Historical assessment of the ancient world often neglect the economic basis of these societies. Agriculture was at the heart of the first civilizations and most ancient civilizations. Agriculture was necessary for civilization. Only agriculute could create the wealth necessary for the development of a complex civilization. The agricultural revolution was the fundamentaln shift in man's existence and the founding of civilization. It involved settling down and raising food crops rather than hunting and gathering food. And because the easiest place to farm with the most basic technology were river valleys, it is in these valleys that the first cvilizations appear. As technology improved, agriculture and spread beyond the river valleys and other ancient civilzations developed. Important topics here are agriculture, textiles, and slavery. The core of ancient economies was agriculture. With agriculture, a given area could sustain a much larger population than was possible for hunter gathering. We begin to see the rise of cities. And it is cities that technological changes develop. The rise of agriculture necesitated organized states to deal with problems like irrigation. And with agriculture and the appearance of cities, record keeping becomes necessaery leading to the development of written language or in the case of the Inca a kind of woven record keeping. The surpluses harvested created the wealth necessary for the development of the refinements of civilization, the arts and sciences. The great bulk of the population settled dowm but still lived in rural areas and made their living raising a small number of crops. Cereals were particularly important, mostly barley and wheat. The exception was China where rice was important. The production of textiles tended to be a much more important part of ancient economies than is the case today. The development of weaving technologies was an important step in the development of civilization. The fabeled Silk Road spanned both the ancient and Medieval era. Slavery is another important topic and was of great importance to many ancient economies. but this varied substantially among the different ancient civiizations.
The world into which agriculture appeared was very different than our modern world. It was very lightly populated and that popultion widely disbursed. People survived by huning and gathering. They were pre-literate socities and thus the era of pre-history. Which means we have limited information. These people have, however, left us petroglyphs and cave paintings depicting their world. Some time before the invention of agriculture, Siberian hunters made the final step, crossing the Bearing straits to the Americas (about 25,000 BP). This means that the all the important land masses (but not all islands) were populated. But the human population was very small, something like 5-10 million people. And thus contacts between groups were limited in a vast lightly populated world. This meant that comopetition for resources was limited. One of the great issues in anthropolgy /pre-history is the nature of pre-agricultural humans. We know that they were hiunter-gathers. What we do not know is whether they were violent. Many contend it was a very violent world of warring groupsfighting for resources. There is little evidence to support this view. Notice all the cave art depicts animals being hunted and no indication of war with other people. The very limited population suggest there was limited competition which would have been the primary driver of potentially violent contacts. Thus encounters between groups may not have been rotinely violent. People had a lot to loose if they attacked each other. And trade, mates, information, and other benefits to peceful contacts. Thus is difficult to study becuause hunter-gathers leave such limited evidence of their existence. There is some evidence that even when people began settling, there seems to have been limited violence. Early urban settlements such as in Sumeria fior example did not have walls. An interesting study of an African settlent, Lothagam North Pillar near Lake Turkana in Kenya, has found no evidence iof hierarchy (3,000-2,000 BP). They seemes to have thruved during a period of major climae change. [Grillo]
Historical assessment of the ancient world often neglect the economic basis of these societies. Ancient economies varied, but agriculture was at the base of every ancient economny. The most successful ancient civilizations built on that base and diversified. But every ancient civilization developed from an agricultural society and agriculture continued to be imprtant even in civilizations like the Pheonecians and Greeks which developed important trading systems. Important topics here are agriculture, textiles, and slavery. The core of ancient economies was agriculture. The production of textiles tended to be a much more important part of ancient economies than is the case today. The development of weaving technologies was an important step in the development of civilization. The fabeled Silk Road spanned both the ancient and Medieval era. Slavery is another important topic and was of great importance to many ancient economies. but this varied substantially among the different ancient civiizations.
One question which must be addressed in any discussion of the advent of agriculture is why it occurred independently at about the same time (in geological time) in unconnected societies around the world, beginning in the NearEast (10,500 BP). Some experts date agriculture in Mexico and the Amazon close to that time (10,000 BP), especially if sqash is considered, it would be a litle later when the more important Maize crop is considered. The invention of agricutyure than occurred in other areas: South America (8,000-5,000 BP), China (8,000 BP), India (4,500 BP), North America (5,000 BP), and Africa (4,000 BP). That sounds like a wide time spread, given the the long expanse of the Neolithic Age, a 6,000 year period is a very small period since the advent of hominids--a mere twinkling of the eye. And even a small period if you only consider the time that humans became cognitively modern (50,000-100,000 BP).
