Someone on SSC Discord summarized James Scott’s Against The Grain as “basically 300 pages of calling wheat a fascist”. I have only two qualms with this description. First, the book is more like 250 pages; the rest is just endnotes. Second, “fascist” isn’t quite the right aspersion to use here.
Against The Grain should be read as a prequel to Scott’s most famous work, Seeing Like A State. SLaS argued that much of what we think of as “progress” towards a more orderly world – like Prussian scientific forestry, or planned cities with wide streets – didn’t make anyone better off or grow the economy. It was “progress” only from a state’s-eye perspective of wanting everything to be legible to top-down control and taxation. He particularly criticizes the High Modernists, Le Corbusier-style architects who replaced flourishing organic cities with grandiose but sterile rectangular grids.
Against the Grain extends the analysis from the 19th century all the way back to the dawn of civilization. If, as Samuel Johnson claimed, “The Devil was the first Whig”, Against the Grain argues that wheat was the first High Modernist.
Sumer just before the dawn of civilization was in many ways an idyllic place. Forget your vision of stark Middle Eastern deserts; during the Paleolithic, the area where the first cities would one day arise was a great swamp. Foragers roamed the landscape, eating everything from fishes to gazelles to shellfish to wild plants. There was more than enough for everyone; “as Jack Harlan famously showed, one could gather enough [wild] grain with a flint sickle in three weeks to feed a family for a year”. Foragers alternated short periods of frenetic activity (eg catching as many gazelles as possible during their weeklong migration through the area) with longer periods of rest and recreation.
Intensive cereal cultivation is miserable work requiring constant toil with little guarantee of a good harvest. Why would anyone leave this wilderness Eden for a 100% wheat diet?
Not because they were tired of wandering around; Scott presents evidence that permanent settlements began as early as 6000 BC, long before Uruk, the first true city-state, began in 3300. Sometimes these towns subsisted off of particularly rich local wildlife; other times they practiced some transitional form of agriculture, which also antedated states by millennia. Settled peoples would eat whatever plants they liked, then scatter the seeds in particularly promising-looking soil close to camp – reaping the benefits of agriculture without the back-breaking work.
And not because they needed to store food. Hunter-gatherers could store food just fine, from salting animal meat to burying fish and letting it ferment to just having grain in siloes like everyone else. There is ample archaeological evidence of all of these techniques. Also, when you are surrounded by so much bounty, storing things takes on secondary importance.
And not because the new lifestyle made this happy life even happier. While hunter-gatherers enjoyed a stable and varied diet, agriculturalists subsisted almost entirely on grain; their bones display signs of significant nutritional deficiency. While hunter-gatherers were well-fed, agriculturalists were famished; their skeletons were several inches shorter than contemporaneous foragers. While hunter-gatherers worked ten to twenty hour weeks, agriculturalists lived lives of backbreaking labor. While hunter-gatherers who survived childhood usually lived to old age, agriculturalists suffered from disease, warfare, and conscription into dangerous forced labor.
Scott argues that intensive grain cultivation was a natural choice not for cultivators, but for the states oppressing them. The shift from complicated and mobile food webs to a perfectly rectangular grid of wheat fields was the same sort of “progress” as scientific forestry and planned cities thousands of years later:
Why should cereal grains play such a massive role in the earliest states? After all, other crops, in particular legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, and peas, had been domesticated in the Middle East and, in China, taro and soybean. Why were they not the basis of state formation? More broadly, why have no “lentil states,” chickpea states, taro states, sago states, breadfruit states, yam states, cassava states, potato states, peanut states, or banana states appeared in the historical record? Many of these cultivars provide more calories per unit of land than wheat and barley, some require less labor, and singly or in combination they would provide comparable basic nutrition. Many of them meet, in other words, the agro-demographic conditions of population density and food value as well as cereal grains. Only irrigated rice outclasses them in terms of sheer concentration of caloric value per unit of land.
The key to the nexus between grains and states lies, I believe, in the fact that only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and “rationable.” Other crops—legumes, tubers, and starch plants—have some of these desirable state-adapted qualities, but none has all of these advantages. To appreciate the unique advantages of the cereal grains, it helps to place yourself in the sandals of an ancient tax-collection official interested, above all, in the ease and efficiency of appropriation.
The fact that cereal grains grow above ground and ripen at roughly the same time makes the job of any would-be taxman that much easier. If the army or the tax officials arrive at the right time, they can cut, thresh, and confiscate the entire harvest in one operation. For a hostile army, cereal grains make a scorched-earth policy that much simpler; they can burn the harvest-ready grain fields and reduce the cultivators to flight or starvation. Better yet, a tax collector or enemy can simply wait until the crop has been threshed and stored and confiscate the entire contents of the granary.
Compare this situation with, say, that of farmers whose staple crops are tubers such as potatoes or cassava/manioc. Such crops ripen in a year but may be safely left in the ground for an additional year or two. They can be dug up as needed and the reaminder stored where they grew, underground. If an army or tax collectors want your tubers, they will have to dig them up tuber by tuber, as the farmer does, and then they will have a cartload of potatoes which is far less valuable (either calorically or at the market) than a cartload of wheat, and is also more likely to spoil quickly. Frederick the Great of Prussia, when he ordered his subjects to plant potatoes, understood that, as planters of tubers, they could not be so easily dispersed by invading armies.
The “aboveground” simultaneous ripening of cereal grains has the inestimable advantage of being legible and assessable by the state tax collectors. These characteristics are what make wheat, barley, rice, millet, and maize the premier political crops. A tax assessor typically classifies fields in terms of soil quality and, knowing the average yield of a particular grain from such soil, is able to estimate a tax. If a year-to-year adjustment is required, fields can be surveyed and crop cuttings taken from a representative patch just before harvest to arrive at an estimated yield for that particular crop year. As we shall see, state officials tried to raise crop yields and taxes in kind by mandating techniques of cultivation; in Mesopotamia this included insisting on repeated ploughing to break up the large clods of earth and repeated harrowing for better rooting and nutrient delivery. The point is that with cereal grains and soil preparation, the planting, the condition of the crop, and the ultimate yield were more visible and assessable.
Scott’s great advantage over other writers is the care he takes in analyzing the concrete machinery of statehood. Instead of abstractly saying “the state levies a 10% tax”, he realizes that some guy in a palace has resolved to take “ten percent” of the “value” produced in some vast area, with no natural way of knowing who is in that area or how much value they produce. For most of the Stone Age, this problem was insurmountable. You can’t tax hunter-gatherers, because you don’t know how many they are or where they are, and even if you search for them you’ll spend months hunting them down through forests and canyons, and even if you finally find them they’ll just have, like, two elk carcasses and half a herring or something. But you also can’t tax potato farmers, because they can just leave when they hear you coming, and you will never be able to find all of the potatoes and dig them up and tax them. And you can’t even tax lentil farmers, because you’ll go to the lentil plantation and there will be a few lentils on the plants and the farmer will just say “Well, come back next week and there will be a few more”, and you can’t visit every citizen every week.
But you can tax grain farmers! You can assign them some land, and come back around harvest time, and there will be a bunch of grain just standing there for you to take ten percent of. If the grain farmer flees, you can take his grain without him. Then you can grind the grain up and have a nice homogenous, dense, easy-to-transport grain product that you can dole out in measured rations. Grain farming was a giant leap in oppressability.
In this model, the gradual drying-out of Sumeria in the 4th millennium BC caused a shift away from wetland foraging and toward grain farming. The advent of grain farming made oppression possible, and a new class of oppression-entrepreneurs arose to turn this possibility into a reality. They incentivized farmers to intensify grain production further at the expense of other foods, and this turned into a vicious cycle of stronger states = more grain = stronger states. Within a few centuries, Uruk and a few other cities developed the full model: tax collectors, to take the grain; scribes, to measure the grain; and priests, to write stories like The Debate Between Sheep And Grain, with immortal lines like:
From sunrise till sunset, may the name of Grain be praised. People should submit to the yoke of Grain. Whoever has silver, whoever has jewels, whoever has cattle, whoever has sheep shall take a seat at the gate of whoever has Grain, and pass his time there
And so the people were taught that growing grain was Correct and Right and The Will Of God and they shouldn’t do anything stupid like try to escape back to the very close and easily-escapable-to areas where everyone was still living in Edenic plenty.
…turns out lots of people in early states escaped to the very close and easily-escapable-to areas where everyone was still living in Edenic plenty. Early states were necessarily tiny; overland transportation of resources more than a few miles was cost-prohibitive; you could do a little better by having the state on a river and adding in water transport, but Uruk’s sphere of influence was still probably just a double-digit number of kilometers. Even in good times, peasants would be tempted to escape to the hills and wetlands; in bad times, it started seeming crazy not to try this. Scott suggests that ancient Uruk had a weaker distinction between “subject” and “slave” than we would expect. Although there were certainly literal slaves involved in mining and manufacturing, even the typical subject was a serf at best, bound to the land and monitored for flight risk.
In one of my favorite parts of the book, Scott discusses how this shaped the character of early Near Eastern warfare. Read a typical Near Eastern victory stele, and it looks something like “Hail the glorious king Whoever, who campaigned against Such-And-Such and took 10,000 prisoners of war back to the capital.” Territorial conquest, if it happened at all, was an afterthought; what these kings really wanted was prisoners. Why? Because they didn’t even have enough subjects to farm the land they had; they were short of labor. Prisoners of war would be resettled on some arable land, given one or another legal status that basically equated to slave laborers, and so end up little different from the native-born population. The most extreme example was the massive deportation campaigns of Assyria (eg the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel), but everybody did it because everybody knew their current subjects were a time-limited resources, available only until they gradually drained out into the wilderness.
Early states were pretty time-limited themselves. Scott addresses the collapse of early civilizations, which was ubiquitous; typical history disguises this by talking about “dynasties” or “periods” rather than “the couple of generations an early state could hold itself together without collapsing”.
Robert Adams, whose knowledge of the early Mesopotamian states is unsurpassed, expresses some astonishment at the Third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III), in which five kings succeeded one another over a hundred-year period. Though it too collapsed afterward, it represented something of a record of stability.
Scott thinks of these collapses not as disasters or mysteries but as the expected order of things. It is a minor miracle that some guy in a palace can get everyone to stay on his fields and work for him and pay him taxes, and no surprise when this situation stops holding. These collapses rarely involved great loss of life. They could just be a simple transition from “a bunch of farming towns pay taxes to the state center” to “a bunch of farming towns are no longer paying taxes to the state center”. The great world cultures of the time – Egypt, Sumeria, China, whereever – kept chugging along whether or not there was a king in the middle collecting taxes from them. Scott warns against the bias of archaeologists who – deprived of the great monuments and libraries of cuneiform tablets that only a powerful king could produce – curse the resulting interregnum as a dark age or disaster. Probably most people were better off during these times.
The book ends with a chapter on “barbarians”. Scott reminds us that until about 1600, the majority of human population lived outside state control; histories that focus on states and forget barbarians are forgetting about most humans alive. In keeping with his thesis, Scott reviews some ancient sources that talk about barbarians in the context of people who did not farm or eat grain. Also in keeping with his thesis, he warns against thinking of barbarians as somehow worse or more primitive. Many barbarians were former state citizens who had escaped state control to a freer and happier lifestyle. Barbarian tribes could control vast trading empires, form complex confederations, and enter in various symbiotic relationships with the states around them. Scott wants us to think of these not as primitive people vs. advanced people, but as two different interacting lifestyles, of which the barbarian one was superior for most people up until a few centuries ago.
Overall I liked this book. I’m not sure how convinced I am – Scott occasionally mentions how much denser (in terms of calories produced per unit land) grain is than other forms of subsistence, and this surely deserves more consideration as an alternative explanation for its success. But overall the theory is plausible as at least one of many explanations for the grain/state correlation.
My only other complaint is the constant insistence throughout the book that we should be having our minds blown by it. Scott talks about how he wanted to give a lecture on the rise of civilization in Sumeria, hadn’t studied the subject for a few decades, thought he’d do a quick review of what had been discovered in the interim, and instead found that everything he knew was wrong. He talks a lot about how the conventional narrative of the dawn of agriculture has been turned on its head, overthrown, debunked, etc, and how you need to unlearn all your brainwashing about the superiority of states to hunter-gatherers.
But Jared Diamond was calling agriculture The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race back in the 1980s. And the changes to the Sumeria story I learned in school seem like updates rather than paradigm shifts. Yes, people were sedentary agriculturalists long before Uruk – but I remember a page in my elementary school textbook (so we’re talking 1995 or so) going over Catal Huyuk and its neighbors in 6000 BC. Yes, early city-states sucked – but does anyone think of “Bronze Age god-king” and imagine a nice guy committed to egalitarianism? The Epic of Gilgamesh was talking about the suckiness of Bronze Age city-states before the Bronze Age even ended. The most surprising revision to the standard story in Against The Grain was the setting of early Sumer in wetland rather than desert. And even that is only a small change; the first cities were on a kind of flat alluvium separate from the wetland proper, and their environmental damage quickly dried the region up into the irrigation-heavy desert we know today.
Scott tries to downplay his own role in the book, emphasizing how much he is just relaying the discoveries of more accomplished Sumer experts than himself. But the part I most appreciated was the part that was most clearly Scott-ish: the role of grain as a state-builder. In this story, the beginning of civilization – like the progress of the High Modernists – wasn’t an advance in human welfare or economic growth. It was an advance in tax collecting and the machinery of oppression; everything else followed.
“From sunrise till sunset, may the name of Grain be praised”, said the Sumerians. And the ancient Greeks had their Eleusinian Mysteries, where “the mighty, and marvelous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest truths” was the “revelation of the mystic grain”. Can we trace a direct line from there to the sheaves of wheat that feature on fifteen out of fifty US state seals? On the National Emblem of China? The Coat of Arms of the Soviet Union? Does this last one really show the Earth caught in a pincers between two giant stalks of wheat? Should we really make impressionable schoolchildren sing songs of praise for “amber waves of grain”?
Read this book, and you may never think about cereal crops the same way again.
This seems like a good article to have an “is any of this true?” section, if anyone here knows enough ancient history to confirm or dispute this. The overall seeing like a state style structure is interesting. “Grain agriculture was used over superior methods solely because it’s easier to tax grain” seems like a very strong claim that fits a bit too well into James Scott’s model, and I’m kind of suspicious of it.
(The claim I’ve heard before is something like “sure agriculture kinda sucks, but it supports a larger population more consistently”, which seems more plausible than it being purely a function of states wanting to make taxation efficient).
The timing is something I’d want to see more evidence on, for sure.
I’m strongly on the mostly bullshit side. Egypt was fantastically wealthy, yet much taxation was done via labor on state owned fields, not direct taxation. Much easier to tax non farmers and much easier to divert to better causes. Additionally, it and most other Bronze Age states was almost a pure command economy, the idea of tax collectors walking round a bunch of free trading villages looking for a cut like it’s 1250AD rings wrong.
Finally, major and moderate collapses generally show simplified pottery and a reduction in sophisticated burials, even for commoners, hard to see the LHiiic as a sudden bust of economic freedom.
That was one of my first thoughts: why force them to grow only wheat for a 10% tax, and not just have them give 100% of the harvest from a 10% plot of wheat?
But remember, things were at the very beginning. It’s not like chieftains were experts in political science. Occasionally they hit on a winning formula, and you get Egypt (and remember, Egypt = Nile surrounded by desert. Very particular conditions). Most times you just stumble along, and it could be that in those times just forcing mass cultivation of wheat was a satisficing condition for the emergence of states.
Then they’ll do as little work as they can get away with on this parcel, so you need:
– either a post-fact control on the amount produced (which means forcing them grow wheat of their own elsewhere, comparing the harvest, and taking what’s missing from your share out of theirs – at this point, you’re basically back to taxing a percentage of the whole harvest but in a more convoluted way).
– some kind of overseer to watch them, full-time. Which is what you’ve been trying to avoid.
I’m not necessarily supporting Scott here, just stating my immediate answer to the question.
Was ancient Egypt the Nile surrounded by desert, or was it substantially wetter then? I don’t know any details but thought I had heard the latter.
No, North Africa was a lot wetter during the last Ice Age, and then became dry at the start of the recent interglacial. Which contributed to the concentration of people along the banks of the Nile, which again contributed to the development of Egypt.
There was already desert on both sides of the Nile when people there started nation building.
Yeah, the Sahara goes through cycles, but at least the northern parts becoming desert again seems to have happened before the start of the Old Kingdom (though perhaps not too long before; it also didn’t happen to the same degree everywhere at once, but around the lower Nile seems to be in one of the areas where it got dry the earliest).
Hm. With that being the case, it sounds like Egypt might have worked differently than the early Mesopotamian model because the peasants couldn’t normally escape out of range of the king’s chariots.
When all the peasants are concentrated into a narrow strip of land that you can cross in a day or so, fenced in by uninhabitable wasteland on both sides, you can get a pretty accurate census and tax the populace in labor.
When there are hills and swamps not far away where people can sustain themselves pretty well with a collection of tools that would fit in a knapsack, taking a census is hard, and taxing the peasants in labor is correspondingly hard.
Of course, further complicating the picture is (possibly) the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley, which had broadly the same technical level as Mesopotamia and Egypt, but shows very few signs of having been oppressive or even hierarchical. Pity we can’t read the Harappan language. 🙁
1) What is the difference between a tax collector assessing how much grain your land will bring, against how much grain the state land will bring on which you have to work X% of your time. To me it looks just like different implementations for the same thing. (e.g. Grain harvest is easier to read for a state actor)
2) The fact that bronze age states where mostly command economies where some big whig told everyone what they had to plant doesn’t seem to excactly contradict Scott’s argument.
3) Yes complexity and specialisation went down during the collapses. But live expectancy and public health (as far as we can tell) did not.
People will work their own land harder/better than state land. So assessing 10% of their crops means you get 10% of their average labor productivity on the land they know best, whereas assessing 10% of their time gets you the laziest 10% of their labor. Plus it’s easier to collect their physical grain if you come by during the harvest — it can be a chore to track someone down and make them labor for you for a month; you have to pay overseers to prevent them from napping or running away, etc.
I won’t argue the advantages of a capitalist (land as capital) society.
But what has that to do with the question if early states prefered their farmers to produce grain, because it benefitet the state but not necessarily the farmers?
I’m not sure the one-time harvest really is better for a state, though. What’s easier for a state actor to deal with:
1. Getting a one-time influx of grain that you have to figure out the logistics of storing and keeping you going for the rest of the year
2. Getting periodic payments that can run your state on an ongoing basis
Not only most people, but most states today prefer the ongoing payment model to the annual lump-sum model. This detail felt like trying to fit the situation to the model, more than the other direction.
The number of plans (software, etc.) that offer a discount when you pay for a year up front vs monthly, even with a nonbinding contract (you can cancel in 3 months and get a 9-month refund) seems to imply that’s not the case.
Plus there are transactional costs. Extracating value from a population monthly takes more work (= more tax collectors, or maybe just more full-time tax collectors as opposed to seasonal ones) than annually. Plus your tax collectors would more likely need to stay close to the people they are taxing instead of coming home to enjoy the fruits of their labor and stay loyal to you.
Yes, but companies who offer annual plans aren’t getting all their revenue from a one time transaction from all their clients at once. It makes sense to give a discount to someone who pays annually, because they’re also committing to a while year of service.
Meanwhile, how often do people choose to get paid an annual salary versus monthly or biweekly? There are costs to doing a dozen tax collections a year, sure, but there are also costs to an annual collection. First, since the stakes are higher there’s the problem of competition to go grab the spoils. Second, there’s the problem of storage. Third there’s the planning requirement, which in turn requires education and literacy investments. Fourth there’s the problem of protecting this mass of agricultural wealth from humans and animals who might want to take it.
I’m not convinced the costs of multiple tax collections outweigh the benefits as clearly as is implied above. Maybe the book goes into more detail? It’s not clear this is a good cost savings.
@sclmlw: I’d wager that the big lump sum is better for a Bronze Age despot, because it gives him a hoard that he can use as a nest egg to dole out to supporters and deny to opponents.
