Chapter 4:  types of human societies

Classifying Human Societies

Over the years this process of comparison has given rise to many systems of classification in the various sciences.  The system of classification that we will use is based on the subsistence technologies they employ.  This system of classification divides human societies into 10 basic categories, with individual societies classified on the basis of their primary mode of subsistence:

1.      hunting and gathering societies:  the hunting of wild animals and foraging for uncultivated plants

2.      simple horticultural societies:  cultivate plants but do not have plows and use only wood and stone tools

3.      advanced horticultural societies:  use metal tools and weapons

4.      simple agrarian societies:  cultivate plants and use plows, but use only copper and bronze

5.      advanced agrarian societies:  use iron tools and weapons

6.      fishing societies:  environmentally specialized type (EST) - relies on that technology most useful to people located on a body of water

7.      maritime societies:  (EST) more technological advanced than fishing societies

8.      simple herding societies:  (EST) subsist on open grasslands with sparse rainfall

9.      advanced herding societies:  (EST) uses horses and camels for transportation in work and warfare

10.  industrial societies:  newest type and most advanced; heavy dependence on machine technology and inanimate sources of energy.  Also the most powerful (80).

Societal Types and Environment

Human societies have had to adapt to many kinds of environments.  The great majority of societies however, have occupied territories that were neither as rich in resources as the latter nor as impoverished as the former.  The 2 most basic causes of fundamental differences among societies over the course of human history, have been (1) differences in their subsistence technologies and (2) differences in their environments (81).

Societal Types Through History

Throughout most of human history, everyone lived in hunting and gathering societies.  This period of relative social and cultural uniformity ended only within the last 10,000-12,000 years.  The first new type of society to emerge was fishing.  Though fishing seems to have begun thousands of year earlier, fishhooks, nets, traps, boats, and paddles had to be invented before any society could make the shift from hunting and gathering to fishing as its primary means of subsistence (82).

Simple horticultural societies probably came next, first appearing in the Middle East around 8000 BC.  Though people began to use copper within the next 1500 years, it was not until nearly 4000 BC that metal tools and weapons became common enough in any of these societies to permit us to call them advanced horticultural.

The plow was invented late in the 4th millennium, and this innovation also occurred in the Middle East.  By 3000 BC it was used widely enough by societies in Mesopotamia and Egypt to justify labeling them simple agrarian.

Iron was discovered early in the 2nd millennium BC, but like copper, did not become the dominant material in tools and weapons for a along time.  The first advanced agrarian societies did not appear until the early years of the 1st millennium BC.

The origin of herding societies remains something of a mystery.  Evidence of the domestication of sheep and goats dates from about 9000 BC, but evidence from the earliest site suggest a hybrid technology.  While we cannot say for certain when any society first came to depend on herding as its chief means of subsistence, it was probably sometime after horticultural societies appeared.

Maritime societies date from the end of the 3rd millennium BC.  Minoans on the island of Crete were apparently the 1st people to rely on overseas commerce as their primary economic activity.  Maritime societies emerged first in the Mediterranean world around 2000 BC and flourished in Europe during the Middle Ages.  Currently, Singapore is the only maritime society (83).

The last major societal type is industrial.  The inventions that mark the beginning of the modern technological revolution occurred in the 18th century.  But it was not until the early 19th that Britain, which pioneered in industrialization, reached the point where it could be classified as a truly industrial society.  Since then, more than 20 others have followed (84).

Historical Eras

To understand a given society, past or present, it is not enough to know what type it is or was.  It is equally important to know when it existed since this tells us a great deal about its social environment.  In studying a society, therefore, to specify the historical era involve.  The various eras are named according to the type of society that was politically and militarily dominant at the time.  From the standpoint of ecological-evolutionary theory (EET), the 4 major eras of human history are:

hunting and gathering (12000-8000 BC)

horticultural (8000 BC-3000 BC)

agrarian (3000 BC-1800 AD)

industrial (1800 AD-present) (84).

The rise of technologically more advanced societies contributed directly to the decline of those less advanced.  For when horticultural societies appeared, the chances for survival of neighboring hunting and gathering societies were substantially reduced unless they too adopted the new technology.  The same was true for both hunting and gathering and horticultural societies after agrarian societies appeared.  The less advanced societies lacked both the numbers and the weapons needed to defend themselves against the more advanced societies that coveted their territories and other resources.  Those that managed to survive did so only in remote and isolated areas protected by oceans or other geographical areas.  In recent times, the pattern of military conquest and expansion has decline, but the pattern of cultural penetration by technologically more advanced nations has increased tremendously (85).

Differences Among Types of Societies

One of the most important propositions in EET asserts that advances in subsistence technology are a necessary condition for any significant increase in the size and complexity of a society (85).  EET predicts the following changes as a result of advances in subsistence technology:

1.         Size of Societies

One of the most important consequences of technological advance, according to EET, is an increase in the size of societies.  Technological more advanced types have on average larger populations (86).

2.         Permanence of Settlements

EET also predicts that technological advance leads societies to establish more permanent settlement (87).

3.         Societal Complexity

A third prediction of EET is that technological advance is linked to a greater complexity of the social system (87).

4.         Ideology

EET leads us to expect that the worlds views and beliefs of technologically advanced societies will differ from those of the less advanced (88).

Societal Types

Societal types are sets of societies in which individual societies resemble others of their type more than those of other types.  The differences between types are something like the differences between age categories within a population.  The distinctions reflect real and important differences, but we recognize that the characteristics of all the individuals in a category are not identical (90).  Societal types are valuable analytical tools that help us to understand societies.  But subsistence technology is not just any characteristic chosen to distinguish types.  It appears to be the single most powerful force responsible for the most important differences among human societies (91).

Technological Determinism Rejected

While EET emphasizes the importance of technology, it does not claim that technology can explain everything in sociocultural evolution.  It recognizes that other forces have also played a part.  Its views of technology’s role in human affairs can be summarized as follows:

1.      Because subsistence technology sets the limits on what is possible in a society, an advance in that area is a necessary precondition for any substantial growth.

2.      Subsistence technology influences the relative costs of a societies’ options.

3.      Because technologically advanced societies enjoy a great advantage in intersocietal competition and are therefore more likely to transmit their social and cultural characteristics to future generations, the nature of the world system has been increasingly shaped by the process of technological advance and increasingly reflects the characteristics of technological advanced societies (93).

Our basic task for the rest of this volume will be to apply these principles in a broadly comparative study of human societies (94).