The so-called "Group of 8" (G8) is an organization of the eight wealthiest democracies in the world. Seven of the eight countries are part of Western civilization: the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia. The only G8 member from outside Western civilization is Japan. Japan is usually considered its own civilization.
Representatives from the G8 usually meet once a year, and discuss international issues, including the spread of disease, economic development, terrorism, and climate change.
Cradle of Civilization
The southern part of the modern country of Iraq is called the "Cradle of Civilization." The worlds first cities, writing systems, and large-scale government developed there.
Civilization is a complex way of life that came about as people began to develop urban settlements.
The earliest civilizations developed after 3000 BCE, when the rise of agriculture allowed people to have surplus food and economic stability. Agricultural populations advanced beyond village life, and many people no longer had to practice farming at all.
Civilizations first appeared in Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq, then in Egypt. Civilizations thrived in the Indus Valley by 2500 BCE, in China by 1500 BCE and in Central America, what is now Mexico, by 1200 BCE. Civilizations developed on every continent except Antarctica.
Characteristics of Civilization
All civilizations have certain characteristics. These include: (1) large population centers; (2) monumental architecture and unique art styles; (3) written language; (4) systems for administering territories; (5) a complex division of labor; and (6) the division of people into social classes.
Large population centers, or urban areas (1), allow civilizations to develop. People, like farmers, who live outside urban centers but sell their goods and services there, are still part of that region’s civilization. The huge urban center of Teotihuacan, in modern-day Mexico, for example, had more than 100,000 residents between 300 and 500 CE. The development of the Teotihuacan civilization was made possible in part by the rich agricultural land surrounding the city. As the land was cultivated, fewer farmers could supply more food, such as corn and beans, to more people.
All civilizations work to preserve their legacy by building large monuments and structures (2). This is as true today as it was thousands of years ago. Western civilization, another name for civilizations of European origin (which include Australia and much of North America), has monuments like Mount Rushmore, in the U.S. state of South Dakota, or the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, France. These monuments represent the civilization that made them.
Similarly, pyramids and other monumental structures have represented Egypt for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptian civilization is also represented by a distinct art style. Characteristics of this art style include hieroglyphics and stiff human figures.
Written communication (3) is another element that all civilizations share. Writing allows systems for trade, government, and thought to develop. Written language also allows civilizations to record their own history. The world's oldest known written language is Sumerian, which developed in Mesopotamia. Sumerian civilization began keeping records about 3100 BCE. Sumerian writing was called cuneiform, meaning it was made up of different collections of wedge (triangle) shapes. Just like written records of modern civilizations, Sumerian cuneiform kept track of taxes, grocery bills, and laws for things like stealing.
Civilization comes from the Latin word "civis," meaning "citizen." Latin was the language of ancient Roman civilization, which stretched from the land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea all the way to Scotland in the north and the Black Sea to the east. To rule an area that large, the Romans, based in what is now central Italy, needed an effective system for administering territories (4).
Romans used a variety of methods in this system. They built a network of roads so communication between far-away territories was quick and easy. Roads also made travel by the Roman military much easier. Romans built structures of their civilization everywhere they went: aqueducts to supply fresh water to towns and baths for improved hygiene, for example. They also spread the Latin language. The so-called "Romance languages" (Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan, and Italian) are called that because they all developed from the Roman language: Latin. Having a similar language made communication and leadership easier for Rome in its far-flung territories.
Romans used local leaders, as well as Romans, to administer the law in their territories. Residents were more familiar with their own leaders, and more likely to follow their instructions. Jewish leaders worked with Roman authorities in what is now Israel, while British leaders often worked with Romans on the island of Great Britain, for example. Some people born in Roman territories eventually became Roman emperors: The emperor Constantine, for instance, was born in what is now Serbia. This interaction reduced conflict between Rome and its territories.
It didn’t reduce all conflict, of course. People who live in territories or colonies are rarely happy with the administration, or leadership, of a foreign civilization. Ancient Rome endured many revolts, from North Africa to Great Britain. Western Civilization has endured its own revolts, many of them successful. The South American independence movement led by Simon Bolivar against Spain in the early 19th century led to the independence of the countries of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Panama. Mahatma Gandhi led a successful, nonviolent revolt against British rule in the 20th century, which resulted in independence for the nation of India.
Civilizations are also marked by complex divisions of labor (5). This means that different people perform specialized tasks. In a purely agricultural civilization, most members of the community know how to farm, cook, and hunt. In complex civilizations, farmers may cultivate one type of crop and depend on other people for clothing, shelter, and information.
Civilizations that depend on trade are especially marked by divisions of labor. The city of Timbuktu, in the modern country of Mali, was an important trading center for several African civilizations. Residents of Timbuktu specialized in trading such goods as gold, ivory, or slaves. Other residents provided food or shelter for caravans traveling on camels from the Sahara Desert. The urban center of Timbuktu was also a center of learning. Its division of labor included not only merchants, but doctors, religious leaders, and artists.
