When people think of ancient worlds, Egypt, Greece and Rome come quickly to mind. There are more...

Humanoids have been wandering around the planet for nearly 2 million years.

Our branch of the hominid tree, Homo Sapiens, has only been around for about 300,000 years but we learned from our ancestors how to make and use tools.

You might wonder what that has to do with anything...

While it is true that many animals use tools, only human build or create ever more complex tools, meaning that the capacity to visualise is much greater in humans than in other species.

And, if we can visualise, then we can entertain complex ideas – of leadership and power, and ponder philosophical questions which lead us to establish religions.

To draw ourselves inwards, to make use of our ability to think, we must assure ourselves of physical security: enough to eat, some sort of shelter and making sure we’re safe from predators.

Very early humans realised there is safety in numbers. Clans banded together to hunt and forage, but it was not until they mastered the ability to grow food that they settled in one place.

Once they did, most societies built a stronghold to live in, established a system of laws and government, designated hierarchies – leader, preacher, merchant and so on.

They created myths to explain their purpose and origins and turned their eyes to the heavens, attempting to unravel the mysteries of the stars. They fought anyone who would attempt to encroach on the lives they’d made for themselves.

And, in turn, they fought to secure more resources for their tribe.

Are all tribes created equal? What distinguishes a culture from a civilisation?

The following are characteristics that define a civilisation:

  • Large cities: established settlements, complete with infrastructure – roads, water and public buildings
  • Significant architecture: churches, temples and so forth
  • Complex institutions: government, education, peacekeeping and religion
    • foreign trade may also be counted as such an institution
  • Specialised workers: tradesmen and merchants, farmers, teachers...
    • such workers would provide social stratification, another indicator of civilisation
  • A written language
  • Technology

Now, we will look at seven ancient peoples; measure their accomplishments and examine their legacy to determine if they were indeed civilisations or only impactful societies.

Dust off your archaeologist’s toolkit and come along!

Learn from the best history tutor here.

Mesopotamia: a Land of Firsts

Sumerians invented the world's first script
The Sumerians gave us our first writing system as well as a treasure trove of art to study Image by Mariusz Matuszewski from Pixabay

Nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, this land has been dubbed the Fertile Crescent – both for its abundant water supply and for its rich soil.

Most of the major settlements hugged the east bank of the Tigris. The stretch of land between that river and the Zagros mountains proved especially benevolent; soon great cities sprang up.

There was squabbling over land, crops and cattle. Often, each side would enlist representatives from a city that was not involved in the fight; thus alliances were born. Those cities would then establish relations that involved trade, cultural exchange and diplomacy.

Inevitably, one tribe conquered the entire region, thus establishing an empire. Once a central government had been established, they would go on to acquire other lands.

Mesopotamia was ruled in turn by emperors, kings and dynasties.

After the Akkadian Empire fell, Mesopotamia accommodated two empires: the Assyrians to the north and the Babylonians to the south.

What permitted the Babylonian Empire to thrive was the ingenious way they devised to irrigate their more arid lands and drain their mudflats.

In fact, it is now thought that the screw pump formerly attributed to Archimedes was being used to water the Hanging Gardens of Babylon!

Technological achievements of Mesopotamians are remarkable.

Not only did they discover how to control water but they invented ploughs to work their land, musical instruments and a counting system – base 60, or sexagesimal.

We still use the Sumerian numeral system to mark our seconds, minutes and hours.

They also invented cuneiform, one of the earliest writing systems. It was in this form of writing that King Ur-Nammu left us his legacy: the world’s oldest, most complete legal code.

Actually, it might not have been him that wrote it. Scribes were responsible for writing and maintaining records – a position that elevated them above merchants and soldiers in the social hierarchy.

In Mesopotamia, we found social stratification, complex institutions, large cities with significant architecture – even today, their temples and ziggurats stand. We also found specialised workers, written language and technology.

All of that qualifies Mesopotamia as one of the first human civilisations.

Ancient Greeks: in Pursuit of Human Perfection

If you know anything about world civilizations or history, you surely know that the Ancient Greeks let nothing stand in their way of... not just survival but of advancing their culture, come what may.

Archaeological finds date human presence in the area we know as Greece to the Paleolithic age; a time that ended 10,000 years ago.

In the Aegean Sea, the Cycladic islands were so favoured as trade route stopovers that, in the 3rd millennium BC, their culture flourished as a civilisation in its own right.

Meanwhile, on the island of Crete, the Minoan civilisation – some say the first advanced European civilization, was busily trading with everyone in the Mediterranean, Aegean and Ionian seas.

With these trade relations necessarily came cultural exporting – finding a common language, currencies to trade with and, inevitably other elements such as music, foods and stories.

The Cycladic civilization did not wane so much as become subsumed by the Minoan culture.

The Minoans, with their advanced technologies (indoor plumbing!) and more concretely established religion incorporated the positive elements of the Cycladians while providing desirable aspects of civilization to the island dwellers.

Why the Minoan civilization declined is unclear: did the Santorini (A.K.A Thera) eruption wipe them all out or were they invaded and conquered?

