chapter 6:  Horticultural Societies

Before hunting and gathering era ended 10,000 years ago human societies had accumulated substantial stores of information about plants and animals.  People were as familiar with the behavior patterns of some animals as they were with their own, and probably understood them almost as well.  They had also identified hundreds of varieties of edible plants and had become familiar with their processes of reproduction and growth.  Some hunters and gatherers in the Middle East were even harvesting wild grains with stone sickles and hunting cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs.  Clearly the shift from hunting animals to herding them and from gathering plants to cultivating them was not as great as or as difficult a step as one might imagine (135).

Causes of the Shift from Hunting and Gathering to Horticulture

Most scholars doubt that hunters and gatherers abandoned their way of life and adopted horticulture unless they were compelled to do so by circumstances beyond their control.  Instead, they belief that the gradual growth of human population over millions of years and changing climate eventually created a situation in which it became imperative for societies to increase the supply and reliability of food resources.  This process was gradual would take hundreds or thousands of years (136).

Although their relative importance varied in different regions, 3 things are now generally thought to have contributed to the transition from hunting and gathering to plant and animal domestication:  (1) environmental change, global warming in the period between 15,000 - 8,000 year ago changed climates, raising ocean levels, reducing land mass, and altering the habitat of a number of animals and plants and reducing the number of large game and permitted wild cereals to spread into accessible areas, (2) population growth forced greater competition of a shrinking resource base, and (3) growth in cultural information and technology allowing for more effective domestication and horticulture (137).

The Technology of Horticulture

Horticulture differs greatly from agriculture.  Where agriculturists use the plow and cultivate large fields continuously, horticulturalists use the digging stick or hoe and cultivate small gardens that are abandoned after a few years (138).  This is due to the effectiveness of the plow in circulating the soil and maintaining fertility, whereas horticulturalists can only access the highest layers of soil which become quickly depleted, even after the use of slash and burn technologies (138).  Several consequences follow from the use of horticulture technologies.

1.   Because of the need to allow the land periodically to revert to wilderness, horticulturalists are able to cultivate only a small fraction of the territory that they occupy, thus allowing for limited population densities.

2.   Men are usually responsible for clearing land, while women are responsible for planting, tending, and harvesting the crops (138).  Men continue to hunt, but they are less productive.

Simple Horticultural Societies in Prehistoric Asia and Europe

In Asia Minor, Palestine, and the hill country east of the Tigris River, archaeologists have found the remains of ancient settlements dating from about 8000 BC in which horticulture appears to have been the primary means of subsistence (140).

The period in which simple horticultural societies were dominant in a region was called the Neolithic era, or New Stone Age.  This name was chosen because in early research, excavated sites often yielded stone tools that had been smoothed by grinding or polishing (140).  Their most important innovations, however, were not concerned with grinding or polishing, but with advances in subsistence technologies.  For the first time in history, groups of people were primarily dependent on horticulture, and hunting and gathering was relegated to a secondary role (141).

The First Great Social Revolution

The changes during this era did not seem revolutionary to the participants.  Revolution here rather is based on the long-term consequences of change (141).

Permanence of Settlements

An important consequences was the greater permanence of settlements.  No longer did a group have to move about constantly in quest of food (141).  This greater permanence enabled people to accumulate more possessions than before and resulted in larger and denser populations (142).

Growth of Trade and Commerce

Another consequences was the rapid expansion and growing importance of trade and commerce.  The growth in trade and commerce, combined with the increasing quantity of material produces, may well have led to the beginnings of formal record keeping and an increase in limited occupational specialization(143-144).  Most communities were still largely self-sufficient and most families produced nearly everything they used (144).  Innovations continued in the domestic arts, with the invention of pottery and weaving being especially important (145).

Increase in Warfare

There is little evidence of warfare in early horticultural societies.  Later in the era, however, warfare became increasingly common.  The causes are not clear, but it may have been linked to the growth in population and scarcity of new land and opportunities for hunting (145).

