How would a food surplus in the ancient river valley of Mesopotamia create trade and establish a formal government and strong military?

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A food surplus in any ancient region is what lays the foundation for any burgeoning government, trade, and military. To understand the process, we'll just step through an example.

If a civilization is spending all of its time trying to provide enough food to survive, they can't focus on anything...

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A food surplus in any ancient region is what lays the foundation for any burgeoning government, trade, and military. To understand the process, we'll just step through an example.

If a civilization is spending all of its time trying to provide enough food to survive, they can't focus on anything other than survival. If, however, there is a surplus, they can put their efforts into other things besides cultivating or gathering crops. This excess gives them the opportunity to offer some food to other civilizations in exchange for other items of value, especially if that other place is experiencing a shortage. This is the beginning of trade.

Additionally, since this food now acts as an object to be traded, it is essentially money, and you can pay people in food for other services. Therefore, people in the civilization take on other jobs, such as becoming laborers and builders. As the population settles down and takes on different jobs, the government naturally forms to make sure that everyone is putting in and getting their fair share or labor and food as well as offer protection. Finally, to protect the surplus they have, and because they can afford to pay people who are not growing food, they need and can sustain a standing military.

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It would not necessarily. Many other societies had or have food surpluses without hierarchical government or strong militaries. Many tribal societies have surplus food and largely informal modes of government, ruled by direct democracy, consensus, or councils of elders. Many societies today, in fact most small nations, have plentiful food and a small or no military. The argument that extra food leads to a strong central government was true only in some cases, like the Fertile Crescent.

That kind of development took several thousand years. Mesopotamia was originally ruled by councils of the town's males, and farming was done communally. The shift to central power was done first because of granaries, where grain was stored for times of famine. Priesthoods demanded tribute, and the priests then set themselves up as rulers as well. These powerful rulers then feared neighboring similar leaders and built up armies to defend from or take over other political units.

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The Neolithic transition, in which people move from hunting and gathering to domesticating plants and animals, typically results in a food surplus. This surplus permits two key developments: urbanization and specialization of labor. Cities with specialized labor see major technological advances, such as making better weapons, pottery, and tools. This stimulates trade in two ways. First craftspeople need raw materials, like obsidian, fine marble, pigments, and metal, which may not be available locally but which they can obtain by trading finished goods. Second, finished goods which are the result of specialized labor, are appealing to distant wealthy customers, stimulating trade.

In terms of government and military, there are again several reasons why these follow the agricultural transition. The first is that agricultural means farming fixed plots of land which requires property rules and their enforcement, something not necessary for nomadic tribes. To prevent nomads from stealing domesticated plants and animals requires a military force which in turn requires some form of taxation to pay for the military.

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When agricultural practices become efficient enough so that food production increases, a given culture will begin to flourish.  This applies not only to Mesopotamia, but to any culture.  If there's enough agricultural efficiency, not everybody has to grow food; in most ancient cultures a small food surplus allowed the creation of a priestly/ruling class that didn't till the fields, but became the leaders.  As food supplies increase, more people were freed to become members of a soldier class, that would safeguard the leaders and farmers.  At this point in a culture, if most of the people are fed, the surplus can be traded for other commodities from other cultures.  So surplus food stores allow for the division and specialization of labor within a culture which promotes its development. As more members of a culture do other activities than farming, the leaders become a structured government, the defending soldiers become a military, with offensive capabilities, and traders become a merchant class.

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