For the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest State

James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States is a spirited and sophisticated attack on settled society, agriculturalism, and state formations. Scott’s wager is that all three developments were welfare reducing for the bulk of the populace. Sedentism, the concentration of hitherto dispersed people, animals, plants, insects, and microbes between 10,000 and 5,000 BCE, into what he calls “Late-Neolithic multi-species resettlement camps” was an epidemiological disaster (for the higher species). The domesticated beasts and no less domesticated men of these camps had higher mortality rates and were of lower stature (perhaps even had smaller brains) than their wandering and dispersed counterparts who continued to occupy most of the landmass of the Earth. Fixed-field farming, which arose some two thousand years after sedentism, was back-breaking work that generalist hunter-gatherers could not be persuaded to undertake without so to speak “a pistol at their temple.”[1] And grain states that emerged much later—the earliest emerged around 3,500 BCE in Babylonia (southern Mesopotamia)—were rapacious parasites; concerned above all with extracting as much surplus as possible from their hosts through taxation and forced labor.

The paleo-anarchist premises remain implicit throughout as Scott marshals evidence and argument against his three chosen targets. But in a blatant slight of hand, all of it is put on the state’s balance sheet. The problem is not superficial but deep-seated. He actually conflates the three.

A foundational question underlying state formation is how we (Homo sapiens sapiens) came to live amid the unprecedented concentrations of domesticated plants, animals, and people that characterize states.[2]

What Scott has written is a decentered counter-history—against civilization, against the state, against settled society, against cities, against villages, against farmers; and for the barbarian who lives in the shadow of settled society (on the outside; looking in) and the noble savage who lives without, untouched by civilization. Given the hegemony of the state discourse, one can understand the partisanship and one-sided marshaling of evidence of this counter-narrative—the debit side of the balance sheet of settled society remains empty. But he takes it really too far when he cherry picks the evidence that he marshals.

The world’s population in 10,000 BCE, according to one careful estimate, was roughly 4 million. A full five thousand years later, in 5,000 BCE, it had risen only to 5 million. This hardly represents a population explosion, despite the civilizational achievements of the Neolithic revolution: sedentism and agriculture. Over the subsequent five thousand years, by contrast, world population would grow twentyfold, to more than 100 million.[3]

Why did population stagnate between 10,000 and 5,000 BCE? Scott points to the epidemiological consequences of the late-Neolithic multi-species resettlement camps, making this “the most lethal period in human history.”[4] But that leaves the puzzle of the population explosion in the subsequent period, 5,000 BCE and 1 CE, that witnessed the rise primacy of complex societies all based on “the Neolithic grain complex.”[5]

The short answer, I believe, is sedentism itself. Despite general ill health and high infant and maternal mortality vis-à-vis 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.[6]

But that makes no sense whatsoever. Sedentism cannot be marshaled to explain both the stagnation of the population in the first five thousand years after the Ice Age and its explosion in the next five thousand years. The answer is staring him in the face but he doesn’t want to see it.

Population exploded precisely because the carrying capacity of the planet increased considerably as a result of the adoption at scale of fixed-field cereal monoculture and the grain state that survived on taxing it. Grains could feed many more mouths than other strategies of subsistence. Populations could expand until all nearby arable land was brought under cultivation; and even after if yields could be raised further; subject only to ecological constraints—resource depletion, salinization, soil erosion and so on. Population growth was no doubt also enhanced by state formations that admitted dramatically greater security, order and capacity for social action; as well as interregional trade that yielded gains from economic specialization that pushed the economic possibility frontier further out. As we shall see, this took a concrete form in the very first civilization.

Not only is high civilization conspicuous by its absence in Against the Grain, so is the state itself. For a book that aims to take the state down a notch, it pays precious little attention to research on state formation. Scott recognizes that what needs to be explained is the emergence of pristine states.