If the King holds the granaries, then it’s the King who is personally staving off the famines, and it’s the King who determines whether you starve or not. A continuous inflow leads to a continuous outflow, and (using typical human spending patterns) a lot less accumulation.
I’m not sure why the ruler would be bad at monetary logistics over the short term but good over the long term. Quite the opposite. I’d expect that “using typical human spending patterns” would present a greater challenge under the lump sum model.
I know too many people who blow their tax return instead of paying off the car or stashing it in the bank. They can afford their mortgage so long as they keep getting monthly wages, but “plan a whole year ahead in finances” is not what I think of as a typical human trait.
Sure it’s sound financial planning to keep a 3-6 month emergency fund, but that’s altogether different from planning the whole annual budget from one harvest – let alone preferring that strategy.
Also, there’s a model where the king collected all the grain and distributed it, but there’s also a model where the lords collect the taxes and pay them to the king’s treasury. Both seem to work fine, but the royal-iron-fist model you’ve outlined wouldn’t work under the bottom up tax collection system. Yet we see the bottom up system a lot and the to down system a little. Because it’s easier for the king do kick tax collection down to the lords and the lords down to the minor lords, etc. Especially in earlier states where direct grain collection (not coinage) was the mode of taxation.
I guess part of my problem with the whole thesis is that it oversimplifies states to the point they stop looking like actual historical states. It feels like overfit, and especially with the annual harvest story. I’m sure we could trade just-so explanations for why one was better, but it’s not obvious that annual collection should have exclusive dominance here.
It doesn’t require centralized collection and distribution, though I did phrase my above post that way. Even if the King just takes 10%, having 10% of all the food sitting in your granary means that 10% of the populace is dependant on you to eat. And that 10% will probably be mostly soldiers and priests(and maybe craftsmen) – the sort of people who’ll be most important in controlling a society. And simply having a big pile of food under your control gives you a lot of psychological weight in people’s eyes, particularly when it’s so obviously linked to your other sources of power. I think that psychological effect is the biggest single advantage to annual collection.
And you’re right that a lot of people blow lump sums. I posit that those people wouldn’t last long as Bronze Age kings.
Sure, but that’s a much less powerful argument for an exclusively lump-sum model than “it has to be that way or else it doesn’t work out at all”. There are lots of models of success, and I think Scott is focusing on one model in particular because he wants to force history to conform to his biases.
Historically, most societies relied on more than just crop. Scott just defines those societies that don’t include grains out of his equation for not fitting his model. They’re periods of “barbarism”, except that the term doesn’t match what we commonly think of as barbarians. Certainly the historical record doesn’t support the idea that nearly everyone until a couple hundred years ago was living as a barbarian unless they included cereal grains among the basket of crops they grew.
I’m not trying to argue that grains pose no advantages, but as with so many things in biology, economics, and sociology a successful strategy is more likely when you diversify your risk than when you lump it all together into a single action.
Let me steelman your argument for a moment to hopefully approach a more nuanced model. Let’s imagine you’re a ruler with multiple crops that all harvest at different times. This is great, as it keeps your kingdom running and you pay the aristocracy/army that supports you on a regular basis from the tax revenue (or vice versa depending on top-down versus bottom-up). You don’t have to worry that someone will get greedy and overthrow you to confiscate your wealth because you don’t keep a pile of cash around that’s literally the one source of all your claims to power.
One of the crops you harvest happens to be a cereal grain where the harvest all comes in at once. This is great. It’s like getting that annual bonus. We’ll expect you to act like most people do and blow a certain portion of the surplus all at once. Maybe you build some monumental architecture. Maybe you go a-conquering. Maybe you enrich the nobles/peasantry to help solidify your reign. Maybe you save some of it back for a rainy day. The point is that having a surplus among the various crops you cultivate gives you additional options against the ruler who doesn’t. Maybe it doesn’t make your reign all by itself, but it allows you to make a bigger splash.
This matches what we see historically. During the Pelopponesian War Athens and Sparta declared a ten year armistice, partly to allow them to go back to their farms and grow more crops to feed their people so they could get back to the business of killing each other later. They could go to war for long periods because they had durable foodstuffs, even if they had to replenish those stores from time to time. Napoleon used canned food as a way to help supply his armies, and certainly before that grains were a useful source of portable food for your army. However they weren’t the only source of food portability.
Civilizations that lived near a good source of salt were often successful against their enemies, since salt is great for preserving foods. Indeed you could easily write a book that focuses on salt as the main driver for human history, and view social development as nothing more than humans trying to get their hands on as much sodium chloride as they can. It’s not wrong to conclude that certain things like salt or grains are important. Certainly they are useful tools, among others people use to thrive and compete with each other. But I wouldn’t base a grand theory of society around single agents like Scott does.
It bears mentioning that all crops have seasons; no crop is going to provide food every month, so every farmer has to store food. And if the king is collecting crops as they’re harvested, he’s going to have store food too.
The quality of pottery and amount of stuff buried with people doesn’t necessarily speak to the quality of life of the majority of people.
Let’s separate it out into two questions:
1) Why grains rather than tubers? In Sumer specifically, I think it’s because they didn’t have access to many tubers worth growing.
2) Why grains rather than legumes? Some cursory research shows that wheat cultivation produces vastly more calories per acre than lentils or chickpeas, and (to my surprise) it even produces slightly more protein per acre. The only legume that breaks this rule seems to be soybeans, but in China, soybeans had to compete with rice, which provides even more calories per acre than wheat (though it provides much less protein than soybeans.)
So I don’t see any reason to think taxation was the main driver.
Edit: Whether wheat provides more protein per acre than legumes seems to depend on the source I look at, and it might depend on the farming technologies available as well.
Also interesting that agriculture until very recently (and still in some places), is largely a command economy, and that reducing the command-nature and moving to smaller farms is one of the best ways to increase yields. The problem is that high yield doesn’t mean high-profit, and so landlords (which early states essentially were), have little incentive to increase yields by allowing for independent ownership of smaller farms.
I wonder if different land ownership rules played a role here. If you can demand that they pay you a rent, and have it be practical to enforce that right with lawyers, then you stop caring what they do with the land or why. You just want your annual sum. At that point, I’d wager that renters displace serfs pretty quickly, because it’s more efficient.
Rome had strong rule of law and plenty of lawyers, but large landowners used slave labor. Everyone knew that slaves didn’t work as hard as free men, but they’re so much cheaper.
Nope, the big Latifundia in the Empire where mostly rented out to freemen, who had to pay part of theire harvest as rent. Both sides could terminate the contract at any time, but usually had to pay penalties.
They only lost their freeman status sometime at the end of the 3rd century AD.
Yes, I thought it weird the density angle was never really mentioned.
Also – relatedly – military applications. Hunter gatherers tend to evolve warrior cultures. Farmers tend to evolve soldier cultures. One on one, warrior beats soldier. But in conflict, soldiers wipe the floor with warriors.
So, sure, you can escape to you Eden-like hunter gathering neighbor clan but every time the local city state needs slaves, booty, women etc, it’ll come pay a visit and, if it can catch you, crush you. Less fun…
The density angle challenges the entire premise. If people have eden like plenty with better nutrition and health what is it that limits their population growth? The presentation of idyllic HG societies rarely delves into this basic question, if people are living longer and having healthier lifestyles how in the world are they spending tens of thousands of years under such a system without overwhelming the planet with their numbers?
Shorter lactation and a general drive towards more children (aka labor)?
I assume it’s something like this. A hunter-gatherer lifestyle can support a human in a nice lifestyle for a good lifespan without too much work when you’re just under the population carrying capacity, but people just die when you get over the carrying capacity. An agricultural lifestyle can support a human in a nice lifestyle for a good lifespan without too much work when you’re at the hunter-gatherer carrying capacity, but as you get past this level, instead of quickly dying, the lifestyle just gradually gets worse and the lifespan gradually shortens until you’ve reached a *much* higher population and people start dying.
I don’t know why people would just die when you pass the hunter-gatherer carrying capacity on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but would just get slightly worse off as you pass it while on an agricultural lifestyle. Probably because wheat provides you a good amount of nutrition but not really a balanced diet, and as you pass the hunter-gatherer carrying capacity you lose the ability for everyone to get proper supplements from the other foods.
Carrying capacity is an idea, not an actual limit where you are at it or over it. If an area can provide food for 100 people at lifestyle level X, then it can provide food for 101 people at lifestyle level of 0.99X, so unless X is literally subsistence level (again more of an idea than a hard line) you can increase carrying capacity by decreasing standard of living. You need a mechanism by which people just die when you are over your limit or else you expect to see what agricultural societies saw- lots of people who spent a lot of time at sub-optimal but not fatal levels of nutrition.
Edit should have read your second paragraph before replying, sorry.
The question is why are they dying without their deaths impacting what we see in the survivors? If you go above carrying capacity do you think that the person without enough food to eat is going to go gently into that good night? They aren’t going to steal from others or fight for food? If a group exists right near carrying capacity for a long time then you would expect near constant food stress showing up in the remains.
The answer is that carrying capacity varies. If you look at hunter gather societies even today, you will notice how fit everyone is, despite their alleged abundance. They have to be, because their ability to feed themselves in lean periods depends on their fitness, if they were as parasite ridden and diseased as the early farmers they would have just died. In response to baconbits9, because their food isn’t easily stored or transported, even during the lean times there is very little to fight over. Raiding your neighbors is time you could be hunting, and it’s unlikely they have any more food than you do. You can of course eat them, but unless they are already at death’s door it’s unlikely to be an easy meal. (Remember, you are likely starving as well)
My guess is that the diminishing returns on marginal labor are a lot steeper for hunter-gatherers than for farmers. More labor can give you a higher yield on the same amount of land by adopting more labor-intensive planting techniques, moving down the curve from “scatter some seeds and check back in a few months”, to flood-retreat agriculture, to slash-and-burn fields, to ploughing, to intensive interplanting.
Hunter-gatherers can work harder, too: doing things like searching less-likely spots for edible plants and hunting lower-return game (I’m guessing rabbits and squirrels take more work to hunt per pound of meat than deer). But I doubt the labor curve continues out anywhere near as far as the agriculture labor curve does.
Most likely because you can use more labor (from more population) to work marginal land agriculturally, thus sustaining all that new population.
Similar thing to what Eric Rall wrote above.
While you can’t use labor so that there is more food to hunt or gather. So HG face hard food resource limit.
We know what controls hunter-gatherer populations; other hunter gatherers, mostly.
Hunter-gatherer groups have absurdly high violent mortality rates. Credible estimates put it around 25%.
Over a lifetime, being a hunter gatherer was significantly more dangerous than being at the Somme in 1916.
Neither Chagnon nor Pinker are credible estimators…
A total guess here, but reliability? Maybe a hunter-gatherer who has a bad hunt for a year has starved to death by the third month, while a farmer who has a bad crop for a year still produces enough to scrape by in most cases.
Pinker uses data collected from extant tribal societies around the world, and they show rates of violent death ranging from 10-60%. There’s the argument that the sample set for this data is not necessarily representative of the tribal societies that existed in the past, but that only reduces one’s confidence in the figure it doesn’t dismiss it entirely. I’ve yet to see any good alternative evidence to Pinker’s claims… if you’ve got a book to recommend, I’d like to read it.
Lack of pottery. It’s too heavy to carry around.
This means you can’t make mushy foods for children to eat, thus requiring the spacing of children so you can nurse them for long.
It’s a factor.
Can’t you chew up the food and spit it out for your infant? Also many children are quite capable of eating all solid foods before 1 year old, certainly before 2 years old. Is that really a factor?
Pottery is a neolithic technology.
And if you just need to boil up stews for young kids, it needn’t be terribly heavy.
@Lambert- it’s also possible to heat water without pottery. I’ve seen it done by digging a pit (lined with mud/clay so water doesn’t drain away), filling it with water, then putting rocks heated in a fire in the water. Of course, this somewhat limits what you can cook- a stew probably wouldn’t work, only boiled larger things. A similar thing can be done with other non-pottery vessels, such as a hollowed-out log.
If you’re careful enough, you can also heat water directly over a fire in a container made from birch bark.
If you’re going to fill a hole with hot stones, you might as well go full Maori and do a hangi.
Dig a hole.
Start fire in hole.
Throw rocks on fire.
Wrap kumara, moa, takahe, other flightless birds etc. in damp leaves.
Throw more damp leaves on fire.
Throw food on now steamy fire.
Cover with soil.
Dig up now steamed food.
Bonus points for using geothermal energy instead of fire.
Can’t you chew up the food and spit it out for your infant?
Rather than just nurse and have the next baby later? (Or kill the next one and only raise the one after.)
You can boil water (or presumably stew) in a leather bag without much trouble and without destroying the bag. I’ve even seen it done with paper, although that’s finicky and a bit of a party trick and the cultures in question wouldn’t have paper anyway.
I think a much bigger factor is the carrying capacity of humans, silly pun intended. Hunter gatherers moved around A LOT and did not have domesticated animals, so they had to either carry their kids in their arms or go at the average pace of a two year old. This definitely discourages having children close together, when you need to migrate long distances following food sources to survive. Kids really don’t need mushy food though; mine was chomping down entire chicken legs before he was one. Look up baby led weaning for proof!
Nurse til they’re two. Have a baby every three years for 30 years. That’s an extremely high fertility rate.
If I remember correctly from my anthropology class, the San tribe of hunter-gatherers space their children every 4 years because that’s when a kid can keep up with the adults as they move. If no one can be found to take on a kid born outside this pattern, or one of a pair of twins, infanticide by exposure was common.
I think this point is underemphasized; I think even if people are socialized to accept infanticide, they’re happy to adopt any lifestyle where they no longer have to abandon babies in the desert.
Re: population density
The standard explanation here is that while you can normally get away with little work in a gatherer-hunter society (I invert the name to put the most important bit first), you also don’t have any food reserves, so when something goes badly wrong, people die in droves.
I have the same criticism as you do – if everything was great, then we would have had a Malthusian population expansion until things were no longer all great.
It’s sort of self-refuting:
The land being farmed for grain wasn’t suitable for wetland farming.
It might be that the nature of dense, single harvest grain made state confiscation … let’s call it profitable. But the reason that grain was being grown in that area probably didn’t have anything to do with the state existing. It was probably being grown in the area because it was a calorie rich, single harvest crop.
There is also the issue of priming the pump. How does the state arise at all if farming is so obviously a poor means of sustenance?
Then we have the issue of the fact that they are acknowledging that a significant portion of the population are basically slaves, and they compare their health outcomes to non-slaves.
The is the primary stumbling block for me. If grain is ethically bad, takes too much effort to produce and leads to a less-healthy society… why weren’t grain-based societies out-competed by legume societies or lentil societies or whatever? Shouldn’t at least one empire have been able to make it work?
I guess you could argue that barbarian invasions of these areas were a form of competition between varying nutrition systems… but even then, most of the hunter gatherers who stuck around ended up plugged in to the grain system.
All grain societies were also legume societies. Even in places with very high consumption of cereals, pulses (legumes) were still a major dietary component.
This is obvious if you think about it from the point of view of essential amino acids. Cereals provide incomplete protein, so you either need to add pulses or meat to fill the gap. If you eat a 100% wheat diet you would literally die.
Soy is argued to have a complete amino acid profile, yet there have been no soy
boyempires where people got most of their calories form soy. All cultures that grew soy had a cereal grain, usually rice, as their caloric base.
I think this is just a matter of agricultural efficiency, and it’s the main reason why modern industrial livestock production feeds the animals with a mixture of corn and soy rather than 100% soy. It has nothing to do with taxation, it’s just that cereal grains yield more calories per unit of agricultural resources (land, water, labor) than any other crop.
It has nothing to do with taxation, it’s just that cereal grains yield more calories per unit of agricultural resources (land, water, labor) than any other crop.
Potato competes. And wheat is actually quite inefficient as far as cereal crops go.
No simple calculus like calories per acre really demonstrates much. The Irish adopted the potato largely because it was the highest calorie per unit of labor crop available, but they had some very specific economic pressures set upon them. For pre industrial farming you have to balance productivity per acre, productivity per hour worked, per gallon of water, disease and pest loads, annual variations in productivity, sensitivity to weather, storage of the crop as both a food and as a seed, and speed at which a plant depletes the soil of nutrients, and how long it takes to replenish (and a bunch more I bet).
Potato is a New World crop, making the point moot.
This is the sort of “we will all eat bugs/recycled food/[other weird stuff]” in the future. I’ll believe it when I see it. Maybe sweet potatoes (another New World crop) yield more calories per acre, but probably they require more resources, are less transportable, and so on. There must be a reason we feed pigs grains rather than tubers.
Afaik, it depends on what resource is taken into consideration. It’s less land but more labor efficient (and water?)
Mostly corn, though, which is a higher yield than wheat
Having a tyrant oppressing a large population is an effective coordination mechanism, that lets larger groups act to advance a common goal (the tyrant’s). The benefit of coordination just has to outweigh the drawbacks of agriculture.
I’m not sure we’re operating under compatible definitions of the word “common.”
The thesis of the text under review seems to be that for most of history, it didn’t- at least, not for the vast majority of the population engaging in agriculture.
In short, that agriculture represented one of those deals with Moloch: most people live in misery, a handful get to live like kings by oppressing the miserable, and if the machine stops because people are miserable, it won’t help because most of the population just starves to death.
If the general population shifts from being non-slaves to a high proportion of slaves, I would think you would have to compare slaves to non-slaves to see what the effect was.
Yeah, but it’s the effects of the slavery, not the crops the slaves were growing…
The whole complex historical change to agriculture is the cause.
I strongly doubt that all this is true. Some of author’s claims seems very doubtful.
– The “wilderness Eden” of the hunter-gatherers – see here:
– That the farmers had an almost 100% wheat diet
All peasants I knew irl or I’ve read about had domestic animals (at least chicken, if not cows and pigs), grew some other vegetables and had trees that produced fruits in their gardens. Oxen were essential to agriculture, so they must have had cattle, so they must have had some milk and milk products.
(Sorry for my poor English, I write in a hurry.)
Also, cereal grain farming doesn’t require intensive labor all year round. Between sow and harvest there is hardly any work to do in the fields, which leaves farmers free to tend to other crops, fruit trees, domestic animals or even go hunting and fishing on common or unclaimed lands which were almost always available nearby, as agriculture was limited by population size.
It wasn’t until the High Middle Ages that most fertile land in Europe had been deforested and allocated to grain production in order to support the large population, which indeed resulted in a decline of nutrition quality and health. Even today many developing countries practice slash-and-burn farming, which means that they still have large forests suitable for conversion to agricultural land.
I think you’re missing a key activity in this list. War. Once most of your calories come from an annual crop which doesn’t require intensive year round labour you can have a massive proportion of your citizen body march off and bully people who don’t do the same. Hunter-gatherers can of course also all march out to war at once, but they don’t have a huge grain store from which to pull to keep that army in the field. Maybe everyone has to go back to digging tubers out of the ground way before the agricultural folk have to go back to their fields ?
So you can march off and catch as many hunter gatherers as you like and make them slaves so you have to do even less of the labour intensive cultivation yourself. Maybe cereals are the centre of centralisation because they create a system in which you can concentrate force much more effectively ?
The more I read about the Middle Ages, the more it struck me a) how regulated everything was and b) how many important aspects of life back then are seldom accounted for in discussion of things like quality of life and nutrition. For example, it’s common knowledge that you were restricted in where you could hunt, and also what you could hunt. But different parcels of land might come with specific privileges, e.g. the mill by the creek on a certain manor came with fishing privileges, but none of the other tenants had the right to fish. And whether the miller could sell or trade one of his fish might also be regulated.
Little birds, however, were almost totally unregulated. We know from accounts of the time that seriously astonishing numbers of tiny songbirds were caught and consumed by the peasantry. But I’ve almost never seen them mentioned in descriptions of the medieval diet. As little meat as you can get off a sparrow, if you boil up enough of them you probably have a key protein source for some people in certain times and places.
