Sunday, September 10, 2006

First Civilization?

The first civilization was the kingdom of Sumer. Or was it? It all depends on how we define the word “civilization,” and its adjective, “civilized.” So when DID we become civilized?

A civilization is currently thought to have a list of certain attributes, all thought to be dependent on the sedentism arising from the agricultural revolution of c. 10,000 – 12,000 BCE.
A civilization by this definition expresses:
- mass settlement (no more hunting-gathering please, you at the back!)
- agriculture, that is, domesticated grains, etc.
- domesticated animals (aren’t they one of the reasons we got chickenpox?)
- a quite extensive social hierarchy, including kings, priests, merchants, farmers, and slaves (Oh, that’s why our civilization works that way…)
- impressive architectural feats (by whose estimation?)
- a writing system (ah, the catch. But it made administration a whole lot easier. No more messy arguing with the peasants, just show them the sign they can’t read.)

The first culture that includes all of these things is Sumer, in Southern Mesopotamia. A messy civilization at that, all city states interconnected and jostling for power, but a “civilization” nevertheless. It was not alone, though. The 2nd and 3rd millennia were a time for rising civilizations. Civilizations were up and coming in India, China, and Egypt at the time. Sumerian civilization only beat them by about half a millennium, which isn’t much, if you think of it in the context of (modern) human existence – about 200,000 years.

The Sumerians weren’t the first people in Mesopotamia, either. Rather, they were the product of a happy and unhappy mixing of cultures between the people who settled there first around 5200 BCE, the Ubaids, and Semitic peoples from the Syrian and Arabian deserts who immigrated around the 3rd millennium BCE. It was only after this culture clash that we got the Sumer that we know and love today.

So Sumer was the firs civilization, and “WE” became civilized around the 3rd millennium BCE. At least that’s what we think so far… But being civilized ourselves takes a lot of time out of our day. We don’t always have time to catch on right away to things that don’t jive with the perspective that’s been taken in the past. All that writing, and farming, and mass settlement, you know.