The rise of agricultural states came at a big cost, a new book argues

Mobile groups traded health and happiness for settled societies

Egyptian agricultural mural

BITTER HARVEST  Early agricultural states that formed in Egypt and elsewhere were fragile creations, not least because of crowding, epidemics, droughts and popular resistance to taxation and conscription into armies, contends political anthropologist James C. Scott in his new book.

Maler der Grabkammer des Menna/Wikimedia Commons

Against the Grain
James C. Scott
Yale Univ., $26

Contrary to popular opinion, humans didn’t shed a harsh existence as hunter-gatherers and herders for the good life of stay-in-place farming. Year-round farming villages and early agricultural states, such as those that cropped up in Mesopotamia, exchanged mobile groups’ healthy lifestyles for the back-breaking drudgery of cultivating crops, exposure to infectious diseases, inadequate diets, taxes and conscription into armies.

In Against the Grain, political anthropologist James C. Scott offers a disturbing but enlightening defense of that position. He draws on past and recent archaeological studies indicating that the emergence of state-run societies around 6,000 years ago represented a cultural step backward in some important ways. Scott has previously written about modern states’ failed social engineering projects and the evasion of state control by present-day mountain peoples in Southeast Asia. Exploring the roots of state-building was a logical next step.

Neither agriculture nor large settlements, on their own, stimulated state formation, Scott argues. Middle Eastern foragers cultivated grains thousands of years before year-round villages appeared. Large, permanent settlements depending substantially on wild plants and marine food materialized in Mesopotamia well before agricultural states formed there.

Scott proposes that early states represented a shotgun marriage of farming and huge communities presided over by a new class of hyperambitious rulers. State-building began in wetland areas, such as the Fertile Crescent, with huge expanses of fertile soil. There, grain farming squeezed enough people and storable food into a small enough space to enable state control and tax collection.

Fledgling states were fragile, often breaking into smaller entities or falling apart entirely. Researchers have tended to overlook the possibility that apparent state “collapses” in the archaeological record involved intentional flights of subjects fed up with war, taxes, epidemics and crop failures, Scott says.

He ends with a look at how herding groups both raided and abetted early agricultural states in Asia. Nomads deftly robbed stores of food and goods from their neighbors, then negotiated steep bribes in exchange for not attacking. Mobile pastoralists eventually became trading partners, bringing sedentary societies copper, horses and slaves, to name a few. Herders were also mercenaries, catching runaway slaves and repressing revolts. Ironically, Scott writes, “barbarians” helped states become the dominant political players they are today.

Scott writes in a straightforward style largely free of scientific jargon. He doesn’t portray foraging and mobile lifestyles as utopian systems, but a closer look at their cons as well as their pros would have painted a fuller picture of these people. Still, Scott’s depiction of early centralized states’ problems rings true in a modern world of nation-states.

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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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