Archaeologists recognize that in some cases, in some places, at some times, simple societies for one reason and another morph into more and more complex societies, and some become civilizations.
The reasons for this are quite controversial, but the characteristics of complexity recognized in ancient civilizations are pretty much agreed upon:
Ranking and Social Inequality
Different persons within a society have different quantities or qualities of power, rights and responsibilities.
Different tasks are assigned to specific people, called craft specialization: the assignment of specific tasks to specific people or subsets of people in a community. Allows a community to get large projects completed—wars fought, pyramids built—and yet still get the day-to-day operations of the community done as well.
How Does Craft Specialization Develop?
Archaeologists generally believe that hunter-gatherer societies were/are primarily egalitarian, in that most everyone did most everything. Even though a select portion of the community group goes out to do the hunting for the whole (i.e., hunting specialists), when they return, they pass the knowledge on, so that everyone in the community understands how to hunt. Should something happen to the hunters, unless the hunting process is understood by everyone, the community starves. In this way, knowledge is shared by everyone in the community and no one is indispensable.
But, as a society grows in population and complexity, at some point certain kinds of tasks became overly time-consuming, and, theoretically anyway, someone who is particularly skilled at a task gets selected to do that task for his or her family group, clan, or community. Someone who is good at making a specific item in some process unknown to others dedicates their time to the production of that item.
Sometimes specialization leads to status changes.
Why is Craft Specialization a "Keystone" to Complexity?
Craft specialization is considered by archaeologists to be the “keystone” to societal complexity.
First, someone who spends their time making pots may not be able to spend time producing food for her family. Everybody needs pots, and at the same time the potter must eat; perhaps a system of barter becomes necessary to make it possible for the craft specialist to continue.
Secondly, specialized information must be passed on in some way, and generally protected. Specialized information requires an educational process of some kind, whether the process is simple apprenticeships or more formal schools.
Finally, since not everyone does exactly the same work or has the same lifeways, ranking or class systems might develop out of such a situation. Specialists may become of higher rank or lower rank to the rest of the population; specialists may even become society leaders.
Archaeologically, evidence of craft specialists is suggested by patterning—by the presence of differential concentrations of certain types of artifacts in certain sections of communities. For example, in a given community, the archaeological ruins of the residence or workshop of a shell tool specialist might contain most of the broken and worked shell fragments found in the whole village. Other houses in the village might have only one or two complete shell tools.
Identification of the work of craft specialists is sometimes suggested by archaeologists from a perceived similarity in a certain class of artifacts. So, if ceramic vessels found in a community are pretty much the same size, with the same or similar decorations or design details, that may be evidence that they were all made by the same small number of individuals—craft specialists.
Elman Service (Primitive Social Organization, 1962) and Morton Fried (Evolution of Political Societies, 1967) argued that there are two ways in which ranking of people in a society is arrived at: achieved and ascribed status.
Achieved status results from being a warrior, artisan, shaman, or other useful profession or talent.
Ascribed status (inherited from a parent or other relative) is based on kinship, which as a form of social organization ties the status of an individual within a group to descent, such as dynastic kings or hereditary rulers.
Archaeologically, in egalitarian societies, goods and services are spread relatively evenly among the population. High-ranking individuals in a community can be identified archaeologically by studying human burials, where differences in grave contents, the health of an individual or his or her diet can be examined.
Ranking can also be established by the difference sizes of houses, the locations within a community, or the distribution of luxury or status items within a community.
Increasing sedentism: Sedentism ( the process of settling down to live in groups in specific places for periods of timeis partially but not entirely related to how a group gets required resources--food and stone for tools and wood for housing and fires.
For example, hunter gatherers, by and large, were primarily mobile, moving from resource to resource, following herds of animals (e.g. bison/reindeer) or moving with normal seasonal climatic changes.
By contrast, farmers tended to stay close to their fields for at least part of the year.
To state it simply, hunter-gatherers hunt game and collect plant foods (called foraging) rather than grow or tend crops. Hunter gatherers is the term used by anthropologists to describe a specific kind of lifestyle, that of all human beings until the invention of agriculture about 8000 years ago. Anthropologists have traditionally defined hunter-gatherers as human populations that live in small groups and that move around a lot, following the seasonal cycle of plants and animals.
Recent studies have identified the importance of fish and maritime resources as a component of some coastal-based hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers who rely on marine resources are known as hunter-gatherer-fishers.