I also imagine that catching little birds might not have been too worthwhile for a hunter-gatherer, but it makes sense on several levels for sedentary populations.
Backing up this point. Living as a hunter-gatherer is idyllic during good times. During bad times you are watching your family starve. Agriculturalists surviving at lower average levels of nutrition is evidence that what agriculture offered was a trade-off to diminish nutritional volatility.
How long does domestication take? First you have to domesticate the animals. Before then, you still have to hunt to get meat.
From Smith’s The Emergence of Agriculture:
“In all three areas [the Levant, North America, and the southern Sahara], climate change had contributed to a steepening of the environmental gradients between rich waterside habitat areas and outlying dryer zones less able to sustain hunter-gatherer societies, especially sedentary ones.”
“In summary…in these three areas, seed plants were domesticated by affluent societies living in sedentary settlements adjacent to…locations that would have offered both abundant animal species…and well-water soils for secure harvests. These societies also seem to have been circumscribed by the presence of other societies and by environmental zones that were poorer in resources.
About specific domesticates he also says (paraphrasing): about 10,000 years ago, Levantine experimentation in wheat and barley led to early domestic varieties in from 20 to 200 years. (That short!)
By 9000 years ago, people in the Zagros (Iran) had starting keeping captive goat herds.
These two trends spread and met in the Fertile Crescent from about 8700 to 8200 years ago, and with the addition there of domesticated pig and sheep, the stage was set for the rapid expansion of these technologies which eventually gave rise to the first cities.
The whole book is extraordinarily interesting.
In your paraphrase, this would appear to be falsified by ancient Egypt. My knowledge is limited and will come from some combination of The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt and Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World.
So, many premodern states struggled with the question of how much tax to assess. You want to generate as much revenue as possible, but you don’t want to take so much that the farmers starve, because that is terrible for revenue next year. On the other hand, you can’t ask the farmers, because they will tell you they need it all. History is replete with examples of governments from around the world struggling with this problem and often getting it wrong.
Ancient Egypt was blessed with a naturally centralized system that made tax assessment easy. Every year, the flooding of the Nile deposited fertile soil onto the otherwise barren land next to the river, and the Egyptians grew food in the new soil. Trying to grow crops on land that didn’t benefit from flooding would not work. Every year on Tax Assessment Day, an assessor went to the official Tax Rod mounted on an island in upper Egypt, upstream of all the farms, and measured how high the Nile had risen on the rod. Taxes for that year were set based on the level of the water on Tax Day, multiplied by the acreage you cultivated. This worked very well, because it was easy to measure objectively for everyone, but it was also directly related to soil fertility for the year. More flooding means more crops. Less flooding means fewer crops.
Despite this enlightened system, which measured soil fertility directly and assessed taxes without bothering to measure crop production, Egypt is best known for the massive quantities of grain it grew. This suggests that the grain was grown for the benefits it provided the farmers, not the tax assessors.
We can also note that ancient Egypt was a very early state, more of a trend-setter than a trend-follower in state organization. I don’t have dates for the tax assessment system; it’s certainly possible that someone blindly copied the idea of growing grain from a nearby culture that needed grain as a source of authority regardless of its agricultural merits. But the earliness of Egypt makes this less likely than otherwise.
You forgot two important steps in the tax assessment process. After the tax assessor decided how much land the farmers would cultivate this year, the farmers went to a royal grannery and were given an allotment of seeds according to the assement of the tax man. And the amount of tax owed was equal to the maximum amount of crop that could be produced from those seeds, which was than given out to the framers in predetermind ration.
You could think of ancient Egypt as something between the wet dream of an Soviet five year planner, and 19th century.
Cf. Genesis 47, which claims to describe the origin of this practice. Joseph has convinced Pharaoh to stockpile grain during the famine; Pharaoh appoints him vizier. First he sells the people food for their money, then their livestock, then – when the famine continues and the people have nothing left – their land. “Then Joseph said to the people, ‘Behold, I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh. Now here is seed for you, and you shall sow the land. And at the harvests you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh…’ And they said, ‘You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh.'”
Argh just reread that, the last sentence should be something like
You could think of ancient Egypt as something between the wet dream of an Soviet five year planner, and 19th century company town.
No idea how you could possibly make that work. This isn’t Monsanto grain. They could literally slip enough into their pockets while harvesting every day for a week to handle the next season on their own
Yes, and this is were the whole “The kings agents can see how much grain you have on your fields, and it is relativly easy to confiscated it all, since it has to be harvested all at oncce” comes in very handy.
Also on which land exactly would you plant it? Most of the land suitable to grow grain belongs to the king. And if you find some hidden place up in the mountains, or some hidden oasis, or something like this, you probably to be there for weeks, and that’s another thing that the kings agents tend to notice (also you would be abscent on harvest season, giving your neighbours reason to rat you out). So in this case you need to move to this hidden place permanently, and become exactly what J. Scott calls “none stated people”.
Naturaly all the behavior described above would probably called “treason” or “rebellion” and carry some nasty punishmend.
I’d say the argument was more was more “of all the forms of agriculture, grain was the most amenable to state formation, and since states are powerful, grain growers eventually conquered all the non-grain growers.”
He still has to answer how come all the HGs who had 50,000-200,000 years head start were suddenly overwhelmed.
Why is that a problem for him? Isn’t the point precisely that grain states have coercive powers that HG are not capable of producing, no matter how long they have?
Because even at low population growth rates the world would have been covered by humans in a few thousand years and there is no space left to develop agriculture. The HG lifestyle as presented is clearly false in some way or else agriculture simply would never have been able to take hold 100,000-200,000 years in.
Yeah, I don’t see that as a problem. States were more effective at coercion, so they were able to out coerce other forms of organization.
It depends heavily on whether you view “help, I’m being coerced” as a problem in and of itself.
From a certain libertarian-ish perspective, it’s a problem. The idea that states emerged not because people in the state of nature rationally did things that consistently made them personally better off, but because a handful of people could more efficiently coerce everyone else that way… It’s not going to be a shock to everyone, but it will be a shock to some.
It’s clearly a problem in the ethical sense (and Scott views it as one), just not in the sense that it’s a problem for the argument about why states arose.
I would use ancient Egypt as a check on Mesopotamia. Upper Egypt (the southern bit) is long and thin with annoying deserts on each side. One really wanted to live near the river. How did this compare to Mesopotamia (and China)?
I think it’s mostly wrong, going off of my reading (among others) of Understanding Early Civilizations, by Bruce Trigger, a much more scholarly comparative study of bronze age civilizations. Bronze age civilizations who independently invented statehood raised taxes in four main ways: corvee labor, taxes on grains, required contributions of luxury goods, and taxes on marketplaces. States that lacked grains to tax (I’m thinking especially of the Yoruba) made up for it with more intensive use of the other options. So it was helpful but definitely not necessary.
Most bronze age city-states had fairly high death rates due to bad sanitation and relied on a constant voluntary inflow of people from the countryside. Trigger presents ethnic cleansings and relocations as more attempts by states to secure their boundaries than to gain labor, and prisoners were much more often used for human sacrifice than as slaves.
Political institutions were exceedingly decentralized in bronze age civilizations, including for taxation. It was rare for kings to send tax assessors from farms to farms. Rather, kings apportioned taxes amongst their governors, who apportioned it among their lords, who handed peasant communes a bill and told them to work it out among themselves but to pay the lords. So a “legible” system of taxation was not really necessary, their preference was decidedly for something that works at the expense of fairness. Another upshot of the decentralization is that the grunt work of armies were peasants doing corvee labor: Due to the weakness of institutions and the peasant majority of the armies, no bronze age state could effectively have resisted a widespread rebellion of their peasantry, so oppression was more limited than Scott presents.
In short Scott’s work suffers from an overgeneralization of the Mesopotamian case read through anarchism instead of a more considered weighing of the evidence for early statehood. While many may have preferred barbarism to civilization most inhabitants of bronze age states preferred civilization to barbarism. Or at least they were happy enough with civilization not to rebel and to prefer to move to cities from the country rather than from the countryside to the wilderness.
Understanding Early Civilizations is also an excellent albeit massive book that I think many in the SSC crowd would enjoy.
I’m currently reading Trigger’s “A History of Archaeological Thought”, another massive book, but I can already say I’d like to give some of his other writing a try.
If nothing else, he explains what Soviet Archaeology was on about, which I’d always wondered when visiting historical museums in Russia and reading descriptions of artifacts that seemed to draw from some alternate paradigm for which I had no context.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari supports many of the same findings that James Scott writes about in Against the grain.
I’d also wonder if James Scott doesn’t give enough credit to the ingenuity of tax men at coming up with ways to tax farmers who raise other crops than grain. If I am King Sargon the Great, I have to imagine it’s not super important to me that my tax collectors are super fair about taking exactly the same percentage from each, as long as I don’t get cheated too much. I could demand, say, a tax per head, or a certain number of months of forced labor per year, or measure the size of the house, or the number of windows in the house, etc etc
Or just vast empires in general. The Eurasian steppe was the forge of empires – its pastoralists swept out of the steppe to the east, south, and west. They re-wrote the genetics of places like India and Europe with their migrations.
The great empires of Eurasia virtually all formed along the edge of the Eurasian steppe (with one very notable exception in Rome), and there was a reason for that – the areas that didn’t consolidate into larger kingdoms got overrun by folks riding in (literally) out of the steppe. Or said folks overran those areas and consolidated them into larger entities (the Achaemenids that formed the Persian Empire were originally pastoralists).
The bit about “escape to edenic lifestyles” was interesting. That might explain the persistence of Egypt’s dynasties and monarchic kingdoms in general – there’s nowhere to escape to. It’s just an extremely fertile river valley that floods like clockwork, and then a much less fertile and hard to use desert surrounding it (eventually).
The former is a myth. The original estimate on that did not count all the time spent gathering firewood, food preparation, etc.
What’s fascinating to me is that I’ve read elsewhere that hunter-gatherers tend to resist shifting wholly to agriculture, but are much less resistant to a shift to pastoralism.
All except Rome? What about China, Persia, India?
…and what constitutes an “empire” here? How long did barbarians manage to keep their domains together, and how effective was their rule? I think the Mongols were more the exception than the rule here, going beyond the usual raping and plundering expedition and maintaining actual rule over time. To the extent their empire endured, I think it was by conquering China and adopting their imperial practices.
Rome was similarly built on expeditions to bring home riches and slaves, but established sovereignty over lands and people and lasted for the better part of a millennium.
BTW, when did people stop fleeing from agrarian society? Was it common in the Roman empire, for instance? Or from Greek city-states? Medieval Europe? If it stopped, then why? A lack of wilderness able to sustain life?
I was going to mention this in response to
The barbarians certainly did rewrite the genetics of India and Europe. But they didn’t do it by establishing empires. The empires grew later, and were much much more localized than the barbarians.
The Yuan Dynasty (the Mongol rule of China) is notable in Chinese history for its extremely short duration of only ~100 years. I tend to draw the inference that the Mongols weren’t especially effective at maintaining an empire.
If you read about the eagerness of farm boys in the late 1800s and early 1900s to get off the farm … never?
I realize this isn’t quite the same thing, but farming is/was tough … even today.
The Cossacks are descended from Russian serfs who fled to the steppe frontier and adopted the horseback lifestyle of their Muslim enemies.
The enormous popularity of stories about American cowboys for 100 years had a lot to with farmboys dreaming of a freer life on horseback.
Well China and Persia border the steppes directly. And India was never a single empire. The northern Indian empires were close to the steppes though.
The Maurya Empire covered nearly all the Indian subcontinent in the 4th century BCE.
Both the Maurya Empire which unified India, and the Qin Dynasty which unified China, had their origins in the center of India or China many hundreds of km from the steppes. Yes, the eventual Chinese empire reached the steppes (India didn’t though, there were vast mountainous regions in between). But by the same token, Rome also eventually reached the steppes. That doesn’t mean they were steppe empires, all it means is that any sufficiently large empire will eventually reach the edges of habitable land.
I’d dispute that the Qin were far from the steppe: the north of what is now China was steppe culture at this time wasn’t it?
I’d forgotten the Maurya, who certainly stand alongside the Roman’s in this respect. Note though that like the Roman’s the Maurya were pretty close to barbarians (the Himalayas and probably the hill country to the east – the Romans had the Gauls to the north).
The Qin were from southwest-central China. It’s north China that’s close to the steppe.
The Mauryan empire only lasted for two hundred years and it was falling apart before then. After that, India was only relatively united when steppe nomads conquered it until the British came along.
The Qin state bordered the Xiongnu steppe confederation. The Achaemenids that founded the Persian Empire originated in the far northwest of what became its territory, bordering the steppe.
I’ll give you the Maurya – they didn’t form on the Eurasian Steppe boundary. But India did have empires later that were formed by invaders from central Asia.
The shift to pastoralism being easier seems… natural? You’re still moving, you’re still hunting and gathering, you just have a bunch of animals with you as well…
But regarding the firewood gathering and food preparation, wasn’t that done by women/slaves? It would leave men working significantly less and free to engage in recreational activities/fun pastimes/raids… I seem to recall that from an analysis of Native American clans/tribes?
I can never recover the source for this, but the rich hunter gatherer who only work 10 to 20 hour a week seems to come from few and very dubious studies. Others give 14 hour of work per day for hunter gatherer tribe, and remarks that bushmens are short because of undernutrition/malnutrition.
Not all HG societies must be equal? AFAIK, there’s no reason to believe that Native Americans living in the plains were malnourished? And Scott had a write up (Seeds of Albion?) where he relates the author pointing out that the lifestyle was very attractive to even people who had been kidnapped into it…
Of course the later post Columbus plains Indians probably benefited from massive population drop due to imported illnesses from Europe. They were not in a Malthusian condition – the herds of buffalo we read about would have been devastated over time as the population grew.
I would want to be able to see the various sources to see what they are labeling as “work”. “The hunt” is work, but also might end up as a ritualized or social event in such a way that it was “good work” (enjoyable and possibly a form of entertainment as well as work) in a way that plowing might not be. Same for whatever was done to prepare the meals, and other various types of work.
If I spent 14 hours hunting, cleaning the kill, and preparing the meal I might call that a “good day”. If I spent 10-12 hours plowing a field that would seem considerably worse.
The 10-20 hours a week claim smells of bullshit to me too, but we have pretty solid skeletal evidence that Mesopotamian farmers were a lot shorter than the Mesopotamian foragers that preceded them. Even as late as the early modern era, Native Americans from foraging or semi-foraging cultures had a rep for being tall compared to their European neighbors.
This doesn’t necessarily mean they lived longer or better lives — it might reflect some form of survivorship bias. But it is a pretty good proxy for health among the populations being measured.
Can a sexual selection mechanism play a role here?
How would sexual selection explain, that Native American’s used to be bigger then European settlers 200 years agot. But are not anymore?
Similarly, how would sexual selection explain that European average grew something like 10cm since WW2.
In differing societies/cultures/civilizations, the women have different sets of properties available to select men for (and mutatis mutandis vice versa).
…Until the lifestyles have been mixed for some generations, I guess.
In HG and early agrarian, there is not much beyond physical properties (height, strength), hunting/gathering/farming skills, and a little social/negotiating/politics.* In later, more complex societies there’s much more that can make men attractive: knowledge, manners, business acumen, inherited wealth, socializing talent, social class, craftsmanship, art… So here, body length is a much weaker signal for reproductive fitness.
*I may unfairly underestimate these societies, but the point stands.
ETA: Re European growth post WWII, I think that is indeed a nutritional matter. But that was not what I answered to.
Isn’t there a huge tension between “grain became the prevailing crop because dictators forced the peasants to grow it in order to collect taxes” and “states in this period were inherently weak and even ceased to exist for generations at a time”?
Not at all. The point that states weren’t born mature – at first (aka thousands of years) you had a chieftain that pushed a few neighboring tribes into semi-slavery due to a very temporary advantage. Maybe he won a bunch of battles, or managed to make an alliance between several tribes. Whatever those advantages were, they go away pretty fast – it’s actually a not-small miracle if he manages to pass it to his son. The baseline situation is still one tribe << several tribes. We're talking about primitive warfare and non-professional armies, so numbers were by far the first determinant in a victory.
Nowadays sure, the nice policemen have guns and the population is indoctrinated from early age to obey authority figures. But then you had a bunch of guys that took food from another bunch of guys. Nothing stable about it.
The point was that you wouldn’t see consistent grain cultivation, if the dictatorship was inconsistent and grain was only grown because of the dictatorship.
Maybe making a living otherwise demanded skills that were easily lost in a few generations?
Ah, so the other end. That’s a bit harder to deduce and a lot easier to speculate.
My first guess… actually, no, my second guess is better 🙂 You don’t need wheat to be an active harvest in the subdued tribes – just that it is known of and available somewhere within the range of the proto-state. You get conquered, and one day the bad guys come with bushels of seed and tell you to start planting it all over your fields, or else.
That’s a much weaker condition, and allows for temporary loss of wheat cultivation. It even allows for repeated domestication of wild grains – as long as just the knowledge of grain being a taxable harvest survives, chiefs have an incentive to try and introduce it.
The answer in The Art Of Not Beeing Governed to this was something like:
Some places are really better suited to grain cultivation, those places either attract state actors, or attract the formation of state actors. Those state actors invest ressources in a) concentrating population to places better suited to grain cultivation, b) forcing people to use more time and land to cultivate grain, and when those places have been filled c) building infrastructure that make other places also better suited to agriculture (irrigation, terraces etc.)
I think a) and b) beg the question.
c) could be an answer but needs more support.
Yeah, that was what I was thinking. A strong and well-established state can force its citizens to do things which aren’t in their best interests, but how would the first state force everybody to switch from hunter-gathering to grain-farming, if the whole problem with hunter-gathering is that it makes it hard for the state to force people to do what it wants?
I think you need to have at least semi-settled populations to be able to talk about conquering. And if some of them already harvest wild wheat, you just push them to do it more (for example by burning other stuff).
The entire argument of the post is based on the premise that legumes provide nearly as much nutrition per acre as grains. This is definitely not true today, with modern farming techniques, but do we have sources that would help determine whether it was true in ancient times?
You’re presuming that no one wanted to grow gain. Some places, like egypt, are ideal for grain growing. Grain growing is amenable to state formation, and so the places that grew grain produced the first states. And since the state is a powerful form of social interaction, those places went on to conquer non grain growers, sometimes and in some places spreading grain growing, other not.
But if hunter-gatherers really are so much more leisured and healthy than those weedy, malnourished agriculturalists who spend all day doing backbreaking labour down on the farm, surely no-one would actually want to grow grain?
Oops, lost my comment. I think there must be something to this idea, but I also think it’s really hard to get people to do things they don’t want to do, so it must have seemed a reasonable life choice in the short term.
I’m also reminded of several bits in genesis and joshua, of Cain vs Abel, and of the israelites saying, “hey, no more charismatic time-limited prophets, we want a proper inherited kingship”, and being told, “are you sure? are you sure you’re sure?”
I can’t really understand this modern neo-Luddism. Even if the ostentatious claims of “3 days of labor per year, the rest is recreation” were true, that still only applies to the prehistoric world.
I’m writing these words using a thinking machine which is powered by captured lightning, and is tied into a global network whose language is light. I’m alive today because we have machines that can see inside a person, and we have the knowledge to understand what we see. I will never walk on the Moon, but other people have done that.
None of this would be possible without dramatic specialization, which in turn is impossible without large population density, which in turn is impossible without agriculture. A farmer doesn’t just need to feed his own family; he needs to feed hundreds of thousands of people who perform entirely useless (from the subsistence point of view) tasks such as “debugging firmware assembly code”.
Even if a magical genie offered me the choice to go seamlessly back to a prehistoric existence, I wouldn’t take it, no matter how “Edenic” it might seem. What’s so wonderful about dying from preventable (by modern standards) diseases, never being able to travel farther than you can walk, and basically never doing or learning anything new ? On the flip side, if you think Eden is so great, why are you still living in a city, posting on the devil’s Internet ?
