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Villages formed in Asia about 11,000 years ago when humans first adopted agriculture. These “primary communities” have since fostered social, technological, and economic interactions, cultural continuity, and stable child rearing. But increasing urbanization led to the demise of the village. Long-term human survival probably requires that stronger and more village-like communities take root in our cities to nurture growing populations.
Human beings are social. This means a life worth living requires individuals to interact continually with those around them and weave a web of shared meanings and shared feelings that shape and guide each person’s behavior from earliest infancy. Through most of recorded history, and until the twentieth century, villages were the principal place where this human social need was met. The vast majority of our ancestors lived in villages and worked in nearby fields, enjoying the benefi ts and suffering the pains of living day in and day out with a few score or few hundred fellow villagers in what sociologists call a “primary community.” Cities were different. Strangers abounded, and laws enforced by rulers and their agents were needed to keep peace among strangers. Primary communities of mutual acquaintances still functioned within cities, but only on a part-time basis, since encounters with strangers occurred so often.
Neither villages nor cities existed at first. Nonetheless our ancestors were social even before they invented language and became fully human, so gestures and facial expressions play a part in weaving the web of communication that ties us together and makes cooperation effective. But words and sentences expanded the scope and precision of communication and made planning ahead possible. Even more important, when expectations were disappointed, people asked why. And then they talked things over, seeking a better way to get what they wanted.
Hunting and Gathering Societies
Planned cooperation and deliberate change when plans failed marked the dawn of full humanity, distinguishing us from all other forms of life. That may have begun about 40,000 years ago when our ancestors began to change the size and shape of their stone tools far more rapidly than before. No one knows for sure.
We do know, however, that before and after attaining full humanity, our ancestors were hunters and gatherers and lived in small bands like those of the hunter-gatherers who still exist in a few remote places in Africa and the Amazon rain forests. Such peoples wander to and fro within well-defined boundaries where they feel at home, hunting animals, picking fruit, digging edible roots, and catching grubs and insects day after day. They sleep outdoors and carry all they possess wherever they go—bows, blowpipes, nets, digging sticks, together with babies too small to walk. In the twenty-first century, such groups are usually timid and often flee from strangers. But when all humans were hunters and gatherers, and weapons were more or less the same for everyone, we can be sure that bands defended their hunting grounds against intruders when they had to, and at special times of the year they gathered with adjacent bands to dance and sing, arrange marriages, and feast together, just as they do in modern times.
This style of life prevailed for most of the human past and in all probability our genetic heritage is shaped by it. We still yearn to belong to a small group of fellow human beings, larger than the immediate family but small enough to know everyone personally, sharing joys and sorrows and thus making life worth living even in times of sickness or hardship.
Villages and a new sort of community life dawned about 11,000 years ago when grain farming began both in west Asia and separately in East Asia, where millet and rice rather than the wheat and barley of west Asia were the first important crops. Grain farming required constructing and guarding storage places for the next year’s seed. That meant staying in one place year-round, so early farmers soon constructed permanent shelters for sleeping and cooking. These made life more comfortable, and since the farmers clustered their buildings close together for protection and sociability, they created villages. Village farmers worked longer and harder than hunters and gatherers and their diets were more monotonous. Despite these disadvantages, the new way of life spread from its beginning, since farming produced far more food on a given amount of land than grew naturally, and more food sustained more people. Early farmers therefore could easily drive away small bands of hunters and gatherers wherever soils and rainfall were suitable for growing grain.
Not long after farming villages began to spread in Asia and into Europe in this fashion, other farming villages arose in Africa and the Americas, relying on different crops and supporting similarly dense populations. They also spread far and wide within climatic limits. In ensuing millennia, villages spread so widely that all the early centers of farming eventually mingled, exchanging crops, domesticated animals, and innumerable skills.
Long before the European discovery of the Americas brought these agricultural exchanges to their climax, cities and civilizations subordinated most, but not all, villagers to outside control. The subordinated village farmers were compelled to hand over part of their harvest to landlords and distant rulers. We call these villagers “peasants.” Obviously they had to work harder than before and raise more grain than they themselves needed for food and seed. Plows pulled by domesticated animals made that comparatively easy in Eurasia; Amerindian peasants, however, had to depend entirely on their own labor. They were helped by the fact that both corn and potatoes—their most important crops—yielded more calories per acre than wheat and other Old World grains did, with the exception of rice, which also demanded a great deal of human labor.
