How Agriculture built the Pyramids: the success of the Ancient Egyptian state

There are some papers that you read that have a big impact on you for whatever reason. A paper I read a few years ago when I was an undergraduate still sits in the back of my mind today. I think because it’s clever. To me, it shows this kind of programming behind human action. We all seem chaotic, and we all have our own mind, but behind it all, from to small to large, we are almost like written code, a playstation game with an open world but underlying, unseen rules.

Today’s paper by Robert C. Allen discusses his analysis of Ancient Egypt’s process to form a centralised government, known as state formation, and the success Ancient Egypt had by lasting longer and being more stable than most other established Empires at the time. The success the state has over the people, then allows for conscription into the building of the pyramids.


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So the Egyptian state established itself around 3000 BC, “…when Menes, King of Upper Egypt, conquered the Delta, unified the country, and created a regime that lasted, with only two brief interruptions, for almost 3000 years” (Allen 1997: 135). Before this could occur however, agriculture had to be invented.

The Invention of Agriculture

The word ‘Neolithic’ is used to describe the age of agriculture, when peoples begin to stop moving from place to place and keep to one area. The advent of pottery was around this time too. In parts of western Asia, that of the Fertile Crescent, which includes countries such as Iraq and Syria, farming (but not pottery) began as early as 10,000 years ago (Jones et al. 1992). The Fertile Crescent is thought of as the birthplace of agriculture and has the nickname, the ‘Cradle of Civilisation’ (Mark 2009). Several thousand years later, agriculture would reach northern Europe (Jones et al. 1992).

However, you can’t think of it as there being a single inventor who sat down to think of a solution, but rather multiple areas arriving upon this process in a cultural evolutionary manner (Universitaet Tübingen 2013). For instance, when looking at modern hunter-gatherers, there appears to be a correlation between population density and the specialised use of particular foods, so for example, hunter-gatherers may start to replant wild yams to make sure they continue to get a food supply (Jones et al. 1992).

Many…methods of resource manipulation by hunter-gatherers approximate closely to domestication and agriculture, and they diminish the contrast between ‘hunter-gatherers’ and ‘agriculturalists’. The transition to agriculture can be seen as a threshold on a gradient of increasing interaction of humans with plants and animals that may have been scarcely perceptible at the time, yet which involved a gradual increase in input of human energy into food production.
Cultivation was an important energy threshold because of the effort required for clearance of vegetation and tillage before sowing or planting domesticated crops (those in which the reproductive system of the plant has been so altered by human intervention that it can no longer survive in the wild). Crop cultivation marked the beginning of agriculture, and, because it involves year-round effort in a more restricted area than hunting and gathering, it is probable that the threshold into agriculture was crossed only by populations that were already sedentary.” (Jones et al. 1992: 73). 

Pre-agriculture would have meant Egyptians foraged foods along the Nile, and only around 6000 BC do domesticated crops and animals begin to be used in Egypt, but only as an aside to foraging. It isn’t until 1000 years later that agricultural villages appear in the Delta, and then 1000 years after that that they reach Upper Egypt (Allen 1997). This delay in uptake may have been because at first there may have been no reason for Upper Egypt to take it up, but then between 4750-3500 BC Nile flooding becomes exceptionally high. Storing grain then becomes the less risky option. Allen (1997: 140) argues that it was agriculture that “…made it possible for the state to exploit Egyptians.”


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How Agriculture built the Pyramids

Agriculture changed Egypt’s food production in crucial ways, as well as introducing a division of labour. Food produced from farming is more preservable, because it is foods such as grain, which can be stored for some time, or animals that are alive. The storability of food meant that individuals are not as affected by the output of the Nile (e.g. if there is too much or too little water that effects the food that grows in the area) as people can take from the store when times are tough. It also means that a surplus of food can be exploited for the powerful – “When Egyptian foragers became farmers, they also became prime targets for tax and rent collectors” (Allen 1997: 142). Agriculture also would have increased how much food was produced on the land, as well as when the farmers worked. The forager has a lot of free time in the day, but they are also tied to wherever the food is. For the farmer, they will work intensively on the farm, but from July to Autumn, the farm floods and the farmer has nought to do (Allen 1997).

In 18th century England, the population was dense and the land is scarce. Farmers must bid against one another to get land, and this allows for private property and competitive markets, which can then generate money for non-working landlords. In Egypt, the opposite is at play, there is lots of land, but not many people. The powerful therefore have to own the people, not the land to make money. This is harder for the powerful to maintain as, if a farmer doesn’t like what is happening (maybe rent is too high), they simply move house as there’s lots of land, which is what happened during the frontier period in America. So how do you limit labour mobility? In central Europe it was serfdom, in America it was slavery (Allen 1997).

So Egypt has workers that have free-time from July to August, but there’s lots of land. What can the elite do? Well, the advantage the elite have is geography, since the desert that borders the farmland only permits grazing of animals and seasonal hunting, not farming. People can therefore not farm in the desert, however before a unified Egypt, in places such as Upper Egypt, if farmers didn’t like what was happening, they’d just sail downstream and start a life in Lower Egypt. Upper Egypt therefore conquered Lower Egypt, and then imposed the same land taxation throughout, meaning people could not move out of the area to farm and could not escape taxation by moving either(Allen 1997).

The state became highly organised with taxation, and would take over unsettled land with founding estates, so that independents outside of the state could not develop. As the state took over more land, and demanded grain and a work force, any remaining foragers would be forced into farming because of this. By immobilising the population, the state could then use the farmers’ free time when the Nile flooded as a labour force to build the pyramids (Allen 1997).

The powerful was therefore able to utilise a workforce to build the pyramids by unifying the land, turning foragers into farmers, and having the advantage of geography to do so.


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Myth: “Those who built the pyramids were slaves”. Click here for one of the articles that debunks this.


Allen, R. C. 1997. Agriculture and the Origins of the State in Ancient Egypt. Explorations in Economic History, 34, pp. 135-154

Jones, S., Martin, R. & Pilbeam, D. 1992. The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Human Evolution. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Mark, J. J. 2009. Fertile Crescent. Ancient History Encyclopaedia [online]. Available at: [Accessed 4 May 2017]

Universitaet Tübingen. Farming started in several places at once: Origins of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent. ScienceDaily
[online]. Available at: [Accessed 4 May 2017]


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