Simple Agrarian Societies

We continue our Societies Over Time series with a look at simple agrarian societies.

Their emergence marks the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution, another critical juncture in human history whose impact cannot be overstated.

Not only is agricultural technology a huge leap forward, it seems to make further key developments more likely, such as systems of counting and writing, larger urban communities, empires and unified kingdoms. These do appear in horticultural societies but much less frequently.

Let’s talk about the key features of these societies, starting with the new technology that contributed so greatly to their emergence.

Key Features of Simple Agrarian Societies

Technology: The Coming of Agriculture

“The thousand years or so preceding 3000 BC were perhaps more fertile in fruitful inventions and discoveries than any period in human history prior to the sixteenth century, A.D.”

Gordon Childe

Innovations at the end of the horticultural era include the wheel and its application to wagons and pottery, the harnessing of wind power, writing and numerical notation – and, crucially, the plow and the use of animals to pull them.

All of these enabled societies to increase in population, material wealth, and social complexity.

In simple agrarian societies, plows were wooden. They appeared in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 9000 years ago and gradually spread to Europe, North Africa and Asia over the course of 3000-4000 years.

The plow, though a seemingly innocent elaboration in farming technology, was one of the most crucial of all. Without it we would likely still be back in the horticultural era.

To understand why, let’s discuss farming. The two basic problems that all farmers face are weeds and soil fertility.

In horticulture (literally, the cultivation of a garden), these problems worsened as a plot aged. As we saw in the article on this era, people were forced to abandon their plots every few years.

This is where the plow changed everything.

The plow buries weeds and turns over the soil, returning the nutrients to the top layer. This meant that plots lasted much longer, and made sustained annual cultivation possible. This lead to agriculture (the cultivation of fields)

Animals could now be used to supply energy, and people soon discovered than oxen were more effective than humans at pulling plows.

The basic principle of using animal power to run tools and machines was a specific case of a general principle: using non-human power to do the work. As Gordon Childe says, “The ox was the first step to the steam engine and the motor.”

With animals, farmers could cultivate larger areas and use manure as fertiliser. Overall, animal-powered plowing enabled permanently cultivated fields and larger crops, novelties which over time created large economic surpluses and more complex social structures.

The Growing Surplus in Simple Agrarian Societies

As farming technology improved, the economic surplus (non-existent in the hunter-gatherer era) continued to grow, but this meant that peasants must be forced to part with more of their output.

In many cases, ideology was required to make its transfer pallatable and legitimate. Sometimes social and political ideologies were effective, but supernatural versions were the most reliable.

As peasants’ output grew, greater amounts of surplus were transferred to the ruling elite. This caused a veritable social revolution whose effects reverberate on to this day.

Population Growth

In first few centuries of agrarian era, there was marked growth in the size of communities. This is unsurprising given increased production.

For example, the population of the ancient Mesopotamian city Uruk grew from 10,000 in 3800 BC to 50,000 by 3000 BC. It’s believed that the population of other Mesopotamian cities reached 100,000 during this era.

States and empires appeared during this period. Egypt was the largest and had the most stable political regime. It was a united, single nation for most of the early agrarian era.

The great Egyptian, Babylonian and Hittite empires date back to this period.

The State

As rule became more complicated, kinship ties became inadequate and new structures of governance became necessary, especially for empire building.

In the horticultural era, common men joined the army after the harvest, and specialised armies were marginal. Due to the growing surplus, this changed.

Mesopotamia created small, highly trained, full-time armies, and a military caste emerged.

As government complexified, new administrative roles appeared, like regional officials and scribes. States were divided into districts. This era also brought the first formal legal systems, because societies were now too complex to function effectively without them.

Writing and Religion in Simple Agrarian Societies

Increased administrative demands brought more complex scripts and writing systems. However, writing remained a niche craft reserved for the scribes.

The scripts of the time were complex, and only the rich could afford the long, expensive apprenticeship required to master them.

Writing as we know it today developed as a means for religious centres to record their business activities. Goods flowed in to these centres and they became enterprises. The religion of the time corresponds to stage 2-3 of Fowler’s stages of faith.

Each temple was the house of a particular god, and each community had its own deity. The priests and attendants attended to the god’s needs and mediated between God and the community.

In other societies, like Egypt, the ruler was considered a god, owned all the land and was entitled to a proportion of all production.


In the early agrarian era, there were standardised media of exchange, such as grains. These are impractical and perishable, so metal was slowly adopted. By the end of the simple agrarian era, governments began to manufacture standardised coins, though fully developed cash economies were still hundreds of years away.

Money greatly increases the opportunities for producers of goods, since it eliminates the need for joint coincidence of wants, and for merchants.

That said, it tends to foster individualistic and competitive attitudes, a fact which was to mark all subsequent human history.


As with all new societal structures, the agrarian elaboration created new and deepening social rifts.

Three in particular defined the societies of the time: the political elite vs the weak, poor masses; urban vs rural communities; and the literate minority vs illiterate masses.

The culture of commoners was parochial, primitive and superstitious, while the culture of the elites included philosophy, art, literature, and a contempt for physical labour.

As a result of all these factors, the governing class eventually found it tough to acknowledge peasants as fellow citizens.

in many respects the differences within simple agrarian societies were greater than the differences among them.

Nolan & Lenski

Slowed Rate of Technological Growth

A remarkable result of all this change was that technological growth stagnated. This began a few centuries after the shift from horticulture.

Over time, the governing class found it easier to extract surplus from the peasants due to more effective systems of ideology and conversion. In turn, the peasants began to believe that their role in life was to produce high volumes of output and turn most of it over to the elites.

However, this meant the peasants lost their zeal for innovation, since they didn’t stand to gain from creating new subsistence technology. What’s more, the governing class didn’t have experience with such technology, so couldn’t innovate! This class turned to war and conquest as a means to grow the economy and their riches.

War was one of the few occupations considered acceptable for their class, and the ruling elite used the peasant surplus to fund their warfare.

As you can see, the early agrarian societies were strikingly different to horticultural societies, and these changes only became more marked in the advanced elaboration.