Culture and Technology

Ladule Lako LoSarah

The Rise of Military

The adoption of agriculture proves to be the critical element in the development of human culture.  Hunting and gathering required large amounts of land and small, mobile populations.  Agriculture could support larger populations in a more confined area, creating higher population densities and a surplus of food.  This surplus allowed the creation of concept of property and specialization of labor that created trade dependent societies.  Paul Ehrlich observed, “Without farming, which freed some people of the chore of wresting nourishment from the environment, there would be no cities, no states, no science, and no mayors, fashion models, professional soldiers, or airline pilots.”           

            It is evident that the technology of agriculture allowed the development of culture, which proceeded to the need and invention of new technologies. The early kingdom of Sumer, in Mesopotamia was one of the first agriculture societies.  Due to their adoption of agriculture, they required a military and produced numerous military technologies.  The cultural macro evolutionary shift in Sumer to a sedentary lifestyle, attributable to agriculture, provoked the need for a military and the advancement of military technologies.

            In hunting and gathering societies, the small, mobile populations were constantly on the move, following herds and looking for new foraging areas.  These bands of hunter-gathers were often self-sufficient and rarely interacted with other societies since the hunter-gathers maintained relatively low population densities to ensure prosperity for the group.  These cultural traits restricted warfare skirmishes over small areas of land rather than domination and access to the resources of another society; Ehrlich noted “…historical hunter-gatherer groups raided one another.”  The members of the warring-parties served as both hunters and warriors. 

            The transition to agriculture permitted societies to be sedentary, occupying a single area of land for living and farming.  Ehrlich asserts that this new lifestyle facilitated the conversion from small family bands to archaic states and villages.  Because of agriculture, a few farmers could support a larger population; therefore, the community as a whole relied on the farms of a few for survival.  If any problem occurred that resulted in the failure of a harvest, the entire city or village would perish.  As Ehrlich indicated, raiding was rampant among early societies.  These created a large demand for a portion of the idle population (those not directly involved with food production) to patrol and protect the outlying areas of the villages, cities and farms.  Since these societies inhabited the same region throughout the year, it was imperative that they secured the area militarily and prevented raiding from outside cultures.  Further, agriculture produced large amounts of excess food that needed to be stored away.  Societies also needed guards for this purpose.  The specialized military was born from the need to protect the farmer and other food producers in the sedentary, specialized societies that agriculture made possible.  Sumer assembled armies that consisted largely of infantry and included some chariot units.

The early hunter-gatherer societies fabricated tools and weapons to facilitate hunting, carving animals, and collecting plant material.  These tools consisted of spears, bows, and daggers often made from sharpened bone and stone.  Since these bands of hunter-gatherers were constantly relocating, they were unable to establish smelting, which was needed to wield more sophisticated weapons.  Many of the military technology advancements have their roots in agricultural technology.  The sickle originates in Sumer where farmers would use it to harvest grain.  With its sharp blade, easy grip and usability made it perfect as a war weapon.  The sickle evolved into Khopesh, or Sumerian sickle sword that eventually became the backsword, which finally transformed into the Bronze Age sword.  Many feel that the Greek kopis (a Greek backsword) is a direct derivative of this Sumerian sword, which would make it a direct ancestor of the wide variety of Europe and Asianbackswords.  Another technology that evolved from agricultural technologies is the wheel.  The Sumerian made pottery to contain the surplus grain and employed potters wheels for this task.  The Sumerians then used the wheel on their war chariots.  Pulling these chariots were onagers, which the Sumerians once used to plow fields.  Further, the sedentary lifestyle allowed the Sumerians to erect large defensive fortification that encircled the cities and village for extra protection.  The Sumerians could only attain this wall building with the help of agriculture that permitted societies to be less mobile.  These basic technologies led to the relatively intricate and sophisticated European weapons, all having their roots in agriculture.

It is difficult for historians to distinguish weather that cultural evolutions led to technology or if that in fact technological innovations assisted cultural change.  The answer lies in a ratchet effect that each aspect helps the other in an ambiguous, ongoing process.  It is evident; however, that agriculture was the critical technological development that facilitated the development of culture among human societies.  Agriculture allowed a transformation from small, mobile population to dense, sedentary societies that rely largely on the production of a few to provide nourishment for the entire population.  Defense of these small agricultural societies became important and since there was an idle population (not directly involved in food production), some became professional guards.  The technologies that the early farmers used for food production soon crossed into the military aspects of culture.  These agricultural technologies led to a different type of warfare that the earlier hunter-gatherers never experienced.  This new warfare created new culture and lifestyle—yet the development of the military has its origins in the sedentary agricultural society.


Ehrlich, Paul R. Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect, page 227

Ibid, page 209

Ibid, page 238

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last updated 3/25/06