Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study (Trigger 2003)

In a previous blog post, I’ve noted that the final chapter of Climate Wars (2012) refers (pp. 182-83) to a discussion in Tristes Tropiques in which Claude Lévi-Strauss describes the institutions, morals, and customs that he’s spent a lifetime studying as “the transient efflores­cence of a creation in relation to which they have no meaning, except perhaps that of allowing mankind to play its part in creation.”

I found that passage from Lévi-Strauss of interest, and made a point of borrowing Tristes Tropiques (1974) from the Toronto Public Library.

Transient efflorescence

The conclusion that institutions, morals, and customs can be viewed as a transient efflorescence strikes me as (a) perhaps an inevitable side effect of a lifetime of anthropology field work and (b) an interesting concept to consider.

My interest in the related field of archaeology stems from what I know about a preliminary archaeological survey in 1984 at Parkview School, in Long Branch (in Toronto not New Jersey), which I’ve discussed with reference to Colonel Samuel Smith.

Bruce Trigger

In reading about archaeology, a person may encounter the findings and conclusions of the archaeologist Bruce G. Trigger.

In Understanding Early Civilizations (2003), as a blurb on the inside cover of the book notes, Trigger provides a detailed comparative study of seven well-documented early civilizations:

    • Ancient Egypt
    • Ancient Mesopotamia
    • Shang China
    • The Aztecs and the adjacent peoples of the Valley of Mexico
    • Classic Maya
    • Inka, and
    • Yoruba

According to the blurb, “Agricultural systems, technologies, and economic behaviour turn  out to have been far more diverse than was expected. Yet only two basic types of political organization are found – city states and territorial states – and they influenced economic behaviour at least as much as did environmental differences.”

Religious beliefs

The blurb on the inside cover of the book asserts that:

  • Underlying various religious beliefs was a single, distinctive pattern that is unique to early civilizations and must have developed independently in different regions of the world.
  • Many others shared religious beliefs appear to have been transformations of a shared heritage from earlier times.
  • Esteemed lifestyles that differed idiosyncratically from one early civilization to another influenced human behaviour in ways that often persisted despite changing material and political circumstances.

The blurb adds that: “These findings and many others challenge not only current understanding of early civilizations but also the theoretical foundations of modern archaeology and anthropology. The key to understanding early civilizations lies not in their historical connections but in what they tell us about similarities and differences in human behaviour.”

Cross-cultural uniformities in human behaviour

In his concluding remarks, Trigger notes (pp. 687-688) that social and cultural phenomena cannot be wholly explained in psychological or biological terms.

“Yet neither,” he adds, “can human behaviour or the nature of society and culture be understood without judiciously taking account of the findings of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. It would appear to be in these sciences that anthropologists must seek explanations of certain cross-cultural uniformities in human behaviour, such as tendencies toward inequality in status and wealth.

“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.”


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