Book Review of “Against the Grain. A Deep History of the Earliest States”

Preface. is ultimately about the rise and fall of civilizations, although I didn’t know that when I first started writing this as an energy and resource blog.  Our civilization too will fail as fossil fuels decline, and then we’re back to the civilizations of the past, based on wood, and the eternal dance between sedentary city-states and the barbarians outside the gate, both with them with main goal of raiding for slaves rather than extending territory. 

I have to admit I am always shocked and dismayed that slaves have always played such a huge role in human society. Even Native Americans had slaves.  Read all about it in “The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America” by Andrés Reséndez. What a species we are.

This is not so much a book review as an organization of my kindle notes into the various topics that interested me.  There is a sampling, there is much more to be learned, I highly recommend reading this book.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Scott, J. C. 2017. Against the Grain. A Deep History of the Earliest States. Yale University Press.

The Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyle

The lives of hunter-gatherers are orchestrated by a host of natural rhythms of which they must be keen observers: the movement of herds of game (deer, gazelle, antelope, pigs); the seasonal migrations of birds, especially waterfowl, which can be intercepted and netted at their resting or nesting places; the runs of desirable fish upstream or downstream; the cycles of the ripening of fruits and nuts, which must be collected before other competitors arrive or before they spoil; and, less predictably, appearances of game, fish, turtles, and mushrooms, which must be exploited quickly.

The list could be expanded almost indefinitely, but several aspects of this activity stand out. First, each activity requires a different “tool kit” and techniques of capture or collecting that must be mastered. Second, we should not forget that foragers have long gathered grains from natural stands of cereals and had, for this purpose, already developed virtually all the tools we associate with the Neolithic tool kit: sickles, threshing mats and baskets, winnowing trays, pounding mortars and grinding stones, and the like.

Botanists and naturalists have been continually amazed by the degree and breadth of knowledge hunters-gatherers have of the natural world around them. Their taxonomies of plants are not classified in Linnaean categories, but they are both more practical (good to eat, will heal wounds, will make blue dye) and quite as elaborate. Codifications of farming knowledge in America, by contrast, have traditionally taken the form of the Farmers’ Almanac, which suggests, among other things, when maize should be planted. We might, in this context, think of hunters and gatherers as having an entire library of almanacs: one for natural stands of cereals, subdivided into wheats, barleys, and oats; one for forest nuts and fruits, subdivided into acorns, beechnuts, and various berries; one for fishing, subdivided by shellfish, eels, herring, and shad; and so on.

Hunter gatherers shared land with each other, and with no ability to accumulate wealth, there was no incentive to produce beyond the level of subsistence and comfort, to engage in the drudgery of agricultural production.

Wetland settlements

The earliest large fixed settlements sprang up in wetlands, not arid settings; they relied overwhelmingly on wetland resources, not grain, for their subsistence; and they had no need of irrigation in the generally understood sense of the term. Insofar as any human landscaping was necessary in this setting, it was far more likely to be drainage than irrigation. The classical view that ancient Sumer was a miracle of irrigation organized by the state in an arid landscape turns out to be totally wrong.

Exclusive emphasis on the superabundance of marshes and riverine settings overlooks a further crucial advantage of coastal and river locations: transportation. Wetlands may have been a necessary condition of early sedentism, but the development later of large kingdoms and trading centers depended on an advantageous positioning for waterborne trade.

The advantage of waterborne transport compared with overland cart or donkey travel is almost impossible to exaggerate. A Diocletian edict specified that the price of a wagon load of wheat doubled after 50 miles. Because it reduces friction dramatically, movement by water is exponentially more efficient.

Whether in ancient China, in the Netherlands, in the fens of England, in the Pontine Marshes finally subdued by Mussolini, or in the remaining southern Iraq marshes drained by Saddam Hussein, the state has endeavored to turn ungovernable wetlands into taxable grain fields by reengineering the landscape.

A last and more speculative reason for the obscurity of wetland societies is that they were, and remained, environmentally resistant to centralization and control from above. They were based on what are now called “common property resources”—free-living plants, animals, and aquatic creatures to which the entire community had access. There was no single dominant resource that could be monopolized or controlled from the center, let alone easily taxed. Subsistence in these zones was so diverse, variable, and dependent on such a multitude of tempos as to defy any simple central accounting.

A culture might well develop in such areas, but the likelihood was small that such an intricate web of relatively egalitarian settlements would throw up great chiefs or kingdoms, let alone dynasties. A state—even a small proto-state—requires a subsistence environment that is far simpler than the wetland ecologies we have examined.

Sedentary towns

The domestication of plants and animals made possible a degree of sedentism that did form the basis of the earliest civilizations and states and their cultural achievements. It rested, however, on an extremely slender and fragile genetic foundation: a handful of crops, a few species of livestock, and a radically simplified landscape that had to be constantly defended against a reconquest by excluded nature.

Despite general ill health and high infant and maternal mortality compared to hunters and gatherers, it turns out that sedentary agriculturalists also had unprecedentedly high rates of reproduction—enough to more than compensate for the also unprecedentedly high rates of mortality.

Nonsedentary populations typically limit their reproduction deliberately.  The spacing of children of hunter-gatherers is on the order of four years, a spacing that is achieved by delayed weaning, abortifacients, and neglect or infanticide.  Some combination of strenuous exercise with a lean and protein-rich diet meant that puberty arrived later, ovulation was less regular, and menopause arrived earlier.

The greater value of the children as a labor force in agriculture is enhanced. By virtue of sedentism, menarche is earlier; with a grain diet, infants can be weaned earlier on soft foods; and by virtue of a high-carbohydrate diet, ovulation is encouraged and a woman’s reproductive life is extended.

Given enough time, the small reproductive advantage of farmers was overwhelming.

Humans stayed in one place a long time before plants and animals were domesticated at least four millennia before agricultural villages appeared.

Sedentism and the first appearance of towns were typically seen to be the effect of irrigation and of states. It turns out that both are, instead, usually the product of wetland abundance. We thought that sedentism and cultivation led directly to state formation, yet states pop up only long after fixed-field agriculture appears. Agriculture, it was assumed, was a great step forward in human well-being, nutrition, and leisure. Something like the opposite was initially the case.

Whether the grain in question is wheat, barley, rice, or maize—the four crops that account, even today, for more than half of the world’s caloric consumption—the patterns display a family resemblance. The early state strives to create a legible, measured, and fairly uniform landscape of taxable grain crops and to hold on this land a large population available for corvée labor, conscription, and, of course, grain production. For dozens of reasons, ecological, epidemiological, and political, the state often fails to achieve this aim, but this is, as it were, the steady glint in its eye.

The state and early civilizations were often seen as attractive magnets, drawing people in by virtue of their luxury, culture, and opportunities. In fact, the early states had to capture and hold much of their population by forms of bondage and were plagued by the epidemics of crowding. The early states were fragile and liable to collapse, but the ensuing “dark ages” may often have marked an actual improvement in human welfare.

