*Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States*

That is the new James C. Scott book, and so far it is the most interesting non-fiction read of the year (I am about halfway through).  You can think of it as an extended essay on which technologies actually gave rise to economies of scale, expressed through governance but not only.  Ultimately the focus settles on Mesopotamia, but the discussion is wide-ranging and the lessons are applicable to much of human history.  Here is an opening summary bit:

I propose that cereal grains have unique characteristics such that they would be, virtually everywhere, the major tax commodity essential to early state building.  I believe that we may have grossly underestimated the importance of the (infectious) diseases of crowding in the demographic fragility of the early state.  Unlike many historians, I wonder whether frequent abandonment of early state centers might often have been a boon to the health and safety of their populations rather than a “dark age” signaling the collapse of a civilization.  And finally, I ask whether those populations that remained outside state centers for millennia after the first states were established may not have remained there (or fled there) because they found conditions better.

Here is one good passage:

It is surely striking that virtually all classical states were based on grain, including millets.  History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit, or sweet potato states. (“Banana Republics” don’t qualify!)  My guess is that only grains are best suited to concentrated production, tax assessment, appropriation, cadastral surveys, storage, and rationing.  On suitable soil wheat provides the agro-ecology for dense concentrations of human subjects.

In contrast the tuber cassava (aka manioc, yucca) grows below ground, requires little care, is easy to conceal, ripens in a year, and, most important, can safely be left in the ground and remain edible for two more years.  If the state wants your cassava, it will have to come and dip up the tubers one by one, and then it has a cartload of little value and great weight if transported.

The discussion of how the technology of fire is the ultimate root of economies of scale is alone worth the price of the book.  Scott analogizes complacency/peace to the domestication of non-human animals, including the phenomenon of less violent emotional reactions and greater conformity.

Urgently recommended, and fun to read as well.

Here are various articles on the work of James C. Scott.  Here is a good NYT profile of Scott and also his farming work.


Will add to my reading list. Interesting thoughts on crowding and infectious disease, which potentially increases the importance of plumbing in the creation of the industrial era and triumph of the city.

Wheat, tax and state creation seem interesting and worth knowing more about and wondering what the future XYZ good/service is, tax and state capability/creation is.

Like the Minoans (ca. 4000 years ago) or the Romans (more than 2500 years ago)?

Also probably a significant driver in the evolution of the modern human immune system.

I don't know if you've ever taken a guided tour of Chicago architecture, but the couple of times that I have been on those kinds of tours the guides made a big deal out of the reversal of the Chicago river, which carried sewage away from the city and ended the regular outbreaks of cholera and typhoid which plagued the city during its early existence. Another interesting tidbit is that in North American cities east of the Appalachians is that the more prosperous parts of town tend to be on the west side of the city, as streams and rivers tend to flow from west to east.

It's not just water that flows west to east.

In most places, industrial pollution flows west to east along with the wind/weather.

If factories are located in the center of the city, the poorest workers will have to live within walking distance of the factory, downwind of the smokestacks.

Rivers flow downhill exclusively, and cannot be characterized as flowing in any other direction.

The location of the 'good' areas in cities has more to do with winds blowing from the moth west .and binging air poluttion from industry than the flow of rivers. All over the county the good areas of cities are in the north west. When the build the stock yards in Chicago the odors turned some the previously wealthy areas on the south side into a slum..

The largest river on the continent flows north to south, and its major tributary the Ohio flows east to west. As someone else notes here, the prevailing winds are a better argument for the the phenomenon you note.

One of the best documentary films that I've seen is 1983's "Water and the Dreams of Engineers" which convincingly argues that much of the increase in human life expectancy over the past couple of centuries has been due to improved water sanitation: clear water for people to drink, created by making sure that waste water does not contaminate the drinking water.

I remember reading a book review some 25 years ago which hypothesized that humans abandoned hunting and gathering for an agricultural lifestyle not because it was a more pleasant or healthier lifestyle, but because population pressures made hunting and gathering untenable, so people had to switch to agriculture or die out.

So those are old familiar concepts. The taxing and state creation concepts however are new ones to me, so Scott may've contributed some innovative thinking there. (OTOH in _Outliers_ Malcolm Gladwell talked about how the necessity of creating rice paddies for rice cultivation may've contributed to Asian excellence in math and school in general -- but that was an especially weak argument.)

