Hiatus Post — The Importance of Agriculture

The institute will be on hiatus for this week but we’ll return next week with a fresh batch of posts and podcast, all focused on the topic of meat. Until then, please enjoy excerpts from the recently published book Why Did Ancient Civilizations Fail? (available for purchase on Routledge and Amazon).


Our civilization, like many before us, has developed technologies and created systems to circumvent problems. The invention of pasteurization, antibiotics, vaccines, and genetic sequencing has surely advanced our quality of life. The printing press, postal service, telegraph, telephone, and internet were each accompanied by an explosion of thought and social progress that comes with greater interconnectivity. Steam power, electricity, the internal combustion engine, industrialization, the assembly line, and nuclear power have fundamentally transformed every aspect of how we live. You can probably think of further innovations that you would rather not live without, but none of them would be possible without agriculture. More specifically, neither our way of life, nor that of any other large-scale society, could exist without agricultural surplus.

Agricultural surplus is created when a household produces more food than it consumes, and this allows others to pursue non-agricultural tasks. Without agricultural surplus, Francis Crick and James Watson would not have had the time to discover the molecular structure of DNA. J. Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues in the Manhattan Project could not have created the atomic bomb. Louis Pasteur may never have developed vaccines or his method of reducing the pathogens in foods like milk that have saved innumerable lives. I would not have been afforded to opportunity to spend my life studying how ancient societies functioned. If those of us in the industrialized world were required to grow our own food, we would have little time to devote to any other major undertaking. This is not to say societies without surplus agricultural production are incapable of innovation, but a society that can allow members to work full time on research and invention rather than subsistence will have a greater rate of innovation. The most effective method that any culture has developed to give this freedom to large segments of the population is through intensive agricultural production.

Surplus agricultural production was a prerequisite for the existence of every state-level society. No other technology, such as writing, wheels, metallurgy, or beasts of burden, was universal. Writing, for example, is commonly cited as a marker of civilized society, but neither the Aztecs nor the Inca had full writing systems,1 yet these were complex societies with many other engineering and social advances. None of the New World societies made use of the wheel for transportation or metal for tools and only the Inca had beasts of burden, yet the complexity and size of these societies rivaled Rome, Egypt, ancient China, the Indus Valley, and Mesopotamia. Even where writing was integral to a complex society, it emerged as an accounting system to manage agricultural and economic surplus, a tool of the elites to reinforce their social position, or both. Neither the accounting nor elites would have been possible without having a preexisting agricultural surplus. The fundamental commonality of all ancient complex societies was an agricultural system that produced a surplus of food.

1A full writing system is one that can express any spoken phrase. While both the Aztec and Inca had notation systems, they were not full writing systems. The Inca used a knotted series of cords called a khipu. Although it could hold complex numerical information, such as tribute payments, it could not, to our knowledge, express an idea such as “melancholy.” The Aztecs used a pictorial notation system that accompanied painted historical scenes in bark-paper codices. While they commonly used the rebus system to record place names, they did not extend this into a full writing system before they were conquered by the Spanish in 1521.


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