This chapter uses the ecological perspective to explain the rise of the great agricultural civilizations. It also discusses the nature of these societies in depth. The societies reviewed in this chapter had already passed through the horticultural stage of economic development.

Lenski (1967) made a distinction between horticultural and agricultural societies. Horticulture is agriculture before the invention of the plow. In simple horticultural societies, the gardeners used their hands assisted by digging sticks. Advanced horticultural societies used the hoe. Lenski writes that about 5000 years ago, the invention of the plow in different parts of the world touched off the agricultural revolution. An advantage of plowing is that weeds are uprooted and then buried, helping to fertilize the soil. Plowing also permitted farmers to cultivate the same piece of land continuously and intensively. The resultant agricultural revolution produced crop yields many times larger than those obtained by the advanced horticulturalists working with their hoes.

This distinction does not seem to be a profitable one for even in the absence of the plow different societies developed very highly developed political and social systems. It also tends to overemphasize the difference between the so-called advanced societies against the underdeveloped ones.

The wonderfully non-racist and non-culturalist aspect of this invention is that it occurred in many different parts of the world and among many different peoples. The invention of agriculture occurred in Mesoamerica, South America, and North America, Africa, Southern Europe, and Southwest and East Asia (see Fedder and Park, 1989:chapter 12). This is good news indeed for much of the work of western historians has been to prove that agriculture started in western civilization, namely in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley of present-day Iraq. Western historians subsequently mistakenly emphasized the development of the great civilizations in alluvial plains. Western historians like Crop cultivation occurred around the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys beginning sometime between 10,000 and 7,500 years ago. However, human beings in Mesoamerican began the cultivation of squash around the same time as the people of the near east.

Fedder and Park (1989:293-294) stress an ecological role in the development of agriculture. They emphasize that the melting of the ice sheets at the end of the Pleistocene, set off a number of climactic changes that in turn caused various adaptations among humans. Various cultures had to shift their habitats toward a more sedentary existence. People congregated on coasts and along rivers. This population density then caused strains on food supplies. This set off the hunt for alternative food sources. People then expanded their gathering techniques, thereby developing agriculture. The cultivation of crops probably began when attempts were made to widen the areas in which wild plants could be successfully maintained.

Western historians love to point out the progress made in the Middle East and then claim this region as its forbearer. And looking at the data it does seem that, for instance, plant domestication took much longer in the new world than in the middle east. In the Middle East the development of agriculture and animal domestication occurred between 8500 to 6000 B.C.. This is only about half the time it took in the New World. K. V. Flannery (1973, 1986, cited in Adams 1991:40) has suggested three reasons for this difference and all are related to ecological reasons. The first is that the wheat crops of the Old World were nearly as productive in the wild as under cultivation, whereas maize needed considerable genetic alteration before it became today's corn. Second, there were many more animal species in the Old World compared to the New and these animals helped carry over the Old World while different domesticated plants were being developed. The goats, sheep, cattle, and pigs of the Old World also had considerably more meat than the dogs and turkeys of early Mesoamerica. Third, the lack of larger domesticable animals in the New World did not lead to as much specialization of labor as in the Old World where especially specialization by sex and age occurred. In New World hunting and gathering societies, virtually all ages and both sexes could do everything, which delayed specialization of labor and therefore of agricultural life.

The factors of geography and plant type deeply affected the types of horticultural societies that subsequently arose. There are actually two main types of agriculture. One involves the domestication of animals and the other the raising of crops. Evidence indicates that the domestication of animals preceded the cultivation of crops. Animal domestication occurred in the Near East some 11,000 years ago. Ecology has an important effect on animal domestication for, although cultural factors do affect preferences, using knowledge of the ecology of the area usually one can accurately predict what domestic animals will be raised in a particular ecological setting. However, this chapter will focus on the raising of crops as this is the crucial factor affecting the nature of societies.

