A civilization is a complex human society that may have certain characteristics of cultural and technological development.


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Anthropology, Archaeology, Sociology, Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations


Mandalay Myanmar

This forest of Buddhist shrines remains at Myanmar's (Burma's) first capital.

Photograph by W.E. Garrett
This forest of Buddhist shrines remains at Myanmar's (Burma's) first capital.

Scholars often differ over how to define “civilization” and how to categorize societies based on that definition – or whether to categorize them at all. Most historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists working today feel that the word is problematic because of the way the label has been used to set up harmful oppositions among world societies, with “civilized” societies being seen as superior to “non-civilized” societies.

To understand why scholars are careful with the word civilization, and why people disagree about what it means, it helps to get back to its etymological root. The word “civilization” relates to the Latin word “civitas” or “city.” This is why the most literal definition of the word “civilization” is “a society made up of cities.” The word “civilization” was first used in France in the mid-eighteenth century, but it was not used to categorize societies. By the late 1700s, scholars started applying criteria to what made a society “civilized.” In general, they believed that: civilizations are urban rather than nomadic; there is a division of labor; agriculture, science, technology, commerce, literature, and art are developed; class structure and government exist.

By this definition, there are many ancient societies that could be called civilizations. The Shang Dynasty of China (1600 BCE to 1046 BCE) is credited with inventing the earliest form of writing in China. It had a strong government seated in a capital and a formidable military, thanks to their development of the chariot and use of bronze weapons. and created beautiful bronze and jade works. The Aksum Empire (160 CE to 960 CE), in what is now Ethiopia, was a wealthy society with impressive architecture, a writing system, a large capital city, international commerce, and military might. The Abbasid Caliphate—which controlled Iran, Iraq, the whole Arabian Peninsula, and much of North Africa at the height of its power in the ninth century CE—gave rise to a period called the Golden Age of Islam that saw an astounding flowering or arts, music, literature, science, and technology. But the application of the word “civilization” historically has not been evenhanded, especially with regard to societies outside of Europe and the Mediterranean.

Early in the development of the term, historians and others used labels such as “civilization” and “civilized society” broadly to differentiate between societies they found culturally superior and those they found culturally inferior. Well into the twentieth century and even today, most of the people who wrote about civilization or civilizations in their published papers and books are white males of European ancestry. Their concept of what constitutes a civilization was widely accepted.

One such person was Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), a British historian and member of the British parliament who became famous for his six-volume work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published between 1776 and 1788. Gibbon’s work is considered the foundation for the modern study of ancient Rome, and his methodology and use of primary sources became a model for future historians. The book was widely read by the wealthy, educated class, and it had a major impact on the politics and culture of Europe. Western nations looked to Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece as models of great civilizations, which they tried to emulate.

Over time, “civilization” came to imply Western-style civilization in most contexts, mainly because it was primarily Western scholars who were responsible for applying the term. Even while admiring certain cultures and their practices, European scholars judged them as lacking in some ways. Religious and racial prejudice often played a part in their judgment. India, for example, has been home to many powerful and internationally influential societies for five millennia. These societies made enormous advances in science, technology, arts, and commerce. When India was colonized by the British Empire in the nineteenth century, Hindu or Muslim faith was seen as dangerous superstition. Indians also faced racism from the British. Their culture was deemed uncivilized, a judgment that the colonizers used as justification for subjugating the Indian population. In this case, and many others, the idea of civilization contributed to generations of violence by “civilized” societies against “uncivilized” societies.

In the twentieth century, the word civilization came to be applied to some non-Western societies. However, scholars were still almost all white, male, wealthy, and of Western European heritage, so they were still making the determination of what was or was not civilized. For example, the Inca Empire of Peru thrived from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries CE. It was invaded and defeated by Spain in 1572. The Inca had a complex civilization with a strong government and fixed social hierarchy. They left behind a wealth of art and had highly developed architecture—but no written language. The Inca also did not use the wheel as a tool. These factors would have been considered evidence that it was a “backward” society by nineteenth-century scholars.

The man who brought the Inca Empire to the attention of Western audiences was an explorer led by locals to the ruins of the major Inca city Machu Picchu in 1911. His name was Hiram Bingham III (1875-1956). He was American, white, and highly educated. He became an influential politician and later a governor, and his views were respected. The National Geographic Society and Yale University gave their financial support to his continued study of Inca society, and National Geographic devoted its whole April 1913 magazine edition to his work. Bigham’s writing gained wide visibility, and the Inca Empire was soon recognized as an important civilization, even though it was not Western. Important excavations in the Middle East in the twentieth century, again by Western scholars, uncovered ruins of ancient Mesopotamian societies that was more advanced than Ancient Greek societies and predated Ancient Greek civilization by almost a thousand years.

Today, anthropologists and historians come from a much more diverse range of backgrounds than in the past. Some have rejected the concept of civilization being the goal toward which societies should strive. Scholars of the understudied history of American Indian populations, for example, have challenged some long-held assumptions.

American Indians were categorized as savages for centuries, ever since European invaders first arrived in the 1400s. European invaders viewed the Native Americans as savages due to their unfamiliar cultural practices, their non-Christian beliefs, and their race. Some American Indian societies, particularly in North America, were nomadic. Colonizers saw the nomadic lifestyle as very primitive, a sentiment still echoed today. Archaeologists devoted little time to the research of sites of settlement in the Americas, and most concluded that humans had not arrived in the Americas until about 12,000 years ago.

However, increased interest by scholars and improved technology have turned some assumptions about the Americas on their heads. For example, Dr. Paulette Steeves, a Cree-Métis anthropologist, challenged the idea that America’s first people arrived 12,000 years ago. In her acclaimed book The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere (2022), she presents her own research, which she says indicates that the humans arrived much earlier than previously speculated – as early as 130,000 years ago. Many archaeologists disagree, but Steeves’s research has drawn more interest to the question of human settlement in the Americas. In 2018, researchers using laser imaging to survey the Guatemalan jungle found a sprawling system of Maya cities that had been hidden in the foliage for centuries. Based on this discovery, they concluded that earlier estimates of the Maya population had been off by millions of years.

Archaeological discoveries such as these show that the diverse range of American Indian cultures were much older and larger than previously thought. With increased interest and better tools, more discoveries like these will be made around the world.

Many scholars today see human societies as too complex and varied to fit into simple categories of “civilized” or “not civilized.” Their research builds on the discoveries of the past but opens a new vision of how societies develop and interact.

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National Geographic Society
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Last Updated

October 23, 2023

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