What Started Civilization?

I am fascinated by the question when did civilization start? This question, of course, depends on what you mean by civilization. I assume the first step would involve a person becoming more skilled at just one thing, and trade that product for all the other things he/she wanted. That is necessary, but not sufficient. Perhaps, rather arbitrarily, I am going to define it as when people started to specialize sufficiently that they had to stay in one place. Now, food became a problem because the same area had to sustain the tribe, which might lead to the weeding of the undesirable and planting and tending the desirable. I suspect the first real such industry would be flint knapping. Someone who could make really sharp arrow-heads could trade them for meat, but the flint knapper would need to remain near the best supplies of flint.

Evidence for trade goes back at least 300,000 years, because the remains of a tribe has been found that used ochre for decoration, and the nearest ochre deposits were over a hundred kilometers away. Trade, however, does not mean specialization. What presumably happened was that the very small tribes (which may have been little more than a few families) would go to an annual get-together, trade, socialize, exchange young women (because small tribes need to keep up genetic diversity) then go back to where they can feed themselves. Neanderthals also lived in small groupings and probably maintained the same type of lifestyle. Is that civilization?

The stone-knapper would be the equivalent of a tradesperson, doing one job for one person at a time. Maybe that does not qualify. (Whether it does depends on whatever definition you choose. This problem persists in modern science where only too many silly ideas are conveyed by terms that become misinterpreted.) However, I feel that a processing plant really does qualify. For this you need a fixed site, a continual source of raw material, and to get scale, you need a number of customers. So what came first? It appears there are at least two contenders.

The first is bread. An archaeological site in Jordan that was occupied 14,000 years ago has unearthed a bakery, and the remains of bread. This was made by grinding wild wheat and wild barley to a flour, pounding tubers of wild plants that grow in water, mixing these together to make a dough and then bake it on hot stones around a fire. Microscopic examination of the remains shows clear evidence of grinding, sieving and kneading. The people were hunter-gatherers, and would eat meat from gazelles down to hares and birds, together with whatever plant foods they could forage. That the large stone oven remains here today shows this activity was in a fixed place.

The second contender comes from a dig near Haifa. They found stone mortars 60 cm deep used for pounding various species of plants, including oats and legumes. The evidence was that besides a place where food was prepared, they also made beer. Grain was germinated to produce malt, then the resulting mash was heated, then fermented with wild yeast to produce a “beer”.  This beer was probably more like an alcoholic porridge than what we thing of as beer, but it was an industry.It would be fascinating if it were beer that was the cause of civilization The need for beer would require grain, and because you could not carry around these large mortars, you would prefer to have your grain close, and in regular supply. Regular supply means storing it because grain is seasonal. Growing enough to keep a good beer supply means farming, and keeping the rats out of the grain. As it happens, cats have become domesticated for about 13,000 years. Your household cat is probably the clue.

5 thoughts on “What Started Civilization?

  1. Interesting thoughts on the flint knapper. I think agriculture is the root of civilization. Beer was likely part of the picture. Cats–they would be part of a grain storage scenario, whereas dogs became companions of hunters? But then of herders as well.

    • One theory that I have seen is that cats and dogs became domesticated because they domesticated themselves. Cats were after the rats around grain storage, and before long humans worked out that they kept their own food supply in better condition if the supplemented the cats’ food. Dogs started by tamer wolves sneaking up and getting food scraps. By the time hunters had scraped off what meat they could from the latest catch with their stone knives, wolves came in to pick up the residues, and once humans realized these are pack animals and behave for the pack leader, by giving them bits of food humans persuaded the wolves to help with the hunt. Apparently, dogs have been companions for much longer than cats.

  2. Culture, trade, agriculture, civilization… These are related, but different concepts. They came in that chronological order, and they had to.

    Culture, in a primitive but crucial form, is clearly more than 20 million years old. That was when the “Proconsul”, a chimp-like primate, our distant ancestor, ruled. All advanced primates have culture. Actually most advanced animals have culture, but not all conscious animals have it.

    Ah, what is culture? The transmission of knowledge through teaching by others (who could even be from a different species). Mollusks do not have culture that we can discern at this point. So if octopus culture exists, it is minute. The lack of culture limits the achievements of cephalopods. They are very smart, but they have to learn everything by themselves, through experimentation and logic, during they short life span. Absent any culture to learn and transmit, an animal species doesn’t need much of a lifespan.

    Humans are the culture gods. Humans developed advanced language and this enabled subpopulations to exponentiate culture. As they did so, following the exponential deity, a metaprinciple, grow and multiply, culturally exponentiating groups could eliminate the competition and grow some more… Forcing their enemies to grow their own culture, lest they disappeared. In other words, war is an adjuvant to culture, the more war, the more culture. And the less war, and predation, from terrifying enemies, the less culture is needed to stay viable. That’s what happened in Tasmania:

    As culture is an advantage in war, the more culture, the greater the military advantage. Culture has many dimensions. For example, the Mongols under Genghis Khan may not have looked like it, but they won, because they have more significant culture than their Chinese and Muslim opponents. Genghis had deep knowledge of Paganism, Christianism, Buddhism, primitive, autarkic conditions, and extreme emotions (a form of most basic knowledge): he lived through them.

    Without culture stone work, the culinary arts, weaponry could not have been invented. Later clothing, another cultural achievement, made it possible to survive “temperate” winters, and conquer Eurasia in its entirety.

    Then came trade. Say one lives somewhere, and the obsidian, making incredible knives and weapons, is found more than two thousand miles away. What to do? Develop skills and product that could be exchanged against the precious obsidian. In other words, develop a trading mentality, and the ethology to support it.
    Trade means motion. In primitive Neanderthalo-Denisovan Europe, the low production ecology could not support a human population very long. So Neanderthals continually moved (we know this from studying their fire and toilet pits). When humans allied with wolves, and then other animals, they augmented the productivity they could harness. Population densities could augment, and the larger the tribe, the greater the territory, the more population, the more territory. Domestication of plants became possible, briging ever greater concentrations and populations, defended by armies.

    A dozen wild almonds kill, almond trees had to be domesticated, so had the cereals to be selected into more productive forms, and boars made into lethargic, fat laden pigs. The excavation and analysis of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, the world’s oldest city, started in 1958, are fascinating, and seem to support the Plutocratic Effect, of exponentiating civilization tending to bring exponentiating evil and inequality (A thesis inchoate in Rousseau).

    • Hello Patrice, that is essentially a post in its own right! In my opinion, culture and civilization were enhanced by story-telling, first by word of mouth, and then by writing, and this whole process appears to be summarised in “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, admittedly somewhat embellished by Gilgamesh.

      • It is most of an essay I will publish on my own site, thanks for the idea. The idea is that we are exponentiating, we, intelligence on Earth. there is a purpose and we are evolving into it…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s