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The Olmec and the Inca Civilizations Agriculture Practices Essay (Critical Writing)

The aim of this paper is to compare the lifestyles and achievements of the Olmec and the Inca civilizations. It will also explore the transition of the Sumerians and the Chinese societies from a hunter/gatherer to an agricultural mode of existence.

Olmec vs. Inca

Civilizations or state-level societies are large political systems that emerged quite recently—only 5, 000-6, 000 years ago (Dettwyler 208). States are characterized by a high level of cultural complexity and population density, composite architectural structures, monuments, criminal justice system, mathematics, writing, large settlements, ceremonial grounds, and social inequality that can be evidenced by differences in nutritional patterns and burial practices (Dettwyler 208). Early civilized societies typically relied on agriculture as subsistence and economical mode (Dettwyler 208). As state-level societies grew and developed they engaged in agricultural trade, manufacturing, and industry. There is the belief among anthropologists studying the issue that the emergence of civilizations can be explained by the need to “control and manage water for irrigated, intensive agriculture” (Dettwyler 208). Therefore, the states have developed as a result of the necessity to create complex irrigation systems and other agricultural structures.

State-level societies are ruled by a small fraction of people at the top of a social hierarchy consisting of rulers, religious leaders, chiefs, commoners, tradespeople, artisans, slaves, and indentured servants among others. Rulers and other people in the higher tiers of the social ladder of a state have special privileges. Their power is legitimized by religious leaders and supported by permanent armies or other military structures.

This section of the paper will compare the lifestyles of two ancient state-level societies—Olmec and Inca.

Olmec Civilization

Olmec civilization is the most ancient and complex societal structure that existed “in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in what roughly the modern-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco” (“Olmec Civilization”). One of the most famous Olmec sites La Venta is located near the Rio Palma river, and it dates back as far as between 1200 BCE to 400 BCE (“Olmec Civilization”). The modern historians believe that the area 125 miles by 50 miles between the river system of Mezcalapa and Coatzacoalcos rivers was ruled by political leaders located in La Venta (Rust and Sharer 102). San Lorenzo and Laguna de los Cerros are the other two centers of political control of Olmec civilization that with the help of entangling marriage alliances helped to exploit natural resources of the region such as cacao, rubber, salt, stone as well as trade routes (“Olmec Civilization”).

The distinctive societal features of Olmec culture appeared about 1400 BCE (“Olmec Civilization”). The creation of the civilization was instigated by the fact that local alluvial soil was well irrigated and allowed the development of the agriculture. Moreover, the existence of the transportation routes provided by Coatzacoalcos river assisted trade and agribusiness (“Olmec Civilization”). Distinctive features of the environment promoted a high density of population and were similar to those enjoyed by other civilizations that emerged in the vicinities of the Nile, Indus, Yellow River valleys, and Mesopotamia (“Olmec Civilization”).

Olmec civilization is characterized by the creation of both “monumental statuary and small jade carvings and jewelry” (“Olmec Civilization”). Their pantheon was diverse and featured creatures such as sea deities, caiman, jaguar, and eagle among others. The most recognized art objects of Olmec civilization are colossal heads that portray their leaders dressed as ballplayers. Giant monuments were inherent features of Olmec centers and altars (Coe and Koontz 112).

It is generally believed that Olmecs influenced other Mesoamerican cultures to a great degree. The most notable hallmarks of their civilization are the invention of the bloodletting for therapeutic reasons, zero, the Mesoamerican calendar, writing and epigraphy (“Olmec Civilization”). Moreover, scholars believe that the Olmecs were first to develop a comprehensive writing system in the Western Hemisphere (“Olmec Civilization”). The artifact that has been found at San Lorenzo “shows a set of 62 symbols, 28 of which are unique, carved on a serpentine block” (“Olmec Civilization”). The invention of Long Count is ascribed to Olmecs because the earliest calendar featuring Epi-Olmec script has been found outside the land inhabited by Maya.

