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Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  1,985 ratings  ·  264 reviews
An Economist Best History Book 2017
“History as it should be written.”—Barry Cunliffe, Guardian
“Scott hits the nail squarely on the head by exposing the staggering price our ancestors paid for civilization and political order.”—Walter Scheidel, Financial Times
Why did humans abandon hunting and gathering for sedentary communities dependent on livestock and cereal grai
Hardcover, 312 pages
Published August 22nd 2017 by Yale University Press
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Popular Answered Questions
Cdrueallen His answer is that root crops are too easy to hide from tax collectors to form the basis of a state. States require easily taxed crops: all harvested …moreHis answer is that root crops are too easy to hide from tax collectors to form the basis of a state. States require easily taxed crops: all harvested at one time, stored above ground, easy to measure.(less)
Cdrueallen I believe his answer is that states interacted in a feedback loop with agricultural communities to drive density. He theorizes that many walls around …moreI believe his answer is that states interacted in a feedback loop with agricultural communities to drive density. He theorizes that many walls around early states were designed as much or more to keep the citizens in as they were to keep the barbarians out, and that maintaining their population density was a constant task and obsession of the early states.(less)

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Charles Haywood
Aug 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This outstanding book, by the anarchist-tending academic James C. Scott, might be (but isn’t) subtitled “Barbarians Are Happier, Fatter and Better Looking.” The author does not believe the myth of the noble savage—but he thinks the savage is, on average, a lot better off than the peasant. Scott’s project is to remold our view of the early days of civilization, erasing the sharp lines usually drawn to separate the first states from the social groups which preceded them, and dismissing the judgmen ...more
Jul 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Can't stress enough how important it is for progressives/leftists to engage with James C. Scott's work. He's done more than probably anyone to shift my understanding of how states operate and their effects on their subjects, on ecosystems, and on nonstate peoples—the three of his books I've read have all had a pretty significant impact on how I look at the world, which is not something I can say of many writers. His latest, Against the Grain, synthesizes a range of recent research into a new nar ...more
Richard Reese
Sep 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
James C. Scott teaches political science and anthropology at Yale. He’s a smooth writer and a deep thinker. A while back, he decided to update two lectures on agrarian societies that he had been giving for 20 years. He began studying recent research and — gasp! — realized that significant portions of traditional textbook history had the strong odor of moldy cultural myths. So, a quick update project turned into five years, and resulted in a manuscript that I found to be remarkably stimulating, f ...more
Bryan Alkire
Sep 18, 2020 rated it liked it
Worth reading once. It’s an interesting look at the impact of agriculture on ancient societies. The author is a contrarian who attempts to poke holes in the standard historical interpretation of the period. He takes a largely negative view of agriculture societies as opposed to hunter gather societies. However, he doesn’t always manage to make a good argument. Often, he tries to argue from logic and first principles rather than evidence. That’s fine, but it’s still at bottom speculation based on ...more
Nov 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction-btr
Good and interesting read, if you are into anthropology, early history and archaeology then this is the book for you, It has a lot of information about early states and it puts them into perspective with how the progress of domestication influenced the rise of states and kingdoms. Highly recommend it .
Mar 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
One of the most thought-provoking books I've read. I don't think I'm fully convinced by his idea, but the book gave me so much to think about. He seems to start with the premise that states are mostly parasitic, but why do humans keep creating states? There must be some benefit besides just tax goodies for the rich. Perhaps the non-zero sum arrangements that Robert Wright has highlighted? Reducing collective action issues? It's not all war and slavery. ...more
Against the Grain is a popular science summary of the now substantial case that agriculture was not the products of innovation but rather ecological circumstance, that the state was not the beginning of the end of deprivation, savagery, and oppression, but the start of the worst examples in human history. It focuses entirely (with reference to some other systems for comparison) on the first beginning of civilization, in Mesopotamia. While the general ideas here are very familiar to me, one of th ...more
May 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Too short...

Interesting counterpoint to the "ascent of man" kind of story we tell about ourselves when we think about history. The major point Scott is arguing is:

