I have a very stupid question before being able to contribute to this thread. I see we are all concentrated on the geographic factors, mainly soils and climates, and focusing on the agriculture aspects leading to urban civilizations.
The word 'civilisation', although common in appearance, has only been around for three centuries. It is derived from the Latin civis, meaning citizen, and civitas, meaning city, i.e. all citizens. But then we get into the issue of what a “city” actually is….
I do wonder how we should define civilization, I guess we are using the classical and Eurocentric elements. The term “civilization” as it is used today basically means an archaeological culture that formed an early state.
There is a high degree of task specialization and social stratification. It is characterized by complex societies with division of labor, technological advancement, intensive agriculture, urbanization, systems of writing, monumental construction, and long distance trade and communication. Religion and art are sometimes added to the list.
In other words, a civilization is basically a mode of living. It permits large concentrations of people to live a strictly sedentary lifestyle, within contiguous power structures, over areas that span hundreds of miles.
The non-city-based cultures, both agricultural and hunting and gathering, may have been better suited to the rain-forest environments in parts of central and Western Africa. Is a network of villages or moving pastoralists a civilization?
Should we also consider nomads (fully or not) and seafarers as civilizations? Or even city-states? And are we constrained by specific datations or can we move up to 1899?
10,000 years ago, this iconic desert was unrecognizable. A new hypothesis suggests that humans may have tipped the balance
I also think that no civilization did simply appear out of the blue and that geography isn’t the most important factor. It seems that the ability to absorb immigrants and conquerors or to import cultural and technological novelties created elsewhere is the most important factor (
"civilizational exchange” and the “civilizational co-evolution”).
Civilizations can also block or inhibit other civilizations through wars or by their mere existence. The existence of Rome inhibited further development of the Celts and Etruscans and blocked the expansion of neighboring civilizations.
On the other hand, it did prolong some civilizations or their features, transmitted knowledge to our (western) civilizations and pushed further development in remote areas that otherwise would have been slower or not so advanced naturally.
Late Roman civilization also safeguarded and helped Christianity, an outsider, weaker and foreign religion leading to the building of other civilizations on its "ruins". Remember that we do define civilizations artificially and cut timeline in artificial time periods. I will just ask if the Roman civilization really died and what does advancement mean without answering directly.
The biggest motivators for the advancement of a society are how they react with other people’s and trade. And the biggest factor in reacting with other people is the ability to travel. In this, the geographies of Europe, Middle East and Asia were a far better suited than Africa with relatively easy land routes, an abundance of natural harbors, navigable rivers and well established trade routes. But don’t forget that neighboring and older civilizations did help Europe to develop. There would have been no Rome, without Greek influence and no Greek without Persia, no Persia without ….
Ancient Kingdoms of Middle East before the bronze age collapse already had trade routes between each other’s, a lingua franca and diplomatic relations.
The world has always been far more interconnected than we currently think. Ancient trade routes have existed since the Stone Age and we should avoid underrating the possibility of seafaring in trade exchange in that period.
An example of rarely taught subject the trans American trade routes :
You can find similar long trade routes between civilizations on all continents, without forgetting the role of nomads or pastoralists in knowledge and goods transmission. Pristine civilizations don’t’ really exist.
What we do consider a complex urban civilization is often the result of a broader system/network made of various civilizations and cultures (similar or not) cross pollinating each other’s.
Usually early civilizations were made of city networks communicating with each other’s and in contact or even connected with other early civilizations. I think the existence of a broader trading system and means of communication (rivers, trade routes or ocean currents) should be discussed.
If you look at the geography of places that have produced the great civilizations of the past you see cradles of civilization, with the emphasis on “cradles”, each society that developed into a great civilization was to some degree isolated, protected, from the peoples around it by geography, this semi-isolation both protected the increasingly wealthy developing civilization from plunder and served to create national identities, if you look at Europe, Middle East, East Asia, Japan, South Asia the geography is broken up by mountains, deserts and seas, if you look at the Americas the Aztec and Inca civilizations were also protected from their neighbors by terrain. Terrain that served the same function as an egg shell or front door, allowing the control of who enters without being too isolated from external world (trade and war).
If you then go and look at languages where civilization developed you get large geographical blocks with people speaking or understanding the same languages, helping to build larger blocks with a common or similar identity.
A big question is also the need of both writing and literacy. It’s usually believed that through written language, we convey beliefs, record knowledge, and explore our common humanity. It’s forgetting that literacy was really low in the past and that human memory is prodigious. Iliad and Odyssey weren’t always written. Western African griots were living archives and deposited of oral tradition and knowledge, similarly to Celtic bards. Such a social function of history-tellers surely existed in most other cultures, but was lost. Are literacy and writing vital to civilisation?
I think it depends on how you define civilization. If you start from the word meaning "urban culture" then an administration and bookkeeping are necessary, which seemingly can’t be achieved without literacy. Generally, if there is a central government, both literacy and writing seem necessary. Is it true?
If you assume a purely cultural and linguistic community, a written culture is not necessary. There are tribes in Brazil that still do not know any script.
Until they met the Romans, the Celts did not have any script of their own and were nevertheless a powerful civilization. There are a few documents around 400 BC, but they were written in Greek or Phoenician letters. They were familiar with writing, but it was forbidden for religious reasons (!!!) Only graffiti or engravings on swords were common. The Ogham script is an "invention" from the 5th century AD and is based on Germanic runes.
It’s true that past civilizations started without writing systems. Progress in organization and trade is still accelerated by the ability to keep records, but writing is not the only way to keep records.
Agriculture is, for most historians and archeologists, the first step towards building an urban civilization as it yields far higher returns in food for the effort put in than with hunting/gathering, this gives people leisure time, time to think contemplate and invent, it enables a society in which a smaller fraction of the population is devoted to food production with other people being able to specialize in other endeavors, as if social specialization and social complexity only appeared with cities …
Unfortunately the development of agriculture is very vulnerable in an unstable setting, livestock are vulnerable to poaching, you have to wait for months for your crops to grow, if there are no clear borders controlled by your government your farming enterprise is more vulnerable, the risks too high, better to just hunt and gather.
It takes a large group of people sharing a common identity living without a continuous threat from neighbors – stability – to build an urban civilization, which is why they were rarer than non urban ones.
A little off-topic :
Coming back to geographic factors, we must never underrate them. Here is why Europeans colonized the rest of the world and not the opposite. It did also determine where ancient and modern colonies appeared.
You can also add the rivers systems and reliefs to further understand it, then deserts and forests, climates, etc.
Alternate history and comparative history are good tools for professional archeologists, historians, anthropologists, even sociologists or economists, but they can only be well used if we accept the fact that our past was constrained by multiple factors (not only geography).