It is simply assumed that weary Homo sapiens couldn’t wait to finally settle down permanently, could not wait to end hundreds of millennia of mobility and seasonal movement. Yet there is massive evidence of determined resistance by mobile peoples everywhere to permanent settlement, even under relatively favorable circumstances. Pastoralists and hunting-and-gathering populations have fought against permanent settlement, associating it, often correctly, with disease and state control. Many Native American peoples were confined to reservations only on the heels of military defeat

Inconveniently for the narrative, sedentism is actually quite common in ecologically rich and varied, preagricultural settings—especially wetlands bordering the seasonal migration routes of fish, birds, and larger game. There, in ancient southern Mesopotamia (Greek for “between the rivers”), one encounters sedentary populations, even towns, of up to five thousand inhabitants with little or no agriculture. The opposite anomaly is also encountered: crop planting associated with mobility and dispersal except for a brief harvest period.

That people couldn’t wait to abandon mobility altogether and “settle down”—may also be mistaken.

Long before the deliberate planting of seeds in ploughed fields, foragers had developed all the harvest tools, winnowing baskets, grindstones, and mortars and pestles to process wild grains and pulses. For the layman, dropping seeds in a prepared trench or hole seems decisive.

Does discarding the stones of an edible fruit into a patch of waste vegetable compost near one’s camp, knowing that many will sprout and thrive, count?

One can perhaps see this early period as part of a long process, still continuing, in which we humans have intervened to gain more control over the reproductive functions of the plants and animals that interest us. We selectively breed, protect, and exploit them. One might arguably extend this argument to the early agrarian states and their patriarchal control over the reproduction of women, captives, and slaves. Guillermo Algaze puts the matter even more boldly: “Early Near Eastern villages domesticated plants and animals. Uruk urban institutions, in turn, domesticated humans.

On a generous reading, until the past four hundred years, one-third of the globe was still occupied by hunter-gatherers, shifting cultivators, pastoralists, and independent horticulturalists, while states, being essentially agrarian, were confined largely to that small portion of the globe suitable for cultivation. Much of the world’s population might never have met that hallmark of the state: a tax collector. Many, perhaps a majority, were able to move in and out of state space and to shift modes of subsistence; they had a sporting chance of evading the heavy hand of the state.

One way of determining whether a woman who died 9,000 years ago was living in a sedentary, grain-growing community as compared with a foraging band was simply to examine the bones of her back, toes, and knees. Women in grain villages had characteristic bent-under toes and deformed knees that came from long hours kneeling and rocking back and forth grinding grain. It was a small but telling way that that new subsistence routines—what today would be called a repetitive stress injury—shaped our bodies to new purposes, much as the work animals domesticated later

One might argue that the spread of sedentism transformed Homo sapiens into far more of a herd animal than previously. Unprecedented concentrations of people, as in other herds, provided ideal conditions for epidemics and the sharing of parasites. But this aggregation was not a one-species herd but an aggregation of many mammalian herds who shared pathogens and generated entirely new zoonotic diseases by the mere fact of being assembled around the domus for the first time.


“Barbarians” were simply the vast population not subject to state control. I will continue to use the term “barbarian”—with tongue planted firmly in cheek—in part because I want to argue that the era of the earliest and fragile states was a time when it was good to be a barbarian. The length of this period varied from place to place depending on state strength and military technology.

If the barbarian realm is one of diversity and complexity, the state realm is, agro-economically speaking, one of relative simplicity. Barbarians are not essentially a cultural category; they are a political category to designate populations not (yet?) administered by the state. The line on the frontier where the barbarians begin is that line where taxes and grain end.

One is reminded in this context of Owen Lattimore’s admonition that the great walls of China were built as much to keep Chinese taxpayers in as to keep the barbarians out.

As sedentary communities, the earliest states were vulnerable to more mobile nonstate peoples. If one thinks of hunters and foragers as specialists at locating and exploiting food sources, the static aggregations of people, grain, livestock, textiles, and metal goods of sedentary communities represented relatively easy pickings. Why should one go to the trouble of growing a crop when, like the state (!), one can simply confiscate it from the granary? As the Berber saying so eloquently attests, “Raiding is our agriculture.” The growth of sedentary agricultural settlements that were everywhere the foundation of early states can be seen as a new and very lucrative foraging site for nonstate peoples—one-stop shopping, as it were.

As Native Americans realized, the tame European cow was easier to “hunt” than the white-tailed deer. The consequences for the early state were considerable. Either it invested heavily in defenses against raiding and/or it paid tribute—protection money—to potential raiders in return for not plundering. In either case the fiscal burden on the early state, and hence its fragility, increased appreciably

While raiding’s spectacular quality tends to dominate accounts of the early state’s relationship with barbarians, it was surely far less important than trade. The early states, located for the most part in rich, alluvial bottomlands, were natural trading partners with nearby barbarians. Ranging widely in a far more diverse environment, only the barbarians could supply the necessities without which the early state could not long survive: metal ores, timber, hides, obsidian, honey, medicinals, and aromatics. The lowland kingdom was more valuable as a trade depot, in the long run, than as a site of plunder.

There is a strong case to be made that life outside the state—life as a “barbarian”—may often have been materially easier, freer, and healthier than life for non-elites inside civilization.

To states, they are uncaptured and a threat that must be exterminated like the birds, mice, and rats eating crops. They were undomesticated.

For millennia barbarians were perhaps the single most important factor limiting the growth of states.  Not just the Mongols and Huns, many bands gnawed relentlessly with raids on sedentary, grain-farming communities. An irresistible site for concentrated gathering.  Their range with camels, horses, or swift boats extended the range and effectiveness of their marauding.

It was hard for the state to retaliate, since these bands were mobile and dispersed, melting away in to hills, swamps, and trackless grasslands, where state armies followed at their peril.

Sea pirates also preyed on Mediterranean trade like land tribes preying on overland caravans.

Since too much predation kills the goose laying the golden eggs, raiders often adopted a protection racket strategy.  In return for goods, the raiders protected the towns and cities.   That still didn’t fully protect a town, raiders without such an agreement might attack, though the barbarians who had an agreement were expected to defend the town.

These agreements were probably more common than the historical records show, because they were likely to be secrets of the state that they wanted to keep quiet to maintain their public façade of an all-powerful state.

Many raiding nomads like the Mongols thought of sedentary populations as herds, with the major booty to be gained by war was slaves, the same racket city-states were engaged in.

Barbarians also grew wealthy from trade with states, trading cattle, sheep, and slaves for textiles, grain, iron and copperware, pottery and more.  Barbarian groups that controlled major trading routes, especially navigable rivers to major lowland cities could reap large rewards.

When people fled the state because of war, epidemics and so on, they often became barbarians.

