Yale political scientist James C Scott talks to us about his new book, Against the Grain, which explores some of the key questions around early agriculture and state-building.

United States


00:00:00there is this car so of course comes right up to the conquest of the new world in which the idea is that people who are not using the land to plant crops are uncivilized than the land can be legitimately taken from them.
00:00:51you listening to the history extra podcast from BBC history Magazine with the UK's best-selling history magazine available in print and several digital formats all over the world find out more history extra.com subscribe or look out for us in your digital new standall app store
00:01:09hello welcome to history extra podcast the editor of BBC history magazine
00:01:18today's interview is with the renowned political scientist James C Scott of Yale University
00:01:26he is the author of the new book entitled Against the Grain which office some fascinating ideas about the nature of early human societies
00:01:37chain Spectra world history Editor matelson to outline the books key themes
00:01:46for the last 26 years colleagues here at Yale have run a program called agrarian studies their program an agrarian studies and I am actually a part-time farmer as well race cheap 20 years and we have a extra quite popular graduate to seminar of people from many different disciplines who joined the seminar the title of which is the comparative study of agrarian societies and I have given for quite some time I had given the first to lecture of the seminar on the domestication of plants and animals and the creation of the first States and I was asked I think in two thousand and eight or nine if I would give the Tanner lectures at Harvard which is a nice honor I was pleased but I had just finished another book
00:02:45and was enjoying a spell of what I call free reading without any ulterior motives in any case so I decided
00:02:55I ask myself if I could devise a project for myself which in 3 months would produce something worthy of the timer Lexus and the idea that came to me was that I knew my first two lectures on domestication of plants and animals in the first states were slightly out of date I had updated them from time to time but I knew that they needed work and I thought well the very least I can do is to go back and read the archaeology in ancient history of the early agrarian a civilization and write to better lectures than the lectures I had been giving
00:03:36the factors I found out
00:03:39fairly quickly that my lectures were in many cases quite wrong and misleading and I was a little humiliating
00:03:51and as a result I the actual lectures that I gave were more to register my astonishment at what I had not realized about the early forms of domestication and Agriculture and then the next five years were spent devising this book which is essentially a report of all the things we now know about a early agriculture and domestication the sandwich I include fire as well and so it say I contribute no new knowledge what I do is to try to assemble in a provocative way what we now know that contradicts the standard narrative that we have of civilization
00:04:46yes I'm a whole series of things astounded B I think I had like most of us I suppose
00:04:56bought the idea obviously conveyed to me in grade school at 4 if not someone later that we
00:05:08managed to domesticate grains and that allowed us to settle down for the first time and build the complex civilizations that we come to know as the early civilizations in the Middle East and I was astonished to find that the domestication of plants occurred at least four thousand years before anything like an agrarian society came into existence and that sedentary communities of a thousand two thousand or more existed long before you had anything that look like an agrarian society so the standard Narrative of
00:05:49domestication of plants and animals finally we can settle then we and stay in the same place as if that's what we had been longing to do for a hundred and eighty thousand years of species history that seem to be thrown up in the air and contested and shown to be wrong in several fundamental ways because it's so wrong for so long do you think that's a good question actually because of course the archaeologists have had it right for I'm reporting back on what do archaeologists do actually have discovered in the last 20 30 years so for example there's a place in I guess it's in Syria Abu hureyra and that's one of the few places in which you have a complete series from hunting and gathering in foraging to fix field agriculture
00:06:49and so when one archaeological site you can trace this shipped and they of course found that the
00:06:58discovery of domesticated plants the major grains the cereals wheat and barley in particular occurred long before they played any major role in subsistence activities and so the question they understood that people avoided a kind of strong Reliance and agriculture for a long long time and most of those people also understood that the reason why they avoided it is because both it expose them to new risks by having a very narrow band with of subsistence products and that it was
00:07:43much more work involved a lot more directory we we know that pretty conclusively these days that hunters and gatherers and foragers even today when there is an unfavorable environment actually spend relatively little time less than half of their time on subsistence activities and they attain sufficiency without of contemporary abundance of course rather rather easily and and so the Reliance on plow agriculture in particular would have required a tremendous more work for a smaller return in calories nutrition and also a narrowing of the diet look at things change how we understand how those phone into States for the first thing that I don't elaborate much but it was astonishing for me is that
00:08:43the Assumption has been that for Homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years and it's only the last ten thousand years essentially 1112 maximum and which we had domesticated plants and I think the Assumption was that we were mobile mobile people because of foraging and hunting and Gathering and that once we domesticated plants we immediately wanted to settle down the Assumption being that moving Mobility was a was owner s was an infection of some kind of some kind or other and so the ideas of an innate Homo sapiens desire to stop in one place and live your whole life there
