Early Stages of Agriculture
2 stages of ag

The evolution of human groups has been strongly influenced by population pressure. When a rich area is sparsely populated there is no great likelihood of anyone's being deprived of the basics of life. As populations of hunter-gathers increase, more and more pressure is put on fish, game, and other resources. Extended family groups or tribes of hunter-gathers may begin to defend territory against neighboring groups, a dynamic that is also seen among other primates. Agriculture was first developed around 12,000 years ago. Cattle were used as the standard unit of value starting around 9,000 BC. Cowry shells (wampum) began to be used around 1,200 BC, and coined money (in the form of metal imitations of cowry shells at first) dates from around 1000 BC. The development of money greatly facilitated both the exchange of commodities, three way interactions, saving, and many other activities.

In the top diagram above, several farming communities are depicted surrounding a common place of burial. The burial place being used by several communities indicates that they understood that they all had common ancestors buried at this site. During this early period population pressure was low and human-on-human predation was not a significant factor. Later on, after the best farming locations had been settled and some individuals or families or even villages experienced scarcities, raids by one community upon another must have become frequent because these farming communities were equipped with walls or other means of defense.

Agriculture and animal husbandry permit a higher population density. The storage of grain becomes a primary task for farmers. Domesticated animals permit each human to farm a larger amount of land, and animals such as chickens and pigs consume food leftovers that otherwise would have been wasted. Cats become important because they kill the rats and mice that would otherwise consume stored grain. With the coming of the iron age around 1,200 BC, metal tools to till the soil became important items of trade. Clearly, there must have been specialists in the manufacture of iron artifacts.

With the domestication of the horse and the invention of bronze and brass, people in many parts of the world began to wage war using chariots, bronze (and later on iron) swords, and other bladed weapons.  These warrior regimes could extract wealth from other groups by pillage, but they also extracted wealth by taxation from the lands that they owed. In addition to providing for their own survival during winters and times of flood or drought, farmers also had to put aside the amount of grain demanded by their rulers. Even so, being taxed by one's own lord was probably better than being pillaged by a neighboring lord.

Written history does not begin until after there were governments, taxation, etc., so little is known for sure about how the earlier hunter-gatherer communities or the neolithic and bronze-age agricultural communities were governed. But already at this time there must have been roads between communities to be maintained, wells to be dug, bandits to be chased, drunks to be tanked, and many other communal activities that still must be managed on a local level today. It is not clear how it was arranged, but someone with the authority to get everybody to share in providing for these common goods must have existed in each society.

While it probably involved some gentle arm-twisting, the creation of control systems for river catchment areas and irrigation districts has been recognized as a major accomplishment of early inter-community coordination. The benefits for all people in not having floods and in having the advantage of waterways fit for boat and barge traffic as well as irrigation canals fanning off the edges of major waterways has always been considered well worth the outlay in work and materials. In the case of irrigation, real management skills had to be employed to ensure equal access to water resources. Individuals could not have acted independently to take their fair share of the irrigation water and prove their fair share of the labor needed to maintain this community resource.

At this stage, instead of talking about saving for the future it is probably clearer to speak of conserving mutually needed assets for the benefit of the entire community. Without these efforts, nobody prospers and many may needlessly suffer floods or other disasters. With a modicum of effort from all community members, everybody prospers from improved safety, improved productivity, improved transportation modalities, etc. Along with terraces to support agriculture in terrain featuring steep inclines, systems of river management become a long-term community investment.

By this time in history, some degree of stratification already exists. Farm families that have maintained control over the best agricultural land in the region for many generation will have accumulated wealth. Farm families that have not had the best land, not had the best luck, not exercised the best farming techniques, etc., may have even lost their land by sale to others. These people will be at a disadvantage. They will depend on the tolerance and aid of others to make it through the bad times. At best they may become tenant farmers who give a hefty share of their crops to their landlords. At worst they may become slaves to wealthy landowners. So I think it is fair to say that by this point the accumulation of wealth has become a major source of power over the lives of other people, people who may no longer simply move farther away from the most heavily populated areas because all of the land suitable to farming is already in somebody's possession.

In the Old Testament, provision is made for these unfortunate people. In China there was no such provision made, even in theory. Perhaps each culture has a unique way of reacting to situations wherein stratification has resulted in a marginal or sub-marginal loser class.

By this time some intermediate forms of dependant lifestyle must have emerged, e.g., apprenticeship, hired labor, government corvee, etc. In the time before money was developed, tenant farmers may have been common. They would have been given land to farm in exchange for a large percentage of the crop. Human beings can be stingy with their own relatives, but they are more likely to be that way to relative strangers. The minimum requirement on those with the upper hand in extractive relationships is that their counterpoint survive in sufficiently good health not to run away or die. The predominant motivation of those in superior positions is likely to be selfish, particularly if they have been socialized so as to neutralize their empathic motivations. That selfish interests tended to predominate after population pressure became high is evidenced by the prevalence of walled communities.

The exploitation of human beings, at this stage, depends on confining them in some way. Apprentices are often given over to masters under some form of bondage, and the parents cooperate with the master to ensure the education of their child under the master's teaching. Tenant farmers may have nowhere else to go, and in some situations they are regarded as serfs, bonded to the land if not to a master. Hired laborers are free to refuse work, but they may have nowhere else to earn their keep. Governments can use corvée labor to build and maintain necessary infrastructure items or to build monuments to their own importance. Short of fleeing the entire country, and possibly leaving family members to be punished, there is little that individuals can do in such a situation.

 [To the previous essay] [To the next essay]