The Agricultural Revolution

About the Module

Author: Richard Lawe-mail:
Staff Collaborators:David Scuderi

Developed for the World Civilizations Program in General Education June, 1996; version 2


This learning module is intended to

  1. supplement the text of GenEd 110 "World Civilizations I" by providing some essential background information about human culture prior to the development of civilized communities.
  2. provide a simple conceptual model of the earth, and all life upon it, as dependent upon a solar-driven system.
  3. provide a simple conceptual model of soil as the fundamental resource of civilization.
  4. provide a sharp, intelligible contrast between the old ancestral mode of life (hunting and gathering) and sedentary agriculture.
  5. identify a set of basic problems and opportunities inherent in the new way of life (sedentary agriculture).
  6. provide a template for understanding and comparing subsequent cultural systems in terms of their responses to that basic set of problems and opportunities.
Intended Users:

This learning module is intended primarily for WSU students--for freshmen as an assignment in World Civilizations I (GenEd 110) and as a self-study reference for freshmen to advanced undergraduate students.

Prerequiste Competencies:

Freshman standing at WSU
Entry Assessment:
Outcome Competencies:
Exit Assessment:
Learning Plans:

Learning Objectives for "The Agriculture Revolution" Module

Intermediate Concepts

  1. Human cultures are complex systems which interact complexly with the large natural systems on the planet.
  2. Causes: The Agricultural Revolution may have occurred partly in response to radical changes in the environment [climate] which occurred at the end of--or shortly after--the last glaciation. Population pressure is another possible cause.
  3. With the agricultural revolution, human beings began to alter aspects of the natural systems of the environment in important ways.
  4. Early civilizations had a material base: dependable agricultural surpluses were the essential prerequisite for civilized life. Modern civilizations have a similar, if more complex, base and the same fundamental needs.
  5. The cultural changes involved in moving from hunting & gathering to a sedentary agricultural life are enormous--initially far greater and more revolutionary than the technological changes.
  6. These cultural changes can be understood in terms of a contrast between sedentary agriculture and hunting and gathering as modes of life.
  7. These cultural changes in the new agricultural way of life can also be seen as a mix of opportunities and problems, or they can be approached as a simple menu of new conditions which have uncertain implications. The new conditions include:

    • tendency toward population growth,
    • vulnerability to infectious disease, periodic population crashes, but eventually, over time, increasing immunity
    • vulnerability to variations in climate, parasitism, plunder, famine,
    • environmental degradation of the land--the problem of sustainability
    • new forms of social interaction--property, private life, organized warfare
    • customs involving labor discipline, hygiene
    • increasing economic specialization and knowledge
    • the appearance of classes, increasingly hierarchic social organization.

    These "problems" have never been solved nor the opportunities exhausted; this mixed set of problems and opportunities appears to constitute the permanent legacy of the past, and they continue to shape the fundamental conditions of our mode of life.

    • As such, these issues can provide a basis for comparing different civilizations and for understanding the processes underlying any settled mode of life.
    • Human civilizations are systems whose characteristics can be abstracted and analyzed, particularly when examined over time. Their separate components are interrelated somewhat like the components of natural systems (e.g., class structures, the social hierarchy, and gender roles are connected to the forms of economic specialization in the culture, to its material base, and to its ideologies or religious views). A change in one component will tend to cause changes in the whole system. Looked at in this way, human cultures appear to have a great deal in common, and the history of a culture can be seen as providing many clues to its underlying structures rather than merely as a series of events or anecdotes. For example, as a thought problem, students may examine the differences between Old World and New World agriculture and explore how these differences produced quite different ways of life.

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