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What Are Horticultural Societies? - Traits and Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of Horticulture
  • 2:01 Shifting Cultivation
  • 3:03 Long Growing Trees
  • 4:16 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 explain what horticulture is and different types of horticultural societies. In doing so, it will highlight the Yanomami society of the Amazon and the Samoans of the South Pacific.

Definition of Horticulture

I'm guessing most of us living in the modernized West don't spend much of our energy thinking about where our food comes from. When I go to the grocery store, I pick up packaged meat and some veggies from the produce aisle, then I go on my merry way. Very seldom do I find myself pondering what state the meat came from or who planted the vegetables. The ease of getting food is just normal to me. However, across our globe, this is definitely not always the case. Many societies still find themselves living directly off the land, working daily to produce their own food. Some of these societies practice horticulture, the topic of today's lesson.

To begin, horticulture is often defined as a means of food production in which vegetation is cultivated using very rudimentary tools and without permanently cultivated fields. Stated a bit simpler, it's a type of food production where food is grown using very simple tools. For example, most horticultural societies use nothing more than sticks and hoes. Things like plows, mechanized tractors, or even carts pulled by animals usually aren't part of a horticulturalist's bag of tools.

Simplifying the rest of the definition, horticultural societies do not permanently plant or care for a field. Unlike the farmers in my community, who plant the same crop in the same field every year, horticulturalists move their plantings from place to place. Also unlike my neighborhood farmers, horticulturalists do not irrigate their fields, nor do they fertilize them.

When speaking of horticultural societies, anthropologists usually like to break them down into two categories: those who practice shifting cultivation (also sometimes called extensive cultivation) and those who are dependent on long-growing tree crops, which we'll get to a bit later.

Shifting Cultivation

We'll first explain shifting or extensive cultivation. Again, sort of simplifying and generalizing, societies that practice shifting cultivation usually only plant a piece of land for a short time, then leave it at rest for many years. As the name implies, they will then shift their energies to another piece of land or activity.

During this idle time, wild vegetation and brush will take over the unused land. After a certain amount of time, the shifting horticulturalists will then return to this land and use the slash-and-burn technique in which the wild vegetation is cut down and burned off, allowing the nutrients of the charred plants to nourish the soil.

A great example of this type of shifting cultivation is the Yanomami of the Amazon. As reported by famous anthropologists Carol and Melvin Ember, the Yanomami usually farm a piece of land for a few years, filling it with things like plantains and sweet potatoes. They then move on to another spot and allow nature to sort of rejuvenate their left-behind fields.

Long-Growing Trees

Horticulturalists who practice dependence on long-growing tree crops - trees that, once planted, grow for years with very little need of care - do it a bit differently. Rather than working a field and then abandoning it, these societies plant trees that live for many years but require very little work.

A great example of this type of society is the Samoans, the indigenous people of the South Pacific. Again, according to the work of the Embers, the horticulturalists of Samoa plant things like banana and coconut trees, both of which will produce fruit for years. Quite amazingly, one coconut plant can give fruit for a hundred years with not much more than some occasional pruning and weeding.

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