Venus de Milo

When did we become civilized?  What does it mean to be civilized? The great civilizations go back to Sumer-4000BC, Babylon-2,000 BC, Assyria-1,000 BC, Egypt-3,000-300 BC, Greece- 600 BC, Persia-300 BC, Rome-100 BC- 500 AD, and many more, like the Hittites, the Phoenicians, the Indus Empire, the Carthaginians, not even mentioning the Shang, Qin, and Han Dynasties that fit in somewhere between.

But what started all this? Was it tool making? Was it agriculture? What exactly made man work together in groups to cooperate, hunt, work, fight, eat, and live together?  Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, put “Civilization” with the first healed femur (thigh bone) 15,000 years ago. She reasons that for that individual to survive long enough for his thigh bone to heal, there must have been a support structure to protect and feed such an individual.  In nature, if any living thing breaks a crucial bone for getting around, they do not survive very long.  They become food for other animals.  But evidence for humans working together much sooner does exist. Working together in groups seems to me to be the real beginning of civilization. 

Tools go back to before we were even the genus Homo.  Australopithecus afarensis, “Lucy,” or her relatives from the Olduvai Gorge, were likely the first toolmakers, 3.3 million years ago.  These were very primitive and evident only by cut marks on animal bones, indicating they used stones to butcher and eat animals.  Tools that could be identified are first seen in the Homo habilis era ca. 2 million years ago. Homo habilis was bigger brained, and more skilled. After all “habilis” means “handy.” The first evidence of growing grasses to harvest the seeds was found around the Sea of Galilee. They were dated to 20,000 BC, putting the beginning of agriculture back by at least 10,000 years than previously thought.

73,800 years ago, there was a mega volcano, in Sumatra, Mount Toba, that caused a ten-year nuclear winter with devastating consequences to all of the earth.  2800 km3 of lava were ejected compared to Mt. St. Helens, which was only 4 km3. Toba was obviously more devastating, tons of sulfur content shot into the stratosphere and a white ash that covered much of the earth.  Sunlight was blocked by the atmospheric dust and debris, and what little sunshine hit the earth was reflected back by the white ash covered large parts of the earth, at least 10cm thick.  Earth was already in an ice age, but this was the icing, so to speak, on the cake.  Much of the earth was deforested.  Plant and animal life were greatly reduced.  The human population shrank down to perhaps less than 3000 females that were capable of childbearing.  That became a genetic bottleneck.  And we know this because there is far too little genetic variation in what is found in us today, because the present population has a smaller number of ancestors than you would expect from a gene pool that was close to 2 million years old. Hominids that were in competition with us became extinct, such as Neanderthals, who were, by and large, bigger than H. sapiens, also stronger and much more violent.  Murderous tendencies were the order of the day. In that respect, Neanderthals were more like Chimpanzees who are patriarchal and aggressive, killing anyone, not of their group.  Even cannibalism was not unusual among Neanderthals.  What evolved from the remaining Homo sapiens that reproduced, was a race of humans, more like Bonobos, who are matriarchal and live together with no or little violence.  The tribes that sprang from this small group of remaining H. sapiens after the bottleneck released its stranglehold was smarter, kinder, and gentler.  Humans were more cooperative, and more likely to make friends with neighboring tribes.  Tools made from far away materials such as Obsidian proved that trade was part of this cooperative interaction of tribes.  It is likely that tools and language made their appearance in close association. To make and use tools requires communication. This cooperation allowed us to survive and eventually thrive once more. 

We banded together in larger groups in parts of the globe that had a better climate and, consequently, was more fertile.  The Fertile Crescent was the perfect location, warmer, and with plenty of water.  

Civilization comes from the Latin “civis” which means “city or citizen of a city.” The first “cities” appeared right after the Neolithic revolution, which changed our culture from hunter-gatherer to living in larger settlements that grew plants for food and domesticated animals. The first city was the city of Eridu, located near another contender for the first city, Uruk in Sumer, located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Uruk was abandoned, possibly because the Euphrates changed course. A great flood destroyed the ancient city, and in their mythology, the whole world was flooded as retribution against mankind for some perceived wrongdoing that offended the gods.  It was up to Gilgamesh, the King, to save humanity by building a large boat to house all the beasts of the land.   Sound familiar?  That flood story predated the Old Testament by 1000 years, when Moses, the traditional author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, left Egypt.  

We evolved socially into civilizations, one after the other, that created laws like the Code of Hammurabi, religions that were polytheistic and monotheistic, art, music, technology, and architectural marvels like the pyramids and the hanging gardens of Babylon.  Nevertheless, some civilizations did not cooperate as well as others.  Rather than sharing and helping, they had the territorial yours vs. mine attitude.  Interestingly, this aggressiveness is very dependent on our hormones.  Testosterone, the male hormone, is the cause of aggression in individuals and, by extension, nations.  While estrogen, oxytocin, and serotonin are the hormones of cooperation, friendship, and some say, love.  Civilization requires more collaboration and kindness than war, destruction, and conquering others. Perhaps more estrogen in our politics could give us a leg up to become more civilized.