The last element that is key to the development of civilizations is the division of people into social classes (6). This is a complex idea that can be broken down into two parts: income and type of work performed. Changing classes has traditionally been difficult and happens over generations.
Social classes can mean groups of people divided by their income. Western civilization usually divides economic class into wealthy, middle-class, and poor. This is not always the case, however. In medieval civilizations of Europe, there were few social classes based on income. Kings and queens had enormous amounts of money and land. Serfs, or people who worked the land, had almost nothing. Eventually, a merchant economic class developed.
Social class can also refer to the type of work people perform. There are many divisions of social class. In the ancient civilization of China, there were four classic types of social classes. Scholars and political leaders (known as shi) were the most powerful social class. Farmers and agricultural workers (known as nong) were the next most-powerful group. Artists (known as gong), who made everything from horseshoes to silk robes, were the next order of social class. At the bottom of the social classes were the merchants and traders, who bought and sold goods and services. Known as shang, these merchants often had more money than the other classes but had a lower social status.
Development of Civilization
Civilizations expand through trade, war, and exploration. Usually, all three elements must be present for a civilization to grow and remain for a long period of time. Ancient Rome is a good example.
The ancient Romans traded goods, services, and ideas with the lands they had contact with. They traded in silver from the island of Great Britain, spices such as cloves from partners in what is now India, and exotic animals such as giraffes from civilizations in Africa. They also traded ideas with civilizations such as Greece, where Romans were exposed to the ideas of democracy and citizenship.
Roman civilization also developed a powerful military. One of Rome’s most important political figures was actually a general: Julius Caesar. Caesar conquered Gaul, what is today France and Belgium, through years of war and armed conflict. Gaul remained a part of Roman civilization for hundreds of years.
Exploration was the foundation of Roman civilization. Early Romans explored the land around the Mediterranean, seeing what areas were good for agriculture (such as Gaul) and what areas had large trading centers (such as Egypt, which traded with almost all of Africa). These early explorations allowed Rome to grow from a kingdom in what is today central Italy to a republic expanding across the Mediterranean region to an empire that spread across three continents—Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Fall of Civilizations
Many civilizations have flourished and then failed or fallen apart. There are many reasons for this. The reasons can be internal, such as conflict within the civilization. It can also be external, such as a natural disaster.
Internal conflict may have led to the fall of the Anasazi civilization, in what is today the southwestern part of the United States. The Anasazi civilization developed around 1200 BCE. The Anasazi seem to have abandoned their complex urban areas in the cliffs at Mesa Verde, Colorado, and other sites around 1300 CE. The disappearance of the Anasazi civilization remains a mystery, although many scientists say groups competed for land and resources. The Anasazi people never disappeared, of course: Groups developed their own, competing civilizations after the Anasazi civilization migrated or fell apart. These groups include the Pueblo and Hopi civilizations.
Some anthropologists, people who study cultures and civilizations, believe that misuse of the environment may have helped cause the collapse of some civilizations. The Rapa Nui civilization of Easter Island collapsed because of deforestation. Residents cut down almost all the island's palm trees before new ones could grow. Trees were used for building homes and community structures, and were burned for firewood. Trees were also used to construct tools, such as large sleds, to transport huge ceremonial stone structures known as moai. Easter Island is isolated from other islands in the South Pacific, as well as South America. The Rapa Nui civilization had no trading partners, so they could not trade for trees or finished goods, such as chopped firewood or wooden sleds. People first arrived on Easter Island around 300 or 400 CE. By the time Europeans arrived on the island in 1722, the palm forests of Easter Island were gone.
Some anthropologists believe that modern societies’ use of natural resources will affect future civilizations. Oil, coal, and natural gas are natural resources that, like the palm trees on Easter Island, may be used more quickly than they can be replenished.
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry abandon Verb
to desert or leave entirely.
to oversee, manage, or be in charge of.
the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).
Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture Anasazi Noun
(1200 BCE-1300 CE) people and culture native to what is now the southwestern United States. Also called Ancestral Puebloans.
person who studies cultures and characteristics of communities and civilizations.
a pipe or passage used for carrying water from a distance.
style and design of buildings or open spaces.
(Before the Common Era) designation for the years before the year 1, or 1 CE.
prejudiced or intolerant of a person or group not like oneself.
type of large pack animal with one or two humps on its back.
group of people who travel together for safety and companionship through difficult territory.
used for a ritual or formal occasion.
physical, cultural, or psychological feature of an organism, place, or object.
behavior of a person in terms of their community.
complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.
Encyclopedic Entry: civilization class Noun
division in society based on income and type of employment.
dark, solid fossil fuel mined from the earth.
to fall apart completely.
sharing of information and ideas.
to work against someone or something else for an award or acknowledgment.
a disagreement or fight, usually over ideas or procedures.
cradle of civilization Noun
vague area credited with the earliest development of cities and civilizations, usually located around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Encyclopedic Entry: crop cultivate Verb
to prepare and nurture the land for crops.
learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.
written language made up of different collections of wedge or triangle shapes.
destruction or removal of forests and their undergrowth.
system of organization or government where the people decide policies or elect representatives to do so.
developed country Noun
a nation that has high levels of economic activity, health care, and education.
person who provides medical care to people or animals.
having to do with money.
useful or able to perform a task.