Characteristics of Village Life
Compared with villages, civilizations and empires were fragile. They rose and fell as weapons evolved and invading armies came and went. Endless political turmoil also had the effect of expanding the frontiers of civilization to new ground wherever farming villages were sufficiently numerous and productive to support states and rulers, together with priests, specialized warriors, merchants, and artisans who provided rulers with what they needed.
Even so, local differences were very great, and no two villages were ever the same any more than were any two cities or civilizations—or individual persons for that matter. Writing about villages in general is therefore risky, all the more so since village histories were unrecorded and accurate statistics were often lacking.
Still, some generalities are obvious or very probable. They are worth describing not as universal certainties but as usual and approximate averages. First, adult villagers needed children to help with the daily household work and to support them in old age. Life, especially for infants, was precarious due largely to disease, so parents wanted to have more than the two children needed to keep village populations steady. Whenever fertile but uncultivated land was accessible nearby, younger sons and daughters of marriageable age could hope to live as well as their parents by breaking in new fields, and perhaps they could form a new village if their fields were sufficiently far away. That was how farming became so widespread. But once settlers arrived, landscapes fi lled up rapidly since children were numerous. Sooner or later, land shortages resulted, presenting stark alternatives to young people who could no longer inherit as much land as their parents did.
Subdividing the family farm and intensifying cultivation was sometimes possible, but it almost always meant impoverishment and could not be done more than once or twice. Hiring out to work for neighbors who owned larger farms was an alternative, but hired hands seldom married and lost status and many of life’s satisfactions. Emigration to cities and towns in hope of fi nding unskilled work was a better bet; since diseases were more intense in towns and marriage was less universal, urban populations usually could not sustain themselves without regular recruitment from surrounding villages.
When these alternatives failed, resort to violence was likely. But peasant revolts nearly always failed, sometimes only after reducing the population sharply. Epidemic disease could diminish a population even more rapidly, and so could the ravages of organized state warfare. Starvation due to crop failure was still another risk village farmers faced occasionally. Overall, rural populations tended to increase since births normally exceeded deaths, and new crops, better seeds, better tools, and new skills spread from village to village, increasing food supplies little by little and from time to time.
What ensured this result was the way villagers raised children generation after generation, even at risk of local overcrowding, and took advantage of every improvement in food production that came to their attention. Villages were the cells of human society. They survived while empires and cities came and went. Local disasters never stopped even a handful of survivors from starting to plant and reap again as a matter of course, forming new families and carrying on local traditions, changing when change seemed useful but, above all, resisting it century after century and millennium after millennium.
A second generality is that villagers were never wholly self-sufficient. From the very beginning of agriculture, special kinds of stone could be quarried only in a few places although they were needed everywhere for tools, and a cereal diet also required small amounts of mineral salt to keep human bodies healthy. Luxuries, too—shells, feathers, and colored pigments to decorate bodies and buildings—often came from afar. These rarities reached individuals living where they did not occur naturally either by hand-to-hand gifting from village to village or by sending out special expeditions to collect supplies from known locations—salt from the Dead Sea, for example. A few wandering peddlers may also have carried rarities from village to village and circulated food and other local products even in very early times. No one knows for sure.
Genetic exchanges with outsiders were also necessary to assure health and vigor. Festival meetings where dwellers in nearby villages came together for dance and song, just as hunters and gatherers had always done, allowed for marriages to be arranged, bringing new genes into the community along with new information to be acted on or forgotten as the case might be. In short, villagers were part of a larger human web extending throughout the inhabited world. Occasional contacts extended not only from village to village but to hunters and gatherers and to townsmen. Proof of that is the fact that humans remained a single species even after spreading around the Earth, instead of differentiating into separate species like the birds the nineteenth-century English naturalist Charles Darwin studied in the Galapagos Islands.