Even after agriculture became a major source of food, hunting and gathering of wild plants remained a large component of people's diets. People who tend stands of natural plants are called horticulturalists; those who farm are agriculturalists.
Hunter-gatherers domesticated dogs, maize, type(s) of millet and wheat. Which came first, domesticated crop or domesticated farmer?
Since the 1970s, however, anthropologists and archaeologists realized that many hunter-gatherers groups around the world did not fit the rigid stereotype into which they were put. For these societies, recognized in many parts of the world, anthropologists use the term “Complex Hunter-Gatherers”. In North America, the most well-known example are the Northwest Coast groups on the North American continent.
Complex hunter-gatherers (aka affluent foragers) have a subsistence, economic and social organization far more “complex” and interdependent than generalized hunter-gatherers.
Here are some of the differences:
Mobility: Complex hunter-gatherers live in the same place for most of the year, or even for longer periods, in contrast to generalized hunter-gatherers who stay in one place for shorter periods and move around a lot.
Economy: Complex hunter-gatherers subsistence involves a large amount of food storage, whereas simple hunter-gatherers usually consume their food as soon as they harvest it.
Households: Complex hunter-gatherers don’t live in small and mobile camps, but in long-term, organized households and villages. These are also clearly visible archaeologically. On the Northwest Coast, households were shared by 30 to 100 people.
Resources: Complex hunter-gatherers do not harvest only what is available around them, they focus on gathering specific and very productive food products and combining them with other, secondary resources. For example, in the Northwest Coast subsistence was based on salmon, but also other fish and mollusks and in smaller amounts on the forest products. Furthermore, salmon processing through desiccation involved the work of many people at the same time.
Technology: Both generalized and complex hunter-gatherers tend to have sophisticated tools. Complex hunter-gatherers don’t need to have light and portable objects, therefore they can invest more energy in larger and specialized tools to fish, hunt, harvest. Northwest Coast populations, for example, constructed large boats and canoes, nets, spears and harpoons, carving tools and desiccation devices.
Population: In North America, complex hunter-gatherers had larger populations than small size agricultural villages. Northwest Coast had among the highest population rate of North America. Villages size spanned between 100 and more than 2000 people.
Social hierarchy: complex hunter-gatherers had social hierarchies, and even inherited leadership. These positions included prestige, social status, and sometimes power. Northwest Coast populations had two social classes: slaves and free people. Free people were divided into chiefs and elite, a lower noble group, and commoners, who were free people with no titles and therefore with no access to leadership positions. Slaves were mostly war captives. Gender was also an important social category. Noble women had often high rank status. Finally, social status was expressed through material and immaterial elements, such as luxury goods, jewels, rich textiles, but also feasts and ceremonies.
trade or exchange networks, leading to the presence of luxury and exotic goods.
Metallurgy: when used by archaeologists, is the study of the ancient processes of producing objects made of metal, including quarrying, mine construction, and smelting.
The earliest form of metallurgy was hammering copper. Native copper was first used by Old World Neolithic people beginning about the 8th millennium BC; and by New World in South American cultures beginning between 3600 and 1500 BC.
The next step, smelting (again of copper) appeared at Catal Hoyuk, in Turkey, about 6000 BC; lead appears to have been added to the metal working about this same time. Mining of native materials began about 5000 BC. The earliest gold so far is from Varna in Bulgaria, about the same time. The earliest goldworking in the Americas to date is from the Jiskairumoko site of Peru, 3600 and 1500 BC.
control of food as in agriculture or pastoralism
The history of agriculture begins in the ancient Near East and Southwest Asia, about 10,000 years ago, but it has its roots in the climatic changes at the tail end of the Upper Paleolithic, called the Epipaleolithic, about 10,000 years earlier.
History of Agriculture Timeline
Last Glacial Maximum ca 18,000 BC
Early Epipaleolithic 18,000-12,000 BC
Late Epipaleolithic 12,000-9,600 BC
Younger Dryas 10,800-9,600 BC
Early Aceramic Neolithic 9,600-8,000 BC
Late Aceramic Neolithic 8,000-6,900 BC
The history of agriculture is closely tied to climate changes, or so it certainly seems from the archaeological and environmental evidence. After the Last Glacial Maximum (ca 18,000 BC ) the northern hemisphere of the planet began a slow warming trend. The glaciers retreated northward, and forested areas began to develop where tundra had been.
