware of each others’ work in those areas already.  It was a good reminder of just how big the world is, and how “new” the New World still is in many ways.

On the final day of the conference, after two days of individual presentations on ancient China, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Maya, all the presenters and hosts sat together on stage to discuss the nature of civilization and what we can apply today from the lessons of yesterday, or as the tagline for the Dialogue put it, how to view “the past as a window to the future.” Two days later, sitting on top of Temple IV in Tikal, looking out over the city’s ruins and miles and miles of jungle canopy, the group engaged in another conversation, centered around the collapse of civilizations.

Pulling from both of those, and the experience of recapping the presentations in these blog posts, here are the main questions and themes that seemed to arise from the Dialogue. Leaving the conference there was a distinct feeling that this was simply the beginning of the conversation. Keep it going in the comments below.

Part 1: What Is “Civilization”?

Part 2: Why Did Ancient Civilizations Build Such Huge Monuments?

Part 3: Is Every Civilization Destined to Collapse?

An ancient Mesopotamian relief depicts Ashurbanipal on horseback spearing a lion. Ideas of what is and is not "civilized" has changed regularly over the ensuing millennia. (Photo From Public Domain)
An ancient Mesopotamian relief depicts Ashurbanipal on horseback spearing a lion. Ideas of what is and is not “civilized” has changed regularly over the ensuing millennia. (Photo From Public Domain)



What Is “Civilization”?

Archaeologist Chris Thornton was the moderator for the final panel. He opened by pointing out that in common use, the word “civilization” has become a loaded term, implying that anything “uncivilized” is somehow bad or sub-human. To avoid that interpretation, several presenters throughout the week gave the academic definition, saying that culture becomes a “civilization” when it has various combinations of elements such as: monumental architecture, extensive food production, codified laws and administration, a form of detailed writing, complex and hierarchical social roles, a specific ideology, and specialization of labor. I think most of those things are present in some form even in the rest of the animal world, so the fact that the word itself comes from the Latin “civitas” for city, there should also be the key distinction that a “civilization” requires a dense population living in a largely man-made environment.

Thornton pointed out another alternative though. “In the ancient Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh,” he said, “the ‘wildman’ Enkidu becomes civilized by participating in four distinct endeavors: experiencing human love, putting on clothing, eating non-wild food, and playing sport. Quite a different vision of what ‘civilization’ means than current and other recent definitions.” Georgio Buccellati, who studies ancient Mesopotamian civilization offered further thoughts along the wild-civilized spectrum, saying “Civilization is a way of distancing from nature, which is for our good, if it’s used properly.”

Archaeologists from the 2013 Dialogue of Civilizations climb the exposed Maya ruins of the city of Tikal. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)

Is It the Same for Everyone?

Archaeobotanist Dorian Fuller raised a point about some of the other general qualifications for “civilization.” “There are places with agriculture, long-distance trade, social hierarchy, and so on, which never developed writing,” he said, giving Andean and West African cultures as examples. “So that raises the question of ‘why some places?'” It also raises the point that “there is something bigger than the state. Civilization isn’t limited to kings and dynasties. It often transcends ethnicities and language.”

Juan Carlos Pérez who works at the Maya site of El Perú-Waka’ saw it from a slightly different angle, noting “Not all civilizations respond to the same issues in the same order or the same way.” Marcello Canuto from the site of La Corona gave an example: “Teotihuacan was connected to the Maya who wrote on everything,” he said, “but they never adopted writing themselves.”

Mark Kenoyer, expert in the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley wanted to be clear about one thing. “I don’t want to imply that civilization is the best option for people,” he said. He pointed out that it is just one option for dealing with a growing population and limited resources, and that many other groups of people around the world have addressed those issues without social stratification, monumental architecture, or writing, and done just fine. Civilization may be the most complex form of society, but it’s not the only option, and it’s not necessarily the best.


What do you think? Post your comments below and on Twitter at #5Civilizations.

NEXT: Part 2: Why Did Ancient Civilizations Build Such Huge Monuments?

Read All Posts From “Dialogue of Civilizations”


Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.
  • Dan Farrar

    I don’t think the power of religious belief can be overestimated in these rely societies. These people really and I mean really believed their kings were gods. It must have come as quite a shock when the dough came and it became clear their kings were not gods, but mortal men.

