Early Stages of Agriculture
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
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
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.
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