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'Dialogue of civilizations' in Guatemala ends without agreement on 'civilization'

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  • S. Kalyanaraman
    http://bharatkalyan97.blogspot.in/2013/05/of-civilizations-in-guatemala-ends.html MAY 2
    Message 1 of 1 , May 2, 2013
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      http://bharatkalyan97.blogspot.in/2013/05/of-civilizations-in-guatemala-ends.html

      'Dialogue of civilizations' in Guatemala ends without agreement on 'civilization'. Here is a three-part report by Andrew Howley. An alternative view is presented in Rigveda which uses the term, 'Rāṣṭram' which simply means a lighted path to progress, abhyudayam founded in dharma-dhamma. It is time for archaeologists to

      re-visit this insight.

      kalyan

      The Ancient Past as a Window to the Future: Part 1 of 3


      Posted by Andrew Howley of NG Staff in Explorers Journal on  May 1, 2013

      The “Dialogue of Civilizations” conference in Guatemala brought together archaeologists studying five ancient cultures to discuss their similarities and differences and what they can tell us about human society as a whole. You can still be a part of the conversation, commenting on this post or tweeting using #5Civilizations.

      One of the most striking aspects of attending the Dialogue of Civilizations was hearing experts on one ancient culture express how much they were learning about other cultures through this experience. In particular, several of them said their eyes were opened to the richness of the Maya civilization in a way they hadn’t been before. This was I think due to two main factors: the conference was held in Guatemala so there was a lot of attention to and information about the Maya; and most of the other ancient civilizations had some level of contact with each other so everyone was somewhat aware of each others’ work in those areas already.  It was a good reminder of just how big the world is, and how “new” the New World still is in many ways.

      On the final day of the conference, after two days of individual presentations on ancient China, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Maya, all the presenters and hosts sat together on stage to discuss the nature of civilization and what we can apply today from the lessons of yesterday, or as the tagline for the Dialogue put it, how to view “the past as a window to the future.” Two days later, sitting on top of Temple IV in Tikal, looking out over the city’s ruins and miles and miles of jungle canopy, the group engaged in another conversation, centered around the collapse of civilizations.

      Pulling from both of those, and the experience of recapping the presentations in these blog posts, here are the main questions and themes that seemed to arise from the Dialogue. Leaving the conference there was a distinct feeling that this was simply the beginning of the conversation. Keep it going in the comments below.

      An ancient Mesopotamian relief depicts Ashurbanipal on horseback spearing a lion. Ideas of what is and is not "civilized" has changed regularly over the ensuing millennia. (Photo From Public Domain)

      An ancient Mesopotamian relief depicts Ashurbanipal on horseback spearing a lion. Ideas of what is and is not “civilized” has changed regularly over the ensuing millennia. (Photo From Public Domain)

       

       

      What Is “Civilization”?

      Archaeologist Chris Thornton was the moderator for the final panel. He opened by pointing out that in common use, the word “civilization” has become a loaded term, implying that anything “uncivilized” is somehow bad or sub-human. To avoid that interpretation, several presenters throughout the week gave the academic definition, saying that culture becomes a “civilization” when it has various combinations of elements such as: monumental architecture, extensive food production, codified laws and administration, a form of detailed writing, complex and hierarchical social roles, a specific ideology, and specialization of labor. I think most of those things are present in some form even in the rest of the animal world, so the fact that the word itself comes from the Latin “civitas” for city, there should also be the key distinction that a “civilization” requires a dense population living in a largely man-made environment.

      Thornton pointed out another alternative though. “In the ancient Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh,” he said, “the ‘wildman’ Enkidu becomes civilized by participating in four distinct endeavors: experiencing human love, putting on clothing, eating non-wild food, and playing sport. Quite a different vision of what ‘civilization’ means than current and other recent definitions.” Georgio Buccellati, who studies ancient Mesopotamian civilization offered further thoughts along the wild-civilized spectrum, saying “Civilization is a way of distancing from nature, which is for our good, if it’s used properly.”

