Early Human Societies and Agriculture
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
food production was inextricably tied to land, the concept of private
possessions became more common.
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.
people could live concentrated together in larger numbers, they were more
susceptible to plagues and diseases.
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.