Early Human Societies and Agriculture


Foraging societies

Foraging societies consisted of people who had no consistently controlled source of food. They hunted and gathered; thus they remained at the mercy of nature.  This way of acquiring food had several social consequences.  Since men and women both spent their time searching for food, there was probably gender equality.  Not having a very efficient system of obtaining food, foraging societies were demographically small.  Always on the move, they did not build permanent shelters or dwellings and had few, if any, personal possessions.


Pastoral societies

In harsher environments, such as arid grasslands and semi-deserts, the foraging way of life is not possible.  In these areas poor soil will not sustain an agricultural economy, but the vegetation can be used for animal husbandry, so these people learn to domesticate animals. The herds produced dairy foods, blood, meat, wool, hides, and dung, which was used for fuel. Pastoralists are often nomadic or semi-nomadic because their movements are dictated to a great extent by the needs of their animals. Many pastoralists migrate seasonally in search of pastures.  Because these societies were based on the possession of animals, they probably were socially stratified and women probably had fewer rights than men.


The people described above probably had limited technology such as the use of fire and simple stone tools.  Consequently, it is called the Paleolithic Age, or the Old Stone Age.  The Neolithic Age, or New Stone Age, began when people discovered one of the most important discoveries in the history of mankind: the function of the seed.


The Neolithic Revolution

During the Neolithic Revolution man learned how to grow food from seeds.  It was a large step in man learning to harness the power of nature for his own benefit rather than live at its mercies.  The word “revolution,” however, may be misleading.  This change of human society was no sudden transformation.  Rather, it took place over thousands of years, spreading from region to region.  Agriculture was also discovered independently by societies in the Americas who had no contact with societies in Asia and Africa. 


The practice of agriculture produced a surplus of food, which had profound social and economic results.  Some of the more important ones are listed below:


  • Because people could produce more food than they could eat, not everyone had to labor at food production; some were freed up to do other things.  Labor became specialized, with some people acquiring various skills, trades, and crafts. 


  • Agriculture required that people stay in one place so they built dwellings that were meant to be lived in for a long time.  Communities with permanent buildings and cultural traditions grew. 


  • Because food production was inextricably tied to land, the concept of private possessions became more common. 


  • Since men mostly worked the land (women reared children) and land grew to be the basis of wealth, the gender equality of nomadic people disappeared.  Men came to dominate women.  The practice of passing land on to sons perpetuated this gender inequality.


  • Because people could live concentrated together in larger numbers, they were more susceptible to plagues and diseases.


  • The practice of agriculture had an impact on the environment as man learned to manipulate land and natural resources to fit his own needs.  When people cleared land of trees and rocks, erosion increased.  Irrigation canals altered the landscape and animals were kept not just for food, but for pulling plows.




NOTE: Problems with the term “civilization”

Historians and anthropologist have noted several problems with the term civilization.  First of all, it tends to be used in an ethnocentric way; in other words, it is used to assign to others an inferior status.  For example, the Chinese of the Han dynasty thought all others in the world were uncivil barbarians; likewise, from the Spartans to Nazi Germany, designating others as less than civilized was often a pretense for conquering or destroying them.  Secondly, the term marginalizes (excludes) other people who have made important contributions to history.  For example, nomadic people are responsible for the diffusion of some of the most important technologies in history, but most accepted forms of the term civilization exclude them.


NOTE: The use of metals in early history

We call prehistory the Stone Age because most tools were made from stone.  Slowly, early man learned to use copper from the ground.  The problem with copper is that it is soft and easily bends; it will not keep a sharp edge.  At some point, man learned to mix melted copper with melted tin to produce bronze.  This technology (a learned technique or skill) produced a metal that was much more useful than copper or tin alone.  Bronze could keep a sharp edge.  But it was a technology that had to be learned. 


The problem with bronze was that it was very brittle and would easily break upon contact with armor, bones or rocks.  Soon, man learned to make a superior metal: iron.  The production of this metal was more complex than that of bronze.  Whereas bronze could be produced on an open fire, such fires were not hot enough to produce iron.  Man learned to dramatically increase the temperature of fires by blasting air into the coals.  This fed the fire more oxygen than it would get from a normal burn.  With such fires, iron could be forged.


Weapons made from iron stayed sharp and easily shattered bronze weapons.  Armies with iron weapons had a significant advantage over armies using stone or other metals.  Because its production required additional technological skills, iron-making skills were kept secret by the Assyrians who first learned how to make it.