Great Scott


George Scialabba reviews James Scott's Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James Scott in Inference:

Scott is a part-time farmer and founder of Yale’s agrarian studies program. Invited to give some prestigious lectures, he decided to delve into recent scholarship on the origins of agrarianism. To his surprise, he found that his anarchist perspective holds true back to the farthest reaches of prehistory. The standard view—not implausible given the paucity of available evidence until recent developments in radioactive dating, paleobotany, paleogenetics, microbial biology, parasitology, and other disciplines were pressed into service by archaeologists—has been that plant and animal domestication was followed in rapid sequence by population increase, sedentism, and state formation. It was a dramatic narrative, with clear causal links: technological change made possible a new way of life more like our own, which we naturally regarded as progress and therefore assumed that our Neolithic ancestors must also have regarded as desirable and willingly embraced. In fact, however, it appears that a gap of approximately four thousand years separates the domestication of the main cereal grains and the rise of the first enduring states. What were our ancestors up to in those millennia? This, roughly, is the question Scott sets out to answer in Against the Grain.

Domestication, it turns out, was a decidedly mixed blessing for humans. Judging from fossils, cereal-based diets were associated with shorter stature, bone distress, iron-deficiency anemia, and other deficits. The domus—the module including house and outbuildings, livestock yards, gardens, etc.—attracted hordes of commensals: not only dogs, pigs, and other mammals but also rodents, sparrows, insects, and weeds, as well as all their associated parasites and disease organisms, for which the domus was an ideal environment. A loss of alertness and emotional reactivity—the invariable result of animal domestication—may have similarly occurred among human domus-dwellers. And so labor-intensive was life in the domus that, Scott writes, “if we squint at the matter from a slightly different angle, one could argue that it is we who have been domesticated.”

More here.