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Agricultural Societies: Definition, History & Distinguishing Features

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  • 0:01 Definition of…
  • 1:22 Differences in Technology
  • 2:20 Common Traits
  • 3:13 History of Agriculture
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high History and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in Education.

This lesson will seek to define intensive agriculture. In doing so, it will highlight the concepts of subsistence versus commercialization. It will also define cash crops and agribusinesses.

Definition of Intensive Agriculture

Living in rather rural Pennsylvania, I only have to travel about a mile from my doorstep in order to see a farm. They dot the landscape of my community. Being surrounded by these farms, they're just normal to me, and to be honest, I've never given much thought to how agricultural farming came to be. However, today's lesson will remedy this as we seek to understand agriculture as a means of acquiring food.

To begin, we Westerners tend to use the word farming to define what goes on in the neatly plowed fields of our heartland. However, anthropologists like to use the term intensive agriculture, signifying food production that employs permanent cultivation of fields, made possible by the use of more modernized tools.

In this definition, don't let the use of the word modern fool you. This doesn't just mean fancy computerized gadgets. It actually means any tool that goes beyond sticks, stones and other basic tools. Intensive agriculture includes the use of things as rudimentary as a horse-drawn cart all the way up to a complex water storage technique. For today's lesson, we'll simplify things and use the words 'agriculture' and 'intensive agriculture' interchangeably.

Differences in Technology

With this wide range of tools in mind, it's important to note that intensive agriculture varies a great deal across the globe. Yes, all intensive agriculturalists permanently cultivate their fields. In other words, they plant and tend the same fields for years upon years. However, the way they do this can look oh so very different. For example, many of the farmers in my community use chemical fertilizers to nourish their soil.

However, there are other, more simple ways to achieve this goal. For instance, according to the work of well-known anthropologists Carol and Melvin Ember, some tribes in Africa use bean plants to fertilize their soil. Unknown to most of us, bacteria grows around bean plants and helps to replace nitrogen in soil. In the same manner, Western farmers may water their fields with an ultra-complex irrigation system of tunnels and pipes, while an agriculturalist in Greece may use a simple ditch of sorts dug from a nearby stream.

Common Traits

With the use of permanent fields, intensive agricultural societies tend to have a few other things in common. For example, the fact that they employ permanently cultivated fields allows many of these societies to develop larger communities. Unlike, say hunter-gatherers, who move from place to place looking for food and, therefore, keep their communities small, intensive agriculturalists are able to remain sedentary.

For this reason, many intensive agricultural communities develop into towns and even cities. The community in which I live is an excellent example of this. Like most societies with larger populations, agricultural groups also tend to have complex systems of social stratification or social class. With this, intensive agriculturalists also usually recognize private ownership of land. Again, this varies greatly depending on where in the globe you look.

History of Agriculture

This leads us to a bit of the history of intensive agriculture. For this, we'll again use some generalizations. In early human history, most agriculturalists produced only enough food to support their own families and their small social groups. This is still the case in certain parts of our world.

However, as societies and their technologies advanced, many intensive agriculturalists moved from subsistence farming, in which goods are produced for the consumption and survival of one's family group, to dabbling in commercialization, producing for a market, making one dependent on the buying and selling of goods. Stated simply, they were no longer content with just filling their own pantry shelves; instead, they wanted to fill the metaphorical pantries of their neighborhoods, their towns and so on.

With the advent of commercialization, we also have the advent of cash crops, crops grown with the specific intent to sell, not consume by the grower. Great examples of this were the cotton plantations that dotted the landscape of the 19th century southern United Sates. Other common cash crops include rice, bananas and coffee, which are grown in certain regions of the world but exported globally.

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