There is little information about the social and political organization of Olmec civilization. The evidence gained from site surveys provides archaeologists with a basis for believing that the structure of Olmec society was hierarchical and was ruled by “an elite that was able to use their control over materials such as water and monumental stone to exert command and legitimize their regime” (“Olmec Civilization”). It should be mentioned that there is very little evidence supporting the argument that Olmecs had a regular army. The villages surrounding La Venta and San Lorenzo were located at higher altitudes than ceremonial centers. Individual housing units consisted of a wooden house, storage pits and a nearby garden that was used for “medicinal and cooking herbs and for smaller crops such as the domesticated sunflower” (“Olmec Civilization”), avocado and cacao among others. Villagers cultivated maize, beans, squash, manioc, sweet potato, and cotton (“Olmec Civilization”). Other elements of Olmec diet included fish, mollusks, crabs, birds, deer, peccary, raccoon, and even domesticated dog (“Olmec Civilization”).

Inca Civilization

The Inca Empire was the most significant social structure of pre-Columbian America (“Inca Civilization”). Unlike the Olmecs that occupied territory 125 miles by 50 miles, the Inca Empire at the peak of its development “extended from near the modern Colombia-Ecuador border south through highland and coastal Peru, most of modern Bolivia, to the extreme northwest of Argentina and to the Maule River in northern Chile” (McEwan 19; “Olmec Civilization”). It is believed that after its rise at the beginning of the 13th century, the Incas employed both military and diplomatic means in order to penetrate in those areas and make them a part of their social structure (“Inca Civilization”; McEwan 130). Even though the Inca Empire or Tawantinsuyu (The Four United Provinces) had an official language called Quechua, the incorporated territories were allowed to spoke hundreds of their local languages. The same can be said about religion: local tribes were not banned from worshiping their ‘Huacas’ but instead were encouraged to pray to the sun god Inti and follow the laws and traditions instituted by the empire (McEwan 130).

The Inca society was composed of small social entities called ayllus. They were kin-selected groups that practiced intergroup marriage and engaged in a collective ownership of land. Social cohesion between those groups allowed them to exert collective efforts needed for complex tasks like plowing and building among others (McEwan 97). A supreme leader, Sapa Inca, along with his wives, the Coyas, was at the top of the social hierarchy of Inca society (McEwan 97). While there is no undeniable evidence that Olmec had a standing army, it is clear that the Army Commander in Chief and the Four Apus or district commanders ranked high in Inca society. The lower tiers of social ladder were occupied by artisans, music performers, accountants, sorcerers, farmers, and soldiers (“Inca Civilization”). The majority of Incas populated small villages and only gathered in town for festivals. Inca cities were mainly used as government quarters. Cities and villages were connected by more than 14, 000 roads which were paved with flat stones and, therefore, were accessible even in rainy seasons (“Inca Civilization”).

Even though the Inca civilization did not have a system of writing like the Olmecs did, they developed a comprehensive system of education for both nobility and commoners. Individuals from royal families had the opportunity to study in classes taught by a special cohort of wise men called the Amawtakuna who specialized in culture, oral history, philosophy, religion, and poetry. In addition, the attendees of classes for nobility were provided training in “logical-numerical system which used knotted strings to keep accurate records of troops, supplies, population data, and agricultural inventories” (“Inca Civilization”). Commoners of the Inca empire did not have access to classes taught by wise men; therefore, they had to rely on the wisdom imparted by their elders. They were taught basics of agriculture, hunting, fishing, and stonework among other trades essential for general population (“Inca Civilization”).

Unlike the Olmec civilization that lasted around 1, 000 years, the Inca Empire existed for less than hundred years, “from ca. 1438 AD, when the Inca ruler Pachacuti and his army began conquering lands surrounding the Inca heartland of Cuzo, until the coming of the Spaniards in 1532” (“Inca Civilization”).


