Understanding Early Civilizations

by Bruce Trigger

September 4, 2009

The author examines seven civilizations that developed pretty much independently of each other: Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese, Aztec, Peruvian, Maya, and Yoruba. He explores a great many elements of these civilizations, comparing and contrasting them. The objective is to determine which elements are common to all civilizations and can therefore be established as likely to be fundamental to human nature.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to separate the human elements from the strictly physical elements. For example, most of these civilizations developed rectgrid city layouts. The streets run in straight lines either parallel or perpendicular to each other. But that's not some secret aspect of human nature -- rectgrids are intrinsically the most efficient use of space in a city. The only way to be absolutely certain that some common element truly is representative of human nature would be to prove that it is not in any fashion intrinsically efficient or optimal. Good luck proving that.

Nevertheless, some regularities in these civilizations are so striking as to be suggestive. Kingship, for example. Every one of these civilizations invested supreme power in one man (rarely, a woman would stand in for a man, and then only temporarily). The king had important religious duties: he acted as intermediary between the people and the gods. In some civilizations, the king was divine, while in others he was merely semi-divine.

Supporting the king in all civilizations was an aristocracy. My personal belief is that this structure represented a stable power structure. The aristocracy is numerous enough to keep the people in line, and the king is the member of the aristocracy who keeps them from killing each other. To put it more harshly, the king and his band of thugs lord it over everybody else. It would be interesting to compare the size of the aristocracies in different societies. Was there some standard ratio of thugs to peons that kept social order? If that ratio fell too low, at what point would a revolution arise?

Another common trait involved the perceptions of the universe. All civilizations placed the gods in the sky, and most believed in an underworld populated by nasty gods.

Here's another common element: pottery. For some reason, pottery is a universal technology. This is noteworthy because hunter-gatherer bands can't carry pottery with them -- it's too heavy. Pottery only develops once agriculture begins and people go sedentary -- at which point they're no longer in close contact with other humans and so the idea of pottery cannot have traveled among the different civilizations. Pottery was independently invented at least four times, possibly five.

But there are a great many aspects of civilization that show differences. The Aztecs did not believe in life after death. There's quite a variety of creation myths. There were two basic types of civilizations: urban and territorial. The urban civilizations were based on cities and their surrounding farmland; the territorial societies were spread out over a larger area. Peruvian, Chinese and Egyptian civilizations were territorial in nature, while Aztec, Maya, Yoruba, and Mesopotamian civilizations were urban. Some of these societies had fluid social structures: a talented and energetic individual could rise in society; others kept each person rigidly in place.

Economics was nothing like our capitalistic system: for the most part, these were command economies. Each person was required to surrender some portion of his output to the aristocracy, the temples, or the king. The rest was enough to feed himself and family, and nothing more. Craftsmen worked directly for the aristocracy, churning out whatever they were directed to produce. There was no trade in the sense that we think of it. There were exchanges of goods, but these were usually exchanges for luxury goods for the aristocracy. Thus, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan was much sought after by Mesopotamian and Egyptian aristocracy; they were obtained through exchange networks. The merchants who obtained such goods did not operate for a profit; they were agents of the king obtaining desired luxuries.

This is a huge book (687 big pages) that delves into many details. The author is careful to clearly differentiate the civilizations. In the final analysis, very few aspects of civilization turn out to be universal; there are small differences in just about everything. But there are enough similarities that we can draw some interesting conclusions -- so long as we stay aware of the limitations.