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Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

By James C. Scott. Pp. xxii + 312. Yale University Press, New Haven 2017. $26. ISBN 978-0-300-18291-0 (cloth).

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Against the Grain is the latest book by Scott, whose earlier works have studied modern states and the means by which the poor and powerless have fought back within them. In this book, he aims to synthesize recent research on domestication, sedentism, and state formation, taking as examples Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China. While denying any particular archaeological expertise, he nevertheless brings to the table considerable experience of thinking about the origin and operation of states and also of nonstate areas and peoples.

The book has seven chapters: (1) “The Domestication of Fire, Plants, Animals, and . . . Us”; (2) “Landscaping the World: The Domus Complex”; (3) “Zoonoses: A Perfect Epidemiological Storm”; (4) “Agro-ecology of the Early State”; (5) “Population Control: Bondage and War”; (6) “Fragility of the Early State: Collapse as Disassembly”; and (7) “The Golden Age of the Barbarians.” There is also a helpful introduction, which sets out some of the author’s main ideas and positions and indicates the topics that he will address in each chapter.

In chapter 1, Scott presents the deepest part of his history, stretching back to the earliest uses of fire by Homo erectus to modify the landscape and cook food. Critiquing traditional narratives of the “Neolithic revolution,” he argues that the growing of crops did not kick-start sedentism, urbanization, or state formation, and it probably began in relatively rich wetlands rather than arid areas (46–7). Drawing on the work of Zeder on southern Mesopotamia, he notes that both agriculture and the domestication of animals were incorporated into the suite of subsistence skills employed knowledgeably by people aware of their environment and its range of resources and of spreading their risks: “Our ancestors did not rush headlong into the Neolithic revolution or into the arms of the earliest states” (46, 58–9). This appears to be the case in a number of areas around the world, not only southern Mesopotamia (56) (e.g., also Jomon Japan, on which see G.W. Crawford, “Advances in Understanding Early Agriculture in Japan,” Current Anthropology 52 Suppl. 4  [2011] S331–S345).

So, given the benefits of a hunter-gatherer lifeway, why did the dominance of sedentary agro-pastoralism (in “late Neolithic multispecies resettlement camps” [18]), with its narrowing of subsistence practices and increased drudgery and disease, come about? Scott doubts arguments from scarcity and population pressure as these do not fit the evidence for where the revolution initially took place, and he argues that deliberate, intensive agriculture and domestication were avoided for as long as possible as the main forms of subsistence (95–6). Those reasons only became important much later on, and over the longue durée. Factors that may have tipped the balance toward this way of life included the small demographic “advantage” obtained by settled farming communities and their expansion into new territories, as well as perhaps the pathogens that bred between humans and animals and which may have caused depopulation among nonfarmers and even the forced incorporation of people into such communities (114–15).

In terms of state formation, he sees the state as a “more or less proposition” on a continuum rather than an “either/or,” and he opts for the presence of walls, tax collection, and officials as indicators (117–18). Already in the Neolithic, he notes, the pieces were there that would enable state formation to take place: “sedentism, farming, the domus, irrigation, and towns,” yet states such as Uruk did not appear until two millennia later (116–17). Climate change, as proposed by Nissen, The Early History of the Ancient Near East. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). is one possible explanation, with populations of formerly fertile and diverse landscapes forced to concentrate in still-productive areas and opportunities for foraging reduced (121), though this is somewhat deterministic. Then the focus on irrigation and the growing of grains meant the increase of a commodity that was both very visible and easily divisible, and Scott argues that grain was key: “Only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation” (129). Grain can be collected, stored for distribution to workers and others generally or in times of need. This is an interesting idea but is open for debate.

One of the main interests of states was to control the population sufficiently for a taxable agricultural surplus to be produced—population “domestication” (151). Scott rightly points out the vital interest states had in preventing people and groups from trying to opt out and leave, and that the state, therefore, had to tread a fine line. (153): “Flight from the urban state domains to the periphery was quite common,” he notes, “but, as it contradicts the narrative of the state as a civilizing benefactor of its subjects, it is relegated to obscure legal codes” (16). He notes the role of states in the mass deportation and redistribution of people (177) and the use of slaves in many agrarian states (155). Early writing provides details especially of grain, taxes, and labor (142), and the connection with these may explain why many nonstate actors did not adopt it (148). This is an interesting point that may reflect something of the mentality of the nonstate majority. When early agrarian states collapsed, writing sometimes disappeared, too, which may reflect a rejection of the economic and ideological system; certainly this observation is relevant for Linear B at the end of the palace states of Mycenaean Greece.

Throughout the book, Scott rightly emphasizes the fragility of early states and of Neolithic experiments with urbanism: “To the already considerable perils of the crowded Neolithic complex, the superimposition of the state added an additional layer of fragility and insecurity” (123). He devotes a chapter (6) to fragility and to collapse as disassembly. His views here are sensible and refreshing—especially given assumptions (bolstered by our contemporary experience) of the naturalness, dominance, and apparent permanence of cities and states. In line with his arguments about the coercive nature of early states, their desire to keep and control a large population to tax and work, and the common institution of slavery, he asks, “Why deplore ‘collapse,’ when the situation it depicts is most often the disaggregation of a complex, fragile, and typically oppressive state into smaller, decentralized fragments?” (209). As he notes, the abandonment of a state could be a form of “emancipation” and should not be viewed simply as a descent into a less civilized and more savage lifestyle (211). The collapse of ancient states may, for many, have been a good thing.

A well-known issue in archaeology is the focus on sites with grand monuments or that have revealed material wealth, objects of artistic finesse, or texts. These phenomena, inextricably linked with rulers and elites, are usually also associated with agriculturally based urban state civilizations, functioning at the expense of the lives of the majority, who were not materially wealthy and most of whom did not live in urban areas (13–14). While such a focus is inevitable, given that archaeology relies on examining what is more materially visible, and what is considered valuable in our culture, Scott emphasizes that this is a prejudice that skews our perceptions toward the belief that states represent a good thing, an advance on more primitive ways of life.

Thus, Scott rightly notes throughout the book that states were a tiny minority of human communities for a long time and, as in his The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven 2009), he argues that many nonstate people living in their periphery may have deliberately chosen not to form agrarian states. It is not that they could not, but that they did not want to. Why give up a perfectly good and diverse lifestyle for one of drudgery, taxation, and disease? This is a useful point that counterbalances neo-evolutionary views and returns agency to nonstate actors, as opposed to seeing their regions and economies simply as underdeveloped and seeing them as uncivilized barbarians. In his final chapter, Scott suggests that the two millennia prior to the development of states may have been something of a golden age of diverse subsistence strategies and nonstate communities. But in the end, he notes how a symbiotic relationship between “civilizations” and nonstate “barbarians” that initially benefited both may have eventually, through the recruitment and use of nonstate mercenaries, made states increasingly successful over the long term at the expense of their neighbors (256).

Overall, the book is well researched, thought-provoking in its discussion, and enjoyable to read. Scott offers compelling insights into how novel and rare ancient states were and how unhealthy and oppressive they could be, as well as how fragile. It is an effective counterpoint to views of civilization and states as an automatic and desirable “good” and the result of “progress” through multiple discrete stages of development, which diffused from zones of civilization to less developed barbarians, who would inevitably want to adopt this new lifestyle. It is ideal for nonspecialist readers but can be recommended equally to students and professionals interested in state formation and the variety of relationships between people and states, and states and nonstate peoples, in the ancient world.

Guy D. Middleton
Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University

Book Review of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, by James C. Scott

Reviewed by Guy D. Middleton

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 1 (January 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1231.middleton

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