Does the lightning thinking machine make you more or less happy than you would be otherwise?
(I would say with high confidence, though, that antibiotics and hygiene and vaccines make you happier, and these too require modernity.)
Me as I am now ? Absolutely. Some other version of me, who’d never heard of electricity ? Hard to tell, but that person would be so different from myself, he might as well be a wholly different person. Do other people, happier than myself, exist ? Well, yes, but so do sadder ones…
More happy. I have easier access to information to sate my curiosity, channels of near-instant communication with friends I otherwise would rarely be able to talk to, and on-demand entertainment. (The latter definitely runs the danger of being wireheading-lite, but without video games and youtube I’m sure I’d still waste plenty of time reading fiction from the library anyways.) Definitely positive on balance.
Modern society is clearly better than hunter-gatherer society, but modern society has only existed since the late 1800s in the US and Europe and late 1900s in most of the rest of the world. For the thousands of years before then, settled agricultural life was probably worse than hunter-gatherer life. Whether agriculture was a mistake for humans as a whole will depend on how long we can keep modern society progressing.
I do not observe people being euphoric from central heating, and I can reasonably assume my ancestors didn’t kill themselves when they realized they don’t have modern conveniences, which makes me doubt that progress really makes people happier. It seems like it just adds more requirements to feel normal.
“Would you be happier?” always strikes me as such an…idk, modern question. I wouldn’t be happier in a hunter-gatherer society. I would be dead, due to complications that occurred during my birth, and I would have killed my mother with me. Based on numbers I’ve seen on hunter-gatherer infant and child mortality, approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of the people here would not have survived to be old enough to worry about whether or not they were happy.
Agreed completely, but it’s not just a matter of medicine. I think that a world with computers, ice cream, and Moon landings is better than the one without such things — all medical issues being equal. Expanding the range of options available to people is IMO generally a good thing, even though you inevitably get some bad along with the good.
As I understand it, what we seen in terms of happiness is that hunter-gatherers are quite happy, early agriculturalists are quite miserable, and as civilization advances and wealth increases, agriculturalists (fewer and fewer of whom farm) become happier and happier as they get wealthier. Progress from Sumer to here absolutely made people happier.
This looks like a sketchy-at-best tradeoff (millennia of misery to get back to where we started from?!), except that (a) we finally are reaching a point where it looks like nobody has to be grinding-the-dirt miserable, and (b) there are way more people now than then, so unless hunter-gatherers are utility monsters each worth a hundred of us, it’s been, eventually, a good thing.
I live in a region with cold-@$$ winters, and I’m pretty damn euphoric about central heating when coming inside from the cold.
It is possible to make strong arguments for neo-Luddism. Imagine that, like 95% of people, you don’t expect a technological singularity. Then you’re stuck with a 9-5 job that you probably don’t think is meaningful in your heart of hearts. Your fitness is diminishing, you’re constantly comparing yourself to the rich and successful in the media. Wouldn’t it make sense to level the playing field, to return to the state of nature we were optimised for, spend all your time outside?
I never understood the preventable disease argument. Everyone still dies, just later on when they’re old, sick and miserable. If you aren’t expecting a cure to ageing soon, then you’re expecting to wither away in a retirement home like everyone else. Heart disease is preventable, as is diabetes and most types of cancer. Hunter gatherer lifestyle can do what we (currently) cannot. The malaise of aging has a lot to do with inactivity.
Again, the hunter-gatherer would ask you: how deeply do you know your surroundings? You may have been to New York and London but how well do you know the wateries, the hills, the good hunting grounds? There’s a depth v breadth issue.
Watching a child die and watching a parent die are two different things. Having a friend die in a hospital and knowing what happened is different from having one disappear in the wilderness never to be seen again. If someone asked you to pick a person you know to die you would struggle to pick one, but you would immediately eliminate (no pun intended) a bunch of people from contention, so its fairly obvious that ‘everyone dies eventually’ doesn’t translate into ‘so it doesn’t matter who and when’.
Right, children are usually easier to replace.
I assume you’re joking?
If you’re serious, you’re most likely not a parent. I would prefer my own death over my children’s death.
Yes, this is something you need to experience to believe it. Before I had children, I wouldn’t have believed it myself. Loving a child is … different than loving anybody else, even oneself.
He’s most likely not putting himself in the mindset of a modern parent, but that’s pretty much the point. The idea that every child is sacred and their deaths the ultimate and unthinkable tragedy, that parents exist to serve their children and not vice versa, is a modern one and does not seem to be universal among parents across all of human history.
In particular, for most of history, there isn’t a question of preferring your own death to your children’s. First, because most threats aren’t going to kill all of your children, only some of them and you have spares. Second, because it is pretty much inevitable that some of your children are going to die in childhood, and you’ll have internalized that fact in childhood yourself. And third, because the one thing that is plausibly going to kill all rather than just some of your children, is you dying before they reach adulthood. So if those are the choices, do you prefer some of your children dying, or you and all of your children dying?
I don’t think that’s true, at least not to the extent you suggest. Sure, pre-modern people were less sensitive to one of their children dying, but they were less sensitive to everything – on account of death being a much more common, everyday fact of life – including to the death of their parents. Therefore, like today, back then the death of one’s child was probably more tragic than the death of one’s parent.
But most children did die, often at young age, and many people didn’t have any children that outlived them. It typically wasn’t the case that you had plenty of “spare” children, because your “spares” were already dead. For most of human history, the average number of surviving (and reproducing) offspring was a little over 2 children per woman. So once you were down to ~2 children, the situation was not different than for modern parents.
Conversely, by your logic, modern parents in the developed world with, say, 4 or more children would grief less from the death of a child than parents with only 2 children. I really don’t think that’s the case.
See my point above regarding general hardship not changing the relative tragedies of parents dying compared to children dying.
Again, probably not true. First, because a widowed parent could find a new partner, and second, because in a hunter-gatherer tribe (or most later societies), an orphan or half-orphan wouldn’t just be thrown to the wolves, but be cared for by their relatives.
It doesn’t matter to the point at hand, he has already (even if sarcastically) bitten the bullet that all death isn’t equal, pretty much taking the sting from his first statement.
The remainder of your post is largely historically inaccurate. You can’t have HG groups with parents consistently having multiple living children or else their populations would have been way higher after a few thousand years, let alone tens of thousands of years.
Further we don’t see this behavior in other animals at all. Mother animals who rear their young ratchet up aggression if their young are threatened far more frequently than they obviously morn for passing elders. Black bears are often defensive around their cubs, despite having an average litter size of 2.5 and with a 15-20 year window to have cubs every other year. So a bear who puts herself in more danger for her cubs sake at a young age is risking 15-20 extra offspring by doing so.
John Schilling, it may be worth trying to cash out some assumptions. According to AskHistorians, yes, people did grieve for their children in times of high infant mortality. No, it didn’t make sense to sacrifice yourself for one child when you had four more to care for, but people still cared.
The main accommodations made to high mortality seem to have been cultural beliefs where the child wasn’t a real person for the first eight days, or thirty days, or two years. After that period, they’d get a name and count as a person, but it was considerably less tragic if they died before that dividing line.
What assumption do you think I hold that needs to be “cashed out”?
I did not claim that premodern parents did not care about the lives of their children, nor grieve their deaths. I do not believe that any remotely charitable reading of my post would conclude that. The subject under debate was whether parents invariably care more about a child’s life than their own. I was attempting to respond to that, quantitative, claim.
Your “response”, is wholly nonresponsive to the only point I was addressing. But if you’re not going to be charitable in my reading, I am particularly disinclined to be charitable in return, so it’s probably best if we drop it.
It seems to me that one complication is that the definition of ‘my child’ differs both per individual, per ideology, as well as historically.
See abortion as one example. To some, a fetus is ‘my child.’ To others, it is not.
Historically we also see a lot of infanticide, for example, when the child is handicapped. Roman law mandated infanticide in the case of a visible handicap.
Then we have parents who disown(ed) a child: ‘You are no child of mine.’
The people of the past could have grieved gravely for losing a child, yet also murdered (in our eyes) another child without necessarily feeling more guilt or pain than a modern person who gets an abortion, yet would feel horrible about losing their (non-fetus) child.
As I mentioned, it does not make sense to me personally.
That said, I admit that I don’t have a good argument against wireheading, either. All of the problems in my life could, theoretically, be solved by inducing a state of permanent bliss for however long I can survive in that state. In utilitarian terms, this is the optimal scenario; and yet, I do not find myself desiring it.
My society did not teach me the rather vast set of skills and habits required to survive outside of civilization. You might as well criticize a San bushman for not knowing how to use a computer.
Thankfully, the internet can teach you how to drop out of society:
stateless ppl in the ancient me
One of Scott’s ideas that you didn’t mention here is the fact that archeological history is the history of states. Sedentary people build structures and a lot of other stuff that archeologists can find and study 6000 years laters. “Barbarian” people not so much.
Modern archeologists then think that history is the history of settlements, cities, states, and empires— but Scott argues that for most of the ancient period, these are blips, miserable, dictatorial blips. They’re the only things we can study because they’re the only things in the archeological record, but they are not remotely representative of human live in any period more than 4000 years ago. This was a new idea to me.
I also wondered when reading your review if you are James Scott.
He does mention that in the review.
I think most archaeologists would disagree with this. For a start, whereas non-barbarian cultures invested in building physical structures, barbarians tended to invest in furnishing burials with valuable items, so archaeologists can use these to identify the barbarians. Hence the various [obscure place on the Ukrainian steppe]-cultures that appear in archaeological discourse: these are based on the burial remains of barbarians.
And archaeology is also aware of the problem of invisible people, and has a variety of methods to detect changing land use and tge like. They can even excavate temporary camps (I’m guessing courtesy of advances in North American archeology). Yes, the headlines are generally dominated by monumental archaeology, but this reflects the public and the media, not actual archaeology.
Even savages need soup.
You get La Tene and stuff, even though their houses are gone and they never wrote anything. You get Geometric Style even when the Greeks are busy having a dark age.
But a farmer might actually choose to plant wheat. As much as he’d like to stick it to the man by growing perishable foods only, he has to survive winters. He could save some carrots in a cold cellar or pickle some cucumbers but that’s not very nutritious. Grain is just too good to skip.
And legumes are avoided by farmers even today because they’re too risky:
Interesting, I didn’t know that. Though, frankly, that ought to be a very solvable problem, with a few judicious subsidies. I mean, we subsidized/still subsidize wheat/corn (milk too, iirc)…
And once you go over a certain population density, you kinda have to go with grain – backbreaking and unhealthly as it is, it’s the only one that can feed you. The old theory of the switch to agriculture doesn’t have to be wrong for this one to be true – both go in the same direction. But this one does explain better how we got to planting that much grain in the first place.
Is it really true that grain farming is back breaking labor once the land is cleared? I guess plowing and reaping are pretty hard work, but they are only done for a limited period a year. My impression (being from an European farming area when I was younger, 40 odd years ago), was that most farmers spent their time on animal husbandry rather than on the corn.
Farming in general sucks majorly. It’s far worse than meatpacking plants, construction or warehousing. I can imagine that old school farming was way harder since now we have these nice crop harvesters which take the backbreaking labor out of growing wheat. Picking Strawberries is however the worst job I’ve ever had and it’s extremely backbreaking. It’s also one of the crops that must be picked in the old school way.
Have you ever had a job which caused you to ache at the end of the day? If you have, imagine doing that job for a month straight 12 hours a day, that’s what harvest season is like.
I think you underrate just how bad harvest season is, it’s extremely painful to do (by hand) and the work never stops (anything that doesn’t get picked rots really fast)
I never harvested more Strawberries, then the 3*4m plot in my parents garden, but the fact that Polish workers nowadays prefer to drive 600km further, to pick wine in France or Italy over picking German strawberries tells me everything I need to know.
At this is with modern machines, without having to work on your knees and lived heavy baskets.
In general yes. It isn’t just the growing and harvesting of the grain, it is also the preparation of the grain from threshing to grinding. Cooking is also a significant effort sink as you get basically no nutrition from unprepared grain (some grains you can just soak and get partial nutrition) and one of the things you are short on once you have cleared the land for farming is wood for cooking so you have to trade, travel significant distances or find alternative fuels (which are often unpleasant in a variety of ways).
I don’t think the answers so far genuinely illustrate the magnitude of the effort. Before mechanized agriculture we had animals pulling plows – that’s a lot harder than it looks, because the plow is just a blade, and while the animal may be pulling, the human has to push it down and guide it. Before metal plows there were wood plows. Before animal domestication humans were pulling the plow – that’s an image that’s probably well within living memory, having a man pull the plow and the wife guiding it. And before that… you had people scratching the earth with sticks.
Same progression with the sickle – imagine harvesting a whole field of wheat using nothing but a broken rock.
I think you have to read the other Scott’s books as a (conscious) overcorrection to common historiography. Which still goes a lot like “people developed agriculture (and it was good), and than people settled down (and it was good), and than people founded the first states (ad it was good)”. As you mention your self there are a bunch of contratictions to this narrativ in achriological evidence.
“So what,” the other Scott asks “if this narrativ is inherently wrong?”
And yes I think a lot of the stuff he says are already in the water supply. Maybe have already been in the water supply since the early second half of the 20ties century. But it was a question someone needed to ask at some point.
Were hunter-gatherers in a Malthusian trap? What was the check on their population growth if it wasn’t occasional starvation? Without a major check it wouldn’t have taken too long for exponential population growth to quickly cause populations to exceed the carrying capacity of the land. The population check was probably not contagious disease since their population densities were not high enough and back long ago lots of contagious diseases didn’t yet exist. If the check wasn’t starvation, it was likely death through violence which would somewhat undercut the foragers-in-paradise thesis.
My understanding is that death through violence is by far the leading cause of death for hunter-gatherer men.
I am less sure about women.
Remember that modern hunter gatherers are in constrained environments, generally pretty marginal, not in the best and most fertile area of the entire region. This means increased competition, all else being equal, and therefore increased risk of violence.
Hunter gatherers in non-violent, highly fertile regions should experience exponential population growth until they exceed the carrying capacity of the land, at which point many will starve or they will fight over food resources.
But we’re talking about them hitting carrying capacity, so the only difference is how many people are in the tribe before this becomes a problem.
Unless there is a different limit that was being imposed back then.
You can’t look at carrying capacity the way we do for modern humans. There wouldn’t be a large geographic area where everyone fit in a fairly narrow band of prosperity, you would have a large geographic area with lots of smaller areas of outliers where groups are functionally wiped out by one off events, meaning that there were constantly new areas to expand into for those that hadn’t been hit by events like that. A bad harvest year that cost 10% of lives for an agricultural society will have a different distribution of deaths than one that costs 10% of all lives in an HG society.
Sure, but the fundamental problem with the Edenic HG Paradise model is that it presents food as not a scarce resource. Therefore we would expect human populations to expand in response to that plenty the same as in any other similar environment.
If there’s plenty of food overall, but in my village food is scarce so I have to constantly move to find food, that doesn’t match the low-work HG paradise. If there’s plenty of food in the village, why aren’t the HGs having more children? Presumably states aren’t forcing Farmers to have babies, populations expand when food is available.
Thus, whatever the distribution, it seems like an anomaly to define a population that’s not constrained by limiting growth factors but for no good reason doesn’t grow until it is constrained. There has to be a rate-limiting factor in any biological system. If not food, then what was it, and why was it something HGs had no control over such that they would sit around all day doing nothing to mitigate it?
I’m highly skeptical of this Edenic hunter gatherer model. It doesn’t seem to map to what we know of biological systems.
But what was the cause of violence? If it was primarily conflict over food sources, then it doesn’t support the claim that hunter-gatherers lived in an Eden of plenty food.
Perhaps the typical hunter-gatherer was not malnourished at any given time of his life, up until some other hunter-gatherer killed him to seize his hunting-gathering grounds.
I think the basic answer is actually exile, which you see in a fair number of groups. Young male lions and chimpanzees are often driven out of their groups territory at a certain age (sexual maturity), and they will spend a lot of time roaming and providing for themselves until they join up with another group, but many will die during this period.
The other answer is mass starvation, and the routine elimination of entire tribes. Being a tribe that survived for long enough to leave a historical record for anthropologists is sort of like being a person who can trace an unbroken lineage back hundreds of thousands of years. These tribes would be sporadically exposed to all kinds of shocks, essentially black swans from their points of view. If your survival depends on slaughtering a few dozen (hundred? thousand?) antelope during their migration then your survival is dependent on all the weather patterns that the herd will pass through, and you will have little to no knowledge of how good the migration will be. Say you have to cross a river to get to your hunting grounds for the migration, but the migration occurs during the dry season so the river is easily navigable, but once every 50, 100 or 1,000 years there is a freak storm that floods the river and prevents you from crossing during the migration and that even more or less will wipe your tribe out. The survivors move on in search of food and the place becomes uninhabited for a few years/decades, eventually a different tribe splinters off and reclaims the area and they live prosperous lives for 50, 100 or 1,000 years until the next disaster that wipes them out.
In such situations almost all the anthropological evidence will come from the prosperous times and almost nothing will remain from a the disaster period.
We know the hunter-gatherers were a lot better nourished than the farmers. So it wasn’t starvation, at least not the same sort of starvation. (We might imagine farmers were chronically undernourished, whereas hunter-gatherers were usually well-fed but with occasional years of nothing, leading to enough starvation deaths to check growth. Seems dubious.)
I suspect violence was the limitation on hunter-gatherer population.
This also undercuts the general idea of subjects “draining out to the wilderness”. Some individuals, sure. We saw that in the early USA. But whole groups can’t just “go wild” because all the territory they might go to is already claimed, and a group of ex-farmers squatting on some ferocious tribe’s turf is likely to end in the squatters being killed. The tribe knows the terrain, and how to live there, and they are already good at tribal warfare. The farmers don’t and aren’t.
Why does the idea that a hunter-gatherer might be well-nourished for most of their life then die of starvation when times turn bad seem dubious?
I think it’s solid – it’s all about reserves and risks. No matter how well fed you are in general, you will die in a really bad year. In the agricultural society, there is some amount of trade and emptying of granaries to cushion this.
“It’s great until it isn’t” seems to be the description of hunter-gatherer life.
Further, nutrition is about a lot more than calories – the gatherer-hunter is likely have a mixed diet with reasonable amounts of protein and all the other non-calorie nutrition one wants, while the agriculturalist will subsist mostly on calories that have little else going for them. This explains why agriculturalists were shorter.
I assume the idea is that for hunter-gatherers, there is a very sharp transition from living in plenty to total starvation, while for agriculturalists there is a very large range of populations where prosperity gradually decreases through poverty before you get to starvation. Thus, a hunter-gatherer population living just below the carrying capacity would likely involve a large number of groups living in plenty, and a few in poverty or dying of starvation, while an agricultural population living just below the carrying capacity would involve a large number of groups living in poverty and a few dying of starvation.
Probably yes. Probably nothing. But that did not differentiated them from the agriculturalists up until the 1900s, does it.
What would you prefer, beeing one of 20,000 people who starve, or beeing one of 2 Mio people who starve?
On the other hand what would you prefer having a live of 20-30 hours work per week on average, or having a live of 60-80 hours work per week, before either you, or your children, or your childrens children hit the Malthusian trap?
Thanks for all the comments. If hunter-gatherers were in a Malthusian trap than early states should not have had any trouble keeping farmers on land the state controlled because the farmers would not generally have had the opportunity to become hunter-gatherers since they likely would have been worse at it than established hunter-gatherers were. Furthermore, as farming for many (but not all back then) types of land had a higher carrying capacity you would expect the percentage of land used for farming to expand in situations where hunter-gatherers realized they could (for the next generation at least) survive if and only if they switched to farming.
I have not read the book under review, but analysing pre-industrial revolutionary macro history in societies without huge infectious disease burdens without taking into account the Malthusian Trap seems as unreasonable as studying rocketry without accounting for gravity.
My guess is that there was always resources available for nomadic group growth because of the predation by slavers, clan-warfare and the chaotic nature of nature.
