Theories for the Development of Agriculture
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Published: Mon, 30 Apr 2018
Agriculture was one of the greatest advancements in human history as it provided a foundation for the development of social hierarchies or rank societies, population growth, greater access to resources through trade, and power struggles among the elites. The big question, however, is how did the practice of agriculture originate? Hunting and gathering societies had been very successful up until the time marking the transition to agricultural and sedentary practices. Therefore, why did early modern humans decide to change from an already successful lifestyle? This is a curious matter because the beginnings of agriculture were surprisingly not that effective or successful in generating great outputs of resources as once commonly believed. Agriculture, though it was a successful development in sedentism and increased population growth, brought malnourishment to early Natufian farmers of the lack of variety in its first generations of use. Therefore, the question still remains, why did hunter and gatherers transfer to agriculture and how did the process of agriculture get initiated? There are multiple models proposing the development of agriculture which can be differentiated in a biological and environmental emphasis as well as in a cultural and sociological track. Through the research of Gordon Childe, Braidwood, Binford, Cohen, and Hayden, an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses can be made in the differentiating theories of the development of agriculture.
One proposed theory for the development of agriculture was climate change. There have been several large climatic transitions between the interglacial periods. Bar Yosef researched the paleoenvironmental conditions of the Levant and suggests that about 14,000BP (before present) there were more fluctuations in precipitation than changes in temperature, ultimately responsible for the expansion of the vegetational belts. This allowed for vast latitudinal migrations, good foraging patterns, increase in population growth, and an abundance of food resources. However, between 13,000 and 12,800BP known as the Younger Dryas, conditions became colder and drier, decreasing the annual precipitations and a change in the distribution of rainfall locations (29 Oct 2009). This placed much stress on the plants and animals. According to Bar Yosef, the dry climate expanded desert conditions and caused reductions in C3 plants, used for cereal, but also the reduction of megafauna which were unable to adapt to the new environment (Bar Yosef 1998: 174). This in turn created doubts about the current nomadic organization of the foraging groups. The hunting and gathering bands soon migrated towards the Mediterranean regions to join other foraging groups to live within a close proximity and seek refuge in the small fertile areas.
Childe an advocate for climate change as the effect for the development of agriculture states in his “Oasis Hypothesis” that because of the transition to dry and cold conditions, humans and animals migrated toward the river valleys for necessary water consumption. Bar Yosef states that along with “territorial restrictions, [there was] an increased motivation for intentional cultivation” (Last Hunters 70). This not only increased population size but could have also instigated sedentary life. The ideal environment that would foster the origins of agriculture would be in an area with an abundance of resources. Previously it was considered that agriculture arose in “marginal environments – areas where severe climatic change forced human populations to find new foods to eat” (Price and Gebauer 7); it is on the contrary however, that populations unable to sustain themselves would not take the risk of testing out new methods for the accumulation of food. Agriculture requires more energy expenditure and work from all inhabitants than foraging, therefore as a struggling population, this method would not have been the best option. Childe’s argument takes into account the climatic and environmental pressures but it does not provide any cultural factors that might have also influenced the development of agriculture. Braidwood challenges Childe’s hypothesis and suggests a more culturally driven theory for the agricultural origins.
