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: Is Every Civilization Destined to Collapse?
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.”
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.