Greater Social Differentiation and Inequality

According to Slyvanus G. Morley in the book The Ancient Maya (1946:154-155), the average Mayan corn farmer, using traditional techniques, could raise enough corn with just forty-eight days of labor to supply his family for an entire year. Even if it takes another forty-eight days to supply his family's other essential needs, it is clear that the Mayan farmer had a considerable amount of free time which he could devote to other kinds of activities.

Compared to hunting and gathering societies, the surplus available in agricultural societies led to the creation of more inequality in these societies. Woodburn (1982) argued that hunting and gathering societies have "immediate-return systems" and tend to be egalitarian. In contrast, the aborigines of Australia are examples of the "delayed-return system." Here there is a marked degree of inequality because stored food can be turned into durable and exchangeable goods. This allows the accumulation of wealth and power (Yesner, 1982, Testart, 1982), thereby providing the basis for creating more status distinctions among peoples.

In agricultural societies, there are marked differences in the degree of social inequality as inequality increases through growth in possessions of such items as gardens and houses. There is also a definite stabilization of the patterns of inequality. This, in turn, makes it easier for the more fortunate ones in society to retain power, privilege, and prestige and to pass on these benefits to their children. Also occurring in horticultural societies is the strengthening of the position of political leaders. Lenski (1967:163) found that in advanced horticultural societies variations in the level of political development (that is, in relation to the state) are the chief proximate cause of variations in the level of social inequality.

Among the agricultural societies, there are a number of matrilineal ones in which descent is traced through the mother's line. In these societies the women usually dominated food production. The anthropologists Carol and Melvin Ember (19 ) examined data from a large number of horticultural societies and found that patrilineality tends to predominate in societies where local warfare is present. (Do not confuse matrilineal with matriarchal societies, that is, ones in which the women dominate the society. Apparently, there have been no matriarchal societies.)

According to Lenski (1967), in horticultural societies warfare is often common and the warrior highly honored. There are often frequent raids, accompanied by torturing and killing of captives. In advanced horticultural societies warriors hold power as well as prestige. These societies are usually divided into a small, powerful warrior nobility and a large mass of powerless common people.

These societies could be very harsh. For instance, Inca society was strictly stratified. At the top of the hierarchy was the god-emperor, who, as both man and god, could do no wrong. By contrast, the individual farmer could not choose his profession or where he would live. He could not even decide whether or not to remain single or get married for the state decreed that all should marry and made sure they did.

The usual size of simple agricultural societies appears to be between one and two hundred people, which is from two to four times the average in hunting and gathering societies. However, the advanced agricultural societies can be much larger. An increase in food production made possible the growth of large populations. Accompanying these large populations was the birth of true urbanism with the growth of dense, complex settlements. Cities arose when several villages combined, thereby giving to the cities the advantages of increased opportunities for specialization and greater bargaining power with villages and other cities.

Mayan cities, such as Tikal in northern Guatemala, actually ranged in population from 100,000 to 400,000. Indeed, many of the advanced horticultural societies developed city-states. For instance, the New World empires of the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs all had city-states. Obviously, the relative isolation produced by the jungle and the mountains greatly contributed to this. City-states also existed in early Greece and Rome. The prevalence of the city-state indicates that this is a common variant of horticultural societies. This variant can also be carried over into agricultural society, as was the case with Greece.

The greater prosperity provided by the agricultural revolution also meant that many more people could give up farming and pursue full-time such non-agricultural occupations as trader, soldier, priest, and even artist. Greater wealth in turn created greater inequality in these societies as many of the new occupations were higher paid than that of farmer.

In the more advanced agricultural societies the city-state started to disappear with the rise of considerable state power. In these societies there is usually a central government headed by a monarch whose powers are absolute, including the power to enslave or even exterminate large numbers of people.

Meso America

In the Americas horticulture first began in Peru and Mexico. In Mexico this took place around 9000 years ago with the cultivation of squash. This was followed by maize, beans, peppers and gourds around 7,000 years ago. In South America, cultivations of gourds, squash, lima beans, and common beans also began around 7000 years ago.