The shift from hunting and foraging to agriculture—a shift that was slow, halting, reversible, and sometimes incomplete—carried at least as many costs as benefits. Thus while the planting of crops has seemed, in the standard narrative, a crucial step toward a utopian present, it cannot have looked that way to those who first experience
Mal Warwick
Nov 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Historians of the ancient world have been telling us for centuries that from about 5,000 to 10,000 years ago larger and larger human communities formed in places like the Fertile Crescent, South China, the Indus River Valley of today’s western India and Pakistan, and Central America. To secure enough food once their population had grown to a level unsustainable by hunting and gathering, those communities turned to agriculture. Food surpluses, seized by local rulers, enabled the establishment of ...more
Aug 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Remember the paleo/keto diet craze? I suppose it’s still going on, hard for me to say because both regimens frown upon pizza and beer. But, from what I understand the principle of Paleo is that humans function better, physiologically, when they eat a diet composed of pre-civilized foods. No cereals or grains or anything that came about after the dawn of agriculture. Humans evolved to thrive in pre-agricultural revolution conditions and you will drastically improve your health if you eschew grain ...more
Fascinating book. I knew parts of some parts of the story, such as the unhealthiness of early city living, the fact that nonsedentary agriculture, or agriculture as part of a combination food strategy, was common for centuries, and that people millennia ago often moved back out of agriculture to hunter-gatherer roles or, after the domestication of the horse, to pastoral nomadism.

I hadn't realized just how fluid that the back-and-forth was. Nor had I realized how common nonsedentary agriculture w
Randall Wallace
Aug 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
On the dearth of pre-state knowledge: If you built cool looking stuff in stone and left your trash all in one place, history might remember you. If you were a tribal pre-state hunter/gatherer leaving “bio-degradable trash thinly across the landscape”, history won’t remember you. Domestication caused the change in society; it even changed the genetic makeup and morphology of crops and animals. Those new crops often offered less nutrients and required constant attention and protection. Farming was ...more
Athan Tolis
Mar 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: sociology, history
This is a controversial, if highly erudite, book. It owes its title to a hymn sung in ancient Ur ahead of the construction of a major temple, when the ordinary life of slaves and enslaved debtors was temporarily suspended in favor of a brief egalitarian moment (pp. 162 – 164). The main thesis of the book is that civilization as we know and celebrate it is a prison, of sorts.

The topic is rather fashionable. Everybody who’s read the 2011 blockbuster Sapiens can repeat the cute little argument abou
Jul 07, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: aborted-read
I have a few complaints against this book.

The primary one is how repetitive it is. It’s like wandering in circles in the forest. I keep reading and reading and it seems like it’s always the same paragraph. It’s not — it’s just the same information being rehashed yet again in a new chapter.

The other thing is that the subtitle of this book is accurate but it’s advertising (including the summary paragraph on Goodreads) is misleading.

The author spends a reasonable amount of time talking about how
Tamara Agha-Jaffar
It has been generally believed that state formation was a consequence of the domestication of animals and plants. The theory was that when humans no longer had to hunt and gather food, they settled down in agricultural communities which eventually evolved into the modern state. In Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, James C. Scott argues this is a false narrative. He proposes an alternative narrative for state formation based on more recent archaeological and historical evi ...more
Sep 21, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: on-hold
“Still more remarkable, for those interested in the state form, is the fact that the very first small, stratified, tax-collecting , walled states pop up between Tigris and Euphrates Valley between 3100 BCE more than 4 millennia after the first crop domestications and sedentism. This massive lag is a problem for those theorists who would naturalize the state form and assume that once crops and sedentism, the technological and demographic requirements, respectively, for state formation were establ ...more
Dec 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book takes a long look--very long, mainly from 12.000 BCE to 1600 CE at an area that begins in the alluvial basin of modern day Iraq and broadens out to include the Nile valley, Southeast Asia, the Yellow River valley and modern day Central America. Scott examines the effect of grain farming--wheat, corn, barley and millet--on the inhabitants of those areas and finds that it was very dire indeed necessitating slave labor, war in order to capture more slaves and more land to farm, conscripti ...more
Nov 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A masterpiece of scientific writing, 'Against the Grain' works on three levels:

1. It provides a detailed account of the ebb and flow of the earliest states, with a particular focus on the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia.

2. It challenges a commonsense, but biased and ultimately mistaken account of the development of human civilization. It also draws attention to historical reflection on what he dubs as 'non-state people', people living outside or at the margins of centralized states.

3. Subtextuall
Mar 22, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
The primary thesis of how grain based states came into being in a see-saw back and forth with the stateless societies around them as the equivalent ancient class of modern day lanyards drove their growth is fundamentally correct, but the 'barbarian states' which served as often successful counter-states are often relegated just to the final chapter...which makes me question the need to have early Mesopotamia be the primary case study. One would have thought China, Iran, and Rome might have given ...more
Sreejith Puthanpurayil
May 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Yet another perspective changing book. I'll add more when I have time.

The book, as the title suggests, primarily deals with the history of the earliest states. Mainly their fragility, their unlikely yet eventual success and about domestication (more on that below).

As anyone who's read sapiens can acknowledge, the mainstream narrative goes something like this: Humans (and their ancestors) lived in bands of egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands for hundreds of thousands of years and then the ag
Alex Zakharov
Mar 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
For a non-fiction, “Against the Grain” is an unusually engaging and fun read. Primarily this is due to Scott’s good writing, but he is also an outsider to the field which affords certain advantages. He claims to merely review existing literature, and this allows him to take some liberties with interpretation and selection of the data to paint a remarkably irresistible story.