Within that web, villagers had most to learn from cities and towns, where strangers came and went, dealing perpetually with one another and generating no less perpetual innovations more rapidly than anywhere else. An early landmark was when farmers first acquired metal tools. Once available, metal hoes, plowshares, sickles, hammers, and other tools spread, since they lasted longer, worked better, and demanded less effort than did tools made only of stone and wood.
This made human society more complex, however, since metal ores had to be mined, smelted, and shaped by specialized workers, and such workers had to eat food someone else had raised. Moreover, ores, fuel for smelting them, and refi ned metal had to be moved from where they were found or made where they were needed. And that required transport— initially by ships and animal caravans—and personnel to arrange each transaction; and they, too, ate food raised by others.
This new complexity was organized from cities, for rulers very much wanted metal for weapons and display, and as long as gold, silver, and bronze prevailed they nearly monopolized its use. As far as villagers were concerned, only after smiths learned to manufacture iron did they begin to use that far more abundant kind of metal. Iron became widespread in Eurasia about 1100 BCE, but Amerindians were limited to copper, silver, and gold before 1500 CE, all of which were too rare, too precious, and too soft to make good tools.
As Old World villagers began to use iron tools, larger harvests became easier to achieve, and for the first time the human majority began to benefi t from the urban workshops, miners, merchants, and peddlers that made and distributed iron tools among them. Villages, in other words, began to share at least marginally in the market exchanges that pervaded urban society.
Other things reached out from urban centers, too, not least religious rituals and doctrines that blended with diverse older religious practices. Simultaneously, the stream of migration from countryside to town spread village habits and expectations among city folk generation after generation, thus maintaining greater cultural and human continuity amidst ever-accelerating change than could otherwise have existed.
Commerce, Transportation, and Agriculture
The next far-reaching change affecting a great many villagers began in China about the year 1000 CE when the imperial Song government (960–1279) found it convenient to require peasants to pay taxes in money. To do so, of course, they had to sell something—food, silk cocoons, or any other local product others wanted to buy. Before that time, peasants did sometimes buy items they could not make themselves—iron tools, for instance, and salt, normally paying in kind with whatever was left over after rent and tax collectors had carried away their share of the harvest. These were exceptional transactions, and most peasants most of the time had always lived without using money.
Coins had begun to circulate about 560 BCE in Anatolia and spread from there throughout Eurasian cities and into parts of Africa. As a standard of value, coins could buy anything. That made exchanges far easier since the purchaser got what he wanted even when he did not have anything but coins in hand that the seller wanted to have. The transfer of a suitable number of coins let the seller seek out someone else, perhaps far away, with something for sale that he did want. Accordingly, all parties profited by creating far-more complex and far-ranging networks of exchange than had existed before. Those networks also sustained local specialization in manufacturing and brought local raw materials into the market faster than before, with all the benefi ts of specialization that the Scottish economist Adam Smith was to analyze in his 1776 book Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
Since China’s rivers and canals provided safe and cheap transportation throughout the Yangzi (Chang) and Huang (Yellow) river valleys, the monetization of many thousands of villages, where something like 100 million peasants lived, led to rapid increases of wealth and skill. In a real sense this marks the start of modern times, for China’s example soon spread along the seaways and reached inland wherever navigable rivers resembled China’s cheap internal transport. Within Eurasia, Western Europe was best equipped by nature to emulate the Chinese. Accordingly, the rise of towns and markets in that part of the world took off less than a century after Song China showed the way.
For the next thousand years, every time transportation improved with better ships, better roads, and better-kept public peace, the exchange of goods and services between villages and cities intensifi ed. This was the time when crops moved most rapidly from one region of the Earth to others wherever climates permitted. Agricultural tools also became more elaborate, and horses displaced plodding oxen from European plow teams because they walked faster. Alfalfa, turnips, potatoes, and other more specialized crops allowed European farmers to abandon the older practices of leaving grain fields fallow every third year and eliminating weeds by plowing them under in summer before they formed seeds. Other parts of the Earth also benefi ted from new crops and improved methods of cultivation, but we know less detail about these areas, although major advances were fewer than in Europe, even among the ingenious and hardworking Chinese.