My focus is almost entirely on Mesopotamia, and in particular the “southern alluvium” south of contemporary Basra. The reason for this focus is that this area between the Tigris and Euphrates (Sumer) was the heartland of the first “pristine” states in the world.…By far most of the evidence I bring to bear concerns the period from 4,000 until 2,000 BCE, as it is both the key period of state formation and the focus of the bulk of the existing scholarship.[7]

Despite Scott’s implicit claim to have mastered the existing scholarship, his latest references on the theory of primary state formation date from 1970. Since then there has been great progress in our understanding of primary state formation. In what follows we shall trace the achievements of the settlers all the way from the origins of settled society to the rise of the first grain state.

The Deep History of Permanent Settlement

Until the end of the Ice Age, around 10,000 BCE, all mankind lived in small mobile bands of hunter-gatherers. Sustenance was secured by hunting, fishing, and gathering plants and fruit. People lived in temporary camps, relocating frequently in pursuit of great herds of animals on the move, migrating flocks of birds and schools of fish, ripening fruit and wild cereals. The first extended periods of residence appear soon after the end of the Ice Age. They are located almost exclusively near sites of strongly differentiated terrain that admitted access to multiple sources of sustenance.

The difference between ecological units is, as a rule, shown in differences between land formations, the types of wild animals inhabiting an area, and the types of plants that grow there, with their varying times of ripening. A camp that sprang up on the borderline between such ecological units would have made it possible to use all the resources the different areas had to offer, either simultaneously or consecutively.…It is surely no accident that traces of early permanent or temporary human settlements in the Near East are found almost exclusively in areas with differentiated structures in the landscape, and there at sites from which there is the easiest possible access to as many different ecological units as possible.[8]

The early Neolithic semi-permanent and permanent settlements were necessarily isolated from each other because the hinterland necessary to subsist by food gathering was very large. The tyranny of distance forbid frequent direct contact between the settlements. We shall see how settlement geography played a decisive role in the emergence of complex society.

Around favored sites where food supply was especially abundant, diverse and secure, settlements finally acquired a degree of permanence. It is here that the excruciatingly slow process of plant and animal domestication could advance steadily. Grains that had hitherto been picked in the wild began to be planted and we finally begin to see evidence of food production with the remains of grain and food processing. Herding of animals also began to practiced early on as evident from the definite concentration of sex and age of the slaughtered animals of a particular type. These processes of domestication took thousands of years to master. Food production and animal husbandry provided a fragile and insecure food supply. Meanwhile, hunting and foraging continued to supply the bulk of the settlers sustenance.

For a very long period of time, therefore, it was essential to have multiple means of ensuring subsistence, and this brought in its train a mixed economy in which the shares of food production—whether by cultivation or animal husbandry—and of the procurement of food through hunting and gathering could shift according to the external circumstances prevailing. If worse came to worse, they could always go back to hunting, fishing, or gathering.[9]

What is clear is that by 6,000 BCE, all major cereals and legumes are being planted at a modest scale, and goats, sheep, pigs and cattle were domesticated. The full “Neolithic package” was coming into place at the favored sites of permanent settlements.

Settlement Geography and the Natural History of Social Complexity

The basic idea of settlement geography is straightforward. The size distribution and spatial pattern of settlements is the archaeological indicator of social complexity par excellence. These settlement patterns encode information about the state of technology, the division of labor, social organization and econopolitical interaction in the settlement system. The basic typology is (1) isolated settlements; (2) simple settlement systems; (3) three-tier systems; and (4) four-tier systems. When settlements are isolated from each other there is little everyday contact between the settlements—they do not constitute a system. Their isolation is the result of food production providing only a small fraction of the sustenance and the consequent need for a large hinterland. Division of labor in isolated settlements is extremely limited since specialist occupations require a large market. This is the pattern we find in the Near East circa 6,000 BCE.