Paleo diet for the win, right?

Didn't somebody already write a book called Grains, Germs, and Steel - or at least something like that?

Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel was what I began thinking about as I read the passage "History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit, or sweet potato states".

Cowen, you are crushing it lately with your blogging. Another great post.

Tylers.theses tubers", "bacteria beat Martians in War of the Worlds", "we humans move on when our ancient enemies, unharnessed bacteria, decepticons, etc., eventually turn on us", "the survivors recognize this and lay low")

Where may I redeem my Romer/Cowen Prize? Baby needs a new pair of shoes.

Jiminy Christmas. I clearly typed <-

Tyler - "he hate R".

all of those are tropical crops - it seems like malaria is being underrated as a factor here

there is technique for converting hidden tubers into movable stores of energy without much human effort. it is called a domestic pig. the security of two inches of soil seems overrated.

what ecologies select for plants to stuff their roots full of starch? those with deeply unreliable rainfall - perhaps there are other reasons why states do not arise in these situations?

Pigs (and livestock in general) are a terrible way to store energy. It takes 5kg of feed to make one kg of live animal today, of which only about half is edible. And that's with modern systems. On top of that, you can keep grain in a sealed container in a cool environment and essentially forget about it, while if you do that with a pig they tend to die rather quickly.

Friedrich Ratzel would disagree:

“It must be remembered that nomads do not always destroy the opposing civilization of the settled folk. This applies not only to tribes, but also to states, even to those of some might. The war-like character of the nomads is a great factor in the creation of states. It finds expression in the immense nations of Asia controlled by nomad dynasties and nomad armies, such as Persia, ruled by the Turks; China, conquered and governed by the Mongols and Manchus; and in the Mongol and Radjaputa states of India, as well as in the states on the border of the Soudan, where the amalgamation of the formerly hostile elements has not yet developed so far, although they are joined together by mutual benefit. In no place is it shown so clearly as here on the border of the nomad and peasant peoples, that the great workings of the impulse making for civilization on the part of the nomads are not the result of civilizing activity, but of war-like exploits at first detrimental to pacific work. Their importance lies in the capacity of the nomads to hold together the sedentary races who otherwise would easily fall apart. This, however, does not exclude their learning much from their subjects . . . . Yet all these industrious and clever folk did not have and could not have the will and the power to rule, the military spirit, and the sense for the order and subordination that befits a state. For this reason, the desert-born lords of the Soudan rule over their negro folk just as the Manchus rule their Chinese subjects. This takes place pursuant to a law, valid from Timbuctoo to Pekin, whereby advantageous state formations arise in rich peasant lands adjoining a wide prairie; where a high material culture of sedentary peoples is violently subjugated to the service of prairie dwellers having energy, war-like capacity, and desire to rule.”

Ratzel, Völkerkunde. Second Edition. Leipzig and Wien, 1894-5, II, p. 370.

The Rajputs and Mughals had long since ceased to be nomadic (If they ever were.) when they built up their empires which were conventional feudal states. I hope the rest of this guy's historiography isn't this sloppy.

Mind you in both cases the central authorities tended to bother the villages only when they wanted to collect taxes which may have seemed to the locals as not much different to the pillage of nomads but still it seems a stretch to conflate this with true nomadic behavior.

I always thought that it was hard to find sealed containers that could keep out pests such as rodents and insects. What kinds of artifacts were used to store grain in pre-industrial times that reliably kept out pests?

Cats, which we now know were domesticated much earlier than previously thought. As an added benefit, cats have no interest in eating grain themselves, and they are fairly clean in their habits.

Cats are only as domesticated as it pleases them to be, and do precisely what they want.

Oh, that is true-- but for the vast majority of cats, killing rodents and other small critters is high up the list of What They Want, even if they are not hungry.

That's only an issue if you feed animals foods that humans can easily digest, in which case animal protein becomes a luxury. In herding societies and on traditional farms, animals convert things that humans cannot eat, from insects, grass and acorns to table scraps, into high quality protein in the form of eggs, meat and milk.

But the original comment was "there is technique for converting hidden tubers into movable stores of energy without much human effort. it is called a domestic pig." So what is needed is not a pig that eats tuber but a beast of burden like a horse that would eat grass and not tubers.