The nomadic barbarians often conquered states and became the new ruling class.  This happened at least twice in China resulting in the Yuan and Manchu/Qing dynasties.

Or barbarians became the cavalry and mercenaries of the state to keep other barbarians in check.


What is also absolutely clear is that domesticated grains and livestock are known long before anything like an agrarian state appears—far longer than previously imagined. On the basis of the latest evidence, the gap between these two key domestications and the first agrarian economies based on them is now reckoned to stretch for 4,000 years.

Cereal grains have unique characteristics such that they would be, virtually everywhere, the major tax commodity essential to early state building.

States sometimes fell because they got too greedy, taking too much grain as taxes, leaving subjects to starve, because they didn’t have enough fine-grained knowledge to appropriate the appropriate amount.  The tax collectors themselves often stole some of the grain. The core farmers bore the brunt of taxation, since outlying areas tended to have worse soil and higher transportation costs.

The peasants along the Nile were especially hard-pressed because they had nowhere to run to.


Statelets rose and fell in rapid succession. Collapse was commonplace. Constant warfare and competition for manpower made states even more fragile by diverting manpower to wall building, defensive works, and fighting that might have been employed producing food.  Constant warfare forced cities to be placed where military defense triumphed over material abundance, making them economically more precarious.

A state losing a war also lost men fleeing elsewhere, especially the slaves and conscripted foreigners,  reminiscent of the massive desertions of poor whites in the confederacy towards the end of the Civil War.

Internal wars could also bring down a state from battles for succession, civil wars, and insurrections.

With the rise of states cities became great prizes, not only of potential slaves, livestock, and grain stores, but the walls, canals, defensive works, storehouses, and usually a great location near soil, plentiful water, and trade routes.

States were also vulnerable to deforestation, limiting their size and longevity.  The zone with the best land and access to trade was also where the major shrines, markets, administrative staff, and praetorian guards were.


I believe that we may have grossly underestimated the importance of the (infectious) diseases of crowding in the demographic fragility of the early state.

I and others are virtually certain that disease was a major factor in the fragility of the early states. Its effects, however, are hard to document, since they were so sudden and so little understood, and because many epidemic diseases left no obvious bone signature.

There are nonetheless good reasons for supposing that a great many of the sudden collapses of the earliest centers of population were due to devastating epidemic diseases. Time and again there is evidence of a sudden and otherwise unexplained abandonment of previously well-populated sites. In the case of adverse climate change or soil salinization one would also expect depopulation, but in keeping with its cause it would be more likely to be regionwide and rather more gradual. Other explanations for the sudden evacuation or disappearance of a populous site are of course possible: civil war, conquest, floods. Epidemic disease, however, given the entirely novel crowding the Neolithic revolution made possible, is the most likely suspect, judging from the massive effects of disease that appear in the written records once they become available.

Epidemics affected domestic animals and crops that were also concentrated in the late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camp. A population could as easily be devastated by a disease that swept through their flocks or their grain fields as by a plague that menaced them directly.

Mesopotamians lived in the ever-threatening shadow of fatal epidemics. They had amulets, special prayers, prophylactic dolls, and “healing” goddesses and temples—the most famous of which was at Nippur—designed to ward off mass illness. Such events were poorly understood at the time.

The first written sources also make it clear that early Mesopotamian populations understood the principle of “contagion” that spread epidemic disease. Where possible, they took steps to quarantine the first discernible cases, confining them to their quarters, letting no one out and no one in. They understood that long-distance travelers, traders, and soldiers were likely carriers of disease.

Soldiers returning from a campaign and suspected of carrying disease were obliged to burn their clothing and shields before entering the city. When isolation and quarantine failed, those who could fled the city, leaving the dying and deceased behind, and returning, if ever, only well after the epidemic had passed. In doing so, they must frequently have brought the epidemic to outlying areas, touching off a new round of quarantines and flight.

Virtually all the infectious diseases due to microorganisms specifically adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past 10,000 years, many of them perhaps only in the past 5,000. They were, in the strong sense, a “civilizational effect.” These historically novel diseases—cholera, smallpox, mumps, measles, influenza, chicken pox, and perhaps malaria—arose only as a result of the beginnings of urbanism and, as we shall see, agriculture. Until very recently they collectively represented the major overall cause of human mortality. 

A measles epidemic brought by sailors devastated the Faroe islands in 1781, and, given the lifelong immunity conferred on survivors, the islands were free of the measles for 65 years until 1846, when it returned, infecting all but the aged folks who had survived the earlier epidemic. A further epidemic 30 years later infected only those under 30. For measles specifically, epidemiologists have calculated that at least 3,000 newly susceptible hosts would be required annually to sustain a permanent infection and that only a population of roughly 300,000 could provide this many hosts.

Estimates vary, but of the 1400 known human pathogenic organisms, between 800-900 are zoonotic diseases, originating in nonhuman hosts. For most of these pathogens, Homo sapiens is a final “dead-end” host: humans do not transmit it further to another nonhuman host.

We humans share 26 diseases with poultry, 32 with rats and mice, 35 with horses, 42 with pigs, 46 with sheep and goats, 50 with cattle, and 65 with the dog. Measles is suspected to have arisen from a rinderpest virus among sheep and goats, smallpox from camel domestication and a cowpox-bearing rodent ancestor, and influenza from the domestication of waterfowl some 4,500 years ago.

Little wonder, then, that southeast China, specifically Guangdong, probably the largest, most crowded, and historically deepest concentration of Homo sapiens, pigs, chickens, geese, ducks, and wild animal markets in the world, has been a major world petri dish for the incubation of new strains of bird and swine flu.

It was not until the late 19th-century discoveries of the founders of microbiology, Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur, that it became clear what a heavy price in chronic and lethal infections Homo sapiens was paying for the absence of clean water, sanitation, and sewage removal.

It is quite likely that the crowding diseases, including especially zoonoses, were largely responsible for the demographic bottleneck of the early Neolithic 12,000 years ago. In time—how long is uncertain and varies with the pathogen—crowded populations developed a degree of immunity to many pathogens, which in turn became endemic, signifying a stable and less lethal pathogen-host relationship.

Once a disease becomes endemic in a sedentary population, it is far less lethal, often circulating largely in a subclinical form for most carriers. At this point, unexposed populations having little or no immunity against this pathogen are likely to be uniquely vulnerable when they come into contact with a population in which it is endemic. Thus war captives, slaves, and migrants from distant or isolated villages previously outside the circle of crowd immunity have fewer defenses and are likely to succumb to diseases to which large sedentary populations have become, over time, largely immune.

Repeated annual cultivation provided, in effect, a permanent feedlot for insect pests and plant diseases—not to mention obligate weeds—which built up to population levels that could not have existed before fixed-field monocropping. Large sedentary communities necessarily meant many arable fields in close proximity, growing a similar variety of crop; this promoted a commensurate buildup of pest populations.

