The political economy of neolithic states

Against the Grain:

A Deep History of the Earliest States

The dominant narrative about early human society is that the Neolithic Revolution directly led to the domestication of plants and fixed-field agriculture that allowed humans to form sedentary villages and towns, and this led directly to the formation of states. The first states are typically viewed as a leap forward for humanity, taken as part of a linear progression that gave us civilization, public order, and increased health and leisure. The past two decades of archeological research have produced evidence which contradicts this narrative. James C. Scott’s Against the Grain seeks to draw from numerous archeological studies, condense the best knowledge gained, and explore the consequences for the early states. Scott himself is not an archeologist and does not aim to produce new information. He seeks to “connect the dots” of existing knowledge and draw out broader implications.

The central question Scott poses is “How did Homo sapiens come, so very recently in its species history, to live in crowded, sedentary communities packed with domesticated livestock and a handful of cereal grains,

governed by the ancestors of what we now call states?” Scott focuses primarily on southern Mesopotamia, where the first states emerged around 6,000 years ago. To aid his analysis, he draws comparisons with the early states in northern China, Crete, Greece, Rome, and Maya. Scott questions the narrative that the early states brought into being a more comfortable existence for humanity and puts forward a counterargument based on the current archeological evidence.

It was long thought that hunting and gathering required mobility and dispersal, making domestication of grain a precondition for sedentism. Yet there were areas where hunter-gatherers lived in permanent settlements before the domestication of plants and livestock. Neolithic villages in Syria, central Turkey, and western Iran, for example, existed in water-rich areas, subsisting primarily on hunting and foraging. It also turns out that the domestication of grains and livestock occurred roughly 4,000 years before any states were formed. The first agrarian states therefore, were neither natural nor inevitable.

Another dominant myth busted is that the first agrarian states arose from a need to mobilize and manage human labor for building irrigation works and intensifying agricultural production to sustain a growing population. The narrative is based on the arid conditions dominating the Mesopotamian sites today. However, more recent studies reveal that the southern Mesopotamian alluvium around 6,000 BCE was a vast deltaic wetland, with the Persian Gulf extending further inland. The first states emerged, therefore, in an ecologically rich environment teeming with food and resources. Furthermore, the early sedentary settlements were situated near several different ecological zones, providing multiple food sources to draw from, removing the danger of overreliance on any one source. The old belief that sedentary villages and towns were the product of irrigation states has thus been turned on its head.

Given that cereal cultivation emerged in these areas, why did people leading an easy hunter-gathering lifestyle take up energy-intensive agriculture? Scott suggests that it began as “flood-retreat” agriculture: seeds could be planted in the fertile silt deposited by annual riverine floods. The floods also served to clear the fields by removing other vegetation and depositing new layers of silt. This form of cultivation was much less intensive than plough agriculture.

Ploughed fields and livestock subsequently came to dominate Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent. The question then remains: why did these people shift to the back-breaking drudgery of fixed-field agriculture? Scott does not provide a conclusive answer but suggests that it may have been due to growing population pressure in sedentary communities, making it harder to move, combined with a decline in large game. Hunter-gatherers therefore had to extract more from their surroundings at higher labor costs. Consequently, they turned increasingly to the planting techniques already in use.

Against the Grain is strongest where Scott is dismantling the dominant narratives that present state formation as a new golden age in human existence. Scott puts a compelling argument that early agrarian societies in fact produced poorer health and nutrition. The heavy reliance on a narrow food source, centered on domesticated grains, made their diet extremely limited. It was highly vulnerable to climatic changes, parasitic plagues, and seasons of poor yields. Thus, the shift to reliance on domesticated grains led to physical changes not only in the domesticated plants and animals but also in the people. Humans living in these societies became smaller, physically weaker, and more prone to injury than their hunter-gatherer counterparts. Furthermore, agriculture was extremely hard work, especially for such poor nutritional output. In contrast, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a more diverse and nutritious diet from an array of sources, healthier living, and more flexibility to respond to environmental changes. In this regard, life for the hunter-gatherer sounds vastly superior to the lot of those laboring in sedentary agricultural societies.

