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The Significance of Agriculture in Early Human Civilization

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The Significance of Agriculture in Early Human Civilization

Over the course of human evolution, there has been no greater single development with as profound and far reaching effects as that of the development of agriculture. Sustainable agriculture drove human civilization from a hunter-gatherer society to the settled and centralized society we know today. The advent of modern agriculture techniques enabled early man to settle in one area and develop their own food and raw material needed for survival and sustainment. Such developments eliminated the need for small bands of hunters and gatherers to forage for food. Hunter-gatherer societies were constantly on the move in search for food and shelter. Constant movement and migration precluded any significant societal and technological development and made population expansion all but impossible. The sedentary lifestyle and social structures we know today would be impossible without the development of efficient cultivation techniques.
For early humans, almost all time and energy was devoted to gathering plants for food and hunting animals. Once agriculture became the primary method for cultivating food, societies and governments began to form and the modern notion of the nation state (or city state in some cases) began. The development of agriculture also had a heavy hand in influencing early religions. Religion would go on to become one of the most dominant forces throughout human history; influencing everything from powerful governments to the day-to-day life of citizens the world over.
This paper will discuss the importance of the development of agriculture among early humans with specific regard to the rise of Mesopotamian city-states and the ancient Egyptian nation state. These two early societies provide poignant examples of the profound influence of agriculture. In their respective eras, they were the most important and powerful cultures in the world; this is as a direct result of their ability to manage the land and utilize it to grow crops and maintain livestock.
Early Human Society: Hunter Gatherers
Early humans were hunter-gatherers. Among these foraging communities, there was little in the way of stability and centralized authority. Typically these bands were made up of anywhere between 30-150 individuals1. Group types can be categorized as ethno-linguistic groups which may never settle in one place. Between these tribes, there was often cycles of fission and fusion. Tribes would sometimes meet up with one another (fusion) and join together to hunt, forage and mate. After a period of several months, these groups would again go their separate ways (fission) 1.
Though little existed in the way of centralized government or authority, some centralization or “home-basing” did exist. Often a tribe would occupy a small area and send hunting and foraging parties out to return with food. This tactic was particularly useful when there were children present. Nursing children could be brought along with the hunting party, but older children who were too small to help but too big to carry had to be left behind. Additionally, this period in human history saw development of hunting tools such as spears and arrows. Iron first appeared about 2000 to 1500 B.C. in Western Asia and by 600 B.C. had spread far and wide in the Old World1.
Mesopotamia and the Importance of Agriculture
Mesopotamia is considered by most historians to be the first human civilization. Between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers lies rich soil ripe for cultivation. The humans that settled this area, which is modern day Iraq, were the first to develop long-term agricultural solutions. Irrigation was of particular importance to the early Mesopotamians. “For the development of man, the control of natural water resources and the utilization of water so controlled for the development of agriculture were no less important than either the discovery of the practical uses of fire or the discovery of the potential productivity of the earth or land”2.
There is archeological evidence to suggest that grain was being grown along the Tigris and Euphrates as early as 4000 BC. The growing of grains and other food directly led to the rise of the Mesopotamian civilization. It can be shown that writing first developed around 3500 BC as a result of agriculture2. There began to develop commercial relationships between those who grew grain and those who used it.
Mesopotamian farmers were not only growing grain and dates, but also keeping livestock such as sheep and goats. There is evidence to show this in the form of artwork from the period to demonstrate the importance of crop cultivation and animal husbandry in the area2.
“There can be no doubt that the type of land use markedly affected the social and political institutions of the people of the valley”2.
The first codified laws, known as the Code of Hammurabi, were written in Mesopotamia and spoke extensively on agriculture. Additionally, many of the gods and goddesses of Mesopotamia were devoted to the harvest and other agricultural events.
Agriculture and its Importance in Egypt
Likewise in ancient Egypt, agriculture was critical to the development and sustainment of their political and social structure. Unlike in Mesopotamia, Egypt was a unified nation-state rather than a smattering of rival city-states3. This is due in larger part to the nature of the Nile River and its annual floods. The annual Nile floods made irrigation systems unnecessary in Egypt as the river itself provided water and nutrients to the crops. The Nile was so crucial to Egyptian society that the years in which there were lower or higher than normal flood waters there was political and social upheaval.
“Egyptian history is punctuated by difficult times when pharaonic government collapsed, and these ‘intermediate periods’ have been correlated with anomalies in the average level of Nile floods. But traditional patterns of culture, including environmental relationships, reasserted themselves after these intervals with remarkable tenacity”3.
The annual Nile floods created a swathe of fertile land that would yield an abundance of food for the Egyptian populace and livestock. This enabled Egypt to become one of the most formidable empires in antiquity. Thanks to the development of agriculture, Egypt enjoyed state formation at a much more rapid pace than other states in the Near East. Additionally, the Egyptian empire was much more stable and long lasting than any of its neighbors thanks in no small part to the regularity of the annual Nile floods and the agriculture that those floods supported4.
Human evolution and the history of civilization across the globe has been influenced more by the development of agriculture than by any other single force. The sedentary, centralized societal structure that humans know today is directly linked to the advances of agricultural techniques and technology. Farms allow us to remain settled in one spot. This means we are now able to grow families in central locations with limited worries. Governments can be created and maintained from a central location, and significant man hours can be dedicated to other areas and tasks that are important for developing and maintaining a city or nation. The stability afforded by agriculture also proved invaluable to trade. Efficient cultivation techniques often results in a surplus of food and other materials. This allows for trade and commerce not only within a nation or city, but between nations and cities as well.
The evidence is there to support the fact that no single advancement over the course of human evolution has had as significant an impact as the development of agriculture. Humans are no longer wandering tribes of hunters; we are sedentary and centralized societies. Without agriculture this would be impossible. The stability we are afforded has given us the chance and the time to pursue other things. The formation of cities, towns, nations and governments is a direct product of the development of agriculture.

Notes 1. Frank Marlowe, "Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution." Evolutionary Anthropology. no. 2 (2005): 54-67.

2. Jacob Gruber, "Irrigation and Land Use in Ancient Mesopotamia." Agricultural History. no. 2 (1948): 69-77. (accessed October 11, 2013).

3. Donald Hughes, "Sustainable Agriculture in Ancient Egypt." Agricultural History. no. 2 (1992): 12-22. (accessed October 11, 2013).

4. Robert Allen, "Agriculture and the Origins of the State in Ancient Egypt." Explorations in Economic History. no. 2 (1997): 135-154. (accessed October 11, 2013).

Bibliography 1. Marlowe, Frank. "Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution." Evolutionary Anthropology. no. 2 (2005): 54-67.

2. Gruber, Jacob. "Irrigation and Land Use in Ancient Mesopotamia." Agricultural History. no. 2 (1948): 69-77. (accessed October 11, 2013).

3. Hughes, Donald. "Sustainable Agriculture in Ancient Egypt." Agricultural History. no. 2 (1992): 12-22. (accessed October 11, 2013).

4. Allen, Robert. "Agriculture and the Origins of the State in Ancient Egypt." Explorations in Economic History. no. 2 (1997): 135-154. (accessed October 11, 2013).

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