I would like to know if historians/economists/sociologists agree on the preconditions required for division of labour in ancient and/or earlier societies. Are there any common preconditions and historical developments concerning the process of an emerging civilized society with differentiated division of labour? Are there any examples of different ancient and earlier societies/tribes with strongly different developments leading toward division of labour, or highly different systems of it?

One may assume different factors and necessary conditions determining and furthering this process, my speculative reasoning would include factors and conditions like:

  • social classes (as in Maya Civilization), you need someone to do tasks that no one wants to do (e.g. harvesting, building infrastructure, streets), a kind of social hierarchy, established by culture, laws (roman society), religion...or very cheap workers (slavery)
  • settledness, marriage between different families to further interdependencies and trust between small groups, building a societal network and relatedness.
  • social order of values, jurisdiction or at least commonly accepted authority like a priest or kind of police, or no one will do investments and specialize in his craft (worst case for example "peasant wars", which I would judge as an imbalance of division of labour)
  • minimum level of craft, so you can make a living of it, your knowledge and craft cannot be easily substituted
  • minimum population size (modern geography scientists mention minimum of 500-1000 habitants for a modern village, otherwise it's not economically sustainable, no shops, no physicians will settle down, not enough volunteers for fire brigade, of course this will be smaller for different ancient and earlier villages with less complex daily needs and economic output)
  • redundancy, having only few weaver, alchemists, tinsmiths might be too risky to concentrate purely on your craft in smaller tribes
  • (money or another "currency", probably a furthering, but not necessary factor)

Therefore I would assume that nomadic tribes cannot show very differentiated division of labour or huge potential for a differentiated social organization (this might be one place to start search).

You may say that animals show division of labour also, but I mean really a degree of division of labour where somebody has to rely on somebody else (e.g. producing enough food for the winter so he can concentrate on and specialize in his, e.g., carpenter/weaver work).

Which of these items (I probably missed some) are necessary to establish a lasting and growing in differentiation division of labour? I demand more than personal reasoning for an accepted answer, at least quotes of a historian, who compared several civilizations (Norbert Elias might be a hint, but I don't know his complete work), like, e.g., Maya, Egyptian and Roman Civilization (there might be better examples with more data).

Do historians agree on common preconditions for development of division of labour or are there different ways leading to such a state of society? Do we have an accurate picture of how differentiated ancient economies must have been or can we deduce from today's knowledge about division of labour how social and economical life in ancient economies must have been and was organized? I'm more interested to understand how a differentiated system of division of labour originates and evolves in smaller tribes. I assume it's a pretty continuous and self-organizing process, especially in pre-ancient societies, more driven by needs and chance than economical and political managment. Division of labour is (iin my opinion) the difference defining a un-/civilized society, and a im-/balance will often trigger societal/economical regress/progress and therefore social freedom and stability. Of course, an answer falsifying my speculative reasoning or playing the role of this economic view of societies down would also be acceptable by quoting some historians/sociologists. Surprise me ;) .

1 Answer 1


I believe division of labor is almost as old as humanity itself. Consider the following:

  1. Almost immediately we have division of labor between men and women, since only women can give birth and only women can breast feed.
  2. There would be a division of labor between the young and old, with the younger people going out hunting and the older people becoming village elders
  3. Shamans and priests are almost as old as human civilization itself as attested by cave paintings which definitely show a religious character
  4. Tool making is almost as old as humanity itself and it would stand to reason that some would be better than others at making tools (manual dexterity, intelligence etc.) and so would be the chief tool makers
  5. Pottery also seems to be a very old art, with fragments found in many old archeological sites, and again it would stand to reason that some would be better than others.

So my argument here is that division of labor must have started very early at the clan or small village level, tens of thousands of years ago, and that with time only its complexity grew.

So moving on from these basic division we come to trade. Consider that in the age of agriculture two kinds of commodities would be in demand: 1. Food 2. Materials

These two things would then depend on geography. One place would have copper, another iron, another good clay for pottery, another would be good for wheat, and yet another would have fruits. So at this point trade had started. It has been shown that trade in fact is very old and that often items from one culture have been dug out in archeological sites thousands of miles away. So trade would then lead to the next level of specialization, that of whole town, cities or regions in specific items. So trade would be the next prerequisite. A small point here: trade does not necessarily imply that one person would travel thousands of miles; it could instead consist of dozens of smaller journeys from one merchant to another, with goods taking many years to get from one place to another.

Yet trade would then impose another requirement, that of security, as in the ability to actually make it from one place to another profitably, and this would then explain one of the motivations for empire building: namely the pursuit of wealth.

  • 1
    Well, you are right about point 1, and wrong about points 2,3,4,5. But, most importantly, you provide to the OP exactly what he don't wish to see, your personal opinion, and not an opinion of a published scientist: "I demand more than personal reasoning for an accepted answer, at least quotes of a historian [...]"
    – kubanczyk
    Jan 8, 2013 at 11:49
  • @kubanczyk While I accept that I can and should give references for the evidence I provide, I don't accept that my reasoning and arguments must be sanctioned by another person ... theoretically we should all be able to start from same sets of data and draw our own conclusions without having 'clerical' oversight. That does not mean that we should not have healthy debate, but certainly, I do not agree with an 'accepted answer' since that is anethema to intellectual investigation, and smacks of the ecclesiastical thinking that stifles clear thinking and investigation
    – Safa Alai
    Jan 8, 2013 at 19:36
  • 1
    I can only agree with the comment. But neither OP or me tried to strip you of your rights or your freedom. Both OP and me tried to discourage a certain behavior.
    – kubanczyk
    Jan 8, 2013 at 21:38
  • I think that the first lines of this answer are correct answering the basic question of the OP. But the OP question was probably aiming to a second stage of labour division, an stage when you have permanent settlements and an advanced society, because the OP explicitly discard nomadic tribes from analysis, while this answer points to more primitive societies.
    – Santiago
    Dec 2, 2016 at 19:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.