Crops not only are threatened, as are humans, with bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases, but they face a host of predators large and small—snails, slugs, insects, birds, rodents, and other mammals, as well as a large variety of evolving weeds that compete with the cultivar for nutrition, water, light, and space. The seed in the ground is attacked by insect larvae, rodents, and birds. During growth and grain development the same pests are still active, as well as aphids that suck sap and transmit disease. Fungal diseases are especially devastating, including mildew, smut, bunt, rusts, and ergot

And once the harvest is in the granary it is still subject to weevils, rodents, and fungi.  It is common enough in the contemporary Middle East for several crops in succession to be lost to insects, birds, or disease. In an experiment in northern Europe, a crop of modern barley, fertilized but not protected with modern herbicides or pesticides, was reduced by half: 20% due to crop disease, 12% to animals, and 18% to weeds. Threatened by the diseases of crowding and monoculture, domesticated crops must be constantly defended by their human custodians if they are to yield a harvest.

It is largely for this reason that early agriculture was so dauntingly labor intensive. Various techniques were devised to reduce the labor involved and improve the yields. Fields were scattered so that they were less contiguous; fallowing and crop rotation was practiced; and seed was procured at a distance to reduce genetic uniformity. Ripening crops were closely guarded by farmers,

Collapse and Dark Ages: not so bad

First, let’s enumerate all the many ways a state could collapse. The unprecedented concentration of crops, people, and livestock led to a whole series of effects—soil exhaustion, siltation, floods, salinization, epidemics, fire, malaria and other epidemics.

In focusing our attention on the exceptional places where the earliest states appeared, we risk missing the key fact that in much of the world there was no state at all until quite recently.  In most cases, interregna, fragmentation, and “dark ages” were more common than consolidated, effective rule.

Collapse can be seen as the abandonment or destruction of a monumental court center, a loss of social complexity, the dispersion of the populace to smaller settlements and villages, monumental building activity ceases, literacy for administrative and religious reasons gone, trade reduced, craft production gone.

But not necessarily a decline of regional population, health, well-being, or nutrition. Indeed, a collapse may be a huge improvement for its enslaved and poor peasantry.

Here again, we—and the historians as well—are likely to be mesmerized by the records of a dynasty’s founding or its classical period, while periods of disintegration and disorder leave little or nothing in the way of records. Greece’s four-century-long “Dark Age,” when literacy was apparently lost, is nearly a blank page compared with the vast literature on the plays and philosophy of the Classical Age.

When a city is burned to the ground, it is often hard to tell whether it was an accidental fire such as plagued all ancient cities built of combustible materials, a civil war or uprising, or a raid from outside.

This is entirely understandable if the purpose of a history is to examine the cultural achievements that we revere, but it overlooks the brittleness and fragility of state forms. In a good part of the world, the state, even when it was robust, was a seasonal institution. Until very recently, during the annual monsoon rains in Southeast Asia, the state’s ability to project its power shrank back virtually to its palace walls. Despite the state’s self-image and its centrality in most standard histories, it is important to recognize that for thousands of years after its first appearance, it was not a constant but a variable, and a very wobbly one at that.

It appears that flight from the early state domains to the periphery was quite common, but, as it contradicts the narrative of the state as a civilizing benefactor of its subjects, it is relegated to obscure legal codes.

The causes are typically multiple, and it is arbitrary to single out one as decisive. As with a patient suffering many underlying illnesses, it is difficult to specify the cause of death. And when, say, a drought leads to hunger and then to resistance and flight of which, in turn, a neighboring kingdom takes advantage by invading, sacking the kingdom, and carrying off its population, which of these causes ought we to prefer? The sparse written record rarely helps. When a kingdom is destroyed by invasion, raids, civil war, or rebellion, the deposed scribes rarely remain at their posts long enough to record the debacle.

Three fault lines are by-products of state formation itself. The first are the disease effects of the unprecedented concentrations of crops, people, and livestock together with their attendant parasites and pathogens. Epidemics of one kind or another, including crop diseases, were responsible for quite a few sudden collapses. Evidence, however, is difficult to come by.

More insidious are two ecological effects of urbanism and intensive irrigated agriculture. The former resulted in steady deforestation of the upstream watershed of riverine states and subsequent siltation and floods. The latter resulted in well-documented salinization of the soil, lower yields, and eventual abandonment of arable land.

All it took to fail were too many harvests lost to drought, flood, pests, or diseases.  For humans to succumb to or flee a pandemic, invasion, civil war, deforestation, and so on.

The early state’s appetite for wood was nearly insatiable and far exceeded what even a sizable sedentary community might have required. In addition to clearing land for agriculture and grazing, and the need for wood for cooking and heating, house construction, and pottery kilns, the early state required huge quantities of wood for metallurgy, iron smelting, brick making, salt curing, mining supports, shipbuilding, monumental architecture, and lime-plaster—this last requiring huge amounts of fuelwood to prepare.  Given the difficulties of transporting wood any appreciable distance, a state center would have very quickly have exhausted the modest supplies close to its core settlement. Located as virtually all early states were, on a navigable waterway, it could take advantage of the buoyancy of wood, and if on a river, cut timber to float down to the city.

Logging and transportation required trees be cut as close to the river as possible to minimize labor. As nearby upstream banks were deforested, the wood had to come from farther and farther upstream and/or from smaller trees that could more easily be gotten to the bank to float downstream.

There is abundant evidence of deforestation from the Athenian quest for naval timer in Macedonia and the shortage of timber in the Roman Republic.  Much earlier, by 6300 BCE in the Neolithic town of Ain Ghazal, there were no more trees within walking distance of the settlement, and fuelwood had become scarce.  As a result, the community dispersed into scattered hamlets, as did a good many other Jordan Valley Neolithic settlements when they exceeded the carrying capacity of their local woodlots.

A nearly infallible sign that a city-state faced a shortage of firewood were the amounts of charcoal supplied, essential for high-temperature applications such as firing pottery, lime slaking and smelting. It isn’t used in homes unless there’s no firewood.  But charcoal has a lot more heat value per weight or volume and can be transported for greater distances than firewood.

Deforesting upstream causes problems.  Too much erosion and siltation result.  If the city depended on irrigation, the silt might clog the canals, requiring much labor to dredge them.  Deforestation also helped to prevent floods, and floods with a lot of silt were especially violent and damaging.  China’s Yellow river has killed millions with its massive floods.  Floods can also cause a river to change its course, leaving a city-state and its crops high and dry, marooned from transportation as well.  Silt also creates malarial wetlands.


The extent of slavery, bondage, and forced resettlement is hard to document as, in the absence of shackles, slave and free-subject remains are indistinguishable. All states were surrounded by nonstate peoples, but owing to their dispersal, we know precious little about their coming and going, their shifting relationship to states, and their political structures.