By the beginning of the Late Epipaleolithic, or Mesolithic, (12,000-9,600 BC) people moved northward, and lived in larger, more sedentary communities. The large-bodied mammals humans had survived on for thousands of years had disappeared, and now the people broadened their resource base, hunting small game such as gazelle, deer and rabbit, and gathering seeds from wild stands of wheat and barley, and collecting legumes and acorns. But, about 10,800 BC, the Younger Dryas period (lasted until 9,600 BC) brought an abrupt and brutal cold turn, and the glaciers returned to Europe, and the forested areas shrank or disappeared.
After the cold lifted, the climate rebounded quickly. People settled into large communities and developed complex social organizations, particularly in the Levant, where the Natufian period was established. Natufian people lived in year-round established communities and developed extensive trade systems to facilitate the movement of black basalt for ground stone tools, obsidian for chipped stone tools, and seashells for personal decoration. The first stone built structures were built in the Zagros Mountains, where people collected seeds from wild cereals and captured wild sheep. The Aceramic Neolithic period (Early Aceramic Neolithic 9,600-8,000 BC; Late Aceramic Neolithic 8,000-6,900 BC) saw the gradual intensification of the collecting of wild cereals, and by 8000 BC, fully domesticated versions of einkorn wheat, barley and chickpeas, and sheep, goat, cattle and pig were in use within the hilly flanks of the Zagros Mountains, and spread outward from there over the next thousand years.
Scholars debate why farming, a labor-intensive way of living compared to hunting and gathering, was invented. It could be that the warming weather created a "baby boom" that needed to be fed; it could be that domesticating animals and plants was seen as a more reliable food source than hunting and gathering could promise. For whatever reason, by 8,000 BC, the die was cast, and human kind had turned towards agriculture.
The domestication of plants is one of the first steps in moving towards a full-fledged agricultural economy, although the process is by no means a one-directional movement. A plant is said to be domesticated when its native characteristics are altered such that it cannot grow and reproduce without human intervention. Domestication is thought to be the result of the development of a symbiotic relationship between the plants and humans, called co-evolution, because plants and human behaviors evolve to suit one another. In the simplest form of co-evolution, a human harvests a given plant selectively, based on the preferred characteristics, such as the largest fruits, and uses the seeds from the largest fruits to plant the next year.
The following table is compiled from a variety of sources, and detailed descriptions of the domesticates will be added to as I get to them. Thanks again to Ron Hicks at Ball State University for his suggestions and information.
Squash (Cucurbita pepo)
Island Southeast Asia
Squash (Cucurbita pepo ovifera )
Marsh elder (Iva annua)
1st century BC
14th century AD
Animal domestication is what scholars call the process of developing the mutually useful relationship between animals and humans. Over the past 12,000 years, humans have learned to control their access to food and other necessities of life by changing the behaviors and natures of wild animals. All of the animals that we use today, such as dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, camels, geese, horses, and pigs, started out as wild animals but were changed over the centuries and millennia into tamer, quieter animals. Some of the ways people benefit from a domesticated animal include keeping cattle in pens for access to milk and meat and for pulling plows; training dogs to be guardians and companions; teaching horses to adapt to the plow or take a rider; and changing the lean, nasty wild boar into a fat, friendly farm animal.
Different animals were domesticated in different parts of the world at different times. The following table describes when and where different animals were turned from wild beasts to be hunted or avoided, into animals we could live with and rely on. The table summarizes the current understandings of the earliest likely domestication date for each of the animal species, and a very rounded figure for when that might have happened. Live links on the table lead to additional information on the specific animals
high population density
Monumental architecture, to archaeologists anyway, refers to large man-made structures of stone or earth. These generally are used as public buildings or spaces, such as pyramids, large tombs, large mounds (but not single burials), plazas, platform mounds, temples, standing stones, and the like. The defining characteristic of monumental architecture is typically its public nature—the fact that the structure or space was built by lots of people for lots of people to look at or share in the use of, whether the labor was coerced or consensual.
But monumental architecture can also include anything large and made by humans.
Types of Monumental Architecture
Plaza: Like many pre-modern societies, the Classic period Maya (AD 250-900 AD) used ritual and ceremony performed by the rulers or elites to appease gods, repeat historical events, and prepare for the future. But not all ceremonies were secret rituals; in fact, many were public rituals, theatrical performances and dances played in public arenas to unite communities and express political power relationships. Recent investigations of public ceremonialism by University of Arizona archaeologist Takeshi Inomata reveal the importance of these public rituals, both in the architectural changes made in the Maya cities to accommodate the performances, and in the political structure which developed alongside the festival calendar.