Sorry for doublepost, but I wanted to make this another comment:
This is a feeling I have all the time, when someone acts like a big history iconoclast. I still kind of hope it is a mix of stuff that academics and nerdy teens know becomming common knowledge, and site effects of long needed paradigm shifts. But to be honest, I have a strong feeling that it’s mostly a certain type of college students having their minds blown by facts, they should have learned in high school if they wouldn’t have slept through everything.
I seriously doubt most people remember specific pages or lessons from their elementary school history lessons even if they were diligently paying attention the whole time. For more recent education where specific details are more likely to stick (and really even for the earlier education), it is also pretty important to remember that education varies wildly between states, districts, and even specific teachers (as well as, obviously, across time). So some number of people who had that page in their textbook have forgotten all about it. Some other number of people never had that page in their textbook at all (or never saw it because their teacher never assigned that section as part of the lesson plan). I can’t hazard a legitimate guess on figures for either of those, but you can see how it would lead to a fairly limited number of people being conscious of these things.
I haven’t read James Scott so take this for what it’s worth, but two thoughts. First, just from this summary writeup the account seems rather contradictory. Ancient states could take tens of thousands of slaves and prevent them from running away by military force, but they couldn’t confiscate potatoes or chick peas from them? That seems off. The Bolsheviks didn’t require everyone to grow grain when they were trying to confiscate food from villages, they just went in, found the food, and confiscated it by force.
If you want to say that ancient states didn’t have a big advantage in the use of force, or force was extremely costly to use, then it seems like they would have had to make a greater effort to be competitive with their hinterlands on a voluntary basis. There should be some equilibrium here in peasants selecting where to live or at least some additional positive advantage from being aligned with a state (protection?). That advantage should be made clear to get a more well-rounded picture of early states. Anyway, this is probably covered in the book, our Scott is just summarizing here.
Also on this part re SLaS
If you want to argue that states qua states didn’t grow the economy as their capacity grew, then I disagree with that, but leave that aside for the moment. The growth of corporations and corporate productivity benefited enormously from the greater social “legibility” created by the state. Corporations are large bureaucratic entities that operate over great distances and depend significantly on the order and predictability of social relations created by states and state control for their own growth and productivity. Hard to argue that corporations and related private economies of scale haven’t added to economic growth.
In danger of looking like a James Scott shill:
The USSR was already at the ass end of the development described by Scott and also was the successor state of the Russian Empire which can be considered the role modle for opresive dictatorship that forces it’s subjects to produce grain. Conviniently the frist thing those subjects did after beeing told they are free know, was producing 30% less grain, which had a big part in why the Sowjet state had to rely on confiscating food stocks.
Which period are you referring to?
The Revolution and the Civil war mainly (so early 1920ies). But if marc200 was refering to the Holdomor, please remeber that the Ukraine has been a grain exporting region since afaik the Napoleonic Wars. So a lot of the food they confiscated from there was also grain.
Also, I would like to repeat my plea for Scott to review “Medical Nihilism” by the philosopher Jacob Stegenga, which takes on the issue of the creedence we should give to medical (including psychiatric) advances, it’s an issue Scott is constantly wrestling with informally here so would love to see his take on the book! Link below —
What I wanted to know and I don’t remember Scott (James, not Alexander) addressing was how violent day to day life in a state society was compared to hunter-gatherer societies. Were ancient hunter gatherers as violent as contemporary “stone age” cultures? Was there a psychological benefit to the agricultural sedentary life?
Also, Scott can sometimes sound like states choose to force cereal agriculture to maintain power, but the opposite causal direction seems just as plausible: people chose cereal grains for a variety of reasons, and this enabled states. States thus were parasitic on what people were doing anyway, rather than forcing people into some kind of unnatural way of life.
That seems more sensible (that cereal grains had some other advantage besides state legibility). A theme of a number of comments above, including mine, is that James Scott’s approach as presented here seems to put too much weight on the effectiveness of raw coercion in getting people to adopt a plainly inferior lifestyle, particularly when the summary also seems to assume sharp limits to coercive power.
His analysis is missing the sheer caloric density of agriculture, which is a very big thing to miss.
Using the figures from Fernand Braudel’s Civilization & Capitalism Vol I, wheat yields historically averaged 600 kg / hectare or 1.8 million kcal / hectare. Other supplemental cereals and pulses (legumes) had lower yields but similar caloric density and could be grown while wheat was rotated to other fields. Including this crop rotation, it took 1.5 hectares of cultivated land to provide adequate food for one person.
His book doesn’t have comparable figures for foragers, but Google suggests that foraging requires 1,000 hectares per person. Even if we grant that per Braudel only half of the land is arable at a given time, that means that an agricultural civilization can have a 333:1 advantage in population over a foraging population occupying the same area.
There’s no need to invoke some nefarious statist plot to explain why farming persisted and spread even if it was less pleasant for the average farmer. The limit on how many people can live the carefree lifestyle of a forager is quite strict, while whole cities with their specialization of labor could be sustained by relatively small fields. Nature doesn’t share the Scotts’ aesthetic or utilitarian preferences for foragers: once farming was discovered, it was inevitable that the massive population advantage it enabled would spread the practice.
Mountain lions (aka, cougars or panthers) in the Southern California mountains are said to need 10 square miles of land each to feed themselves. They are comparable in body mass to human beings.
But there is also the caloric loss in the plant > meat conversion that humans would not have to suffer, and, in the other direction, the (possible, IDK, probable very small) more costly digestion of plant proteins.
Where does the 1.5 hectares come from? That would be 2.7 million kcal/person-year. At 2000 kcal/day, a person would require 730,000 kcal/year. Make it a million kcal/year for hard work every day, but still.
That’s directly from Civilization & Capitalism Vol I.
Initially I was trying to derive that number from the crop yield and caloric density numbers he included, but while there were yield numbers for supplemental cereals he didn’t include pulses. I’ll go back later and check if he has yield numbers for buckwheat, it’s not ideal as a protein source but is better than nothing.
The thing that you aren’t taking into account with your calculation is that a field has to lie fallow every third year, and can only grow wheat once every three years. The third year is when you grow other cereals and pulses which need less careful fertilization but have correspondingly lower yields. So you can’t just multiply hectares of land under cultivation by the yield of wheat, because farming that way would rapidly exhaust the soil. It has to be an average of 1/3 wheat, 1/3 cereal or pulse, and 1/3 fallow.
“Calling wheat a fascist…”
Suddenly something clicks: “fascist” is the word for “farmers” in the argot of 2019 “foragers” (on Robin Hanson’s definitions).
I had two reactions reading this. One has been noted by others, that surely the shift to cereal production reflects increased population, as other than disease there was nothing other than the food supply to limit the human population, and grain probably allows the highest populations.
The other is the fact James Scott thinks that we can use the concept of the state for early civilisation, which seems wrong. You cold construct a broad definition of state that would cover Ur as well as the modern Indian civil service, but there is no real similarity other than both practise exaction from the population, something that barbarian rulers also did. This is one of the few places I think Marx got it right: whilst exaction by rulers is a constant, the way it happens and the system around it is not. If we are to define a state as something that can exact from the population and build monuments (pretty much a definition of bronze-age polities) the issue is that neolithic societies could do the same, so Stonehenge becomes prima facia evidence of an early state. You can legitimately argue this, but it’s easier to argue for complex societies with some (willing or unwilling) exaction of labour without any of the other characteristics of states such as organised religion and laws.
What (James) Scott is arguing is that early urban society was able to impose agricultural choices on people. Yet the consensus is that the surpluses involved in agriculture allowed specialised roles such as kings and soldiers to appear, not that kings and soldiers forced grain cultivation on people. I think to overturn the conventional view you need to explain where the surplus to support kings and soldiers was found if not from agriculture. I doubt hunter gatherers could produce this, if only because its such a low-density way of living that the surplus to support 1,000 people would require control of an area much larger than the early cities managed. It seems more likely that the concentration of people allowed by agriculture meant enough surplus was in place in a small area to allow the support of non-agricultural roles on a large scale.
There’s a quote from Braudel that I love:
How can we send Scott books to review? I would love to hear his thoughts on Never Enough by Judith Grisel (a book about addiction).
I think the discussing about why people settled down and began growing grain in an organized manner is missing a vital point of discussion.
The fermented beverage now known as beer is much harder to create without organized agriculture producing lots of grain. The grain has to be processed, malted, mixed with water, and stored in a way that allows fermentation to begin. Beer is much harder to produce if people are semi-nomadic, even if they have access to grain that grows wild.
There are lots of other things that might be part of the switch from hunter-gatherer to sedentary-farmer. But the explanation ought to include ‘beer’ as one of the reasons.
As an side: if an organized state pushed people into growing grain for the leadership in the city-state, where did the military that did the pushing come from? And what did that military eat, if the leaders needed a cadre of grain-growers to feed their army?
I think the existence of city-states with leaders and a powerful military is a result of the switch to agriculture, and not the cause of a switch to agriculture.
There is extensive anthropological evidence that Sumerians were very invested in the production of fermented cereals. This really needs to be addressed as part of any discussion of ancient agriculture.
The gods created Enkidu as a forager who lived in harmony with the beasts of the field. But the gods created him not for his own happiness, but to give King Gilgamesh an adventuring buddy to distract him from oppressing the people of Uruk. When Gilgamesh learned about Enkidu, he sent Shamhat, a priestess of Ishtar, to introduce him to beer and have sex with him. Then Enkidu joined civilization.
Gets me every time.
Finally I understand your username.
A sort of fuller explanation.
So… It’s all the fault of Samyazaz?
I believe Patrick McGovern suggests this as a causative factor (farming is the way to get a steady supply of grain for brewing a steady supply of alcohol).
What kept the population in check?
It likely differed from place to place but one example to consider is the Moriori people.
Around the year 1500, Maori settlers from New Zealand landed on the Chatham Islands and created a society called the Moriori.
The Maori society they came from was agricultural and the staple crop was the sweet potato. The Chatham Islands can’t support sweet potato agriculture so that Moriori became mostly pacifist hunter gatherers. They controlled their population by castrating a certain percentage of male babies.
There seems to be a flaw in this story; reducing the supply of fertile women will reduce the size of future generations, but in general reducing the supply of fertile men will not. Unless it is reduced to an absolutely extraordinary degree; obviously no fertile men means no future generations, and there are some practical limits to how many children men can father, but unless they were castrating the overwhelming majority of the male babies, those limits wouldn’t come into play.
If the Moriori kept their (mostly) monogamous marriage practices of their Maori forebears then castration would be an effective check on population growth.
I am skeptical of the idea of any society in which women are desirous of babies and sperm is not forthcoming.
Maybe the women were not desirous of babies?
Then whatever’s causing that (maybe strong social sanction against illegitimate birth or a tradition of consecrated virgins or something) is the active ingredient in controlling the population, not the castration of men. The castration of men would at best be a supplementary measure to keep men who can’t get sex from rebelling.
The effect was probably peace keeping (and raising life expectancy), or, if they had some selection criteria, breeding for that, but I doubt it does much for population growth control — unless coupled with severely enforced monogamy, or other measures that kept the fertile men from messing around.
It went both ways though. I seem to recall a certain book that tells the tale of the conflict between a good shepherd and an evil farmer. Clearly this is evidence that pastoralist cultures also reached a level of statehood sufficient to have priests who wrote books.
Israel wasn’t a pastoralist society by the time Genesis was written down, though.
Yes, but the Genesis went through several iterations, and I doubt these stories (Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel mentioned by LMC below, and possibly Sodom and Gomorrah) hadn’t been written down before the transition to sedentary agriculturalism. Otherwise the agriculturalist priests would have probably just omitted these tales. Instead they were already on the books so they were stuck with them.
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
(God then scatters the people, and it’s relatively clear that everyone who left Shinar became, if not foragers, pastoralists.)
I don’t follow. Why couldn’t some of those scattered people have grown crops in faraway lands? Indeed, some of them must have done exactly that, because, from the perspective of the authors of the Bible, all across the known world there are places where people have grown crops as long as anyone can remember.
The authors of the Bible have the correct perspective.
In recent decades we’ve developed much better information about nomadic pastoralism, which includes details like the following:
1. Nomadic pastoralists usually had a period of settled agriculture before adopting nomadism as a strategy. The traditional view of the hierarchy of development went hunter-gatherer -> pastoral nomad -> settled agriculture, but the record suggests the latter two steps need to be reversed and occasionally they alternate back and forth.
2. The growing of crops was routine for nomadic pastoralists. As you observed earlier, crops have seasons; nomads cycle through the same areas also in seasons; all that is required is to choose crops that will be mature when they return next year.
3. Better historical information about pastoral economies from Inner Asia/Central Eurasia suggests that the balance between animals and crops was roughly inverted from settled agricultural ones. So for example, in ancient China it tended to be ~80% crops and ~20% animals, and then out in the steppe it was ~80% animals and ~20% crops.
If you want a good dense overview of this for all of Eurasia, I recommend Empires of the Silk Road by Beckwith. For pastoralism specifically, Pastoralists: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State by Salzman is the authority, which I am reading but have not finished.
I recommended Beckwith downthread a ways, but as an aside Salzman’s book seems to offer supporting evidence for Scott’s position with respect to state relationships. Salzman is an anthropologist, and his work mostly has been with pastoralists navigating a world with modern states.
James C. Scott was born in 1936. His high school/college encounter with “Sumerian Civilization” would have occurred entirely in the 1950s. While I don’t know what students at the time heard, it seems likely that Scott was mostly exposed to a heroic narrative of civilizational achievement, bold kings and innovative urbanizers. And he may expect his audience to have the same (half-remembered) experience.
This is entirely consistent with the scholarship undergoing a paradigm shift in the 60s-70s, popular historians making updated proclamations in the 80s, new textbooks updating their narrative in the 90s, and mass cultural assumptions beginning to shift by the 00s. In fact, that looks like a reasonable timeline for this sort of paradigm shift to filter from the academy through to the lay blogosphere.
The only inconsistent note with this story is Scott’s implication that he had studied Sumeria as recently as few decades ago (i.e., in the 80s?) But unless he made specific claims of the type of “the scholarly consensus in 1998 was quite different” or what have you, I’d just chalk that up to “a few decades” being a malleable term, the ease with which we can assume that contemporary scholarly paradigms are the same as those of our youth, and maybe a bit of theatrical exaggeration for an audience assumed to be unfamiliar with more recent paradigms.
Yep, I think the correct SSC memes would be “reading philosophy backwards” and “what is in the water supply”.
“But Jared Diamond was calling agriculture The Worst Mistake In THe History Of The Human Race back in the 1980s.”
I can recall an Arthur C. Clarke science fiction book that said something similar probably c. 1960.
It may make sense to add an additional step prior to a paradigm revolution, where the new hypothesis appears in scholarly marginal sites of cultural speculation.
So the paradigm lifecycle could look something like:
Year -10: Sci fi stories are written with new paradigm as premise, weird blogs suggest it, etc.
Year 0: initial papers with new paradigm are published to great controversy.
Year 10: papers disputing new paradigm are no longer frequently published; ‘everyone knows’ in scholarly circles that the new paradigm is the thing, old paradigmers are understood as a rear-guard.
Year 20: popular scholars write books and give interviews where the new paradigm is presented as a bold new refutation of common knowledge.
Year 30: new textbook issues begin to absorb the new paradigm, though they self-consciously average it with previous paradigms.
Year 40: at an average college-educated dinner party, around half of people will have heard of the new paradigm, though it’s still available as a subject of lively discussion.
Year 50: ignorance of the new paradigm begins to seem antiquated among the educated public.
Year 60: GOTO -10
In terms of tubers- I don’t know what the most nutritious tuber/root crop was in the pre-Columbian Middle East or Europe. Yams are a thing but I think only in the tropics- further North, are we talking about turnips?
Meanwhile, the Inca Empire was a state that I think emerged among people who got most of their nutrition from potatoes (credit to SchizoSocialClub on the subreddit for this insight).
Did they though? I always understood that maize was at least as important to them as potatos. An switching from an tuber to an grain as soon as you become an conquering Empire seems to be very much in line with Scotts narative.
I think it does a disservice to use the potato as a counterfactual to grains simply because they could not have been in the region at all in this period, being native to the Americas. Certainly there are other root vegetables which would have the properties mentioned (can be left in the ground) and which are plausible in the area, but potatoes may be the best, and they simply weren’t available. I think it’s quite notable that within the space of a few centuries of introduction, they become such a ubiquitous staple crop in Europe that potato famines could be such a problem.
Also the modern potato is the product of centuries of selective breeding. The wild potatoes were much smaller (at largest thumb sized) and more difficult to remove from the ground (also attached to poisonous nightshade plants).
This holds true about everything we eat, though.
America had civilizations too, you know. While the book and the post focuses on Sumer, the main ideas are generalized claims about agricultural and hunter-gatherer cultures from all over the world, and so it’s perfectly fair to consider the potato as a potential staple for an early agricultural civilization.
Added: And another commenter points that that actually America did have a potato state. It’s plausible that James Scott placed potatoes in the wrong category.
I get the point, but I’m saying that potatoes are an especially good case, becoming a widespread staple after their introduction to the Old World. When, the context of Sumer having been established, you introduce the potato, my first thought is, “the reality you’d get with a root vegetable is probably a lot worse, because it wouldn’t be potatoes and those are really good”.
As Alkatyn points out, they also required a LOT of breeding to become what they are today. However, it’s not as if that was done exclusively in the modern era and certainly not with any direct genetic engineering techniques. Considering the impact of the Columbian exchange crops, I think those early American civilizations were incredible bioengineers. Maybe they had to be given the lack of many incredibly useful animals with domestic potential available elsewhere; eg a man on a horse was the fastest speed generally available to any civilization for millennia, and that was unavailable to American civilizations. Btw, I don’t want to confuse things, I think horses specifically aren’t relevant to the time period we’re talking about, but other domestic animals are.
Also potatoes spread mostly to Northern-Eastern Europe as they are more suitable to cold climates: the plants resist freezing temperatures well, but once you dig up the tubers you have to store them at low temperatures (< 4 C) otherwise they spontaneously germinate. Therefore, even if they were available in ancient Sumer, they wouldn't have made a good staple crop in that climate.
It seems odd to me that a focus on the taxability of grain is emphasized while somehow overlooking the closely related transportability, and thus tradability of grain. Compared to tubers, grains are less perishable, and have something like 5x the calorie density. A farmer growing grain produced an asset that could be traded, and generate wealth. Even very early cities we see evidence of vast trading networks. So be a hunter gatherer and lead a (mostly) cozy and simple life, or take up farming and have a chance at striking it rich.
Now as for why people would give up a secure and easy life to live in squalid and substandard conditions, just for a slim chance at wealth? Scott lives in the bay area, he can just ask his neighbors. It’s not a new impulse.
What chance is that? Your plot of land is going to grow what it is going to grow, and the things that might make it grow more this year than last will mostly apply to your neighbors as well. There’s not much chance of bringing in a harvest that is vastly greater than the norm. Nor is their any chance of a wheat-serf being elected warlord, because that’s almost certainly not how proto-bronze-age politics work.
A hunter, might “strike it rich” with a particularly successful hunt (or by developing skills that make him consistently successful”. To the extent that an early agrarian city-state might have a small class of tradesmen and merchants, that might offer a possibility of something like wealth. And of course being a soldier offers the chance of advancement in battle, possibly unto Warlord status. But I’m not seeing “farmer” as anything other than a guarantee of steady mediocrity in this context. Where are you getting “strike it rich”?
Were most peasants in bronze-age city states serfs/slaves?
I can imagine that these states developed on a similar trajectory as the Southern US (except at a smaller geographic scale due to less developed transportation technology): a first stage consisting mostly of homesteaders who farm their own plots of land, gradually transitioning to a serf/slave labor economy. In the first stage you do effectively have a chance at striking it rich: if you get a good harvest one year, you can use the surplus to buy more land, hire salaried labor, guards and eventually buy slaves, which give you a chance of making a even higher surplus next year. And your children can inherit your land, resulting in intergenerational wealth accumulation. This bootstraps the “rich get richer” process that results in the commonly observed Pareto distribution of wealth. The slaves who get conscripted into the system later on, of course, hardly have any realistic chance of striking it rich.
