In order to define the term civilization, one must first understand the qualities that elevate a society to that next higher level of development beyond village or town. The Mesopotamian culture of Sumer provides examples of these key characteristics: specialized workers, industries, organized religion, infrastructure, architecture, distinctions of status and rank, and communication between people became more involved.
The word civilization comes from the Latin word for city, civis. Cities came to be associated with benefits to the cultures living in the ancient world. As people became concentrated in cities, they recognized the city benefits of stability, safety, productivity, profitable economy, government, art, literature, and science. By being able to provide sustainable food sources within one location, the society had more time to develop other aspects of their lives. They learned new skills in weaving, agriculture, and pottery making. However, they soon saw that expanding trade and interaction with others led to disputes, war, slavery, and destruction.
Consequently, civilization could be simply defined as progress or evolution of the humans from hunters and gathers too established well organized societies evolving in response to finding a solution to the basic human needs of supplying food, shelter, and protection. Cities grew because they provided a safe and secure environment for individuals to develop and learn new skills and behaviors. The negative side of this term is the unavoidable conflicts that came from competition and the desire for individual power.
The Sumer civilization, the first urban society to flourish in Mesopotamia provides examples of the characteristics required of a civilization. The Sumer civilization had five major cities: Uruk, Ur, Lagash, Eridu, and Kish. These five cities shared common culture and a common language. Before these great cities, came the important developments by the precursor to the city of Uruk, the city of Ubaid.
Ubaid’s ability to control the seasonal flood waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the building of effective irrigation systems, dikes, levees, simple channels, and collection pools all made possible the continued growth and development of culture. This group was already producing surpluses the made possible the support of specialized workers in construction, weaving, pottery making, and trade. Evidence has been uncovered that they had centralized structures which served the religious, economic, and administrative functions of their society.
Subsequently, around 4300 B.C.E., the Ubaid towns became bigger, more affluent, and more organized communities. One of these became the well-known city of Uruk, which is thought to have been the first Sumerian city-state. Uruk had all the main characteristics of a civilization as stated in the first paragraph, but it had an additional important attribute, it had the ability to write.
The Sumerians created a writing system to record and support their economic activities. They not only had a common culture and spoken word, but they now had a common written form of communication. This invention added another level of complexity to their culture. The Sumerian scribes had developed a specialized tool for writing by 3100 B.C.E. They made their durable stylus from reeds.
The Sumerian writing gets its name, cuneiform, from the Latin word cuneus which means wedge as in the wedge impression left by the reed stylus. Due to the survival of so many of the cuneiform written tablets, historians know more about the Sumerians economic, religious, political, and artistic drives than human society before this time.
Each of the Sumerian cities previously listed all used the cuneiform written form of communication. They also had in common great temples, ziggurats, through which the economic production of the city was distributed by the priests. The ziggurats eventually controlled the textile industry using enslaved women and children to produce their goods.
In the Sumerian cities you either worked for the temple priests or survived on small poor family farms. Sumerian city-states used slave labor. These slaves were primarily foreigners who were beaten, branded, and sold like any other product. Slavery appears to be as much a characteristic of civilization as any of the previously listed traits.
In conclusion, the term civilization appears to mean that a society has organized economic, political, and religious structures that facilitate city-state growth, productivity, and accumulation of wealth and power. The term civilization equates to a society who shares customs, beliefs, language, written communication, location, and the desire to protect themselves. As the result of competition for water, natural resources, and trade routes it appears that civilization as a term is similarly characterized by slavery, disputes, wars, death, and destruction.
The term civilization is complex because it describes very complex human developments. These developments have provided major advances in government, technology, writing, art, and creative accomplishments but not without blood-shed and suffering.