Agriculture Brings About Civilizations

Click here to return to the Whirlwind World History Curriculum Online Textbook table of contents.

What is civilization?

What is “civilization”?  In English, the word encompasses a wide variety of meanings, often implying a culture possessing some combination of learning, refinement, and political identity.  It’s also a “loaded” term, replete with an implied division between civilization and its opposite, barbarism, with “civilized” people often eager to describe people who are of a different culture as being “uncivilized” in so many words.  Fortunately, more practical and value-neutral definitions of the term also exist.  Civilization as a historical phenomenon speaks to certain foundational technologies, most significantly agriculture, combined with a high degree of social specialization, technological progress (inventions such as various tools, etc.), and cultural sophistication as expressed in art, learning, and spirituality.

In turn, the study of civilization has been the traditional focus of history, as an academic discipline, since the late nineteenth century.  As academic fields became specialized over the course of the 1800s CE, history identified itself as the study of the past based on written artifacts.  A sister field, archeology, developed as the study of the past based on non-written artifacts (such as the remains of bodies in grave sites, surviving buildings, and tools).  Thus, for practical reasons, the subject of “history” as a field of study begins with the invention of writing, something that began with the earliest civilization itself, that of the Fertile Crescent (described below).  That being noted, history and archeology remain closely intertwined, especially since so few written records remain from the remote past that most historians of the ancient world also perform archeological research, and all archeologists are also at least conversant with the relevant histories of their areas of study.

Agriculture brings about civilizations

Human beings have existed all over the world for thousands of years.  Human civilization, however, has not.  

The word civilization comes from the Latin civilis, meaning civil, related to the Latin civis, meaning citizen, and civitas, meaning city or city-state.

The key element of the definition is the idea that a large number of people come together in a group that is too large to consist only of an extended family group.  Once that occurred other discoveries and developments, from writing to mathematics to organized religion, followed.

Up until that point in history, however, cities had not been possible because there was never enough food to sustain a large group that stayed in a single place for long.  Ancient humans were hunter-gatherers.  They followed herds of animals on the hunt, and they gathered edible plants as well.  This way of life fundamentally worked for a long time – it was the basis of life for the very people who populated the world as described above.  The problem with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, however, is that it is extremely precarious: there is never a significant surplus of caloric energy, that is, of food, and thus population levels among hunting-gathering people were generally static.  There just was not enough food to sustain significant population growth.

Humans in a handful of regions around the world discovered agriculture, that is, the deliberate cultivation of edible plants.  People discovered that certain seeds could be planted and crops could be reliably grown.  Sometimes after that, people in the same regions began to domesticate animals, keeping herds of cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats in controlled conditions, defending them from predators, and eating them and using their hides.  It is impossible to overstate how important these changes were.  Even fairly primitive agriculture can produce fifty times more caloric energy than hunting and gathering does.  The very basis of human life is how much energy we can derive from food; with agriculture and animal domestication, it was possible for families to grow much larger and overall population levels to rise dramatically.

One of the noteworthy aspects of this transition is that hunting-gathering people actually had much more leisure time than farmers did (and were also healthier and longer-lived).  Archaeologists and anthropologists have determined that hunter-gatherer people generally only “worked” for a few hours a day, and spent the rest of their time in leisure activities.  Meanwhile, farmers have always worked incredibly hard for very long hours; in many places in the ancient world, there were groups of people who remained hunter-gatherers despite knowing about agriculture, and it is quite possible they did that because they saw no particular advantage in adopting agriculture.  There were also many areas that practiced both – right up until the modern era, many farmers also foraged in areas of semi-wilderness near their farms.  

Agriculture was developed in a few different places completely independently.  According to archeological evidence, agriculture did not start in one place and then spread; it started in a few distinct areas and then spread from those areas, sometimes meeting in the middle.  

Generally speaking by about 8,000 years ago, farmers in West Asia were growing rye, barley, and wheat. In northern China, millet was common 8,500 years ago. In the Americas, the domestication of maize began around 8,000 years ago in Mesoamerica, while at about the same time, Andean residents began cultivating potatoes. Once all of these areas realized agriculture’s potential as a permanent food source, they began to adapt their societies to increase their crop consistency and crop yields.

Teosinte (top), maize-teosinte hybrid (middle), maize (bottom)
Genetic studies have shown that modern maize comes from a wild relative called teosinte which is native to a river valley in Mexico.