OK, Scott’s story is a bit too tidy, but it does present a well-supported challenge to a classic theory of rise of civiliz
Koen Crolla
Oct 19, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Starts off very weakly and repetitively, insistent that it's overthrowing a ``traditional narrative'' that hasn't been the narrative in the field since before Scott was born (and he was born in 1936), and that I honestly haven't even seen mentioned in popular works except in the context of ``people used to believe [x], but...''—yes, early states were fragile, for all the reasons you would expect, and most people in the world were never part of them.
The real meat of the book is about slavery and
Jun 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a mind-blowing book that I'll probably need to revisit. The chapter on the history of slavery and its relationship to statecraft should be required reading. ...more
Nick Klagge
Feb 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is sort of the academic version of Daniel Quinn's _Ishmael_. It's an exploration of the current state of knowledge about the emergence of agriculture and the first states, mostly focusing on Mesopotamia but with occasional mentions of early civilizations in China and the Americas. Scott writes it as an academic whose work is "adjacent" to these fields of study, and has an interesting preface about the instigation of the project when he went to update a lecture of his and realized that the f ...more
Mark Ballinger
Dec 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I had already known the principal argument of this book, which challenges the assumed timeline of Mesopotamian city-building. I have my students read a review of the book as part of the Sumer unit. Beyond that, what I really loved about this book is a deeper challenge to the myth of progress. City-building is assumed to be not just a step-up in human progress, but inevitable. In this book, there is so much arguing against that. This includes arguing against the idea that we have been living in a ...more
Peter Bradley
Nov 28, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
Against the Grain by James C. Scott.

Please give my Amazon review a favorable vote -

When I was in college in the late 1970s, I was taught that agriculture was a product of the river beds where people retreated during a drought or other environmental crisis. Agriculture developed from people being forced to intensively exploit the naturally occurring grains in that environment in order to avoid starvation. This situation meant that villages developed simult
Otto Lehto
Mar 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
As I write these words, I am quarantined inside four walls. The novel coronavirus pandemic is ravaging our civilization. An opportune time for reflection! What if "civilization" has done us more harm than good? Can we blame the domestication of grain for the rise of Covid-19?

James C. Scott argues on somewhat anecdotal but compelling evidence that the average "barbarian" - that is, someone who lived on the diverse edges of known civilization, someone who could not be tamed or domesticated or edu
Dec 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
“Beyond the morphological and physiological consequences of domestication for man and beast lie changes in behavior and sensibility that are more difficult to codify. The physical and cultural realms are closely connected. Is it the case, for example, that like their domesticates, sedentary, grain-planting, domus-sheltered people have experienced a comparable decline in emotional reactivity and are less intently alert to their immediate surroundings? If so, is it related, as in domestic animals, ...more
Black Spring
Jan 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I read this book along with "Worshiping Power: An Anarchist View of Early State Formation, so I will remark on both. I STRONGLY recommend reading these books alongside one another, and I STRONGLY recommend reading Scott's "Against the Grain" as the first of the pair. MY GAWD what a wonderful book! This has to be my favorite thing I've read in a few years. Absolute "Beginnings of the State 101" material, it has joined– nay, surpassed!– such long-time deep historical favorites as "Guns, Germs, and ...more
Richard Thompson
Oct 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
Many years ago when I was in college in the mid-1970s, I took an introductory course in Cultural Anthropology. We studied the Yanomami, the Shavante, and the Trobriand Islanders. It struck me at the time that despite attempts to modernize the perspective, Cultural Anthropology retained a deeply colonialist point of view that made it a bit distasteful to me, and it seemed to me that it was a field of study that would blessedly disappear in a very few years as the last of the hunter gatherer cultu ...more
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James Scott, Ph.D., Yale University, 1967, is the Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology and is co-Director of the Agrarian Studies Program and a mediocre farmer. His research concerns political economy, comparative agrarian societies, theories of hegemony and resistance, peasant politics, revolution, Southeast Asia, theories of class relations and anarchism.

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Kazuo Ishiguro insists he’s an optimist about technology.  “I'm not one of these people who thinks it's going to come and destroy us,” he...
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“[...] nella maggior parte degli ambienti non c'era motivo che un raccoglitore passasse all'agricoltura se non costretto dalla pressione demografica o da qualche forma di coercizione.” 0 likes
“I barbari non sono in sostanza una categoria culturale ma politica, che designa una popolazione non (ancora?) amministrata dallo stato. I barbari cominciano dove finiscono le tasse e i cereali.” 0 likes
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