The evidence shows remnants of Minoan life above the layer of volcanic debris, suggesting that invasion was the most likely end of the Minoans.

The Myceneans built the first advanced civilization on mainland Greece; they are known for many things, among them a palace-centred system of ruling that is well outlined in the writings they created.

These writings detail, among other facets of their society, early installations in the Greek pantheon of gods.

This society waned, revived and ultimately fell when the Dorians invaded, bringing on the Greek Dark Ages – a time when people scattered across the land, forming small farming communities.

The indomitable might and spirit of the Greek refused to be suppressed.

Coming together again, emerging from the Dark Ages to reform their cities and societies, Greek civilization once again rose, this time disseminating their culture far and wide.

From the Mediterranean to Anatolia, the Greek civilization was touted as the most advanced.

There are parthenons in other countries
The parthenon, Athena's temple, is one of ancient Greek civilisation's most renown monuments. Image by Nonbirinoko on Pixabay

The Inca: Masters of Politics

Unlike the Sumerian and Greek, the Inca did not develop a writing system, as such.

Today, scholars believe that quipus, an assemblage of knotted strings, served both as recordkeeping and communications devices. The work of deciphering quipus is ongoing; so far, what they have to say eludes us.

What we understand of life in Incan civilization comes from depictions on pottery and from Spanish records.

Sadly, what might have been magnificent art forged in precious metals was melted down by the Spanish. They then sent all of the Incan gold and silver to Spain.

Upon arrival at Inca lands, the Spaniards were surprised to find everyone purposefully engaged in various tasks; there were no beggars, idlers or drunkards to be found.

They learned that the Incan system was to keep everybody busy serving the empire in whichever capacity their societal status and abilities permitted. They enforced this system of duty through effective politics and by encouraging people to report idleness.

Family was very important to the Inca, so too were children – a fact that made their high infant mortality rate especially painful.

Before a child could be considered a true part of the family, s/he would be called ‘wawa’ or ‘baby’ for the first few years of life.

Once it was determined that the child would continue to live, a ceremony called ‘rutuchikuy’ took place to formally welcome it into the family.

Their gender would be recognised and s/he would be given a name. Oddly enough, the ceremony entailed having their hair dispersed throughout the family, one lock per member.

For all that the Inca were advanced in the medical field – they were among the first to perform brain surgery, and use anaesthetics, they could do little to stave off either the diseases that the Spaniards brought or the causes of their babies dying.

What intact pottery remains, along with the amazing structures they built – roads, aqueducts and, of course, Machu Picchu is all we have left of the Incas.

They did indeed build an empire and the only criterion they were missing to qualify as a civilisation is a written language.

But, as archaeologists learn more about their recordkeeping devices, their quipus, we may discover from their coded messages that they were more sophisticated than previously thought.

Aboriginal Australia: Visiting the Stone Age

How humans got to the land we know as Australia is unclear; one of the theories suggests that they built some sort of boat.

Should that prove to be true, that would make that country’s first inhabitants the first human sea goers.

However they arrived, evidence of human activity has been found that dates back at least 65,000 years.

No written records exist of life in Australia prior to British colonization because early Australians did not establish any form of written communication.

They did sometimes communicate with other groups through a message stick: a piece of wood about 30 centimetres long, onto which marks would be etched – a crude form of writing but, by definition, not a written language.

For millennia, indigenous Australians lived as one with the land. Their belief systems did not give them stewardship of it; still, they saw it as their duty to take good care of both the land and its inhabitants.

It might have been for that reason that they never established any cities; perhaps intuiting that doing so would scar their land. That theory would explain their outrage over the British building colonies.

On the other hand, the fact that they were hunter-gatherers probably had a lot to do with why they never stayed in one place too long, too.

Perhaps their most remarkable accomplishment was mastering the use of fire; early Australians were assiduous fire farmers.

They would regularly ‘fire’ the undergrowth in their jungle to encourage diversity in their food plants. Fire was also used to drive game and ward off dangerous creatures such as poisonous insects and snakes.

For all of their harmony with the land, there was violence – against other tribes and against women and children within the tribes.

As cliché as it sounds, the boomerang was their weapon of choice during inter-tribal conflict although stone-tipped spears worked better at close quarters.

The aboriginal Australians did not develop a system for writing their languages, nor did they establish any cities, governments or other major institutions.

Although females were generally seen as less than males – a type of social ranking, there were no specialised workers or leaders to provide social stratification and there was certainly no architecture.

For all that they are remarkable, under these criteria, early Australian societies were not a civilisation.

Uluru has special meaning for indigenous Asutralians
Uluru, also known as Ayer's Rock hold special spiritual significance for indigenous Australians Image by Wallula from Pixabay

The Mayan: Mathematical Genius

If any civilisation qualifies for the title, it would have to be the Mayans.

Brutal and bloodthirsty though they were, they nevertheless created complex societies with a distinct hierarchy, they most certainly created magnificent architecture and large cities and they made ample use of technology.

Upon discovering the glyphs that adorned Mayan buildings, statues and pottery, archaeologists thought they were not much more than elaborate doodles until 1952, when Russian linguist Yuri Knorosov deciphered them.

