What made prehistoric hunter-gatherers give up freedom for civilization?


Scott’s 2009 book The Art of Not Being Governed examined Southeast Asia from the standpoint of the highland regions that have evaded imperial authority up to the present day. Whereas most stories about empire tell how the dominant power expands and asserts itself, Scott emphasizes the places where people have retained their freedom by moving up mountain valleys, staying mobile, and practicing livelihoods that are hard to track or tax. From the highlanders’ perspective, the empires lapping at their edges are peripheral, fallen places. The effect is often like reading a fantasy novel, in a very good sense: Scott leaves you with the feeling that the world is packed with more ways of life, more stories, and different kinds of heroes and villains than you encountered in history class. Although Against the Grain is not a large book, it is a kind of thematic summa of Scott’s work so far, as it reworks the entire canvas of history by reconsidering its origins through the lens of state-formation.

The conventional story of human development, he shows, is based on faulty chronology. It turns out that cultivating grain—long thought to be the crucial step from roaming to civilization—does not naturally lead people to stay put in large settlements. New archaeological evidence suggests that people planted and harvested grain as part of a mix of food sources for many centuries, perhaps millennia, without settling into cities. And there were, in fact, places where people did settle down and build towns without farming grain: ecologically rich places, often wetlands bordering the migration routes of birds and animals, where foraging, fishing, and hunting made for a good life in all seasons. There is nothing about grain that fastens humanity’s foot to the earth, as President John Quincy Adams put it in one of the innumerable retellings of the standard story.

Grain is special, but for a different reason. It is easy to standardize—to plant in rows or paddies, and store and record in units such as bushels. This makes grain an ideal target for taxation. Unlike underground tubers or legumes, grain grows tall and needs harvesting all at once, so officials can easily estimate annual yields. And unlike fugitive wild foods, grain creates a relatively consistent surplus, allowing a ruling class to skim off peasant laborers’ production through a tax regime of manageable complexity. Grain, in Scott’s lexicon, is the kind of thing a state can see. On this account, the first cities were not so much a great leap forward for humanity as a new mode of exploitation that enabled the world’s first leisured ruling class to live on the sweat of the world’s first peasant-serfs. As for writing, that great gateway to history, Scott reports that its earliest uses suggest it was basically a grain-counting technology. Literary culture and shared memory existed in abundance both before and after the first pictographs and alphabets—consider Homer’s epics, the products of a nonliterate Greek “dark age” before the Classical period. Writing contributed a ledger of exploitation.

Scott’s retelling, however, goes deeper than scrambling the chronology and emphasizing the dark side of early institutions. Life in cities, he argues, was probably worse than foraging or herding. City dwellers were vulnerable to epidemics. Their diets were less varied than those of people on the outside. Unless they were in the small ruling class, they had less leisure, because they had to produce food not just for their own survival, but also to support their rulers. Their labor might be called on to build fortresses, monuments, and those ever-looming walls. Outside the walls, by contrast, a fortunate savage or barbarian might be a hunter in the morning, a herder or fisherman in the afternoon, and a bard singing tales around the fire in the evening. To enter the city meant joining the world’s first proletariat.

So why would anyone come into the city? Scott argues, based on reconstruction of ancient soils and climate, that around 5,000 years ago, droughts in the fertile wetlands of Mesopotamia made wild foods critically scarce, which meant that foragers had to rely more and more on grain to feed themselves. Once a system of labor was in place, fresh bodies could be hustled into it by the new sub–ruling class of soldiers, or swept up en masse in slave raids. Enslavement was nothing new, but the tax-grain-surplus regime enabled the new cities’ rulers to scale it up immensely. Once the exploitation machine called civilization was running, it was self-perpetuating.

Except that it often was not, because cities were acutely vulnerable—both more powerful and fragile than the more diverse and dispersed ways of life that preceded them.