Book Review: The First Civilizations

The First Civilizations:  The Archaeology Of Their Origins, by Glyn Daniel

What is civilization?  In Southern Europe there were a variety of cities that were built by speakers of unknown and lost languages, and few books are written about them or even mention them at all.  The main reason for this appears to be the fact that these lost cities did not have a written language, which has hindered our understanding of what they thought.  To be sure, there are civilizations in the ancient world whose written languages we still cannot understand–Elamite and the Indus River Civilizations come to mind–but we know that they wrote and literacy counts.  This book attempts to explore common threads in civilization that demonstrate the subtle form of influence and look at how it is that civilizations formed in the first place.  The author posits seven original civilizations in the ancient world:  Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus River, China, Mesoamerica, the Mayans, and Peru.  There are likely a few other ones that could be added as well if they were better understood, but this certainly amounts to a good start and there is a lot that this book has to offer as a basic discussion of the archaeology of the ancient world.

This book is about 200 pages or so and it is divided into eight chapters.  The book begins with a list of illustrations and figures, their sources, a chronological table, as well as a preface.  This leads to a chapter on savagery, barbarism (where some material culture is present), and civilization and the difference between the three, including the presence of cities and literacy for civilization in the author’s view (1).  The author’s discussion of the discovery of the first civilization (2) leads to a look at the origin of civilization in Sumer (3).  After that comes a discussion of the diffusion of civilization to Egypt and the Indus River valley (4) and then after that to the Yellow River valley in China (5).  After that the author spends some time discussing the development of civilization in the Americas (6), as well as a look at what archaeology had, by 1968, revealed about these civilizations in the Americas (7).  After that discussion the book ends with seminar notes, books for further reading, as well as an index.

That is not to say that this book is by any means perfect.  The author has a mistaken view of biblical chronology that leads him to view Genesis as a 9th century text when it was likely written long before at least to start, and substantially complete in the mid-1400’s or so if not before.  Given that the author’s interest in ancient history extends far beyond the Middle East, though, the author is on more solid ground when talking about the pattern of civilizations to occur in areas close to river valleys in the Old World, and the way in which knowing that civilization had been accomplished somewhere, and the possibilities of trade and knowledge coming from existing civilizations likely helped later areas that were in the process of trying to work out the process of civilization as well.  The author speaks a lot about the way that fully developed bronze work in China signifies that the technology might have come from elsewhere, like the Middle East.  It is hard to know these things but the author does a good job at presenting some interesting ideas about the diffusion of the idea of civilization and the potential of simultaneous development of the key set of qualities involved in the start of civilization, as well as the difference between savagery and barbarism from an archaeological and material perspective.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Biblical History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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