I think DBN's concern was that more that you can always support some animals in an agricultural economy so long as they eat secondary feeds not competing with human cereal production. Think of the backyard pig, or goat, fed on scraps. The more land-starved the peasantry, the more the meat goes to chicken, goat, and pig and the less to land-hungry cows.

Horses are definitely a luxury; they eat good grasslands, hay and oats, which could be yielding cereals for human tables.

Yes, livestock are very energy inefficient to create and maintain in land terms. Cereals for the win. You can have 30 times the population density on decent land.

But if you have vast amounts of land-to-people ratio, especially if it yields poorly to farming, then pastoralism serves you better.

What about the Incas and potatoes? The Prussian state encouraged potato farming.

What about corn (maize)? Central Mexico had fairly strong states, but less so further north in Indian times. Although maybe big states would have arisen as corn became habituated to higher latitudes and shorter growing seasons.

What about California, which had remarkably little in the way of large scale states before the Spanish? It would seem like it could have had Mesopotamian-style irrigated agriculture, but it didn't. But why wasn't corn introduced there?

No animal-drawn plow? Did women or men do most of the agricultural labor in the Americas?

Early Californians lived largely on acorns, which are widely distributed and don't keep well. Collecting them is pretty easy though. I can see why agriculture would be unattractive.

The Inca and potatoes are the very obvious counterargument, given they had a quite totalitarian state. Granted they also had maize and quinoa, but they were heavy into potatoes and supplemented with a number of other root crops (including cassava and sweet potato).

Prussia was already a strong state built on a tradition of strong grain-growing states when it started growing potatoes to make its crops hard to burn/steal in war, so it doesn't make much of a counterexample.

And we don't know there weren't large, strong statesnorth of the Aztecs. We know there was a civilization (a culture/culture group with cities) in the Mississippi and related valleys that was wiped out after the Columbian exchange, probably by disease, because we have the ruins of the cities. We have De Soto's accounts of his contacts with the southern edge of that civilization. And that's it. You can't conclude there were no strong states, because the lack of written record means we know nothing about the states-that-were.

Come on; it's not lack of written records alone; the northern Amerindians simply didn't have the technology to support a state with the capabilities of Ur. Let alone a "a Large Strong State".

We would be positing a large, strong state which didn't build in stone, had minimal farming, transport and infrastructure, no written records, no developed food storage, no tax capability, horses, cloth, ships, domestication of animals, metal tools, no common religion or ability to organise at anything beyond the tribal level. Good luck building any "large strong state" with such a Neolithic technology!

Cahokia and the earthworks we have found simply aren't THAT big or long inhabited. Compared to the density and scale of ruins scattered across Mesopotamia or the Indus valley....we're looking at a regional-scale Neolithic "civilisation" with a few settlements/sacred sites and maybe some "great chiefs" but a vast hinterland of mostly hunter-gatherer tribes.

The Mississippian civilization hits its peak and started to decline well before Columbus, possibly due to the climatic downturn in the late 1200s.

Parts of California, like Japan and the Pacific Northwest, supported higher population densities of foraging people than seen in much of the rest of the world. Maize, or more accurately the kinds of maize brought north from Mesoamerica in the 800s, may not have had much more to offer for food security in that climate than what Californian people already had.

North of the deserts the entire Pacific coast all the way up to the Alaskan panhandle was very fecund and offered a lot of food for the taking. There was no real reason for ancient peoples there to adopt agriculture, which tended to be adopted first in areas where hunting-and-gathering is less easy to survive on.

Was there really "food for the taking"? Do we really believe that hunter-gatherers didn't already occupy the land to close to its carrying capacity? Why not? Every other predator expands until it reaches the limit.

At best, this posits an unstable equilibria. The first group to adopt farming would outbreed their residual hunter neighbours and displace them.

Yes, and farming was eventually introduced-- by other farmers (AKA Europeans). The same is true in early Japan where the Jomon population were also hunter gatherers until a mainland population (the ancestors of today's Japanese) brought agriculture over from Korea.

Maize is also a grain.
Potatoes were vital to Andean cultures-- and later became a major factor in the growth in population in Europe.
However Andean people also had the pseudo-grain quinoa and maize cultivation spread to South America from Mesoamerica.

