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Chapter 5- The World Transformed: From Foragers and Farmers to States and Empires

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students should be able to:

    understand how environmental change after 11,500 years ago led to new human responses and opportunities.

    explain how changes in human population size and the availability of certain plant and animal species are related to the development and spread of cultivation, domestication, and agriculture.

    trace the relationship between larger communities and social complexity.

    understand the reasons why some people continued to hunt and gather while others established cities and states.

    describe the differences and similarities in the conditions leading to the emergence of states in different parts of the world: Mesopotamia, Africa, South and East Asia, and Central and South America.

    explain and critically evaluate the many theories postulated for the origins of sedentism, agriculture, social complexity and state formation.

    describe how writing originated and was used in different states.

    understand why archaeologists focus equally on the spectacular achievements of states and the activities of ordinary people, including those who continued to live as simple farmers or hunter-gatherers.


Between18,000 BC and 9600 BC, the world slowly warmed. During the Holocene, temperatures became similar to today, and "megafauna" characterizing the Pleistocene died out, possibly due to human predation and dramatic climate change.

The Early Holocene Environment
Coasts and Islands During the early Holocene, eustatic rises in sea level would have been perceptible, while in the north isostatic uplift changed shorelines dramatically. Islands were created worldwide, and continents became divided. Dry land was drowned, as shown by artifacts dredged from underwater regions. Humans remained connected by developing navigational skills and they exploited new conditions through increasing use of marine resources. By around 5000 BC, landmasses were similar to today.

Forests and Deserts In Europe and North America, boreal, then deciduous forests spread north as tundra shrank, perhaps playing a part in megafauna extinctions. Woodland species appeared, offering new prey for hunters. The Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone moved over the Sahara, creating lakes and grasslands, rather than today's desert, and by the 9th millennium BC, pottery-using fishers and hunters had settled there.

Hunter-gatherer Adaptations to the Holocene Human communities benefited from a warmer, moister climate and the changes it engendered, spreading from tropical and sub-tropical zones, where they had been most numerous, to temperate zones: North America, Europe, and Asia.
    The technology and material culture of early postglacial groups was developed directly developed from late Paleolithic traditions. Flint microliths were inserted into wooden or bone hafts to make composite tools. In Europe, microliths distinguish the Mesolithic; they were used much earlier in Africa.

People harvested plants with stone knives and digging sticks, and hunted animals with spears and bows, moving around the landscape in small groups, following seasonal resources, occasionally attending larger gatherings at places with abundant resources. Despite their small scale and mobility, ethnographic parallels suggest a complex culture and network of kinship. Certain groups of foragers had begun to procure food in new ways, through intentional propagation of selected plants, beginning the process of domestication and cultivation.


What is Agriculture? Agriculture is an artificial ecosystem in which selected species of plants and animals are cultivated and reared. Its two basic premises are the intentional propagation of food and the isolation of the domesticated species from their wild relatives, leading to changes (intentional and unintentional) in their morphology. Important terms for understanding this process include:

    Domestication: intentional or unintentional biological processes of changes in the genotypes and physical characteristics of plants and animals, making them dependent on humans for reproductive success.
    Cultivation: the intentional preparation of fields, and sowing, harvesting, and storing of crops, requiring significant and deliberate changes in technology, subsistence, and perspectives.
    Herding: similar intentional changes in human-animal relationships.
    Agriculture: a commitment to these changed human-plant-animal relationships, ultimately involving changes in use of the earth, including forest clearance, cultivation of storable crops, and the invention of new farming technologies; resulting in increased population and eventual increases in social and political complexity.

Domestication by Hunter-gatherer Groups Domestication, cultivation, and storage are usually associated with sedentism, and sedentism with agriculture. However, communities in resource-rich areas already had relatively permanent settlements while still hunting and gathering, unlike today's remaining foragers. The dog was domesticated during the Paleolithic at least 14,000 years ago, perhaps earlier, to serve as a hunting aid, and was important enough to receive burial with humans. Paleolithic hunter-gatherers also intentionally and unintentionally manipulated plant species on which they relied in substantial ways, verging on domestication.

