James Scott’s Against the Grain: Book Review Part 1

May 02 2021

There is a cave in South Africa which tells an interesting story about human beings and our place on earth. In the cave one finds full skeletal remains of large cats which tells us that this was a den of these animals. Additionally there are many fragmentary bones of various other animals in the cave, with all of them bearing tooth marks of these large cats, meaning that they were brought into this den and eaten by these predators – among these remains of prey are bones of Homo erectus.

Then, at a much later level, after a few generations of the cave being uninhabited, we find different forms of remains. In the sediments are detectable traces of burnt carbon, a sign that in these intervening years early man had domesticated that elemental force. In the cave, we also find the full skeletal remains now, without tooth marks, of Homo Erectus.

And we find remains of many animals with marks on their bones, made from the teeth of these men – we find reptiles, and birds, and various mammals. But most interestingly, we find – guess what, cooked remains of the same large cats, or their descendants, who had once been eating human beings in this cave.

We talk about great archaeological discoveries, this perhaps is the greatest of them all. Predator becoming the prey, the prey becoming the hunter, and man rising to the top of the food chain. It began with the control of fire.

James Scott‘s thesis begins with two main points:

⁃ That the use of fire by man was the beginning of the Deep Anthropocene era, or the Age of Man.

⁃ The processes that led to the so called agriculture revolution many centuries ago, began with man’s use of fire to reshape nature, or the texture of the earth, for niche construction.

Niche construction refers to the transformation of physical environments by any organism to make it more conducive for its habitation. From worms, to ants to birds and beavers and even elephants – numerous organisms have evolved the skills of niche construction.

Scott says that for human beings, beginning from around 400,000 years ago, fire became such an important tool for niche construction, that most of the habitable land of the earth has in fact been shaped by the human use of fire. Over millennia, human beings have in a sense terraformed the entire earth as a Niche where we as a species can dominate. The trophic system has never been the same.

Scott says:- “Fire was the key to humankind’s growing sway over the natural world – a species monopoly and trump card, worldwide. The Amazonian rain forest bears indelible traces of the use of fire to clear land and open the canopy; Australia’s eucalyptus landscape is, to a considerable degree, the effect of human fire. The volume of such landscaping in North America was such that when it stopped abruptly, due to the devastating epidemics that came with the European, the newly unchecked growth of forest cover created the illusion among white settlers that North America was a virtually untouched, primeval forest. According to some climatologists, the cold spell known as the Little Ice Age, from roughly 1500 to 1850, may well have been due to the production of C02 – a greenhouse gas-brought about by the die-off of North America’s indigenous fire farmers.” (p 39).

Another important use of fire – perhaps discovered while performing the niche construction of terraforming earth – was cooking. As cooking “allowed early man to gather and eat a far wider range of foods than before: plants with thorns, thick skins, and bark could be opened, peeled, and detoxified by cooking; hard seeds and fibrous foods that would not have repaid the caloric costs of digesting them became palatable; the flesh and guts of small birds and rodents could be sterilized. Even before the advent of cooking, Homo sapiens was a broad-spectrum omnivore, pounding, grinding, mashing, fermenting, and pickling raw meat and plants, but with fire, the range of foods she could digest expanded exponentially. As testimony to that range, an archaeological site in the Rift Valley dated twenty-three thousand years ago gives evidence of a diet spanning four food webs (water, woodland, grassland, and arid) encompassing at least 20 large and small animals, 16 families of birds, and 140 kinds of fruit, nuts, seeds, and pulses, not to mention plants for medicinal and craft purposes-baskets, weaving, traps, weirs.” (p 41).

Cooking has had another fundamentally important effect on human evolution. At least according to Richard Wrangham who in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human proposes that the externalisation of (a substantial part) of the digestive process indirectly led to the evolution of larger brains. Cooking was a technological innovation in the development of nutritional efficiency: leading to our digestive tracts becoming much shorter than other mammals (even other primates have three times longer digestive tracts) and since we required much less energy to extract sufficient nutrition from the food we ate, the extra energy was ‘absorbed’ by the brain, which gradually became larger.

Fire aided those ancestors to revenge the death of their fathers at the hands of the Sabretooth, it made them deadly, but also, smarter. (It should be mentioned not all anthropologists agree with this thesis but it is widely accepted.)

The use of fire gave human beings the power to control their environment. This was especially important during the long Ice Age, allowing primal humanoid species such as the Neanderthals to spread into Europe, and the Cro-Magnon man (a term for early Homo sapiens that I really like) to expand elsewhere.

Now since various species of human beings were already at the top of the trophic system the Great Wars for domination of the earth were initially between them. But that is a story for another time. (For this I recommend Steve Mithen’s After the Ice.)

