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The Agriculture – Third most important transformation

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The language was the third major transformation in development of modern civilizations.

Birth of Agriculture

Until the birth of agriculture all humans were hunter-gatherers. Agriculture can be defined as the production of food in most cases involving the help of domesticated species (i.e., species with special traits selected according to human goals). According to the first undisputed evidences, agriculture as defined appeared for the first time in human history in the Fertile Crescent region of the Near East about 10,500 – 11,500 years ago. At least four causes may have been responsible for the birth of agriculture and it is likely that a different combination of these operated in different areas of the world:

1.    Overhunting may have decreased the number of wild animal species available, making necessary the intentional propagation and selection of certain animals;

2.    The termination of the last Ice Age may have increased the availability of cultivable wild plant species;

3.    The advances in the technologies of collection, processing, and storing of wild species also made plant cultivation possible; and

4.    These technologies could have triggered population growth, which in turn may have enforced the switch to food production, suitable for the provision of more people than hunting-gathering.

Consequences of the Birth of Agriculture

Population Growth

The considerable increase in population (and in population density) was not only a cause, but also a consequence of the switch to agriculture.

First, the number of people that can be supported by a given area is one or two orders of magnitude higher, if the area is dedicated to food production instead of a natural ecosystem, where people make their living by hunting and gathering. In an agricultural area most species are potential food for humans, while in a natural ecosystem there can be found a lot of organisms unpalatable for human consumption.

Second, the combination of agriculture and sedentary lifestyle (the latter usually accompanying the former) led to more births. The nomadic lifestyle of most hunter-gatherers allowed childbirth in only every fourth year on average, because mothers were not able to carry more than one child at a time during foraging (at least not without impeding their own food gathering activity). Sedentary lifestyle in itself did not suffice for changing this situation. Agriculture was also required, since it has concentrated the food necessary for a human community to a smaller area making long distance foraging unnecessary, and thus allowing shorter birth intervals.

Third, with the birth of agriculture the social status of women changed for the worse as they lost their vital role as food gatherers in the community. The subjugation of women can be observed in most societies in the last 10,000 years, often contributing to more childbirth than they really wanted.

Increase in Social Inequality – Centralization

Since in the hunter-gatherer societies everyone shared the same main task (acquiring food) and the nomadic lifestyle made the accumulation of wealth or food surplus meaningless, or even impossible, these societies were more or less egalitarian regarding power, wealth, and social status. In contrast, agriculture and sedentary lifestyle led to greater inequalities within the society. The appearance of storable food surplus has allowed societies to provide for specialists dedicating less time to food production (e.g., chiefs) and sedentary lifestyle has made possible the possession of non-moveable properties. As a consequence, people began to differ in their power, wealth, and status in many agricultural societies.

By the increase of social inequality, competition among people (and groups of people) — often involving violence, even armed violence — for more power, wealth, and higher social status has become more frequent. This competition among individuals or groups has been a major cause of the transformation of the biosphere, increasing all the three factors of the Holdren-Ehrlich model. Population growth has been promoted by competition among groups of people, since a group consisting of more people has had a greater chance to win the competition. This can be true even if many people have lost their lives in the violent conflicts. Competition may be seen as an important reason for the above mentioned pressing of women to give birth to more children. The value of the other two factors has been increased by competition among both individuals and groups. The means increasing success in competitions have been acquired by increasing economic output. The latter in turn has been realized by the spread of technologies that cause increasing transformation of the biosphere (especially the increasing exploitation of natural resources).

Because of social inequalities, population growth, and an increasing competition among groups of people many (but not all) agricultural societies have become centralized. This means that power elites have acquired power-exerting, economic, informational, and jurisdictional monopolies. Thus, they have been able to put other people in the service of their own competitions, exploiting, for instance, the muscle power or the mental abilities of others. This has increased transformation of the biosphere, since in a sense they have often created “megamachines” consisting of people, though these have become frequent and really mega-sized only with the appearance of civilization. Power elites have been interested in promoting population growth, since more people mean a bigger army and more taxes, both increasing the power of these elites.

Detachment from Nature – The Transformation of Natural Ecosystems.

By the appearance of agriculture and a sedentary lifestyle, natural ecosystems have increasingly become mere resources instead of places of living. People – and in particular power elites making decisions and usually in command of the means of production — have become increasingly detached from nature, thus feeling less and less the environmental effects of their actions and their dependence on natural processes.

Agricultural ecosystems have been substituted for natural ones, resulting mainly in deforestation, since most crops are not woody and many domestic animals need pastures. Likewise, the increased need for timber (e.g., as a building material required for sedentary lifestyle) has also sped up the rate of deforestation, which usually led to increased soil erosion. In order to gain new arable lands, people also began to break up grasslands and drain wetlands. Fodder growing for certain domestic animals has been another reason for bringing more land into cultivation.

Increase of Technological Complexity

Agriculture and a sedentary lifestyle triggered the increase of technological complexity for three reasons:

      I.        the appearance of specialists (until the birth of civilization only part-time specialists) dealing with technology became possible,

    II.        the appearance of non-moveable properties accelerated the increase in the complexity of some already existing technologies, such as pottery or weaving, and

   III.        the increasing competition among individuals and groups was also important in this respect.

The Janus-Faced Triumph of Agriculture

Why did almost every human society switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture? Beside the four causes mentioned earlier, a fifth one can also be outlined relying on the previously mentioned facts: food producers gained ascendancy over hunter-gatherers. In the fight between food producers and hunter-gatherers the former had the advantage of a bigger population, a more complex technology, and later, professional soldiers as well. Also, food producers had more pathogens helping the conquest of hunter-gatherers. Eventually, food producers gradually displaced the groups of hunter-gatherers. Though the latter still exist in small numbers, they have managed to survive only on lands virtually unsuitable for agriculture.


Food-producing societies – even ones without civilization – have often undermined the ecological basis of their living, causing their own collapse (though many of these societies have been very stable, lasting for thousands of years), while there is much less evidence of such a “suicidal” feature among hunter-gatherer societies. Without agriculture, however, civilization would have never emerged.

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