What Makes Civilization? - Summary and Key Ideas

The book explores the origins and development of civilization, focusing on the parallel growth of Egypt and Mesopotamia. It delves into the interactions between these societies, their guiding principles, and how their histories have shaped modern perceptions of civilization.

The target group for this book are individuals interested in history, particularly the origins and development of civilizations, and how these ancient societies relate to modern concepts of civilization.

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What Makes Civilization?

Key ideas


Civilizations are dynamic entities that rise, fall, merge, and disappear over time.


The origin of writing systems can be primarily attributed to bureaucratic necessities rather than the need for representing language.

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To understand cross-cultural relationships it is crucial to consider the social and ecological imperatives of civilizations.

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The concept of kingship, once grounded in divine sanction, has been reshaped by societal norms and ideologies, pushing it from a central societal pillar to the margins of historical consciousness.

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The modern reception of the ancient Near East, a paradoxical birthplace and antithesis of civilization, shapes our understanding of the past and future through a complex interplay of historical, cultural, and ideological factors.

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Cultural borrowings, encompassing material goods to ideologies, profoundly shape and evolve civilizations, as evidenced by the parallel development of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

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Everyday practices are the overlooked building blocks of civilizations, shaping them from the ground up and enduring through time and change.

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The ancient Near East is not just a historical curiosity, but a vital part of modern Europe's cultural DNA, underscoring the complexity of cultural exchange and interconnectedness of human history.

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The conventional view of the ancient Near East as merely the cradle of Western civilization should be reexamined.

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Summary & Review

David Wengrow's "What Makes Civilization?" explores the origins and development of civilization, focusing on the ancient Near East. Wengrow challenges the conventional view of isolated civilizations, arguing instead for a complex network of social and technological interactions that shaped societies. He emphasizes the importance of everyday practices in the formation of civilizations and highlights the continuities that transcend our conventional distinctions between prehistory and history. Wengrow also reflects on the concept of civilization itself, its implications in the modern world, and the ideological struggles it incites.

David Wengrow

David Wengrow is a renowned British archaeologist and anthropologist. He is a professor at University College London, specializing in early civilizations and the history of human societies.

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