Note that this isn’t possible in a hunter-gatherer society. You can get a good hunt today, but you can’t accumulate the meat surplus, invest it or leave it as inheritance to your children. The “wealth” difference between the best hunter of the tribe and a average hunter is insignificant compared to the wealth difference between the biggest land owner of the kingdom and a average land owner.
Land ownership. Rich planters have been a thing for a long time, if you get a bountiful harvest or secure a fertile plot of land you can set yourself up well, to the point where you have tenant farmers working under you. The land did not “grow what it’s going to grow”, as farming in Mesopotamia relied on irrigation and the constant work it entailed, but with that came the possibility of developing a plot of previously barren or low-yield land into something cultivatable. Also keep in mind, “rich” is a relative term, I’m pretty sure you could fit all the material goods of any but the wealthiest Sumerians in a hatchback.
A hunter absolutely cannot strike it rich, because he can’t reliably store and trade his excess food. During bountiful times he just works less (leading to the aforementioned 12-19 hours a week work or whatever) because there is no point, killing an extra deer today won’t make you food secure next year, if fact it does the opposite. A farmer will choose to till more land than he needs to for survival because at the end of the day his crops represent something besides food to him, pots and cloth and jewelry.
Obviously as a slave or a serf this goes out the window because you don’t get to keep part of the value of your efforts. Then again, if you are a slave or serf the tax question is moot as well since you hand over 100%, which comes out the same in tubers as wheat, and you live off whatever is handed back.
I’d also take issue with the wheat-serf to warlord thing, the primary obstacle to raising an army is feeding them. With the exceptions of some nomadic groups, armies have always been the province of farmer-kings, whose power stemmed from the control of fertile lands. Are you going to go from farm-serf to king in one generation? Probably not, but a farmer had the chance of gaining land, and dying in a richer house than he was born in.
You will find the book Empires of the Silk Road by Christopher Beckwith to be strongly complementary. Beckwith has a personal crusade against the concept of barbarism, positively rants about Modernism, and speaks highly of James C. Scott specifically.
I strongly recommend this book. The subject is those large confederacies formed on the steppe, and it complements this vein of reading by contrasting how those confederacies operate (which will likely be new information) with the sedentary empires around the periphery of Central Eurasia (which is to say Persia, China, Rome, etc). He spends quite a bit of time talking about the differences between regional economies, and makes an improved description of pastoralism.
There is a slight downside in that the Middle Eastern region is his weakest are of expertise, so he doesn’t cover the Scythians and Mesopotamia in as much detail as the Xiongnu, Gokturk and Mongols. This is because he is a Tibetologist, which colors in a whole other blank space in the popular historical record; the areas west of China proper positively come alive here, including ancient Tibet. There are other good popular sources on the Near East and the Iranian-language peoples (The Horse, The Wheel, and Language) but none to my knowledge covering Tibet or the Turkic phase of nomadic confederacies.
Why is this all over the place?
Persia is central Eurasia, not the periphery (that’s Rome and China, right? More Rome than Western Protectorate, at least) – oh, okay, so after some googling his central Eurasia means the Great Steppe? Okay then.
Scythians are not middle eastern. Gokturks… well, Western Khaganate was close to Middle East, but okay.
In any case, i approve, the knowledge about Central Asia history ing general and Turkic nomads in particular in western culture is basically the worst.
Yeah, Central Eurasia is his term for the steppe + Central Asia. He motivates the term by appealing to linguistic/cultural boundaries and commerce rather than to political boundaries or geographic features. He also rejects the other modern term Inner Asia as failing to give sufficient priority to the role of the pastoralists and Silk Road economy.
The Scythians aren’t Middle Eastern, but Against the Grain is about large scale agriculture which developed there and our textual sources about them are primarily Persian or Greek. The point is the part where the books overlap directly is the weakest part of Beckwith’s book. I chose example peoples rather than the way the book is divided, which is language families; he describes the phases of Central Eurasian history as Iranian (hence Scythians), Turkic (hence Gokturks), and Mongolian. Because Beckwith’s specialty is Tibetan, he is much stronger on the Turkic and Mongolian periods. I should have been more explicit about this, particularly since it is useful information about the book.
It does make me wonder how much of the later move from HG to Ag might have been motivated by alcohol (just being the most obvious and perhaps extreme example of a desirable good which relies on an agricultural social structure itself)–I seem to recall wine being a seriously big thing for Barbarians in most of the Roman narratives (contemporaneous and otherwise) I’m familiar with. My (unresearched) intuition is that it’s pretty difficult to make strong drink in any quantity from a HG structure–fermented mare’s milk is the only example that comes to mind right off the bat, but I seem to recall that being more similar to beer than to wine in ABV?
Anyone inclined and able to shed any light on this?
1) pick random berries
2) mash up and stick in pot
3)wait til you have some godawful kind of wine
4) get some putrescent mould-infested slime instead.
Winemaking ain’t easy. You need the right type of fruit with enough sugar and acidity, the right type of yeast on the skin (not some nasty mould), proper barrels and a dark cellar with appropriate an temperature range. A semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer carrying around mashed random berries in a waterskin isn’t going to get anything drinkable.
It works (for a value of “works”).
“In fact, Nordic grog was a complex brew, McGovern and his colleagues found. The ingredients included honey, cranberries and lingonberries (acidic red berries that grow in Scandinavia). Wheat, rye and barley — and, occasionally, imported grape wine from southern Europe — formed a base for the drink. Herbs and spices — such as bog myrtle, yarrow, juniper and birch resin — added flavor and perhaps medicinal qualities.”
Beer played a big role in the ancient farmers diet. But I think it’s more for how easy it is to produce, then for any other reason. At least the ancient version of it.
Seriously cook oatmeal, let it stand for half a day, put a lid on it, let it stand for another week. Thats it, you have a very basic beer. With this method you have a chance to get bad yeast. But you can take a part of the first good batch, as a starter for the next.
You have don’t to grind the grain as fine as for flour, it’s harder to burn than bread, it stays platable for longer than bread, and it satiates hunger and thirst at the same time.
If your just in it for the alcohol contents, just take some fruit, and follow Lamberts instructions.
Also, it is better for your health than drinking germ infested water.
I would also imagine that the beer avoids another downside of grains – when you mill grain in crummy mills, you get some stone residue in it, which is murder on your teeth. In a beer, this would supposedly sink to the bottom.
A significant problem I have with all this is that grain cultivation may have developed in cities and states, but it spread quickly to people who didn’t live in anything like those societies. Agriculture arrives in Finland by 3200 BC, but no states or even significant settlements are forthcoming until the medieval period.
It’s easy to see how the proto-states of Sumer could have induced all their subjects to grow wheat, rye and barley. It’s not so easy to see why the pre-Neolithic inhabitants of the Baltic would have put up with it, as they did for millennia before cities or states came along.
(Perhaps I’m wrong, and we just have no evidence for them? After all, even if you’re spending a lot of effort on growing rye, its yield is fairly low in a cold country with a short growing season and not-great soil. That makes it harder to get a workforce together to build anything cool, compared to Sumer or Egypt–and even if you did, it would be out of wood, which burns and decays. But then again plenty of wooden structures have been preserved somehow or other…)
This is important. A lot – a lot – of the “barbarian” states were also agricultural societies. How do you think the Franks or Goths made their living?
“Oppressability” is such a good term!
Grain may have been the first oppressable commodity, but it didn’t stop there. I suspect our dependence on oppressable commodities is at the root of the state’s growing control over our lives. These days it’s less about grains than the oppressability of heavy manufacturing and transportation.
Cosmologists sometimes point out that the universe seems fine tuned to allow human life. It seems to me that it’s also fine tuned to facilitate state oppression.
It’s a quirk of the laws of physics that it’s so much easier to build microchips and jet engines in easily oppressable billion dollar factories than inside of your garage. You’d think the endless drive for greater efficiency in manufacturing processes would lead to the developments that could make desktop fabs a possibility, but such a thing is still out of reach. Fine tuned.
Another quirk of our environment ensures that states can control borders and roads mostly defined by easily oppressable lines on the ground. Aircraft are harder to deal with, but for most of their history, few people have had the means to use aircraft to routinely defy the state. If Earth had a thicker atmosphere, pedal powered flying machines as economical as bicycles could exist, democratizing the skies and eliminating easy choke points used to control the movement of people and goods. Maybe cheap drones will start to change this reality, but for now… Fine tuned.
You seem to be mixing up the causation a bit. A microchip is expensive *because* it requires a million dollar factory. There’s no objective price for them seperate from supply and demand
The prices don’t really matter for my point. You can frame it using the concept of relative prices if you want, but the bottom line is that manufacturing anything in a billion dollar factory is much more oppressable than manufacturing it in a local machine shop or your own garage. Unfortunately, there are many modern necessities that we only know how to realistically produce in highly oppressable billion dollar factories. As long as that is the case, the state’s capacity for social control is high.
Depending on what you mean by “quirk”. If you ever want to make a microchip, you need a massive food surplus, in order to support a veritable army of people — scientists, engineers, workers, writers — who produce no food at all. There’s no way to accidentally stumble your way into electronics.
It’s not the food surplus that is a problem. It’s the centralization of production. It didn’t have to be that way. Just as we lucked into an environment that provides easy access to an extremely useful material called “wood”, we could have lucked into an environment that provided easy access to computation. Imagine if nest building insect colonies or yeast could be coaxed into building the equivalent of microchips. A centralized core of scientists and engineers might be useful to initially figure out computer science, but once they did, implementation could be accomplished by small scale producers. Instead, it’s like the environment is fine tuned to facilitate oppressability in the information age.
We’d be better off if the production landscape of microchips looked more like the production landscape of beer. There, massive producers with billion dollar breweries can coexist with local craft brewers working out of a garage. The very possibility of small scale production greatly limits the oppressability of production as a whole. This is something a certain state discovered during their experiment with prohibition. If alcohol could only be produced in billion dollar factories, prohibition would have been a lot more successful. Right now, if a state wanted to do something like mandate encryption backdoors at the hardware level, they’d only have to apply pressure to a few key producers to get their way.
Of course, we’d never have gotten to the moon with a hunter/gatherer society. The human problem remains, in any case, that we can all imagine living forever and we all tend to deny that we’ll die. Primitive society still developed religion, and art followed, to explain and illustrate the soul belief. Even hunter gatherer groups built tombs because the soul, which exists at death, needs a place to continue living. The problem used to be all these dead souls trying to get back into living bodies whereas now it’s all these live souls who don’t want to be dead.
One of the curious features of agrarian society is how, like moderns, they would accumulate more than they need and then ceremoniously destroy the surplus. The common interpretation is that they wanted to appease the gods, but there also is the sense that they are thumbing their noses at nature; why do it? because we can.
Ancient problems require ancient solutions.
You don’t need to create an equal and fair taxation system. This isn’t a democracy, you’re a god-king, and you’re trying to extract as much wealth from the subjects as possible.
You just demand tribute. Each tribe is collectively responsible for paying something at regular intervals, which could be grain, leather, gold, whatever you want. As a god-king you probably want more variety than just endless grain. If they don’t pay up, you send in the army and do horrible things to them, as a lesson for everyone else. They will be highly incentivized to pay up, even if it means they starve while paying your tribute.
If you accidentally demand too much and they starve to death, that’s too bad, but there’s always more serfs. On the other hand, your army will also protect them from anyone else who tries to steal from them, so there is some benefit for them. It’s a protection racket.
God isn’t real…there are no god-kings.
There are just men claiming to be kings. And these men can be overthrown if they don’t bribe their military with enough food, or can be conquered by other king-claiming men who demanded more long-term reasonable amounts of tribute and as a result could bribe/feed a larger military.
The former is not required for the latter to be true.
Broadly true, but I should add that, even as a god-king, you still need to strike a delicate balance with the amount of tribute you extract. Collect too little, and you don’t have enough supplies to feed your army. That’s really bad, because your head will be on some general’s pike the next day. Collect too much, and either you lose a ton of serfs, which means you won’t be able to feed your army (see above); or you get a rebellion. Sure, your army can put down the rebellion with relative ease (that’s what it’s for); but you don’t want to get bogged down in continuous internal conflicts, when there are so many external enemies to fight — and if you don’t have any external enemies, then by You you should make some, so that you can absorb them into Your glorious god-kingdom, amen.
Yeah, of course there’s a balance. You just don’t have to be so exact about it. Trying to collect exactly 10% of every year’s production from every individual seems like a very modern approach. If you just take a rough guess at how much they can afford, it’s probably good enough.
I think you are using modern levels of stability as your base line, which gives an inaccurate instinct for the complexities involved. If you have to much of your population at subsistence levels and there is a single bad harvest your power might entirely shatter, and that % of the population probably doesn’t have to be large.
Family members and officials are at least as great a threat to the God-King as their subjects. Even if the God-King can handle rebellions, it’s not safe to do so and a wise ruler will avoid provoking rebellions.
If the God-King appoints a general, a successful general can use command of their army to challenge the God-King.
If the God-King commands the army himself, he has to leave someone in charge of his capitol. They can try to take control of the government with the ruler absent. This is especially bad if the rebels weaken the army.
another ancient solution:
Play weird, convoluted status games and make the richest and most powerful sponsor a Trireme or two to put them int their place. That’ll keep the game going.
Hellenistic democracy reminds me of Mario Kart, come to think of it.
I don’t think this is entirely true. The Inca were a potato state. In Tonga, Hawaii, and New Zealand there were sweet potato states. There were likely cassava states in the Amazon that are now covered by rainforest. There were also many pastoral states; they may have been semi-nomadic but they were still pretty oppressive. The Mongols and other steppe tribes had slaves, for example.
We don’t know exactly what happened during the Eleusinian Mysteries, but when the Greeks write about it they say things like, “I’m not allowed to tell you what happened, but now that I’m initiated I’m not afraid of death!” The connection with grain probably has to do with the cycle of death and rebirth (plants grow, they’re harvested, they die, the seeds go into the earth, they grow again) which is inherent in a place with seasons. The goddess whose domain included grain, the harvest, and seasons was Demeter. The other god associated with death and rebirth was Dionysus who was also associated with agriculture (grapes) but not grains.
I’d hardly say the Maori had states.
More like extended families weakly confederated into iwi and hapu.
They did plenty of hunting and gathering to supplement the kumara farms.
Also taking slaves also doubled as rustling livestock…
I can’t speak for the other early states, but Mongolian states didn’t really do taxes in the same way that a state like Egypt did taxes. The issue here isn’t strictly political organization and resulting oppression but the idea that grain made things legible and controllable by the governing state, which wasn’t really the case in Mongolia, which had systems that held power over its citizens in other ways.
Sure, in a semi-nomadic pastoralist civilization you can’t have tax collectors visiting individual farms, but the Mongolian clans did extract tributes from each other.
Wow, this really puts the origins of Abrahamian religion into quite some interesting light. I remembered that C. S. Lewis’ “Miracles” mentioned a relationship between Jesus and a naturalistic “corn king”. I can’t find a direct link to the quote, but you might find this insightful:
Looking a bit deeper (in Wikipedia) there seem to be fewer connections between corn/wheat specifically as deities specifically and instead there being a lot of naturalistic growth deities:
I think this Golden Bough stuff is considered obsolete by modern research.
Note that farming caused an increase in fertility (due partly to reduced time between pregnancies). I think grains caused this, but I’m unclear on the causal mechanism – maybe partly because it’s easier to consume more calories via grains?
Increased fertility seems likely to give farmers some advantage, even if it comes at some health costs.
Additionally, increased food production makes it possible to have specialists who produce no food at all, but instead dedicate themselves to other pursuits, such as warfare. This makes it a lot easier to conquer all those hunter-gatherers.
The Inca empire spanned several altitudes, so its crops were various, but it can arguably be described as a potato state. Since the Incas didn’t use money, and food distribution was centrally planned, taxation was collected in the form of forced labor, so crops never became a commodity in the sense we understand that word.
J. Scott describes the hunter-gatherers as having basically no visible wealth and being largely ungovernable. Which means there was no need for the concept of wealth or bureaucracy or taxation. But some among them created the concept of wealth, and governed their compatriots into creating it? This seems to require about four de novo conceptual leaps all at once.
Also: why? If everyone was so happy… what good is it to have taxation in the first place? Presumably the would-be recipients of taxation envisioned that they could solve some problem with all this wealth – what problem? Even if the idea was “harness a society toward a common goal” – what for? Everyone was (arguendo) already perfectly fine. If J. Scott is correct about grain’s uselessness, he can’t claim it is useful even as a means of oppression. There was no need to oppress anyone.
The rejoinders that, ”no, there was a need to oppress people in order to secure territory and resources” or ”no, everyone wasn’t already perfectly fine” constitute evidence of grain’s inherent value : it was the petroleum of the ancient world. Fungible, transferrable, defensible, localizable.
It seems more likely that agrarianism and governance co-evolved. There are concepts that transfer easily between the two. And each offers important advantages
My one quibble with the note that “lots of people in early states escaped to the very close and easily-escapable-to areas where everyone was still living in Edenic plenty,” but that you really don’t have hunter-gatherers suddenly joining your civilization a la Civilization “tribal village” style is that there might be some sort of language or cultural or skills-based barrier to joining a civilization or doing agriculture; I don’t know enough about early histories to really comment on this fact, but taking defections to the wilderness as a signal of the relative qualities of life between early civilizations and hunter-gatherers isn’t something that completely convinces me.
It’s times like this I’m reminded most people have never lived in a rural society. Scott’s insight that agricultural taxation is complicated is something I could have told you as a teenager. In fact, I worked for the state and one part of my job was making sure farmers didn’t cheat the government or misreport things.
Scott’s right that farmers have a huge incentive to misreport things. They also are spread out, making monitoring hard, and it’s a collective incentive. This makes coordination simple and in everyone’s interest. And even if the state put an overseer in every single farm, once the overseer is that attached to the farm their interest are more aligned with it than the state.
Unfortunately, he’s wrong about nearly everything else. To pick one, Scott’s wrong about why wheat got chosen. It was the best crop available in terms of calories per farmer hour, hardiness, and adaptability.
He also seems to avoid some pretty simple solutions to his ‘problems’ of things like tubers. If I were a God King of Uruk and the potato was a superior plant, I could just make a law: anyone who has potatoes left in the field after a certain day will be punished. Then have the tax collector go to the storehouse and take the potatoes. (Of course, the real reason they didn’t is that they didn’t have potatoes or many tubers worth eating.)
He mentions Frederick the Great ordered his peasant to plant potatoes. Was he under the impression Old Fritz was undermining his own tax base? If he is, then why would the King do that? Wouldn’t he rather have peasants he can tax more heavily for more soldiers? If Scott isn’t saying that, then doesn’t that cut against his thesis that wheat is more taxable than tubers?
The argument is full of little contradictions like this because Scott desperately wants to reach the anarchist conclusion that hierarchy is unnecessary and he’s also deeply unfamiliar with the phenomenon he’s talking about. I like Scott in general. But what he understands is how the machinery of state requires large groups of individuals to act in specific ways and creates all sorts of interesting little power dynamics. This is why what he gets right is how individual tax collectors and farmers interacted on a person to person level. And that’s by far the strongest part of the book.
James Scott does live on a proper farm. I don’t know how much actual farming he does (or did, he’s in his 80s now), but I do know at least one person who saw him exit a party saying that he had to go home and feed his chickens.
This much, I agree with. I think David Friedman put it best after their debate when he said that James Scott has a economists mind and does brilliantly when he applies it to problems he’s thought deeply about, but does does well with topics he doesn’t examine.
Your last sentence fragment is missing something that would probably make it make sense (this isn’t me being snarky, there’s just a typo or two there).
Bah, I shouldn’t type things right before I leave the office. That should read “brilliantly when he applies it to problems he thinks deeply about, but he does less well with topics he doesn’t examine with that lens.”