Then there was another plague: the state plague of taxes in the form of grain, labor, and conscription over and above onerous agricultural work. How, in such circumstances, did the early state manage to assemble, hold, and augment its subject population? Some have even argued that state formation was possible only in settings where the population was hemmed in by desert, mountains, or a hostile periphery.

Unfree labor was particularly important in building city walls and roads, digging canals, mining, quarrying, logging, monumental construction, wool textile weaving, and of course agricultural labor. The attention to “husbanding” the subject population, including women, as a form of wealth, like livestock, in which fertility and high rates of reproduction were encouraged, is apparent. The ancient world clearly shared Aristotle’s judgment that the slave was, like a plough animal, a “tool for work.

Formal slavery in the ancient world reaches its apotheosis in classical Greece and early imperial Rome, which were slave states in the full sense one applies to the antebellum South in the United States. Chattel slavery on this order, though not absent in Mesopotamia and early Egypt, was less dominant than other forms of unfree labor, such as the thousands of women in large workshops in Ur making textiles for export. That a good share of the population in Greece  and Roman Italy was being held against its will is testified to by slave rebellions in Roman Italy and Sicily, by the wartime offers of freedom—by Sparta to Athenian slaves and by the Athenians to Sparta’s helots—and by the frequent references to fleeing and absconding populations in Mesopotamia.

Up to two-thirds of Athenian society were slaves, and in Sparta, an even greater portion.  Slaves in Athens were often war captives from non-Greek speaking peoples, Spartas were mostly indigenous cultivators conquere in place and made to work for “free” Spartans.

Every Roman military campaign used slaves.  The soldiers expected to become rich by selling or ransoming captives they’d personally captured.

You could almost view wars more as slave raids than conventional warfare, since the goal was to obtain captives.  Rarely do chronicles mention taking territory, rather accounts emphasize the value of the plunder in livestock and prisoners, whose towns and villages were usually destroyed so they’d have nothing to return to.  Often wars were fought when grain was ripe so that it too could be seized.

Even as late as 1800, about 75% of the world’s population could be said to be living in bondage. 

States liked to take working age captives to be slaves, after all, they had been raised at the expense of another society, and could be exploited by the slave state for their most productive years.  Often conquerors went out of their way to capture people with particular skills, such as boat builders, weavers, metal workers, armorers and so on, men the slave state hadn’t had to spend time or money on to develop such skills.

Women and children were especially prized, with women becoming wives, concubines, or servants.  Women were especially needed to produce children since infant and maternal mortality were high. Unlike in America, where slavery was inherited forever, most slaves were incorporated into society. 

Slaves were often given the most brutal and dangerous work in mining, stone quarrying, logging, and pulling oars in galley ships, and many other unpleasant tasks, all vital for the military and wealth of the state.  They were usually far from town and easier to control and less of a threat to public order.  This spared the proletariat from degrading drudgery which might provoke a rebellion. 

Slaves were often the ones forced into mass resettlement of land that might have been decimated from an epidemic, and were easier to control away from town.  Many were moved, as many as 200,000 Babylonians at one point, with a whole cadre of deportation officials in charge of getting them fed on the way to their new location.


The term “domesticate” is normally understood as an active verb taking a direct object, as in “Homo sapiens domesticated rice . . . domesticated sheep,” and so on. This overlooks the active agency of domesticates. It is not so clear, for example, to what degree we domesticated the dog or the dog domesticated us. And what about the “commensals”—sparrows, mice, weevils, ticks, bedbugs—that were not invited to the resettlement camp but gate-crashed anyway, as they found the company and the food congenial. And what about the “domesticators in chief,” Homo sapiens? Were not they domesticated in turn, strapped to the round of ploughing, planting, weeding, reaping, threshing, grinding, all on behalf of their favorite grains and tending to the daily needs of their livestock?

Domestication ought to be understood in an expansive way, as the ongoing effort of Homo sapiens to shape the entire environment to its liking. Given our frail knowledge about how the natural world works, one might say that the effort has been more abundant in unintended consequences than in intended effects.

How were we also domesticated by the domus, by our confinement, by crowding, by our different patterns of physical activity and social organization?

Wild grain heads are typically small and shatter easily, thereby seeding themselves. They mature unevenly; their seeds can remain long dormant but still germinate; they have many appendages, awns, glumes, and thick seed coats, all of which discourage grazers and birds. All these features are selected for in the wild and selected against by the farmer. It is diagnostic that the major weeds that plague wheat and barley—one can think of them as hitchhiking, feral commensals—have precisely these characteristics. They like the tilled field but escape the harvester and grazer alike.

“Fully domesticated” means simply that it is, in effect, our creation; it can no longer thrive without our attentions. In evolutionary terms a fully domesticated plant has become a super-specialized floral “basket case,” and its future is entirely dependent on our own.

We can surely understand how dogs, cats, and even pigs have been attracted to hunters and to the domus for the food, warmth, and concentration of available prey they promised. They—some of them at any rate—appeared at the domus more as volunteers than as conscripts. Much the same could be said for the house mouse and the house sparrow, which, though perhaps less welcome, came while evading full domestication.

If Homo sapiens is judged the most successful and numerous invasive species in history, this dubious achievement has been due to the allied battalions of domesticated plants and livestock it has taken with it to virtually every corner of the globe.

Among the characteristics that pre-disposed species to domestication are: above all, herd behavior and the social hierarchy that accompanies it, the capacity to tolerate different environmental conditions, a broad spectrum diet, adaptability to crowding and disease, the ability to breed under confinement, and, finally, a relatively muted fright-and-flight response to external stimuli. While it is true that most major domesticates (sheep, goat, cattle, and pigs) are herd animals, as are most domesticated draft animals (horses, camels, donkeys, water buffalo, and reindeer), herd behavior does not guarantee domestication.

While guarded and tended by their human masters, the domesticates, like plants in the field, were spared many of the selective pressures (predators, competition for food, battles for mates) of the wild but were subject to new selection pressure, both deliberate and unintentional, imposed by their “owners.

The hallmark behavioral difference between domesticated animals and their wild contemporaries is a lower threshold of reaction to external stimuli and an overall reduced wariness of other species—including Homo sapiens. The likelihood that such traits are in part a “domus effect” rather than entirely due to conscious human selection is, once again, suggested by the fact that uninvited commensals such as statuary pigeons, rats, mice, and sparrows exhibit much the same reduced wariness and reactivity. Selection, for example, favored smaller, less obtrusive rats and mice better adapted to living off human refuse and avoiding detection and capture.

We have, for the past 8,000 years, been selecting among sheep for tractability—slaughtering first the aggressive ones who broke out of the corral.