The Development of Domesticates Domestication involves a species' removal from the wild, and its propagation by humans in a sheltered or manipulated setting, thus subjecting it to different selective pressures. Human selection for traits that facilitate harvesting or herding create morphological and genetic changes in a species, altering it from wild ancestors.

Jack Harlan experimentally harvested wild cereals by hand in Turkey, showing that in three weeks a small group could gather enough to sustain them for a year. Such collection affected how the plants reseeded themselves. Those with brittle seed-heads shed them as soon as they were touched; those with tougher seed-heads were preferentially gathered by the human collectors. If human collectors then use the gathered plants to plant further crops, they will be sowing only the tougher seed-head variety, thus altering the species overall. This may be how domesticated wheat and barley first developed in Southwest Asia.

Other changes include increased size among cereals and tubers and reduction in size among animals. The loss of natural coloring in some domestic animals may be related to relaxation of selective pressures for camouflage. Distinct domesticates eventually emerged, many unable to survive without human intervention.

The success of farming led to its expansion and species were carried beyond the geographical range of their wild ancestors -- cereals domesticated in Southwest Asia are found in northern Europe. Agriculture leaves archaeological traces such as grindstones, sickles, storage facilities, plows, field systems, forest clearances, terracing, and irrigation.

The Geography of Domestication Only 14 of 148 available large terrestrial herbivorous mammals have been successfully domesticated, among them sheep, goat, cattle, pig, horse, camel, water buffalo, and llama. Smaller species, including chicken, turkey, rabbit, and guinea pig have also been domesticated. Others do not breed readily in captivity or are difficult to herd and manage.
    Domesticated plants are more numerous, and include grasses, tubers, and pulses. Wheat and barley were the first staples in Southwest Asia, millet, rice and yams in East Asia, maize in Mesoamerica, and pearl millet in Africa. These carbohydrates are combined with animal or legume proteins, depending on available species: both plants and animals in the Old World, but in Central and North America where no suitable animals were found it was the "Three Sisters" - maize, beans, and squash.

Agriculture arose independently in at least seven different regions of the world - Southwest Asia, East Asia, the New Guinea highlands, sub-Saharan Africa, Andean South America, central Mexico, and the eastern United States, at different times, with different species.

Why Agriculture? Early theorists assumed that agriculture brought such advantages that only ignorance prevented its earlier adoption. They also assumed that hunter-gatherers were constantly threatened by starvation, that farming was easier and more secure, and that once "invented" farming would have spread rapidly. In the 1960s, this body of theory was discarded when ethnographic studies, especially Richard Lee's work among the !Kung of southwest Africa, showed that foragers had abundant food and more leisure time than peasant agriculturalists or working adults in western societies. Ester Boserup demonstrated that farmers needed to invest increasing amounts of backbreaking labor to feed more and more people. Clearly, domesticated plants and animals were not invented to alleviate drudgery and starvation.

Researchers then examined factors that might have forced postglacial communities to adopt farming, focusing on demographic increase and environmental change. The global pattern and chronology suggest that agriculture may have been adopted for different reasons in different places under certain conducive conditions that occurred at different times around the globe.

Recently, the concept that people were forced by external forces (environmental change or population growth) to invent or adopt agriculture has been challenged, as it deemphasizes social factors and does not match ethnographic observations. Bryan Hayden argues that competition within societies played a significant role in domestication. Complex hunter-gatherers, such as the prehistoric Natufian people of the Levant, possessed prestige items and practiced feasting and social competition. Ethnographically, ambitious individuals gain power and status by throwing feasts to create indebtedness. Such feasts generate attempts by would-be leaders to increase food resources so that they can participate in conspicuous public displays of wealth. Many of the first cultigens are not staple foods but "specialty" or luxury foods. Cultivation may have been adopted to provide food and drink in competitive feasting. Thus, agriculture may have been adopted for diverse reasons, including social competition as well as demographic growth and instability of food resources.