Early agriculture, the kind of agriculture that made later advances in civilization possible, consisted of people simply planting seeds by hand or with shovels and picks.  There were some important technological discoveries that took place over time that allowed much greater crop yields.  They included:

  1. Crop rotation, which people discovered sometime around 8000 BCE.  Crop rotation is the process of planting a different kind of crop in a field each year, then “rotating” to the next field in the next year.  Every few years, a field is allowed to “lie fallow,” meaning nothing is planted and animals can graze on it.  This process serves to return nutrients to the soil that would otherwise be leached out by successive years of planting, and it greatly increases yields overall.
  2. The metal plow, which people invented around 5000 BCE.  Plows are hugely important; they opened up areas to cultivation that would be too rocky or the soil too hard to support crops normally.
  3. Irrigation of crops
ancient agriculture
An early plow

Jericho and Çatal Höyük were surely some of the most notable early settlements, but they were
not alone. The appearance of these two settlements was accompanied by the increasing presence
of village life across the world.

Çatal Höyük was built on a site that had a large deposit of obsidian (also called volcanic glass).  Obsidian could be chipped to create extremely sharp tools and weapons.  Tools made from Çatal Höyük’s obsidian have been discovered by archaeologists hundreds of miles from Çatal Höyük itself; thus, it is clear that Çatal Höyük was already part of long-distance trade networks, trading obsidian for other goods with other towns and villages.  In essence, Çatal Höyük’s trade in obsidian proves that specialized manufacturing (in this case, of obsidian tools) and trade networks have been around since the dawn of civilization itself.

Obsidian and flint tools
Flint and obsidian tools that were used to make beads – The obsidian tools are black.

Agriculture contributed to (along with religion and trade) the development of class. Before agriculture, hunter-gatherers divided tasks like seed gathering, grinding, or tool-making. However, without large scale building projects like aqueducts or canals required for agriculture, hierarchies were much less pronounced. The intensification of agriculture during the Neolithic required irrigation, plowing, and terracing, all of which were labor-intensive.

The word neolithic comes from the Greek word neos, which means new, and the Greek word lithos which means stone.

The Neolithic period is the latest (new) part of the Stone Age, whereas the Paleolithic is the old or early part of the Stone Age. During the Neolithic period, the farming of animals and plants began and people started making settlements.

The amount of labor required could not be met through simple task division; someone had to be in charge. This meant the establishment of ruling elites, a societal grouping that had not existed previously.

 Social divisions are only possible when there is a food surplus.  If everyone has to work all the time to get enough food, there is little time left over for anyone to specialize in other activities.  The reason that hunter-gatherer societies produce little in the way of scholarship or technology is that they do not have the resources for people to specialize in those areas.  When agriculture made a food surplus possible for the first time in history, however, not everyone had to work on getting enough food, and soon, certain people managed to lay claim to new areas of expertise.  Even in a settlement as ancient as Çatal Höyük, there were craftsmen, builders, and priests.

Agriculture also meant larger populations and settlements that were more tightly packed and closer to one another. These closer quarters created new social and economic pressures that could produce organized violence. Agricultural intensification produced stores of food and valuables that could be seized by neighbors. During the 9,000s BCE, settlements like Jericho began to build defensive walls, while skeletons unearthed in the area reveal wounds from new types of projectiles developed during the era.

Sedentary communities invested more time and resources into the construction of permanent homes housing nuclear families. People spent less time with the community as a whole and within homes it became easier to accumulate wealth and keep secrets.

We’re going to focus next on early civilizations in the Fertile Crescent and Northeast Africa. The civilizations in these regions left written records. They also all initially had economies based on farming and developed alongside rivers. Their locations alongside rivers allowed populations in the Fertile Crescent and Northeast Africa to grow the surplus food that they used to support urbanization, social stratification, labor specialization, and trade.

We want to know what you thought of what you just read and watched! Leave us a comment! Please also let us know if a link or video isn’t working. 😊

Next: The Fertile Crescent: Mesopotamia

Ancient plow: By Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain,

Maize info:

Flint and obsidian tools: By Zde – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Maize: By John Doebley –, CC BY 3.0,

This text was adapted (with permission) from:

  • Western Civilization: A Concise History – Volumes 1-3
    by Dr. Christopher Brooks
  • World History Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500
    by Eugene Berger, Ph.D, George L. Israel, Ph.D., Charlotte Miller, Ph.D., Brian Parkinson, Ph.D., Andrew Reeves, Ph.D, and Nadejda Williams, Ph.D.
    CC BY-SA
  • Modern World History
    by Dan Allosso, Bemidji State University and Tom Williford, Southwest Minnesota State University

I’ve taken excerpts from the above-mentioned resources and heavily edited and added to them for my intended audience. While I’ve received permission to use/adapt these books, none of the above endorses Guest Hollow or my use of their materials.

Information was also taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and other resources (listed in the individual page credits).

This online book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Beowulf the Fox Terrier dog and the Greek & Latin roots graphic © Jennifer Guest

Leave a Comment