With increasing mastery of the art of cultivation the area necessary to feed the settlement becomes smaller, the dependence of privileged sites is lessened, and with increasing security and more intensive land use, settlements can move closer and closer together. This is the basic prerequisite for the creation of structured relationships between settlements, ie the formation of settlement systems. In a simple settlement system, a number of settlements are subordinated to one big settlement. The communities living in the surrounding area are dependent on the “central functions” of the center—temples, warehouses, specialist craftsmen, chiefly administration, and so on—even as the center depends on its retinue of settlements to achieve specialization in urban functions. Three-tier systems are more complex settlement systems in which “towns” mediate between the “villages” on the one hand and the “city” on the other. Four-tier systems are yet more complex—it is here that pressures build up for state formation.

Typology of settlement systems. Source: Hans J Nissen.

Political authority for two-tier, three-tier, and four-tier systems take the form of simple, complex, and paramount chiefdoms respectively. Chiefdoms are polities in which all political authority is vested in the person of the chief—there is no functional differentiation of political authority. In a state on the other hand, authority is functionally differentiated—defense, policing, tax collection, civil administration et cetera, are performed by different public officials. In other words, in a state we have a differentiated bureaucracy exercising independent but partial authority. This matters greatly because chiefdoms cannot be scaled up while states can and often did. Beyond territorial expansion, the capacity for social action increases dramatically with state formation. The fundamental question of state formation then becomes: Why, and under what conditions, did some chiefdoms make the transition to statehood? The modern theory of primary state formation, that Scott studiously ignores, suggests that it was the struggle for survival with rival chiefdoms that compelled some chiefs and not others to split the atom of chiefly power.

In the Near East, the simple settlement systems of 6,000 BCE slowly evolved towards more complex forms over the next two thousand years. All along the Euphrates, as well as in Syria and Iran, settlements became packed together as food production was further mastered. Complex settlement systems allowed increasing division of labor. Development at this time was still regionally undifferentiated, with a curious exception. Babylonia lagged behind the plains of the northern Euphrates, western Iran and Syria in settlement complexity. Yet, as we shall see, it was here that the decisive breakthrough to state formation and high civilization would be achieved.

The Breakthrough to High Civilization and the Uruk World-System

In the middle of the fourth millennium BCE, a sudden climate shift made conditions cooler and dryer. There was a gradual drop in sea level and precipitation. From the moment that the sea began to recede (it would drop five meters over the next six thousand years), southern Mesopotamia was opened to much more extensive habitation. A prolonged period of an archipelago of isolated settlements was suddenly followed by a period in which the land was cleared so densely that nothing like it had ever been seen before.

[In] the period of early high civilization communal energies were evidently released to such an extent that speedy and comprehensive changes took place in all fields of life. This energy was so great that the rate of change increased rather than decreased in the following two to three hundred years during which a development took place in Babylonia that influenced the course of history more than enduring than many other.[10]

Instead of three-tiered systems that has hitherto been seen at the most advanced sites in the Near East, we finally see unambiguous evidence of a four-tiered settlement, with Uruk at the center. With an enclosed area of 5.5 square kilometers, Uruk was more than twice as large as Athens at is peak in the classical age. Even Rome at the very peak of the great second century boom was only twice its size. And this was thirty centuries before Rome.

city sizes
Source: Hans J Nissen, The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 9000-2000 B.C.

In the “Late Uruk” period, for the first time in history, we find unambiguous archaeological evidence of writing, cylinder seals, large-scale works of art, monumental architecture, and increasingly, big canals and irrigation. The record suggests a highly differentiated public administration and a dramatically enhanced capacity for social action. But Uruk was not just a strong state. There is considerable evidence of an increasingly sophisticated division of labor, unprecedented technical innovation, and long-distance trade covering the entire Near East with the attendant international division of labor. Uruk, the latecomer, would not only out-innovate the regional incumbents, it would set the standards that everyone else would try to replicate or risk getting stuck in a state of dependency on the leader.

Uruk map.png
The Uruk World-System

Susiana in southwestern Iran was considerably more developed when the Babylonian breakthrough began. But it was soon left in the dust.