00:09:43it's built into this narrative when in fact we have discovered of course in the in the process of colonialism and European conquest of the new world that when we tried forcibly to settle down mobile nomadic peoples into one place permanently we've had a war on our hands and most Native Americans of course we're only made into sedentary people on the basis of the loss of military contests and being placed forcibly on reservations and so the idea of the desire to settle the desire for setting to some seems to be a crucial mistake and the other mistake of course is that sedentary communities did not exist before we domesticated plants and animals as well
00:10:43to a great geographer Jennifer Parnell and it turns out of course that we have this idea of the Middle East as being an arid Zone in which if you have agricultural at all you haven't because of irrigation when in fact
00:11:02at 6000 6500 BC
00:11:08the southern alluvium of Mesopotamia I'm in between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was a wetland that is to say the level the sea levels were 300 feet or more above what they are today the result was that this was a wetland and abundant white land or region in which it dried out partially for part of the year but the the the amount of Marine Resources in these Wetlands the migrations of animals Birds fish and so on and the different ecological zones both the brackish water Zone in a freshwater Zone that shifted often the because it's a very flat plane so the tide comes in very
00:12:08very far and the water level in Mesopotamia was much hired it came up to the doors if you like of or and Brooke and her redo the very earliest agrarian civilizations and it was this Wetland abundance that made possible the creation of permanent trading settlements basically it's not that the people work there often permanently but they were permanent communities of Traders and Sean that grew to as many as four three 4,000 according to her it would be impossible that there were so many ecological zones of abundance quite close to them that they didn't have to move a great deal now that again we might have to be careful of this assumption that people don't want to move most of the
00:13:08foragers and hunters and gatherers have periods when they disperse for certain kinds of hunting activities and other periods when they aggregate overtime and one suspect that this was the case in the southern eluvium as well give you notice that there was a kind of easy agriculture
00:13:29it's called flood Retreat agriculture in the fact is that when the floods are at their High Point and they bring silt and then they gradually Retreat into the channel of the river and they leave they destroy the competing vegetation they then leave a deposit of silt which is rich in nutrients and all you have to do is just got her some seeds and showed it was kind of easy agriculture that was practiced but it was practiced only for a small portion of the subsistence resources that people wanted to plan some talking about doing this.
00:14:12oh oh that's a great question of course all of the plants that we domesticate are changed in the process of the domestication some of them in a conscious deliberate way and some of them in an unconscious way so for example we select for certain characteristics that help us as agriculturalists we would like for example the seeds the seeds to remain in their pods until we get them back to the threshing floor and so we select for what it's called non shattering of varieties in which you can cut them and take them back to the threshing floor and save most of the seed in the wild it's to the advantage of the plant to shatter easily and drop exceeds over a long period of time is it in a sentence
00:15:12that favor stuff
00:15:15the survival in the wild that plants we favor big seeds we favor long or short dormancy so that they will all germinate at the same time and so like to straighten animals actually all of our domestic cats are changed by our selection for certain characteristics overtime and gnashing I should add that one can still find in places in Anatolia stands of wild wheat that are so dense that you can actually collect enough wild weed and a couple of weeks in order to feed a family of 4 for an entire year and so these people who were not agriculturalists actually had threshing baskets and flails and sickles and so on all of the implements if you like of an agricultural people but they were using them on stands of wild
00:16:15what are the major points of the book is that all of the early states are dependent no matter where they are in the world on one major cereal grain whether we have to have millage to that in the Yellow River Valley but we chat and barley in the Middle East rice of course in most of Asia and Millet along the Yellow River and Maze course in the new world and what's interesting to me is that we of course I'd other plants that we had domesticated including roots and tubers lentils chickpeas and so on that were domesticated in roughly the same time what's interesting of course is that they were unsuitable for the tax man and so
00:17:15I never became the basis of the if you like the State grain rationing and Taxation system isn't well these you mean about Homo sapiens is two things I've tried could step back very mildly to the consequences of the domestication and so I made sure chapter of the book is devoted to the epidemiological consequences of this crowning of domesticated animals domesticated plants and human beings for the first time and really large concentrations we have and I think or Brooke Essex thousand years ago you have maybe 40,000 people on the same place and this is completely unprecedented