Eiffel Tower Noun
(1889) monument in Paris, France.
ruler of an empire.
group of nations, territories or other groups of people controlled by a single, more powerful authority.
foreign or strange.
study and investigation of unknown places, concepts, or issues.
spread over a great distance.
the art, science, and business of cultivating the land for growing crops.
wood that is burned for warmth, cooking, or cleaning.
to thrive or be successful.
Western European civilization that became a major part of ancient Rome.
highest rank of leadership in armies and air forces.
time between an organism's birth and the time it reproduces.
large mammal with a long neck, native to Africa.
valuable chemical element with the symbol Au.
social class in ancient China made up of artists and craftsmen.
system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.
Great Britain Noun
large island in Western Europe consisting of the countries of England, Scotland, and Wales.
Group of 8 (G8) Noun
eight wealthiest nations in the world: the United States, Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Russia, and Canada. The European Union is also included in the G8.
hieroglyphics Plural Noun
written language using images to represent words.
study of the past.
C-shaped thick metal sheet nailed to a horse's foot to protect it from damaging surfaces.
science and methods of keeping clean and healthy.
wages, salary, or amount of money earned.
of lower quality.
to set one thing or organism apart from others.
hard, white substance that forms the teeth or tusks of some animals.
having to do with the religion or culture of people tracing their ancestry to the ancient Middle East and the spiritual leaders Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Julius Caesar Noun
(100 BCE-44 BCE) leader of ancient Rome.
type of government with a king or queen as its leader, or the land ruled by that king or queen.
Encyclopedic Entry: kingdom labor Noun
work or employment.
language of ancient Rome and the Roman Empire.
material, ideas, or history passed down or communicated by a person or community from the past.
Mahatma Gandhi Noun
(Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, 1869-1948) leader of Indian independence movement.
having to do with the Middle Ages (500-1400) in Europe.
person who sells goods and services.
area between the Tigris and Euphrates River in Iraq.
way of doing something.
middle class Noun
people and culture characterized by incomes between the working class and the wealthy.
to move from one place or activity to another.
incorrect or ignorant use of resources.
very large stone figures carved and displayed on Easter Island.
large structure representing an event, idea, or person.
very large, serious, and important.
Mount Rushmore Noun
(1941) mountain in the U.S. state of South Dakota carved by Gutzon Boglum with the faces of U.S. presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt.
natural gas Noun
type of fossil fuel made up mostly of the gas methane.
Encyclopedic Entry: natural gas natural resource Noun
a material that humans take from the natural environment to survive, to satisfy their needs, or to trade with others.
series of links along which movement or communication can take place.
social class in ancient China made up of farmers and agricultural workers.
fossil fuel formed from the remains of marine plants and animals. Also known as petroleum or crude oil.
Penelope Spheeris Noun
(1945-present) American filmmaker.
political system Noun
method of leadership and government.
people and culture characterized by very low income.
population center Noun
settlement with many residents, often an urban area.
style of loud, energetic music.
three-dimensional shape with a square base and triangular sides that meet in a point.
community or government policy of denying certain rights to people based on their ancestry, usually signified by skin color.
Rapa Nui Noun
people and culture native to Easter Island. Also another name for Easter Island.
religious system Noun
method of spiritual practice and worship.
to stand for a person, community, or idea.
system of government where power rests in citizens who vote and representatives who stand for those citizens. The United States is a republic.
research station Noun
structure or structures built for scientific study of the surrounding region, possibly including residential and lab facilities.
path, usually paved, for vehicles to travel.
Romance languages Noun
spoken and written forms of communication that share a root in the Latin language: Spanish, French, Italian, Catalan, Portuguese, and Romanian.
Sahara Desert Noun
world's largest desert, in north Africa.
type of slave forced to work on land owned by others in return for protection.
social class in ancient China made up of merchants.
chemical element with the symbol Ag.
alike or resembling.
Simon Bolivar Noun
(1783-1830) Venezuelan revolutionary.
to study, work, or take an interest in one area of a larger field of ideas.
tasty and aromatic plant substances used in cooking.
(5000 BCE-2000 BCE) ancient civilization in what is now southern Iraq.
more than what is needed or wanted.
money or goods citizens provide to government in return for public services such as military protection.
(200-750) ancient civilization in what is now central Mexico.
land an animal, human, or government protects from intruders.
buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.
trading partner Noun
country or community that exchanges goods and services with another country or community.
one of a kind.
urban area Noun
developed, densely populated area where most inhabitants have nonagricultural jobs.
Encyclopedic Entry: urban area village Noun
small human settlement usually found in a rural setting.
Encyclopedic Entry: village wealthy Adjective
Western Civilization Noun
civilizations of European origin.