At the time, credibility in anything Russian was strained due to the Cold War. Besides, ‘mainstream’ archaeologists thought the symbols were commemorations; more like tributes to gods.

It wasn’t until Tatiana Proskouriakoff, a prominent Mayanist, discovered a glyph at the base of a temple that included three dates, two of which had an accompanying symbol.

She realised that these dates corresponded with the birth and ascension of the king that was buried there, and the date of his death.

The world collectively gasped at the realisation that Mayans were not a peaceful, religious, learned people but quite brutal and bloodthirsty.

Much to the relief of scholars, the Mayan’s long history, once thought virtually destroyed save for Spanish recountings of it, lies completely exposed on virtually every lintel, stelae and temple for all to see; it needed only interpretation.

The Mayans had been writing since the third century BC and they were not shy about reporting on their military conquests and their disposal of prisoners.

Imagine how much more we could have learned had the Spanish bishop not burned all but four of their books...

Ancient Egypt: the Preeminent Civilisation

Picture the scene: you and your tribe have been walking north for days. You come from the central region of Africa and you have been following the river. It is getting larger, more powerful and the further you walk, the greener the land gets.

Food here is abundant; plenty of beasts to hunt and lots of vegetation. Your tribe decides to stay in spite of other tribes scattered about; after all, there is plenty here for everyone.

Far be it for us to say that is how the ancient Egyptian civilization got started but the truth can’t be too far off.

As early as 5,000 years ago, individual colonies were established up and down the Nile, each one making their own advances in creating tools and possibly establishing trade with neighbouring tribes... or fighting. Or both.

Along comes Menes who, through a combination of diplomacy and war, unites the two halves of Egypt; the Red land in the Delta and the White land to the south.

He founds Memphis right on the border of the two realms, calls it the capital and proclaims himself king. So begins nearly 3,000 years of dynastic rule of Egypt.

Like so many ancient civilizations, progression to established cities with functioning governments was not linear: it did not go from barren outpost to a just society with laws and institutions without pitfalls.

Three times in this country’s long history, social, political and military upheaval caused the collapse of civilisation; each time, it was built anew.

Some kings were so arrogant they raided the coffers to establish their legacy, others were so pious they rejected all gods in favour of only one. Some kings were too young to rule; their mothers functioned as regents until they reached a proper level of maturity.

And one king was happy to let his mother rule until her death.

The papyrus and the pyramids; the paintings and the statues have much to inform on; the civilisation of ancient Egypt is just waiting for you to discover it...

the Sphinx is the symbol of Egypt
The Sphinx and the pyramids are immediately recognisable symbols of Egypt Image by Marcin Chuć from Pixabay

The Aztec: Master Agrarians

The Aztec civilisation is known for many things, among them the brutality of their warfare and the ruthlessness of their sacrificial offerings.

Aspects of their short-lived dominion that seem to pale in comparison to the amount of blood they spilt include their treatment of women, their educational mandates, and their amazing floating gardens.

The people initially known as the Mexica presumably migrated from North America; no one is really sure.

However, one fact stands out: they were one of the last of the nomadic tribes to arrive in Mesoamerica. For that, they suffered the indignity of having to ask for a parcel of land to settle on.

Was it cunning political manoeuvering that led them to beseech the king for favours time and again? Or did their seeming arrogance develop later – as their city, population and reputation grew?

Because surely, it was more than a bit of bluster that led them to subjugate first the king’s foes and then, after a horrible event that caused the king to drive the Aztecs from the land he had granted them, to dominate the tribes around their city.

Well, that’s not quite true.

Once the Aztec spotted what they thought was a divine sign that they had arrived at the land they were destined to occupy, they set about building a city to rival all others in Mesoamerica.

Never mind that the land they felt destined to occupy was an island in the middle of a lake; the clever Aztec only saw opportunity.

They soon got to work building magnificent temples, a royal palace and public buildings: government offices, schools and mercantile.

Because they only had so much land – remember, they lived on an island, they engineered an ingenious solution to their agricultural woes.

Because their society was so complex, they also devised an elaborate writing system to record official transactions as well as events in their daily lives.

Every Aztec learned to read, write and do maths – boy or girl, rich or poor. And then, based on their demonstrated aptitude, they went on to study medicine, astronomy or history.

The Aztecs had it all: an elaborate social structure underpinned by complex institutions, housed in a large city that was home to magnificent architecture.

This was a society advanced by technology; a society we know of today because of the vast number of codices or books they left behind. These books form a record of their lives.

Considering the remarkable progression from nomadic tribe to established civilisation within less than 100 years, isn’t it such a shame that they are mostly remembered for their bloodlust and barbaric sacrifices?

It is said that there are six cradles of civilization located around the world, so named because it was there that people, long ago, established how humans will live: in societies with a system of laws and spiritual/religious beliefs.

Those people, our ancestors, built magnificent structures to honour their gods and leaders, invented and employed technology to establish their legacy: those population centres, large and replete with infrastructure.

Not every ancient society is a civilization but all of humanity’s ancestors have made our legacy as rich as it is long... haven't they?

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