This course focuses on the development and growth of complex cultures. It takes up the human story when more elaborate technologies were taking hold approximately 40,000 years ago. In that sense, it is a course on modern humans, rather than the evolution of modern humans from hominid and primate origins. You will quickly examine the major cultural developments from early hominids to the Upper Paleolithic, but this will be done through a summary reading assignment. For more detail on processes of human evolution, we suggest Introduction to Archaeology (ANT 3140) in which human evolution is taken up or Biological Anthropology and Human Evolution (ANT 3514).

In this course we will examine the growth of local government, the development of powerful priestly cults, and the growth of chieftainship and kingship based on control of economic production with its accompanying exploitation of under classes. We will take up the human story when populations began to establish settlements and when population densities began to require more organized hunting, gathering, food production, waste disposal, and social structure.

Our task is to examine some of the major world civilizations that have prospered before the modern era. We first look at the concept of civilization, especially its Euro-centric foundation and its many shortcomings as a concept. We will also see how its meaning has come to change under conditions of colonialism as well as our growing knowledge of prehistoric complexity—way beyond the definitions that emerged from 19 th and early 20 th century scholars. As a class we will develop our own working definition—negotiated amongst class members and the instructor. These criteria will then be applied during our study of such cultures as diverse as ancient Egypt , Mycenae , Sumer , Aksum , Zimbabwe , Saba , etc. Some of you may not recognize the names of important societies that have remained hidden from view because they either lack monumental architecture or they arose in parts of the world outside the interest of scholars and a public captivated by monumental remains. Ancient Greece and Egypt tend to dominate our thinking, along with Mesopotamia , about what constitutes ancient civilization. This course will explore some of the better-known cases as comparative background for our study of little known and forgotten civilizations that get only abbreviated mention in textbooks and remain mostly unknown outside mainstream knowledge.

Current groundbreaking research on major civilizations in various parts of the world will be examined. A number of case studies from the instructor's research in Africa are considered for two reasons: 1) The African examples provide excellent comparative evidence for the study of “civilizations,” and extraordinary African technological innovations have remained hidden from the world until the last two decades; 2) With his personal engagement in several long term African inquiries into the growth of the state, the instructor will draw from his long-term field engagement in the subject matter.

Archaeology is an exciting way to explain how and why some ancient cultures grew to complexity, developed extensive trade networks, fabricated elaborate and powerful religious leadership, and harnessed the creativity and labor of the common folk. Archaeology must work with many other disciplines to sort out the mysteries of the past, seeking to understand why, for example, urbanism was a primary component of complex society while it is sometimes completely absent from the lives of other ancients identified with complex cultures.

One of the most critical issues facing the study of ancient civilizations today is the destruction of archaeological sites by development, by overuse in tourism, by systematic looting and theft of antiquities, and by public apathy about the loss of the past. The past cannot be studied without a clear awareness of how the expansion of Western Europe and the greed of contemporary collectors have led to the widespread destruction of other cultures, both living and archaeological. We will constantly refer to the conditions that prevail around the preservation and stewardship of the ancient monuments and sites that we study, working from the proposition that if there is no archaeology left to study, then there will be no pasts to write about and study in the future.