Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

Once in a while a book comes along that so radically shifts your perspective and ways of thinking about a complex subject that it can only be called breathtaking. Against the Grain A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017), by Yale Agrarian Studies Professor James C. Scott is one such book. Although not directly about the ancient Indus times, this “trespasser’s reconnaissance report” largely covers ancient Mesopotamia. It is full of insights and lessons that deserve to be tested and probably shed light on ancient Indus processes. Could things really have been so different so close by under such similar circumstances?

His beat is the structural conditions and consequences for our species as we took to cities, agriculture, and ways of living and dying in river-based and water-dependent ecologies. There is nothing obvious about this “evolution” of human society, and much of the book is devoted to destroying many of the myths that we have long told ourselves about how cities came to be. It is based on new and much more scientifically-based evidence than earlier anthropologists, archaeologists and theoreticians had to work with. Bringing it all together into a new framework is Scott’s purpose, and he achieves it magnificently in a way easy to read and deep to ponder. A short but weighty book indeed.

One of the big myths he pops is that “sedentism” – the practice of living in one place for a long time, a necessary condition for the formation of cities and towns – was a consequence of agriculture. Not quite. Nor was early agriculture anything but a risky, destructive proposition. People seem to have suffered in the shift from hunter-gatherers, as skeletal evidence increasingly makes clear. The same point is made and expounded upon in Yuval Hariri’s excellent Sapiens, which is a good complementary read, and also focuses on the early role of fire even before our species came to inhabit earth, which we know from the Rohri mines not far from Mohenjo-daro were important since at least 200,000 BCE.

“The astonishing advances in our understanding over the past decades have served to radically revise or totally reverse what we thought about the first ‘civilizations’ in the Mesopotamian alluvium and elsewhere,” writes Scott. “We thought (most of us anyway) that the domestication of plants and animals led directly to sedentism and fixed-field agriculture. It turns out that sedentism long preceded evidence of plant and animal domestication and that both sedentism and domestication were in place at least four millennia [4000 years!] before anything like agricultural villages appeared. Sedentism and the first appearance of towns were typically seen to be the effect of irrigation and of states. It turns out that both are, instead, usually the product of wetland abundance. We thought that sedentism and cultivation led directly to state formation, yet states pop up only long after fixed-field agriculture appears” (p. xi-x).

Indeed, some of the recent discoveries along the ancient Ghaggar-Hakra River being fed by the monsoon rather than always flowing may offer support for this thesis. Rich, ecologically diverse, seasonally-affected environments in Mesopotamia and Arabia around the same period, 4000-2000 BCE, brought about shifting sedentism; Scott writes nicely of “amphibious peasantry” (p. 211). One is reminded that evidence for the earliest ploughed field is at Kalibangan, or that the original farmers had diverse origins.

Also relevant to ancient Indus studies is the increasing clarity we have that early states around the world, from Mesopotamia to Greece and Central America and Southeast Asia “had to capture and hold much of their population by forms of bondage and were plagued by epidemics of crowding” (p. xii). Scott shows that early states were initially powerful vectors for increased disease and suffering rather than improved human welfare, despite the fact that they also led to increased fertility; packing so many humans and animals together in what by all the evidence must have been rather filthy conditions was not necessarily a better life and led many germs to cross the species-barrier. Trade only increased the virulence of pandemics. The limited research on this subject in Indus cities is beginning to show that diseases like leprosy were clearly something urban dwellers had to deal with; there is also the counter-factual that Mohenjo-daro’s success and that of other Indus cities may have had to do with the elaborate sanitation systems the inhabitants constructed. They were not only beautiful and advanced, they allowed so many people to live together with less waterborne diseases for longer. Of course, we are not sure that ancient Indus city-states had to fight for the human labor among each other it took to build walls and keep the urban machinery going as was the case in nearly every Mesopotamian city-state that transitioned to agriculture, although it is hard to believe that with all the ways that trade with ancient Indus cities is tied to the success of Mesopotamian elites – could it have been so different? Maybe there was a different belief system and social hierarchy. We don’t know yet, but it is the sheer breadth and depth of the new thinking Scott brings that helps reframe our perspective on Bronze Age and Indus issues in particular.

