Farming made us grow

Did the introduction of farming alone bring about large-scale societies or were additional factors necessary? Seshat editor for resources, agriculture, and population variables Thomas Currie notes the importance of changes in agricultural technology and productivity to the emergence of social complexity. Some argue that agriculture alone brought about the emergence of large and complex groups, Currie explains, while others contend that additional factors like warfare or new types of rituals were also needed to bring about these changes. Currie describes how – for the first time – Seshat: Global History Databank is providing the high-quality systematic historical information necessary to resolve this debate and many other long-standing questions about our past.

For more videos, see our Vimeo page.

To explore relevant publications, see Currie et al. 2015 and Turchin et al. 2015.


Thomas Currie: Agriculture is fundamental to our understanding of the human past. Agriculture enters into a lot of theories about the past and how and why large-scale societies evolved and enters into things about so, why do we transition from being hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists. So it’s really important to be able to collect information about agriculture and past agricultural systems.

Increases in agricultural technology and productivity allow for larger-scale societies and we think that increased and improved agriculture is a precondition for the emergence of large-scale societies. People differ though as to whether agriculture is sufficient explanation for the rise of large-scale societies. So the idea there is that once you’ve developed agriculture, then all the other things that relate to large-scale complex societies follow on as a kind of a natural consequence. So you get larger populations. They have to be supported by managers of agricultural systems and things like that. So you get this kind of division of labour emerging naturally from these things. Other people argue though that while improvements in agriculture are a necessary precondition for the emergence of large-scale societies, they are not sufficient by themselves and you need to invoke other things such as warfare in order to explain why societies became more complex further down the line.

What we want to do is to be able to model the productivity of past agricultural systems and create estimates of the potential productivity and how many people could be supported in any particular region- what we call a kind of carrying capacity for the region. And that’s a function of different things such as the type of crop, the climate, and agricultural technologies and also biogeographical factors and various other things. So, what we need is high-quality systematic information about the kinds of agricultural practices and technologies that increased the productivity of agricultural systems. And so that can be things like irrigation systems, systems of multicropping or polyculture where you grow more than one crop in a field at one time, which enables a boost in the yield that you get out, and there are various other techniques such as manuring or mulching which stops the evaporation from the soil. So what we’re doing is going through information about past societies in the historical and agricultural record and trying to capture those features of those agricultural systems. Once we’ve captured the information about historical and prehistoric agricultural practices, we can then feed that into our model of crop productivity and carrying capacity and that way we can get a sense of which areas were most productive and how that’s changed over time. And we can then correlate that with the rise of complex societies.

Notes for Editors: 

  • For further information contact Jill Levine via email or see Thomas Currie’s webpage
  • Seshat: The Global History Databank is a large, international, multidisciplinary team of evolutionary scientists, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, economists, and other social scientists. Our team includes scholars from various backgrounds, policy makers, and enthusiastic volunteers. Seshat is governed by an editorial board, who oversee work done by postdoctoral researchers, collaborators and consultants, and research assistants all over the world.
  • Cite this page: “Thomas Currie explains the role of agriculture in the evolution of social complexity.”

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