Advanced Horticultural Societies: The Bronze Age

Let’s continue our Societies Over Time series with a quick summary of advanced horticultural societies, a more elaborate mutation of the simple horticultural structure.

Simple and advanced horticultural societies are similar in many fundamental ways, though different enough to be noticeable, and thus to warrant separate treatment.

The key technological difference between the two kinds is metallurgy. A horticultural society is only classed as advanced if the use of metal tools is widespread. That said, metal is not used in subsistence activities yet. Its time would come in the agrarian age.

Copper was the dominant metal in the middle East and Europe, while bronze took centre stage in China in the beginning of this period. In the Middle East, bronze was mastered later. This heralded a string of revolutionary changes in the workings of the societies of the time.

The first truly advanced horticultural society appeared in around 4000 BC. This coincides with the appearance of larger urban centres.

People discovered that conquering others could be more profitable than conquering nature. They used their new metallurgical knowledge to build armies. Warriors wore armour and carried shields and a range of weapons.

The slight economic surplus generated from horticulture, combined with greater military prowess, meant some tribes could conquer others. In this respect, advanced horticultural societies had a huge advantage over simple ones.

Of all the changes in human life that resulted from the horticultural revolution, the most fundamental… was the creation of an economic surplus.

Nolan & Lenski

In these societies, the structure was feudalistic: power lay in the hands of the military class, who lived in fortresses. In China, the chief use of bronze was for weapons and objects for this class.

Kinship gained importance, populations grew and professions started to diversify. Walled towns, often built by captives, first appeared in this era. Social inequality began to increase, leading to stratified societies.

The curious thing about stratified societies based on subjugation is that power accumulates into the hands of those who already have it. “The powerful get more power,” because weaker kin groups and families decide to side with the strong groups rather than face subjugation.

Marriage takes on a new significance: daughters are viewed as property, and suitors must pay for them or render service to their potential in-laws. Kin groups often see marriage as an investment and are willing to invest in wives for their young bachelors.

This plays a role in power accumulation. Larger kin groups are wealthier, so can invest in profitable marriages to further the power and size of the group.

Slavery is present in 83% of advanced horticultural societies but in only 15% of simple, which helps to explain the greater complexity of architecture and infrastructure.

In China, this structure ran in tandem with the Warring States Period: the country was organised into many small kingdoms, whose rulers were beyond the reach of the king. Though the king was viewed as divine, his rule was extremely unstable. In modern African horticultural societies, the leader is often usurped by his brothers.

That said, political power remains limited due to technology. War, revolts and coups are commonplace. Stable kings and leaders of giant states were to appear later.

Horticulture marked the juncture between simple hunting and gathering, the non-hierarchical, non-specialised mode of living that dominated our species for thousands of years, and the highly stratified, highly differentiated and technologically advanced societies of the agrarian age and beyond.