Simple Horticultural Societies: Rise & Key Features

The emergence of simple horticultural societies marks the time when humans transitioned from depending on hunting and gathering to horticulture: from foraging to cultivating, from hunting to herding.

This wasn’t as large a jump as you may believe. Hunter-gatherers accumulated an immense amount of information on animals, edible plants, the cycles of plant growth and reproduction, and more. They also grew plants here and there.

Though it wasn’t a huge technological jump, it would set off a cascading wave of innovation and advancement that would accumulate over millennia and ultimately lead our species to its current mutation.

Horticultural societies still exist in the New World and the Pacific, and they share many elements with historical ones. When we speak of them, we do so generally, as a kind of atemporal socio-techno-economic structure.

From Hunter-Gatherer to Simple Horticultural

Scholars believe that a gradual increase in the human population and environmental changes, over course of thousands years, necessitated the systematic cultivation of crops.

The domestication of plants and animals occurred simultaneously and independently across the world: from south Asia, China, India, to North and South America.

Horticultural is essentially farming without the use of plows, and it enables much more food to be harvested per acre than does basic gathering.

That said, hunter-gatherer societies understood and applied many principles of horticulture long before it became their main source of food.

And the more crops communities grew, the more necessary it was to grow them, because more calories fosters population growth, which requires more calories.

Change to this new way of life was very gradual, but irreversible, and by 10,000 to 8,000 years ago horticultural societies were widespread.

The Key Features of Simple Horticultural Societies

The Emergence of Simple Horticultural Societies

The era in which these societies dominated is called the New Stone Age or the Neolithic Era.

Though his revolution was comparable in significance to the Agricultural Revolution, which saw the rise of simple and advanced agrarian societies, the change from hunting-gathering to horticultural was extremely slow. It was neither a complete break with the past, nor a leap into the unknown.

That said, we know from the previous article in this series that a society’s mode of subsistence has profound and wide-reaching effects on its workings, and the shift from foraging and hunting to cultivating and herding brought remarkable, irreversible change that laid the foundations for later, more complex societies.

New Horticultural Technology

In horticulture, plowless cultivation of crops is the dominant means of subsistence. New gardens are created by cutting and burning vegetation, and large trees are killed. The resulting layer of ash is rich in nutrients and provides a good yield for one or two years.

However, weeds eventually take over and the soil loses its fertility, making a fresh plot necessary every few years. Hunter-gatherers also made clearings, but did so to encourage growth of certain plants that attracted game animals, rather than to cultivate them for their own consumption.

Though horticulturalists can only cultivate a small area of their territory, the yield per acre is much higher than hunter-gatherer societies.

This switch had a profound effect on population density, which on average is over 20 times higher than that of hunter-gatherers societies. This also lowers the ratio of game animals to humans, so hunting is less effective.

Men typically clear the area, while women plant, tend and harvest, much as they did in hunter-gatherer societies. As a result, men tend to have much more time at their disposal, a crucial detail for understanding subsequent human evolution.

Larger Settlements

Since groups no longer move around in search of food, horticulture forces them to stay in one territory for longer. As a result, they begin to accumulate more. This is clearly evident in archaeological remains, which feature tools and bulky objects.

Houses are larger and more permanent, and the first traces of towns and villages date back to this horticultural era.

Larger Populations

As mentioned, population density increases along with the size of groups, which tend to number several hundred as opposed to several dozen.

The biggest horticultural society yet discovered was present in Catal Huyuk in modern Turkey. It had a popular of 4000-6000, though the remains show evidence that trade contributed to the economy too.

Due to the manyfold increase in size, hunter-gatherer societies couldn’t compete with this more complex structure, and their numbers declined over time.

We also find in this era multicommunity societies composed of several groups united under a single leader. This doesn’t exist in the hunter-gatherer scenario.


As mentioned, men tend to have more free time available to them than they do in hunter-gatherer societies. Some are freed, at least partially, from the burden of maintaining the food supply.

Though families produce themselves most of what they consume, we see a small increase in occupational specialisation, at least in the largest settlements.

This era brought the invention of pottery and weaving, and clay tablets for record keeping have been found at several sites.

Though these are modest changes, they sowed the seeds for later, revolutionary overhauls in technology and the economy.



Like in the previous societal structure, kinship ties form the basis of the social system. These kinship systems can become very complex, especially in large groups.

An interesting fact is that in horticultural societies, descent is traced through the maternal line in 24% of cases, much more than in any other type. This is likely due to women’s key role in the cultivation of food.


The kin group provides the context for the religious activities of these societies. Their dominant religious practices are the worship of ancestors and rituals designed to appease them.

This is likely because the concept of the kin group includes the dead too, and the living remain in close physical proximity to the buried dead for their entire lives, unlike in hunter-gatherer societies.


Though there is greater power disparity in horticultural societies than hunter-gatherer societies, the power of political leaders is limited. Local villages have virtual autonomy.

The head of the most prosperous or numerous clan often becomes the village headman or tribal chief, but they still depend on persuasion, rather than coercion, to achieve their goals.

Men still make their own weapons, meaning nobody can monopolise them, unlike in later societies. That said, war is common among horticultural societies, as is the warrior cult, bringing a jump in female infanticide.

Wealth and Power

Social inequality is limited, and extremes of wealth and power are absent. Though differences in prestige are common, they usually depend on achievements and skills rather than titles and birth.

There are big inequalities present in levels of development beyond horticultural, as kin groups expand and people acquire private property, meaning status and wealth can be passed on.

So much for the early mutation of horticultural societies. Now we move on to a later elaboration: advanced horticultural societies. These still depend on horticulture as their means mode of subsistence, but possess slightly greater technological prowess than the simple kind.