The Building Blocks of Civilization

Key Characteristics of Civilization

What changes enabled some societies to settle and build cities? Around 11,000 B.C.E., developments brought about by climate change led to the growth of managed food production, which in turn fostered settlements that could trade with each other. As a result, it became possible for some individuals and communities to accumulate and store wealth. This process was often resisted by groups that preferred to avoid hierarchical systems. Recent research has revealed that the Neolithic Revolution, the rapid changes enabled by the warming climate, was not embraced by all communities in the same ways or at the same time.


The artists who executed the cave paintings at Lascaux and Chauvet were conditioned to survive in harsh conditions. Before 11,000 B.C.E., daytime temperatures in the Mediterranean basin averaged about 60° F (16° C) in summer and about 30° F (–1° C) in winter. Compare today’s temperatures: in the city of Marseilles, not far from Lascaux, they now average about 86° F (30° C) in summer and 52° F (11° C) in winter. This means that cold-loving reindeer, elk, wild boar, bison, and mountain goats abounded in regions now famous for their beaches and vineyards. But as the glaciers receded, these species retreated with them, to Scandinavia. Some humans also migrated north with the game, while others began migrating to North America.

Within a few thousand years after the end of the Ice Age, some societies began to transition from subsistence food gathering to sustained food production. The warmer, wetter climate now allowed wild grains to flourish, greatly increasing the food supply and making permanent settlements attractive. People increasingly domesticated animals and cultivated plants. Recent research has revealed that such farming was likely seasonal and did not, in many places, replace other sources of food. Some stable settlements grew into cities, but this process could take several thousand years. Though these new findings have challenged the idea of civilizational development, this process still deserves to be called “revolutionary” because it would fundamentally alter patterns of existence that were millions of years old.

As humans began to alter the environment, some scholars posit the beginning of a new epoch: the Anthropocene (from the Greek word for “human,” anthropos). During this epoch—our epoch—slow-moving geological and natural climatological fluctuations have been overtaken by large-scale human efforts to alter the earth’s ecosystems. We will be paying close attention to this process and its intensification throughout the following chapters.

A map of Northern Africa, Europe, and Asia depicting the regions and times of agricultural development.
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Before 9000 B.C.E., agricultural development was present in areas of the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea near Syria, Jericho, the Dead Sea, and eastward into a region of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Between 9000 and 7000 B.C.E., agriculture developed along the northern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, northern Mesopotamia, near the Indian River, and in small pockets south of the Caspian Sea. Between 7000 and 5000 B.C.E., agriculture began to develop widely to include most of Persia, Egypt along the Nile River, Southern Asia near the South Chinese Sea, Western Europe near the Alps, and Northern Africa. From 5000 to 3000 B.C.E., agriculture developed even further into the remaining areas of Western Europe, areas in India along the Ganges River, and Central China along the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers.

THE GROWTH OF AGRICULTURE. Examine the chronology of agriculture’s development in this region. What areas began cultivating crops first, and why? In what period did agriculture spread the most rapidly, and why? How might rivers have played a crucial role in the exchange of farming technologies?

The changes of this period produced new surpluses of food for some, but they could also produce new challenges and inequalities. For example, well-nourished women in sedentary communities could bear more children than could women in hunter-gatherer groups, and so some women became increasingly sequestered from their male counterparts, who in turn gave up an equal role in child care. The rapid increases in population could be countered by the rapid spread of infectious diseases. In early cities, the rise of zoonotic diseases, passed from animals to humans in close contact, also threatened population increases. Eventually, increased fertility and birthrates could outweigh these factors, and in some places human populations began to exceed the wild food supply. They therefore had to increase cultivation of the land and devise ways of storing grain between harvests. With deliberate cultivation and storage, humans could support larger populations and also compensate for disasters (such as flooding) that might inhibit natural reseeding.

Even more important, stable and predictable surpluses of food were needed to support larger numbers of domestic animals. This brought a host of additional benefits. It not only guaranteed a more reliable supply of meat, milk, leather, wool, bone, and horn but it also provided animal power to pull carts and plows. However, it correspondingly resulted in a pattern of environmental engineering that produced devastating and unsustainable effects. In 2015, for example, a team of scientists calculated that the number of trees on earth has diminished by over 50 percent since the Neolithic Revolution began.


Emergence of cities as administrative and commercial centers

The accelerating changes of this epoch, exemplified by towns such as Çatalhöyük, where farming was balanced with hunting and foraging. Thousands of new settlements grew up between 7500 and 3500 B.C.E. Some were seasonal and marked by the construction of ritual architecture—for example, Göbekli Tepe in modern Turkey, dating from about 9000 B.C.E. Others can be classified as cities: centers of administration and commerce with relatively large populations, often protected by walls. One of these was Jericho, in the territory between modern Israel and Jordan. Jericho first emerged as a seasonal, grain-producing settlement; but by 6800 B.C.E. its inhabitants were undertaking a spectacular building program to protect their stored surplus of food. Many new dwellings were placed on stone foundations and a massive stone wall was constructed around the western edge of the settlement. It included a circular tower whose remains still reach to a height of thirty feet: a powerful expression of its builders’ wealth, technical prowess, and ambitions.

Jericho was sustained by the intensive cultivation of recently domesticated strains of wheat and barley grown by farmers who were skilled irrigation engineers. Jericho’s inhabitants also produced some of the earliest-known pottery, which enabled them to store grain, wine, and oils more effectively. Pottery revolutionized cooking, too: for the first time, it was possible to produce nourishing stews and porridges, as well as fermented beverages such as beer. Pottery production was not only vital to ancient civilizations—it is vital to those who study them—for, as this technology spread throughout Eurasia, identifiable regional styles developed. By studying these different varieties, archaeologists can trace the movements of goods and people over time and space.


Jericho and Çatalhöyük illustrate the impact that stored agricultural surpluses have on human relations. In these settled societies, significant differences began to arise in the amount of wealth individuals could stockpile for themselves and their heirs. Dependence on agriculture also made it more difficult for individuals to split from the community when disputes arose. The result was a much more stratified society, with increased opportunities for a few powerful people to become dominant. The new reliance on agriculture also meant a new dependence on the land and the weather, which led to bourgeoning speculations about the natural and supernatural forces governing the land’s fertility. Some forces were believed to require special services and gifts, and the regular practice of ritual and sacrifice sometimes empowered a priestly caste of individuals or families who seemed able to communicate with these forces. Spiritual leadership was allied to more worldly forms of power, including the capacity to lead war bands, enforce labor, exact tribute, and resolve disputes. Through their command of the community’s resources, certain clans could establish themselves as a ruling class.

Trade was another important element in the development of early settlements. By 5000 B.C.E., both local and long-distance routes linked settlements throughout the region. Exotic and luxury goods were the most frequent objects of exchange, and long-distance trade also accelerated the exchange of ideas and information. And because status was enhanced by access to high-prestige goods, local elites sought to monopolize trade by organizing and controlling the production of commodities within their own communities and regulating their export. Certain people could now devote at least a portion of their labor to pursuits beyond food production: making pottery or cloth, manufacturing weapons or tools, building houses and fortifications, or facilitating trade. The elites who exploited the labor of others eventually became specialized themselves, as full-time speculators and organizers, with the leisure and resources to engage in intellectual, artistic, and political pursuits. The building blocks of civilization had been laid.


Neolithic Revolution
The “New” Stone Age, which began around 11,000 B.C.E., saw new technological and social developments, including managed food production, the beginnings of permanent settlements, and the rapid intensification of trade.
The current geological epoch, characterized by human impact on the environment. Some scientists argue that it began as early as the Neolithic Revolution.