Against the grain: Book review

Against the grain: A deep history of the earliest states, by James C Scott, Yale university press, 2017

This book is an electrifying read for a farmer, or anyone who believes that farming is the oldest, healthiest, most natural way of life. Hello! Wake up and smell the hunter-gatherer’s free, foraged coffee!

James C Scott, in this book, sets out to challenge the accepted view that agriculture and sedentism were a step forward from hunting and gathering and nomadism in the evolution of humanity. This move, it is believed, ensured more leisure, better health and longer life expectancy, promoted household arts and the development of civilization. Scott urges us to abandon this belief, assembling archaeological evidence to show how the shift to sedentism carried at least as many costs as benefits in terms of diet, health and leisure. He begins by disabusing us of all our ideas regarding our diet. Especially us herbivores. Honestly, he had me wondering, just for a moment, if I — a passionate lifelong vegetarian, turned vegan for the last seven years — would not be better employed running out and hunting a hare! But it’s not just the vegetarian diet that he condemns; it is the entire narrow diet of sedentary populations, as compared to “the stability and richness of a subsistence based on several diverse food webs.” (p 49)

In the section on The Late Neolithic Multispecies Resettlement Camp: A Perfect Epidemiological Storm (p 96), the author shows how the keeping of livestock, in particular, in close proximity to human communities, made early settlements a hotbed of zoonotic diseases. Written in 2017, it’s a chilling presage of the Covid pandemic.

Scott also shows — through a process of reasoning rather than proof — that hunter-gatherer societies were flatter and less hierarchical. Which brings him to the evolution of the early states, which — horrifyingly — were built on slavery, bonded labour, and coercion of free peoples. The three essentials for the establishment of a state were availability of natural resources, including forests and water for transportation, agriculture, and lots of cheap labour.

Nor did these early states survive long in any case, as the entire structure was a precarious one. In the chapter on the fragility of the early state, one of the factors discussed is ecocide through deforestation and salinization. This reminded me powerfully of David R Montgomery’s book Dirt: The erosion of civilizations.

A fascinating and thought-provoking account of our political beginnings — highly recommended! I think I shall go on to read the author’s Two Cheers for Anarchy. In the current scenario in our country, with the government intruding more and more into the personal lives of the citizens, I’m halfway to becoming an anarchist.

Thanks to my nephew Gopal for buying this book and leaving it lying around; and to my mother for pinching it for me to read!

Below are a few tasters from the book. Enjoy!

“Even before the advent of cooking, Homo sapiens was a broad-spectrum omnivore, pounding, grinding, mashing, fermenting, and pickling raw meat and plants, but with fire, the range of foods she could digest expanded exponentially. … An archaeological site in the Rift Valley dated twenty-three thousand years ago gives evidence of a diet spanning four food webs (water, woodland, grassland and arid) encompassing at least 20 large and small animals, 16 families of birds, and 140 kinds of fruit, nuts, seeds and pulses, not to mention plants for medicinal and craft purposes…” (p 41)

“…the very breadth of a subsistence web — hunting, fishing, foraging and gathering in a variety of ecological settings — poses insurmountable problems to the imposition of a single political authority.” (p 49)

“The bones of ‘domiciled’ Homo sapiens compared with those of hunter-gatherers are … distinctive: they are smaller; the bones and teeth often bear the signature of nutritional distress, in particular, an iron-deficiency anemia marked above all in women of reproductive age whose diets consist increasingly of grains. (p 84)

“… one might think of hunters and gatherers as attentive to the distinctive metronome of a great diversity of natural rhythms. Farmers, especially fixed-field, cereal-grain farmers, are largely confined to a single food web, and their routines are geared to its particular tempo. Bringing a handful of crops successfully to harvest is to be sure a demanding and complex activity, but it is usually dominated by the requirements of one dominant starch plant. It is no exaggeration to say that hunting and foraging are, in terms of complexity, as different from cereal-grain farming as cereal-grain farming is, in turn, removed from repetitive work on a modern assembly line. (p 90)

“I am tempted to see the late Neolithic revolution, for all its contributions to large-scale societies, as something of a deskilling.” (p 92)

“There are … good reasons for supposing that a great many of the sudden collapses of the earliest centres of population were due to devastating epidemic diseases.” (p 97)

“… concern over the acquisition and control of population was at the very centre of early statecraft.” (p 150)

On the ‘collapse’ of early states: “This is usually interpreted not merely as a redistribution of population but as a substantial, not to say catastrophic, loss of social complexity. … such changes… do not necessarily mean a decline in human health, well-being or nutrition, and… may represent an improvement. … What in fact was lost were the beloved objects of classical archaeology: the concentrated ruins of … centralized kingdoms, along with their written record and luxuries.” (pp 185-86)

PS: Worry not, dear readers! The Long View will not take to hunting, but continue its efforts at farming. Foraging, though, has been, and continues to be, its favourite source of fruit and vegetables.


9 responses to “Against the grain: Book review

  1. Have you read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass”? It is an excellent work on indigenous cultures and harvesting sustainably from what the local ecosystem provides.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Kajoli! I don’t agree about the innate hunter, though. I could never bring myself to kill anything. But innate gatherer, absolutely! My daughters tell me the best thing to be is a freegan. It would be a good idea if it didn’t have such a strong association with dustbins and roadkill. I guess even Buddha was a freegan!


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