And if you just consider the three main crops: wheat/barley (Near East, Egypt, and India), China (rice), and maize (Meso-America); the timeline is much tighter, something like (10,000-8,000 BP), only two millenia. This suggests very strongly that some global force was involved which leads one to climate change. The onset of the Holocene about 10,000 BP) seems a very likely driver with warming temperatures and higher carbon dioxide (CO2) years ago is an attractive hypothesis for why agriculture appeared indepdently around the world at about the same time. [Childe] One historians believes that the decline of megaherbivores was paricuarly important in the Americas. [Doughty]
No one of course knows who invented agriculture as we do not know who invented fire and the wheel. It is very likely though that it was women who began the agricultural process. In hunter-gathering society, men did the hunting and women the gathering. That mean that it was women who gathered fruit, seeds/grains, berries, tubers, and nuts. And despite modern macho attitudes, it was probably the women who were responsible for the greatest caloric contribution. It is thus likely that over millennia, it was women who discovered the relationship between seeds and plants. And that by scattering seeds in certain places and at certain times, there may be more to collect when they retuned. This seems to be the most likely senario for the development of agiculture. Men preoccupied with hunting seem less likely candidates. Another issue is why agriculture developed. We note some contending that the transition to agriculture was voliuntary because so much more food could be produced. This emphasis is probably misplaced. In reality, human well-being actually declined as a result of the transition to agriculture. Hunter-gathers had better diets and appear ti have been healthier. What may have happened is that humans were forced into agriculture because rising populations were depleting wild gane and other resources. What we do know for sure that the adoptiuon of agrivulture was neither immediste or universal. The three major crops (wheat/barley, rice, and corn) were all developed by people not in contact with each other. Agriculture and the generation of wealth would be the driver of contact with other peoples. Three civilizations (Near East, Egypt, and Harapan) would eventually develop agriculture based on wheat and barley. This suggests contact, but that contact at least contact of any importance occurred after the development of agriculture, first in Mesopotamia. And agriculture would devloped completely independently in at least three separate locations, but at surprisingly similar chronological periods.
Humans developed as a hunter gathering people. They hunted game and gathered naturally occuring plants and other resources. This went on for milennia as several humaoid species evolved. Gradully humans began to develop tools to better use the resources in their enviroment. Than in the late neolithic era, humans began manipulating the enironment. This process is poorly understood as it involved mnatural processes like fire and hs left no obvious traces that anthropologists can clearly identify. Finally cam domestication of plants and animals. Domestication is efined as a sustained multi-generational relationship in which one group of organisms, primarily humans assumes control over the reproduction and care of another group to secure benefits from the target species. Humans were after a more predictable supply of resources than could be obtained in nature. Domestication occured essentially at the same time beginning at the wn of civilization (10,000-8,000 BP). Therr were precursors such as honey bees and silk worms. The only verterbrate domesticated by hunter gathers was the dog. Domestication meant that man could become more productive and generate the wealth required to creare civilization. Agriculture was the primary generator of wealth. Domesticating plants provided strains that increed yields. Animals assisted people in planting, harvesting and tranportation as well as having value of their own.
We begin to see the rise of cities. And it is cities that technological changes develop. The rise of agriculture necesitated organized states to deal with problems like irrigation. And with agriculture and the appearance of cities, record keeping becomes necessaery leading to the development of written language or in the case of the Inca a kind of woven record keeping. The surpluses harvested created the wealth necessary for the development of the refinements of civilization, the arts and sciences. The great bulk of the population settled dowm but still lived in rural areas.