Greater participation in urban-based markets, however, had its drawbacks. Wealth increased but so did inequality within the villages as some families prospered and others lost their land. Soon after 1200, in parts of Europe and especially in England and Flanders, cottars who possessed only gardens began to eke out a living by spending most of their time spinning and weaving wool supplied to them by a town merchant and selling what they had made back to him. They were more like town artisans than farmers, but by growing part of the food they needed in their gardens, they could work for less than town dwellers. Similar arrangements became very widespread in India where millions of rural spinners and weavers made cotton cloth on a vast scale. They clothed India’s population, and merchants exported their cloth far and wide since it was the best and cheapest in the world.
Changes to Village Life
Across the Atlantic, Amerindian villages suffered widespread disaster after 1500 CE, when lethal disease brought by Europeans provoked two hundred years of crippling epidemics until survivors acquired a level of resistance to infections comparable to what Old World populations had acquired in earlier times. Millions died before that disaster worked itself out, many village fields became vacant, and Europeans brought millions of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic to work on sugar plantations. Those plantations were more like outdoor factories than traditional villages. Other previously isolated peoples suffered similar disease disasters as ships started to sail across the oceans of the Earth, but nowhere on the scale or with such drastic consequences as affl icted tropical America and southeastern North America.
In general, intensified connections with the wider world tended to undermine the cohesion of villages. Sometimes new property rights allowed landowners to dispossess peasants and uproot whole communities. This happened in parts of England when raising sheep became more profitable than raising grain. Sometimes, however, new crops opened new possibilities for hard-pressed peasants. For example, in the seventeenth century, American corn reached the Balkans, allowing Serbian, Albanian, and Greek peasants to escape from Ottoman Empire tax collectors by moving to mountain valleys and planting corn on scraps of fertile soil there. But cultivable land was scant in the mountains, and population increase soon made these villages unable to feed themselves yearround. Descending to the plains to work as masons or harvesters was one alternative; using guns to seize the grain they needed was another. The resulting violence became endemic in the western Balkans in the eighteenth century. It recurred as recently as World War II when guerrilla bands in the mountains defi ed occupying German forces and lived by collecting extra food from farmers in the plains that fed local towns and cities in peacetime.
To be sure, in some parts of the world, there were villages where subsistence farming continued to be little affected by city influences until the late twentieth century. A few villages in remote regions also relied largely on buying and selling to feed themselves. In Russia, for example, Old Believers who refused to accept official changes in Orthodox worship in the seventeenth century fl ed to remote northern forests where farming was precarious. There they began to make wooden utensils and toys, sending out peddlers to sell them throughout Russia and return with sacks of grain on their backs to keep those villages alive.
In the world as a whole, a new era began after 1750 when cities started to invade villages with cheap machine-made goods. Flowing water and then steam engines powered new machines for spinning and weaving wool and cotton. This began in England and is often called the Industrial Revolution. Subsequently, steam power was applied to other kinds of manufacture, and steamships and railroads accelerated transport capacity enormously. Cheaper, far more abundant and often better cloth and other goods benefi ted everyone in the long run but brought disaster to innumerable artisans, mainly in cities but also in many villages, especially in India and England. After about 1850, other kinds of new machines for sowing, reaping, and plowing put still further strain on the world’s villages, where smallish fields could not accommodate them.
North America, Australia, Argentina, and Russia were where mechanized farming overturned older life patterns most drastically. Nucleated, or clustered, villages had never established themselves among the European settlers in the Americas and Australia, and family farms were already larger than in the longsettled regions of the Earth. When tractors displaced horses in the fields (about 1920), bigger machines moved faster and allowed a single man to cultivate more acres than ever before. As a result, family farms merged to form larger and larger operating units, sometimes still owned by a single family but often by a corporation. The countryside also emptied out, and in twenty-first-century United States less than 5 percent of the population feeds everyone else, with a lot left over for export.