Once established, farming expanded rapidly east-west across Eurasia, where similar conditions enabled an easy transfer; it spread more slowly to the north and south. The two mechanisms of spread were the adoption of farming by hunter-gatherers from their neighbors, and the displacement of hunter-gatherers by expanding farmers. From archaeological evidence alone, it is difficult to distinguish between these alternatives. Farmers were numerous, and may have prevailed in disputes with hunter-gatherers, but some foragers clearly adopted farming from their neighbors peacefully.
    Studies of linguistics and human genetics have been used to try to identify migrations associated with farming, arguing that their distinct genetic imprint should be recognizable in modern populations. Geographical patterning of languages might also reflect the expansion. These ideas have been applied in the Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa, and in Europe. The evidence is ambiguous, however, and interpretations remain controversial. In Europe, for example, there is abundant evidence for indigenous adoption. The alternatives of demographic replacement vs. indigenous adoption lead to radically different understandings of human history, making this an important issue.

The consequences of agriculture were more than demographic. Farming leads to different forms of settlement, social complexity, material culture, increased warfare, and eventually to agricultural intensification.

Settlement Most hunter-gatherers are nomadic, although some became sedentary in certain environments. Conversely, farming communities usually lived year-round in permanent settlements of several hundred people, thus building larger, more substantial structures than most hunter-gatherers. Unlike hunter-gatherers, who live in great intimacy with each other, farmers' household activities are hidden from their neighbors, also allowing the accumulation of possessions and wealth. There is constant tension between community well-being and household success. Sedentary settlements also become a focus of identity, ethnicity, and ancestry.

Social Complexity Small-scale hunter-gatherer societies are organized through kinship, have flexible membership, and resolve disputes by fissioning. In larger groups new types of authority are added and differences in status become more obvious. Archaeologically, this is seen through differences in grave goods and household artifacts. Prestige goods, sometimes imported, can signal increasingly institutionalized social distinctions. Status, originally based on achievement, became ascribed by belonging to particular lineages or families, leading to hereditary leadership.

Material Culture Agriculture and sedentism allowed an accumulation of goods. Many status items were worn: jewelry, weapons, amulets and textiles, creating an increasingly "artificial" symbolic world to signal social diversity and difference. Technology, such as metallurgy, was also driven by social rather than economic or technical need. In Europe, gold and copper were both worked from the outset, though gold had little practical application, and the earliest copper objects were personal ornaments. Stone tools continued to be favored, only replaced by metal 4000 years after it appeared.

Warfare Community growth led to conflict. Rock art indicates that prehistoric hunter-gatherers experienced warfare, but larger, closely packed settlements increased pressures between farming communities. Labor and cost was tied up in fields, houses, food stores, and valuables that could be raided or seized, encouraging both organized violence and defense. This is debated: features such as stockades or walls, previously attributed to warfare, have now been reinterpreted as livestock pens or ritual places, though the discovery of mass graves displaying hallmarks of violent death does provide graphic evidence of warfare among early farmers.

Agricultural Intensification Agriculture led to increased population, yet long fallow periods were still possible. Only the most suitable soils were worked. As populations grew, productivity needed to be increased, usually through greater labor input. "Technologies of intensification" include irrigation, plowing, and terracing.

Irrigation is accomplished through rain or floodwater storage, later released through canals, or the diversion of river water, seen archaeologically in water-control features. Both have high labor costs for construction, upkeep and repair.

Plowing requires animal traction if suitable animals are available. Southern Africans and the Americans practiced hoe agriculture, while plow agriculture was possible in Eurasia and northern Africa. Plowing increases the land area cultivated, including less productive land. Evidence consists of preserved plow marks, plows, and pictorial representations. The cost lies in feeding and housing plow animals.

Terraces hold back soil and decrease erosion, and increase cultivated area in steep terrain with tiers of fertile but narrow fields, sometimes combined with irrigation canals. The costs are labor and maintenance.

