High culture (history)

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In historical studies and in older ethnological specialist literature, high culture is a social order that is characterized by particular complexity . How this type of society is to be delimited and which historical cultures belong to it is partly controversial. Some societies of the ancient Orient and pre-Columbian America, the Indus culture and the Chinese Erlitou culture are primarily considered to be high cultures .

Concept history and features

The term high culture was coined in the second half of the 19th century. At that time it was assumed in the context of evolutionism that there was an approximately regular sequence of cultural productions, with development always leading from the simple to the complex. In this development scheme, the highest stage of the complexity of a society was referred to as “high culture”. In the 20th century, however, the evolutionist view of cultural phenomena was subjected to a fundamental criticism and only appeared acceptable in a modified form as neoevolutionism . The criticism was directed in particular against the notion of historical progress towards higher forms of civilization. This made the concept of high culture problematic and the distinction between high culture and marginal cultures was abandoned in ethnology. In historical studies one speaks of advanced cultures, but without the earlier cultural-evolutionist background and the associated evaluations in the sense of “higher” and “lower” stages of development. Since the term high culture is considered to be biased because of its history, it is often replaced by terms such as complex society , urban society , civilization or archaic state . In German, these terms were taken from the terminology of the English-language specialist literature, in which civilization corresponds roughly to what is usually meant in German by high culture .

In the study of history, high culture and the more recently used equivalents of this expression are used to designate a type of society that differs fundamentally from less complex societies in terms of its degree of organization and the achievements of civilization. The characteristics of this type, which often but not always appear together, are a developed technology (metal technology) and agriculture (plowing, overproduction), market system and monetary economy, written use, social differentiation and division of labor, central political bodies with institutionalized rule and administrative apparatus, a differentiated one Religion with priesthood as well as urbanism and monumental buildings. However, there is no consensus in research as to which of these criteria are necessary and sufficient for a culture to be classified as a high culture.


Geographical distribution of the high cultures

The earliest advanced civilizations of the area of Eurasia and Africa originated in the Middle East . Early advanced civilizations developed there in Egypt (from 4000 BC), Sumer (around 4th millennium BC to 2000 BC), Elam (from around 3500 BC to 600 BC) and Akkad (about 2340–2200 BC) as well as in the Syrian cities of Mari (about 2900 BC to 1759 BC) and Ebla (about late 3rd millennium BC and between 1800 and 1650 BC) . Chr.). On the Indian subcontinent , originated around 2800 BC. The Indus or Harappa culture , which lasted until around 1800 BC. In Central Asia the oasis or Oxus culture flourished (around 2200 BC to 1700 BC), in China the Erlitou culture (around 2000–1500 BC, writing from around 1250 BC). Chr.).

Several advanced civilizations emerged in Central and South America: Caral in Peru (around 3000 to around 2500 BC), Olmec (around 1500 to around 400 BC), Maya (around 300 BC to around 900 AD). BC), Teotihuacan (around 100 to around 650 AD), Toltecs (around 800 to around 1200 AD), Inca (around 1200 to around 1550) and Aztecs (around 1350 to approx. 1550).

More recent high cultures in the Middle East were Assyria , Babylonia , the Persian Empire and the cultures of the Medes and the Hittites , in the Mediterranean the Minoan culture , the Mycenaean culture and the cultures of the Phoenicians / Carthaginians and the Etruscans , in Central Asia the culture of the Gök Turks , in Southeast Asia the Khmer Empire and, in Africa, the Aksumite Empire .


The first advanced civilizations were the so-called hydraulic cultures , which developed on rivers. The Mesopotamian empires Sumer, Babylon and Assyria emerged on the Euphrates and Tigris , the Egyptian empire on the Nile, the Harappa culture on the Indus and the Chinese empires on the Yellow River . But rivers are not a mandatory requirement, because the American high cultures developed, albeit much later, without river systems. The river promotes a decentralized civilization , culture and goods exchange through transport and peaceful barter . It supplies proteins through fishing and mussel beds and sufficient drinking and industrial water. In this way, nomadic gatherers and hunters turned into sedentary fishermen, cattle breeders, arable farmers, and finally (high) cultural workers. The periodic floods made the land fertile, which enabled more intensive agriculture to be practiced. A social organization is necessary for the construction of irrigation and dams. The distribution of scarce fertile land and the allocation of water use in centralized cultures requires administration and jurisdiction. A stockpile of grain is necessary for the years of poor harvests. Stocking up also requires organization and planning. A calendar is used to calculate the tide , which requires knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. Mathematics was also needed to build the cities.

