Why does man need civilization

To whom do we owe civilization ?: Reading sample: Interview "Phenomenon high culture"

Why our society is based on social inequality, why specialists were so important for the development of early high cultures, why even a slight change in the climate thousands of years ago could lead to a serious crisis - and why the greatest turning point in human history is based on curiosity: the Archaeologist Hermann Parzinger on the roots of our civilization

GEOkompakt: Professor Parzinger, in the 4th millennium BC The first high cultures emerged in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and a little later in the Indus Valley. What exactly is meant by this term?

Professor Hermann Parzinger: One can speak of a high culture when a form of society has developed that copes with the coexistence of large numbers of people. That, in turn, needs hierarchies, institutions and administration, without which we cannot regulate cooperation.

What are the characteristics of such an administration?

First and foremost because fixed institutions have been formed, both political and religious. Only certain people belong to the inner circle, so-called elites, and they often rule over countless followers. Political rulers set taxes, they control access to raw materials such as metal or to commercial goods such as textiles or jewelry. Priests also often take on leadership positions, they regulate the cultic-religious area in temples and communication with the gods. And then there is another very decisive factor that definitely characterizes a "real" high culture: the use of a writing system.

Why is scripture so important?

Without writing, no efficient administrative apparatus can be set up, and the organization of a city simply cannot be accomplished. But without writing there are no lists of kings and historiography. Contracts have to be concluded, balance sheets drawn up or complicated laws passed. And writing creates commitment. It may sound astonishing: But somehow we owe our civilization to the bureaucrats - those people who noted, listed and logged everything important and constantly developed the first writing systems. Basically, then, it is the writing that makes a real high culture; it is, so to speak, the last, the decisive step towards it.

And what's the first step?

It's a longer, complex process, not a single step. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, the Ice Age man was at the beginning of development. Back then, our ancestors still lived as hunters and lived from hunting, fishing and collecting edible plants. Then came a decisive turning point about 11,000 years ago, the Neolithic Revolution: Humans settled down, began to grow crops and breed domestic animals. Surplus is produced that can be traded. In the course of these changes, society is also changing and becoming more and more complex. And it is precisely such complex societies that always form the decisive prerequisite for the emergence of a high culture. There is a hierarchization within society, a system of different political and religious elites is emerging. This is often preceded by demographic change, combined with strong population growth.

And the engines for this development are agriculture and animal husbandry?

Exactly. Because nutrition suddenly becomes predictable. And through this the community can grow. We know that women in these early sedentary communities become much more likely to conceive than women of wandering predator groups. This laid the foundation for the population increase.

And so also for the hierarchy?

The more people live together, the more leaders are needed in such a society. In large communities, individuals inevitably take certain things into their own hands. These are people with special skills and charisma, who make decisions for others, who settle conflicts or organize the distribution of food. As long as they are successful, their reputation and authority within the community increase.

So can a high culture only build on social inequality?

In a way, yes, the roots of our civilization lie in the division of society. But after the Neolithic Revolution, ruling dynasties did not emerge immediately - if a leader dies, status and prestige are not automatically transferred to the descendants. The social position in these communities is probably based less on the birth than on certain skills such as organizational talent, strategic skill or even charisma. In early societies in particular, however, it is not just about political power. Central are people who have important knowledge - specialists with special know-how.

Why do they play such a prominent role?

Without specialists, an increasingly complex social structure could neither develop nor maintain.

What would happen?

Emerging cultures are constantly faced with new challenges. You have to imagine the following scenario: A settlement is established on a river. It is growing continuously and developing into a metropolitan area in which more and more people need to be cared for. In the area, ever larger agricultural areas have to be cultivated, sometimes with several harvests per year. That is becoming increasingly difficult. The natural rains are not enough for this, so sophisticated artificial irrigation systems are required. But: who decides exactly where a moat is to be dug, how it must be constructed, what has to be taken into account during construction, how much water may be directed onto a field? To do this, the community needs experts on the one hand, and management elites on the other, who then implement the supposedly correct recommendations for action.