More diagnostic than the overall reduction in brain size are the areas of the brain that seem to be disproportionately affected. In the case of dogs, sheep, and pigs, the part of the brain most affected is the limbic system (hippocampus, hypothalamus, pituitary, and amygdala), which is responsible for activating hormones and nervous-system reactions to threats and external stimuli. The shrinkage of the limbic system is associated with raising the threshold that would trigger aggression, flight, and fear. In turn, this helps explain the diagnostic characteristics of virtually all domesticated species: namely the general reduction in emotional reactivity. Such emotional dampening can be seen as a condition for life in the crowded domus and under human supervision, where the instant reaction to predator and prey are no longer powerful pressures of natural selection. With physical protection and nutrition more secure, the domesticated animal can be less intently alert to its immediate surroundings than its cousins in the wild.

The stress and physical trauma of confinement, together with a narrower spectrum diet and the ease with which infections can spread among individuals of the same species packed together, make for a variety of pathologies.

We are as much a product of self-domestication in both intended and unintended ways as other species of the domus are products of our domestication.  The process of self-domestication had begun long before (some of it even before “sapiens”) with the use of fire, cooking, and the domestication of grain.

The new crops became “basketcases,” which could not survive without our constant attentions and protection. Much the same was true for domesticated sheep and goats, which became smaller, more placid, less aware of their surroundings.

Why Grain States and not some other crop?

It is surely striking that virtually all classical states were based on grain, including millets. History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit, or sweet potato states. (“Banana republics” don’t qualify!) My guess is that only grains are best suited to concentrated production, tax assessment, appropriation, cadastral surveys, storage, and rationing. Taxing herders was quite difficult, nomads were always on the  moe and could escape.

In contrast the tuber cassava (aka manioc, yucca) grows below ground, requires little care, is easy to conceal, ripens in a year, and, most important, can safely be left in the ground and remain edible for two more years. If the state wants your cassava, it will have to come and dig up the tubers one by one, and then it has a cartload of little value and great weight if transported. If we were evaluating crops from the perspective of the premodern “tax man,” the major grains (above all, irrigated rice) would be among the most preferred, and roots and tubers among the least preferred.

Famers tried to surreptitiously harvest their grain before the tax-man came, so states often mandated a planting time to prevent that.

One might imagine that ancient domesticated legumes, say—peas, soybeans, peanuts, or lentils, all of which are nutritious and can be dried for storage—might serve as a tax crop. The obstacle in this case is that most legumes are indeterminate crops that can be picked as long as they grow; they do not have a determinate harvest, something the tax man requires.

Grains were standards of measurement and the currency of trade and labor.  The daily food ration of the lowest laborers in Mesopotamia was 2 liters of barley measured into beveled bowls that are the most common archaeological find.

Grain was easy to transport, which could expand the boundaries of a state.  Rome shipped grain from Egypt rather than overland on the Italian peninsula.  The territory of the Roman Empire didn’t extend much beyond the grain line.


Contrary to some earlier assumptions, the state did not invent irrigation as a way of concentrating population, let alone crop domestication; both were the achievements of pre-state peoples. What the state has often done, once established, however, is to maintain, amplify, and expand the agro-ecological setting that is the basis of its power by what we might call state landscaping. This has included repairing silted channels, digging new feeder canals, settling war captives on arable land, penalizing subjects who are not cultivating, clearing new fields, forbidding nontaxable subsistence activities such as swiddening and foraging, and trying to prevent the flight of its subjects.

Formation of Early States

A polity with a king, specialized administrative staff, social hierarchy, a monumental center, city walls, and tax collection and distribution is certainly a “state” in the strong sense of the term. Such states come into existence in the last centuries of the fourth millennium BCE

While fixed settlements and domesticated grains can be found earlier elsewhere (for example, in Jericho, the Levant, and the “hilly flanks” east of the alluvium), they did not give rise to states. What is required is wealth in the form of an appropriable, measurable, dominant grain crop and a population growing it that can be easily administered and mobilized. Areas of great but diverse abundance such as wetlands, which offer dozens of subsistence options to a mobile population, because of their very illegibility and fugitive diversity, are not zones of successful state making.

If the formation of the earliest states were shown to be largely a coercive enterprise, the vision of the state, one dear to the heart of such social-contract theorists as Hobbes and Locke, as a magnet of civil peace, social order, and freedom from fear, drawing people in by its charisma, would have to be reexamined.

The early state, in fact, as we shall see, often failed to hold its population; it was exceptionally fragile epidemiologically, ecologically, and politically and prone to collapse or fragmentation. If, however, the state often broke up, it was not for lack of exercising whatever coercive powers it could muster. Evidence for the extensive use of unfree labor—war captives, indentured servitude, temple slavery, slave markets, forced resettlement in labor colonies, convict labor, and communal slavery (for example, Sparta’s helots)—is overwhelming.

The earliest states were historically novel institutions; there were no manuals of statecraft, no Machiavelli rulers could consult, so it is not surprising that they were often short-lived. China’s Qin Dynasty, famous for its many innovations of strong governance, lasted a mere 15 years. The agro-ecology favorable to state making is relatively stationary, while the states that occasionally appear in these locations blink on and off like erratic traffic lights.


Once the development of coastal shipping allowed for more long-distance trade, the volume of this trade exploded.

Two aspects of this trade, however, were both melancholy and fateful. Perhaps the main commodity traded to the early states was the slave—typically from among the barbarians. The ancient states replenished their population by wars of capture and by buying slaves on a large scale from barbarians who specialized in the trade. In addition, it was a rare early state that did not engage barbarian mercenaries for its defense. Selling both their fellow barbarians and their martial service to the early states, the barbarians contributed mightily to the decline of their brief golden age.

To take the example of firewood, a variety of sources (before railroads and all-weather roads) advise that a cartload of firewood cannot be sold profitably at distance beyond roughly 9 miles (15 km).  In rugged terrain, even less. The importance of charcoal, though it is massively wasteful of wood, is exclusively due to its superior transportability; its heat value per unit weight and volume is far superior to “raw” firewood.

In the premodern era, no bulk goods—timber, metallic ores, salt, grain, reeds, pottery—could be shipped over appreciable distances except by water.


Our ancestors could not have failed to notice how natural wildfires transformed the landscape: how they cleared old vegetation and encouraged a host of quick-colonizing grasses and shrubs, many bearing desired seeds, berries, fruits, and nuts. They could also not have failed to notice that a fire drove fleeing game from its path, exposed hidden burrows and nests of small game, and, most important, later stimulated the browse and mushrooms that attracted grazing prey. Native North Americans deployed fire to sculpt landscapes favored by elk, deer, beaver, hare, porcupine, ruffed grouse, turkey, and quail, all of which they hunted. The game they subsequently bagged represented a kind of harvesting of prey animals they had deliberately assembled

The evidence suggests that long before the bow and arrow appeared, roughly 20,000 years ago, hominids were using fire to drive herd animals off precipices and to drive elephants into bogs where, immobilized, they could more easily be killed.

