A long, long time ago, human beings roamed the earth looking for food. Then the agricultural revolution struck! What are the benefits of an agrarian society, and how have they shaped the way we live today?
Humans as we know them have been walking around for about 200,000 years. Yet despite having bigger brains and finer hands, we continued to behave as our predecessors had. This was a nomadic lifestyle, following herds and gathering wild plants and fruits along the way. Then about 10,000 years ago, we came to a divide. On this side we had the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle we'd always known. On the far side we had settled agriculture. The differences between these two are simple, but, as we shall see, they have lasting implications.
As a nomad you must find your food. Since you must find your food, you must move before your food sources are depleted or before your food wanders off. Since you must be able to move, you can only store as much food as you can carry. Storage is particularly difficult because as a nomad you eat mostly meat, which has high nutritional value but is difficult to preserve and store.
Now let's look at the other side of the divide. As a farmer you make your own food. In fact, you can produce more food than you can eat. This is called a surplus. Since growing crops takes time, you must stay put to care for your plants. Since you're not going anywhere anyway, you have the option of storing LOTS of food. Storage is made easy because as a farmer you eat very little meat, but a lot of grains, which have a low nutritional value but are very easy to preserve and store. So when drought hits and the hunting is bad, nomads must move along or starve to death, while farmers can survive off the surpluses they stored.
Benefits of an Agricultural Society
The division of labor was made possible because one farmer can feed several people
Yet there are other effects of agriculture besides mere survival. The most obvious is that when you have more food you can make more people. And because one farmer can feed several people, this makes possible the division of labor. Now instead of every man being a hunter-gatherer concerned only with getting enough food for himself, now one can be a baker, another a carpenter, another a soldier. With specialization come new technologies, which allow us to produce even greater surpluses and larger populations. The greater the surplus one farmer can produce, the more labor can be divided, allowing for more improvements in technologies, which allow for still greater surpluses and even larger populations. This is what is called a positive feedback loop. We can see the results clearly. These days, a single farmer with the aid of technology can feed thousands. With all these surpluses, the world's population has passed seven billion. Now as well as carpenters and bakers, we have firemen, doctors and astronauts.
Barbarians Vs. Romans
It should be clear by now how settled farmers ended up displacing nomads. But just for fun, let us compare a Roman soldier to a barbarian warrior. The barbarian warrior grew up eating nutritious meat, allowing him to reach his full growth potential. The Roman soldier, with his diet of bread and olives, seems malnourished by comparison. He's small, he's fat and it looks like he's going to get creamed. But because agriculturalists can support a larger population, there are more Roman soldiers than barbarian warriors. Moreover, they're all specialists. Freed from the need to feed themselves, they have spent all their time mastering the art of soldiering. And because they're all specialists, they can develop new technologies. The barbarian warrior doesn't stand a chance. This sort of dominance would be impossible without the massive surpluses of food derived from the Neolithic agricultural revolution.