That was a presumption, so maybe I’m wrong. I don’t think I am though.
To clarify, living on a farm is not the same as existing in a rural society. It would be relevant to point out that he lived on a farm if I were accusing him of being ignorant of the basic mechanics of farming. I’m not. He accurately describes (for example) how hard measuring a field of potatoes is relative to orchards and other crops. That’s something that a lot of people miss.
What I’m accusing him of not understanding is the social mechanisms of rural society, its economies, and its relationship between members, each other, and more distant power centers. He repeatedly shows an ignorance of the economic calculations of farmers because despite living on a farm it has never been his income source, for example. He also isn’t capable of imagining how a hierarchal dynamic can develop except by the use of force, probably because his farm doesn’t employ workers.
A story. The Japanese claimed that lords developed from farmers who began planting rice on their own initiative. They produced extra rice and traded it for what they wanted. Some people were hungry but didn’t have anything to trade, so the farmers offered them food if they’d work on the farm. They did and eventually some did so permanently. Others would try to steal from the farmers so they would build walls and hire guards. And as these farmers’ lands became a place of safety and guaranteed food, more people came to them. The farmers then employed these people to create more rice, better walls, and letting people go into specialized professions like making great pots, being full-time guards, or being priests.
This is how you end up with a country full of estates owned by rice lords who had peasants, land, and a small army. Soon they begin to agglomerate through war and diplomacy into a hundred rice kingdoms. And then they all submitted to the glorious descendant of the sun goddess. (Or alternatively, that was just the rice kingdom that won out.)
Now, you can believe this story or not. I’m not sure if I believe the process was really that consensual and this isn’t a just-so story. But it strikes me that this is (if anything) more plausible than the story, “Once there were a bunch of happy hunter-gatherers. But some of them lusted for power. But hunter-gatherers are hard to control so they got together a group of warriors and went around beating people up and forcing them to farm wheat so they could have more money and power.”
I can’t say I disagree with any of that.
In “The Art of not beeing Gonverned” J. Scott claimed that similar stories exists over all of SE-Asia. But they have a glarring issue:
“Why then, are our history books full of famine, war, and most importantly laws threatening death on anyone who dares to leave their lords land?”
So his simple counter narrative is that the walls and guards are just as much there for keeping the serfs in, as they are for keeping the bad people out.
The nice thing about it gives a verry simple explanation, for why people would choose agriculture over, other less labour intensive way’s to feed themselfs.
That’s only a counter if you take me as being completely credulous of the stories. I’m not. In fact, I specifically point out that seeing it as completely consensual is the part I find the most suspect. This is especially true when most places developed a roughly three part social structure: lords, free farmers, and enslaved famers (or at least enserfed). It seems likely to me the free farmers probably came consensually and the enslaved ones didn’t. (This is also tracks to their ability to leave: free farmers couldn’t leave the kingdom but they could pick up stakes and move to another farm.)
But anyway, my point is that the story is not simple or elegant and it doesn’t logically explain what Scott claims it does. It’s full of little contradictions and overlooked points. It relies on the reader’s ignorance of the realities of rural existence. Accounting for those complicates it past the point of practicality.
And this isn’t accounting for the parts where he’s just wrong.
Extending this argument from non-Scott sources, the recent scholarship concerning the Great Wall of China approximately agrees.
Military fortifications in the north and west were not designed to prevent incursion from the steppe, but rather to prevent trade with and defection to the steppe.
The motivation to stop trade was to ensure the frontiers of the empire were dependent on the imperial core rather than with outsiders.
The motivation to stop defection was because it was a huge problem (up to and including whole armies), and makes a lot more intuitive sense when you consider that the recently conquered frontier peoples were a lot more similar to the steppe people in terms of culture and language than they were to the people from around the Yangtze or Yellow River.
I firmly expect a similar process to have occurred in virtually all imperial formations.
Relevant writers on the subject include Thomas Barfield and Nicola di Cosmo.
The question, though, is to what extent this was similar or different to situations like in Alsasce-Lorraine or the Soviet Sphere and the West. The French and Soviets also had checkpoints on the Rhine meant to keep the Eastern European/Alsatian-Lorrainian Germans in as much as NATO/the other Germans out (and to make sure any fighting took place on ‘foreign’ land). However, their differences were not quite as world-historical as that between the Mongols and the Chinese.
Off the point, but funny:
> He mentions Frederick the Great ordered his peasant to plant potatoes.
Not quite. He tried order, and met stubborn resistance. Then he ordered having ‘royal potato fields’ under sleeping-on-duty-by-order military guard. Soon the potatoes sprouted on everyone’s acres. Full story here.
I thought this was the Frenchman Parmentier, as described in this Smithsonian article:
If anyone read this review and thought “I would really like to read another long article about this book,” Charles at The Worthy House reviewed it several years ago here: https://theworthyhouse.com/2017/08/09/book-review-against-the-grain-a-deep-history-of-the-earliest-statesjames-c-scott/
Reminds me strangely of Jane Jacobs on cities, especially:
cf. Harari, who suggests that large-scale agriculture was sparked by the need to feed crews building monumental religious projects: https://flightfromperfection.com/ag-revolution-story-2.html
OTOH, in Europe, wetlands (i.e., Venice or the Netherlands) tended to be monarchy resistant.
My understanding of the Assyrian model of conquest was that they had a few different ‘levels’ of conquest. The first was basically a tribute system, where they took your grain/etc. in exchange for not killing you. Since they were particularly feared for their brutality (Habukuk asks God how he can use such evil people as the Assyrians to punish Israel, because the Assyrians had a serious reputation for being nasty) this was often enough.
If a people rebelled against the tribute level of oppression, they conquered and deported the aristocracy. This was an effective way to quell uprisings, and was usually effective. In addition to deportation, they also imported people from other lands to resettle in the newly subdued land. This is what happened to the Northern Kingdom and Syria. They were under tribute along with Syria to their North and wanted to get out from under the oppressive taxes. But when they rebelled and were unsuccessful the aristocracy was deported and other people were brought in.
One of the eventual effects of this policy was to promote intermarriage between the new people and the old Israelites, which the ‘purebred’ Jews came to look down on (i.e. Samaritans).
It has been a while since I read anything about ancient Assyrian models of conquest. Can anyone confirm/correct the above? My understanding is that the Assyrians did force migrations, but it wasn’t primarily one-way from conquered lands to Nineveh.
I think it’s incorrect to assume that just because a kingdom/dynasty collapses the people of a city no longer pay taxes/tribute. The system of governance wasn’t direct from king to subject, but from king to lord to minor lord on down the line. Nor did the kingdom necessarily collapse from kingdom directly down to unaffiliated city-states. Often it would get absorbed into another conquering kingdom. Despite the constant churn of empire, my understanding is that it would have been rare indeed for people to be completely unaffiliated at the local level.
Yes, but the local authority will often demand less, since a) they don’t have to kick a cut of the profits upwards and b) they controll less resources to force people to comply, and therefore need to negotiate more with the locals.
Presumably this is true if the national association dissolves. But that’s different from some libertarian period of freedom, where local government disappears completely. It’s also just as likely that alliances shift. E.g. Persian satrapies when Alexander came along.
Yes but, I’m quite sure Scott is talking about the kind of collapses we associate with “Dark Ages”.
Those have traditionally associated with massiv loss of live (i.e. look at 30 year old descriptions of the fall of Rome). The whole claim that J. Scott makes is, those are mainly times when central controll fails, and we therefore don’t have written history, and monumental building projects.
We also have no evidence that people in those times lived worse lifes than before. But we have at least some evidence that they were healthier.
Which is in stark contrast to the storries that are told about those dark ages.
That’s complete nonsense. Perhaps 1500-2000 years earlier, at the latest.
I was wondering if perhaps he meant to add a BC here? Certainly the so-called barbarians the Greeks and Romans encountered weren’t actually hunter-gatherers scattered in the woods and living in non-state societies. They had highly coordinated attacking armies. Just because they didn’t have any surviving written records doesn’t mean they were strict hunter-gatherers.
Also, the survival of monumental architecture doesn’t mean large buildings didn’t exist. Limestone obelisks survive well in arid environments like Egypt, but not so well in places like Germany or Washington D.C. (I’m looking at you Washington Monument). Besides, why build in stone when you can build more grand and intricate monuments in wood? My understanding is that the ancients preferred wood. So all those monuments are likely gone forever. That doesn’t make the Germans of 600 years ago hunter-gatherers.
Scott has a non-standard definition of state control. At one point, he argues that Paris didn’t qualify as fully under state control until the 19th century. For Scott, the important thing is the degree to which the state sees the population as legible and has the ability to project authority. Thus, peasants who have a binding contract to pay a lord a set amount which the lord cannot renegotiate or impose on and which they can manipulate in a form of quasi-resistance do not qualify (at least fully) as under state control for Scott. Passive resistance, where people theoretically accept authority but don’t actually obey it, is a big part of his theories.
What he’s actually saying is closer to, “Prior to 1600, the majority of humanity lived in a situation where centralized state power structures had a limited to no ability to understand the facts on the ground or force changes to those facts.”
Okay, that explains a lot, thanks.
That’s a bizarre definition, though. First, any rate of taxation greater than zero is a ‘negotiated rate’. I assume if the Lord can get more money he doesn’t leave it on the table, so it seems arbitrary to define periods of stable rents as different from those where rents are being actively negotiated. Second people to this day evade taxation and have at some rate under every taxed regime. Some are successful and others aren’t. I don’t see how this definition of state control goes beyond arbitrary selection.
It is somewhat bizarre, I agree. But to take the absurdum to the opposite extreme, are you going to argue that when the Byzantine Empire pays tribute to avoid barbarian attack that the Byzantine Emperor in his palace and with his servants is a serf of the Bulgarians? Or how about modern day. The US gives money to Egypt. Is the US a servant of Egypt?
Scott, as a thinker, is very concerned with the immediate reality in front of a person. So his thinking is highly focused on the day to day life of a peasant. He thinks of things in terms of degrees of control over that life, to what extent a person really affects that life in an immediate way regardless of what is claimed. The answer is ‘no’ to both of those scenarios above because the President or Emperor doesn’t have the Bulgarians/Egyptians exerting any control over his immediate life. If the President of Egypt tells Trump he can’t eat a cheeseburger that doesn’t effectively mean anything.
If both definitions lead to absurdities, perhaps “state” vs. “non-state” isn’t actually a useful axis of analysis.
This seems to be an area where James Scott is being particularly tricky with words. Much of what he is saying in regards to wheat (to the extent that it is even accurate) seems to imply that it is useful for large societies or urban areas, which we happen to often associate with states in our minds. But these traits are not inherent to states over nonstates, even in the bizarre way James Scott defines them. So his choice to emphasize the relationship to wheat with the negative aspects of states all comes across as highly ideologically motivated.
Right, but how much does the king of Egypt care about dictating Trump’s burger consumption? If the question is “what is within the state’s interest and are they able to exert influence to achieve those aims?” The answer will always be that the state’s interests will expand to fill their capacity.
Sure there is a long tradition of vassal states, but I don’t see that fact as arguing the people within the vassal as being outside state control. Nor is it the case that when the ruling empire collapses the vassals are no longer within state control. It looks to me like a simplified model that stripped away what have historically been layers of government in order to overfit the model. I actually don’t think it does match the actual on-the-ground decisions rulers have historically faced.
@Guy in TN
I’m not convinced the traditional definition of a state presents absurdities. Plenty of states are influenced or controlled to some degree by other states. The interest those other states have on actual internal command and control varies. None of that is absurd or unexpected. It’s just more complicated than simple models want to deal with.
I agree, though, that Scott’s definition feels like it’s being used to justify a narrative he likes, and is tailored to produce the results he wants in the examples he chooses. It’s not robust enough to explain the complex world of history.
State sovereignty is usually defined as a reliable substantial monopoly on coercive power.
Can Egypt reliably force the US to pay a tribute? No, therefore the US is not a client state of Egypt. Could the Bulgarians reliably force the Byzantine Empire to pay a tribute? I don’t know exactly, possibly in some historical times they could, in which case the Byzantine Empire would have been their client.
I agree the definition is primed to reach the conclusion he wants. But you’re failing to think along Scott’s layer of analysis.
Basically, forget all abstractions: think of your life in a literal, day to day sense. To what extent can the state force you to do something? As in, if you don’t pay taxes, what happens? If the answer is “nothing” then you and he agree there is no state power.
Okay, what if you can reliably smuggle while almost never getting caught? You might say that there still is state power because the state has agents. Scott’s point is that there isn’t because the state isn’t actually restraining you. And he asserts this has been the normal state of affairs for most of history: theoretically absolute power masking extreme state weakness on the ground. Weapons Of The Weak is a great introduction to this thinking.
This is the state of affairs in areas of modern Somalia, Libya, Syria, and so on, which by no accident we call failed states. It certainly wasn’t the state of affairs in most of France, for pretty much as long as there has been a France.
Of course you could note specific exceptions, slums with lax law enforcement such as Cour des miracles in 17th century Paris, but then similar arrangements also exist in modern first world countries, e.g. homeless encampments in San Francisco or No Go zones in Malmö, Brussels and again Paris. Do you conclude that SF, Malmö, Brussels and Paris are not currently under state control?
Generally speaking the state tends to leave people who have little to tax to their own devices, as long as they don’t cause too much troubles to their tax-paying neighbors.
Yes. Scott eagerly and explicitly bites that bullet and would say that those areas (though not the entire city, just those neighborhoods) are outside of state control.
It would be interesting to do Scott-ish analysis of state control since ~3000 BC, then.
I don’t know how good our tax records from Egypt and Mesopotamia are, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff about breadth and depth of state control in the Greek Classics.
I guess I still struggle to see the utility of this designation in actual on-the-ground usage. Usually once we ignore abstraction we see that the situation isn’t as simple as “inside state control” or “outside state control”. The definition is still creating a model that’s oversimplified, or is applied selectively.
Take the smuggling example. Currently, in the US, there are smugglers. Some get caught and some continue to successfully smuggle for years. If you’ve been smuggling drugs in this country for over a decade I think we can call that “reliably breaking the law”. I read a book about the gangsters who successfully smuggled drugs into the US from planes returning bodies of Vietnam war casualties back in the 70’s. That takes chutzpah. At the time, the US was waging a War on Drugs and a war in Vietnam. The gangster on the book cover was saving up to buy a private jet.
Does his success negate the power of the US government in his life? Outside the drug smuggling, in most meaningful senses of the word he was still subject to state control. Had he been discovered at any time he’d be out of business. Indeed, when he eventually got caught they confiscated all his money – including the money he’d stored in off-shore accounts in the Caymens. He never did get his private jet, because to get one he’d have to purchase it through legal channels. To fly it he’d need approved flight plans and trained licensed pilots in the cockpit. So there was a knowledge problem standing between him and state power on one issue, but not many others. Does that make him stateless until the moment the knowledge problem ends for that issue?
It seems useful to define limits to government power, such as the current US government can’t stop all drug import and usage – even if they can arrest some people and add friction to the illicit market. But that’s different from saying that the people who participate in the black market for drugs live under non-state conditions. Indeed, if tomorrow their activities were no longer declared illegal they would suddenly, under this definition, be considered to be under state control because the one condition the state wasn’t able to enforce was nullified. That’s because they’re still being controlled for some things but not others.
So if we take this definition to be “any time a state is unable to impose its will, the people who evade state control can be considered to be outside of state control” the definition depends entirely on what the state chooses to attempt enforcement of. A state which attempts more things will create more non-state actors than a state that exerts equivalent amounts of control, but attempts fewer initiatives.
Take this down to the personal level. The government dictates the maximum speed you’re allowed to travel on the road. Most people I see on the road don’t drive within that limit. They drive 5+ MPH over the speed limit (in the US). Often they do this in the presence of law enforcement with no consequences. Are all US drivers outside state control? No. Are they even outside state control for traffic laws? What would happen to vehicle speeds if the state changed the law from 70 to 75 MPH? Everyone would speed up by 5 MPH. So just because a state is unable to exert direct control doesn’t mean people are free of state influence.
I haven’t read Scott, but if he’s arguing that most people have historically been outside state influence (up to and including Gaul/early France) because the states aren’t able to exert the specific, legislated control they overtly project he’s vastly over-defining state control. By that definition I could define most people in modern OECD nations to be outside state control. Indeed, if the average person commits three felonies a day and can wander to the police station for a chat without fear of arrest, how is that different from living outside state control? When do you define state versus non-state under these conditions?
In the end, the thing that really restrains people’s actions isn’t direct state power, but rather social norms. Whether the state has agents or not, few states in history have been able to exert direct control contrary to the will of the masses. Is Scott claiming state control is dependent on social norms of conformity to a centralized power?
But most people, in any historical time, didn’t live in these neighborhoods. In fact I suspect that they are more common in modern times than in the past: you need a high density of productive people to support a non-negligible stable population living an essentially parasitic lifestyle. I doubt there were many hobos in Uruk or Sparta.
Now I have pitches for my next two D&D campaigns.
Think about it like this:
– The King has to come to you, and ask you if he can raise your tax.
– You can relativly easly go to the king and renegotiate the amount you pay.
– Getting something concrete in exchange can be expected for changes in your taxation.
– You only come into contact with the Kings law, when you decide that something should be judged at the Kings court.
Are you really under state controll, or are you more like a partner in an mutual agreement?
I’d have two big concerns.
First, James Scott’s account doesn’t match what we see in early Western history. The stories of the Greeks and Romans are based around small farms where the general population has their own weapons and would organize into armies for war and I’m not aware of severe malnutrition into the Greek or Republican Roman armies. This same trend holds, to the best of my knowledge, in the Germanic tribes who fought the Romans, the Celts the Romans invaded, the Anglo-Saxon invaders of England in the Dark Ages, and the later Norse/Dane invasions of England. All of these seem to involve the military being composed of small farms where armed men rotated between military service and farming. Indeed, if the British History Podcast is to be believed, most of the Anglo-Saxon/Norse invaders wanted farmland of their own more than gold/booty. “Serf” farming seems like a Imperial Rome/Byzantine and medieval thing, common but hardly ubiquitous.
Second, I question how “barbaric” these barbarians really were. The infamous steppe people that menaced China for thousands of years had highly sophisticated cultures and empires. Look at the Liao dynasty of the Khitan, or the Jin dynasty of the Jurchen. Neither of them conquered China the way the Mongols or the Manchus did but they were fully capable of setting up large capable empires separate from China.
I should also point out that James Scott’s narrative maps well onto the Chinese Warring States Period and the Qin, but less well onto the Han. Also, I have no idea how well it describes China in the Shang and Zhou periods I think he’s really referring to (we just don’t have a really good understanding of them).
> Second, I question how “barbaric” these barbarians really were.
Echoes of ancient propaganda? If only the writings of one side are well preserved, historians have to form an image of the other against an already established impression.
History is written by the literate.
Minor quibble with the Chinese example. Both the Liao and the Jin only really created these settled empires once they had conquered Chinese areas and largely adopted Chinese practices to do so and were often administered by Chinese and were primarily governing Chinese subjects (although they at least tried to have a parallel structure built around their original barbarian culture as well). In so far as the Liao and Jin were empires, they were rival Chinese empires.
I’m super-skeptical of any “Edenic abundance” thesis, for the simple reason that populations grow. Edenic abundance is what happens when the population is way below the carrying capacity of the land. Great while it lasts, but it’ll quickly get used up by population growth. The only way that doesn’t happen is if populations are kept fairly low by early death of whatever sort (i.e., famine/war/disease). So either those super-abundant areas of glory are actually deathtraps, or they’re not abundant any more within a century or two. Until the industrial revolution, there was no third choice.
I can totally believe that newly explored areas without much/any human settlement were really nice, as the ancient world goes, for generations. We’re so much better than most other predators that their lives would be pretty easy. There’s a reason that a fairly small group of people could fill the Americas within a few millennia. But once your population is up near the carrying capacity? You’re either dying of disease, killing each other, or no longer living in luxury.