What this slow-motion landscape engineering accomplishes over time is to concentrate more subsistence resources in a smaller and smaller area. It rearranges, by a fire-assisted form of applied horticulture, desirable flora and fauna in a tighter ring around the camp(s) and makes hunting and forging easier. The radius of a meal, one might say, is reduced. Subsistence resources are closer at hand, more abundant, and more predictable. Wherever humans and fire were at work sculpting the landscape for hunting-and-gathering convenience, few nutrient-poor “climax” forests were allowed to develop.

The chemical disassembly of raw food, which in a chimpanzee requires a gut roughly three times the size of ours, allows Homo sapiens to eat far less food and expend far fewer calories extracting nutrition from it.

Food storage as the rationale behind grain civilizations

The breathtaking four-millennia gap between the first appearance of domesticated grains and animals and the coalescing of agro-pastoral societies we have associated with early civilization commands our attention. The anomaly of such a stretch of history, when all the building blocks for a classic agrarian society are in place but fail to coalesce, begs an explanation.

The Mesopotamian alluvium, along with the Levant, is characterized by larger variations in rainfall and vegetation over shorter distances than almost any other place in the world. Seasonal variation in rainfall was also exceptionally high. Although this diversity put different resources fairly close at hand, it also required a large repertoire of subsistence strategies that could be deployed to deal with the variations.

A common answer has been that cereal grains can be harvested, threshed, and stored in a granary for several years and represent a dense store of starches and protein if, by chance, there is a sudden shortage of wild resources. Despite its cost in labor, so the argument goes, it represented something like a subsistence insurance policy for hunter-gatherers who also knew how to plant. This explanation, in its cruder forms, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It assumes, implicitly, that the harvest from a planted crop is more reliable than the yield from wild stands of grain. If anything, the opposite is more likely to be the case, inasmuch as wild seed will, by definition, be found only in locations where it will thrive.

The cruder versions of the “food-storage hypothesis” are also singularly myopic about the great variety of food storage techniques simultaneously practiced in the alluvium and elsewhere. Storage “on the hoof” in the form of livestock is the most obvious.

The general problem with farming—especially plough agriculture—is that it involves so much intensive labor. One form of agriculture, however, eliminates most of this labor: “flood-retreat” agriculture in which seeds are broadcast on the fertile silt deposited by an annual riverine flood. The fertile silt in question is made by the erosion of upstream land. This form of cultivation was almost certainly the earliest form of agriculture in the Tigris-Euphrates floodplain, not to mention the Nile Valley. It is still widely practiced today and has been shown to be the most labor-saving form of agriculture regardless of the crop being planted.

Civilization started out of desperation

The dominant explanation until fairly recently was what might be called the “backs-to-the-wall” theory of plough agriculture associated with the great Danish economist Ester Boserup. Starting from the unassailable premise that plough cultivation typically required far more work for the calories it returned than did hunting and gathering, she reasoned that full cultivation was taken up not as an opportunity but as a last resort when no other alternative was possible. Some combination of population growth, the decline in wild protein to hunt and nutritious wild flora to gather, or coercion, must have forced people, reluctantly, to work harder to extract more calories from the land they had access to.

If so, one would expect cultivation to be adopted first in those areas where hard-pressed foragers had reached the carrying capacity of their immediate environment. Instead, it seems to have arisen in areas characterized more by abundance than by scarcity.

Also the argument that cultivation requires great toil may well be invalid. Finally, there appears to be no firm evidence associating early cultivation with the disappearance of either game animals or forage.

I am tempted to see the late Neolithic revolution, for all its contributions to large-scale societies, as something of a deskilling (see Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyle above).  A contraction of our species’ attention to and practical knowledge of the natural world, a contraction of diet, a contraction of space, and perhaps a contraction, as well, in the breadth of ritual life.

Why would foragers in their right mind choose the huge increase in drudgery entailed by fixed-field agriculture and animal husbandry unless they had, as it were, a pistol at their collective temple?

The domestication of plants as represented ultimately by fixed-field farming, then, enmeshed us in an annual set of routines that organized our work life, our settlement patterns, our social structure, the built environment of the domus, and much of our ritual life. From field clearing (by fire, plough, harrow), to sowing, to weeding, to watering, to constant vigilance as the crop ripens, the dominant cultivar organizes much of our timetable. The harvest itself sets in train another sequence of routines: in the case of cereal crops, cutting, bundling, threshing, gleaning, separation of straw, winnowing chaff, sieving, drying, sorting—most of which has historically been coded as women’s work. Then, the daily preparation of grains for consumption—pounding, grinding, fire making, cooking, and baking throughout the year—set the tempo of the domus. These meticulous, demanding, interlocked, and mandatory annual and daily routines, I would argue, belong at the center of any comprehensive account of the “civilizing process.” They strap agriculturalists to a minutely choreographed routine of dance steps; they shape their physical bodies, they shape the architecture and layout of the domus; they insist, as it were, on a certain pattern of cooperation

The “pistol at their temple” may have been the cold snap of the Younger Dryas (10,500–9,600 BCE), which reduced the abundance of wild plants, together with hostile adjacent populations, which restricted their mobility. This explanation is hotly contested in terms of both evidence and logic.

Or perhaps the transition was brought about in the Fertile Crescent by the growing scarcity (by overhunting?) of the big-game sources of wild protein—aurochs, onager, red deer, sea turtle, gazelle—the “low-hanging fruit,” to mix metaphors, of early hunting. The result, perhaps impelled as well by population pressure, forced people to exploit resources that, while abundant, required more labor and were perhaps less desirable and/or nutritious. Evidence for this broad-spectrum revolution is ubiquitous in the archaeological record as the bones of large wild animals decline and the volume of starchier plant matter, shellfish, small birds and mammals, snails, and mussels begin to predominate.

About the development of agriculture proper, some three or four millennia later, however, the jury is in. There was growing population pressure; sedentary hunters and gatherers found it harder to move and were impelled to extract more, at a higher cost in labor, from their surroundings, and most large game was in decline or gone. Planting techniques were long known and occasionally used; wild plants were routinely gathered and their seeds stored; all the tools for grain processing were at hand, and even a captive animal or two might be held in reserve. Nevertheless, planting and livestock rearing as dominant subsistence practices were avoided for as long as possible because of the work they required. And most of the work arose from the need to defend a simplified, artificial landscape from the resurgence of nature excluded from it: other plants (weeds), birds, grazing animals, rodents, insects, and the rust and fungal infections that threatened a mono-cropped field. The tilled agricultural field was not only labor intensive; it was fragile and vulnerable.

The first state: Uruk

We think of states as institutions that have strata of officials specialized in the assessment and collection of taxes—whether in grain, labor, or specie—and who are responsible to a ruler or rulers. We think of states as exercising executive power in a fairly complex, stratified, hierarchical society with an appreciable division of labor (weavers, artisans, priests, metalworkers, clerks, soldiers, cultivators).

By such standards there is no doubt that that the “state” of Uruk is firmly in place by 3,200 BCE.