Maize of course did spread into North America, and it had become a staple east of the Mississippi and south of the Great Lakes by the time the Europeans showed up. Although this was a fairly new development.

Good point about the Prussians. A big advantage of potatoes is that unlike grain crops, they cannot, or could not be burned in time of war. Even if the plants are burned, the potatoes remain in the ground.

In "Gone With The Wind" it's mentioned that sweet potatoes (called "yams" by Southerners) survived Sherman's March because Yankees had no idea what they were or that they had edible roots underground.

Maize is definitely a workable alternative for early state formation. Potatoes...maybe. Like Cassava, they can stay in ground for a year or so. But once you dig them up.... do they store so well in cold and wet climes? The Prussians already had a state, so it doesn't prove a point about state formation.

The failure of the northern Amerindians to generate a recognisable agricultural state in the several optimal biomes open to them is one of those big "uh-huh" things in pre-history.

"I believe that we may have grossly underestimated the importance of the (infectious) diseases of crowding in the demographic fragility of the early state."

John Reader's book "Africa: The Biography of a Continent" emphasizes the role of insect-borne diseases like falciparum malaria and sleeping sickness in keeping sub-Saharan Africa less urbanized than other parts of the world. You just couldn't crowd enough people together to approach the Malthusian ceiling without disease taking a terrible toll.

At least by early modern times Africans developed strong resistance to malaria and even to yellow fever (which tended to be a less serious childhood disease). This is something that made them very attractive as slaves in the New World. It's also why so few Europeans ever penetrated very far into the "dark Continent" before modern prophylaxis: they tended not to survive long.
And certainly Eurasia was not free of disease-- this was the home of smallpox, plague, tuberculosis, influenza, cholera and other great scourges. There was even a temperate form of malaria that plagued ancient Rome, and was recorded as far north as St Petersburg. Right up into the 19th century cities only survived because of in-migration from the healthier countryside as urban death rates almost always exceeded urban birth rates.

Geez, malaria was endemic in many places in the US fairly recently:

"The early malaria of the Arizona valleys nearly all has disappeared, with the draining of swampy places, the eradication of beaver dams and mosquitoes and the knowledge of better living conditions. Elsewhere has been told of the abandonment of Obed and other early Little Colorado settlements, because of chills and fever. Something of the same sort was known on the upper Gila, from 1882 to 1890, around Pima, Curtis and Bryce. In this same upper Gila Valley, Fort Goodwin had to be abandoned on account of malarial conditions. The same is true of old Fort Grant, across the divide, on the lower San Pedro. The upper Verde, the Santa Cruz and nearly all similar valleys knew malaria at the time of settlement."


Don't forget that there are thee different diseases called "malaria"

Don't forget that there are three different diseases called "malaria"

There are several variants of malaria. Falciparum is a true tropical disease and it was uncommon in the US except on the Gulf Coast. Europeans rarely encountered it before the Age of Exploration and as such had little resistance to it. Tertian Fever, which is less deadly (but still debilitating) once flourished in the wetland areas of the US, having been brought over from the marshy eastern counties of England.

Sounds like many of the same hypotheses as Guns Germs and Steel.

This theory is tested (and generally confirmed) with comparative agro-productivity data in
Mayshar, Joram, Moav, Omer, Neeman, Zvika, and Pascali, Luigi (2015) "Cereals, Appropriability and Hierarchy," CEPR Discussion Paper 10742."

Thanks Kass. In fact we test our theory... We developed the theory independently of Scott and circulated it a few years before Scott's book was published.

Professor Shiller teaches his finance students that the rice futures market in Japan, which was developed in the 1600s, was the greatest innovation in finance. Why? Because it served to level out supplies of rice and thus the price of rice. Today, there are futures markets in just about everything. But it started with grains. And you gotta eat, so any innovation that levels out the supply and price of something as important as grains facilitates stable economic and population growth. Here is a transcript of Shiller's lecture on futures markets. http://oyc.yale.edu/transcript/1084/econ-252-11

Very much looking forward to this work. Scott's brilliant. I first read him in my sophomore year. He blew me away then, and he's been coming back in my thoughts recently. Re-reading his Weapons of the Weak, and Two Cheers for Anarchy has some good stuff too. Moral Economy of the Peasant it fantastic.