The heavy influence of ecology on the development of agricultural civilizations can be illustrated by the Incas. A series of valleys, cut by streams draining the Andes, parallel each other and run westward onto the coastal plain. Resources are similar from valley to valley, but differ depending on one's location within an individual valley. These valley each provided a complete mix of resources from the sea, the coastal desert, the highlands, and the tropical forest. These valleys became self- contained cultural units as there was little intervalley contact. This is why the development of the Inca empire did become fully consolidated until 1476 A.D. (Patterson 1973).

Anthropologists and historians used to believe that horticulture in the tropical parts of the world were extremely limited by the nature of the tropics themselves. In tropical areas the soil cannot support continuous, intensive farming, so many of these horticultural societies relied on slash-and-burn cultivation. The workers prepared an area by clearing undergrowth and felling trees. They allowed the refuse to dry, and then burned it, leaving the ashes to fertilize the soil. After two or three years of this type of cultivation, the soil becomes exhausted. The cycle would begin again as the horticulturalists slashed and burned new areas of virgin land. This obviously limited the amount of economic success in the tropical areas. New evidence, however, indicates that the horticulturalists in these areas were much more sophisticated than this. For instance, investigations of the ancient Maya show that there was evidence of diversified and intensive agriculture (Morley and Brainerd 1983:56-57). Some of these more intensive methods included terracing and raised fields. About one-third of the Mayan area was swampy. To use these areas, the Mayans developed raised fields bordered by canals. In the canals grew water lilies, along with the fish that fed on them. The canals provided not only the water for irrigation, but fish to eat, and water lilies to provide fertilizer for the raised fields. On these raised fields, the Mayans grew corn, yucca, and chili peppers 500 years before Christ.

The Aztecs were also very sophisticated in their agricultural techniques (Adam 1991:369). Nearly every known agricultural system was used by these people. They used a highland slash-and- burn system; dry farming; irrigation and canal systems with raised platforms; and the famous "chinampa", or floating garden (that is, rafts of reeds covered with mud, planted with vegetables, and anchored in the marshes or along the edges of nearby islands). The history of the Aztecs shows just how little we know about other societies for the Aztecs were just the latest of a long line of civilization in Mesoamerica. The Aztecs were the last of a substantial list of peoples arriving in the Valley of Mexico, coming down from the north in 1215. They built a vast and powerful nation, covering 80,000 square miles, before their conquest by the Spaniard Hernando Cortez in 1521.

South America

An example of the greater sophistication allowed by the development of better agricultural technologies is provided by the Incan civilization. Agriculture in the Andes is very difficult because of the constant changes in altitude. In spite of this, the Incas developed the foot plow and this permitted the growth of great surpluses of foods. In the cold Andean environment, natural refrigeration provided the Incas with the ability to store literally millions of bushes of potatoes and maize. The Incas took advantage of this natural fact and developed large scale warehousing of agricultural produce. They also made great use of the different ecological zones in their areas. They obtained marine life from the sea; cotton from irrigated coastal desert regions; maize and potatoes from the highlands; and cocoa, fruits and nuts from the tropical forests. They cared for alpacas and llamas, and grew guinea pigs in the kitchen as a food staple.

The Inca empire did not really begin until the 1430s. Before that time it was just one of many small mountain kingdoms. Taking advantage of storage relay stations (where up to a million bushels of foodstuffs were stored), the Incas came to dominate nearly the entire length of western South America along the coast, from northern Ecuador to southern Chile.

The Incas developed a marvelous administrative system that enriched the entire area. People had to pay tribute to the state in the form of a type of national service. They had to labor for the state. They would do this in work parties that rotated to different locations, wherever the work was needed. These public work projects built marvelous terraces, fancy irrigation systems, bridges, and over 11,000 miles of roads.

Unfortunately for the Incas, Francisco Pizarro conquered their empire for Spain in 1534. This conquest literally destroyed the political and administrative network the Incas had developed over thousands of years, leaving the people considerably poorer. But, of course, the Spanish cared primarily for themselves and the gold of the Incas. Who knows what progress the Incas would have made if not for Spanish conquest?