For the most of human history, our ancestors fed themselves via the means of hunting and gathering. However, around 12, 000 years ago, some societies started to practice what we today call food production or agriculture (“The Development of Agriculture”). It was such a significant turn in the development of mankind that anthropologists dubbed it the “Neolithic Revolution” (“The Development of Agriculture”). Lifestyles of hunters and gatherers were permanently changed by the creation of a reliable food supply that resulted from plant and animal domestication. Agriculture allowed the development of structures of ever-increasing social complexity: tribes gave way to cities and civilizations. Different societies abandoned their hunter-gatherer lifestyle at different times in history (Diamnod 86). It is not known what exactly forced them to start farming; however, whether because of climatic changes like in the Near East or because of the diminishing supply of natural resources like in East Asia people gradually engage in food production (“The Development of Agriculture”). Ancient Chinese and other similar societies developed agriculture by themselves, while others like Egyptians borrowed the technology from their neighbors. Interestingly enough, Aboriginal Australians neither cultivated crops nor domesticated animals (Diamnod 86).

By selecting those wild plants that were edible and had the highest nutritional value and farming them, people were able to get the most out of an acre of land, thereby multiplying the productive value of territories they inhabited by tens and hundreds of times (Diamnod 86). Moreover, the societies that domesticated animals capable of pulling a plow gained an advantage of producing crops in hard soils. Furthermore, domestic mammals such as the cow, sheep, and water buffalo among others provided people with the sources of meat, milk, power, and fertilizer. This section of the paper will examine how agriculture changed Sumerians and Chinese societies.


The area of the Fertile Crescent was one of the first regions where domesticates (plant and animals) were used. This was an extremely important step in the development of the Sumerian society which used “flat flood plain of the Mesopotamia Valley” (Sinclair and Sinclair 55) for sowing emmer wheat and barley that were endemic to the region. The first agriculturalists quickly devised new techniques for cultivating crops sufficient for the sustenance of ever-growing society populating several cities by 3500 BCE (Sinclair and Sinclair 56). Agriculture was an important step in human development that precipitated the emergence of a full-scale civilization. Small city-states located along the Euphrates River were capable of intensive agriculture and, therefore, required organized government structure necessary for “administrative control in crop production” (Sinclair and Sinclair 56).

Moreover, taking into consideration hot and arid summer conditions of the region, agriculture was highly dependent on an irrigation system that required a significant amount of manpower for building and maintenance. The necessity to tackle tasks of such complexity as the construction of irrigation grids with numerous canals created a major impetus to build city-states, thus increasing a level of Sumerian social complexity. Scholars studying the issue believe that the invention of writing was the result of the need to organize and manage the collective effort of large numbers of people working together. In order to improve their crop production, the Sumerians invented wooden implements necessary for the removal of weeds from the fields. The necessity to till their fields forced the society to domesticate large animals that were capable of performing the physically demanding task of pulling a plow. There is ample evidence suggesting that “the sheep, goat, ox, and probably ass had been domesticated, the ox being used for draught, and woolen clothing, as well as rugs, were made from the wool or hair of the two first” (“Sumerian Agriculture and Hunting”).

The adoption of an agricultural mode of life was the correct course of action for the society. It allowed them to achieve food surplus that led to the creation of agricultural economy and urbanization. Commercialization of the Sumerian society was facilitated by the invention of money which allowed the most productive Sumerians to trade the surplus of their barley, chickpeas, wheat, turnips, dates, and lettuce among others. It should be mentioned that the “eighty to ninety percent of those who farmed did so on land they considered theirs rather than communal property” (“Sumerian Agriculture and Hunting”). It means that farmers who were not capable of harvesting enough food to sustain themselves and their families could have simply borrowed someone’s surplus. However, if they were not able to return the debt, they were forced to pay it off in their lands or labor. Such a system created a division in wealth which resulted in the separation of the Sumerian society on different classes (“Sumerian Agriculture and Hunting”). The class of religious rulers owning vast territories of the land emerged. The priests were not working alongside other farmers; instead, they were claiming that they share their lands with the gods and, therefore, they have to be tilled by the poor members of the Sumerian society (“Sumerian Agriculture and Hunting”). Freed from manual labor, religious leaders were able to develop the system of writing which allowed them to wield great influence comparable to that of kings and elders (“Sumerian Agriculture and Hunting”).