Agriculture created larger and denser populations that sometimes coalesced into states, with their populations concentrated in cities. Cities and states did not always rise for similar reasons, nor are they all of the same type. When early states emerged, most people worldwide still lived in non-state farming societies, and many continued to hunt and gather. Archaeologists reject the progressivist view, which considers state societies as somehow "better" than farming or hunter-gatherer societies. States, with their monuments, art, and literature are important and fascinating, but only as one of many social forms.

The Development of States States are centralized political structures ruled by elites who exercise control over several thousand to several million individuals. Early states gathered revenues from their subjects in return for protection during famine or warfare. States usually reserve the right to use force, in external warfare or for internal control. Obligations owed by the populace to the central institutions generally override kinship obligations. Debate continues over whether states operate for the good of all, or whether they are essentially exploitative, with governing elites gaining wealth and power at the expense of the majority. Bruce Trigger divided early states into those developing around extant cities (city-states) and those where cities develop as administrative, economic, and political centers within state territories (territorial states). Most early states were dominated by cities that were both centers of government and foci of population, yet there is also variation.

The Geography of State Formation. Irrigation was essential for many early states, thus they developed in fertile basins or river valleys, where ready water-sources aided high agricultural productivity: the Egyptian on the Nile, Mesopotamian on the Tigris and Euphrates, Harappan on the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra, and Chinese on the Yangzi and Yellow (Huang He) rivers. In the Americas, Teotihuacán developed near the lakes and springs of the Mexican basin, and in coastal Peru, states formed along rivers running from the Andes to the Pacific. Most were also in warm environments where plentiful sunlight and long growing seasons permitted high crop yields.

State development, like early agriculture, emerged independently in widely scattered regions at different times, first in Mesopotamia during the 4th millennium BC, the Egyptian the same or slightly later; Harappan cities date from the early 3rd millennium BC or earlier, and in China, cities appear during the 2nd millennium BC.

Similarly, states developed independently in the Andean zone and in highland Mexico during the 1st millennium BC, while non-state societies adjacent to these burgeoning states may have transformed into states to fend off military threats from neighbors.

Archaeological Features of States. Early states share archaeological features through which they are classified together; however, each was the product of its own specific circumstances. A key similarity is the scale of resources and labor required for cities that had temples, monumental buildings, storerooms, palaces, and defensive walls. State propaganda is created by a ruling elite -and may consist of statues, palaces, tombs, and settings where rulers staged impressive public performances. The concentration of wealth and power among a few people is exemplified by luxury objects, which in turn require skilled craftspeople and often imported materials to create them. Urban structure was often complex: the poor lived cramped together along narrow streets, while spacious elite dwellings were set in gardens close to the complexes of rulers or priests. Some states could organize new cities on grid-plans or re-plan existing cities.

Early cities were diverse. Urban palaces as found in Maya or Mesopotamian settlements are absent (or unrecognized) in Harappan cities. Early Chinese and Maya cities were loose clusters around central elite cores, not densely agglomerated within city walls. Some cities housed hundreds of thousands, others only a few thousand inhabitants, yet possessed the same political, economic, and social functions as larger centers.

Toward History: the Adoption of Writing

Many early states invented writing technology independently: Mesopotamia earliest, then Egypt, and later the Harappan, Shang Chinese, and Aegean states. Both highland and lowland Mesoamerica used writing, as did the Meroë and Aksum states in Africa.

Writing was invented and used for differing reasons. Short Chinese inscriptions on "oracle bones" recorded divinations. Egyptian and Maya texts record religious and royal activities. Mesopotamian clay tablets record administrative and economic transactions.
    Early records illuminate ancient societies' social and economic life, religious beliefs, and rulership, yet describe only limited activities of a few powerful people. Archaeology also permits study of the ordinary people who occupied cities, grew food for the elites and provided labor for their monuments.

Minimal literacy probably enhanced the "power" of writing. Even among societies where more people could read, poetry and drama were disseminated orally. It was an important innovation, but was not essential -- never adopted in Andean South America, for example, though the quipu system of knotted cords may have helped keep records.