      Archaeologists from the 2013 Dialogue of Civilizations climb the exposed Maya ruins of the city of Tikal. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)

      Archaeologists from the 2013 Dialogue of Civilizations climb the exposed Maya ruins of the city of Tikal. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)

      Is It the Same for Everyone?

      Archaeobotanist Dorian Fuller raised a point about some of the other general qualifications for “civilization.” “There are places with agriculture, long-distance trade, social hierarchy, and so on, which never developed writing,” he said, giving Andean and West African cultures as examples. “So that raises the question of ‘why some places?’” It also raises the point that “there is something bigger than the state. Civilization isn’t limited to kings and dynasties. It often transcends ethnicities and language.”

      Juan Carlos Pérez who works at the Maya site of El Perú-Waka’ saw it from a slightly different angle, noting “Not all civilizations respond to the same issues in the same order or the same way.” Marcello Canuto from the site of La Corona gave an example: “Teotihuacan was connected to the Maya who wrote on everything,” he said, “but they never adopted writing themselves.”

      Mark Kenoyer, expert in the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley wanted to be clear about one thing. “I don’t want to imply that civilization is the best option for people,” he said. He pointed out that it is just one option for dealing with a growing population and limited resources, and that many other groups of people around the world have addressed those issues without social stratification, monumental architecture, or writing, and done just fine. Civilization may be the most complex form of society, but it’s not the only option, and it’s not necessarily the best.

       http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/05/01/the-ancient-past-as-a-window-to-the-future-part-1-of-3/

       

      Armed guards protect the Ziggurat of Ur, the first colossal monument of ancient Mesopotamian civilization. (Photo by Dean Conger)

      The “Dialogue of Civilizations” conference in Guatemala brought together archaeologists studying five ancient cultures to discuss their similarities and differences and what they can tell us about human society as a whole. You can still be a part of the conversation, commenting on this post or tweeting using #5Civilizations.

      On the final day of the conference, after two days of individual presentations on ancient China, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Maya, all the presenters and hosts sat together on stage to discuss the nature of civilization and what we can apply today from the lessons of yesterday, or as the tagline for the Dialogue put it, how to view “the past as a window to the future.” Two days later, sitting on top of Temple IV in Tikal, looking out over the city’s ruins and miles and miles of jungle canopy, the group engaged in another conversation, centered around the collapse of civilizations.

      Pulling from both of those, and the experience of recapping the presentations in these blog posts, here are the main questions and themes that seemed to arise from the Dialogue. Leaving the conference there was a distinct feeling that this was simply the beginning of the conversation. Keep it going in the comments below.

       

      Why Such Big Buildings?

      Richard Hansen, director of the Pre-Classic Maya site of El Mirador, and one of the creators of the whole idea of the dialog had a particular question that had been getting at him. “Somehow we’re all wired to put a major emphasis on labor and resources at the very beginning of a society,” he said. Why is there that early emphasis on monumentality?

      Renee Friedman of the British Museum and director of excavations at Hierakonpolis in Egypt pointed out that it’s not just at the beginning that a civilization builds huge monuments. 2000 years after the pyramids, the Ptolemaic kings were building huge monumental temples. “It’s just a different form,” she said, but “it’s still plenty of monumentality.” In particular, “when they were trying to reassert their power, there was again a big push to build these huge stone temples…trying to bind society together again.”

      The interesting thing there is that groups trying to “reassert” their power are in many ways comparable to groups at the “beginning of a society.” So perhaps building big things is simply something people do when they begin to work together. Once there is a sense that they want to do things together, they do things that weren’t possible in smaller groups. Elaborate dances might be one example, but monumental architecture is another, and it’s the one that stays visible.

      Recent discoveries at the 11,600-year-old site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey fit well into this. Long before cities or even substantial, permanent houses, nomadic people worked together at this site to construct huge stone “temples” with carvings of animals and people (see reconstruction gallery). In ways, that’s similar to what people had been doing for tens of thousands of years already, decorating the vast interiors of natural caves with naturalistic images of animals. Archaeologist Ernesto Arredondo had pointed out that the Maya actually called their temples “mountains.” Francisco Estrada-Belli added that there is reference to their interiors as “a cave in the sky.” Although that example comes from much later and a world away, there seems to be a natural connection there. People who live in a natural landscape put much practical and symbolic attention on the physical Earth and its features. Once they decide to work together in large numbers, they realize they can express themselves on the scale of the landscape through massive construction projects. Perhaps painted caves are not stone-age cathedrals then, as much as cathedrals are elaborate man-made caves.