Simple Horticultural Societies in the Modern Era

Population and Economy

Horticultural societies in the modern era have been substantially larger than hunting and gathering societies.  Their larger numbers gave the former an advantage when competing with the latter for territory and led to the latter’s decline (147).

The larger populations of horticultural societies are due primarily to their greater economic productivity.  Simple horticultural economies are able to support more than 20 times as many people per square mile as hunting and gathering economies, and advanced horticultural societies can support denser populations.  These larger populations also reflect the emergence of multicommunity societies making possible the production of a stable and dependable economic surplus (147-148).

An important feature of these economies is the importance of women’s productive activities as women, not men, do most of the work of plant cultivation (148).

The Continuing Importance of Kinship

Ethnographic studies show that kinship ties have been extremely important in simple horticultural societies of the modern era and provide the basic framework of the social system.  These kinship systems are complex, with intricate systems of rules governing relations among numerous categories of kin.  Above all, they function as mutual aid associations, providing individuals with protection against enemies and economic support (149).  This includes ancestor worship resulting from the greater permanence of settlements and close proximity to the buried dead (149).

Another important feature is that horticultural societies tend to be matrimonial.  This pattern appears to be linked to the relative contributions men and women make to subsistence (150).

Developments in Polity, Stratification, and Warfare

The power of political leaders has been quite limited in nearly all simple horticultural societies.  Even in the larger, multicommunity societies, local villages have virtual autonomy except in matters of war and relations with other societies.  Both the village headman and the tribal chief depend more on persuasion than coercion.  This is partly due to the limited development of a government; a leader has few subordinates so dependent on him that they are obliged to carry out his instructions (151).  The only other important basis of political power in these societies is membership in larger and prosperous kin group (151).

Social inequality is generally limited.  Although extremes of wealth and political power are absent, substantial differences in prestige are not uncommon.  Political and religious leaders usually enjoy high status, but this depends far more on personal achievements than on mere occupancy of an office (151).  The more advanced the technology and economy of one of these groups the greater social inequality tends to be.

Warfare is more common among horticulturalists than among hunters and gatherers.  As in the past, combat appears t serve as a psychic substitute for the excitement, challenge and rewards which hunting previously provided and which were so important to the lives of men in hunting and gathering societies (152).  Warfare also functions as an important mechanisms of population control.  It causes a loss of life and promotes female infanticide (152)

Ceremonial cannibalism, a widespread practice in simple horticultural societies, may have developed as a by-product of trophy collecting.  Utilitarian cannibalism is an ancient practice, but ceremonial cannibalism a more recent innovation.  The basic idea underlying it is that one can appropriate the valued qualities of the conquered enemy by eating his body (153).

Advanced Horticultural Societies in Prehistoric Asia and Europe

Each of the inventions and discoveries of the horticultural era increased to some degree the ability of societies to utilize the resources in their environments.  But none had such far-reaching effects as the manufacture and use of metal weapons and tools.  This is why metallurgy is used as the criterion for differentiating between simple and advanced horticultural societies.  Societies are classified as advance only if the use of metal weapons and tools is widespread (155).

The use of copper tools and weapons increased slowly for several reasons.  (1) Until smelting was discovered, the supply of copper was limited.  (2) Metalworking was probably mastered by only a few specialists and (3) since any man could make his own tools and weapons out of stone, people were reluctant to switch to the costlier product (156).

Social Consequences of Metal Tools and Weapons

During the earlier era, northern China was covered with many small, self-sufficient, villages.  But in the later period the villages were no longer autonomous and a few had become urban centers.  The emergence of these urban centers was largely the result of the military success of villages that had one important advantage:  bronze weapons.  Bronze was to the conquest of people what plant cultivation was to the conquest of nature:  both were decisive turning points in sociocultural evolution (157).  For the first time, the conquest, control, and exploitation of other societies had become possible—and profitable.  All that was needed to transform this possibility into a reality was an advance in military technology that would give one society a definite advantage over its neighbors.  That advance was bronze (158).