The Mayans with their raised fields and terracing, along with slash and burn agriculture, developed a sizable civilization. The Mayan area included the five countries of Mexico (in and around the Yucatan Peninsula), Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. At 800 A.D. the city of Tikal was twice the size of Rome at that time. The city contained a priestly elite, along with peasants, but also included artisans and merchants. In fact, because Tikal was centrally located at an excellent portage site between two rivers, it became the control point for trade between Mexico and the Mayans. Later, salt from the coast was traded for various food stuffs.

Around 900 A.D. the Mayans stopped maintaining their buildings and in about one hundred years abandoned them to the relentless tropical forest. This abandonment has been a mystery that has intrigued many a scholar. Multiple causal theories have now replaced the previous monocausal theories. Morley and Brainerd (1983:148-149) have listed the following factors that could have been involved in the decline: growing social inequality between the elite and the non-elites led to loss of political authority; continued population growth led to problems of malnutrition and disease as agriculture had a hard time keeping pace; the increase in seacoast trade came to replace the long-distance trade network via land and river canoe through Tikal; and the privileged elites did not adequately respond to the challenge presented by the change in trade patterns. Newer power centers, in northern Yucatan and along the Gulf and Caribbean coasts, came to replace the old Mayan ones and the Mayan kingdom declined.


In the climactically and geographically favorable Africa the cultivation of millet and sorghum began around 5000 years before the present, followed by yam and oil palm a thousand years later. In Africa, the oldest black civilization is that of Nubia, which dates to 3500 B.P. This culture developed along the Nile, south of Egypt. Some 2000 years ago a rival to the Nubians, the Ethiopians built a four-towered "castle" in the prehistoric city of Aksum. By the fifth century B.C., migrants from southern Arabia established an urban civilization among the farmers of the Ethiopian highlands (Garlake 1990:44). From the intermingling of these two peoples and cultures came the kingdom of Aksum. It formed part of the Hellenistic trade network through its port of Adulis on the Red Sea. In the sixth century A.D. Aksum fell into decline. Among the monuments left in Aksum are the dramatic stelae of locally quarried granite. There are almost 120 of these stelae still surviving. The largest one standing at 71 feet. The stelae mark the site of elaborate catacombs consisting of a network of shafts, passages, and chambers.

Perhaps the oldest African civilization south of the Sahara is that of Jenne in Mali, occurring more than 1000 years ago. Four- hundred artificial mounds (tells) surround the present city indicating that at one time there was a population density ten times that of today (Garland 1990:7). The largest tell is Jenne- jeno ("ancient Jenne"). Like the Incas, the people performed public works such as building a wall that surrounded the city. It reached its height about 800 A.D. Specialized craftsmen lived in their own settlements around the town. Town, craft villages and country formed a single system.

In Zimbabwe in southern Africa there was a city of around 18,000 people. It dates back to 1000 A.D. It became the capital of a Shona state for 300 years (Garlake 1990:87-92). The Elliptical Building marks the height of power of the civilization. It was built in the fourteenth century and enclosed with an encircling wall. In the fifteenth century, at the height of prosperity, and outer wall was build. This outer wall reaches in places a height of 35 feet and a thickness of 17 feet. At the center of the complex is a conical tower that was built like a Shona farmer's granary, which may have symbolized tribute or largesse.

Southern Asia

Cultivation of wheat and barley began in southeast Asia around 9000 years ago. In China horticulture emerged in the Yellow River Valley. Rice appeared in South China or Southeast Asia about 8000 years ago, and in the Indus Valley in India around the same time.

As far back as the fourth millennium BC the inhabitants of what later became India/Pakistan developed a civilization at Mohenjo-Daro on the Indus River and Harappa on the Ravi River (a tributary of the Indus). During its peak -- from 4,500 to 4,000 years ago -- the city reached a size of 35,000 inhabitants. The walled city contained temples, granaries, and bath houses. Unfortunately, very little is actually known about the societies that developed there. Nevertheless, we do know that Harappan society cultivated a mixture of crops, including wheat and rice, as well as other food crops. It was once thought that invaders from central and west Asia destroyed the Harappan culture. However, it is more likely that ecological changes such as flooding, soil salinity, and desertification caused the abandonment of Harappan cities.