The former Soviet Union (1922–1991) followed a different path. There Joseph Stalin decreed in 1928 that peasant fields must be consolidated into collective farms and promised tractors and machinery to ease old-fashioned hand labor. Resistance was fierce at first. Many peasants slaughtered their livestock rather than hand cows and horses over to managers of the new collective farms. Serious famine followed since tractors did not arrive fast enough to replace horses, and Communist agents seized stocks of grain to feed the cities while leaving too little behind to feed the angry peasants. Nonetheless, after the first two or three years, tractors did arrive; far fewer workers were needed to cultivate collective farmland, yet harvests stabilized and millions of ex-peasants left the countryside to construct new dams and factories and perform all the other tasks the government assigned them to do.
Official plans and actual performance never coincided exactly, and labor was often ineffi ciently employed. But at a time when the rest of the world was suffering deep economic depression, Communist accomplishments were impressive. Innumerable individual Russians also undoubtedly found life in cities and at construction sites easier than what they remembered from the village huts of their youth.
The increase in these civilians’ consumption slowed after 1936 when arms manufacturing took precedence over all else. That, too, proved its value when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1939, for the Soviet’s expanded industrial capabilities allowed the Red Army to survive and eventually to defeat the invading Germans. But collective farms never nurtured many children, nor did Soviet cities. So the forcible disruption of village life in the 1930s had an unsuspected cost, as birthrates fell well below replacement levels. The consequences for the country’s society have yet to be resolved.
Where villages were thickest, small fields and village custom inhibited large-scale mechanized farming and allowed most old ways to persist until about 1950. Population growth among villagers in China, India, the Muslim lands, and Eastern Europe strained the existing order; warfare, climaxing in two world wars (1914–1918 and 1939–1945), for all the slaughter it entailed, did not do much to relieve rural population pressures.
Consequently, most of the world’s remaining peasants were poverty stricken and already demoralized when first radio and then television began to penetrate their consciousness, often through governmental efforts to make them patriotic citizens and reject Communist or other foreign ideas. Where Communists came to power, as they did in China, Southeast Asia, and more briefl y in Indonesia, revolutionary governments were no less eager to exploit the new means of communication to win peasant support. Moreover, after the establishment of Israel in 1947, radically reactionary Muslim groups sought to propagate yet another revolutionary ideology. One such movement came to power in Iran, another briefl y did so in Afghanistan, and similar groups continue to threaten Muslim rulers and their American backers everywhere.
Outlook in the Twenty-First Century
The upheavals and ideological storms of the twentieth century showed no sign of abating and insofar as they affected the consciousness of ordinary peasants, older customary ways crumpled. Even more subversive was the effect of “mere entertainment” broadcasts on television in the form of fi lms from Hollywood and India. They fl aunted the wealth and glamour of modern cities, and young peasants, especially those who knew they could not inherit enough land to live even as poorly as their parents did, nearly all concluded that old ways were wrong ways. Yet when they left home to live in city slums, they usually found their lives no better. Radical discontent and the espousal of revolutionary ideas are natural under such circumstances. Millions are caught in this trap and their distress will remain a critical feature of world affairs for the foreseeable future.
Demographers believe that more than half the 6.8 billion people alive in 2009 live in cities. It follows that the safety net villages once provided against urban collapse is much weakened. Contemporary economic strategies that support city life, such as fl ow-through economies (which move goods through the economy in a linear, single-use fashion) and justin- time delivery (which supplies goods to a manufacturer as needed), are amazingly productive when they work. But such strategies are increasingly precarious; for example, while oil reserves diminish, tractors still require gasoline to assure the harvest on our mechanized farms that feed city populations.
Long-term human survival probably also requires stronger and more peaceable primary communities to take root in our cities as a substitute for the villages where most of our predecessors lived generation after generation. In times past, professional soldiers bound together by drill, poor urban neighborhoods, and religious congregations were the principal primary communities that took shape in towns and cities. None raised children as successfully as villagers did; all three functioned only part-time, and they sometimes intensifi ed frictions by including only a segment of the urban population.
Cities are still not reproducing themselves, and villagers may follow suit, attracted and distracted as they are by city ways. Time will tell; but as long as we remain social creatures, we will continue to yearn for full-time membership in a primary community, despite the risk of violence when such communities collide.
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