Hydroagriculture, Water Works Created, and Origins of Complexity

hydroagriculture, economics, anthropology, farming, agriculture, hydraulics, civilization, complex society, society, culture, water systems, canals, geography, population, warfare, war, technology,

Hydroagriculture applies to farming communities which apply irrigation on the smaller scale, customarily because resources (moisture) are scarce and fragmented.

Water was diverted to agricultural fields via canals, dams, reservoirs, and drainage constructions. These waterworks were intensely maintained by enormous investments in labor. Wenke and Olszewski use the example and evidence left by the Hohokam of Arizona who built an extensive canal system to carry water to their agricultural fields. The ditches still remain today, albeit they are partially filled in by erosion.

According to WaterHistory.Org, Qanats were developed in ancient Persia which extracted groundwater in the dry mountain basins of present-day. Typically these are made using vertical wells and tunnels to tap into groundwater.

Comparison between Wittfogel's study with another explanation for the origins of complexity


What determines how a civilization is titled per se according to Wittfogel depends on the type of hydraulic system is in place. Hydraulic or non-hydraulic? The “hydraulic revolution” split agrarian civilizations into two parts, thus changing the dynamics of complexity. What does this mean?

Agricultural Intensification and Population Growth: Concept One

Primitive farmers, who started out using agrohydraulic systems as opposed to the less evolved agricultural man, changed the geographical landscape thus leading to a new origin for state systems. Authorities began to control and maintain water as well as personal and group relations. Controlling water means power, therefore life and death functions to facilitate state authorities.

However, we can’t ignore that Wittfogul is putting heavy emphasis on large hydraulic civilizations (complex societies do not share a basic set of characteristics) which, since a larger system was able to be implemented, and authority had the power to simply change the hierarchical form, does not mean it’s formed in an instant and without conflict. Furthermore, Wittfogul assumes that one type of hydraulic agriculture became centralized by one type of government without the aid of an increased population.

In an essence, the process of Wittfogul’s “Hydraulic Civilizations” paved the way for Carneiro’s warfare analysis, which was hardly a new concept. Max Weber has previously noted that the very definition of a complex state depends on warfare and the monopoly of force. As power grows in the hands of state authorities, so does the tensions put on the private land owners who are forced to succumb to the mass info-structural renovation of the geographical landscape. Simply put, if there is “environmental circumscription”, then losers in warfare are forced to submit to their conquerors, because migration is not an option and the population unites. Caneiro further postulates that in the case of no environmental circumscription, and then losers in a war can migrate out from the region and settle somewhere else.

The new state organization strives to alleviate the population pressure by increasing the productive capacity of agricultural land through, for instance, more intensive cultivation using irrigation. In many cases, however, one cannot exist without the other.

According to Wenke and Olszewski, many explanations of the evolution of these complex societies combine certain forms of agricultural intensification and population growth. This population growth may have sprouted because a food shortage had been anticipated. This new source of labor would aid in the intensification of agricultural production and other social and technological innovations.

Hydraulic Tribes: Concept Two

Wittfogul explains that governments of Hydraulic tribes, after evolving into state level societies, impact the environmental landscape by imposing and expanding the new hydraulic system to clearly benefit the officials. Thus, the people are inherently neglected in the process of this implementation, while the infrastructure put in place is done so to benefit the officials, leaders, and rulers. Consequently, tribal societies had structures that were usually personal in nature, exercised by a patriarch over a tribal group related by various degrees of kinship. With hydraulic hierarchies, an impersonal government as a permanent institution was established. People retained their autonomy, and individuals in a position of rank, descended directly from a particular affluent ancestor. However, once a person resumed a role in chiefly politics, some of their autonomy was lost. “In other words, local authority was at least slightly decreased in favor of greater authority for higher-ranked individuals within the chiefly kinship system.”

Hydraulic hierarchies clearly were substantially different from Wittfogul’s totalarianistic approach, as in they were not subject to a class having access to and regulating every aspect, public and private, of their lives. Resources concentrated within the society are redistributed or pooled throughout the population, which was an added benefit of living in a complex society.

Environments for Complex Societies: Concept Three

Julian Steward focused on the environment and believed social evolution was derived from the interplay of societies with their environments. He was strongly influenced by Karl Wittfogel, asserting that certain kinds of environments enabled or made infeasible the development of complex societies. Odd, however, are the more recognizable giants of history lacking in the area of extensive waterworks. Greece and Japan, with their unleveled terrains, had small irrigation works which were handled without government intervention. Japan was able to develop a slightly more complex feudal system and Greece developed a more democratic way of life. Even so, the workings of hydroagriculture were still implemented and even encouraged societies to be more multi-centered .

Wittfogul seems to believe the complex societies of Western Europe and Asia weren’t complex at all because of their sheer dimension. However, this is where Wittfogul’s hydraulic hypotheses have empirical problems. Since there’s a lack of archaeological records that date complex irrigation systems to the time of monumental architecture, hydroagriculture on the smaller scale are much representative of a growing and developing complex culture.

Consequently, Carneiro clarifies the primary and secondary state system. Primary state formation took place in geographically bounded or circumscribed areas. Additionally, they independently developed from competition between chiefdoms. A second key observation was the universally hierarchical social structure of primary states, where peasants labored while aristocrats ruled.

For example, Egypt arose in a reasonably abundant environment but was surrounded by deserts and seas that distinctly limited the opportunities for territorial expansion.

Secondary states would have been developed through contact with previous states like China, Mesoamerica, Peru, and Mesopotamia.


Wittfogul, Karl A

The Hydraulic Civilizations. University of Chicago Press.

Olszewski and  Wenke

2007 Patterson of Prehistory.Oxford University Press, New York.

 Also check out:

The Second Industrial Revolution During the 19th Century

Why Did the Industrial Revolution Begin in Great Britain

Did River Valleys Encourage Political Complexity?

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Ileen Zovluck
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Posted on Mar 13, 2011