Rice Versus Wheat Societies and Cultures

The rest of this chapter deals with some fundamental differences between eastern and western civilizations. This is not meant to imply that these civilizations were more advanced. Rather, this choice is a practical decision to focus on just a few civilizations to make the book manageable. There is no implied superiority of the civilizations chosen over their contemporaneous rivals not dealt with in this book.

Many people believe there is a fundamental difference between western and eastern societies and cultures. This difference primarily, but certainly not exclusively, stems from the differences arising from climate and terrain and, more specifically, from the necessity of cultivating rice versus wheat crops. The two crops differ considerably in the necessary labor inputs and hence the required degree of social cooperation and population density. This in turn led to the creation of substantially different societies.

Wheat Civilizations: Egypt and Mesopotamia

The course of civilization in Egypt and Mesopotamia varied largely because of the behavior of the rivers and the degree of geographic isolation of the respective areas. In Egypt, by the fourth millennium BC, some of the settlements along the Nile had grown into towns, each controlling a strip of territory based on a flood basin. The Nile floods in a very predictable pattern. This made it relatively easy for the dwellers along the river to harness its agricultural potentialities via an irrigation system. Another favorable factor for Nile dwellers was the availability of excellent communications along the river. Moreover, the geographic isolation of Egypt meant that that area was less subject to invasion. Together, these factors made it relatively easy to bring Egypt under political control. Before 3000 BC Egypt had coalesced into two kingdoms, Upper Egypt (from Aswan to Memphis south of Cairo) and Lower Egypt (comprising the Delta region from Memphis northwards). By 3000 BC Menes, the king of Upper Egypt, conquered Lower Egypt and made the two kingdoms one.

Compared to the situation in Egypt, in Mesopotamia the rise of centralized power came much later. There are several reasons for this. One is the less cooperative behaviors of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. For instance, the Tigris River flooded erratically. In fact, the river was so low in its bed and so fast flowing (with almost twice the rise of the Euphrates) that it was very hard for the Mesopotamians to tame it for irrigation purposes. Therefore, early settlements concentrated in southern Mesopotamia along channels of the Euphrates. Another important difference between Egypt and Mesopotamia was that the latter region was much less isolated than Egypt. This made it subject to invasions coming from the mountainous regions to the north and east and from the nomads of the deserts to the west and southwest. Primarily because of these two ecological factors, ancient Mesopotamia suffered through a series of separate state governments. This continuous political disruption obviously hurt the development of the Mesopotamian region.

Due to the relative similarity of climate, terrain, and crops, the societies and cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia followed a common pattern. At the top of the social hierarchy was the king who was either a priest or a god, or both. This monarch was a complete despot with backing from a bureaucratic administration, a privileged class of nobles and priests, and a professional army.

Rice Civilizations: China and Japan

Rice harvests produced much higher yields per acre than the dry-field wheat farming of the west. Rice farmers further increased the productivity of the land by double cropping, wherein other crops are planted when rice is not planted. As a result, since antiquity, China and Japan have supported much heavier concentrations of population than West Asia and Europe. In turn, greater population and denser concentrations of people have contributed to greater societal cooperation.

In Japan, another factor contributing to social cooperation was that rice cultivation did not require the massive water control efforts needed to harness the great river systems of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and, to a less extent, China. Instead, rice cultivation called for close cooperation in order that water resources could be shared between smaller groups (Reischauer 19 :15-16). This further reinforced the Japanese affinity for group identification and action.

Chinese society and culture were the result of a mixture between the types of forces that affected Japan and those that affected the Near East. The cultures of both Japan and China emphasize social cooperation more than near eastern cultures. However, the emphasis on this aspect of culture in China is less than in Japan because of the Chinese need for irrigation projects more along the lines of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians.

