2 January 2011


The wealth and variety of the proto-civilizations of the Western hemisphere give us a hint of the character of the lost proto-civilizations of the Old World.

In many posts in which I have discussed prehistory, especially those concerned with the period of time starting with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution — a period of time that I call the Agricultural Paradigm — I have often referred to the societies of the Agricultural Paradigm as civilizations, and this is a usage that is atypical at best; I don’t know what it might be called at worst. “Civilization” is usually reserved to refer to larger-scale societies with cities, and may be further reserved for the emergence of historical consciousness and its explicit expression in written language, i.e., the historical period sensu stricto. Before the advent of cities and written language, it is more typical to refer to “cultures” rather than to “civilizations.”

From my point of view, the emergence of settled agricultural societies, if not coextensive with civilization proper, is certainly the beginning of civilization, will eventually become civilization, and represents something distinctly different human life during the nomadic paradigm that preceded it.

No rational person without some particular agenda would attempt to reduce the complexity of civilization to any one property or artifact, as, for example, the stirrup, the wheel, written language, or cities of a given size. All of these things emerge gradually in history. The earliest societies of settled agriculturalism did not have written languages, but they did have monuments such as megaliths that preserved certain kinds of knowledge and served a symbolic function. And while these early settled societies did not have cities as we know them today, but they did have interconnected villages and probably interconnected populations equal to cities that would emerge later.

It occurred to me today that I could introduce the term “proto-civilization” to distinguish the transitional period — or perhaps what we might call an incipient period — from clearly non-civilized conditions to clearly civilized conditions. In An unnamed principle and an unnamed fallacy (and which I later called the truncation principle) I made this observation: for any distinction that is made, there will be cases in which the distinction is problematic, but there will also be cases when the distinction is not problematic. This holds for the distinction between civilization and non-civilization as for other distinctions. The fact that there are problematic cases does not render the non-problematic cases irrelevant, and, vice versa, the fact of non-problematic cases does not render problematic cases irrelevant. Proto-civilization is the problematic case of civilization, and is the bridge between civilization and non-civilization.

We typically invoke the prefix “proto-” when we want to indicate an idea that is used before it is made explicit, that is to say, before it is formalized. I considered this in Putting Ideas First, in which I distinguished between ideas that precede their factual realization on the one hand, and on the other hand ideas that are suggested by an actually existing state-of-affairs. In the case of civilization, a state-of-affairs existed long before the idea of civilization was made explicit. But in projecting the idea of civilization backward in history, we already have the idea suggested by a particular cultural milieu, and the question becomes whether this idea can be applied further than the context in which it was initially proposed. (It would be worthwhile to formulate this in greater detail and rigor, but I will save this for another time.)

Since the many properties and artifacts that jointly constitute civilization emerge gradually, I choose to identify as civilizations those societies that first begin to exhibit these properties and artifacts, and I see this first in the settled agricultural societies of the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. As a matter of disambiguation vis-à-vis more conventional expositions of history, I will try to use the term proto-civilization for this period in future expositions.

If we make a comparison not between historically sequential cultures but between periodically distinct cultures from different traditions, the extent to which so called “stone age” cultures of settled agriculturalism are already fully developed civilizations becomes more obvious. Civilization in the western hemisphere developed according to a slightly different pattern than in the eastern hemisphere, though there is much in common among civilizations all over the world. However, the historical record preserves in significant detail an encounter between a stone age culture and a “civilized” culture, and that is the arrival or Europeans in the Western hemisphere.

The records kept by Europeans reveal to us the civilizations of the Western hemisphere in a way that they could not yet document themselves. When we study the political complexity of these societies, their degree of organization, the art and architecture, and the surviving fragments of life preserved in museums, we do not hesitate to call these cultures of the Western hemisphere civilizations. When we compare them to the civilizations of the Old World, there are family resemblances between the two, but also failures of resemblance. There was writing, but I think the glyphs on Mayan temples are more like the Runes of Scandinavia — an incantatory language more than a utilitarian language — than a pragmatic writing system for record keeping.

Examples such as this can easily be multiplied. The use of the wheel was unknown in the Western hemisphere for anything other than toys before Europeans. So the civilizations of the Western hemisphere had some of the artifacts and properties that we usually attribute to civilization, while they lacked others. But since their level of development was recorded by a people with a long established tradition of documentary record keeping, we know a great deal about these cultures — much more than we know about the European’s own stone age cultures. And I think that if we could go back in time and document the cultures of the Old World in the period of proto-civilization, that they would look a lot like the civilizations of the Western hemisphere.

The achievement of European civilization hid its own origins from itself (the origins of civilization were effaced by the later stages of civilization), and it was not until the late nineteenth century that European civilization began to understand its own prehistoric origins, but these same developments made it possible for the Europeans to recognize as civilizations the cultures they encountered, even if this encounter was violent and resulted in the annihilation of much of the culture encountered. There are many lessons to be learned from this clash of civilizations, and not least is the lesson that these stone age cultures were civilizations, and once we have learned this lesson we can see that the stone age cultures of the Old World were also civilizations. Though, as I noted above, I will try to remember to refer to them as proto-civilizations in order to reduce the confusion over identifying as civilizations cultures formerly identified as not yet civilized.

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2 Responses to “Proto-Civilization”

  1. Daniel Dumaresq said

    What do you call the semi-nomadic agricultural societies? Like the Iroquois for example. They move their village every dozen year or so. Many of such cultures practice slash-and-burn agriculture.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I would classify everything more complex that hunter-gatherer nomadism up the the threshold of civilization proper as proto-civilization. This would include semi-nomadic agricultural societies, transhumance, village agriculture, swidden agriculture, intensive gathering, and sites like Gobekli Tepe, which does not seem to have been associated with agriculture, but which must have been the site of considerable gatherings. Given these criteria there would still be cases of gray areas between non-civlization and proto-civilization, and between proto-civilization and civilization proper.

      Best wishes,


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