Shifting from hunting and gathering to raising crops and animals had implications for many facets of society. People transitioned from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle. Villages emerged and social life became more formalized and increasingly hierarchical. Food surpluses were produced because food was more plentiful, while health and longevity increased apace. New technologies of food storage were invented, and social inequality emerged as some people were able to produce more surplus than others. Villages fortified themselves to protect against plundering by outside groups. Village chiefs emerged and, as other villages were either taken over or aligned through intermarriage, the size of social units continued to grow. In early horticultural societies chiefs often played the role of servant, not leader, of their people. People would give gifts to the chief, with the expectation that the chief would distribute any excess to tribal members in need of assistance. Mauss (1912/1990) long ago documented the widespread function of gift-giving as a mechanism to induce goodwill and reciprocity, both within and across archaic societies.

As societies grew, however, social and economic inequality became more common. Chiefs, religious leaders, and more wealthy families were able to remove themselves from the daily drudgery of engaging in work that sustains their own lives by hiring or enslaving other people to do it for them. While this further entrenched social inequality, it also freed a class of people from time-consuming work. In turn, social elites took more time to ponder and think, leading to the development of art, aesthetics, philosophy, and the formalization of religion. As they transitioned, many societies shifted their focus from animism to polytheism ; a belief in the existence of multiple gods. This likely evolved as increasing power and awareness was attributed to some animistic spirits.

Advanced Agrarian Societies

Until recently, archaeologists believed that the development of advanced agrarian societies didn’t develop much before 3500 BCE. Recent information and discoveries, like Gobekli Tepe, Dwarka, and Gunung Padang may push this date back even farther. Geopolitics and violent conflicts have severely curtailed the ability to further investigate promising archaeological sites in many parts of the world. Iraqi Kurdistan alone has more than 3,000 heritage sites within its borders. Ninety-eight percent of them have not been examined, while a re-examination of previously excavated sites using new instruments could also reveal many new insights (Bradshaw 2013). Ur, the city of the Biblical Abraham, gave up an estimated ten percent of its treasures when last excavated in the 1930s. Most recently, the ruins have been used by both Iraqis and Americans as part of a military base (Clement 2011).

Characterized by ownership of large tracts of land which include big cities and towns, agrarian societies arose as centralized coordination between tribes and villages developed. Over time, agrarian societies came to sustain the lives of thousands of inhabitants. The development of the plow and the use of irrigation techniques facilitated the large-scale growth of crops, capable of feeding thousands. Known also as classical civilizations , these societies included towns and cities, monumental architecture, craft specialization, occupational differentiation, and writing and record keeping. Extreme social and economic inequalities were realized as people were organized into social strata including slaves, free laborers, nobles and military leaders, and royalty. Opportunities differed greatly by the strata into which one was born. Mobility between strata was virtually nonexistent. A corresponding religious trend in agrarian societies was the rise of monotheism , or belief in a single, all-powerful deity. Emperors or kings of agrarian societies commonly identified themselves as gods or, at least, the one person to receive special dispensations. Extravagant religious temples and sites were constructed, and a full-time clergy emerged to handle religious matters.

Precursors of agrarian societies emerged first in Mesopotamia around 4500 BCE, followed closely by the Harrappan civilization of Northern India. By 3500 BCE, these places had developed into advanced agrarian societies. Classic Egyptian civilization emerged by 3100 BCE. Classical Greek civilization developed by 2700 BCE, though experts suspect its precursors might have appeared as early as 4000 BCE. Far away from these areas, China’s classic civilization was established by 3800 BCE, Africa’s Land of Punt civilization in Ethiopia by 2500 BCE, and the Americas’ Olmec civilization by 1500 BCE. Aspects of the mound builder society of the Mississippi delta emerged around 500 CE. These are but some examples.

Though categorizing agrarian societies into a similar conceptual category can be advantageous, it is important to also keep in mind their unique cultures, histories, and trajectories. Some civilizations emerged on the scene much earlier than others. Some were longer-lasting. On the Yucatan peninsula of Latin America, for example, new research has established Mayan civilization flourishing by 1000 BCE (Inomata et al. 2013). Though in decline since 900 AD, Mayan kings continued their rule until they were exterminated by the Spanish at the dawn of the 18th century. Mayan rule thus extended for a period spanning almost 3,000 years. By contrast, the United States is not yet 250 years old. When most Europeans lived as nomadic barbarians and Greeks lived in small city states, the Maya organized tens of thousands of people into sophisticated societies replete with nobles, priests, merchants, and warriors. The Mayan civilization stretched from Mexico to Costa Rica when the Roman Empire had yet to be conceived. Though the Maya did not invent writing or epigraphy, they greatly enhanced their use and sophistication. Such observations challenge ever-popular but simplistic unilinear theories of sociocultural development.

Industrial Societies

Technological innovation has played an ever-increasingly role in sociocultural change. Digging sticks and domesticated plants and animals facilitated the transition to horticultural societies, while irrigation and the plow fostered agrarian civilizations capable of sustaining the lives of thousands. The advent of industrialization saw a concerted focus on mechanizing labor previously performed by human beings. Applying machine technology to tasks raised the importance of science and engineering. It brought people together in a new social invention called the factory, where people and machines worked in concert.

Implications for social and economic life in industrial society have been enormous. Bell (1976) successfully predicted the implosion of the Soviet Union, arguing that the logic of industrialism was incompatible with a political system based on communism. In the West, industrialization closely followed the formation of a new invention called the nation-state; delineated by clearly defined national borders, a strong central government and a national military. Because people encompassed within nation-states were diverse, displaying a use of regional languages, religions, foods, and identities, governments embarked on aggressive programs to cultivate cultural homogeneity and a national identity. This included the adoption of a dominant language and, often, a national religion. A system of mass schooling was eventually implemented to facilitate these changes. Patriotism to the new state was developed through pledges of allegiance, national anthems, and history classes taught with a positive slant towards the nation-state and its leaders. Required military service was used in similar ways.