Some authors like to write about the stress on "individual dignity" in the United States as compared to the emphasis on conformism in Japan. However, this is just another example of culturalism. Indeed, it would be closer to the truth to say that in Japan the culture emphasizes conformity too much, while in the United States there is too much glorification of individualism. Therefore, neither culture is superior to the other. Both need to be modified.


Other well-known agricultural civilizations developed later. These include those of Greece, Persia, and Rome, although western historians tend to devote less space to Persia.

In Greece there are indications that by 9500 B.P. there is a shift away from big game hunting to fish dishes indicating a shift to coastal resources (Fedder and Park 1988:286-288). This reflects the weather shift in that the sea level had stabilized after the onslaught of the glacial meltoff. The increasing sedentism may have increased population, thereby increasing the demand for food production. By 8000 B.P. archeological evidence indicates that the inhabitants began to exploit wild oats, barely, peas, and lentils, followed by wheat.

About 4000 years ago the Greeks descended into what became their future home. Greek civilization reached maturity in the fifth century B.C. The irregular geography of Greece made navigation and commerce popular occupations. This proved of great value to the Greeks as it brought them into contact with other cultures from which they borrowed. Greece borrowed a great deal from the older cultures of the Near East. They had colonies on the western shores of Asia Minor.

Early Greece developed many famous city-states including Athens and Sparta. The city states benefited from being able to take advantage of the knowledge of other cultures and combining it with new areas of natural resources. By focusing on trade, the Greeks became wealthy and soon dominated civilization in their area. This has nothing to do with a superiority of Greek culture or values. Most peoples in the situation of the Greeks could have, and would have, developed the wealth to make possible outstanding achievements in philosophy and thought, such as produced by Socrates and Plato.

Greece suffered the same fleeting nature of fame so characteristic of all civilizations. Alexander the Great of Macedon took over Greek civilization. Upon his death the Hellenistic epoch began.

The Romans soon surpassed Greek civilization as they took advantage of new technologies and relatively unused natural resources. Rome became the dominant power in the Italian peninsula in 265 B.C. The new civilization dispensed with the power of Carthage in a series of wars known as the Punic Wars. The year 146 B.C. marked the destruction of Carthage and the start of a war against Macedon to end the Macedonian ascendancy over Greece. This the Romans attained in 197 B.C.

In western histories, the peoples of Asia Minor and the Near East are treated as enemies of the western world. This is another example of culturalism, for the civilizations of Greece and Rome, and therefore, of Europe as a whole, benefited from association with the peoples of the Near East. Western historians, however, cannot refrain from seeing the world as a struggle between good and evil, cultured, and uncultured. They never actually say these words, but they imply it by the way they write history. This, undoubtedly, is affected by the great value placed on Christianity as opposed to the Islamic religion. This is not to dispute that Romans were more affected by Greece than by the Near Eastern civilizations, but one should regret the relative isolation of Rome, rather than demonize the differences between Europeans and Near Easterners.

Religion in Agricultural Societies

The increased social inequality in agricultural societies is reflected in the religions of these societies. There are many capricious gods to whom sacrifices of valued goods must be offered in order that they be placated. Living in permanent settlements near the remains of their dead, horticulturalists were often aware of the presence of their ancestors. Many people worshiped these ancestors, often performing religious rituals to appease the spirits of the dead.

In more pastoral societies, religions varied accordingly. The Hebrews who founded Judaism (and by association Christianity), and the Arabs who founded Islam, were originally pastoral peoples. The image of their god is one much like that of a shepherd looking after his flock. Farm-shunning, nomadic Mongolian peoples even had a religious taboo against farming, believing that plowing and planting offended the earth spirit.

The tendency of religious and other values to mirror and justify social reality is seen in the religions of the agricultural societies. The agriculturalists believed in a family of gods in which there was usually one highest god surrounded by lesser gods. This hierarchy mirrored the various levels of government officials, from the farm worker at the bottom to the monarch at the top. For instance, the Egyptian king, as god incarnate, used this type of hierarchical-blessing religion to sanctify his rule.


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