      A vintage photo reveals the epic scope of ancient Egypt's early monuments. (Photo by Hans Hildenbrand)

      A vintage photo reveals the epic scope of ancient Egypt’s early monuments. (Photo by Hans Hildenbrand)

       

       

      How to Cut Back With Style

      Although later generations may continue to build monumental structures, the margin of increase in size is rarely as great as at the beginning, and is often negative. A major reason for this is simply be the cost of time, materials, and labor.

      Renée Friedman had discussed the example from Hierakonpolis of a leader ostentatiously keeping and sacrificing actual wild animals as a symbol of strength and authority at obviously great cost. “This couldn’t last,” she said, as she pointed out that in later years the rulers simply used art to make the same statements symbolically, and much less expensively.

      Juan Carlos Pérez added that the site of Copan is another good example, where in early stages temples are decorated with enormous amounts of stucco relief. The digging for lime and the burning of wood to create the stucco would have had a huge environmental cost. By 630-620 AD, he said “the leaders needed to change the style. They brought in mosaics. This must have been a dramatic moment.”

      In our own times we see this as well. 100 years ago, New York and Chicago were the only players for the construction of the world’s tallest skyscraper. Well established, they now build plenty of enormous buildings, but never a new world-record holder. It’s the cultures of Asia, trying to make their mark on the world stage who go for the ever taller buildings, while efforts in more established modern cities are more about style over size.

      While modern reconstruction has given more definition to parts of this temple at Tikal, Guatemala, the monumental structure itself has stood for more than a millennium. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)

      While modern reconstruction has given more definition to parts of this temple at Tikal, Guatemala, the monumental structure itself has stood for more than a millennium. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)

       

      http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/05/01/the-ancient-past-as-a-window-to-the-future-part-2-of-3/

       

      From atop Temple IV, you can look out and see other monumental structures from the ruins of Tikal rising above the forest canopy. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)

      The “Dialogue of Civilizations” conference in Guatemala brought together archaeologists studying five ancient cultures to discuss their similarities and differences and what they can tell us about human society as a whole. You can still be a part of the conversation, commenting on this post or tweeting using #5Civilizations.

      On the final day of the conference, after two days of individual presentations on ancient China, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Maya, all the presenters and hosts sat together on stage to discuss the nature of civilization and what we can apply today from the lessons of yesterday, or as the tagline for the Dialogue put it, how to view “the past as a window to the future.” Two days later, sitting on top of Temple IV in Tikal, looking out over the city’s ruins and miles and miles of jungle canopy, the group engaged in another conversation, centered around the collapse of civilizations.

      Pulling from both of those, and the experience of recapping the presentations in these blog posts, here are the main questions and themes that seemed to arise from the Dialogue. Leaving the conference there was a distinct feeling that this was simply the beginning of the conversation. Keep it going in the comments below.

       

      The archaeologists of the 2013 Dialogue of Civilizations discuss the meaning of "collapse" from the top of Temple IV in Tikal, Guatemala. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)

      The archaeologists of the 2013 Dialogue of Civilizations discuss the meaning of “collapse” from the top of Temple IV in Tikal, Guatemala. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)

      Collapse

      When the discussion turned to the “collapse” of civilizations, it was clear that this is another example where clear definitions are key. “Collapse” has specific implication of “imploding” under its own weight or mismanagement or something. For example, while the Classic Maya may have “collapsed,” the Post-Classic Maya were conquered by the Spanish, and had their monuments destroyed or forced into neglect. Even then, to have a civilization conquered is not necessarily to have it end. Furthermore, a civilization can collapse or end, while the culture behind it continues in some ways. And then there’s the question of how long all of that might take.  “We all know there’s no such thing as a sudden collapse,” said moderator Chris Thornton. “People don’t disappear. They move, they change.” Giorgio Buccellati said he simply prefers “to speak of a broken tradition.” In these situations, while no one may be building any new temples, you still have farmers working the same plot of land, speaking the same language, celebrating the same holidays, etc.

