In 2011 James Scott gave a pair of Tanner Lectures at Harvard. He had chosen a topic for which he felt he had a fairly good understanding, having taught on early agrarian societies throughout much of his career. The topic was the origins of the earliest states in human history. But as he explains in the preface to the 2017 book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, preparation for the lectures led him into brand new debates, bodies of evidence, and theories which were pretty much off his personal map. The resulting book is his effort to bring his own understanding up to date, and it is a terrific and engaging book.
Scott gives a quick summary of the view of early states, nutrition, agriculture, and towns that he shared with most historians of early civilizations up through a few decades ago. Hunter-gatherer human groups were the primary mode of living for tens of thousands of years at the dawn of civilization. Humanity learned to domesticate plants and animals, creating a basis for sedentary agriculture in hamlets and villages. With the increase in productivity associated with settled agriculture, it was possible for nascent political authorities to collect taxes and create political institutions. Agriculture and politics created the conditions that conduced to the establishment of larger towns, and eventually cities. And humanity surged forward in terms of population size and quality of life.
But, as Scott summarizes, none of these sequences has held up to current scholarship.
We thought … that the domestication of plants and animals led directly to sedentism and fixed-field agriculture. It turns out that sedentism long preceded evidence of plant and animal domestication and that both sedentism and domestication were in place at least four millennia before anything like agricultural villages appeared. (xi)
The early states were fragile and liable to collapse, but the ensuing “dark ages” may often have marked an actual improvement in human welfare. Finally, there is a strong case to be made that life outside the state — life as a “barbarian” — may often have been materially easier, freer, and healthier than life at least for nonelites inside civilization. (xii)
There is an element of “who are we?” in the topic — that is, what features define modern humanity? Here is Scott’s most general answer:
A sense, then, for how we came to be sedentary, cereal-growing, livestock-rearing subjects governed by the novel institution we now call the state requires an excursion into deep history. (3)
Who we are, in this telling of the story, is a species of hominids who are sedentary, town-living, agriculture-dependent subjects of the state. But this characterization is partial (as of course Scott knows); we are also meaning-makers, power-wielders, war-fighters, family-cultivators, and sometimes rebels. And each of these other qualities of humanity leads us in the direction of a different kinds of history, requiring a Clifford Geertz, a Michael Mann, a Tolstoy or a Marx to tell the story.
A particularly interesting part of the novel story about these early origins of human civilization that Scott provides has to do with the use of fire in the material lives of pre-technology humans — hunters, foragers, and gatherers — in a deliberate effort to sculpt the natural environment around then to concentrate food resources. According to Scott’s readings of recent archeology and pre-agriculture history, human communities used fire to create the specific habitats that would entice their prey to make themselves readily available for the season’s meals. He uses a strikingly phrase to capture the goal here — reducing the radius of a meal. Early foragers literally reshaped the natural environments in which they lived.
What we have here is a deliberate disturbance ecology in which hominids create, over time, a mosaic of biodiversity and a distribution of desirable resources more to their liking. (40)
Most strikingly, Scott suggests a link between massive Native American use of fire to reduce forests, the sudden decline in their population from disease following contact with Europeans and consequent decline in burning, and the onset of the Little Ice Age (1500-1850) as a result of reduced CO2 production (39). Wow!
Using fire for cooking further reduced this “radius of the meal” by permitting early humans to consume a wider range of potential foods. And Scott argues that this innovation had evolutionary consequences for our hominid ancestors: human populations developed a digestive gut only one-third the length of that of other non-fire-using hominids. “We are a fire-adapted species” (42).
Scott makes an intriguing connection between grain-based agriculture and early states. The traditional narrative has it that pre-farming society was too low in food productivity to allow for sedentary life and dense populations. According to Scott this assumption is no longer supported by the evidence. Sedentary life based on foraging, gathering, and hunting was established several thousand years earlier than the development of agriculture. Gathering, farming, settled residence, and state power are all somewhat independent. In fact, Scott argues that these foraging communities were too well situated in their material environment to be vulnerable to a predatory state. “There was no single dominant resource that could be monopolized or controlled from the center, let alone taxed” (57). These communities generally were supported by three or four “food webs” that gave them substantial independence from both climate fluctuation and domination by powerful outsiders (49). Cereal-based civilizations, by contrast, were vulnerable to both threats, and powerful authorities had the ability to confiscate grain at the point of harvest or in storage. Grain made taxation possible.
We often think of hunter-gatherers in terms of game hunters and the feast-or-famine material life described by Marshall Sahlins in Stone Age Economics. But Scott makes the point that there are substantial ecological niches in wetlands where nutrition comes to the gatherers rather than the hunter. And in the early millennia of the lower Nile — what Scott refers to as the southern alluvium — the wetland ecological zone was ample for a very satisfactory and regular level of wellbeing. And, of special interest to Scott, “the wetlands are ungovernable” (56). (Notice the parallel with Scott’s treatment of Zomia in The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.)
So who are these early humans who navigated their material worlds so exquisitely well and yet left so little archeological record because they built their homes with sticks, mud, and papyrus?
It makes most sense to see them as agile and astute navigators of a diverse but also changeable and potentially dangerous environment…. We can see this long period as one of continuous experimentation and management of this environment. Rather than relying on only a small bandwidth of food resources, they seem to have been opportunistic generalists with a large portfolio of subsistence options spread across several food webs. (59)
Later chapters offer similarly iconoclastic accounts of the inherent instability of the early states (like a pyramid of tumblers on the stage), the advantages of barbarian civilization, the epidemiology of sedentary life, and other intriguing topics in the early history of humanity. And pervasively, there is the under current of themes that recur often in Scott’s work — the validity and dignity of the hidden players in history, the resourcefulness of ordinary hominids, and the importance of avoiding the received wisdom of humanity’s history.
Scott is telling a new story here about where we came from, and it is a fascinating one.