The following describes the rise of agrarian societies, their dominant characteristics, the challenges they have faced in their development, and modern offshoots of early agrarian communities. The social organization of agrarian civilization is generally marked by organized communities and clear distinctions in gender, class, and status. These social characteristics that developed as agrarian societies flourished continue to shape our modern culture, and this article will explain this phenomenon. Agrarian societies introduced the concept of landownership, which had a profound impact on the distribution of wealth and power. In addition, agrarian societies frequently supplement their economic means through the creation and distribution of handmade products, goods, and even services. Although agrarian societies were often stable enough to develop into economically viable communities, the process of domesticating, cultivating, and harvesting plants is extremely labor intensive. Thus, agrarian societies turned to the development of technology, crafts, and skills to ease the workload and to generate supplemental income. Finally, this article discusses some of the ways that agrarian societies interact with the world around them, such as the depletion of soil minerals, the alteration of plant species through artificial selection, and the contamination of natural resources through overuse of pesticides.
Keywords Agrarian Society; Agribusiness; Agriculture; Arable Land; Cash Crop; Chaff; Collective Farming; Cooperative Farming; Crop Rotation; Farm; Fertilizer; Grafting; Intercropping; Irrigation; Organic Farming; Pesticides; Slash & Burn
Agrarian societies are distinguished by plant domestication and cultivation, trade, and wealth accumulation. Plant cultivation involves the process of planting, tending and harvesting crops, and retaining the seeds from these crops for further planting, tending, and harvesting. This cycle is repeated season after season, year after year, resulting in a society that has deep roots in its environment and the natural resources of the region in which it is situated.
Although wild plants can be domesticated and cultivated, certain characteristics may be bred out of or into wild plants through a process of artificial selection to make these plants more suitable for human use and consumption. Thus, domesticated plants are those that contain attributes which have been created or altered through human means to make them more suitable for human use. For instance, edible plants may be bred for higher yields or better tasting produce. Plants may also be cultivated to restore nutrients to soil or as feed for cattle or herds. Certain plants may also be domesticated for medicinal or therapeutic means. Thus, agrarian societies have an intimate understanding of the plant life cycle and the natural resources that can be extracted from the regions in which they live.
Rise of Agrarian Societies
Although agrarian societies have been replaced in many regions of the world by urban, industrialized societies, when they first evolved they marked a distinct shift from earlier societies that were predominantly foraging or hunting and gathering communities. Agrarian societies differed from these earlier civilizations primarily in terms of their practice of settling into a permanent location and intensively working the land and natural resources of that region. The following sections will describe the characteristics of agrarian societies, the challenges they face, and the remnants of ancient agrarian societies in the modern era.
Characteristics of Agrarian Societies
One characteristic that distinguishes agrarian societies from foraging and hunting and gathering societies is sedentism, or the practice of living permanently in one place. Early human societies were primarily foragers, hunters and gatherers, or pastoralists, and as such these societies roamed large tracts of land in search of food or grazing regions. In contrast, agrarian societies do not move. Instead, they settle into permanent homes and cultivate their fields so that they can raise crops year after year. This permanence results in very intensive exploitation of small tracts of land as opposed to the more spread out use of land done by hunter-gatherers.
Cultivation of land through the plow enabled the people to make a great leap forward in food production. It brought the soil's nutrients to the surface, and, coupled with animal labor to pull it, this early machine greatly increased the productivity of both labor and the land. Combining irrigation techniques with the use of the plow also increased the productivity and the crop yield by allowing formerly fallow land to be cultivated.
In addition to cultivation and increased productivity, agrarian societies also implemented a concept a landownership. Instead of basing wealth on the size of their herds of cattle or flocks of sheep, agrarian societies began to mark the land that they owned and that they alone could exploit. Landownership eventually led to major differences in social classes as distinctions were made between those who owned land and those who worked land owned by someone else.
Over time, agrarian societies also led to the establishment of more elaborate political institutions like formalized government bureaucracies that were assisted by a legal systems and economic institutions (Kennett, 2006). As individual wealth grew and trade became more elaborate, money was introduced as a medium of exchange. This led to the development and maintenance of records of transactions, crop harvests, taxation systems, and governmental rules and regulations. In addition, agrarian societies supported the emergence of arts and cultural artifacts, since with surplus food production people can divert their attention to recreational activities. Ultimately, agrarian societies became increasingly urban and diverse as population size increased, cities appeared, new government systems emerged, and trade and culture expanded.