Contrary to Childe’s “Oasis Theory” in which desiccation marginalized suitable foraging territories and caused large groups to settle in close proximities in lowland oases, Braidwood suggests through his “Nuclear Zone Theory” and through his research in the Zagros-Taurus mountain ranges, that agriculture in fact began in the well-watered regions known as the “hilly flanks of the Fertile Crescent” (Watson 25). Braidwood accepts the notion that climatic change has some sort of an effect on the origins of agriculture; however, he suggests that it only plays a minor role, contrary to the ideas of Childe. Braidwood instead proposes that the development of agriculture is “dependent on the presence of cultural mechanisms” (Redman 1978: 96) because along with the presence of agriculture, social and political systems of the early Natufian people were created as well. Braidwood states that agriculture was the natural outcome from social and cultural complexities. He questioned that if cultural change is reliant on climate change stated by Childe, then why did agriculture not start before the large changes occurred during the interglacial periods, such as 125 million years ago (3 Nov 2009)? Using a cultural approach, Braidwood suggests that agriculture was not possible 125 million years ago because the human cognition was not fully developed and complex enough to suggest any such type of food accumulation methods (10 Nov 2009). Agriculture requires a lot of coordination and management controlled by the elites, therefore, it could be hypothesized that with the presence of social hierarchies, sedentism was also in establishment. The favorable environment of the “hilly flanks” as well as the presence of the ancestral or wild strains of the now domesticated plants offered foragers the option to settle down. With the act of settling down in the optimal zones, as well as the accumulation of knowledge about the physical environment, Braidwood suggests that over time, foragers would “eventually realize the potential inherent in the local flora and fauna and would exploit that potential by domesticating appropriate species” (Watson 25). This also suggests the requirement of greater cognition and larger brain size of the modern human; and therefore Braidwood argues agriculture appears only when the human culture was mature (3 Nov 2009). Braidwood’s “hilly flanks theory” is successful because it attributes to developments of sedentism and food storage.
Braidwood criticizes Childe’s dependence on climatic change as being the main reason for the origins of agriculture because he holds a cultural perspective in regards to its development. Braidwood states that if cultural change, the transition to agriculture, depended solely on noncultural factors, the climate, then there should be evidence of cultural change before the last Ice Age that separates the end of the Pleistocene and the Holocene (3 Nov 2009). Against Klein’s Big Bang Theory regarding human cognition, agriculture simply did not happen before the Holocene because humans were not ready or complex enough to have the capability of creating the idea of agriculture (10 Nov 2009). Braidwood and Childe both suggest that agriculture occurred in small optimal zones, however, through Braidwood’s research in the mountainous regions of Iraq, he concludes that there was no significant climate change because the areas were still relatively fertile and therefore there was a large concentration of animals and plants that could be exploited. According to the Willy Sutton principle, where there are ample resources, then people will settle there and take advantage of those resources (3 Nov 2009). A weakness in Braidwood’s theory however is that he does not try to answer the question: why did agriculture occur at the time that it did? It is suggested that agriculture developed independently throughout the world at relatively the same time. Braidwood does not question why this happened but only concentrates on how it happened. Braidwood provides good reasons as to why he criticizes Childe’s hypothesis, however, his weakness is that he does not provide a strong alternative theory. In his book, Prehistoric Man, he states, “the groups became agricultural villagers because they were ready for it” (MacNeish 9) which demonstrates his theory that man only developed agriculture when the culture and cognition were more complex. This however is not an effective alternative hypothesis because it needs evidence to support the claim. The only evidence available is the size of the human brain, which does not deduce much information because archaeologists cannot question the cognitive capabilities of the deceased. Artifacts are available to suggest development in ideas and concepts, but this is also highly subjective.
An alternative hypothesis to the development of agriculture is directly correlated with population growth. Both Mark Cohen and Lewis Binford attribute that with the pressures on food availability caused by population growth, agriculture was an innovative development which helped sustain growing societies. Louis Binford’s model for agriculture weaves pieces of both Childe’s and Braidwood’s hypotheses. Binford suggests that hunting-gathering groups maintained equilibrium between their population size and availability of resources in order to remain under the environment’s carrying capacity (Watson 26). This idea explains why foraging groups were successful; they kept a control on the food intake for each person. During the Younger Dryas, as climate became colder and drier, groups moved to the coastal regions where they became sedentary, as Childe had concluded. The difference however is that Binford focuses on population size as the stressor and instigator for agriculture. Groups congregated into the optimal zones, putting pressure on the available resources as well as creating an imbalance on the carrying capacity. This caused some groups to move out of the optimal zones and settle along the peripheries that had drought-resistant plants and smaller-sized animals (5 Nov 2009). With the increased pressure of supporting population sizes and the need to remain under the area’s carrying capacity, “groups intensif[ied] their subsistence practices in the direction of domesticating plants and animals” (Watson 26). The necessity for subsistence strategies in addition significantly impacted society’s social and economic factors, demonstrated through Brian Hayden’s social competition theory.
