Top Characteristics of Ancient Civilizations

What Do Archaeologists Mean When They Call a Society Complex?

The Great Wall of China, in winter
The Han Dynasty Great Wall of China is evidence of a quite complex ancient society. Charlotte Hu

The rise of complexity within a society is one of the great puzzles that archaeologists and historians have attempted to address many times. The fact that complexity happened is undeniable. Humans, who first organized and fed themselves as loosely associated bands of hunters and gatherers eventually developed into a society that has full-time jobs, political borders and detente, currency markets and hand-held computers, world banks and international space stations.

It is clear that our human ancestors lived a far simpler life. Somehow, in some cases, in some places, at some times, simple societies for one reason or another morphed into more and more complex societies, and some become civilizations. The reasons which have been proposed for this growth in complexity range from a simple model of population pressure--too many mouths to feed, what do we do now?--to the greed for power from a few individuals, even to the impacts of climate change--a prolonged drought, a flood, and tsunami, a depletion of a particular food resource. But those are quite controversial, and I suspect that most archaeologists would agree that the complexity process was gradual, over hundreds or thousands of years, and that each decision made in a society about the way forward occurred in its own peculiar, and likely mostly unplanned, way.

Nevertheless, the characteristics of burgeoning complexity in a prehistoric society are pretty much agreed upon, what I think of as falling roughly into three groups: Food, Technology, and Politics.

Food and Economics

  • a reduction in the amount of mobility ​and people instead settle down in one place for longer periods, called increasing sedentism
  • the need to produce a stable and reliable source of food for people, whether by growing crops, called agriculture; or raising animals for milking, plowing or meat, called pastoralism
  • the ability to quarry and process tin, copper, bronze, gold, silver, iron and other metals into usable objects, known as metallurgy
  • the creation of tasks that require people who can dedicate part or all of their time to complete, such as textile or pottery production, jewelry production and referred to as craft specialization
  • enough people to act as a workforce, be craft specialists and require the stable food source, referred to as high population density

Architecture and Technology

Politics and People Control

  • the rise of trade or exchange networks, in which communities share goods with one another, leading to
  • the presence of luxury and exotic goods, such as baltic amber), jewelry made from precious metals, obsidian, spondylus shell, and a wide variety of other objects
  • the creation of classes with different levels of power within the society ​called social stratification and ranking
  • centralized rule, to organize all those various things
  • an armed military force, to protect the community and/or the leaders from the community

Not all of these characteristics necessarily have to be present for a particular cultural group to be considered a civilization, but all of them are considered evidence of relatively complex societies.