Unlike the development in Babylonia, where a slow change took place from the painted pottery of the late Ubaid period to the unpainted pottery—made on the potter’s wheel—of the Uruk period, with some repetition and parallel developments in the intermediate phase, in Susiana, the richly painted pottery of the Late Susiana phase was followed directly—with no noticeable transition—by unpainted pottery thrown on the wheel, of the sort we know from the Uruk period in Babylonia. This observation suggests that this clearly recognizable pottery was developed in Babylonia and taken over by Susiana. This statement can be expanded. In Susiana, it was not only the special way of producing pottery that was taken over, but also almost all the other developments we have learned of in Babylonia.…From the sort of rapid changes that took place in Babylonia the conclusion can quite unambiguously be drawn that the aim was to make writing more readily usable, so that the range of uses for writing obviously became larger. However in Susiana the form of writing remains remarkably static.…It is almost superfluous to point out that changes in building techniques because of the introduction of the plano-convex brick…also did not occur.…In Babylonia a culture was constantly expanding both internally and in relation to the outside world. [Initially] the civilization of the Late Uruk period could be taken over almost in its entirety by Susiana….[But] with the sharp pace of change in Babylonia, the time soon had to come when new organizational structures created there no longer had any meaning for the management of living conditions in Susiana, because of differences in scale.[11]

Upstream from the Euphrates, in northern Mesopotamia and Syria, the relationship became more unequal still.

In a completely independent local development, individual settlements were founded that are absolutely identical with what we know from Babylonia and Susiana, down to the last pottery shred in the inventory. Communication, which must have taken place in some way, can only be detected to a limited extent in the inventory of objects found in the Syrian settlements. There does not seem to have been any traffic in the opposite direction. If, in addition, we consider that these alien types of settlements were all either directly on the Euphrates or on its tributaries, there seems to be a relatively simple explanation for the whole situation. We are most probably dealing here with settlements established by people who came there directly from the southern lowland plains. Without doubt, the securing of trade interests had a part to play here—the Euphrates and its tributaries had always been the preferred trade routes—and no other motivation has been revealed to us.[12]

Put bluntly, the Babylonian settlements in Syria were colonies. Although they lasted for only a few decades, they were built to last. Nor was the Babylonian colonial presence restricted to Syria. 

The expansion of Babylonian civilization along the Euphrates to the north, which led to the establishment of the settlements on Syrian territory, did not come to a halt at the borders of the great plain. It then spread along the course of the river into the mountain regions, where the type of understanding arrived at with the local civilization was clearly different from that in the area of the Syrian plain.…As in the Zagros area, we encounter relationships between finds here that are clearly not local and unambiguously show influences from the sphere of the Late Uruk period civilization.

Was this expansion a simple case of imperial predation? Or was there in fact mutual gains from exchange and interaction? Surely, both must have been in play.

Whether we talk of “expansion” or “attraction,” however, we shall obviously not get any closer to an explanation if we see only either trade or imperialist expansion behind this influence, or even if we assume that it was a quasi-inadvertent expansion. It is possible that two factors went hand in hand in this development. One the one hand, there was the fascination on the part of the “underdeveloped” areas when faced with the complex way of life and the knowledge of Babylonia; on the other, Babylonia needed to organize the import of raw materials, and perhaps also the export of manufactured goods, to satisfy a rapidly expanding internal economy.…The fact that from the east across the whole northern area and into the west, all the neighboring regions were in one way or another incorporated by Babylonia either directly or indirectly into a network of relationships stronger than there had ever been before shows that this extension of influence was not aimed directly at one region, but spread out in all directions.[13]

We don’t know if the Babylonians relied on a superior economy of weapons to maintain their presence and whether there was armed resistance by the “colonized,” or whether the magnetism of Babylonian culture was enough to seduce the natives. What we do know is that the inhabitants of Babylonia regarded everyone else as barbarians.

