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CIVILIZATION

 

O.T. FORD

 

Civilization is simply the art and practice of living in cities; ‘CIV-’ is the Latin root for “city”. When we speak of a civilization, we are first talking about an instance where humans began the practice of living in cities; by extension, we can speak of a civilization as a culture descended from one of these earlier instances.

For most of human existence, our species has subsisted through hunting and gathering. Nomadic bands of humans procured food and other useful materials by killing game animals and collecting what grew or could be found naturally in the landscape. The transition to civilization requires three simultaneous, mutually-dependent things:

    — domestication of plants
    — agriculture
    — permanent settlement

Domestication is the process of bringing wild plants and animals under human control. Agriculture is the ongoing process of tending plants. The domestication of plants and agriculture are obviously related, the beginning and continuation of a single process. But agriculture is impossible without settling in one place — cultivating plants requires a steady presence, and the effort is not worthwhile unless the farmers are around to benefit from, and protect, their crops. And very few landscapes can support a human population continuously without agriculture; hunting and gathering deplete a landscape, which is why hunters and gatherers are nomadic.

This new agricultural lifestyle leads to cascading changes in human existence. Agriculture eventually produces a food surplus. What this means in the most basic sense is that agriculture produces more food than is needed to feed the farmers themselves. That, in turn, allows for increased specialization — some specializing in farming, some specializing in something else. A division of labor is not new to agricultural society; hunters and gatherers also specialized, with men hunting and women gathering. But the division of labor in agricultural society is ever-increasing, with a virtuous circle of specialization leading to increased technology leading to increased specialization, as each occupation (including farming) becomes more productive and requires fewer laborers for the same output, allowing the diversion of workers to new occupations. Specialization always involves a primitive form of trade (hunted goods for gathered goods, for example); increased specialization leads eventually to elaborate trade, and eventually currency. The increase in technology and specialization lead to an increased need for organization and regulation, thus an increase in governmental power; both trade and government drive the development of recordkeeping, and thus writing. The food surplus and improving technology lead to an increase in population, which further the specialization. As populations increase, specialization grows, and certain technologies (like government and construction) develop, human settlements begin to resemble cities.

These city-dwelling cultures and their advanced technologies became the basis for widespread cultural influence; while civilizations emerged around the world at various times and often had great regional influence, ultimately three civilizations have had the greatest, most lasting influence: Mesopotamia, along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the Fertile Crescent; India, beginning along the Indus River in the Indo-Gangetic Plain; and China, along the Yellow River and across the North China Plain. The spread of influence in each case creates a common cultural environment that facilitates the spread of further influence. In this way, we have civilizational spheres and subspheres in which certain cultural traits — in particular, religion, borrowed vocabulary, and script — are shared among otherwise-distinct peoples and cultures (particularly as identified by language). The spread of religion in particular tends to spread the other two, specifically through the medium of scripture. A scripture is written in a particular dialect and script; the speakers of other dialects who adopt the religion tend to borrow vocabulary from that scriptural dialect into their own dialects, and adapt its script to write their own dialects. Thus, we can identify subspheres in two of the major civilizations based on religion, and the vocabularies and scripts that they carried with them.

CIVILIZATION
Mesopotamia
   ——————
 
 
   ——————
India
   ——————
   ——————
China
RELIGION
 
Christianity
   — Western
   — Eastern
Islam
 
Hinduism
Buddhism
Chinese
VOCABULARY
 
Greek
Latin
Church Slavonic
Arabic
 
Sanskrit
Pali
Chinese
SCRIPT
Semitic
   — Greek
      — Latin
      — Cyrillic
   — Arabic
Brahmi
 
 
Chinese

The most important omission from the civilizations is Egypt. While Egypt developed civilization independently, had significant technological achievements, and contributed to world culture, it did so as part of the larger Near Eastern civilization, of which Mesopotamia was by far the oldest and most influential component. Egypt’s relationship to Mesopotamia is roughly analogous to that of a suburb with its metropolitan core.

The New Testament of Christianity was written in Greek; borrowed Greek vocabulary is common presence throughout Christianity. The sphere of Western Christianity additionally has borrowed Latin vocabulary; Latin was the lingua franca of the Western Roman Empire, and the translation of the Bible into Latin, the Vulgate, was an important scripture in its own right. As Pali is a descendent of Sankrit, Sanskritic vocabulary is borrowed throughout the Indian sphere. The least cohesive, and most diverse, subsphere is that of Eastern Christianity. Vocabulary borrowed from Old Church Slavonic (a South Slavic dialect) and the Cyrillic script are only used among the Slavic cultures in the sphere — though this does constitute the bulk of the Eastern Christian population (particularly counting the Russians, who have also spread the influence of the subsphere through their own conquests).

For the scripts, Semitic, Greek, and Brahmi are rather the families of scripts that are prevalent in the spheres. The Brahmi scripts, while retaining a virtually-identical phonological structure throughout the Indian sphere, are graphically quite different in the present. The modern Greek script is not widely used, but its descendants Latin and Cyrillic are widely used. And the Greek and Arabic scripts are both descendants of Semitic.

These civilizational spheres have been the primary basis for the world regions, which are large primary divisions of the world used in higher education — originally in anthropology, but also in geography and history, and as the basis for area studies. The standard elements of the world-regional model (shown at right) include East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, Latin America, and North America, by those names; the remaining regions are some variation of a Russian sphere, and an Australasia-Pacific region, with no standard names. East Asia is clearly based on the Chinese sphere. South Asia is clearly in the Indian sphere, and Southeast Asia for the most part as well. The Middle East and North Africa, and Central Asia, are most of the Islamic sphere, while the Russian sphere constitutes most of Eastern Christianity. The rest is under the influence of Western Christianity, mostly through European imperialism and colonization.

This is only approximate, however, and the world-regional model is based on the country model, and thus still conventional. We can be more precise with our understanding of civilizational influence, for instance, by identifying a group of Sino-Asian cultures, comprising cultural China and all those cultures under Chinese influence, particularly the Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and northeastern Tai. We can likewise identify a group of Indo-Asian cultures, comprising the Indo-Aryans and all the cultures under Indian influence, including the Dravidians, the Tibetans, and most of mainland Southeast Asia.

 

© O.T. FORD

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