This theory establishes that sedentism preceded agriculture. In order for the sedentary lifestyle to persist and work efficiently, rank societies were established. In response to social hierarchies, there is an inherent need to accumulate power and prestige. Power is equated to food, and in order for elites to maintain their prestige and power they need to be maintain large quantities of food. To exponentially increase their possession of food, the development of agriculture comes into effect. Hayden proposes that the development of agriculture is a result of stress from social competition and the change in the social environment (10 Nov 2009). This change in societal structure is not the result of agriculture but it is more so the cause of agriculture (10 Nov 2009). Hayden also states that agriculture can only occur in locations where there is already an abundance of food and where it can be reproduced (Zeder 2006: 111). The reason for this is that large societies would not put their inhabitants at risk attempting a new method of food accumulation if environmental conditions were unsuitable. The development of agriculture, if conditions were successful, was able to produce surpluses which increased rank of elites and created storage for food. Agriculture also increased long distance trade and cross cultural relationships. With the presence of surpluses, societies could afford to give something away (5 Nov 2009). A flaw in Hayden’s model is that he also fails to address Braidwood’s question concerning the reason for why agriculture only occurs in the Holocene and not earlier.
In order to understand the models described above with the origins of agriculture it important to account for the archaeological data. Some important ways to extract data is through pollen samples found in water bogs, radiocarbon dating, DNA extraction, etc. For example, in regards to Braidwood’s hypothesis that climate change was not as important as Childe and Binford believed, reconstruction of plant communities enable archaeologists to reconstruct Paleolithic climates (29 Oct 2009). In order to reconstruct plant communities, pollen samples are used. Pollen samples can be preserved in waterlogged sediments because the mud at the bottom of the lakes have aerobic conditions, which means that there is no oxygen, allowing pollen and other artifacts to be nicely preserved (29 Oct 2009). Another method to reconstruct climatic conditions and determine when the Younger Dryas occurred is by evaluating methane gas presence in the ice cores found in Greenland (3 Nov 2009). This along with plant communities can help reconstruct past climates. Lithic assemblages used by the first farmers, the Natufians, are also good indicators of when agriculture originated. Tools such as picks and sickle blades were used for harvesting cereals; this can be inferred by observing the microwear on the blades, but also through plant macrofossils which might contain residue from the particular grass being cut (Bar-Yosef 1998: 164). Agriculture can also be demonstrated by the structures of the central plant stems. In domesticated plants the seeds do not break off as easily as the wild grains do, which is evidence of human manipulation on plants to maximize output but a correlation of harvests with seasonality (29 Oct 2009). Another source of evidence for the origins of agriculture is looking at samples of preserved human coprolites in settled communities which helps detect what type of diet the human had. If there is a lack of nutrition, then it can be inferred that the society was just beginning the innovation of agriculture as there was a lack of nutrition and variety in early agricultural diets. Not just coprolites but also bone composition, tooth enamel, and support for the presence of pandemic diseases provide good archaeological support for the origins of agriculture (Zeder 2006: 110). It’s observed that carbon and nitrogen isotopes found within the bone and microwear on teeth detect the nutrition of humans. Other archaeological evidence for the presence of agriculture, described by Zeder (2006: 110) is the presence of fences and corral to enclose the community’s animals; this reason fits nicely with the social theory and necessity for agriculture because it demonstrates the complete transition to sedentary life and the domestication of plants and animals.