Humans for millenia and other hominids for millions of years existed as hunter gathers. And hunter gathrers developed culture, but not civilization which is the most complex manifestation of culture. Civilization is characterized by urban development, social stratification, symbolic communication (usually but not always writing), labor specialization, sophisticated art, and manuipultion of the natural environment. But all of this requires the creation of wealth. Hunter gathers could not do any of this. They had to spended much of the day just finding what was necessary for basis sustiance. Agriculture on the other hand enabled people to create wealth by growing and harvesting far more than they could ever gather. And the enormous harvests meant wealth and the civilization that the wealth generated. Agriculture was at the heart of the first civilizations and most ancient civilizations. Agriculture was necessary for civilization. Only agriculute could create the wealth necessary for the development of a complex civilization. The agricultural revolution was the fundamentaln shift in man's existence and the founding of civilization. It involved settling down and raising food crops rather than hunting and gathering food. It should be noted that agriculture was no auarantee of civilization. Many African peoples adopted agriculture, but not great civilizations developed in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Amazonian region of South America, and other regions. It is not entirely clear why.
No one knows what the world population was before the advenbt of agriculture the human population was very small. It is generally thought that the entire world populatioin was something like 5-10 million people. Something like the population pf New York city scattered all over the world. This mean that there was relatively few conflicts. Encounters were infrequent. There was probably only minor competition for resources. Some speculate that as a result, war or fighting was infrequent, but this is only speculative. The increased availability of food cused a population explosion. It also meant that competition increased as there was limited prime agricultural resources. And we see this in Mesopotamia where civilixation first appeared. Agriculture may not have been invented there, but Mesopotama was the first cilization created by agriculture. And there are historical records to substantiate the ensuing competition and conflict. With agriculture, a given area could sustain a much larger population than was possible for hunter gathering. But it by the same token increased the importance of defending highly productive territory and the desire of others to seize it.
Commerce and war are two related developments that came out of the agricultural revolution of the late neolithic. . Of course early man surely conducted trade tradeat a very eraly point. But there was no commerce in the modern sence unril people settled down anf began farming. Hunter gatherer bands had to take possessions with them, thus they could carry very little in the way of trade goods. There were no beasts of burden until millenia after the advent of agriculture. Thus trade was vitually non-existent until late in the neolithic area. Agriculture also meant that civilizations had something valuable to trade--grain. Transport was only posible by boat whuch restricted possible markets. Only with the domestication of the donkey (about 2800 BC), a way to transport goods other than riverine routes. There is avery close relationship between trade and war. If some has something you want, there is two ways of obtaining it, by trade or force. Anthropologirts debate how such enounters transpired in the neolithic era. Some see early man as war like and violent. Yet ther are good reason to think that there may have mant peaceful encounters. War is fangerous and in a world in which th human population was samall, there was nuch to be gaimed from peaceful encounters, such as information, mates, and sacrce good. Yet throughout history a fine line separated trade and commerce. This was clearly evident with the ancient Greeks, but in more modrn history we see it with the Portugese, Durch, English, and others. And war as opposed to violent squirmishes could only begin with substantial populations and settled lands to defend. Af first only wars between neigboring people was possible. Waging wars at any distance required beasts of burden to transport weapons, food, and water. Again the domestivation of the humble donkey made this possible.
The easiest place to farm with the most basic technology were river valleys. It is thus no accident that these valleys that the first cvilizations appear. The process of plant donestication may have begun outside river valleys, but it was in river valleys that the first great civilizations appeared, obviously because crop yields with still primitive methods were the highest and harvests the most predictable. As technology improved, agriculture spread beyond the river valleys and other ancient civilzations developed. Recent archaeological finds suggest that agriculture away from the river valleys developed earlier than previously thought. We know much more about the river valley civilizations not because they were necesarily first, but because the consitns in river valleys produced not only enormously high yields, but more stable conditions. This meant that civilization could develop both higher levels and leave the monumental architecture for which great civilizations are best known.
Early agricultural societies cultivted a small number of crops. Squash seems to have been important in leding the way toward agriculture. Cerials were critical in creating an agricultural surplus and one that could be stored and traded. The first major crops were barley and wheat which became the main crop in the Near East, Egyt, and India. China was different and rice was developed as their principal grain. Native Americans in Meso-Ameriva developed corn, the grain that most effcently captured and coverted sunlight. Native Americans in the Andes would subsequently developed the potato. Corn would prove to be crop that was capable of producing the largest caloric quantity per acre. And potato was the most suitable crop for northern Europe. Interestingly, although the Native American civilizations were the latest to develop, they managed to develop the two most imprtant agricultural products. While food was the most important crops, there were also crops for clothing. Here flax and cotton were especailly important.
