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20200119 – Against the Grain



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The main idea of this book is that the latest discoveries in archeology and anthropology demonstrate link between type of agriculture and development of the state. Specifically, only grain based agriculture led to development of sedentary way of life with consequent development of hierarchies and state because the grain output is easy to control and tax. Correspondingly literacy and numeracy were developed to support information processing linked to taxes and population control. Other forms of agriculture, not grain related, used by barbarians, provided for higher quality lifestyle and, until very recently were more than competitive military.



Here author explains how he came to this book by preparing for a lecture. It made author to look at early states, conventionally divided into:

  • Ubaid (6,500–3,800 BCE)
  • Uruk (4,000–3,100)
  • Jemdet Nasr (3,100–2,900)
  • Early Dynastic (2,900–2,335)
  • Akkadian (2,334–2,193)
  • Ur III (2,112–2,004)
  • Old Babylonian (2,004–1,595 BCE) 

The core of author’s finding relates to links between not only agriculture but its specific part – grain production to formation of early states.

INTRODUCTION. A Narrative in Tatters: What I Didn’t Know

Author continues here with presentation of time line of human development that does not comply with traditional sequence, which directly links agriculture and state creation. He points out that there is huge gap between archeological and ecological evidence of agriculture and formation of states. Here is how this time line looks based on the latest research

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The key paradox author formulates is this:” Homo sapiens appeared as a subspecies about 200,000 years ago and is found outside of Africa and the Levant no more than 60,000 years ago. The first evidence of cultivated plants and of sedentary communities appears roughly 12,000 years ago. Until then—that is to say for ninety-five percent of the human experience on earth—we lived in small, mobile, dispersed, relatively egalitarian, hunting-and-gathering bands. 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 in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley only around 3,100 BCE, more than four 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 established, states/empires would immediately arise as the logical and most efficient units of political order.

It is also directly connected to relatively recently discovered fact that:” Contrary to earlier assumptions, hunters and gatherers—even today in the marginal refugia they inhabit—are nothing like the famished, one-day-away-from-starvation desperados of folklore. Hunters and gathers have, in fact, never looked so good—in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure. Agriculturalists, on the contrary, have never looked so bad—in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure.”

In short it seems that state based agriculture allowed dramatic increase of quantity of people, while similarly dramatically decreasing quality of individual lives.

One. The Domestication of Fire, Plants, Animals, and…US

The theme of the first chapter turns on the domestication of fire, plants, and animals and the concentration of food and population such domestication makes possible. Before we could be made the object of state making, it was necessary that we gather—or be gathered—in substantial numbers with a reasonable expectation.

Author discusses here environmental conditions required for switch to sedentism: wetlands and such – areas that provided sufficient food to stay around. Author also poses the question why people started plant grains. He rejects usual explanation that it is because the product could be saved for long period, providing insurance against bad year. He also rejects idea that it provided better returns from cooperation. Author’s explanation is that the reason is much higher productivity from flooding area that then made raising crops much easier.

Two. Landscaping the World: The Domus Complex

Here author explore meaning of domestication as it relates to plants, animals, and also humans. He discusses notion of Domus as a module of evolution that allowed coevolution of semi closed local ecosystem. The impact was not only on plants and animals, but also on humans. Author discusses how use of agriculture could be easily identified by human remnants that have indelible traces of agricultural work. Author also analyses changes in tempo of life, which for hunter-gatherer defined by external cycles of availability of various food types that required huge knowledge base about environment. For agriculturalists it was pretty standard year around cycle requiring a lot less knowledge and a lot more routine manual work.

Three. Zoonoses: A Perfect Epidemiological Storm

In this chapter author discusses specific features of agro-pastoralism, which come to dominate first Mesopotamia and then the world. The first part of discussion is drudgery that was direct consequence of the switch. It caused material deterioration of quality of life and there is plenty of archeological evidence confirming this. Then he moves to epidemiology discussing how increased concentration of people combined with closeness to animals produced periodic epidemics killing significant shares of population, but creating immunities for survivors. At the end author discusses fertility and population growth brought in by switch to sedentism.

