The Exploitation of Plants and People

Nicholas Malinak

            The exploitation of the environment by early humans and the subsequent development of agriculture allowed for the rise of complex societies ruled by the elite.

            The roots of complex, stratified societies stretch back to the transition from hunter gatherer methods of subsistence to the cultivation of edible plants.  As Clive Ponting notes in his book A Green History of the World, this transition “should be seen as parts of a spectrum of human activities of different degrees of intensity designed to exploit ecosystems” (1993 pg. 38).  As societies of early humans discovered that the plants that they already utilized for food could be manipulated to grow more productively and within their control, this early agriculture became increasingly important for their survival.  Even what had formerly been prey for hunters came under the expanded scope of agriculture as domestication of animals began.  But agriculture has many downsides as well, requiring more effort to plant, care for, and harvest crops and tend animals, a greater dependence on a smaller variety of foodstuffs, and little increase in nutritional value (Ponting 41).  The significant advantage of agriculture is that it can support increased populations with relatively similar beginning resources.  Instead of having to exile excess members of the population, the expanded population could be used to cultivate greater amounts of food.  Whereas only four to five million people lived on the earth (Ponting 37) during the heyday of the hunter gatherers, agriculture, and the technological advances that have accompanied it, have allowed for a world population of greater than six billion people with the potential for billions more.  Out of all of this came expanded populations with ties to specific parcels of land, leading to permanent settlements and cultures.

            Agriculture and its corresponding settlements developed independently in three parts of the world: south-west Asia (Mesopotamia), China, and Mesoamerica (Ponting 42).  This three-part evolution suggests that the development of settled societies was an inevitable byproduct of agriculture.  The first to develop agriculture was the area of Mesopotamia, often referred to as the “fertile crescent,” suggesting how the natural ability of the land to aid in agriculture helped bring about this progress.  The region is also often referred to as the “cradle of civilization,” boasting the creation of some of the earliest, perhaps the earliest, human settlements.  Ponting notes that the inclusion of domestication along with agriculture led to some of the early settlements.  By 7500 BC, the city of Jarmo had developed in present day Iraq, relying on a system of agriculture and domestication for their primary subsistence.  As methods developed, villages grew as well, and soon after the settlement of Tell-es-Sultan grew to include 2,000 individuals.  While other significant cities grew, often with unique combinations of agriculture and domestication, they remained small enough so that little social stratification occurred.  Similar changes occurred soon after in China, with a corresponding creation of settlements.  In Mesoamerica, however, due in part to crops less amenable to cultivation, it took another 4,000 years for steady agriculture and the settlements that grow with it to develop (Ponting 51).  Not only does this explain why many Native American tribes relied heavily on hunting and gathering as well as notions of communal property when Europeans arrived, but why the native American societies were less advanced than Europeans due to the delay in development of complex stratified societies.  In this case, the lack of complex stratification throughout much of their history (along with the terrible diseases that spread through the population) was one of the primary reasons why the Aztec and Inca cultures were so easily conquered by organized European nations and their advanced technologies.

            The congregation of large numbers of people around agricultural sites was the first step in the creation of stratified societies.  The direct results of this settlement included greater numbers of people in one area due to its sustainability, eventually encouraging specialization and leadership, and groups with shared histories and goals.  Instead of individuals working primarily to help themselves or their immediate families, these large groupings encouraged people to assist their societies as a whole which in turn could assist them, aiding in the formation of early governments.

            The largest influence in the development of social stratification was that increased efficiency allowed some individuals to focus their time and efforts away from food production and towards other endeavors.  As Ponting states, “the main advantage of agriculture as opposed to gathering and hunting is that in return for greater effort it enables a much higher output of food to be obtained from a smaller area” (1993 54).  These excess members of the population could turn to other matters that were vital in the development of civilization.  Religion was not only a central aspect of these early societies, but a way in which the citizens believed that food production could be augmented.  By focusing some of the surplus population on the development of a religious society and the construction of religious monuments to please their gods, such as numerous religious spires in Mesopotamia and the Pyramids in Egypt (where the rulers were considered to be the gods), these early societies believed that they could ensure their survival through the worship of their gods.  As societies grew, they became larger threats to their neighbors, and with the increasing importance of land, societies were more likely to break out in fighting and wars.  The early history of Mesopotamia much more violent then other parts of the world during this time period, as the land of the Fertile Crescent was sought and won numerous times by invading armies.  While the rise of agriculture led to complex societies, it also encouraged the development of war that has accompanied these societies though history.

Political leaders within these societies also emerged in order to organize the populace and achieve greater efficiency.  The redistribution of wealth was an important mechanism that promoted the stratification of society and the development of political leaders.  With greater organization necessary to guide larger and more complex societies, political leaders soon emerged, often in conjunction with military and religious leaders who shared similar goals of organization.  Until the development of democracy in Athens and the Republic in Rome, governments were based on controlling the population instead of providing basic rights.  Even codes such as Hammurabi’s “eye for an eye” were in place so that the government could have greater control over the people.  With this emphasis on control instead of rights, political leaders, as well as religious and military leaders that often wielded substantial political power, could control the distribution of food for their own benefit.  This symbiosis of political power and food production has continued through much of history, including Roman patricians, feudal lords, southern plantation owners, and even modern farming operations in third world nations.  The common tie is the control of the food producers over the populations in governments that focus on control instead of human rights.  While food producers have some power in modern democratic nations, it is not substantially larger than other political groups.  The  allocation of food also encouraged specialization in trade.  While political leaders could obtain larger amounts of food than their subjects, there was a practical limit on consumption.  The advancement in production of other practical and luxury goods allowed the leading classes of society to differentiate themselves from the masses.

 While there are many reasons for the beginnings of stratified societies, the development of agriculture shaped how complex societies arise and are ruled.  In ancient Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica, civilization was born when agriculture led societies to settle and stratify, leading to elite classes of rulers that used agriculture to control the populace.


Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World. New York: Penguin, 1993.


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