Against the Grain

“The founding of the earliest agrarian societies and states in Mesopotamia occurred in the latest five percent of our history as a species on this planet. […] Measured by the roughly 200,000-year span of our species, then, the Anthropocene began only a few minutes ago.”

And look what we don’t that tiny bit of our time here on Earth!

If you’re like me, you learned that the first states, and hence civilization, arose with agriculture and sedentary lifestyles (sedentism) in early city-states. But we now know that agriculture and sedentism predated all this by a couple thousand years.

James C. Scott’s Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States is one of those books that overturns stale thinking and makes you look afresh at the world we’ve made. Things like the reluctance, until quite recently, of the great majority of the world’s population (call them barbarians, pastoralists, hunter-gatherers, peasants, etc.) to be sucked into cities/states. Cities were places of slavery, disease, and simplification. Nomadic people were far healthier than urbanites, until quite recently. The state is based on the domestication of fire, captives, livestock, plants, and women.

And from a wide range of plant and animal food, we’ve been whittled down to a handful of grains, hard little nubbins that are easy to count, tax, and control.

The book begins with this gut-punch quote from Claude Levi-Strauss: “Writing appears to be necessary for the centralized, stratified state to reproduce itself…. Writing is a strange thing… The one phenomenon which has invariably accompanied it is the formation of cities and empires; the integration into a political system, that is to say, of considerable number of individuals… into a hierarchy of castes and classes….It seems to favor rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of mankind.”

Our oldest story is Gilgamesh. It is not insignificance that the killing of the forest guardian Humbaba (Huwawa) precedes the cutting down of the cedars.

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