Understanding Early Civilizations (2003)

This book by the late Bruce Trigger offers a fascinating comparative analysis of seven early complex societies or “civilizations”.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Bruce G. Trigger’s Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study (2003) came out at a time when most scholars were moving away from doing the kind of large-scale, comparative research that this book is all about.

As an anthropologist with a well-documented interest in theoretical frameworks, and a keen understanding of the history of the relevant disciplines that he operated in, Trigger was very much aware of this. In his introduction, he sets out specifically why he wrote the book (p. 3):

[G]iven the biological similarities and the cultural diversity of human beings, how much the same or how differently are they likely to behave under analogous circumstances? The answer to this question is crucial for understanding human behaviour and cultural change and for shaping the future course of human development. […] As a contribution to this debate, this book seeks to establish empirically what features seven early civilizations, located on four continents, had in common and in what ways they differed from one another.

The remainder of the introduction basically tackles possible complaints that nay-sayers may have directly. On page 14, Trigger specifically notes that his study “is the sort of comparison that extreme relativists maintain is impossible.” Their main argument, as he summarizes it, boils down to the fact that no one person can be well-versed enough in all the cultures touched upon in the book to make adequate comparisons possible. Trigger dismisses abandonment of the effort on these grounds as “a shameful act of intellectual cowardice.”

Delving deeper

Chapter 2 is devoted to comparative studies, including the history of such investigations. Trigger then devotes another section to “challenges to cross-cultural generalization” (pp. 19–23), followed by a section that focuses specifically on other comparative studies of early civilizations. In these sections, Trigger is able to show of his knowledge of both the history of various disciplines (archaeology, anthropology), and his familiarity with relevant theoretical frameworks.

The last section of this second chapter deals specifically with the material covered in this book, including the seven different societies/regions that form the basis of his investigation: the Inka Kingdom (Peru), the Classic Maya (Mexico), the Yoruba in Nigeria, ancient Egypt (Old and Middle Kingdom periods), southern Mesopotamia (from Sumer to the Old Babylonian Kingdom), and Shang China. These societies are not only spread across the world, but also flourished at different times, from the third millennium BC (Mesopotamia) to the last thousand years (Aztecs, Inkas, Yoruba).

Trigger’s use of the term “civilization” is not without its problems, since whatever culture is deemed not to qualify as one runs the risk of being regarded as “uncivilized”, with all the negative connotations that are associated with that. It smacks of colonialism. Chapter three, “Defining ‘early’ civilization”, is specifically devoted to this issue. But despite Trigger’s best attempts, this is arguably the least satisfactory chapter in the book.

In essence, “civilization” is used here as a shorthand for “complex society”, a more neutral term that’s been in vogue for the past two decades or so. Trigger specifically goes into the problem of using enumerative definitions, i.e. definitions in which “civilization” is applied to a particular society if it has a number of traits or characteristics (such as writing, urbanization, central forms of government, and so on).

He dismisses this type of categorization as applied by e.g. Vere Gordon Childe (1892-1957), but then goes ahead and does something similar anyway, couching it “in terms of the general sorts of social, economic, and political institutions and the associated types of knowledge and beliefs that were required for societies of that degree of complexity to function” (p. 44). I say po-tay-toe, you say po-tah-toe. It comes down to the same thing.

Chapter four deals with “evidence and interpretation”. Here, Trigger first assures the reader that he’s put in the work, “taking notes on as many as one hundred books and monographs” and reading “mainly newly published works that provided general overviews of specific early civilizations or dealt with aspects that had been poorly covered in earlier studies” (p. 53). After this somewhat overly defensive introduction, Trigger proceeds to discuss differences in the quantity and quality of the evidence available for each of the seven civilizations that he picked for this book, along with general notes on previous research, which are all useful if brief.

Chapter four rounds out the first part of the book, titled simply “Introduction”. The remaining 25 chapters of the book are divided into four more parts with the headings: “Sociopolitical organization” (chapters 5 through 13), “Economy” (chapters 14 through 18), “Cognitive and symbolic aspects” (chapters 19 through 27), and finally “Discussion” (chapters 28 and 29). An extensive bibliograpy and a nicely detailed index round out the book.

In each of the three main parts of Trigger’s book, different chapters compare and contrast different aspects of the societies in question. For example, the part on sociopolitical organization features chapters on kingship, the two main types of states (city-state and territorial state), urbanism, law, and military organization. The part on economic aspects has chapters on food production, land ownership, and the appropriation of wealth. The part on cognitive and symbolic aspects deals with conceptions of the supernatural, priests and festivals, literacy, as well as subjects like elite art and architecture.


The final part of the book consists of two chapters, which sadly aren’t among the best. “Culture and reason” reads like an assortment of notes on world perception that should probably have been discussed elsewhere. The final chapter, simply titled “Conclusion”, is an attempt to distill the foregoing 660 or so pages into only a handful.

Trigger limits himself to general remarks before turning to issues raised in his introductory material. He concludes that human behaviour cannot be explained exclusively on either biological/psychological or cultural/social grounds. Cross-cultural uniformities, characteristic of human behaviour, can only be explained when one takes “account of biological and psychological, as well as social and cultural factors” (p. 687).

This would have been an excellent point to end the book on. However, Trigger continues, claiming that “The failure of social scientists to address these issues in the past has contributed to some of the major disasters in utopian social engineering attempted during the twentieth century, most notably in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.” This assumes, however, that Stalin and Mao had their people’s best interests at heart, which is a shaky assumption at best.

Relatively minor quibbles aside, though, this is, fifteen years after it first appeared, still a worthwhile book to seek out and read carefully, if only because Trigger truly does try to figure out what made early complex societies tick. Whether you’ll like it probably depends on much you disagree with Trigger’s idea that you can compare different, disparate societies at all. Nevertheless, this is an important book, especially as it points out that “early” doesn’t so much reflect a particular period of time as it does a particular kind of (agricultural) society, whether it’s the Mayans, the Yoruba, or the ancient Chinese.

Bruce Trigger died in 2006. I wonder what he would have made of the last few years, during which certain folks have gone out of their way to emphasize differences between people. If Understanding Early Civilizations accomplishes one thing, it’s that it succeeds in showing how we, as a species, have a lot in common with each other.