Civilization: How many origins?

I believe it is still generally believed that all the civilizations (meaning, roughly, literate, centrally organized, city building cultures) of the Old World can trace their “inspiration” back to ancient Sumeria (or possibly Egypt). That is to say, although different peoples implemented it in very different ways, the idea that it is possible to record speech through markings, and that this makes it possible to organize your society on a large scale (and that it is advantageous to do so) originated in Sumeria and spread from there.

If this is a badly outdated view, I am sure someone will tell me.

My question, however, is what happened in the New World. As I understand it, the idea of civilization arose independently in Mesoamerica, probably starting with the Olmecs (although I am not sure whether they had a writing system, or if that arose later). But what about Peruvian civilization, the Incas? (I believe there is evidence of some other quite advanced cultures in the Andean region before the Incas, but I do not know how advanced.) Did the “idea” of civilization somehow spread from Mesoamerica to the Andean region, or did Andean civilization have an entirely independent origin? (Or have we no idea?)

I hope this will not degenerate in a debate about what counts as a civilization. Can we stipulate that Maya, Aztecs, Incas, Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Indians, Chinese, Greeks, Romans, and modern "Westerners" all had or have civilizations, but that preliterate tribal nomads and agriculturalists did and do not (not that there's anything wrong with that)?

As far as I know, Mesoamerican and South American civilizations are quite independent in origin. The urban centers at Caral and other nearby sites have been dated to about 2600 BC, or a good 1,200-1,400 years before even the Olmecs in Mesoamerica. They were followed by various civilizations including the Chavin, Nazca, and Moche. The Incas themselves were latecomers who didn’t really begin expanding until after 1400 AD.

Various domestic crops and technologies spread between the Mesoamerican and South American civilizations via Panama, but the area in between never became dominated by urbanized civilizations. Panama itself never advanced beyond the stage of large villages, and had no monumental architecture or large ceremonial sites comparable to those of the civilizations to the north and south.

Incidentally, the South American civilizations lacked the kind of writing system that every other civilization has had, that is, one written in figures on some material such as clay, papyrus, stone, etc. Instead they used a system of knotted strings called quipu, which have even been found at Caral.

I think a strong case can be made that China developed this independently of Mesopotamian examples.

I’d be interested in knowing what these crops and technologies were.

Maize, bell peppers, and avocados were domesticated in Mesoamerica, and spread into South America through Panama. Cassava, sweet potato, pineapple, and papaya spread north from South America.

Some mettalurgical methods for gold spread into Panama from South America, but I am not certain if they traveled further north.

Thanks. I did not know about Caral (or the Chavin or Moche, come to that - I have heard of Nazca but don’t know much about it). If Caral was the earliest New World civilization, might it not be possible that the “idea” spread from Peru to Mesoamerica rather than vice-versa as I had assumed? I do not see why a lack of urbanized cultures in the areas between should necessarily rule that out.

Looking at your link, though, it seems that Caral had few of the attributes we usually associate with civilization, apart from large settlements and maybe some degree of large scale social organization. If we count Caral as civilized, it appears we would probably have to count Catalhoyuk too, and so preempt the Sumerians. (I guess you can’t really get very far with issue without getting into what “civilization” means :frowning: )

I have heard about Inca quipu, but I did not know they pre-dated the Inca. According to Wiki, there is still some dispute as to what sorts of information could be encoded in quipu. It seems incredible that the Inca could have organized such a large empire without a true writing system.

If that is so, did it spread westward from China at all? Could, say, the Indus Valley culture have been inspired by China? (Though I guess the Indus area is nearer to Mesopotamia.)

I am certainly no expert, and checked Wikipedia:

“The cradle of civilization is any of the possible locations for the emergence of civilization. It is usually applied to the Ancient Near Eastern Chalcolithic (Ubaid period, Naqada culture), especially in the Fertile Crescent (Levant and Mesopotamia), but also extended to sites in Anatolia and the Persian Plateau, besides other Asian cultures situated along large river valleys, notably the Indus River in South Asia and the Yellow River in China.”
Wiki mentioned most of the places I thought of, but overlooked the Upper and/or Lower Nile Valleys.

But Wiki’s mention of Anatolia and Persia shows that, contrary to njtt’s wish, illiterate pastoralist/farmer cultures are considered “cradles of civ” by wiki.

What about writing? Wiki shows 3100 BC for hieroglyphs, and ca 3400 BC for Sumerian cuneiform. I don’t recall reading of speculated connections between these two early scripts.