Another result of agriculture appears to be a patriarcial reordering of society. In the popular mind, neolithic society was dominated by club wielding cave men. Most anthropolgists believe that huntetr-gather society tended to afford much more status to women. This is not to say that men and women were equal and did not have gender specific roles, it is to say that women had much more status than is he case in agricultural societies. There are of course no records to sustain this. But there are hunter-gathering socities observable in modern times. And we often see socities in which women had much more status than in agricultural socities. This was certainly the case among Norg American Native Americans. And we see the same pattern in Africa, the Steppe tribes, and other area. In sharp contrast, all agricultural socities developed patriarchial societies. Here there were variations. Egyptian society conferred consideranle status to women, most other agricultural societies much less. It is not entirely clear just why agriculture resulted in patriarchial societies, but anthropologists have advanced some likely ideas. Women in hunter-gathering societies did the gathering and men the hunting. Strength was not a major factor in gathering. This meant that women produced a substantial amount of the food, as much as if not more than the men. Women in these societies did not have as many children. Children and large families were not an advantage in hunter-gathering societies. Thus women did not spend most of their leves either pregnant or raising young children. This changed with agriculture and farming. Phyical strength was required for some aspects of farming, such as as managing large animals and plowing. Women for their part were expected to bear many children. Unlike hunter-gathering, a large family with amy children were an advantage for farmers with many jobs that needed to be done. Agriculture also mean that land had to be found and defended. And everyone wanted the best land. This meant warriors were needed and the men who became warriors tended to have high status. And as agriculture expanded, conflicts over land increased meaning that the imprtance of warriors increased. Another aspect of agriculture was land ownership and how to deal with the father's death and how to pass on land ownership. This was especially the case with rulers and passing on ythe kingship, but the land ownership of more humble families was also important. As a result, it became seen as important to control female sexuality. Only this would guarantee who fathered her progeny. This significantly reduced the status of women, not the importance, but their status.
Homonoids from an early point developed the ability to makr and us toos beyond the capability of any other people. This was the beginning of technology. During the long neolithic period, technology developed very slowly. This only changed with the development of agriculture. This was necause the expanfed production led to urbnization and a population of people who were not tied to the daily labor of agriculture. They had time to employ their mental facilitis full time to creating objects of value, both luxury objects and utilitarian objects. This significantly accelerated the pace of technological devlopment. As a result pottery, literacy, and metalurgy appeared. And as a result of these developments trade developed. Cities were dependent on trade. A merchant class devloped. Civilizations created items of value in suvstantial quantities to trade and theu also had needs, this was especially true with the rise of metalurgy. The bronze age made sources of copper and tin vital and in in particulsrly was fond in rather remoye places. This led to trade and further technolgy such as seafaring. As a side matter the exchange of ideas developed.
Most texbooks picture agriculture as a huge advance in the human condition with the advent of if civilization. While we would agree with this, it is important to recognize that there were some negative consequences. First, civilization led to greatly expanded inequality. The most obvious development here was the prise of patriarchial societies and the significant dimunition of the preceivd capabilitirs and value of women. Huntr gaters and nomadic peoples tended to give important status to women. Agricultural societies almost without exception reduced that value. There was also significantly expanded differnces between elites and the vast agricultral peasantry. Second, civilization led to expanded conflict and warfare, a development tied to the increasing importance of land. Third, with the advent of civilization, humans begin to impact the environment negatively. This is most notably evident in the america, but also a development in other areas as well.
Childe, V. G. Man Makes Himself (New American Library, New York, 1951).
Doughty, Christopher E. "The development of agriculture in the Americas: an ecological perspective," Ecosphere Vol. 1, Issue 6 (December 2010), pp. 1-11.
Grillo, Katherine. Co-diector of Evacuations, Lothagam North Pillar near Lake Turkana in Kenya, "Ancient community spirit," The Week (September 7, 2018), p. 20.
Navigate the Childrem in History Website:
[Return to the Main ancient civilization page]
[Return to the Main economics page]
[Introduction] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Climatology] [Clothing] [Disease and Health] [Economics] [Freedom] [Geography] [History] [Human Nature] [Ideology] [Law]
[Nationalism] [Presidents] [Religion] [Royalty] [Science] [Social Class]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Children in History Home]