The Importance of Staple Crops in State Societies

State level societies are not simple institutions and are the culmination of many traits and forces. It is difficult to pinpoint a specific source for complex societies, since many of the aspects of these societies are interrelated and hard to separate. However one feature that seems to be universally required for growth in complexity is the adoption of large scale agriculture. While agriculture in itself is not a guarantee for social complexity, it does provide the required resources needed for larger populations, urban centers, and specialists who are no longer needed to aid in food production.

It is difficult though to say whether agriculture was the precipitate of large urban populations, or if agriculture was developed out of necessity to feed the larger population. Whatever the case may be, large-scale agriculture was necessary in sustaining the livelihood of the ancient states. This meant going beyond a simple family vegetable garden, and planting a large scale staple crop to feed the masses. This crop took on different forms for each civilization. For the Mayans, Mississippians, and Ancestral Puebloans, this crop was maize. For the ancient Chinese states it was rice. For the cities that began springing up along the Nile it was barley and wheat.Each crop may have been adapted for different climatic circumstances, but each fulfilled the purpose of providing the mass crops needed to sustain large populations and free people to engage in other specialties.

It should be noted as well what happened to ancient states when a staple crop failed to produce. The onset of a drought or flooding could have catastrophic consequences, even potentially causing the state to collapse. Even smaller climate fluctuations could have deadly consequences. The people of ancient Egypt were at the mercy of the Nile. Too much floodwater and the crops would be drowned, while a drought would wither their chances of a good harvest. The scenes depicted at the causeway of the Pyramid of Unas show emaciated victims of famine.

Take away a state society’s staple crops and social order will begin to deteriorate. The Ancestral Puebloan culture of the American Southwest was sent spinning into turmoil by a decades long drought in the late thirteenth century. Trade systems collapsed and regional urban centers were abandoned as groups splintered into highly defensive communities. Across the globe the Akkadian Empire faced a similar situation with the onset of climate induced drought period of three centuries. The southern plains were unable to produce enough food surpluses to support a large urban population, forcing the people to leave and central power to collapse.

Thus we can see that a state society’s existence is highly entwined with the production of staple crop. Intensive agriculture allows for the growth of population, the rise of urban centers, and the subsequent features of a complex culture. However a society that looses the ability to feed its people will begin to crumble as central authorities are unable to maintain social order among the masses. When we boil a complex society down to its raw components, we are left with a few basic necessities. Chief among these is food and the ability to ensure a continued supply of crops to promote a large population and a diversification of advanced cultural traits.