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The Origin of Civilization

Discover how human beings from around the world created the impressive cultural and political systems that would forever alter the course of history.

Origin of Civilization is rated 3.4 out of 5 by 82.
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Rated 3 out of 5 by from Too Long Winded/Too Much Unnecessary Detail After plowing through most of the 48 lectures, I came to the conclusion that this course was unnecessarily long. He spends too much time on theory where one lecture, not 6, would have sufficed. There is much repetition as the professor goes from one lecture to the next or one part of the world to the next. I realized that his own areas of specialty include origins of civilization in sub-Saharan Africa, but this is no reason to spend so much time on it. My recommendation is to concentrate on those parts of the world where your interests lay and skip the rest as there is some valuable information to be gleaned.
Date published: 2024-02-04
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Bad speaker I was very excited to learn about this topic but after watching the first two lectures, I am not continuing. The lecturer is an awful speaker with weird pauses throughout the lecture. Additionally, anyone who has any praise for Karl Marx needs to go back to school. I'm sure there are scores of other anthropological economists from whom they can draw expertise.
Date published: 2023-10-12
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Dreary Theory This course suffers from several major weaknesses. The first is Prof. MacEachern’s focus on the theory of archeology. He spends five of the first six lectures – 2 ½ hours of his audience’s time – exploring tedious concepts, often spending 10 minutes making a point in a grandiose tone that could have been made more soberly – and as effectively - in one. He thus makes a very weak first impression. The second related problem is a certain academic conceit – which he made clear in his final lecture. He described himself as a “scientist”, while at the time acknowledging that “there seem to be exceptions to almost every generalization we could make.” Archeology is not a science; its study will not reveal laws that would apply universally to ancient civilizations (except in the most elementary sense). Thirdly – and perhaps related to the previous problem – he focuses extensively on what can be loosely described as economic issues – infrastructure, food production, writing systems, etc. – and less on the distinct cultural or what he calls “ideological” identity of these civilizations. While the former is very important, the latter is arguably what is so interesting about antiquity. (Brian Fagan’s “Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations” is much more engaging in this respect.) Fourthly, while he should be commended for the breadth of the civilizations he covers and many interesting details about these civilizations – once he gets past the theory - his lectures could use a little more structure and organization.
Date published: 2023-09-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Many Words, Little Substance As a former teacher of world history, I looked forward to an archaeologist's view of how civilization developed. I do understand that this is intended as a survey course, but unfortunately it is little more than largely random bits and pieces of archaeology from various early civilizations. The professor pads his lectures by constantly presenting, not information, but questions which suggest he lacks any useful knowledge that might aid us in understanding how civilizations developed. When combined with bits and pieces from archaeology, we are left, not with knowledge, but with disorganized data. I had to feel that this course should never have been offered. While students may feel they are learning, what they will receive is dilettantism. They will come away with no understanding of the origins of civilization and only the vaguest concept of the current state of archaeological research.
Date published: 2023-08-04
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Missed the early essentials This writer is too close to the details of archeology. Scholars have seen the big picture for many years. 1) Humans learned to control reproduction of plants and animals ("Neolithic revolution"), 2) then they earned to build a wall around their surplus food supply -- thus inventing the city. 3) The city ("civil"ization) gave us the historic benefits of slavery and warfare, which were not possible without the surpluses protected by the city walls.
Date published: 2023-03-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not really a casual course. Unlike most of the other Great Courses I have watched, this one seemed more than just an entry-level course. Doctor MacEachern is passionate and knowledgeable about the subject matter, to be sure, but his presentation is often too academic for the course to be casually enjoyed. If you do not already have an interest in archaeology, anthropology or pre-history, this might not be the best course for you.
Date published: 2022-10-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enthusiastically cover ALL civilizations He is enthusiastic, knowledgeable and enjoys his subject. He also makes it interesting. Beyond that he does cover Europe, Asia & the Americas- making it a more comprehensive coverage of World civilizations.
Date published: 2022-10-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Not quite the course I wanted You will not learn about hunter-gatherers, nor Gebkli Tepe, nor fire, nor the role of the opposable thumb, nor of Lasceaux, but only about “civilization” after we started building cities. Here Professor MacEachlern is at home.
Date published: 2022-10-14
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Discover how human beings from around the world created the impressive cultural and political systems that would forever alter the course of history. In this grand 48-lecture course, travel to places such as ancient Mesopotamia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Mesoamerica to view their formative states and civilizations from gripping archaeological and historical perspectives. Delivered by award-winning Professor Scott MacEachern, The Origin of Civilization will finally complete your understanding of human history.


