Civil-i-zation (noun): A condition that many human societies attain—temporarily in every known instance—characterized by advancing development and sophistication in the arts and sciences, by rising complexity of the social, political and cultural institutions, and occasionally by civility in internal and/or external societal behavior. In decided contrast, a civilization’s economic sphere may, and most do, thrive with abject absence of civility—such absence usually resulting in extreme inequalities wherein a few prosper greatly and the many suffer inadequacy of basic needs essential to survive and reproduce, not to mention impaired prospect that beloved offspring may survive, thrive or reproduce.
Civilizations overlapping the prehistory-to-history boundary
In what follows, it is of some interest to notice locations around the world as we orient our minds to civilizations making their sequential appearances through time. This chronology does not begin with ancient Greece, as do most Eurocentric histories, as if no history worth mentioning preceded Greece or was recorded elsewhere in the world. Note that Greece is not nor ever was the center of the world or of anything else, even if a rudimentary semblance of grossly limited democracy did get briefly tried there before being soundly thrown out and permanently abandoned. Nevertheless Greece is included.
Australia. Aboriginal Australians easily predate every other civilization, but their long story is unrecorded before European settlement brought writing to the continent. They had sophisticated philosophy without writing—their memorizing and communication skills must have been extraordinary. They were genetically distinct by at least 50,000 years ago, and those who settled Australia around that time are ancestors of present-day Aboriginal Australians by direct line of descent. The term “aboriginal” refers to people inhabiting a land from the earliest times of human settlement, and specifically before arrival of land-hungry colonizers from Europe. It seems like simply saying “original people” would do, but there it is, aboriginal. “Indigenous” is a synonym.
Human civilizations have continuously risen all over the earth ever since the original Australian settlers started the idea. Our contemporary version may be the one that chooses to bring civilization to an end, at least temporarily. If we do, the end of our civilization will have been our choice—i.e., our descendants will say we chose to drift with inaction and let the willful ignorance of stupid rulers remain in governance control despite clear evidence that we needed to throw them out and act quite differently. With this in mind, please keep in mind that the following recitation of the things humans have done through our five millennia of recorded history were all, every one, the results of choices. Everything we do is our choice.
Mesoamerican civilization arose independently sometime after 7,000 BCE in the region between central Mexico and Costa Rica, a geographically diverse region of humid tropics, deserts, high mountains and low coastal plains. One of several regions where agriculture was developed independently, the inhabitants are thought to have made the transition from hunting-gathering to farming villages by around nine thousand years ago. As famers they domesticated, among other things, squash, chiles, tomatos, beans, maize and avocados as well as dogs and turkeys.
In time the villages became stratified with ruling chiefs, were interconnected by trade routes for exchange of goods, and human cultural evolution took its usual course. Isolated from the rest of the world and unaware it existed, complex cultures arose and fell in series including the Olmecs, Zapotecs, Maya, Mixtecs, Totonacs and Aztecs among others. Mesoamerica is thought to have been home to the most advanced civilizations to arise in North America, though others such as the Iroquois confederation (1450-1660 CE) were far advanced in sophisticated organization and governance by the time brash unsophisticated Europeans arrived intent on getting rich quick. Among Mesoamerican developments were complex numeric systems, distinctive architectural styles, ball playing, and complex mythical and religious traditions. They knew of the wheel and basic metallurgy but technological development of these never took hold. The Maya developed a unique writing system and a sophisticated calendar.
Mesoamerican civilization ended with the arrival of Columbus, two centuries of Spanish colonists and the European diseases they brought with them. Features of native cultural heritage survive among modern peoples indigenous to the area, many of whom still speak their ancestral languages and maintain cultural practices originated in the distant past.