According to Herbert Wilhelmy , high cultures could develop if food surpluses were regularly produced through work , so that sufficient quantities of storable carbohydrate-containing staple foods were available: wheat in the Orient, rice in East Asia, maize in Central America, potatoes in the Andes. Organized trade and transport and the traditional excess production of long-life protein sources such as smoked , salted , cheese and generally fermented milk products and wine, as well as pottery, salt, flint and metal were also important.

In the advanced cultures, social norms were codified as laws. Parallel to the formation of political organization, a warrior caste and a religious hierarchy arose in almost all state- hierarchically organized ( patriarchal ) societies, which supports the ruler as having been instituted by the gods.

There was an exchange between the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians relatively early. The Harappa culture also probably traded with the Mesopotamians. Clarifications could also lead to new insights into the invention of writing, because one must assume that writing was invented several times. So it is refuted that the Chinese writing developed from the Sumerian and Egyptian characters .

Oswald Spengler

The cultural historian Oswald Spengler presented in his main work The Downfall of the Occident (1918–1922) a theory of advanced cultures that caused a sensation in the period that followed. In Spengler's view, eight advanced civilizations have developed in the course of human history: the Egyptian, the Babylonian, the Indian, the Chinese, the ancient, the early Christian-Byzantine-Arabic, the Mexican and the Western European (occidental). Spengler turned against the then common Eurocentric perspective in historical studies. He criticized the view of history in which Western history is the focus and whose traditional division into ancient, medieval and modern times forms the chronological framework. For Spengler, the eight high cultures stand side by side on an equal footing, each is a self-contained phenomenon. They go through the same developmental steps and "phases of life" as a single individual, such as a plant, and are therefore to be regarded as living organisms. Cultural history is not controlled by human acts of will, but proceeds like a biological process. Thus the “lifespan” of the advanced civilizations is limited, their decay and death inevitable. According to Spengler, the lifespan of a high culture is usually around a millennium. The decline marks the transition from "culture" to "civilization". "Civilization" means an unnatural state, the final phase of cultural development that, according to Spengler's assessment, began for Western high culture in the early 19th century. Spengler did not therefore limit the term “high culture” to early cultures of antiquity, unlike the common historical and general usage of words . Rather, he included his own present as a late stage of the “occidental” high culture and counted on the future emergence of new high cultures.


  • Paul G. Bahn: The new picture atlas of high cultures. Chronik-Verlag, Gütersloh 2003, ISBN 3-577-14622-2 .
  • Rainer Albertz : Early high cultures - Egyptians - Sumerians - Assyrians - Babylonians - Hittites - Minoans - Phoenicians - Persians. Theiss, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-8062-1756-4 .
  • Jürgen Bär : Early high cultures on the Euphrates and Tigris. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2009, ISBN 978-3-8062-2139-8 .
  • Jan Assmann: The cultural memory - writing, memory and political identity in early high cultures. Beck, Munich 2007, ISBN 978-3-406-56844-2 .

Web links

Wiktionary: High culture  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. ^ Manfred Eggert : Culture and Material Culture. In: Stefanie Samida et al. (Ed.): Handbuch Materielle Kultur , Stuttgart 2014, pp. 22–31, here: 23.
  2. ^ Manfred Eggert: Culture and Material Culture. In: Stefanie Samida et al. (Ed.): Handbuch Materielle Kultur , Stuttgart 2014, pp. 22–31, here: 23 f.
  3. Rebecca Krug: Kulturpessimistische Variationen , Berlin 2019, pp. 22–25; Henning Ottmann : History of political thinking , Volume 4/1, Stuttgart 2010, pp. 168–172.