What Are The Characteristics of a Civilization?

chart of 4 civilizations

Civilization is the stage of human social and cultural development and organization that has certain basic aspects considered necessary for an advanced society. Civilization includes diverse roles, government, a complex economy, a lot of rules, and culture. It also has a dark side including inequality, disease and environmental harm, and military conflicts.  

What Is “Civilization”?

When we say something is “not civilized” these days, we usually mean that it is not a polite thing to do.  You might say it to someone who wants to eat on the floor or do it without their phone for a whole class period.  Teachers just are so rude!   

Civilization is the stage of human social and cultural development and organization that has certain basic aspects considered necessary for an advanced society.  

Humans always had some form of culture, a way of life.  Our distant ancestors had a complex life in many ways (if not as complex as the Flintstones).  They did not have a civilization. 

Word Fun: The word “civilization” is related to “city” and “citizen.”  This makes sense since the growth of cities is a major sign of civilization and is the center of culture too.  

Birth of Civilization 

When the Ice Age ended, the earth’s climate became warmer and rainfall was more frequent. This led to an increase in the human population. Small nomadic groups hunted and gathered local plants to survive. As the population expanded, more food was needed.

Luckily for our ancestors, they learned the wonders of agriculture.  We no longer needed to hunt and gather our food. There was an agricultural revolution and humans were able to grow a large amount of crops all at once.  They also began to raise animals for food and clothing.

We were able to settle down in larger and larger communities.  Humans also developed a written language.  (The time before this is known as “prehistory,” since we didn’t write about it.)  

Human civilization had begun.  

Some (Mostly) Positive Aspects of Civilization 

[1]  Diversification 

A hunter-and-gatherer society requires everyone to focus on obtaining food.  Agriculture allowed a much smaller group of people to handle the food.  Growing food was but a single job.

There now was a diverse range of occupations.  People farmed, raised livestock, served in government jobs, fought wars, traded, taught, and a whole lot more.  

[2]  Government

Civilization needs a government to run things.  

A large society has a range of needs.  A large bureaucracy arose to handle things like collecting taxes, settling disputes, having public festivals, and a whole lot more.   

A well-known example is found in the Bible.  Ancient Egypt was the breadbasket of the region. They carefully store extra grain to have when there were shortages.  This required careful administration.  Joseph was appointed to oversee the whole process and kept everyone fed.  

[3]  A Whole Lot Of Rules 

The Code of Hammurabi is a famous set of laws written down around three thousand years ago in Babylon, which is found in modern-day Iraq.  

Laws are an agreed-upon means to settle disputes.  Small groups of people can settle problems among themselves.  A large society needs rules and regulations to clarify things.

Religion is also an important part of civilization.  Religion provides guidance on how to properly serve our obligations to the supernatural.  It also addresses various human needs.  

People in their day-to-day lives also have social rules.  For instance, Mesopotamia, an ancient society in the Middle East, developed a complex social life with various rules and obligations. 

[4]  Complex Economy

The economy involves the distribution of goods and services, both by private actors (individuals and businesses) and the government.

Civilization allows for a complex economy.  There are a diverse number of goods and services with people trading them with the help of money.  Governments regulate to allow things to run smoothly.  People are not living hand to mouth, depending on finding food on a daily basis.  

[5]  Technology

Humans have always had some form of technology. Non-human animals, including monkeys, at times, make simple tools.  Humans with their big brains could take things to the next level. 

Civilization has complex technology.  We developed writing and means to communicate with each other.  Irrigation to carry water long distances.  New and improved means to build homes and other buildings.  Medicine to heal and a whole lot more.

[6]  Culture  

Humans always had a need to express themselves as shown by ancient cave paintings.

Civilization has many forms of human expression, including art, poetry, monuments (we like to show off a bit), sports and games, and religious observations.   

Dark Side of Civilization 

The Neolithic Revolution (New Stone Age) that led to the birth of civilization brought with it many problems.   We have long taken the bitter with the sweet.  

[1]  Inequality

Diversification brought with it class divisions.  A small group of people had a lot of money and power.  Someone had to govern.  That person (or group) had a lot of power over others.

This led to a lot of inequality.  Civilization needs certain basic rules, upheld by law and religion, that protect everyone.  Nonetheless, inequality continued.  This included the growth of slavery.  

[2]  Disease 

A steady supply of food as well as technology to ease life in a variety of ways improved the quality of life.  People lived longer and infant mortality dropped.  Population boomed.

Civilization also encouraged the spread of disease.  Large amounts of people lived close together. Diseases spread from the raising of animals. Trade quickly spread disease long distances.  The Black Death in the Middle Ages and COVID-19 today show the results.  

Environmental harms are a related problem.  Global warming is a modern concern that threatens the well-being of the future of our own civilization.  

[3]  War

Humans never lived in a peaceful utopia.  Early humans fought with others, including helping to make Neanderthals extinct.  But, it was a limited conflict, on a small scale.

Civilization leads to continual major warfare.  There is both a greater ability to maintain large militaries and a desire to fight to obtain the most spoils.  Technology leads to more destruction.  


We might pine for a past simpler time.  But, this is both a myth and a dream.  We must deal with our own civilization.  And, like those in the past, find a way to balance the good with the bad.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.