Scott MacEachern

I absolutely love doing archaeology and teaching about it, and I want to pass that excitement on to the people who watch my lectures.


Bowdoin College

Dr. Scott MacEachern is Professor of Anthropology at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He earned his B.A. with Honours in Anthropology from the University of Prince Edward Island and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Archaeology from the University of Calgary. Professor MacEachern is also an Adjunct Professor of Archaeology at the University of Calgary and has been a Visiting Researcher at Université Laval in Québec. An archaeologist with extensive field experience in Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Canada, and the United States, Professor MacEachern has published scholarly articles in Antiquity, Current Anthropology, Journal of World Prehistory, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, World Archaeology, and other noted publications. In addition, he has presented lectures and seminars at prestigious universities, including Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, the Sorbonne, and the University of Cape Town.

Ancient States and Civilizations

01: Ancient States and Civilizations

In this introductory lecture, Professor MacEachern lays the groundwork for your detailed exploration of ways and reasons that politically and socially complex civilizations emerged almost 5,000 years ago.

33 min
The History of Archaeological Research

02: The History of Archaeological Research

Discover why archaeology is the best field with which to examine the epic nature of the history of civilizations. As you glean the brief history of archaeology, you learn how lasting archaeological work gets done through the combination of original minds and detailed knowledge about prehistory.

30 min
Studying the Origins of States

03: Studying the Origins of States

Investigate how modern archaeologists are restoring balance to their field by studying what ancient relics reveal about the lives of common people, not just the elite. Also, Professor MacEachern demonstrates how archaeologists work in the field with a recounting of his ongoing fieldwork in Cameroon.

31 min
Archaeological Interpretation—Çatalhöyük

04: Archaeological Interpretation—Çatalhöyük

Turn your attention from issues of archaeological interpretation to a concrete example of some of the challenges archaeologists face in their work, illustrated by Çatalhöyük in modern Turkey. This Neolithic agricultural site, dating back to 7400 BCE, illustrates how families lived in a settlement with little communal activity.

30 min
Stepping Stones to Civilization

05: Stepping Stones to Civilization

Explore the four stages of political and social organization developed by American anthropologists in the 1960s and 1970s: the band, the tribe, the chiefdom, and the state. Also, explore some of the complexities behind identifying these stages with a look at the precolonial state of Wandala in central Africa.

31 min
Trajectories of Cultural Development

06: Trajectories of Cultural Development

Examine the details of some evolutionary schemes of cultural development that were popular and influential in the 19th and 20th centuries. While they may not explain the growth of states and civilizations everywhere, these schemes are nevertheless extremely productive ways to think about issues of civilization.

30 min
When Is a State a State?

07: When Is a State a State?

In this lecture, consider the debates in archaeology about how and when we can detect the initial appearance of states in the archaeological record—and what their characteristics may be. Also, debunk some common myths about what the archetypal ancient state looked like.

30 min
A Complex Neolithic—Halafian and Samarran

08: A Complex Neolithic—Halafian and Samarran

Focus now on what specific archaeological cases reveal about the origin of human civilizations. Start with this look at three farming communities that flourished in Mesopotamia between 6250 and 5000 BCE: the Hassunan, Halafian, and Samarran traditions.

29 min
Hierarchy and Urbanism—Ubaid Mesopotamia

09: Hierarchy and Urbanism—Ubaid Mesopotamia

Turn south and explore the 'Ubaid tradition of southern Mesopotamia, with a focus on the 'Ubaid peoples' rapid development into a classic settlement hierarchy. What brought this about? Was it simply a population increase? Did it require increased levels of production and an expanding labor force? Find out possible answers here.

30 min
The Uruk World System

10: The Uruk World System

Study the era that succeeds the 'Ubaid period in Mesopotamia, called the Uruk period. Dating from about 4000 to 3000 BCE, these transformative centuries led to irrigation canal systems, long-distance trade, larger walled communities, complex recording systems, and the separation of rural and urban life.

30 min
Sumer and Afterward

11: Sumer and Afterward

The Early Dynastic period, which spanned from roughly 2900 to 2400 BCE, is best associated with the Sumerians. Here, explore Sumerian city-states and their role in the emergence of secular rule, increased militarization and fortifications, hyperurbanism (the massive influx of people from rural areas to cities), and much more.

29 min
Civilization and Pastoralism in Mesopotamia

12: Civilization and Pastoralism in Mesopotamia

Investigate the pastoralist, nomadic population of the Amorites, who roamed the boundaries of Mesopotamian city-states. Although difficult to study from an archaeological view, societies like theirs were nevertheless important in shaping cultural and political developments throughout much of the Old World.

30 min
The Development of Writing in Mesopotamia

13: The Development of Writing in Mesopotamia

The invention of writing; it's the most epochal moment in the history of civilization and made possible economic, social, and political systems that had before seemed unimaginable. So how did writing begin? Did it evolve from more ancient recording systems? Or was it a unique invention with no real precursor?

30 min
The Gift of the Nile

14: The Gift of the Nile

Begin your look at the development of classical Egyptian civilization with this focus on the dramatic importance of the Nile River in supporting small farming communities. These communities would set the stage for the Predynastic period that would emerge between 4000 and 3000 BCE.

30 min
The Egyptian Predynastic Period

15: The Egyptian Predynastic Period

Venture into the heart of the Predynastic Egyptian world, a period of quite radical change for Nile Valley societies. It was this era that saw steadily increasing population densities, larger settlements along the Nile, the rise of copper as a prestigious material, and political competition among the expanding chiefdoms.

28 min
The Unification of Upper and Lower Egypt

16: The Unification of Upper and Lower Egypt

Unpack the mysteries of the so-called Palette of Narmer, a carved stone tablet that has provided archaeologists with insight into the unification of the upper and lower kingdoms of ancient Egypt. This momentous event, which occurred around 3100 BCE, resulted in the creation of an Egyptian territorial state.

30 min
Divinity and Display in Dynastic Egypt

17: Divinity and Display in Dynastic Egypt

The center of dynastic Egypt was undoubtedly the pharaoh. Learn how the unification of Egypt gave rise to an ideology of rule that linked the social and spiritual health of the Nile valley and its inhabitants with these fascinating rulers.

29 min
Why So Different? Mesopotamia and the Nile

18: Why So Different? Mesopotamia and the Nile

One of the characteristics of archaeology as a science is its comparative approach. With this in mind, delve into the differences between the simultaneous growth of Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilization, and discover the factors behind the development of civilizations that often led to totally dissimilar results.

30 min
Borders and Territories of Ancient States

19: Borders and Territories of Ancient States

Rethink your assumptions on how ancient states functioned and controlled their territories. Unlike our conception of modern states (with neat borders and clearly defined territories), the earliest states were often composed of concentric zones of influence centered on their capitals.

31 min
The Levantine Copper and Early Bronze Ages

20: The Levantine Copper and Early Bronze Ages

Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia are not the only ways to think about the origins of civilization. Case in point: the Levant (now the area in and around Israel). Learn about the agricultural practices of the Ghassulian communities, how the Bronze Age began to sweep the region in 3500 BCE, and more.

31 min
Hierarchy and Society in the Aegean

21: Hierarchy and Society in the Aegean

Expand your sense of ancient states with the first in a series of lectures on those that sprouted on islands along the eastern Mediterranean. Also, focus on what the ruins of administrative centers and tombs reveal about increases in social hierarchy and political centralization in this region.

31 min
Early Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations

22: Early Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations

Examine the remarkable development of both Mycenaean civilization and the political and cultural life that flourished on Crete between 2100 and 1450 BCE—a time known as the Palatial period. Then, look closer at three different writing systems from this era: Cretan hieroglyphics, Linear A script, and symbols written on the mysterious Phaistos Disc.

29 min
Palace and Countryside on Crete

23: Palace and Countryside on Crete

Elaborate palaces were the most striking archaeological features of Minoan civilization. Here, learn about the various roles these palaces played as administrative, religious, and storage centers and how excavations at palaces like Knossos help illuminate our understanding of life in the ancient eastern Mediterranean.

31 min
How Things Fall Apart—The Greek Dark Ages

24: How Things Fall Apart—The Greek Dark Ages

Around 1500 BCE, a wave of destruction swept through the palace system of Crete and resulted in a takeover by overlords from mainland Greece. What was responsible for the fall of Minoan and Mycenaean civilization? Was it the result of foreign invasion? Natural disasters? Or something else entirely?

30 min
First Farmers in the Indus Valley

25: First Farmers in the Indus Valley

Move away from the Near East and over to the Indus Valley, the region that is now modern India and Pakistan. This lecture is your introduction to the Harappan civilization, a sophisticated but unfamiliar urban culture as important to the development of human civilizations as the ancient Egyptians and Minoans.

31 min
Cities along the Indus

26: Cities along the Indus

Harappa. Mohenjo-daro. Dholavira. Discover how the ruins of these and other sites reveal intriguing aspects of life during the mature period of civilization in the Indus Valley, including its preoccupation with water management, its lack of great social and economic differences, and its complex symbolic script.

30 min
Seeing What We Expect—Power and Display

27: Seeing What We Expect—Power and Display

Harappan civilization (which occupied a region almost three times the size of Mesopotamia) consisted of a diversity of urban centers; so many that it was impossible to be ruled as a single territorial state. So how were these cities, towns, and settlements ruled? Investigate possible answers to this important question.

30 min
Sedentism and Agriculture in Early China

28: Sedentism and Agriculture in Early China

Shift your attention further east and explore the development of cities and states in central China. Start with a look at the initial development of agriculture in a succession of two farming cultures: the Yangshao (which primarily grew foxtail millet) and the Longshan (which primarily grew rice).

29 min
State Formation in Ancient China

29: State Formation in Ancient China

Chart the evolution of ancient Chinese states from the end of the Longshan culture to the semi-legendary Xia dynasty to the well-known Shang dynasty. In each case, the details about these periods are revealed through findings at archaeological sites, including a massive urban center, a capital city, and a burial complex.

30 min
Origins of the Chinese Writing System

30: Origins of the Chinese Writing System

Focus here on the development of Chinese writing systems; specifically, ancient characters written on oracle bones excavated from the last capital of the Shang dynasty. Information provided by these inscriptions has given archaeologists invaluable clues into the structure of the Shang court, the nature of its divination rituals, and more.

31 min
From Human Sacrifice to the Tao of Politics

31: From Human Sacrifice to the Tao of Politics

In the mid-11th century BCE, the Shang dynasty was overcome by the Zhou dynasty, which would thrive for almost 800 years. Using both the historical record and archaeological resources, examine how this transition took place and learn how the Zhou period continued the development of ancient Chinese civilization.

31 min
Spread of States in Mainland Southeast Asia

32: Spread of States in Mainland Southeast Asia

How do states develop in areas where they're subject to contact with existing states? What balance, if any, can we see between indigenous cultural dynamics and external influences? Find out in this lecture on Vietnam, Cambodia, and other areas of Southeast Asia where state formation fused Chinese and Indian culture and ideology.

29 min
Axumite Civilization in Ethiopia

33: Axumite Civilization in Ethiopia

Professor MacEachern takes you to the Ethiopian plateau in the first of four lectures highlighting state formation in ancient Africa (a subject often ignored in surveys of the origins of civilizations). Here, focus on the development of the Axumite state: its extensive trade networks, its effective use of coinage, and more.

30 min
Inland Niger Delta—Hierarchy and Heterarchy

34: Inland Niger Delta—Hierarchy and Heterarchy

The Inland Niger Delta (part of Mali in West Africa) is an extraordinary area in the development of agriculture, trade, and more. Find out why with this look at important Inland Niger Delta sites such as Jenné-jeno—an important urban center that housed more than 25,000 people at its height.

29 min
Lake Chad Basin—Settlement and Complexity

35: Lake Chad Basin—Settlement and Complexity

Professor MacEachern guides you through the ruins of settlements in the Lake Chad Basin—the region of Africa where he does most of his research. Recent work in the area, you discover, has revealed that the population densities and sociocultural systems here were much more complex than archaeologists once thought.

