Understanding Horticultural Societies

Definition, History, and Overview

Potatoes dug from the dirt symbolize the subsistence style of agriculture common to horticultural societies.
Ezra Bailey

A horticultural society is one in which people subsist through the cultivation of plants for food consumption without the use of mechanized tools or the use of animals to pull plows. This makes horticultural societies distinct from agrarian societies, which do use these tools, and from pastoral societies, which rely on the cultivate of herd animals for subsistence.

Overview of Horticultural Societies

Horticultural societies developed around 7000 BC in the Middle East and gradually spread west through Europe and Africa and east through Asia.

They were the first type of society in which people grew their own food, rather than relying strictly on the hunter-gather technique. This means that they were also the first type of society in which settlements were permanent or at least semi-permanent. As a result, the accumulation of food and goods was possible and with it, a more complex division of labor, more substantial dwellings, and a small amount of trade.

There are both simple and more advanced forms of cultivation used in horticultural societies. The most simple use tools such as axes (to clear forest) and wooden sticks and metal spades for digging. More advanced forms may use foot-plows and manure, terracing and irrigation, and rest plots of land in fallow periods. In some cases, people combine horticulture with hunting or fishing, or with the keeping of a few domesticated farm animals.

The number of different kinds of crops featured in gardens of horticultural societies can number as high 100 and are often a combination of both wild and domesticated plants.

Because the tools of cultivation used are rudimentary and non-mechanic, this form of agriculture is not particularly productive. Because of this, the number of people composing a horticultural society is typically rather low, though can be relatively high, depending on the conditions and technology.

Social and Political Structures of Horticultural Societies

Horticultural societies were documented by anthropologists all over the world, using various types of tools and technologies, in many different climatic and ecological conditions. Because of these variables, there was also variety in the social and political structures of these societies in history, and in those that exist today.

Horticultural societies can have matrilineal or patrilineal social organization. In either, ties focused on kinship are common, though larger horticultural societies will have more complex forms of social organization. Throughout history, many were matrilineal because the social ties and structure were organized around the feminized work of crop cultivation. (Conversely, hunter-gatherer societies were typically patrilineal because their social ties and structure were organized around the masculinized work of hunting.) Because women are at the center of work and survival in horticultural societies, they are highly valuable to men. For this reason, polygyny—when a husband has multiple wives—is common.

Meanwhile, it is common in horticultural societies that men take on political or militaristic roles. Politics in horticultural societies is often centered on the redistribution of food and resources within the community.

Evolution of Horticultural Societies

The kind of agriculture practiced by horticultural societies is considered a pre-industrial subsistence method. In most places around the world, as technology was developed and where animals were available for plowing, agrarian societies developed.

However, this is not exclusively true. Horticultural societies exist to this day and can be found primarily in wet, tropical climates in Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.