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”


Human Journey


Meet the Author
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 nationalgeographic.com 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.