Pyramid: A pyramid is one of the earliest form of massive monumental architecture built by humans. Pyramids are shaped like big three-dimensional triangles, with larger bases narrowing towards the top; this architectural design is extremely durable, as can be seen by the numerous examples still preserved after thousands of years. The pyramid is the logical form of architecture if you want to build something to last, and so you can find examples of pyramids in Egyptian, Mayan, and Incan civilizations and possibly China.
Temples, also known as shrines, are considered as places which were intended for worship of a god or other religious personage, object or idea. In general, three types of temples are recognized by archaeologists. The first is completely man-made, like the Temple of Athena at the Parthenon, identified as a temple archaeologically by the lack of domestic artifacts and/or the presence of religious items. Churches of all kinds into this category, including the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and St. Peter’s in Rome. The second kind of temple is one that is completely natural that has religious significance to a culture--for example, the Devil’s Tower is a shrine for many Native American tribes. These kinds of shrines are known to the culture, but may have no archaeological evidence apart from votive materials or gifts left by the practitioners. The third kind of temple is one that combines a natural feature with man-made structures, such as the Temple of the Moon at Huayna Picchu, which was built into a cave, or Minoan peak sanctuaries. An argument can be made for a fourth kind of shrine: an archaeological site, that is no longer used for its original (perhaps mundane) purpose, but is considered by a group of people of religious significance. Such sites as Chaco Canyon and Catal Huyuk would fit into this category.
Astronomical observatory: a building based on celestial alignments.
A synagogue is, of course, a religious structure that can be identified with the Jewish faith. Probably served as prayer houses and hostels for pilgrims.
Megalithic means 'large stone' and in general, the word is used to refer to any huge, human-built or assembled structure or collection of stones or boulders. Typically, though, megalithic monument refers to monumental architecture built between about 6,000 and 4,000 years ago in Europe, during the Neolithic and Bronze ages.
Megalithic monuments are among the earliest and most permanent of archaeological structures, and so many of them were used, or more properly, have been used and reused for thousands of years. Their original intent is likely lost to the ages, but they may have had multiple functions as they were used by different cultural groups over the centuries and millennia. In addition, few, if any, retain their original configuration, having been eroded or vandalized or quarried or added to or simply modified for reuse by subsequent generations.
The thesaurus compiler Peter Marc Roget categorized megalithic monuments as memorials, and that may very well indeed have been a primary function of these structures. But megaliths clearly had and have multiple meanings and multiple uses over the thousands of years that they have stood. Some of the the uses include elite burials, mass burials, meeting places, astronomical observatories, religious centers, temples, shrines, processional lanes, territory markers, status symbols: all of these and others that we'll never know are certainly part of the uses for these monuments today and in the past.
Megalithic Common Elements
Megalithic monuments are quite varied in makeup. Their names often (but not always) reflect a major part of their complexes, but archaeological evidence at many of the sites continues to reveal previously unknown complexities. The following is a list of elements that have been identified at megalithic monuments. A few non-European examples have been thrown in for comparison as well.
Cairns, mounds, kurgans, barrows, kofun, stupa, tope, tumuli: all of these are different cultural names for man-made hills of earth or stone generally covering burials. Cairns are often differentiated from mounds and barrows as stone piles-but research has shown that many cairns spent part of their existence as mounds: and vice versa.
Mounds are found on every continent on planet earth and date from the Neolithic to recent times. Examples of mounds include: Priddy Nine Barrows, Silbury Hill and Maeve's Cairn in the United Kingdom, Cairn of Gavrinis in France, Maikop in Russia, Niya in China and Serpent Mound in the United States.
Dolmens, cromlechs, rostral columns, obelisks, menhir: single large standing stones. Examples are found at Drizzlecombe in the UK, Morbihan Coast of France and Axum in Ethiopia.
Woodhenges: a monument made of concentric circles of wooden posts. Examples include Stanton Drew and Woodhenge in the UK and Cahokia Mounds in the United States)
Stone circles, cycloliths: a circular monument made of free standing stones. Nine Maidens, Yellowmeade, Stonehenge, Rollright Stones, Moel Ty Uchaf, Labbacallee, Cairn Holy, Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness, all in the United Kingdom
Henges: a parallel ditch and bank pattern of construction, generally circular in shape. Examples: Knowleton Henge, Avebury.