The early states were extremely fragile and prone to collapse. The sedentary communities they presided over were built on unprecedented concentrations of humans, domesticated animals, and plants. With these highly concentrated populations came an array of other newcomers, including vermin, parasites, diseases, and epidemics. Many common diseases make their first appearance in these populous settlements. Furthermore, these states were not built without resistance. People frequently took flight to escape the oppressive rigors of state control. Epidemics often caused collapse. In many cases they likely provided an opportunity for the subject populations to flee. Given the harsh realities of these states, Scott questions whether their collapse really was a “dark age” as often portrayed, or in fact a boon to the peoples’ health and safety.

The early states relied heavily on coercion to sustain and reproduce themselves. There is ample evidence for the use of slave labor and forcible resettlement into laboring colonies. Inventories recording the spoils of war prioritized captives according to their levels of expertise for various productive tasks. Walls previously thought to have been built to keep invaders out, were more likely to have been constructed to keep their subjects in. Therefore, contrary to the myth that the first states formed a magnet attracting people with their prosperity and promise of a better life, these states were in fact something to be feared, relying on force to maintain and reproduce themselves.

However, there is a major weakness in Scott’s analysis. While he makes use of the archeological evidence to draw a picture of the physical conditions allowing for state formation, he does not grasp the active role of human agency in shaping these societies. While he acknowledges that state subjects were not always willing participants and often resisted or sought escape, for the most part Scott’s narrative relegates people as objects of history, upon whom the various developments in state formation were imposed, rather than as active antagonists struggling to shape their own destiny within the parameters of their material conditions.

The problem comes through in Scott’s discussion of how these oppressive states emerged. A key observation is that these states were all based on some form of grain agriculture. The reason, Scott argues, is grains were the best suited crop for concentrated production, tax assessments, and systematic appropriation. The nature of grains as seasonal crops growing above ground which can be stored for long periods after harvest made them ideal as crops that could be taxed and managed as a surplus. Whereas legumes, for example, are much harder to control and tax––they grow beneath ground, can be left there for long periods, and hidden from tax assessors. The rest of the world, who were not dominated by states, lived in non-agrarian societies, thus lacking the basis for taxation and therefore state control. Furthermore, the non-state peoples were often mobile—dispersal was not conducive to state taxation and control. It is a compelling hypothesis and may well explain the form that these early states took. However, it does not explain why these states formed. The implication from Scott’s narrative is that the states resulted from the logic of sedentary societies relying on fixed-field plough agriculture, centered on grain. As a result, Scott’s analysis is mechanically determinist.

There is also, strangely, no discussion of class. Consequently, the dynamics of class struggle in shaping the development of these societies do not really figure within Scott’s analysis. Again, this leads to Scott discussing the dynamics of states as if they were autonomous entities. Although states function with a certain logic, they were formed as instruments of control by the ruling elites who materially benefited from them. An analysis centered on class would provide a more convincing explanation for the formation of states. After Neolithic societies began producing a surplus, the need to manage the surplus led to new divisions of labor. Such social organization existed for thousands of years without those in charge of the surplus exercising power over society. At some stage, for reasons unclear, a minority who had become separated from the productive process began using their control over surplus to exercise more power. The emerging class division created a contradiction, which drove internal conflict. It is easy to see how these struggles led to the formation of coercive states to impose the rule of elites and protect their control over the surplus. There is archeological evidence that people did not willingly accept class subjugation. One example is the Neolithic site of Çayönü in modern day Turkey. The site suggests the emergence of a ruling class that was subsequently overthrown by the population, who then reformed their society on egalitarian lines. Scott actually mentions this site in his introduction, alluding to the charcoal layer associated with the revolution that saw the destruction of all buildings associated with the short-lived ruling class. He balks at identifying what the layer represents, however, and thus misses an opportunity.

Against the Grain is a useful contribution in that it summarizes evidence regarding the first states, identifies common patterns in the emergence of agriculture, the realities of life in agrarian societies, and the oppressive nature of the first states. Scott’s analysis of the formation and collapse of the first states, however, could be made deeper from a perspective that places class and human agency at the forefront. There is plenty of scope for more research and debate in this field.

Issue #70

March 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean

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