Book review – Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

History books tend to portray the transition of humans as hunter-gatherers to farmers – and with it the rise of cities, states and what we think of as civilization at large – as one of progress and improvement. But with Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott challenges this narrative. That our switch to an existence as sedentary farmers impacted our health is something I was familiar with from palaeopathological findings, see for example Ungar’s Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins or Hassett’s Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death. But Scott tackles this subject from many angles, summarising accumulating archaeological and historical evidence to provide a fine counter-narrative.

Against the Grain

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States” written by James C. Scott, published by Yale University Press, in September 2017 (hardback, 312 pages)

The first prerequisite for agricultural existence is domesticates. Our use of fire was the first step in this as it allowed both easy clearing of agricultural land and enabled cooking, suddenly enlarging the range of foods we could digest (excellent books on this topic are Pyne’s World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth and Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human). But why start labour-intensive cultivation of plants? The standard explanation of having food stores for lean times doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, contends Scott. He puts forth the labour-light variant of flood-retreat agriculture on floodplains to explain how cultivation started. With agriculture came animal visitors, some of which were well-suited to domestication. Scott argues out that this domestication of plants and animals can be thought of as working two ways. As much as they came to depend on us, so we came to depend on them, pouring in large swathes of time and labour tending to them, ensuring their safety and their procreation.

The idea that domestication led to sedentism and agriculture is outdated. Sedentism preceded domestication, as foragers living in wetlands could live off foraging and hunting without the need for a nomadic existence. And it turns out there is a 4000-year gap between domestication and the rise of agrarian economies. Instead, some scholars contend that for the longest time agriculture was a small part of a larger portfolio of different strategies to make a living. And agriculture and animal husbandry came with a suite of costs, especially epidemiological. The crowding of species in a small space and poor hygiene was a haven for pathogens. It introduced mankind to a host of new diseases that jumped from our farm animals onto us, leading to epidemics and pandemics. Despite this, for reasons that are still not properly understood (maybe environmental) we nevertheless transitioned to agriculture. As mentioned above, agriculture did not automatically lead to the next step, state formation.

Scott highlights the striking observation that all early states revolve around grains (wheat, barley, rice and maize). Why? Why not legumes or tubers? Because grains grow above-ground (as opposed to tubers) and ripen around the same time (as opposed to legumes). This makes them very easily taxable. They are also easily measurable and divisible. But grains only grow well in certain ecological settings, and it is, therefore, no wonder that the first state-like entities arose in areas well-suited to grain production, i.e. wetlands. But states were fragile, and many states only lasted short periods of time before succumbing to disease, climate fluctuations, or ecological consequences of urbanism and agriculture (deforestation, siltation, and floods).

“[…] for the longest time agriculture was a small part of a larger portfolio of different strategies to make a living”

Maintaining states was hard work, usually involving coercion, slave labour, and retribution and punishment for defectors. Is that really progress? These ideas clash with the established narrative of states providing civic peace and social order. In that light, Scott spends the last two chapters dismantling the ideas of civilizational collapse and barbarians.

Since civilizations left tangible remains in the form of impressive ruins and written records, they fascinate us and colour our picture of history. History is written by the victors? Well, in this case, history was written by states. The more dispersed, nomadic hunter-gatherers left precious little in the archaeological record. As Harper also highlighted in The Fate of Rome, the end of an empire is less of a collapse, and more of a dissolution and fragmentation into smaller tribes, each reverting to other forms of subsistence. And free from taxation, forced labour, and conscription into armies, are these people really worse off? Wars and pandemics notwithstanding, collapse need not always involve a huge death toll.

And then there are barbarians. A derogatory term wielded by states, it simply refers to the overwhelming majority of people who were not state-subjects. And seeing the costs and fragilities of early states, being a barbarian wasn’t half-bad. Similarly, the idea that one proceeded from barbarism to civilization is also overly simplistic. When states collapsed, survivors often took up the barbarian lifestyle again, and plenty of people fled the oppressive regime of states well before that. Rather than primitives, Scott would like us to think of barbarians as sophisticated entrepreneurs, often developing trade relationships with, or extorting tributes (money and goods) from states in exchange for protection, or at the very least refraining from plunder.

Against the Grain delivers what it says on the tin and is a fine piece of historical counternarrative, with elements of environmental history woven throughout. Scott is conscientious, openly highlighting where debates have not been settled, archaeological evidence is too scant to draw firm conclusions, or where he puts forward opinions that run counter to established views. This results in a book that is fascinating, readable, but above all thought-provoking. It certainly made me ponder the “civil” part in civilization.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own however.

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