Returning to Scott, the second great change he focuses on was the rapid terraforming of the earth through its own processes, with perhaps a little bit of a nudge by early green house effect, in the end of the last glacial maximum. The warming of the earth began roughly 22,000 years ago, with a brief (thousand year long!) snapback cooling period known as the Younger Dryas interrupting the process from around 12,800 years ago.

By this time Homo Sapiens had become as the sole human species, having ‘outcompeted’ the others to remain the sole masters of the earth. Perhaps a few pockets of other humanoids remained, such as the so called Hobbits of South East Asia, technically the Homo Floresiensis. It was once thought this species survived till 12,000 years ago – but new evidence suggests otherwise, which is a shame.

Scott is rather abrupt in his treatment of the Ice Age and the effect on human social evolution till within a few millennia of the Younger Dryas, (to fill the gap one can turn to Steve Mithen’s After the Ice). For Scott, the goal is primarily to show how from the deep anthropocene of 400,000 years humanity now graduated to the next stage of what we might call the middle anthropocene of roughly 12–10,000 years BP – (Scott doesn’t use the term ‘middle anthropocene’ however, I find it useful).

In the middle anthropocene, human beings moved from niche construction over wide spaces to niche habitation in more localised places, that is, a transition from a moving to a settled life, from nomadism to sedentism.

The shift to sedentism in the post-Ice Age middle anthropocene was an adaptive response to changes in the environment. The warming of the earth was a gradual process beginning with the thawing of the great ice sheets of the northern latitudes.

Human beings dispersed over wider and wider spaces during these millennia. However, as mentioned before, even during this larger trend towards a warning earth there were shorter – in terms of geological time but millennia long otherwise – periods of rapid cooling, known as the Older and the Younger Dryas.

Our middle anthropocene commences essentially after the Younger Dryas but the socio-evolutionary processes which led to it were unfolding through these ten transitionary millennia, with some identifiably mid-anthropocenic ‘habits’ sometimes rearing up (even if momentarily in the archaeological record) before ‘their time’ (I understand how teleologically arrogant this sounds). But to understand the effect of the shifting environment on human dispersal, we can sum it up as follows – in the warmer periods, human beings dispersed into newer lands, exploring wider and wider spaces across Eurasia and into the Americas; while during the shorter, colder periods they might have concentrated into what we might call ‘refugia’ of forests with fresh water, oases, or warmer wetlands of relative abundance.

It was most likely in such refugia that the first experiments with nurturing grain bearing grasses began. However, agriculture while known was not, Scott stresses, seen as a necessity for these early experiments with sedentism, and “the earliest large fixed settlements sprang up in wetlands, not arid settings; they relied overwhelmingly on wetland resources, not grain, for their subsistence; and they had no need of irrigation in the generally understood sense of the term. Insofar as any human landscaping was necessary in this setting, it was far more likely to be drainage than irrigation.” (p 47).

These wetland zones provided sufficient nutrition to people, a veritable ‘protein harvest’ as Scott calls it, of fish, birds, turtles and even wild, free growing plants (p 49).

An extended quote will explain this best.

“The inhabitants of these marshes lived on what are called “turtlebacks,” small patches of slightly higher ground, comparable to cheniers in the Mississippi delta, often no more than a meter or so above the high-water mark. From these turtlebacks, inhabitants exploited virtually all the wetland resources within reach: reeds and sedges for building and food, a great variety of edible plants (club rush, cattails, water lily, bulrush), tortoises, fish, mollusks, crustaceans, birds, waterfowl, small mammals, and migrating gazelles that provided a major source of protein. The combination of rich alluvial soils with an estuary of two great rivers teeming with nutrients, dead and alive, made for an exceptionally rich riparian life that in turn attracted huge numbers of fish, turtles, birds, and mammals-not to mention humans!-preying on creatures lower on the food chain. In the warm, wet conditions that prevailed in the seventh and sixth millennia BCE, wild subsistence re· sources were diverse, abundant, stable, and resilient: virtuall y ideal for a hunter-gatherer-pastoralist.” (p 50).

During these long millennia of wetland subsistence in key zones, human beings also began to develop various skills in nurturing the plant life around them, which included “burning of undesirable flora, weeding wild stands of favored plants and trees to eliminate competitors, pruning, thinning, selective harvesting, trimming, transplanting, mulching, relocating protective insects, bark-ringing, coppicing, watering, and fertilizing.” (p 70). So, as Scott stresses, there wasn’t one specific moment in history when human beings made a sudden jump from hunting gathering to farming, or, in other words, there was no Agriculture Revolution similar to our Industrial Revolution. Which makes one think – if we take a long scale of time to analyse it, was there an Industrial Revolution even?