Four. Agro-ecology of the Early State

Here author discusses material or more precisely agricultural foundation of early states, concluding that it necessarily had to be based on a grain for a number of reasons: “The key to the nexus between grains and states lies, I believe, in the fact that only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and “rationable.” Other crops—legumes, tubers, and starch plants—have some of these desirable state-adapted qualities, but none has all of these advantages. To appreciate the unique advantages of the cereal grains, it helps to place yourself in the sandals of an ancient tax-collection official interested, above all, in the ease and efficiency of appropriation.

Author also discusses evidence that agriculture was often based on state violence and taxation. Another important point he makes is that one of consequences was development of literacy and numeracy – absolutely necessary tools for top down control and systematic robbery, which of no real use for hunter-gatherers.

Five. Population Control: Bondage and War

This chapter is about the role of coercion in formation and maintenance of the states. Its main form initially and all the way until now were slavery and bondage. Initially slavery was product of war, when captives were enslaved. Overtime it was expanded so parts of population were slaves from the beginning of life, with people breaded and controlled the same way as domesticated animals. Actually it would not be possible to maintain effective society at low levels of productivity with lots of manual works required without such institution as slavery or something close to it.

Six. Fragility of the Early State: Collapse as Disassembly

The historical and archeological data show that early states were extremely fragile popping up and going down within historically short periods of time, sometime materially less than length of a human life. In this chapter author discusses reasons for this fragility such as:

  • Hypersedentism and lack of movement
  • Ecocide: Deforestation and Salinization
  • Politicide: Wars and Exploitation of the Core

At the end author actually praises state “collapse” as a necessary part of evolutionary process.

Seven. The Golden Age of the Barbarians

In the last chapter author looks outside of the sate borders at people who habituated there – barbarians and how they interacted with “civilized” peoples of the states, in actuality living in dichotomy of these two method, often moving between them at will. Author provides somewhat unusual, but quite convincing explanation why barbarians underappreciated:

  • The history of the peasants is written by the townsmen
  • The history of the nomads is written by the settled
  • The history of the hunter-gatherers is written by the farmers
  • The history of the nonstate peoples is written by the court scribes
  • All may be found in the archives catalogued under “Barbarian Histories”

Author discusses relationships between “civilized” and barbarians in details and quite convincingly demonstrates that mainly it was balance of either equal power or even with military advantages going to barbarians. He also discusses trade, military alliances, mercenaries, and other interactions between these two parallel flows of human development and existence. The point is that it lasted forever and arrived to complete dominance by the states only very recently.


It is a very interesting approach to understanding human development, which makes a lot of sense to me. From my point of view the idea of parallel development of highly organized grain based hierarchical society and non-grain based barbarian societies, either pastoralist or hunter-gatherers, explains quite a bit of known history. This history was narrated by literate society that is grain-based states, so barbarians were diminished and poorly understood. The puzzle was how come, that barbarians overrun such highly developed societies as Rome? The answer provided here is that barbarians were as highly developed, only in different way. They did not need literacy and numeracy because the cultural tradition could be well maintained via oral tradition, while without taxation need in numeracy was quite limited. As to military, much looser structure of barbarian military, often based on cavalry and therefore much more mobile, with more space for individual initiative was generally superior to massive, but slow moving and rigid infantry of grain-based states. The aristocracy, as more mobile and more military effective specialized part of society developed by these states, sometimes compensated for difference, but overall for some 10,000 years neither grain-based agriculture and slave-based hierarchical “civilized” states nor non-grain agriculture and loose organization of barbarian entities had decisive advantage. Only with advance of scientific method of thinking and consequent technological and industrial development, literacy and numeracy became convertible into military power, leading to triumph of “civilization”.

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