Musings from an Archaeologist on the Civilization Tech Tree – Part I

by Tallguy

I am a gamer, but in real life I earn my living as an archaeologist.  In a three part series of posts I am going to put on my professional hat (a fedora?) and consider the tech trees from the Civilization computer games from the point of view of a prehistorian.

It would be easy to interpret the goal of this series of posts as an attempt to criticize the Civilization series, but that is far from my intent.  Civilization is first and foremost a game, not a simulation.  I fully hope and expect that all design decisions, including the structure of the tech tree, are based on what makes for a good game play rather than what makes for historical verisimilitude.  I agree with Sid Meier in his 1991 interview when he says that “gameplay is more important than historical accuracy.” The best games with a historic theme merely use history as an inspiration because full-on attempts at historical simulation really suck (I am looking at you, Avalon Hill boardgames!).  Real life is rarely real fun.  My real intent with these posts is merely to use the Civilization tech tree as a springboard to an interesting discussion.

I also know that one really shouldn’t try and read too much into the specifics of the tech tree.  In interviews Sid Meier has said that the Civ 1 tech tree was slapped together quickly with little thought.  He apparently intended to use it as a draft that would eventually be revised but that he and Bruce Shelley grew accustomed to it and the revisions never happened.  Also, others have noted how similar the tech tree mechanic is between Civ and earlier board games such as Civilization and Empire.  Still, I can’t help but notice that the tech tree captures some popular conception of progress and that this conception is worth discussing.  Further, it turns out that modern archaeology has been moving away from this vision of the progress of civilization for several decades and it might be interesting to share this with a broader audience.  (I am not the first scholarly-type to pick apart the Civilization game.  For example see Meyer’s Bombs, barbarians, and backstories: Meaning-making within Sid Meier’s Civilization and Poblocki’s Becoming state: The bio-cultural imperialism of Sid Meier’s Civilization)

For this post I am going to restrict my discussions to three versions of Civ to make this project a little more manageable.  The versions I am inspecting are Civ 1 (which informs us about Meier’s original intentions), Civ 4 (which is the game I am most familiar with at the moment), and Civ 5 (the latest, but I still don’t have it yet so my comments are just based on the stuff I have found on the web).  I am also going to mostly focus on the early part of the tech tree because that is the part I can speak to professionally, and it is also the part of history that most readers know less about.

Civ 4 Tech Tree

Let’s begin by considering the earliest techs available to the players in each game.  These are the techs with no prerequisites:

  • Civ 1: Pottery, the Alphabet, the Wheel, Horseback Riding, Bronze Working, Masonry, and Ceremonial Burial
  • Civ 4: Fishing, The Wheel, Agriculture, Hunting, Mysticism, Mining
  • Civ 5: Agriculture is the only root technology, which enables the player to research Pottery, Animal Husbandry, Archery, and Mining

Civ 5 Tech Tree

The next batch of traits that one might associate with the Stone Age or early states include:

  • Civ 1: Mysticism, Code of Laws, Map Making, Writing, Construction, Currency, Trade, Astronomy, Monarchy, Mathematics
  • Civ 4: Sailing, Pottery, Animal Husbandry, Archery, Meditation, Polytheism, Masonry, Bronze Working, Monotheism, Priesthood, Horseback Riding, Writing, Alphabet, Mathematics, Calendar, Literature, Construction, Currency, Engineering, Code of Laws
  • Civ 5: Sailing, Calendar, Writing, Trapping, The Wheel, Masonry, Bronze Working, Horseback Riding, Construction (the last two are in the “Classical Era” in the game)

It is noteworthy that Civ 1 has the fewest techs related to Stone Age and early state societies while Civ 4 has the most.  Also, as I look over these techs with the eyes of a prehistorian there are many ways that this is simply “wrong” in a historical sense.  Again, I don’t think Civilization as a game should be judged on the accuracy of its tech tree, but I do think it makes for an interesting discussion.