Norte Chico civilization originated over 6,000 years ago (~4,000 BCE) in northwestern Peru, when the Caral-Supe people built settlements and monumental architecture in four river valleys arising from the arid Pacific coast (Caral, the most ancient city of the Americas, is situated in Peru’s Supe Valley). It reached its zenith between the 4th and 2nd millennia BCE and lasted until about 1800 BCE. Norte Chico peoples had communal dwellings and were widely settled among thirty major population centers. Thirty-two centuries later the mighty Inca Empire, builders of Machu Picchu and Cuzco, would arise in the same area. Stretching much farther along the narrow coastal strip that divides Pacific from Andes—between modern Quito in the north and Santiago in the south—the Inca empire was the largest ever in the Americas, and largest in the world at the time.
Mesopotamian civilizations. There were three of them, all sprung in that fertile crescent far to the south of Greece, though it was the foreign Greeks who used the word “Mesopotamia” —a word never used by the locals themselves—to identify that land lying between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The earliest known inhabitants of the region were the Ubaidians, an illiterate culture about whom very little is known—the customary fate of early civilizations that thrived but lacked writing to tell about it. The Ubaidians were supplanted by the Sumerians who were literate, referred to the region as “Kiengi,”and established city-states across its southeastern provinces. Comparably, pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America called their homelands by many names, none of which were “North America.” Many of their descendants make sure their old names—such as Turtle Island—are kept alive to this day, in thoughtful certainty that the old names will in due course be needed again.
The Sumerians developed their civilization around 6,000 years ago (~ 4,000 BCE). They are quite often called the world’s “first” civilization by Eurocentric historians, though that is obviously quite wrong (see Norte Chico, Mesoamerica and Australia above). The Sumerians too independently invented writing—without which we probably would be unaware they ever existed. Absent the writing that is integral to many (but far from all) civilizations, legends might say the Sumerians existed but we moderns would not give credence to mere legends. No, we would denigrate such legends, and our brightest scholarly minds would heartily doubt the Sumerians’ vibrant existence for some two thousand years, nearly eight times longer than the USA has existed—just as they doubt the old flood legends, and their cause, and the origin of those perennially mysterious Phoenicians, and Plato’s flood evidence which are the only words that masterful old philosopher ever passed down that aren’t hung on and consummately believed; etcetc.
The Akkadians, rivals of the Sumerians, took over Sumerian lands around 1800 BCE, overlaid their own civilization, and mightily extended their hegemony northwestward clear to the Mediterranean. Then they renamed the expanded region “Babylonia,” derived from the Akkadian word Babili meaning “gates of the gods.” The provincial city of Babylon, just emerging as a minor administrative center by 1894 BCE, subsequently grew to become a major capital city under the reign of Hammurabi the Great. Size and scope of the Akkadian empire are of course disputed, but there is no doubt their determined leader Sargon the Great established what some claim is the world’s first multinational empire—a precedent much admired by a modern descendant named Saddam Hussein. The region’s present name, Iraq, derives from the long lived old Sumerian city of Uruk—a label still used by many Arabs to name the entire Mesopotamian region.
The Indus Valley civilization, the first significant civilization in south Asia, was established by 3300 BCE in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent. Its most mature form known as the Harappan Period, between 2600 and 1900 BCE, was noted for urban culture employing sophisticated technologies such as metallurgy and efficient water supply and drainage systems. Then the arrival of droughts persisting for several hundred years caused devolution from urban centers to smaller towns and villages until the Harappan civilization collapsed between 1900 and 1500 BCE. Evidently extended drought brought incentive for people to leave the cities, where they could not grow food, for smaller populated places where they could.
The following millennium is known as the Vedic period, marked by development of India’s classic Vedas—scriptures containing philosophy, hymns, and ritual guidance for Vedic priests—written in Sanskrit as well as preserved in oral traditions. As synthesis of the Vedas with preexisting religions were evolving into what would become known as Hinduism, the caste system was also evolving into being with creation of a hierarchy of priests, warriors and differentiated peasants.