Particularly well-laid out is the evidence that early states would have been very tentative, fragile, quick-to-fail constructions. Poor crops and climate variability, disease, conflict (there was a lot of that, often in pursuit of human labor in Mesopotamia), trade with other states and with peripheral raw material suppliers (“barbarians”) in mountain regions –early states reliance on resources to support tens of thousands of people made them and their rulers very vulnerable. Indus cities show ups and downs, from rebuilding spaces periodically like the granary at Harappa, to the sudden evacuation of rich craft resources in situ at Gola Dhoro. There seems to be a general deterioration of construction at sites like Mohenjo-daro from 2500-2300 BCE to 2000-1900 BCE. Circumstantial similarities, but like so much in this book, cause for rethinking ancient Indus civilization(s) less as some sort of stable, persistent entity, and more as a rickety system subject to forces inside and out that must often have been overwhelming.

Actually, “collapse” is for Scott a “histrionic term,” and he argues that these civilizations or city-states in the Mesopotamian alluvium (also walled like many Indus cities and towns) may simply have receded from archaeological and political view, even as many of their onetime subjects continued to live on without much cultural and economic change. Indus civilization could have passed into a continuum that eroded but did not displace traditions and habits as its subjects moved or flourished – it seems – eastward and southward. Like in ancient Mesopotamia, where the Amorites ruled and dispersed and merged with sedentary populations, other nomadic peoples long in contact could have come in and been absorbed by earlier inhabitants. Multiple, not singular reasons (e.g. climate change) were likely at play in the decline of Indus cities. “One must never confound culture with state centers or the apex of a court culture with its broader foundations. Above all, the well-being of a population must never be confounded with the power of a court or state center” (p. 210-11) writes Scott. There can be far more continuity on the “periphery” than in archaeological records, so biased are archaeologists (understandably) by the record for the city and monumental, visible, artifacts discoverable in one area (preferably sealed off by rope).

Scott also discusses how key writing was to early state formation in almost every part of the world. It permitted an economic register to be kept, taxes to be levied, control to be exerted so that a surplus flowed to the elite and inequality became more pronounced. “If early writing is so inextricably bound to state making, what happens when the state disappears? What little evidence we do have suggests that without the structure of officials, administrative records, and hierarchical communication, literacy shrinks greatly if it does not disappear altogether. This should not be surprising inasmuch as in the earliest states, scriptural literacy was confined to a very thin veneer of the population, most of whom were officials” (p. 147). Not for nothing may it be that the Indus script vanished so completely; much the same happened in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and millennia later, almost in the Roman Empire as well. Writing systems can and do disappear.

“The earliest states were, then, delicate balancing acts; a lot had to go right for them to have anything but a brief life” (p. 189) writes Scott. He quotes an early Chinese Manual of Governance: "If the multitudes cannot be retained, the city state will become a mound of ruins" (p. 150).

There is much more detail to this exceptional synthesis, marshaling evidence gathered over many years from many disciplines and thinkers. His work stands on the shoulders of novel thinking by many others, but pulling it together into crystalline thinking is something that Scott must be thanked for.

Hopefully it will also help clear away some of the simplistic misconceptions we may have of Indus civilization, and give us a more fact-based way of assembling the evidence. Every major part of the jigsaw puzzle, from a rich alluvial, river-fed, resource-rich and widely spread population facing rapid ups and downs, is similar to peoples near and far for millennia before and after. As Scott so nicely puts it, "the very first states to appear . . . were a mere smudge on the map of the ancient world and not much more than a rounding error in a total global population estimated at roughly twenty-five million in the year 2,000 BCE."