Since there are many ways in which the tech tree does not accurately depict what occurred in world history, let me group them by type.  First there is the issue that the game nominally begins in 4000 BC but a whole bunch of the tech tree technologies appeared earlier.  Sometimes much, much earlier:

  • Hunting and Fishing (from Civ 4) appear long, long before 4000 BC.  Hunting was something that was done even before Homo sapiens existed.  There are arguments about whether Homo habilis sites approximately 2 million years ago represent hunting or scavenging sites (probably scavenging) but there is clear evidence of hunting by Homo erectus.  For example, 400,000 year old wooden spears have been recovered from Germany which is about 200,000 years before the appearance of modern humans.  There are probably even older spears in Africa but we know more in Europe because of the scale of development (which uncovers things) and the intensity of archaeology (which documents them).

    Burial from Dolni Vestonice

  • Fishing is probably also very ancient but archaeologists have not done a good job recovering the types of evidence that would let us talk about early fishing with confidence.  It goes back at least 10s of thousands of years.
  • Ceremonial Burial (Civ 1) is also much older than 4000 BC, and goes back to at least 40000 BC.  However, one gets a sense that Meier was thinking of something more elaborate than Paleolithic burials, such as at Dolni Vestonice, since this technology enables the player to build a Temple.  The problem for Meier is that monumental ritual architecture is now at least 11,000 years old, such as at Gobekli Tepe, which is a Stonehenge-like structure built in Turkey 7,500 years before the better-known Stonehenge.  If we want to give Meier the benefit of the doubt we could say that the Ceremonial Burial tech refers to elite-controlled ritual burials and the temples are elite-controlled monumental architecture like the ziggurats of the Uruk period.  It turns out those do first appear around 4000 BC.
  • Pottery far predates 4000 BC and appears long before agriculture, social complexity, cities, temples, or any of the other trappings commonly associated with civilization.  The earliest pottery we know of is from the Jomon culture in Japan and dates to around 10,000 BC.
  • Other practices that almost certainly and sometimes dramatically originate before 4000 BC include: Masonry, Agriculture, Mysticism, Mining, Animal Husbandry, Archery, Trade, Astronomy, Sailing, Polytheism, and Trapping (!!!).

    Gobekli Tepe, the oldest known example of monumental architecture

Another sort of error is that the technology tree implies that some technologies must necessarily appear before others.  This makes for a great game mechanic, but in many cases we know that the order of the Civ tech tree was reversed in real life.

  • In Civ 5 Agriculture comes before anything else.  This is not historically true in a global sense or in many places in a local sense.  The first domesticated crops were barley and wheat from the Near East about 9-10,000 BC and really intensive cultivation was present in the Near East by 5000 BC. That means several of the techs that require Agriculture in Civ 5 were actually historically earlier.  The bow and arrow date to at least 18,000 years ago which means Archery predates Agriculture (at least globally).  The same can be said for pottery which often predates agriculture around the world and for Animal Husbandry, and probably Mining.
  • The tech tree also implies that one technology can ONLY be developed if a group possesses a prerequisite.  Certainly there are a few instances, especially in the later tech tree, where that may be the case.  Presumably if we had the power to watch world history unfold on a million Earths we would see the development of Flight before Rocketry.  However for the earlier techs there are just not too many examples I feel very confident about.
  • We could point out the same type of problems with the tech trees from the other Civ games, but let’s move on.

A final issue is the imprecision of some of these terms that make it hard as an archaeologist to evaluate what the technology actually means.  I pointed this out above for Ceremonial Burial, but similar comments could be made about:

  • Trade is a relatively advanced technology in Civ 1.  The exchange of items between people goes back at least one million years and, as with Hunting, predates the appearance of Homo sapiens.  From the tech tree however we can see that Trade required Currency and enabled construction of the Caravan which means that for Meier Trade implied some sort of state-organized, market-oriented, long-distance exchange.  But of course that is a mouthful.
  • Also, Map Making is a moderately advanced technology in Civ 1.  However, the world’s first known map is from the wall of a room at the world’s first town of Çatalhöyük and probably dates to around 6000 BC.  I would even wager that other even older maps existed but have not been found or were made on perishable materials and so have been lost forever.  So does Map Making imply the ability to make a map or does it imply the beginning of serious and sustained cartography which was not really practiced until after 1000 BC?