There are a ton of confounding factors that would seem to make Scott's causal argument pretty weak. Most notably, climate.

How about the states in tropical Africa such as Benin (the historical state, not the present one)?

"the most interesting non-fiction read of the year (I am about halfway through)": as are we all; it's early June.

In Brazil, it is late June because we live in the Southern Hemisphere. Then it will be early June, late July, eaely July and so on and so forth. Our year begins in December and ends in January.

Isn't today the anniversary of Brazil declaring war on Germany?

If I am not wrong, war was declared in August after the Nazis started sinking Brazilian peaceful merxhant ships. It may anniversary of the dispatching of troops to Europe in July, 1944 after the most important leaders of the American continent, Presidents Vargas and Roosevelt met to coordinate the war effort.


Nah, you silly pseudo-Brazilian fellow: Kaiser Bill's Germany.

Who cares? Brazil's performance was much better at WWII. Also: no, it is not anniversary.

And the book isn't officially published until August 29.

If you find This book interesting then another that is just as fascinating is "6000 years of bread"


This goes into similar details but over a longer timeline. There are a lot of intriguing ideas presented.

"Unlike many historians, I wonder whether frequent abandonment of early state centers might often have been a boon to the health and safety of their populations rather than a “dark age” signaling the collapse of a civilization."

Check out Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies.

Robin Hanson's forager v farmer writings may be a good accompaniment?

"And finally, I ask whether those populations that remained outside state centers for millennia after the first states were established may not have remained there (or fled there) because they found conditions better."

-I thought that the consensus view already was that people prefer tribal societies to organized states?? Do many historians/anthropologists actually disagree with this? The process by which states took over the planet's most valuable real estate was not amicable.

"Unlike many historians, I wonder whether frequent abandonment of early state centers might often have been a boon to the health and safety of their populations rather than a “dark age” signaling the collapse of a civilization."

-The term "radical material simplification" has been in use for some time now. The health and nutrition of less organized populations was certainly better, yes. However, the "dark ages" are measurable by the dramatic decrease in high quality goods, or so I've read. So it's not at all clear that it's a mistake to characterize less population dense eras as ones of decline.

It becomes a question of whether "decline" is measured by population health or by population size. Because both our ancestors and our descendants much prefer that we reproduce vigorously than that we live comfortably, I submit that it is the latter which is more relevant.

"Because both our ancestors and our descendants much prefer that we reproduce vigorously than that we live comfortably, I submit that it is the latter which is more relevant."

Bingo. 10 scrawny farmers beat 1 strapping healthy nomad. Who cares what the individual thinks; the extended phenotype prefers the farming strategy.

"If the state wants your cassava, it will have to come and dip up the tubers one by one, and then it has a cartload of little value and great weight if transported."

-The analysis of wheat v tubers is an interesting one. But something seems off to me. Perhaps the "friendliness" of states is overestimated? My understanding is that agricultural states (as all states were until the industrial revolution) simply estimated how much your land *could* produce and taxed you based upon that. You're going to tell Genghis Khan's tax collector that you've had a bad year and come up significantly short? That is not a trivial course of action.

The state isn't going to dig up your tubers if you lie. It will simply bury you next to them and give the land to someone more obedient.

Point is they don't want you to pay tax in tubers.

A VOX column from nearly two years ago (September 2015)

by Joram Mayshar, Omer Moav, Zvika Neeman, Luigi Pascali

"Conventional theory suggests that hierarchy and state institutions emerged due to increased productivity following the Neolithic transition to farming. This column argues that these social developments were a result of an increase in the ability of both robbers and the emergent elite to appropriate crops. Hierarchy and state institutions developed, therefore, only in regions where appropriable cereal crops had sufficient productivity advantage over non-appropriable roots and tubers."


"And finally, I ask whether those populations that remained outside state centers for millennia after the first states were established may not have remained there (or fled there) because they found conditions better."

I guess the suburbs have always been more desirable. :-)

We often underestimate the importance of beer as an incentive for organization when we look at ancient civilizations.

Find me an ancient civilization, and I guarantee you that you will find both cereals and ethanol. North America seems to possibly be the counter example, but they often organized around peyote.

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