For Harappan, Wiki writes: “The script generally refers to that used in the mature Harappan phase (2600 BC), which perhaps evolved from a few signs found in early Harappa after 3500 BC.” The Harappan or Indus script has never been decoded, nor its underlying language family identified.

Based on my readings, I’d not postulate a single origin for Old World civilization, much less guess its location.

Realistically, almost every need of an empire is numeric - how much land, how many people, how much of each crop or product, and as it was pointed out, they added non strings to the quipus like shells…

Since so many were destroyed, we don’t know for certain, but if I were going to try and do record keeping that was almost entirely just numerical, you could start with the master quipu for a town, it has a clay medallion with an eagle and cui on it symbolizing the town. The set of strings for population could be dyed blue, for crops green, for clay goods white, for wood products brown, for fabric red. an additional tiny medallion at the end of each string with a drawing of a man, woman, child, llama, drop spindle, bowl, chile … and the different configuration of knots totalling up the numbers. I understand that many quipu had the main strings that then fluffed out into multiple substrings.

See, the interesting thing about writing, they have found tokens in jars with various numbers of pebbles in [I want to say Harappa] Mohenjo Daru I think. I would have to have rob go out into the barn and rummage around for the Archeology magazine from about 10 years ago, or I will have to spend some quality google time looking for it. It is theorized that that is how writing actually sort of started, a more condensed way of tallying goods.

the Dope’s favorite reference book on this subject is
Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel.
a fascinating book, crammed with millions of interesting facts.
(and somewhat fewer interesting conclusions)
Wiki summary here

While we can’t prove it, it seems very unlikely to me at that early a date. I don’t think there was much physical movement of people or goods between the areas, even much later in time. In Panama, for example, the local cultures seem to have grown up in place over thousands of years. Trade with Mesoamerica, and contacts with South America that brought in gold-crafting technology, didn’t develop until 500 AD or later. Crops moved between the two continents by being adopted successively by adjacent cultures, rather than through long-distance trade.

How do you envisage that the “idea” of civilization would have been transmitted across thousands of miles of uncivilized territory, between groups that didn’t speak the same language or have similar cultures and which were often hostile, at a time when there was no long-distance trade? “Psst. They have cities in Peru! Pass it on!”:slight_smile:

I don’t think the idea of civilization needs to be transmitted. Crops, animals, maybe the idea of writing - but not civilization itself. Villages will “civilize” naturally when certain conditions are met: critical population density, food surpluses, some critical resource (like water) that can be controlled, etc. Farmers will aggregate when conditions are such that it advantageous for them to so. Division of labor will arise when there is a surplus of food and a congregation of people. Eventually some people will figure out how to control resources and exert power over their neighbors. As soon as you know it…civilization. It’s human nature.

Agriculture is actually pretty ancient. Most nomadic people have some form of agriculture. What you need for civilization is a crop that’s easy to grow, easy to harvest, and easy to store. It appears this happened multiple times with various crops.

The China based civilizations used mainly rice cultivation while the Indus valley, Tigris, and Nile civilizations used wheat and barley that were originally cultivated in what is now Turkey. The mezo-american civilizations used corn and potatoes.

Another thing that seemed important is the ability to marshal resource. All civilizations centered around areas that required irrigation for their crops and control of the rivers. It appears that this type of organization sprung up in various areas at various times.

The first signs of extensive village life appeared in Turkey. Villages appear when not everyone has to be involved in the production of food and you can have people who specialize in other skills. Rice based agricultural villages appeared later in China.

Later on, we start seeing major organizations first appear in the Northern Tigris and Euphrates area, and only later on do we start seeing the four civilizations appear. It appears that agriculture first appeared in Turkey and spread to the Indus valley, the Nile valley, and the Tigris/Euphrates area which is why all of these areas cultivate wheat and barley as their crops. Meanwhile, the Yellow River area cultivated rice and spread to the rest of the far East. Corn spread from civilizations based in Mexico while potatoes spread from civilizations based in South America.

So, we see agriculture as something many societies develop on their own, and that as agriculture grows and the needs for social organization grows, civilizations tend to get created over and over again in multiple places and arise more or less independently from each other.

To nitpick a little, corn/maize was domesticated in Mexico and eventually spread to almost all of the Americas with a suitable climate. Potatoes were domesticated in the Andes, but never spread out of South America in pre-Columbian times.

I find the term “civilization” unclear as used in the OP. Does it mean a state-level organization (or empire), food production, a writing system, trade routes, sedentism …? These haven’t necessarily appeared together. “Civilization” is like “progress” … rather a subjective concept. It’s clearer to use a more specific and less loaded term.