      Archaeobotanist Dorian Fuller got more specific, talking about little traditions, such as folksongs, and big traditions such as architecture of a temple. “Little traditions are more likely to persist,” he said. “Big traditions, more likely to collapse.” In that framework, a good portion of the culture can continue, and possibly lead to the resuscitation of the rest of it after a period of latency. “But if it doesn’t come back, that’s collapse.”

      Richard Hansen said that “in the case of the [end of the Classic era] Maya, even the rural populations are leaving. They walked away for ever.” He sees that break in continuity as the key to collapse: “There’s a degeneration or a destruction of a system or organization that renders it impossible to return for an extended period of time.”

      Tomas Barrientos took the specific example of droughts. Many theories hold that drought was what caused the collapse of the Maya or Angkor, or what have you. Barrientos sees it differently. “Drought doesn’t destroy society, it affects people and a society dealing with many things… We must remember [the Maya period of] collapse is 1500 years. It’s a very long period.”

      He then put it into the context of modern efforts to change cultural behavior, for example to limit the burning of fossil fuels. “Sometimes we want sudden changes,” he said, “but we’ve learned today changes are gradual.”

       

      Lessons for Our Time

      Having studied the Harappan civilization for 30 years, Mark Kenoyer is very familiar with the complex issues that contribute to the decline of a civilization, and to the long term effects that a group has on itself through its use of nearby resources and its overall impact on the surrounding environment. When dealing with modern groups dealing with these same issues, he can get a bit exasperated. “I tell them this is not the first time this has happened! This is not the first population explosion or deforestation. Look at Baluchistan, Afghanistan. They were deforested 3000 BC, 100 BC, and they have not recovered yet. We can do the same thing and it’ll take 10,000 years for the land to recover. [We must] learn the lesson and then figure out how to have a balance.”

      Dorian Fuller added that as people who have studied the impact of civilizations on the environment (and vice versa), archaeologists have a special store of knowledge that can contribute to modern environmental assessments and debates. “Past cycles of land use created our current world,” he said. “Climate scientists assume no human impact before recently,” but through changes in oxygen, CO2, and methane levels through the large-scale agriculture and animal husbandry we’ve been doing, “we have had impacts for thousands of years.” To most accurately evaluate the dynamics today, we need to better understand the dynamics of the past.

      Tomas Barrientos then took a long term view of the rise and fall of all civilizations. “All the achievements are a result of an ideology,” he said. “When we study the civilizations of the past we discover there is an ideology behind it all, and this is very closely related to identity. When we look at the modern world [we think,] what is our current identity? Our current ideology? I believe [given] today’s lack of an ideology where we know our identity individually, how can we go forward? We need to know where we come from so we know where we are headed. If our ideology is just to have a phone and a computer, and as long as my sports team wins, I have all that I need, then our destiny is almost written.”

      The conversation continues as the archaeologists look out on the miles of conserved forest protecting the ancient site. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)

      The conversation continues as the archaeologists look out on the miles of conserved forest protecting the ancient site. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)

       

       

      A Bright Tomorrow
       

      Juan Carlos Pérez added a positive note. Given all the ups and downs of individual civilizations throughout the ages, “civilization does not end. We are still here.”

      National Geographic’s President of Mission Programs Terry Garcia had earlier expressed a related thought: “Decline is not destiny. We can learn from choices wise and foolish made by people of the past.”

      Given the nature of the conference, bringing together lessons from very different cultures to see how they can help us today, the most poignant closing comment may have been that from Li Xinwei of the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “What I have learned this week is how powerful our human civilizations are, and how amazing each civilization is. Our future is not one global culture,” he said. “It’s a colorful mosaic of many cultures.”

       

      http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/05/01/the-ancient-past-as-a-window-to-the-future-part-3-of-3/


      --
      S. Kalyanaraman
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