Barbarians and Civilization

Babylonia remained in the core of the central civilization long after Uruk’s fall from primacy. The city itself remained in continuous occupation for forty centuries. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s first epic, was composed at Uruk. Other Babylonian city-states—Ur, Lagash, Kish, Nippur—became strong and they competed for leadership. Babylonia itself was briefly unified by Sargon of Akkad in what was the first territorial state in the Near East. (Egypt had already been unified into a territorial state at the time of Uruk’s flowering.) But it too shrank back to a city-state within three generations. Great territorial states arose outside Babylonia that would come to dominate the Near East in the Bronze Age. But the flame of civilization never went out. Following in the footsteps of the central civilization even more vibrant high civilizations arose all along the Eurasian rim—Rome, Greece, Egypt, Persia, India, China, and beyond. But well into modern times, perhaps even until the late-19th century, most of the Earth’s landmass lay outside the zone of civilization.

On the edges of settled societies, and in mountain redoubts and suchlike within them, were frontier-zones or counter-zones. These ungoverned spaces within and without offered shelter from the tax collector and provided refuge to those who rejected or were rejected by the dominant culture. The nonstate peoples in the frontier-zones were not savages; they were barbarians. They preyed on settled society; traded with it; resisted it’s diktat; and, if they became unified and strong, mounted invasions in a bid to capture the state. The agrarian states traded with them, tried to suppress them, and if punitive expeditions failed, bribed them to keep the peace. All civilized societies had to deal with ‘inner barbarians’—nomads, gypsies, mountain peoples, and so on—and ‘outer barbarians’ who lived in the frontier-zones proper.

Barbarians must be thought of as counter-people. They exist only in symbiosis with or as parasites on settled society. Forest dwellers far removed from state societies are not barbarians. Barbarians begin when taxes stop. They come into history as counter-people in the state discourse; as security threats. Studying the frontier-zones is quite interesting and most definitely worthwhile. We should certainly pay more attention to it and Scott is right to bring our attention to it. But then he says:

The longer states existed, the more refugees they disgorged to the periphery.…The process of secondary primitivism, or what might be called “going over to the barbarians,” is far more common than any of the standard civilizational narratives allow for.…A great many barbarians, then, were not primitives who had stayed or been left behind but rather political and economic refugees who had fled to the periphery to escape state-induced poverty, taxes, bondage, and war. As states proliferated and grew over time, they ground out ever greater numbers who voted with their feet.[14]

Here again he is working strenuously against the grain of the evidence. The case he marshals shows instead that it was precisely instability in state society, and especially the breakdown of state power, that generated exodus. But how can the devastation unleashed by the breakdown of state power be blamed instead on state power?

Causes for flight varied enormously—epidemics, crop failures, floods, salinization, taxes, war, and conscription—provoking both a steady leakage and occasionally a mass exodus.…It is particularly pronounced at times of state breakdown or interregna marked by war, epidemics, and environmental deterioration.[15]

Yes, even in times of stability, people did leave state society to go join the barbarians in the frontier-zones. But this was a mere trickle of outlaws, social rejects, pariahs, and rebels. When state societies provided law and order, net migration was almost certainly inward as people left the periphery for the core, to make their mark in the city. People at the edge of the Roman world could not wait to eat that awful fish sauce, don the toga, and take baths in public. Make no mistake: When state societies flourished their magnetism was considerable. This was as true of Babylonia fifty centuries ago as of the present-day United States.


What we have in Scott is what superficially looks like an impressive case against state society but is in reality a form of one-sided counter-history masquerading as a scholarly work by a Harvard Professor who could not exist for a moment without state society. Yes, the path to civilization was brutal. All the more reason then to celebrate the pioneers of the Neolithic and the earliest state societies starting with Babylonia.


[1] Moore, Hillman, and Legge, Village on the Euphrates, p. 393. Quoted in Against the Grain.

[2] Against the Grain, p. 33.

[3] Ibid, p. 159.

[4] Ibid, p. 160.

[5] Ibid, p. 181.

[6] Ibid, p. 183.

[7] Ibid, p. 17.

[8] Hans J. Nissen, The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 9000-2000 B.C.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Against the Grain, p. 343-345.

[15] Ibid, p. 342.

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