Agriculture and The Origins of Inequality

Approximately 12,000 years ago, a profound revolution occurred at the intersection of agriculture and ecology, forever changing the methods through which humans control their production of food. As small communities steadily stopped foraging for wild grains and animals, they turned their attention to mastering the very soil beneath them, farming nutritious grains and domesticating animals. And in this gradual process, they formed stable homes, which expanded their numbers, cultural interconnectedness, and social webs of influence.


The precise reason for humanity’s shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture is the site of intense deliberation, but undoubtedly it was catalyzed by three codependent factors: growing populations, warmer and wetter climates, and sheer luck. For one, technological advances during the agricultural revolution allowed the production of considerably more calories per square acre to feed skyrocketing population densities. Moreover, decreased productivity of nonagricultural pursuits, in conjunction with climatic changes, made farming a relatively attractive venture for rulers tasked with maintaining political stability through keeping their people fed. Most directly, farming’s discovery was certainly coincidental, the moment an individual unknowingly dropped a seed, only to notice it blossom a while later.


As the global environment experienced vast changes and the ice sheets retreated, a variety of ecological environments conducive to farming were uncovered: the three most prevalent of which were swamplands, uplands, and floodplains. Swamplands are extremely productive if worked correctly, the site of most of the world’s rice production, and by extension the main source of food for entire continents. Uplands have also proven valuable, producing highly-nutritious foods like quinoa, potatoes, maize, beans, and squash. Finally, floodplains have been instrumental in the production of wheat and barley, areas near ferocious and unpredictable rivers where most of the greatest human civilizations such as Mesopotamia were built.


Many today focus on the advantages of farming, that is, its unparalleled ability to sustain growing populations, expand trade, form societies and cultures, and promote political centralization through providing leaders with control over the dissemination of food. However, agriculture’s core assets can simultaneously be its vices. Rousseau, for one, argues that the origins of society and law, rooted in agricultural advancement, “irretrievably destroyed natural liberty…and for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labour, slavery and wretchedness.” In a word, the second one’s claims of ownership of the land he once worked on are recognized by society as valid, individualism is cemented in the code of law, and social stratification is imminent. However, Rousseau is perhaps a bit harsh in his contention that Homo sapiens were “gentle” savages corrupted by agricultural ambition, because social hierarchies are present all throughout the animal kingdom, particularly in male displays of physical dominance. Thus, while farming is not the sole cause of inequality per say, Rousseau is spot on that the practice has undoubtedly been a vehicle through which certain individuals have instituted social disparities into the political infrastructure. Moreover, the practice has invariably led to changes in family dynamics, increased divisions between the roles of men and women, and patriarchal, social superstructures.

What are your thoughts?




** This essay was originally submitted to the UCLA Department of History by M.T.**

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