IMHO this conundrum is explainable by the combination of inability to store food surplus (for the hunter-gatherers – unlike agriculturalists) combined with inherent variance. Let’s say that 95% of years are “good years” for a forager and 5% years are “bad years” for whatever reason – then the effective long-term carrying capacity is set by the bad years, when lots of hunter-gatherers (or their kids) die either from starvation or from violent competition over scarce resources; but for the remaining decade or two the population is so much below the (temporary, “good year”) carrying capacity that they live in Edenic abundance and their skeletons exhibit little signs of malnutrition.
For the agricultural peoples it’s the other way around, as the variance is inherently lower (given a variety of crops with different properties) and you can mitigate even extreme harvest failures through long-term storage of the grain. If *they* get a bad year that results in many dead hunter-gatherers and the remaining hunter-gatherers feasting in abundance afterwards, instead the agricultural peoples get a bunch of malnutritioned but alive people that survive by eating their storage, including some of their seed grain and neglect proper fieldwork, so they have less food for the same people (because they don’t get as large population reduction) also in the following years.
Also, the long term changes are influenced by the different bottlenecks – essentially for hunter-gatherers the limiting factor for food production is territory; and for agriculturalists it’s labor and infrastructure (i.e. earlier investment of labor). After a bad event that reduces population, no matter if it’s nature or man-made conflict, the hunter-gatherers will have less people but the same carrying capacity, so they will spend a generation below their carrying capacity (and thus in abundance) but the agriculturalists a similar event will *reduce* carrying capacity (possibly even more than the immediate population reduction), so during the recovery they’ll be miserable; instead of high population growth to capacity, they’ll face a slow growth of capacity driven by the hard labor of excess malnutritioned people.
But don’t forget Malthus. Yes, you may have been able to get your calories without that much effort, but only from the land that isn’t being held by other foragers. As the population increases, the amount of land you can forage from provides just enough calories to survive (and let you produce two children over your lifetime of no-contraceptive sex). Or rather, just enough calories to get through the dry seasons.
Also, you don’t mention body fat as the primary food-storage mechanism.
As someone commented about one foraging group in Africa that expended a remarkably low amount of effort to harvest mongongo nuts (IIRC), “they lose a lot of weight during the dry season”.
And the major solution to this problem is engaging in warfare to drive the next group over off the land they’re occupying.
> I’m not sure how convinced I am – Scott occasionally mentions how much denser (in terms of calories produced per unit land) grain is than other forms of subsistence, and this surely deserves more consideration as an alternative explanation for its success.
Higher per-land productivity actually ties back into the state convenience theory nicely.
Per-land productivity is a lot more important to early states than to less centralized societies, because the effective territory of early states is limited to what they can keep subjects in. Moloch is also present in full force in war, assuming 5x more people will win against a much healthier and better-rested, but smaller, army.
Counterpoint: molon labe
Counter-counter point: The Persians ended up winning at Thermopylae.
I was just reading some Herodotus on the Egyptians, and among the true and outlandish things he says about the Egyptians, he mentions they take no interest in eating beans or chickpeas, even though they grow wild in some parts of the Nile. The Against the Grain thesis seems to hold here. The Egyptians have been culturally pressured not to partake in beans by 2500 years of cultural evolution (at the time Herodotus is writing). However, I think the reverse hypothesis is more likely. Grain and barley fields are more calorie dense than lentils and figs. As soon as someone starts a grain culture the population grows larger than what the land could sustain on the hunter-gatherer equivalent. Cutting grain production becomes unthinkable because it would cause population collapse and economic decrease. And so in a world where wheat consumption maintains your family and friends, eating wild beans becomes defection against the domestic
I would call grain a centralizing because of its high calorie content and difficulty to grow, not its taxability.
And the Egyptians had copious consumption of beer, including labor compensation and medical (ha!) use. It was even celebrated for having saved mankind at ‘The Festival of Drunkenness’ (that foreshadowed modern traditions in certain regards that Wikipedia thankfully does not discuss).
Wittfogel also connected ancient near east agriculture with oppressive government. However, his mechanism was the coordination required for irrigation as a driver of centralization, rather than the legibility of cereal crops for taxation purposes as per Scott.
And Putin’s adviser Dugin makes much of the difference between hierarchical land-based agrarian civilizations and more open civilizations that are oriented towards seafaring. He casts the Anglo-American political order as the heir to the latter tradition—one he finds detestable.
The political scientist Paul Robinson follows Russian politics carefully and has interviewed Dugin. Here is the last bit of that interview:
PR: Finally, I would like to ask you about the influence of your ideas. You no doubt remember the article ‘Putin’s Brain.’ There it’s written that you have a significant influence on geopolitical thinking in Russia. But others say that you have no influence and are a peripheral figure.
AD: Those who think that I stand on the periphery of power are correct. I have no influence. I don’t know anybody, have never seen anyone, I just write my books, and am a Russian thinker, nothing more. I write books, somebody reads them.
Here is the link to the whole interview:
Is this another bottleneck to the development of technological civilization?
Hunter-gatherers can’t coordinate well enough to specialize, build cities and permanent culture, and so on. But it looks like agriculture, though very powerful once it gets going, is hard to start in the first place! Without cereal grains, would cities have ever happened? And how contingent is it that the local flora contained grains which had exactly the characteristics (or close enough in their wild form) to allow the invention of those initial tyrannies, and after that, everything else?
It’s so strange to think that the modern world, and all the wonderful things about it, rely on such horrible things, not as an unfortunate coincidence, but as an unavoidable part of the path which led us here.
Wheat has one big advantage: you can make beer out of it. Beer as a staple gives you clean drinking water, and intoxicants are inherently attractive.
I think beer becomes a necessity once you reach a certain pop density which spoils the water sources around it. So I guess that you can make beer out of it, makes it scalable.
But I don’t think hunter-gatherers desperately needed beer for lack of clean drinking water.
Which grain made oprpression work in South America? The Aztecs and Mayans (and some others, I’m forgetting) were certainly big and oppresive structures. Corn?
Since the people there already killed off the megafauna (delicious horseys, mega sloths and what have you) and they didn’t have great options for domestication, I guess that made the establishment of such entities easier?
I know that one key way that grain was taxed in the middle ages was by having a monopoly on mills. People can grind grain by hand, but that takes a huge amount of effort. Instead, people prefer to use a wind or water mill. These can grind grain more consistently and in large volumes. So one way to tax grain was to control the mills and take a cut whenever grain was ground in an approved mill.
Did the ancient civilizations use similar tactics?
Not sure that they “monopolized” is the right term per se.
A mill is big, immobile and not easy to build. They were family-owned in the middle-ages and I don’t think that they were under some state-monopoly for the most part.
Various versions of “Müller” are the most common German surname, “Miller” is in the US top ten.
I don’t think they were usually community possesions. So that no village owned a mill, but that there was a miller and his family who did.
A mill is not even particularly easy to understand, running it, is one of the most complex jobs in feudal times. You can’t just kill the miller and take it either, cause those mills aren’t standardized.
The miller could be assumed to have a natural monopoly, also has incentive to cooperate with nobility/tax collection. He’s got a lot to loose.
There’s a German term for “the stuff that’s falling on the floor during milling”, that I can’t quite think of right now. From the guided tour of a mill or two, I remember that it was the miller’s privilege to keep that spillover.
So the mill might be taxed quite highly, but the miller always has the spill.
The farmers are usually dependent on the miller, and so is the noble.
And there are songs about the miller’s daughter, which is of course quite desirable.
The miller is an important part of feudal hierarchies, but a complicated in-between. Neither a noble, nor a commoner.
A mill makes the agriculture around it more productive and farming more attractive.
Did the ancients even have mills like we did? Did the South American civilizations have them?
They’re a big deal in the European Middle Ages, but I don’t remember hearing about mills much outside of that.
I think pre-medieval, folks used hand querns or more basic things like mortar and pestle or a couple of big rocks and a load of elbow grease.
Wind and watermills were a big part of the high medieval laying the groundwork for the early Modern period up to the industrial revolution, imho. Mechanical engineering and ‘capital’ for the purpose of massively decreasing the labour-intensiveness of a certain process.
> There’s a German term for “the stuff that’s falling on the floor during milling”
“Das ist ein ander Korn, sagte der Müller, da biss er auf Mäusedreck.” — “That’s a different grain said the miller as he bit on mouse droppings.”
The proverb at least confirms that spillovers were kept for the miller’s use, but… A special term for the spillovers, or the official right to keep it? Such a right would have been a perverse incentive to spill (and spoil, often enough become a metaphor for a proverb!) as much as possible, too.
The laws around mills were really complicated, reflecting the complicated dependencies on, and power plays around, mills. This is a (German) example of these laws.
The mill was part of the manor- the miller was usually a tenant of the lord, and subject to regulation by the manor court. Other tenants were required to use the manor’s mill and ovens (pooling fuel sources was more practical), giving over a certain amount of grain as a fee. In some places after a certain point hand mills and querns were confiscated and peasants fined for using them to avoid the mill fee.
There were big mills in the Roman period, some powered by arrays of really cool giant water wheels.
From what I understand, the Inca took a lot of their taxes in labor rather than materials. Some villages provided fish or crops, but some would have a specialty and provide a specific kind of labor. For example, you might be from a jungle tribe renowned for its archers; your tax is to send 25 young archers to the Emperor each year. Your village might make good pottery or train expert goldsmiths and whatever the Emperor commissioned from them was your village tax.
I find Scott’s analysis to be disappointing. He seems to organize it around what states want to do, or what rulers want to do, or sometimes around what the peasants want to do. But none of those control the nature of society, because none of those drive memetic evolution. The real question is, if I place a foraging society next to an unorganized agrarian society, next to an agrarian state, which one grows at the expense of the others? Historically, agrarian societies had the power to take land (wealth) from foraging societies because agrarian societies support 10 or 100 times as many people per area and have mechanisms for fielding large armies to attack small bands of enemies. The fact that peasants’ lives were worse than foragers’ lives on a number of dimensions is irrelevant.
You can see several versions of this play out in the growth of the English colonies in what is now the eastern United States. For 200 years,. they gradually grew by displacing the non-state agrarian “Eastern Woodlands” Natives, but were thwarted expanding against the proto-state Iroquois (who could field decent-sized armies) and the Five Civilized Nations (who had defined boundaries against the United States and presumably some way to police them against interlopers). And note the famous quote from Ben Franklin that it was hard to recruit Natives to join Euro-American society and easy for Natives to capture and acculturate Euro-American children, because Native life was a lot less work. But around 1800, the United States was powerful enough, organized enough, and had sufficiently superior technology to systematically kill or drive out the Natives in what we call the Trail of Tears. The United States kept this up until it reached the Pacific Ocean.
An odd version of this analysis crops up in modern life. Consider East Germany and West Germany when the Berlin Wall came down. Given that both cultures were post-demographic-transition, both had the food to allow people to immigrate. But people, and especially highly economically productive people, preferred living in West Germany to living in East Germany, which led to a vicious drain on East German productivity. Within a year, the East German state (and its economic organization) folded.
I expect more of this in the near future. What would happen to a Venezuela if it was easy to migrate between Latin American nations; how long could Chavez’ nonsense last? I notice that an entire generation of young Greeks left their country during the crisis.
Something about this narrative kept nagging at me and I think I can put it into words.
If the life of a hunter gatherer is so great and their health is so good…. why don’t they have more babies until the life of a hunter gatherer is to hard for the population to keep growing?
If there’s a load of fit and healthy fully grown hunter gatherers with loads of resources leaving fit healthy tall skeletons for a long period of time… that implies something keeps killing them off young at such a rate that there’s no scarcity or notable population growth.
If the farmers are on average shorter and less healthy as adults…. that can mean that they were able to keep their less-healthy kids alive into adulthood.
Strict population control isn’t uncommon in primitive tribal societies, is it? Although you’d expect a range, with some groups with looser population controls than others.
If “strict population control” means most people rarely get to have sex, then that seems like a powerful argument for ditching the restrictive H-G lifestyle for something more fertile, and one that won’t need totalitarian Bronze Age proto-kings to enforce.
If “strict population control” means the usual sort and frequency of sex and usual frequency of pregnant women but we kill off most of the babies, that also probably doesn’t require totalitarian rulers to convince people to shift to the system where the babies merely grow up a few inches shorter. Though in this case pressure for change may come more from the maternal side.
I don’t know about ‘strict’ but I’ve read about past societies adopting cultural norms that retard population growth on a societal level. Late marriages and intermittent abstinence sounded like they were the main methods for this. One example pertained to late medieval France and the other to a modern tribal group in North Africa. Both of these societies were already living under Malthusian pressures, though, and so the cultural adaptations were reflexive and not preemptive.
One way that population limits could be meaningfully enforced across a large region in lieu of a central authority would be if they were evolutionarily advantageous. If ubermenschen who came from tribes that limited their growth to levels below the Malthusian limit outcompeted untermenschen from tribes that didn’t, then all tribes could come to hold the same limitations and a stable population region-wide.
A question we have to ask, if we take it for granted that humans could trade higher population capacity for lower health, height, and so forth, is why this process didn’t run unimpeded to reach its ultimate conclusion with humans evolving to be tiny gibbous ape-like creatures with small brains, limited strength, and an absence of other virtues? The answer is that humans had to maintain certain levels of fitness in order to retain the evolutionary niches they originally evolved to fill. Fitness for hunter-gatherers could have required them to maintain certain levels of size, strength, etc., while for farmers fitness could have, conversely, required them to have lower caloric expenditures, effectively making them smaller, weaker, and, in their niche, more competitive. Farming represented a new niche, separate from hunter-gathering, and one that therefore had a different set of exigencies — which humans immediately began to develop towards.
Trouble is, for this to be true on a cultural evolution level, the menschen in question don’t just need to be uber/unter personally; the tribes breeding ubermenschen need to dominate the ones breeding untermenschen. And numbers are worth a hell of a lot in conflict: if you’ve got a tribe with ten short, feckless, kinda weak, kinda dumb guys, fighting one that can field five geniuses with the perfectly bronzed bodies of gods, and the two are otherwise the same (equal equipment, equal time to prepare, similar tactics…), I’ll bet on the wretches every time.
We just know much less than this review (and presumably the book) suggests. It’s frustrating. I would like, as much as anyone, to understand what was going on Catal Huyuk, but all we have is some 8,000 year old ruins. We can make more or less plausible guesses from what happens to have survived (burials, middens, murals etc) but we have to keep always in mind there’s no connection between what’s important to people and what is preserved as archaelogical evidence.
We don’t know how paleolithic hunter-gatherers lived in Mesopotamia. All we have is a few (mostly incomplete) skeletal remains and the odd stone tool. We know something about contemporary (and recently extinct) hunter-gatherer societies, but we cannot assume ancient hunter-gatherer societies were similar. At the very least we know that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies possess some technologies which were unknown in paleolithic times. Although we should also be aware that we know very little about paleolithic technologies: the word “paleolithic” refers to the stone tools found by archaeologists, but presumably there were also other tools in less durable materials.
There is not “ample archaeological evidence” that paleolithic hunter-gatherers practiced salting animal meat, fermenting fish and storing grain in silos. It’s unclear whether this statement is intended to mean that all these techniques were found in Mesopotamia or just that they were found somewhere in the world (in which case, who cares?), but either way a moment’s thought shows that archaeological evidence can’t be that clear cut. You find a ruined building. You find some evidence that grain was once present. Is it a grain silo? Maybe. You estimate it’s age. It corresponds to a time when some other evidence suggests that there were hunter-gatherers in the area. Did they build the building? Maybe. How sure are you that they were hunter-gatherers? Not very.
This isn’t to say that no hunter-gatherer in paleolithic Mesopotamia ever built a grain silo, but archaeology is a field where the more you look at the details, the less you understand. We just don’t know.
We don’t know how the economies of pre-Uruk settlements worked. They left no records (at least, which are legible to us). Maybe they were peace-loving anarchist co-operatives. Maybe they were miniature slave-empires. Certainly the suggestion that “settled peoples would eat whatever plants they liked, then scatter the seeds in particularly promising-looking soil close to camp” is pure speculation. How could we possibly know that? We do know that broadcasting was the original form of arable farming, but there’s no reason to think it was done in a carefree and haphazard manner.
We do know a bit about taxation in ancient Mesopotamia, and what we know suggests that it was less similar to taxation in medieval Europe than is implied here. Even though Babylonian bureaucracy was impressive at the time, it wasn’t sophisticated enough to levy a straightforward tithe of the harvest. My understanding is that the predominant obligation was to provide labour.
We know a bit about Sumerian society, but not enough to be confident that the typical subject was a serf at best. Certainly in the later period, Uruk was an absolute monarchy, and I was struck in the Ashurbanipal exhibition by the fact that, even though all this art was created for the purpose of aggrandising the king, he never thought it worth signifying that he had the slightest concern for anyone else’s well-being. But the Code of Hammurabi implies a society more complex than the king and everyone else, and moreover one in which even low status individuals had some rudimentary rights which they could look to the state to enforce.
And that brings me back to point about evidence. We’re in the position of saying, here’s some monumental art, here’s a tablet with some laws on it, what sort of society produced these things? Both art and the law can differ significantly from every day experience, so we can never say with any confidence.
The part about continuous population decline vis runaways made me raise my eyebrows. If this happens in every state, how can they keep raiding each other to steal slaves? Where do the masses run to? Why would I take in some starved runaway if I’m a barbarian living in the marginal land they’re running away to? How do we sustain such a continuous flow from much more densely populated land if we’re too marginal to support a state of our own? Why wouldn’t a king realize he can get a bunch of immigrants if he just treats his people better, reducing tax rate but increasing revenue? Wouldn’t the first state to attract instead of scare off farmers have a comparative advantage in both revenue and manpower?
Oh look: it’s https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishmael_(novel) in historian long form.
Had to think of that too.
I thought this was not contentious.
I have actually played rpg campaigns based on this premise: phoenician explorers get to the new world and bring back the potato. After the fall of the Roman Empire, feudalism does not arise, there are no large states, everyone is potato farmers. Europe is a poor backwater raided for slaves by the Mongol Horde and a Neo-Aztec civilization, both at the gunpowder stage.
The source manual, GURPS Alternate Earths was published in 1996.
The genetic evidence shows that nearly everywhere, farming spread by migration and population replacement. That proves that A. relative attractiveness of lifestyle had nothing to do with it; and B. that it almost certainly was a shittier lifestyle than hunting and gathering, because otherwise more HGs would have made the switch. Instead, you see agriculture spread by diffusion within relatively limited areas that had similar conditions and likely related cultures, and then spread by colonization undertaken by peoples at the fringes of these areas. Theoretically, all it takes is one culture developing agriculture, and we would expect them to spread across the entire world, replacing HGs everywhere amenable to agriculture simply due to higher population density and therefore military capacity.
Also, a lot of barbarians were agriculturalists. Steppe and desert nomads weren’t, but barbarians elsewhere generally were. The Germans who conquered Rome were just less efficient agriculturalists, and so had smaller populations and weaker state dynamics. And interestingly, as agricultural productivity grew in Germany, so too did centralized power. I think density really is everything.
Gatherer-hunter to intensive agriculturalist isn’t a dichotomy, but a spectrum. The gatherer-hunter might return to a known good spot, might spread some seeds around for a later return, might be semi-nomadic around such a managed plot, might be into extensive agriculture combined with gathering and hunting, might be mostly an agriculturalist but with some foraging, might be an intensive agriculturalist.
Some of these steps might be nice, some might be risk-reducing, some might result from environmental pressure, and some might result from overpopulation and social effects. Asking “how could anyone want to go from being a hunter-gatherer to an intensive agriculturalist when the latter is crap?!” is a bit like when creationists claim that a fully developed eye couldn’t just pop into existence. Which is true – there has to be a progressive pathway, and then it suddenly seems inevitable instead.
This is fascinating. Scott forgot that the Carribean had a Cassava state… There were tribal leaders but I guess it was more of a communal situation. Hence why the Spaniards replaced it all with sugar plantations