00:18:15this concentration and the consequences of this are actually all of the Infectious zoonotic diseases that move between domesticated animals and human being so measles mom's chicken pox I could the list could go on for almost ever but the point is that these were diseases that simply did not exist before this crowding phenomenon of the early States and early concentrations of sedentary community and the disease that the most of the zoonotic infectious diseases move between are domesticated animals in us over time they jump the species cop and it's only because of the crowding that they do this the fact is that the domesticated animals because they're crowded or more likely to experience epidemics themselves that is to say your animal flock epidemics if you like human beings are likely to experience is up in the mix and because the crops themselves are
00:19:15similar genetic individuals all crowded together on fields for the first time they are subject to crop diseases or crop epidemics to the point is that these early stage for extremely unstable not only politically and environmentally but they were extremely unstable from an epidemiological point of view and so they often collapsed overtime and when an epidemic broke out of course people run away from the early cities as quickly as they could to address your question winners and losers the point is that the
00:20:02mortality rates and diseases
00:20:07of these early cities meant that they were unhealthy places to be the your chances of dying at an early age were greater than it then they were 4 people outside these early States and the skeletal remains of people in The Agrarian States versus hunters and gatherers show much more evidence of a systematic nutritional diseases especially iron deficiency anemia and of course if we're talking about 4000 BC the number of people in the cities as a unit as a proportion of world population was extremely small these were people in these early civilizations were almost a rounding error in the world's population so most of the people who inhabited the globe
00:21:07MPC 4000 BC or outside any form of state and I argue that it's actually quite late in human history that people experience tax collectors and most of the world for that matter that's the states were so unstable only States all of the states
00:21:33without exception
00:21:35or slave states
00:21:38and they all had a population problem
00:21:44I just to say that they booked at high although they had high rates of birth they also had high mortality rates and they had people running away regularly and so the problem of the early States was to replenish
00:22:00their population we both know that Western European cities until the mid-nineteenth century never reproduce themselves demographically from within their own population that there were too many epidemics and if cities grew before we had clean water and sewage in roughly the mid-nineteenth century they grew by bringing in more people from the countryside and the same of course was true for these are early States and so most of the wars that one discovers in these early states are what I call Wars of capture that is there a rarely about the control over territory because the problem is you can't grow going to rain very far from the palace and easily ship it and control it so the object of warfare was by and large to capture populations who could be resettled back at the center
00:23:00as slaves or as bonded labor of one kind or another so for example
00:23:11in the early Mesopotamian in Rook the symbol in cuneiform for slave is the combination of the symbol for woman and a mountain and it's suggest as we know that they did that there were expeditions to capture Mount people especially women and children and bring them back and settled them at the court now we're talkin about maybe 9,000 people out of a total of 45000 but that is fairly substantial portion of the slaves he's early states were quite small when you get to Greece of course both Athens had a majority of a big majority of slaves most of them we're not so visible because they worked in the in the quarries and Silver Mines that were the
00:24:11places of Athenian and Spartan of course settle down on the backs of a existing agrarian population and essentially enslaved them and of course Rome was about 1/3 slaves so what's interesting to me about the early States is that they had this population problem that they saw by capturing people outside the state and forcibly resettling them and in many cases these people became full members of the community after fairly brief. Of time it wasn't chattel slavery in the North Atlantic of form that we are most familiar with at least in America are the two things one of them is it people are moving back and forth all the time
00:25:04show this idea that we have people inside the stadium people outside the state is probably wrong for a long period during which people depending if there's an epidemic or if there's a crop failure people move out and take up more mobile forms of subsistence show we mustn't think that these are hermetically sealed steak people and non-state people who are not moving back and forth all the time so people in their own lifetime are likely to have experiences of both inside the state and outside the state that said
00:25:41the official etiology of all of these states is an ideologies of we are the Civilized people and the people outside the state are the barbarians and that is often linked to grain eating that is to say the Romans thought of themselves as weed eaters and barley eaters and the Gauls as consumers of animal flesh and and dairy products of course it wasn't quite sure that the truth are the goals also planted crops as well but if you like the civilization of symbolism was that the people in the civilization are basically grain eaters in the people outside of our are not civilized partly because of their dietary habits and partly because of other characteristics like
00:26:41clothes they wear and the fact that they move around for the Chinese or should be the difference between rice eaters and non rice eaters are in the Yellow River between people who eat Millet and people who hunt and gather outside these areas a joke there is a civilization of course comes right up to the conquest of the new world in which the idea is that people who are not using the land to plant crops are uncivilized than the land can be legitimately taken from them the terranova's hypothesis in which Native Americans were seen to have no claim to the land because they weren't putting it to productive use some productive use meant as you know her unofficial national anthem the reference to amber waves of grain which are the sign of a civilized landscape
