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Hunters and foragers thrived while early agrarian societies struggled, argues an anthropologist

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

James C. Scott
Yale University Press
2017
336 pp.
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When the first domesticated plants and sedentary communities appeared roughly 12,000 years ago, humans had already logged some 190,000 years as hunters and foragers. Yet the standard narrative of human progress begins with relatively recent agrarian societies.

Often what we find most worthy of noting in our histories of early societies are irrigation projects, drained swamps, canals, high walls, and grain production. But what if we stretch the timeline of human civilization beyond the first evidence of cultivated seed to include the first use of fire? And what if, in evaluating our upward trek to civilization, we take into consideration some of the problems we have encountered along the way, such as epidemics, warfare, unsustainable population growth, and global warming?

James C. Scott has spent his career considering such questions. In his previous book, The Art of Not Being Governed (2009), he looked at stateless societies in Southeast Asia. A similar lawless spirit guides him in Against the Grain, which centers on the hunters and foragers of Mesopotamia. Although some of his “hunches” about their role in the history of the earliest states seem spur of the moment, his thesis—that they had good reason to resist permanent settlement—is fascinating and represents an alternative, nuanced, if somewhat speculative, scenario on how civilized society came into being.

HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Modern pastoralists tend a herd of water buffalo on the banks of the Euphrates River.

The Mesopotamian settlements that appeared at the mouth of the Euphrates around 6500 BCE are Scott’s main point of reference. Although he admits that these enclaves are “late-comers” in grain domestication, they grew into the ancient urban centers of Ur and Uruk and formed the world’s first states.

A time gap, recently estimated to be about 4000 years, between the first known use of domesticated grains and the rise of settlements is one bit of evidence Scott offers to show that hunters and gatherers were in no rush to start a Neolithic revolution. He attests that they foraged, hunted, herded, and cultivated for thousands of years without settling down. Tentatively, he argues that hunters and gatherers were peripheral peoples living outside the agrocenter who resisted permanent settlement and statehood.

Here, Scott turns the idealized notion of domestication on its head. While hunters and gatherers could adapt to shortages by making use of a wider food net, settled peoples, he maintains, were vulnerable to drought, disease, and the crushing demands of a rising elite.

In no way, Scott argues, were the agrarian revolution and the rise of great states smooth and continuous. In fact, most of what we think of as feathers in the agrarian cap, such as irrigation and harvesting tools, were already in place before the states appeared.

The early states were fragile—so fragile that from 1800 until 700 BCE, settlements in Mesopotamia had shrunk to “less than a quarter of their previous area.” Scott attributes this decline to warfare-borne disease and to ecological catastrophes brought on by deforestation and salinization.

But rather than bemoan the loss of early states, he suggests that in the obscure epochs that followed, there was “an improvement in human welfare.” He cites a “bolt for freedom” among subjects of Greece’s “Dark Age,” for example, as well as a redistribution of population as people sought to escape taxation, starvation, oppression, and slavery.

Although the decline of the early states allowed for some egalitarianism, it also triggered a comeback for hunters and gatherers. Scott argues that the attacks mounted by these pastoralists were the single greatest force opposing agrarian spread.

This, he argues, may have ultimately been a good thing. It kept some lands, marshes, and forests untouched, at least for a while.

Some readers may feel that Scott has taken on too many challenges, especially given his admission that the archaeological proof and demographic data in support of his arguments are scant. In one section, for example, he speculates that nonstate peoples may have perished in mass epidemics, which went unrecorded in state histories. It is unclear how these groups then reemerge as raiders and racketeers during what he calls the “Golden Age of the Barbarians.”

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.

About the author

The reviewer is a freelance writer based in Catskill, NY, USA.

  • Sunwyn Ravenwood

    This seems interesting but I will need to read the book to decide if the arguments are faid.

    • Robin Artisson

      I think it’s less about infanticide (foragers are not magically more willing to kill babies just because they can’t carry them all around) and more about simple availability of excess calories. Having children that survive means having the calories to cover them and the demands on the mother’s body. Foragers don’t keep surplus food much. Agriculturalists have, on nearly all years, surplus food.

  • Ivan

    A novel take on the early begining of our civilized world, a fresh pair of eyes is welcome .

  • Adrian Holmes

    Interesting ideas but without the archeological proof they are just ideas. There must have been advantages to an agrarian society over hunting and gathering for it to have taken root not only in Mesopotamia but in centers on three different continents otherwise they would have failed never to arise again.

  • Jessie Slater

    Not sure if it is discussed in the book, but it seems odd to leave out the role of nomads (i.e., those who practiced pastoral transhumance) in this region. Nomads, who are still found today in parts of Iran and other areas of Western Asia and North Africa, eschew traditional agrarian practices but have a stable food source that can feed a significant population. These individuals often travel between well established settlements (i.e., they have great time depth, rather than monumental architecture) according to the seasons and the needs of their livestock.