Just like the Sumerians, the Chinese were able to initiate crop production because they settled on a flat plain near a major river body. However, the Yellow River that allowed plant domestication was not as calm as rivers of Mesopotamia: it was associated with devastating floods. Therefore, after the region had societies capable of tackling an extremely complex task requiring the simultaneous effort of numerous people, “engineer Li Bing began construction of channels and banks that harnessed the Min River” (Sinclair and Sinclair 83). Similar projects allowed using the power of the Luo River and the Jing River for the irrigation of crops. As a result of the increased agricultural productivity, the necessity of a centralized government emerged.

Qin Shi Huangdi was a leader that explored the food surplus in order to create a standing army. By 221 BCE, he significantly extended the territory of his rule by concurring nearby settlements headed by local warlords, thus consolidating “nearly all of the northern regions of modern China into a single very large realm” (Sinclair and Sinclair 83). Even though Qin Shi Huangdi was a despotic ruler, the change to agriculture was the correct course of action for the Chinese. Not only the domestication of plants and animals of burden helped to create a complex society, but it also was necessary to protect the country from the Northern invaders. Qin Shi Huangdi initiated the project of building the Great Wall that required the conscription of countless farmers (Sinclair and Sinclair 83).

The establishment of the Han Dynasty after the death of Qin Shi Huangdi was associated with the period of extremely high agricultural productivity. It was achieved because of the minimal taxation allowing farmers to produce as much food and as possible. The moderate climate of the region allowed the Chinese not to bother about irrigation and instead concentrate on “controlling floods, or facilitating transportation, and allowing drainage of swampy lands” (Sinclair and Sinclair 84). It should be mentioned that during the period of the rule of the Han Dynasty, small patches of land were owned by family units. However, the production of food required the significant exertion of power for tasks like tilling the land, sowing, weeding, and distributing natural fertilizer necessary for enriching the soil with nitrogen. Therefore, the families working on small farms were forced to have many children helping them to harvest crops and store surplus of food. The agricultural success was the reason the period of the Han Dynasty was called the Golden Age (Sinclair and Sinclair 92).

The early farmers used poultry and swine for the production of manor because of their digestive system “that results in more excretion of nitrogen than do animals with ruminant digestion, such as cattle” (Sinclair and Sinclair 85). Moreover, low fertility conditions of Chinese soils led first farmers to domesticates plants that were less dependable on nitrogen. Therefore, instead of harvesting wheat and barley which were sensitive to nitrogen and water deficiency, the Chinese made millets their staple grain. It was used for brewing a fermented drink akin to the beer which was consumed in significant quantities. The Chinese also cooked millets and served them with meat or used it for making the noodles, steamed buns, and baked cakes.


The development of complex social structures that give rise to civilization is not possible without practicing agriculture. Food surplus resulting from collective agrarian efforts leads to the creation of agricultural economy and urbanization which in turn provide impetus for further development of states.

Works Cited

Coe, Michael, and Rex Koontz. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. Thames & Hudson, 2008.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.

Crystalinks. 2017, Web.

McEwan, Gordon. The Incas: New Perspectives. W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.

Crystalinks, 2017, Web.

Rust, William, and Robert Sharer. “Olmec Settlement Data from La Venta, Tabasco, Mexico.” Science, vol. 242, no. 4875, 1988, pp. 102-104.

Sinclair, Thomas, and Carol Sinclair. Bread, Beer and the Seeds of Change: Agriculture’s Imprint on World History. Cabi, 2010.

Crystalinks, 2017, Web.

“The Development of Agriculture.” The National Geographic, 2017, Web.

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1. IvyPanda. "The Olmec and the Inca Civilizations Agriculture Practices." September 11, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-olmec-and-the-inca-civilizations-agriculture-practices/.


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IvyPanda. 2020. "The Olmec and the Inca Civilizations Agriculture Practices." September 11, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-olmec-and-the-inca-civilizations-agriculture-practices/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'The Olmec and the Inca Civilizations Agriculture Practices'. 11 September.

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