Why did humans abandon hunting and gathering for sedentary communities dependent on livestock and cereal grains, and governed by precursors of today's states? Most people believe that plant and animal domestication allowed humans, finally, to settle down and form agricultural villages, towns, and states, which made possible civilization, law, public order, and a presumably secure way of living. But archaeological and historical evidence challenges this narrative. The first agrarian states, says James C. Scott, were born of accumulations of domestications: first fire, then plants, livestock, subjects of the state, captives, and finally women in the patriarchal family – all of which can be viewed as a way of gaining control over reproduction.
Scott explores why we avoided sedentism and plow agriculture, the advantages of mobile subsistence, the unforeseeable disease epidemics arising from crowding plants, animals, and grain, and why all early states are based on millets and cereal grains and unfree labour. He also discusses the "barbarians" who long evaded state control, as a way of understanding continuing tension between states and nonsubject peoples.
"History as it should be written – an analysis of the deep forces exposed to the eternal conflict between humans and their environment. What makes it even more welcome is that it has been written with the enthusiasm of discovery."
– Barry Cunliffe, Guardian
"This is a brilliant, accessible, and highly original account of the origins of sedentism, farming, states, and the relations between agrarian and nomadic communities. It should attract a wider audience than any of Scott's earlier books."
– J. R. McNeill, co-author of The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945
"A sweeping and provocative look at the 'rise of civilization,' focusing particularly on those parts, peoples, and issues that are normally overlooked in conventional historical narratives."
– Alison Betts, The University of Sydney
"Brilliant, sparkling, dissident scholarship. In Scott's hands, agriculture looks like a terrible choice, states and empires look fragile, ephemeral, and predatory, and the 'barbarians' beyond their borders lived in relative freedom and affluence."
– David Christian, Macquarie University, Sydney
"This book is fascinating and original, containing a lesson on every page. Brilliant. James Scott is a legend."
– Tim Harford, author of Messy and The Undercover Economist
"Wonderfully thought-provoking [...] the insights Scott developed in Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed combine to throw new light on the birth of states and consequences that flowed from their emergence [...] It provides a salutary lesson for those who wonder why states fail."
– Thomas Barfield, Boston University
"Once again James Scott upends conventional wisdom with this riveting account of the entangled relations of humans, plants, and animals that created the first agrarian states. A provocative and eye-opening analysis of the dark side of our civilized world."
– Peter C. Perdue, author of China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia
"This is a telling and timely argument at a time when the Anthropocene is beset by the harrowing histories of migrants and refugees who claim the rights of mobility in a desperate search for a life of security that is as urgent as it is elusive."
– Homi Bhabha, Harvard University
"Scott is at his most intellectually omnivorous in Against the Grain, drawing on a vast array of sources to upend our basic assumptions about state formation and civilization."
– Edward D. Melillo, author of Strangers on Familiar Soil: Rediscovering the Chile-California Connection
"Against the Grain is not just a "counternarrative", an outsider's skeptical reaction to received wisdom about the evolution of agricultural systems and the first states in Mesopotamia. Vainglorious kings with their generals and armies, sycophantic scribes, and royal architects and engineers are not Scott's heroes. His concerns are with urban laborers, peasants, and barbarians and the cleavage planes of resistance to rulers. Those studying Mesopotamia – and other early states – take heed."
– Norman Yoffee, editor of Early Cities in Comparative Perspective
"Fascinating [...] Our agrarian-biased view of history, Scott concludes, could use some reworking. Most of the world's early human populations likely enjoyed semisettled, semiagrarian lives beyond the state's grasp."
– Suzanne Shablovsky, Science
"[Scott's work] has focussed on a skeptical, peasant's-eye view of state formation [...] His best-known book, Seeing Like a State, has become a touchstone for political scientists, and amounts to a blistering critique of central planning and 'high modernism.' [...] Scott's new book extends these ideas into the deep past, and draws on existing research to argue that ours is not a story of linear progress, that the time line is much more complicated, and that the causal sequences of the standard version are wrong."
– John Lanchester, New Yorker
"Written with great enthusiasm and characteristic flair [...] Scott hits the nail squarely on the head by exposing the staggering price our ancestors paid for civilisation and political order."
– Walter Scheidel, Financial Times
"Against the Grain delivers not only a darker story but also a broad understanding of the forces that shaped the formation of states and why they collapsed – right up to the industrial age [...] an excellent book."
– Ben Collyer, New Scientist
"Fascinating [...] Thinkers like Scott remind us that who we thought we are might not necessarily be the case. Such knowledge is empowering."
– Derek Beres, Big Think
"[Against the Grain] presents a comprehensive and convincing case that the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to permanent, agriculturally dependent settlements was a complete disaster for humankind [...] Whatever your political leanings, the implications of Scott's book are as fascinating as they are wide-ranging."
– Will Collins, The American Conservative
"James C. Scott [is] an eminent and iconoclastic political scientist [...] In his rich and varied career, Scott has found many ways to second-guess structures that prop up the powerful [...] Although Against the Grain is not a large book, it is a kind of thematic summa of Scott's work so far, as it reworks the entire canvas of history by reconsidering its origins through the lens of state-formation."
– Jedediah Purdy, The New Republic
"One of those rare books that really changes your worldview – or somehow crystallizes where your mind has been trending."
– Andrew Sullivan, Daily Intelligencer, New York Magazine
"A contemporary master of the political counter-narrative has produced a book on the origins of civilization – this is, quite simply, a must-read."
– David Wengrow, author of What Makes Civilization?
"Scott offers an alternative to the conventional narrative that is altogether more fascinating, not least in the way it omits any self-congratulation about human achievement. His account of the deep past doesn't purport to be definitive, but it is surely more accurate than the one we are used to."
– Steven Mithen, London Review of Books
"For more than 40 years, James Scott has written about those who resist being incorporated into political-economic systems [...] In a provocative new book, Against the Grain, Scott now challenges us to rethink legends about the state and its origins."
– Jacob Levy, Reason
"Forget the Paleo Diet: Scott goes all the way in showing how early nomadic peoples in the Fertile Crescent were fitter, happier and more productive than the semi-enslaved ziggurat-builders of the ancient Mesopotamian cities."
– James Whipple (M.E.S.H), Frieze
– George Monbiot, Guardian
"The story of a complex pattern of grain agriculture, early states, forced labor, and the extraction of surplus, and how all of these things were connected in ways that researchers previously never suspected [...] Scott is a writer of extraordinary talent [...] The constant interplay between the present and the distant past is one of the most appealing aspects of this book."
– Jason Kuznicki, Cato Journal
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.
The first prerequistite 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).
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’s 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 is 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.
James Scott is Sterling Professor of Political Science and co-director of the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale University. His previous books include Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Seeing Like a State, and The Art of Not Being Governed. He lives in Durham, CT.