Challenges Agrarian Societies Face
Agrarian societies face several challenges, all largely corollary effects of the dominant characteristics of agriculture and land cultivation. An agricultural base results in human dependence on a small amount of plants and crops; this is in contrast to the vast amount of plants utilized by hunter-gatherers. This dependence in turn makes agrarian societies dependent on the weather since a successful harvest requires a climate that is hospitable to the particular crops planted. Weather patterns, however, constantly fluctuate and rainfall can vary unpredictably. A drought or flood can cause an agrarian society to starve, while hunter-gatherer societies, which collect food from many different plant species, can more easily adapt to and survive harsh weather (The Agriculture Revolution . 1996). It is easy to see how early agrarian’s were substantially more vulnerable to the weather than hunter-gatherer societies.
In addition, agrarian societies have to gather all their food for the year at a few harvest times, rather than year round. If unfavorable weather, natural disasters, or any other event prohibits harvesting efforts, the entire crop for that season is lost. Under this kind of pressure, agrarian societies are more time-conscious than hunter-gatherer societies. Even after crops have been harvested, agriculturalists also have to store the harvest for the rest of the year; protect it from moisture, pests, parasites, and thieves; and ration it so that they can survive and have seed for next year's planting. Thus, agrarian societies are again markedly different from hunting and gathering societies in which meat and berries generally have to be consumed immediately to prevent spoilage (Law, The Agriculture Revolution, 1996).
Finally, agrarian societies require intense and sustained physical effort throughout the year. Whether sowing, plowing, or harvesting fields, men, women, and animals labor side by side to cultivate sufficient crops for their families, livestock, and trade. However, despite all of this labor, crops can still be destroyed by insects or inclement weather, meaning that months of back-breaking work can be destroyed within a few days.
Modern Agrarian Societies
Despite the rapid spread and growth of industrialization over the past two centuries, less than a quarter of the world's population lives in societies that can be considered fully industrialized. Many regions in the world are still marked by predominantly agricultural societies, although many of these communities are slowly becoming industrialized. Industrialized agrarian societies are found in most of Latin America, southern and eastern Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, as well as parts of southern and eastern Europe. Although different in many ways, all of these societies contain elements of agrarian and industrial practices. Approximately 70% of the world's population lives in these societies (Law, The Agriculture Revolution, 1996).
These societies have been struggling with problems that often threaten to overwhelm them. Despite partial industrialization, many of their citizens are still as poor as the lower classes of traditional agricultural societies were. At the same time, improved education and exposure to Western mass media have raised their hopes and given them an awareness of the possibility of a better life.
The social organization of the agricultural states consists of extended families and other descent groups, including lineages, clans, and kindred families. Marriages are generally arranged and involve dowries. Monogamy is the norm.
Agrarian societies are generally strongly patriarchal, possibly because of the reduced participation of females in agricultural labor. Females are instead largely confined to the domestic sphere and may be secluded from public life. Social stratification is based on class, caste, slavery, and racial and ethnic stratification. Formalized legal systems regulate these societies, although mediation and self-help are available to citizens as well. The following sections will describe these concepts in more detail.
The creation of settled agricultural villages made it possible to accumulate stored food and other forms of wealth, commodities which are necessary for the advancement of cultures. In order to stop theft of such valuables, agrarian societies must create systems of buildings, storage facilities, and other measures to store and protect surpluses and other vulnerable forms of wealth. However, this increase in wealth can also lead to class disparities and social unrest, which can, in turn, threaten the emerging organized communities.
Further, as specializations emerge in the economy, inequalities of wealth and status grow wider. This distance is exacerbated as the wealthy can choose to live private, as opposed to communal lives, and can accumulate further wealth and power by acquiring material objects, tools, resources, and knowledge. The main problems encountered by the early agriculturalists—weather vulnerability, environmental depletion, overpopulation, disease vulnerability, and the need for security from theft and vandalism—still remain significant concerns in modern, urban societies.
Early agrarian societies generally divided tasks along gender lines, assigning most hunting to males and most...
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