  • Sujay Rao Mandavilli

    great stuff

  • Horace Butler

    Why does this organization continue to misrepresent the Ancient “civilizations” in the Americas, like Teotihuacan, as being without writing? Why do you continue to foster this lie, while you know better? Are Teotihuacan’s pyramids, “great road,” and even its “Labyrinth” next to the Moon Pyramid, not described in detail by Herodotus? When will you cease this racist silliness and let the world know that Teotihuacan is actually Ancient Egypt’s Heliopolis? When? How can a city that was a center of writing for the planet, and the largest city on the planet, now be characterized by National Geographic as having no writing? Stop it. Your racist need for mental comfort is not worth this continual nonsense. Try scientific integrity, for a change.

    My apologies for the edits. Your deliberate racial silliness on this matter was burning. Ancient West Africa, no writing? Stop it!

  • Professor Catherine Acholonu

    My understanding of civilization has to do with the acquisition of culture, proper “cultured” codes of conduct in society; this came with the acquisition of language and in some instances, writing. The invention of basic technologies such as weaving, Agriculture, iron smelting (metallurgy) and architecture, whether they be huts or skyscrapers all amount to civilization. The original Sumerians who gave the world civilization and taught the world eveything they know, built mud huts but were masters of sea-faring. From Assurbanipal’s writings we know tht Sumerians civilization stretches back to the time when Adam (Adapa, a Sumerian title of Enoch) wrote on Stone. Stone inscriptions are found all over Africa. The inscribed stone monoliths of Ikom in Cross River, Nigeria has been carbon-dated 4000 years and was listed by the World Monument Fund 2008 Most Endangered Sites as “a form of writing before 2000 BC. Pre-Cuneiform letters have been foind among the monoliths inscriptions. Ancient Niger-Congo also boasts of a form of Cult Writing system called Nsibidi wch share letters with the monoliths stone inscriptions of Cross River. Formerly shrouded in secrecy, new research is revealing tht the Nsibidi script shares far too many letters with Proto-Saharan writings, Iberian, Tifinagh, Indus, egyptian hieroglyphs, and Sumerian Pre-Cuneiform pictographs. West Africa has been given up my the West and a land where nothing took place worthy of research. Yet archaeology has revealed tht a huge iron smelting INDUSTRY existed in a area called Nsukka by 2000 BC whch coincides with the end of Sumerian civilization. It has been proved by researches done by UNESCO tht West Africans invented weaving, agriculture, iron and bronze-working independently, and long before Europe and other continents did. All these suggest an ancient civilization tht might have been aborted, to bear fruit somewhere else. Our soon to be released book, EDEN IN SUMER ON THE NIGER – the fourth in a series of new researches unearthing West Africa’s forgotten past is making a powerful case on the West African base for the lost motherpot of Sumerian civilization.

  • Distinguished One

    If Sumer predated Egypt, why aren’t we looking to Cuneiform and other ancient writing from “Sumer”, “Akkad”, “Assyria”, “Babylonia”, etc. for the origin of writing? Why are the Egyptian hieroglyphics then, the origin of ALL forms of writing?

    Also, the ancient descriptions of the ancient cities don’t fit the “Middle East” and other “territories” that are “said” today to be Greece, Israel, Asia, etc?


    If Enoch was in SUMER than someone please explain where is this city Gen. 4:17
    “And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch”.
    Now this is the first Enoch mention in the bible, he it say he had a city named after him. If anyone claims Adam places or cities they BETTER know where this city is from Genesis 4:17. Why? Because this is the FIRST city mention in the bible! And Adam is from where again? lol Sumer? Ancient America has writings going back10,000 of years, proven by the Mayan calendar, like they had to know how to write and document time before that stone was made….right? Hmm what of the Olmec writings? Doesn’t Nat Geo have a story now about a Mayan headless man? And they won’t release the carbon-date findings? Remember the Egyptians great God AMEN/AMN said they come from the …..WEST!

  • sadashivan

    Civilization is an outcome of strong culture and religion of the society!!!

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