Estimates of its population range from 25 to 50,000; the number of inhabitants tripled over 200 years, an increase unlikely to have come from natural population growth, given the high mortality rates. The bas reliefs depicting prisoners of war in neck shackles suggest another means by which the population was augmented.

Uruk’s walls appear to have enclosed an area of about a square mile (250 hectares) twice the size of classical Athens nearly three millennia later.

One convincing explanation for how this cultivating population might have been assembled as state subjects is climate change. Nissen shows that the period from at least 3,500 to 2,500 BCE was marked by a steep decline in sea level and a decline in the water volume in the Euphrates. Increasing aridity meant that the rivers shrank back to their main channels and the population increasingly huddled around the remaining watercourses, while soil salinization of water-deprived areas sharply reduced the amount of arable land. In the process, the population became strikingly more concentrated, more “urban.” Irrigation became both more important and more labor intensive—it now often required lifting water—and access to dug canals became vital.

The shortage of irrigation water confined the population increasingly to well-watered places and eliminated or diminished many of the alternative form of subsistence, such as foraging and hunting.

Climate change, then, by forcing a kind of urbanization in which 90% of the population lived in settlements of 75 acres (30 hectares) or more, intensified the grain-and-manpower modules that were ideal for state formation.  

It is hard to determine how burdensome grain taxes were since they varied over time and between polities. To judge from agrarian history in general, the tax in grain is unlikely to have been less than a fifth of the harvest. Cultivators walked, in effect, closer to the subsistence precipice: a crop failure that, without taxes, might mean hunger could, after the state took its taxes, mean utter ruin.

One account of warfare among the peer polities of the alluvium asserts that the population lived at the subsistence level except when a victorious army returned with loot and tribute. The gains of the winner were offset by the losses of the vanquished. Warfare itself meant the burning of crops, the seizure of granaries, the confiscation of livestock and household goods—one’s own army was as likely to be as big a threat to livelihood as the enemies. The early state, rather like the weather, was more often an added threat to subsistence.

The Making of a State

Archaic states, in the crudest material terms, were all agrarian and required an appropriable surplus of agro-pastoral products to feed nonproducers: clerks, artisans, soldiers, priests, aristocrats. Given the logistics of transport in the ancient world, this meant the concentration of as much arable land and as many people to work it as possible within the smallest radius. Only the richest soils were productive enough to sustain a large population in a compact area to produce taxable surplus.

Only well-watered soil with reliable rain or irrigation water was suitable for state making.

No states were self-sufficient, they relied on products originating from far away that could be brought by water, for the most part, no water transport, no state.  Ships are much faster and can carry far more goods.  States are more likely to arise on flat land as well.

Walled States

Food storage and other goods had to be protected despite the difficult and long labor needed to construct walls.  Walls also kept farmers from escaping and continuing to pay taxes.  Movement was severely restricted as well.

Peasants have always known the state is a recording, registering, and measuring machine that results in conscription, forced labor, land seizures, head taxes, and new taxes.  This is why the first act of many peasant rebellions was to burn down the local records office.  Recording such data was what drove writing 500 years earlier than using the written word for literature, religious texts and more.

Maximizing population was an obsession to create producers, solders, and slaves for the state, which needed constant updating of inventories of people and land.  At times the state forced people and war captives to settle newly conquered land.  In some states women and their families were given tax breaks for each child.

The state with the most people was usually the richest and likely to win battles with smaller rivals.  The prize of war was more often captives than territory, whose lives were spared usually. Often it wasn’t large urban centers that fought each other.  A town might rather go after small communities on the edge of its territory.  Soldiers were also sent out to capture escapees.

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2 Responses to Book Review of “Against the Grain. A Deep History of the Earliest States”

  1. Shane says:

    It seems very likely that the shock of the younger Dryas, followed by the climate settling into one of the most stable and predictable spells in human history, was key to the emergence of grain based states independently around the world within a very narrow time frame.
    Grain as a crop is unusual in that it needs moisture and warmth at planting, followed by cooler/drier weather at harvest to make storage possible. This is only reliable and manageable if the local climate produces a predictable pattern of wet and dry weather.
    It will be interesting to see how the unfolding period of climate change impacts civilisation. Australia has always had an unpredictable climate due to being sandwiched between two unpredictable oceans, meaning grain based civilisation never emerged here. Even modern grain farming relies on long distance weather forecasts to grow a successful crop in many districts, and these farms often simply shut down for years at a time when a spell of dry weather arrives. Not something a society without cheap fossil fuels can pull off, especially since even grains cannot be stored well for more than a couple of years under primitive conditions.
    More than a simple increase in average global and local temperatures a shift to a more volatile climate with unpredictable rainfall patterns in formerly predictable regions that were major grain growers might see civilisation as we know it become impossible.
    I have high hopes personally for tuber crops that are used to produce pure starch being the next step in societal evolution. These crops are often easier to grow (especially if the whole tuber is not consumed) and the best types can gradually grow through unstable weather for years until harvest is desired. Pure starch is about twice as energy dense as the best grains, and stores indefinitely. Extracting and utilising starch is slightly less complex than the many steps involved in turning grain in the field into a final edible product. It is interesting to speculate what a starch extraction based society would look like in terms of political dynamics.

  2. Diana Tod says:

    Many thanks for a fascinating summary. I’ve ordered the book – so very relevant today.

    It would be interesting to explore further the reason the world as a whole turned almost unanimously to domesticating grain and cereals, if indeed this was the case. (Even in Australia according to Bruce Pasco in his book, “Dark Emu”, although one questions on what scale).

    There have been many smaller communities which did not cultivate grains; the Pacific island, New Guinea and Eskimo communities spring to mind. Perhaps there were even communities and villages 1,000 years ago that practiced a type of ‘regenerative farming’ along the lines of tree crops interspersed with grazing strips and tuber/berry crops, which remained small, or were swallowed up by the mega cities and civilisations. and so sank out of sight, unworthy of our notice or admiration compared to the vast cities and civilisations with their despotic rulers and enslaved populations – and spectacular collapses.

    One wonders if another such may have been the small, cohesive communities in the Greek Dark Ages. That this period followed the collapse of Mycenaen Civilisation but lasted a long four hundred years is perhaps revealing; did they, having experienced ‘civilisation’ consciously rejected it? Were they instead content with small, harmonious, relatively equal societies thereafter? That this ‘Dark Age’ suddenly blossomed into the Greek Classical Age possibly suggests it. It would be fascinating to know how life progressed for those four hundred years, although we know it also took three hundred years for pottery to again be made after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

    How ironic it would be if perhaps the time has finally arrived when books like this one lead us to question our admiration for huge civilisations just as our global one is teetering on the point of collapse.

    Perhaps, as in the Greek Dark Ages, we will return to small communities and regenerative farming and have small, cohesive, equal societies.

    One can only hope.