    Painting from wall of room at Catalhoyuk. Perhaps the world's oldest map.

As you can gather, there are lots of things that one could quibble with if one assumed that Civilization was trying to be historically accurate.  It is not (thank goodness!) and so these are merely interesting in an academic sense.

In the next post I will talk about how Sid Meier’s tech tree is Marxist.  Really!


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4 thoughts on “Musings from an Archaeologist on the Civilization Tech Tree – Part I

  1. Pingback: Musings from an Archaeologist on the Civilization Tech Tree – Part II | Levels Of Detail

  2. Pingback: Musings from an Archaeologist on the Civilization Tech Tree – Part III | Levels Of Detail

  3. Lot to read here…

    I always assumed pottery meant large, long term storage pottery, like the Greek Amphora rather than simple pots and crockery and stuff. Which makes sense since it allows construction of a granary, at least in Civ IV.

    Likewise, since archery allows the construction of an archer military unit, I assumed the tech was more representative of the ability to field armies of archers, rather than some prehistoric skirmishers… or something.

    Also, Animal Husbandry obviously represents more than just simple domestication. Selective breeding and sophisticated training: after all, it unlocks the horse tile and the chariot unit – the advent of which both fall between 2000-4000 BCE.

    I think your explanation of the mapmaking is correct. However, unless I missed it, you didn’t mention calendar at all – which in the Civ IV tech tree is located in like the late classical era which is just baffling.

    Funny story, though, speaking of the terribleness of parts of the tech tree:
    Just finished a Civ V game. Had not yet discovered uranium, yet was 60% done with a rocket to the stars. Oh, and I had a pair of NUCLEAR SUBMARINES. The unit is called NUCLEAR SUBMARINES and you don’t need any atomic theory to get it? Other things I managed to master without even understanding the Bohr model: Quantum Mechanics, Nanotechnology, Microprocessing, Space Program

  4. Tallguy says:

    He he. I probably got a little carried away with these posts… Oh well!

    You are right that Meier was probably thinking big Greek amphorae when he pictured the Pottery tech and the Granary unit is the clue. I would just add that large storage pottery far predated the Greeks and 4000 BC. As I mention in the third post, what does change after 4000 BC is a social and economic system from one in which surpluses (beyond what is needed to buffer against shortages) are rarely produced to systems in which is it not only produced but encouraged and controlled. The tech itself of pottery as storage was around for a long time, it is just put to a much expanded use.

    And yes on the archers too. Again, Meier probably envisioned armies not just the presence of bows & arrows. This is another example where focusing on technology is a slight disservice because what is really revolutionary and I think what Meier really means are changes in social organization. For example the types of economic and social changes that permit the fielding of large professional armies.

    My take on Animal Husbandry is a little different. Here I think Meier is interested in just one animal, the horse, which is not domesticated until around 4000 BC. It would be far more accurate for purposes of the game to call this tech “Horse Domestication.” I think there is lots of evidence that people were masters at selective breeding of goats, pigs, sheep, chickens, and other earlier domesticated animals for thousands of years earlier and masters of training of at least the dog for even longer. Of course that isn’t really relevant to the Civilization game, but having horses really is.

    Yeah, I didn’t mention calendar either. Mostly because I didn’t have much that was very interesting to say about it :)

    And that is great about nu-clear techs (I hear this as said by W.) You would think that if they have a tech system wherein some techs are required for others they would do a little more consistency checking. For example in Civ 4 I am pretty sure you can have the Printing Press without an Alphabet and Artillery without Gunpowder. Still, I will be honest, and say that is mostly OK with me. I would rather have a good game than an attempt to make a simulation. Part of the many reasons Colonization sucked as a game was that they tried too hard to simulate a specific (and horrific) historical moment.

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