Can you give another example?

This process can also be observed in many branches of the craft. Take ceramics, for example. In the beginning everyone still makes pottery for their own household use. The increased demand in large estates and cities leads to the invention of the fast potter's wheel, which enables mass production. But not everyone can use the potter's wheel, that is, a craft is created. Workshops are formed in which specialists work who have the necessary knowledge of materials, who know the ratio in which certain types of clay must be aged so that the vessels do not tear during fire, and who understand how efficient kilns work. Much more know-how is required in the processing of metal, which is only discovered as a material much later.

It's all about very complex chemical processes.

Exactly, the early metallurgists have amazing knowledge. Think of bronze: you can only get bronze if you mix tin with copper in a certain proportion - a metal that is so important that it gives its name to an entire epoch of human history. Bronze is harder and easier to cast than copper, but how do you come up with alloying copper with tin, especially since tin is very rare? That is a tremendous technological achievement.

And yet people at that time managed to develop tin deposits in large quantities in order to produce tons of bronze.

This is really amazing because there were few tin deposits in ancient times. In addition, some tin ores are difficult to see in nature. Sometimes tin ore is slightly yellow in color, but there are also deposits that can hardly be distinguished from the surrounding rock. This shows once again what a tremendous experience, how much expertise and what technical skill the ore prospectors and miners had thousands of years ago. And that doesn't stop with the mining of the metal ores, but also applies to the entire process of smelting and further processing through to the complicated end products. The metallurgists also develop extremely sophisticated manufacturing processes. For example the so-called "casting in lost form".

How does this procedure work?

First, the object that you want to cast out of bronze is molded out of beeswax - for example a statuette or a complicated piece of jewelry. Then you cover the wax structure with clay, let it dry and then burn it so that the clay coating is really firm. The melted wax then leaves a cavity inside this lump of clay that corresponds exactly to the desired shape. Now you can pour the molten metal into it. As soon as it has cooled down, you smash the clay mold, it breaks and is lost, hence the name. But it is indeed an extremely ingenious method of making even the most intricate metal objects.

That sounds like a real scientific enterprise that advances an increasingly complex society.

The term "scientific enterprise" is quite modern and therefore seems a bit unusual in connection with early cultures. But of course there is experimentation and research in early civilizations as well. And that in all kinds of disciplines. How else could one erect monumental structures thousands of years ago?

You mean that people back then had to understand something about statics?

erect neither pyramids nor temples or other large structures. And we know that builders were of tremendous importance in early cultures. Even before the first laws are written, there is already monumentality in architecture, as shown by cult sites with huge stone circles or gigantic grave structures. And in all these advances, in agriculture with irrigation technology, in metallurgy and in architecture, a special human trait can be felt like nowhere else, which has always been driving the cultural upswing - a mixture of curiosity, ambition, inventiveness and thirst for knowledge. Because people constantly strive to optimize their living conditions. As early as the Neolithic Age, Homo sapiens wanted to increase their economic productivity, push the boundaries of knowledge, and penetrate deeper and deeper into the secrets of life. Otherwise his living conditions would never have changed. The Neolithic Revolution would never have happened either.

So the greatest turning point in human history is based on curiosity?

On curiosity and the urge to optimize. The transition from the hunters of the Paleolithic to the early farmers of the Neolithic is ultimately due to experimentation with wild plants and wild animals. Cultivated plants are bred from wild plants, which produce a higher yield and greater nutritional value. This can only be achieved through lengthy trial and error and meticulous observation. It's almost more difficult with pets. Because wild animals must first be tamed in order to be able to keep them at all. Breeding makes pets smaller and more vulnerable than their wild ancestors. And above all: In captivity, wild animals are initially not as ready to mate as in the wild, which makes the process of domestication even more difficult. The road to the first domestic animals with sheep, goats, cattle and pigs is long and requires a lot of patience, determination and foresight from our Neolithic ancestors.

You can read the entire interview in GEOkompakt issue No. 37 "The Birth of Civilization"

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