Around 600-500 BCE a second great urbanization began in the fertile plains that encompass northern India, modern Bangladesh and eastern Pakistan. Nomadic Indo-Aryan tribes from the northwest migrated into the region in several waves, employing the usual human pattern of deforesting large swaths for agriculture and pasture. Local cultures once again consolidated into larger states, and urbanization was accompanied by new ascetic movements and spiritual concepts. These included Jainism and Buddhism—both of which challenged the primacy of rituals presided over by Brahmin priests. Thus were cast the foundations of modern India.
The Egyptian civilization of northeast Africa is believed to have come into being around 3200-3100 BCE when the legendary Menes unified Upper and Lower Egypt through conquest and ruled over the unified polity. This is believed because writing in the form of Egyptian hieroglyphics were already around and being used to record dramatic events. Early Egyptian history then proceeded as three stable eras, today known as the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, separated respectively by interims of instability. Twenty dynasties of pharaohs passed across the stage during the three kingdoms. The New Kingdom, lasting about five hundred years after 1550 BCE, was Egypt’s zenith—sometimes called the empire period, when it ruled over Nubia and dominated much of the Middle East region. Egypt then proceeded into a long period of decline.
Power worked in both directions. At one time or another Egypt was invaded or conquered and ruled over by the Hyksos, the Nubians, the Libyans, the Assyrians, the Persians, and the Macedonians under Alexander the Great. Following Alexander’s death the Greek Ptolemies ruled in Egypt until 30 BCE, when it was conquered by Rome and made a Roman province headed by the compliant Cleopatra. Through all these ages and rulers, extraordinary fertility resulting from the Nile River’s predictable overflows and an elaborate system of controlled irrigation ensured a continuous bounty of surplus crops.
Crop surpluses were of course attended by steady population increases which—not coincidentally—persist to the present day: a bit over 2 million in 1950, 69 million in 2000, 101 million in 2020, and 166 million predicted by 2050. Overmatched at last, this rate of increase is unsustainable by the fabled Nile River, the uncaring global trade network, or biological evolution’s compelling drive to survive and reproduce.
Major civilizations of sub-Saharan Africa
Nubia—known as Kush for two millennia—was home to civilizations rivaling those of the dynastic Egyptians, and of comparable age. In the areas today known as northern Sudan and southern Egypt, powerful kingdoms waxed and waned at least four times between 3000 BCE and 370 CE. Nubia probably was a trade corridor between Egypt and tropical Africa long before 3000 BCE. Its history is prominent after 2000 BCE, as proclaimed by monuments, artifacts, and written records surviving from the classical periods of both Egypt and Rome. The last Nubian kingdom collapsed in 1504 CE.
The “Land of Punt” persists in the grey area between legend and history as a mysterious place existing as long ago as 2500 BCE, according to old Egyptian records calling it “a land of the gods” rich in gold, myrrh, ebony and exotic animals. Scholars debate its location to this day, though it probably lay southeast of Egypt as some combination of coastal regions in areas today known as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Sudan’s Red Sea littoral. As chronicled in an ancient Egyptian wall bas-relief, the female pharaoh Hatshepsut launched an expedition to the Land of Punt in the 15th century BCE. According to legend, Punt was the birthplace of the fabled Prester John—descendant of the Magi, protector of the Holy Grail and keeper of the Fountain of Youth.
The Aksum empire ruled in the areas today known as Eritrea and Ethiopia between about 80 BCE and 825 CE, where evidence indicates farming dates back ten thousand years. The Numidian kingdom was prominent between 200 to 40 BCE. The common era (CE) saw the rise of : Kingdom of Kongo; Empire of Mali; Kingdom of Zimbabwe; Empire of Ghana; and, notably, the Songhai Empire which formed in the 15th century, was larger than western Europe and comprised parts of a dozen modern-day nations. Nigeria may appear in future lists of African empires—with 205 million people in 2020, it has the largest population in Africa, followed by Ethiopia, Egypt, and Democratic Republic of the Congo.