There are multiple theories that be equated to the development of agriculture and they all tend to build off of each other. Yes, each archaeologist or theorist emphasizes slightly different nuances, however they interrelate archaeological, environmental, and societal information in each of their models. According to Watson, “Braidwood’s account improves on Childe’s, and Binford’s upon Braidwood’s” (27). I propose that the stress theories of Childe, Cohen, and Binford can co-occur with the cultural change theories of Braidwood and Hayden. Agriculture could have been a great phenomenon that occurred by accident, but human cognition had to have had enough knowledge for the manipulation of grasses and animals to exploit and produce large surpluses. In order to keep order within the society with the presence of agriculture there also has to have been control and power structures. Climatic changes play a huge role in regards to where societies choose to settle and in the strength of seasonal food production. In recognizing the biological and cultural aspects of agriculture, it can be deduced that these models are very much interrelated with specific links that may cause one theorist’s model to lean heavily to one side or another. There is not one universal applicable theory for the origin of agriculture because all of the world’s systems are interdependent on one another.
States are regionally organized societies with large populations that are economically and ethnically diverse. This suggests that the formation of a state occurs when there are social hierarchies with a small elite group that accentuates its sovereignty and dominance over the rest of the population. According to Algaze’s lecture, societies must have political administration, economic administration or redistribution, and religious indoctrination or infrastructure in order to be labeled as a state (17 Nov 2009). It has commonly been noted that states or cities are only considered as such with the dependence of a large population size, 100,000 people or more. R. Fox in his book Urban Anthropology, however, discusses that determining a state or a city on raw size or scale is not completely irrelevant but it is also not an important key component (17 Nov 2009). It is more important to evaluate a city or state on its function and sustainability. The central question therefore is: what components are important in the formation of a state? In Jonathan Haas’ book, The Evolution of the Prehistoric State, he divides numerous theories of the origins and formations of states into two categories: the conflict position and the integration position. These two positions try to argue how states formed and regulated and maintained control over the complex societies. Through the theories of Engels and Fried regarding the conflict position, Haas argues that states formed and resolved economic and social stratifications effectively over their own populations and neighboring peoples through coercion. Opposed to the conflict position, Haas derives the integration position argument from Service, in which state governments were able to regulate and maintain social order over its inhabitants without the use of forceful tactics. Haas ultimately does not support either position: for conflict or for integration, however, if it was necessary, the conflict theory would seem more plausible as it contains more valid reasons and logical thought.
Some of the basic components that influenced Engels and Fried to cooperate with the conflict model were the increases in agricultural production, development of trade relationships, and the introduction of irrigation systems for water control. Engels states that the formation of the state begins with origins of agriculture (Haas 1982: 36). With the ability to produce more food and create surpluses for a growing population, societies became more sedentary and divisions of labor were created. The increase in food production created specialized occupations and allowed the elites to assume political administrative roles or have an impact in religious dealings. The role of religious figures is important as it is correlated with the state’s political administration. Religion has a façade, seen to unite a population, however, it is also influentially political in order to control and regulate public affairs (Haas 1982: 44). The large prominence of religious temples provides strong support for the importance of religious ideology and coercion in a common belief upon the inhabitants within the state (Stein 1994: 42). Childe also argues that with the need to support non-agricultural producing groups within the society, irrigation agriculture not only increased food availability on a large scale but also was an important facet for social control (Haas 1982: 40). The social control derives from elites controlling the power of water supply as well as the necessity of a huge labor source. The conflict model comes into effect due to the presence of differences in economic wealth and divisions of labor.
