On the Rise of Cities and Civilization

It can be argued that our planet is undergoing its third great revolution, i.e., the process of becoming industrial and modern.

1. The first great transformational moment in human history occurred when human beings first emerged on the planet, probably some two hundred thousand years ago. Among the various human-like species, homo sapiens achieved biological dominance probably due to their manual dexterity, their ability to produce and use tools which, in turn, probably affected their brain development enabling the growth of spoken language skills and the intelligence needed to pave the way for the cooperation necessary to labor together in order--eventually--to engage in agriculture and transition from the tribal, hunting gathering lifestyle of the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages to the sedentary agricultural lifestyle of villages.

2. The second great revolutionary transformation, the Agricultural Revolution, occurred around 9,000 years ago when organized, settled agriculture came to be practiced and Neolithic lifestyles featuring hunting and gathering, were gradually replaced by larger, more complex form of village life. Growing grains and contructing storehouses in which to keep the surolus, allowed for more stability in food supplies and hence greater population density was possible in these villages than in the Neolitic communities.

But growth of agrivulture and villge life soon led to another major transformation: the emergence of "civilized" societies. This transformation usually occurred in river valleys like the Tigris-Euphrates (Sumer, Mesopotamia), the Nile (Egypt), the Indus (India), and the Yellow River valley in China, among others. Primitive tribal life gave way to village and later city-state lifestyles where societies became more socially stratified and complex; usually written language was present, as were sophisticated relationships with deities and religious expressions such as rituals held a central place in the life of these cultures. These early religions shared a concern with things like water, earth, fire, fertility, renewal, a bountiful harvest, a successful hunt, etc. and usually employed symbols of varying abstraction to express their perception of the eternal truths in the world as they understood them.

The term civilization itself has its orgins in the Latin word civitas meaning city or city-state, so it is usually refers to people living in cities under more complex forms of social organization than could be found in villages or tribal societies. In this sense, the term civilized contrasts with primitive.Civilized societies, then, were based on sedentary agriculture, and featured social stratification and economic specialization. As one source oputs it, "They built cities, invented forms of writing, learned to make pottery and use metals, domesticated animals, and created fairly complex social structures with class systems."

In other words, some people or groups had to be able to sufficiently establish their dominance over other people or communities in order to get them to contribute grain for those living in the cities and to perform labor to build the buildings and monuments that constituted the cities. Therefore, civilized societies were less egalitarian and communitarian than primitive societies as leaders and ranked social classes began to emerge. As a rule, the groups who came to dominate not only had military might but also claimed privileged access to the gods, or to transcendant powers however they were defined. Other complex social institutions like military forces, educational institutions, scribes and record keeping organizations usually began to appear as well. So, we would look for evidence of:

a. economic specialization

b. simple cities: walls, barracks, temples, palace

c. bronze utensils for cermonial purposes at least

d. at least a 2-class system

e. writing at least for ceremonial purposes


Later this would evolve into:

f. more complex cities with markets and craft centers

g. some kind of a money system and market economy

h. use of iron for agricultural tools and weapons

i. writing for abstract purposes

j. greater number of social classes, i.e., rulers, priets or shamans, peasants, artisans, craftspeople, "merchants," etc.


In Chinese City States under the Shang and especially the Zhou (approximately 1500 BCE and 1000 BCE respectively), one would expect to find:

a. walled cities in which there lived a

b. a ruling military elite

c. who conducted religious rituals with elaborate and ornate bronze vessels for offerings of wine and food

d. who also practiced divination first with oracle bones and then with an elaborate system of hexagrams; and

e. enjoyed court music, dance, and song/poetry

f. kept records about ritual practices and the histories of their city states

As scholar David Keightley has pointed out, "It is unlikely that the full Shang state, except at its center, can be associated with a defined and bounded territory....The polity seems to have been conceived in terms of personal power (who was in control) and kinship associations (what relationship he had to the center)....The state itself was conceived of, not as Shang territory, but as a series of pro-Shang jurisdictions, each with its particular relationship to the center." So it was almost 2,000 years later in the Japanese archipelago when confederations of elite groups were emerging, building large burial mounds for their leaders, placing desired objects in these tombs, and were loosely united through sacrifical and ritual practices. In other words, government and rule was not about controlling territory, but managing elite leaders and stratifying them through sacrificial and ritual practices. That is why we have some probelms figuring out precisely when the earliest form of the state took shape in Japan.

Food for thought: how does the first empire, the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), differ from its Xia and Shang city-state predecessors?


BTW, just for comparative purposes, the earliest Jewish city-states with the first monarchs like Saul, David and Solomon, emerged about 1000 BCE, so around the same time as the Zhou Dynasty. Prior to that, Jewish communites were probably mostly tribal groups who received the teachings of Yaweh from one of their religious leaders, Moses, while wandering in the desert.


3. The third major revolutionary transformation of life on this planet was the Industrial Revolution which began with the phenomenal growth of knowledge stemming from the scientific revolution in Europe and culminating in the industrial revolutions of modern times. Indeed, this process is often called "modernization" in reference to a dynamic form of innovation based on the unprecedented growth in human knowledge and the systematic application of science to modern life in the form of technology.

Initially, this intellectual revolution that ushered in the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Age of Science and Materialsim, was purely a European phenomenon. But, beginning in the 19th century, the western imperial powers expanded to other parts of the globe and brought with them the fruits of the scientific revolution and the material progress that European powers had enjoyed. This put societies in East Asia and other parts of the world in a difficult spot: they either had to adopt some of the technology and social organization found in the west or do nothing and be completely exploited, dominated and controlled by them.

Another list of what we expect to find in emerging civilizations: