What can we learn from previous civilizations?

Doubt is the beginning of knowledge

It may be relevant to look back at the history of mankind in order to hopefully learn something for the future. According to a NASA-funded study, at least 32 advanced civilizations have existed before our own. Although all civilizations follow a general development pattern, each of them has an important story to tell. Many poor countries are today described as developing countries and it is easy to be fooled into thinking that these regions have always been underdeveloped. That is not the case. Many parts of the poorer countries today were previously high-performing and today's rich countries were then the less developed.

  • Iraq, dated before Egypt, is considered the first sophisticated urban civilization. Sumer and Akkad, two of its great ancient societies, have a history dating back to the earliest human settlements during the third millennium BC. These people wrote things down, paid taxes and went to school. Syria and Iraq introduced the first legal codes and laid the foundations for mathematics and astronomy.
  • In Sudan and Ethiopia, there were cities around 1500 BC. and Africans were well enough organized to invade and hold southern Egypt for a period of about 200 years in the early first millennium BC. Ethiopia also had its own writings, coins and city centers with multicultural buildings.
  • The Persian Empire that flourished between 600 BC. and 300 BC. even surpassed Rome, and it included over fifty million people.
  • Greece was in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. at the forefront of European civilization and developed politics, philosophy, mathematics, science, literature and historiography.
  • Under the Mauryan kings 321 BC to 185 BC. India was particularly advanced in mathematics, medicine and metallurgy.
  • A high point in Chinese history was around 200 BC. with the completion of the Great Wall of China.
  • Two thousand years ago, there were large prosperous cities, including Timbuctoo, in the Sahel, south of the Sahara.
  • An Arab visitor in 1331 AD. described the East African city of Kilwa as one of the most beautiful in the world. Year 1400 AD Africa had about 36 cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants, comparable to the number in Europe.
  • The ancient capital, Tenochtitlan, founded by the Aztecs in 1325 AD, had a population of 90,000 when London housed only 40,000 people. The city's sanitation system was far above all in Europe until the end of the nineteenth century.
  • The Inca royal road measured over 500 km, longer than the longest Roman road. The Aztecs were also advanced in surgical technology and performed bone transplants
History is full of sophisticated civilizations and cultures that decayed and collapsed. An example is the Roman Empire where the Romans became fat, lazy and decadent, yet believing that they were the world's elite and that they could have and enjoy everything they wanted forever. Intrigue, luxury and political conflicts were commonplace. The main concern of the rulers of Rome was to keep the citizens loyal, as they were perceived as a greater threat than external invaders. Food and entertainment became the solution. Mercenaries were hired because the Romans did not want or could not fight. Corruption destroyed Rome from within. Although several people tried to warn those in power for a long time, nothing happened. From papyrus scrolls one can read "Sinners are everywhere. There are no sensible people left."

Of all the great kingdoms, the 18th century elite in France was characterized as perhaps the most hedonistic, with pleasure and luxury in all its forms, but with little regard for the people who created the kingdom's riches. It ended in state bankruptcy and revolution.

What can we learn from these civilizations? Perhaps mainly that they are characterized by a great lack of wisdom, especially the more complex they became, which resulted in increasingly serious societal problems, increasing systemic risks and low resilience to disturbances. Our civilization is in this final stage, and must, in order to avoid a total collapse, invest in long-term political reforms that augment wisdom of the population.

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