Recumbent stone circles (RSC): Two vertical stones, one horizontal placed between them to watch the moon as it slides along the horizon. RSCs are specific to northeastern Scotland, sites like East Aquorthies, Loanhead of Daviot, Midmar Kirk.
Passage tombs, shaft tombs, chambered tombs, tholos tombs: architectural buildings of shaped or cut stone, generally containing burials and sometimes covered with an earthen mound. Examples include Stoney Littleton, Wayland’s Smithy, Knowth, Dowth, Newgrange, Belas Knap, Bryn Celli Du, Maes Howe, Tomb of the Eagles, all of which are in the UK.
Quoits: two or more stone slabs with a capstone, sometimes representing a burial. Examples include Chun Quoit; Spinsters Rock; Llech Y Tripedd, all in the UK
Stone rows: linear paths made by placing two rows of stones on either side of a straight pathway. Examples at Merrivale and Shovel Down in the UK.
Cursus: linear features made by two ditches and two banks, generally straight or with doglegs. Examples at Stonehenge, and a large collection of them in the Great Wold Valley.
Stone cists, stone boxes: smallish square boxes made of stone which contained human bones, cists may represent what was the interior part of a larger cairn or mound.
Fogou, souterrains, fuggy holes: underground passageways with stone walls. Examples at Pendeen Van Fogou and Tinkinswood in the UK
Chalk giants: a type of geoglyph, images carved into the white chalk hillside. Examples include the Uffington White Horse and the Cerne Abbas Giant, both in the UK.
Ancient writing began about 5,000 years ago, as far as we can tell. The earliest books of ancient writing include the Bible, the Koran, the Popul Wuj, the Egyptian book of the dead
religious specialists such as shamans or priests: Shamans are a type of religious specialist who uses altered states of consciousness to directly interact with gods and supernatural agents. Shamans are usually part time practitioners, who are part supernatural beings, at least some of the time. Shamans are generally associated with hunter-gatherer level societies.
Shamans, Festishes and Liminality
Shamans have special fetishes and their iconography (the symbols they use) include liminal creatures—creatures that are part-human, part-god, and/or part-animal; creatures that like the shaman him or herself are part in the mundane world, part in the otherwise inaccessible world of the gods. Shamans own individual tools of their trade—pipes, noisemakers, sucking tubes. They have private spaces and control access to shrines, which are in general small in size and unavailable to the public, such as caves, shrines, or natural sanctuaries.
A shaman may have annual rituals, but by and large they are sought out by members of their societies to perform special, personal rites, such as for healing rituals, or personal problems, or for finding game.
A priest, in the anthropological sense, is a full-time religious specialist who acts as a representative for a society's deity or deities. Priests are generally associated with societies that have attained at least the complexity associated with regular agriculture.
Priests perform regular or cyclical rituals that ease the supernatural relationship between human and god. Unlike shamans, they don't typically address issues between individuals and deities, but rather speak as a mediator between the entire society and the gods which rule the earth.
Priests have a liturgy—a specific text or set of texts that they follow, which may include creation stories, rules and ritual calendars. They produce statues and carvings of the deities; they have standardized ritual paraphenalia that is found within a broad region. Musicians are often associated with priests.
Priests use public spaces, like plazas or churches which the community constructs and participates in regular rituals.
Calendar History and Ancient Ways of Keeping Time
ancient ways of keeping track of the lunar and solar calendar.
This science fair project includes making a study of an ancient roadway or transportation network, that could include a map, a plan or cutaway drawing to show how the road or causeway was constructed, and information about the goods and events that occurred across its path.
Mapping Ancient Roads
Ancient transportation networks were built by our ancestors for a variety of reasons: as a way to exchange goods, as a way to control the widespread pieces of an empire, as a way to transport drinking water or sewage, even as a way to keep your feet from getting wet. They were built to accommodate foot traffic, or animal-assisted transportation, or canal barges or wooden carts. Sometimes they fell abandoned almost immediately, and sometimes they were rebuilt and reused over decades or centuries.
The oldest known roadway in history is the Sweet Track, a causeway built of timbers to cross a marshy area; and the best known is the Silk Road, but there lots more roads, canals, and causeways to discuss as important connections between early civilizations all over the world.