Engels states that as the “politically dominant class acquires the new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class…by levying taxes and enforcing social control [through] force” (Haas 1982: 37). Austin also provides knowledge on the conflict position in the government’s development of laws. Laws coerce the population to maintain order and submit to the political authorities of the elites; otherwise there are negative reciprocations (Haas 1982: 38). In Fried’s model the basis for the conflict theory is the maintenance of social order in regards to possible conflict arousal to the differences in access to resources (Haas 1982: 49). With the increase in agricultural production and limited access to resources, private property became an issue in establishing economic and political status. Fried states that with the “sanctity of private property,” social order is accomplished through instituted governmental enforcement (49). Fried successfully discusses that with the changes in materialistic components such as increased food production, development of irrigation systems, and private property, the influence of political organization was pertinent. With the combination of military organization and laws along with stratification of classes, state formation provides support for elite social groups and the forceful submission of the peasant groups to the elites generating potential conflicts (Haas 1982: 49). Through evidence that supports state formations, economic scales become more and more important to maintain, grow, and flaunt among peripheral societies and therefore it is important to bring populations together in a defensive mode which calls for the construction of outer walls (19 Nov 2009). Fried provides theoretical approaches to his conflict theory based on the forced rule over a state’s inhabitants, however, Haas states that he “fails to recognize the critical importance and utility of the archaeological record” (1982: 50) for evidence to support his claim, and instead hypothesizes the emergence of states by looking at “historically known societies” (1982: 51). Fried’s model can be testable, however it would need to be improved with more data and documentation from pre-state formed societies derived from the archaeological record rather than the historically based inferences. Fried bases his theory more on the logical approaches, for example, he supports the idea that within the means of producing more wealth, it is inevitable to have causes of social friction (19 Nov 2009). Some evidence that could relate to the forced control and economic differentiation amongst the inhabitants can be demonstrated through the layout of the city. For example, large structures belonging to the elites were central to the marketplace and the peasants separated farther away from the center. The presence of numerous temples centrally located indicates strong emphasis on religion and conforming to the beliefs described by the elites who most commonly absorbed the priest occupation. In Ubaid Mesopotamia, the architecture and distributions of artifacts demonstrate economic differentiations within households (Stein 1994: 38) such as with burial practices, artwork, and administration clay tablets. Also, the location of the houses and cities along the rivers and near the canal irrigation systems suggests potential trade of the surplus goods amongst neighboring societies with the ability to transport by waterways (Stein 1994: 42).
Fried supports the conflict theory in which forceful tactics were used to create efficient states and political rule. On the contrary, advocates for the integration position propose social order was regulated without forceful tactics. Spencer for example argues that the lower classes, subordinate to the elite classes due to the development of social hierarchies within the political structure, accepted their lowly position in society compared to the wealthy elites (Haas 1982: 63) because of the inability to social climb. Haas also discusses that there might not be demonstrations of conflict or raging warfare between the elite and peasant groups because the peasants are “politically and economically incapable of waging successful revolution[s]” (1982: 79). According to Gumplowicz, the development of private property acted as a factor to maintain social control, an alternative to physical force (Haas 1982: 64). The main argument for the integration position is that after the state formed, classes were able to reunite through religion, residence locations, and language or culture. This suggests that integration might only be possible within the specific social classes and not throughout the all the social structures in the state. In regards to religion as a non-forceful factor in social order is through the argument of Moret and Davy who argues that rulers who view themselves as a god, thought that they derived their power from the will of the people (Haas 1982: 70). This reason is popularized to keep peasant revolts and power struggles within the king’s hereditary circles subdued. Service asserts that political power in the formation of states due to the integration position was redistributive and was acquired by strong leadership qualities which were then passed into the hereditary elite classes (Haas 1982: 75). With the increase in population and size, integration is necessary for cooperation and successfulness in the administration of the state. Service also argues that the “first governments were ruled by ‘right of authority’ and through the application of sacred sanctions” (Haas 1982: 76). The purpose of the religious architecture was to provide social cohesion and control. The weakness of Service’s argument for the integration position is he advocates that the centralized government provides lots of resources and benefits to the people such as irrigation, religious beliefs, and protection, however he does not recognize that to have an effective state, force needs to be used to keep subjects under control to establish a stable and permanent government. The integrative position also proposes that public works were accomplished voluntary without physical force. However, there are no archaeological records of temples being voluntarily constructed. It can be detected from written documents that throughout other histories, public works were forced upon slaves; therefore the integration position seems weak and too optimistic. Evidence of the presence of walls and military troops suggests that protection was a necessity and important to demonstrate political autonomy over the society’s own inhabitants and peripheral communities with who trade is accomplished.
Haas does a great job in equally discussing the conflict and integration positions. It however seems more plausible that the conflict position influenced the formation of states as it part of human instinct to assert power and control over others in order to better maintain their own social position. Recognition of power and autonomy is essential in creating a stable state, and can only be accomplished by forcing people to cooperate with rules and regulations.
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