Grain and the Birth of Civilization

History and Philosophy of Agricultural Production

Originally published at

Grain markets played a huge role in human history. The very formation of early nation states and all the “great” early civilizations — the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Han Dynasty — were only possible once humans started growing grain, and the history lessons all take it for granted that this is a good thing. Farming is a noble and desirable profession, and everyone should want to do it.

But history lessons would say that, wouldn’t they? By definition, if we are still reading about a civilization today, it’s only because that civilization happened to have some class of elites sitting around with enough time and education to write things down. There are no surviving epics from the “barbarians” who passed their time hunting and gathering and moving from place to place in small bands, as their desires moved them, although this might have been a much more pleasant, healthy way to live compared to life in the shadow of the Ziggurat of Ur.

The writing elites were supported by the excess grain taken away (taxed) from the broader population of working, drudging peasant farmers, so of course the elites thought that grain was pretty great. Of course that’s how written history remembers this development in human civilization. One Sumerian text reads, “Whoever has silver, whoever has jewels, whoever has cattle, whoever has sheep shall take a seat at the gate of whomever has grain, and pass his time there.”

But a forthcoming book called Against the Grain: A Deep History of the First Civilizations from James C. Scott, political scientist, anthropologist, and Director of the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale University, tosses all these assumptions upside down.

It’s true that there was no such thing as an organized nation state without farming, and this was a newly powerful system of human organization, one that really only developed within the past 400 years across most of the globe. However, Scott points out the ways that humans themselves were “domesticated” (basically enslaved) to make this at all possible for the relatively few elites among a population. He leaves a reader wistful for a time when roving bands of humans had a better leisure-to-drudgery ratio (about 50/50) compared to the constant hard work that our farming ancestors have convinced us is so virtuous.

Think about it: even today with the significant aid of technology, how many hours have farmers invested in this season of growing crops, and how much of that effort is ultimately going to be sent to the government as taxes? Don’t get me wrong — I personally enjoy living in a society with well-maintained roads and law and order, but there’s always a certain temptation to just live off the fish you can catch in the river and the wild plums you can harvest from the roadsides. How much stronger must that temptation have been when the choice was even starker: sitting around a campfire with your hunter friends, or collapsing at the end of a day spent hoeing weeds in Pharaoh’s wheat fields?

As Scott puts it, “Why anyone not impelled by hunger, danger, or coercion would willingly give up hunting and foraging or pastoralism for full-time [fixed-field] agriculture is hard to fathom.”

Grain states were fragile things, usually disintegrating within two or three reigns, due to sudden new epidemic diseases (human diseases or grain diseases, all only possible now that large populations were concentrated in one urban area), or drought or flood or pestilence, or climate variation, or the exhaustion of the soil and other nearby resources, or overly rapacious taxation and the subsequent fleeing of the peasant population. All the “Great Walls” of history, including the first one built in 2000 BC by the Sumerian King Sulgi between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, were built as much to keep a tax-paying population IN, as to keep barbarians OUT.

But during the time when any nation state thrived, it was only possible because of grain. Sure, there could be a sedentary grain farming population without any nation state, but there was never any such thing as a nation state without grain farming.

Population centers might develop, and wealth might be accumulated within a town, but in order to politically enclose a real empire, supported by other people’s labor, a nation state needed to be based on an easily taxable product. Wheat (or barley or teff or any other cereal grain) can be dried and stored; it can be transported; it is visible, divisible, rationable, and assessable. In other words, its annual production can be easily seen and accurately counted by the tax collectors, unlike almost any other agricultural crop. Even wool was difficult to tax because the shepherds kept moving around and shearing their sheep in different locations. Once a grain crop is planted, it stays in one place and the peasantry must stay there, too.

That is how the farming tradition of growing ever-more grain got started. More yield per field, more fields per farmer, more of anything there can be more of. As Scott writes, “In the absence of either compulsion or the chance of capitalist accumulation, there was no incentive to produce beyond the locally prevailing standards of subsistence and comfort … Beyond sufficiency, there was no reason to increase the drudgery of agricultural production.”

Only 240 human generations have passed since the first adoption of agriculture (can you believe that?), and Scott calculates that perhaps no more than 160 generations have elapsed since grain farming became a widespread practice. It only took that many people to pass down and reinforce every deeply held attitude and belief we currently hold about farming.

It is fascinating to read the details of that progression, to think about how these beliefs originated, and to consider how closely we should still treasure them today.

*Against the Grain: A Deep History of the First Civilizations by James C. Scott. Yale University Press, 336 pp, $26.00, August 22, 2017, ISBN 978 0300182910

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