00:27:41daddy States purchase the cultural I think it's completely undeniable that these concentrations of of later on kingly power Merchant power these early States produce concentrations of economic activity and trade artisinal specializations you know all of the most of the things that we find in museums if you like from the early civilizations are the products of these concentration super early States and also the Monumental building as well and so the point that I make in a chapter called
00:28:31collapses redistribution I think I called him the they're all of these periods of Dark Ages when
00:28:43civilization seem to disappear have been extremely common and these are a core Cena's tragedies as the blinking out of the Lumina centers of civilization and achievement in fact of for most of the people in these situations my guess is that they left the centers because of diseases or taxes or Civil War and John and that The Disappearance of the center might have been for many of the people who then dispersed and you have to take care of themselves when in a crisis situation that it was actually an improvement of their welfare this dispersion and it's recorded of course in history as a Dark Age by Dark Age meaning that we no longer have all the balls that we want to put in the British Museum and so on I mean
00:29:43here I want to pay tribute to contemporary archaeology as opposed to Historic archaeology it used to be that if you like the only way you got into the history books and that's why these are early States occupy such a huge role in our ancient history is that if you leave all your Rubble in one place right and you build in stone then the archaeologists find all of your stuff in one compact place and they're able to figure out what was going on and this then results of Museum exhibits and someone but if
00:30:21as for most of the population you spread your trash while widely and you don't leave these concentrations of monumental building you disappear from the history books although your history may have been in many respects and terms the invention of domesticated crops and Neolithic techniques may have been actually more interesting that one was happening in in the cities in the world it went on for far longer than we're likely to Worship in the following sentence
00:31:09all of these early societies
00:31:13States actually before modern Transportation depended on
00:31:22the concentration of grain and Manpower in a very small space I just because of the logic of Transportation so unless you have navigable water which changes the calculus slightly show I'll give you a example and passing in I am told that an 1800 before the steamship it's faster to go from Southampton England to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa then it is to go buy Stagecoach from London to Edinboro I work this out actually it's about true of course people didn't go from on stagecoach from one that died of her they went by sea but the point is that that it's very difficult to move over land especially if it's rugged land migraine or any other important subsistence commodity very far and so all of the early civilizations are based on floodplains alluvial squad points that is the only
00:32:22place in which you can concentrate monocrop cereals and human beings in one place and have a kind of surplus that estate can appropriate notice by the way that there are no tarot States no potato States no casaba States and that's because those crops grow Underground
00:32:46although they get ripe in a year they could be left in the ground safely and be eaten two or three years later the advantage of cereal crops for the state is it they all grow above ground they get ripe almost exactly the same time at the tax man wants them they can come and take them or better yet wait till you put them in the put it in The Granary and confiscate the contents of The Granary or if they don't like you they can bring your Crocs when they're ripe in the field and you have to disperse so in that sense you need the serial the cereal grains as well as this concentration of population I'm wondering if it be wandering of it but the point is that all of these early civilizations have to have a flood plain and so they are creatures of a particular Recology and the way they expand is to hop through an archipelago of different floodplains and all they colonize new places it has to have the certainty
00:33:46logical characteristics of kind of Manpower grain ecological module and and let's remember that they represent now a very special new ecology in the world of the domus The Hearth the domesticated animals the crops that human beings and all of The Uninvited Guest to come into this ecology the rats and mice The Sparrows the fleas the ticks all the parasites of the animals in human beings and who find it good to eat at this particular place and so we create a completely new ecological module by our settlement patterns and that goes on I think
00:34:33all of the people outside these flood Plains and alluvial Plains
00:34:42are potentially beyond the reach of the state for much of human history until we get to the 16th or 17th century I think
00:34:53that was James C Scott
00:34:56Gates the grade deep history of the earliest States is out now in the UK I'm the u.s. published by Yale University press
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00:36:04well that's about all for today but please do this until Thursday when will be talkin about Alfred the Great
00:36:11thanks for listening to the history extra podcast which was produced by Jack Fletcher by email at history.com weed out your messages and feet Traditions I'll tentatively keep in touch via Facebook but you'll find is at history extra content don't forget to visit our website history extra.com which is full of History articles quizzes image Galleries and more you can download hundreds of previous episode of this podcast

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