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The origin of Agriculture and Civilization

Updated on November 11, 2013

The origin of Agriculture and Civilization

There is no historical evidence to tell us exactly how agriculture arose. We can only imagine what may have happened.  Cultivation of grain may have arisen without any violent break from good gathering.  In regions well stocked with wild grains, enough seeds would get scattered around to produce crops worth reaping.  Agriculture, probably, resulted from the understanding that plants could be grown from seed and that the crops had some relation to the seasons.  And, probably, the availability of water helped in this process.  Cultivation, however, marked a break from the primitive era, as human beings stopped being dependent on nature and started to control their livelihood and destiny.

Cultivation necessarily meant permanent or semi-permanent settlements around regions that were climatically and soil-wise suitable for crop production.  These settlements grew into villages, with some community life and leisure.  It is but natural that the settlements established in regions most suitable for cultivation, developed fast.    Thus we see in this period, from about 4000 B.C. to 1500 B. C. the four great civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China came into existence in the wide river valleys of the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates, the Indus, and the Hwang Ho respectively.  The Indus valley civilization is dated between 2700 B. C. to 1750 B. C.

Growth of Cities

The people of those times came to understand very well the advantage afforded by the river for food production.  They also came to realize that if the river could be systematically used through natural and artificial irrigation, food production could be increased manifold.  However this could be achieved best, not by one village alone but by several villages getting together.  Further, barter trade led to some places being identified as meeting places for the exchanges.  Convenient sites were chosen for displaying goods and exchanging grain for cloth or spice, or shopping for better tools and implements made by expert artisans.  Some evidence suggests that cities were founded by bringing together population of several villages.  The growth of cities led to the rise of an administrative class who could organise and coordinate production and exchange, but did not take part in it directly.

We find that growth of cities was helped by another feature of this new mode of production.  Man started producing much more than he could consume locally.  Therefore, all people in agricultural societies did not have to be agriculturists.  They could produce other useful goods and even excel in music or dance.  The surplus could be used to support craftsmen who made the agricultural implements and storage vessels, masons who built shelters, wheel-wrights who made pottery, and others who made carts.  There were still other who worked as administrators and priests, and who were not directly involved in the process of production.  These groups of people came to live in the cities.

The population of cities used to be supported by agriculture in the neighboring as well as distant villages.  This resulted in a division between villages and cities, between those who produced and those who supported production through work of other kinds; those who worked with their hands, and administrators or priests who mainly used their mental skills.  This division had a very definite effect on the development of techniques and science.  For the first time, specialization of occupations and professions had taken place.  As there was enough food available, society could support even those who did not produce.  such people had leisure to think, to improve their crafts, to create art and beauty, and to develop abilities to lead society through institutions of religion and administration.

The surplus also had to be transported by land, river and sea in exchange for other necessities of life and even luxury goods.  This provided tremendous impetus for the development of transport, such as rafts, boats and small ships, which brought about new dimensions of trade, cultural contact and exchange of techniques and science among different societies.

Changes in Social Organization

We find that the above trend in social organization lead to tendency which eventually shifted the progress of these civilizations and led to their decay.  The surplus, or whatever was left of food production after the consumption needs of the society were met, came to be appropriated by a small group of administrators.   They eventually became priests and kings and formed an exclusive group.  The successors of the original administrators gradually lost touch with agricultural techniques, as well as with knowledge and techniques related to production of other articles of consumption and trade.  They gave their time and attention to building monuments, temples and places of leisures to impress the rest of the society or to emphasize their exclusiveness.  They raised armies to take over more and more productive land.  Their priestly influence also grew.  They cultivated the idea that they had divine powers and were created by God to show the way to the common people and be their natural leaders.  Thus, society got divided into exclusive classes of producers and appropriators.

The tragedy of this process was that those who used knowledge and technique in the beginning to increase production became isolated from the basic production techniques and knowledge which had given them power.  Recourse was taken increasingly to magic and spreading of false beliefs instead of scientific observations and use of technology to solve material problems.  The farmers and the craftsmen who used the techniques to produce goods were weighed down with the daily problems of existence.  They had very little resources for innovations.  Thus, the practitioners could not improve the techniques to solve the problems they faced; and the appropriators who had the time, resources and power to do so were no longer interested in these things.  As a result of these developments, the progress of technique was thwarted and science stagnated.

In historic periods, stagnation led to the complete decay of civilizations, as in the case of the Indus Vally Civilization.  Sometimes there was readjustment of societies due to their being conquered by others, as in Europe were weak  and stagnating cultures and societies were subjected to barbarian invasions.  In both cases, the center of progress shifted geographically to other locations.

This is the social conditions prevalent in the Bronze Age civilizations.


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