Advanced horticultural societies in the modern era

These advanced horticulturalists of modern times differ in one important respect from those of prehistoric times:  the dominant metal in their societies has been iron rather than copper or bronze.  This is important, because iron ore is so much more plentiful than copper and tin that it can be used for ordinary tools as well as weapons.  However, because it is much more difficult to separate iron from the ore, the manufacture of iron was a later development (162).

Increase Size and Complexity

Advanced horticultural societies are usually larger and more complex than their predecessors; 3.5 times larger than simple horticultural and 130 times larger than hunting and gathering societies (162).

Political Development

The growth in social inequality is closely linked with the growth of government (163).  Since there is a natural tendency for men in this position to turn to the strongest extended family, power begins to accumulate.  This is reinforced by the wealth of such a family, which permits it to buy more wives to produce sons and warriors, and by the development of myths that attribute the group’s success to the magical powers of its leaders.  This final link in this chain of state building is forged when less powerful families, and even whole communities, are brought under the control of the head of a strong kin group—either by conquest or by the decision of weaker groups to put themselves under the strong group’s protection (165).

In these societies, religion and politics were intimately related with the King viewed as having divine powers.  This served to make tyrannical and exploitative practices legitimate and explains why no efforts were made to establish other kinds of political systems (166).

Horticulture in the New World:  Testing Ground for EET

There is convincing evidence that humans were in the Americas anywhere from 12,000-14,000 to 50,000 years ago.  The original settlers appear to have been hunters and gatherers who migrated from Asia by means of the land bridge that once connected Siberia and Alaska (167).

In the New World, as with the Old, the shift from hunting and gathering to horticulture was preceded by the growth of population and led to more permanent settlements, more substantial dwellings, increased wealth and possessions, greater inequality, the development of pottery and later of metallurgy, the beginnings of full-time craft specialization, the appearance of markets and increased trade, urbanism, the establishment of permanent religious centers, and increased warfare and imperialism (167).

Similar technologies applied to similar environments tend to produce similar arrangements of labor in production and distribution, and these in turn call forth similar kinds of social groupings, which justify and coordinate their activities by means of similar systems of values and beliefs (169).

Horticulture societies in theoretical perspective

Few events in human  history have been as important as the shift from hunting and gathering to horticulture.  It is no exaggeration to say that the adoption of horticulture in the realm of technology was comparable to the adoption of symbol in the realm of communication:  each was a decisive break with the mammal and primate world.  Hunting and gathering, like the use of signals, are adaptations of our species inherited from its prehuman ancestors.  Horticulture and symbols are more peculiarly human (169).

Of all the changes in human life that resulted from the horticultural revolution, the most fundamental was the creation of a stable economic surplus (170).

It is important to note that in these societies we see, for the first time, ideology playing a recognizable role in societal development (171).

The shift to horticulture meant more food and more permanent settlements, and frequently more free time for men.  More food meant population growth, and when combined with traditional beliefs concerning the role of headmen and shamans, created the possibility of a stable economic surplus.  The increase in free time for men often led to increased warfare and the emergence of the cult of the warrior.  More permanent settlements made it feasible for people to accumulate fare more possessions than was possible when frequent moves were necessary.  Also, more permanent settlements, in combination with the emergence of the cult of the warrior led to the practice of ancestor worship and the greater frequency of warfare contributed to female infanticide (171-172).

The development of economic surplus was especially important because it paved the way for growth in the size of societies, the formation of multicommunity societies, an increased division of labor, urban communities, increased trade and commerce, the formation of the state, and increased inequality, were also stimulated by the increase in warfare, the increasing accumulation of possessions, and the production of new material products of many kinds.  Finally, all of these developments contributed to the rise in intersocietal selection (172-173).