States and Empires After early states were established, they developed subsequently elsewhere, and warfare resulted in larger and larger political entities. Causal factors may include conquering enemies to increase security, economic gain, or the personal ambition of rulers. In a recurrent worldwide cycle, individual states became powerful and achieved regional dominance, only to collapse and fragment.

The distinction between state and empire is difficult to define. Empires are more extensive and complex, as they incorporate conquered states and make them into provinces, with their own local governments. They are typically multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and sometimes multi-religious, though the same is true of many early states. European colonial empires, the modern dominance of the nation-state, and the United Nations are the most recent stage in a process that began 5500 years ago.

Box Features

Key Method: DNA and Domestication
Key Controversy: Explaining Agriculture
Key Controversy: Cities, States, and Civilizations Defined and Explained
Key Controversy: Explaining States

Key words and terms Chapter 5

Environmental change
last glacial maximum
Bølling/Allerød interstadial
Younger Dryas
rise in sea level
Wrangel Island
eustatic sea level rise
isostatic uplift
creation of islands, continents
Dogger Bank
expansion of plant and animal species
pollen zones
Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone

Human responses
development of agriculture
natural selection, humans selection
unintentional selection
spread of agriculture
domestication of plants and animals
reduction in animal body size
increase in seed, tuber size
new farming economies
larger communities
more substantial architecture
household individualization, hidden activities
wealth accumulation
social differentiation
kinship, non-kin authority
demographic increase
social complexity
achieved vs. inherited status
status objects
personal ornaments
organized violence
conflict, warfare
technological development
technologies of cultivation
technologies of the landscape
spread of farming
adoption of farming by hunter-gatherers from their neighbors
displacement of hunter-gatherers by expanding farmers
distributions of language families
Austronesian languages
Bantu languages
Indo-european languages
agricultural intensification
technologies of intensification
irrigation, plowing, and terracing
patterns of human genetics
state formation
city-states, territorial states
states: gather revenues, create obligations, offer protection, reserve the right to use force central institutions override kinship
beneficent vs. exploitative state
continuation of hunting-gathering

fertile crescent
hilly flanks
river valleys, fertile plains
Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Indus, Ghaggar-Hakra, Yangzi, Yellow River
Mexican basin, Andean rivers

wheat, barley, millets, sorghum, rice, maize
manioc, yam, potato
beans, peas, and lentils
"Three Sisters"
sheep, goat, cattle, pig, horse, camel, water buffalo, llama
chicken, turkey, rabbit, guinea pig.

Lewis Henry Morgan
Edward Tylor
Jack Harlan
Richard Lee
Ester Boserup
Gordon Childe
Robert Braidwood
Lewis Binford
David Rindos
Barbara Bender
Brian Hayden
Karl Wittfogel
William Rathje
Robert Carneiro
Colin Renfrew
Bruce Trigger

composite tools
reaping knives
digging sticks
intensification technologies: plow, irrigation, terraces

Phases, cultures
mobile hunter-gatherers
sedentary hunter-gatherers
complex hunter-gatherers
Monte Albán

progressivist view
savagery, barbarism, and civilization
concept of farming as easier, superior
agriculture as giving "leisure time to build culture"
!Kung bushmen, the "affluent forager"
monocausal vs. multicausal theories on agriculture origins
oasis theory
"Neolithic Revolution"
the hilly flanks hypothesis
natural habitat zone
demographic theories
marginal zones
evolution and intentionality
co-evolutionary process
incidental domestication
specialized domestication
agricultural domestication
non- intentionality
the feasting hypothesis
social competition
competitive feasting
luxury foods
monocausal vs. multicausal theories on state origins
urban revolution
agricultural surplus and craft specialization
the hydraulic hypothesis
the trade imperative
multicausality: coercion, insecurity, elite dominance, agricultural intensification, heightened social competition, social differentiation, wealth, ambitious individuals, writing

Archaeological features of states
labor input
houses, modest and crowded vs. spacious and wealthy
defensive walls
layout: grid-plan vs. loose organization
monumental public buildings
propaganda seen in statues, palaces, tombs, architectural settings of rulership
luxury objects, royal graves
written records for central administration

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