The Step Out of Subsistence

Last week, we talked about what changes people make to their environment in order to survive. However, societies aren’t typically satisfied with subsistence. Once the community has established stable and dependable sources of food and water, built their shelters, and found ways to defend themselves against natural predators and hostile neighbors, they will turn their attention towards making their life easier. Often, this means finding ways to bring the things they need closer to home, or harnessing the forces they find in the natural world. It’s the sociological application of the old engineering mantra, “Work smarter, not harder.”

If you study history, you’ll find that almost every society that has advanced beyond a level of subsistence farming has also domesticated beasts of burden. Frankly, this makes sense as the human body quickly breaks down if repeatedly exposed to extreme physical stress. Physiological studies have shown that though a person can carry a several hundred pound load, doing so habitually will result in the deformation of bone and redistribution of muscle mass. However, several hundred pounds is nothing at all to animals like a horse or an elephant. Once animal power was harnessed, the society could support cities with distant, large scale agriculture.

Speaking of farming, have you ever tried to cultivate land by hand? Even just a backyard garden? The closest I’ve ever come was digging holes in my parent’s back yard to plant trees. That comparatively small effort was so difficult that I can’t imagine tilling, planting and harvesting enough acreage to feed myself, let alone a family or extended community. Allow me the use of tools and animal labor, and this prospect becomes more realistic.

However, not all problems a society faces can be solved by beasts of burden. For example, how do you provide water for a city of a hundred thousand people before plumbing was invented? Sure, most cities start on rivers or river deltas, but only so much riverfront property suitable for building is available. Eventually, people will still need to travel long distances to the nearest water source. Digging a number of wells could work, but that assumes a near surface aquifer to draw from. Another option that was used in several parts of the world was to build aqueducts or canal systems to redirect the river. In fact some Roman aqueduct systems spanning hundreds of miles still stand. Other societies constructed buildings designed to harvest and store rainwater for future use. In all these cases, our ancestors were ingenious in their methods of harnessing natural forces to move water to where it was convenient for them.

The use of beasts of burden and the redirection of rivers are just two historical examples of how humanity has shaped natural forces to their advantage. As writers, we need to be well versed enough in history and anthropology to work these details into our world building. After all, using the forces found in the world around us to add convenience to our lives is distinctly human.


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