30 min
Great Zimbabwe and Its Successors

36: Great Zimbabwe and Its Successors

Few archaeological sites have been subjected to the degree of abuse and misrepresentation sustained by Great Zimbabwe in southeastern Africa. Nevertheless, this lecture unpacks the intriguing history of this urban center and the insights it can provide into the development of the elite.

30 min
Sedentism and Agriculture in Mesoamerica

37: Sedentism and Agriculture in Mesoamerica

Travel now to the New World and explore the rise of civilizations in Mesoamerica and South America. Here, focus on the domestication of corn, the great cereal crop of the New World, and the sedentary farming communities that arose in late 3rd-millennium BCE Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.

30 min
The Olmec of Lowland Mexico

38: The Olmec of Lowland Mexico

Found along the Gulf Coast of Mexico between about 1300 and 300 BCE, the Olmecs were the most spectacular manifestation of social hierarchy in early Mesoamerica. Investigate the sophistication and inventiveness of this civilization through its ideologies, its ceremonies, and its architecture (including the famed colossal Olmec heads).

29 min
Teotihuacán—The First American City

39: Teotihuacán—The First American City

At its height, between 150 and 400 CE, Teotihuacán was one of the largest cities in the world. Walk the streets of this great Mesoamerican city, explore the tombs and pyramids lining the Avenue of the Dead, and uncover the reasons why this city rose, and why it eventually fell.

31 min
Beginnings of States in Lowland Mesoamerica

40: Beginnings of States in Lowland Mesoamerica

A counterpoint to contemporary Teotihuacán is the development of states and civilization among Maya populations in what is now modern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Learn what three spectacular archaeological sites in this region reveal about early Maya farming communities.

29 min
The Great Maya City—States

41: The Great Maya City—States

Between 250 and 800 CE, the geographical spread of Maya urbanism and political complexity reached its peak, epitomized by a series of Maya city-states. What were these diverse city-states like? Find out by exploring the history and characteristics of two unique sites: Tikal and Palenque.

29 min
Epigraphy—Changing Views of the Maya

42: Epigraphy—Changing Views of the Maya

Transformations in archaeological views of the Maya over the last few decades are the result of advancements in understanding Maya script. This lecture focuses on the development of Maya writing systems and how inscriptions on stone monuments have clarified our understanding of this civilization's political history.

29 min
Was There a Maya Collapse?

43: Was There a Maya Collapse?

The Maya collapse, which occurred at the start of the 8th century CE, is often conceived of as an event equivalent to the fall of ancient Rome. Here, delve into the possible causes of this decline, which signaled the end of this particular form of Mesoamerican urbanism.

29 min
Adaptations in Pacific South America

44: Adaptations in Pacific South America

Move now to the last great cultural region in this course: the Pacific coast of South America. In this lecture, discover the role played by different resources (including fish, shellfish, cotton, and corn) in establishing various kinds of economies in ancient regions around Peru and Chile.

29 min
Pyramids and Precocity in Coastal Peru

45: Pyramids and Precocity in Coastal Peru

Travel through the Norte Chico area of Peru and investigate some of its ritual and settlement sites. Your particular focus is Caral—an amazing 160-acre site whose pyramids, mounds, and residential plazas reflect larger cultural trends that flourished in 3rd millennium BCE Peru.

30 min
Andean Civilization—Chavín to Chimú

46: Andean Civilization—Chavín to Chimú

The late 2nd and 1st millennia BCE were a period of astounding economic and cultural change along the Pacific coast of Peru. Professor MacEachern examines the iconography and artwork found at Chav'n de Huántar, then guides you through a series of states, including Tiwanaku, Wari, and Chimú.

29 min
The Florescence of the Inka Empire

47: The Florescence of the Inka Empire

The Inka Empire was the culmination of state development in Pacific South America. Survey the various political, cultural, and religious factors responsible for the rise, expansion, and fall of this famed empire.

30 min
Ancient States—Unity and Diversity?

48: Ancient States—Unity and Diversity?

In this final lecture, consider the many themes and insights found during this comparative approach to the origin of civilizations and states. What conclusions can archaeologists come to about the development of states throughout the world? What additional questions and issues need to be addressed?

32 min