Settled cultivation has depended on human muscle power, supplemented by animal muscle power. In the industrialized world, it has come to depend increasingly on fossil-fuel energy. However, pre-industrial agriculture depended primarily on plant and animal-based materials, along with some control over water for irrigation. Consequently, pre-industrial agricultural societies had fairly substantial knowledge base in relation to husbanded plants and animals. They also viewed nature as being subject to human control to a very significant extent.
In contrast to hunter-gatherer societies, agricultural societies have established substantial control over natural processes. However, they are still very much subject to nature’s whims in the form of droughts, floods, frost and plagues of locusts. Hence, agricultural societies tend to perceive man as one among a community of beings. At the same time the image of man as a steward of natural resources acquired significance. The restrained use of natural resources could thereby be expected to form one part of the ideology of agricultural societies.
Humans learnt to cultivate plants and domesticate animals some 10,000 years ago. In some regions the two developed together with the traction power of animals and the manorial value of the dung being vital to agricultural operations. This, for instance, was the case in the Middle East, from where the use of cattle and the plough, and the cultivation of wheat and barley gradually spread over parts of Asia, Europe and Africa. In other areas, domesticated animals played a much less significant part in cultivation, as in the paddy-growing tracts of Asia. In fact, domesticated animals played no role at all in the case of maize cultivation in pre-Columbian America.
Cultivation involves an intensified production of certain species of plants, and the removal of plant material from a relatively restricted area of land. The plant materials is removed, for instance cereal grains, are particularly rich in elements like nitrogen and phosphorus, and contains a number of micro-nutrients, like boron and molybdenum, in smaller quantities. The continuation of cultivation on a piece of land, therefore, depends on returning to the earth what is taken away from it. In shifting cultivation this happens through long period of fallow. If the same piece of land is cultivated year after year, application of river silt, organic manure, or mineral fertilizers is required. Shifting cultivation is, of course, the option followed so long as the amount of land available is large relative to the population. As the ratio declines, the same piece of land has to be used more and more intensively. This calls for extensive use of organic manure derived from natural vegetation. The procurement of such manure occurred either through grazing domestic animals or directly by human efforts. This has changed radically only in recent times, when fossil fuel energy began to be used to efficiently mine, transport and synthesize mineral fertilizers to increase agricultural production.