The long process of the human control of our environment and the things that inhabited it, was, essentially us getting better and better at niche construction. While this sort of ‘food gardening’ was something we developed during the long millennia of wetland sedentism, humans had in fact been making similar interventions in the animal world. Scott says, “short of full domestication, hunters have long been burning to encourage browse for prey, sparing females of reproductive age, culling, hunting based on life cycles and population, fishing selectively, managing streams and other waters to promote spawning and shellfish beds, transplanting the eggs and young of birds and fish, manipulating habitat, and occasionally raising juveniles.” (p 70).

We were, with every passing generation, increasing the scale and intensity of niche construction by managing, modifying and domesticating more and more of our environment.

We proceeded from the domestication of the elements, to domestication of the environment, to domestication of animals, then plants and in the process to the domestication of us.

And here begins the second major theme in Scott’s thesis. Domestication of our environments and our sources of food were ultimately a huge break in the process of human evolution.

Essentially, from around 7000–6500 BC, when human beings began to rely primarily on agriculture for food supply, there was a divergence in human evolution into two types of societies: moving societies of the traditional Hunter gatherers and settled societies of farmers. The latter was contingent on humans beings getting more and more rooted in their domestic habitat, or domus. While the latter continued the old ways, of the ordus. (I have adopted this term from the Turkic word – orda – which means camp, and refers to the ‘command tent’ in the army of Turko-Mongol nomad warriors; essentially what I mean by ordus is ‘camp culture’ as opposed to the settled culture of the domus.)

The two ways of life had completely different rhythms, or tempos, and Scott says that it would be “no exaggeration to say that hunting and foraging are, in terms of complexity, as different from cereal-grain farming as cereal-grain farming is, in turn, removed from repetitive work on a modern assembly line. Each step represents a substantial narrowing of focus and a simplification of tasks.” (p 90).

Why then, after a life of abundance in wetland settlements supplemented by foraging-hunting, of four to five millennia did human beings transition into the less rewarding (nutritionally) drudgery ridden agriculture based societies? Scott says that such a transition could have only happened with a gun on the head.

The hypothesis he proposes is interesting, and goes as follows :

⁃ from after the end of the Ice Age, as the earth began to warm, there was a larger and larger availability of both wetland zones and wide open pasture lands;

⁃ consequently, human beings gravitated towards these wetland zones which became centres of early sedentism;

⁃ but in addition to deriving their nutrition from the ‘protein harvest’ of aquatic and avian life, they supplemented their food with hunting (these wetlands were corridors for seasonal migrations of herds of animals), and also, foraging.

⁃ it was during this period of early sedentism, that all necessary knowledge and technology for farming was developed, without there being a need for farming; this included knowledge of grain bearing grasses, invention of sickles for harvesting, and all the necessary tools for winnowing, pounding and grinding.

⁃ but, harvesting of starch based grains remained a supplementary ‘side activity’ (because of the abundance of other forms of nutrition).

⁃ it was only after the cold wave of the Younger Dryas, with some effects lingering longer, that with populations of humans having grown over the previous millennia, and other sources of nutrition having become scarce (because of the cold) that farming became the primary mode of subsistence.

This is reflected in the archaeological record of key sites in the Mesopotamian region, such as Eridu at Abu Shahryar in Southern Iraq.

Life as farmers was much harder than the earlier, almost idyllic life described by James Scott. Earlier, life, in a sense, danced to the rhythm of nature, now it revolved around the cultivation of one or two starch growing crops. And the gathering, pounding and grinding which had earlier only been occasional activities, were now required year long. Not only did this make life much more dull, but it led to serious stress injuries, especially in women who did most of the processing work, that in detectable in skeletal remains of the period even today.

But this was life in the domus, one must recall there was another option : the life of the ordus.

As discussed above, from around 6000 BC, human society began to evolve in two distinct directions : around the centre of the domus grew the first agriculture based civilisations, which were contingent – as we well discuss, on the development of bureaucratic states; in the wide open spaces of the grasslands, roamed the ‘stateless’ peoples of the ordus. The conflict between these moving and settled peoples would be the defining plot of human history till the beginning of early modernity, perhaps lasting right till the fall of the last central Asian nomad-warrior empires.

The earliest states developed in Mesopotamia, more accurately the southern alluvium of Sumeria; in the Nile river region, around the various bends and curves in the river; among key strategic mountain routes and valleys in the Iranian highlands and in the the riverine plains of the Indus River system in the Indian subcontinent. These were the primary centres of domus civilisations, while most of the rest of the inhabitable world was the roams of the various ordus based cultures. Occasionally, through interactions some hybrid cultures would develop, but these were momentary and almost always transitioned into purely domus cultures. Why?

In the next part of the essay, we will examine Scott’s views on the development of the state and its many conflicts with the moving peoples it labelled as ‘barbarians’ and also, surprisingly, with its own people who, in a way, were the domesticates of the elite much like the many domesticated animals who also by now inhabited the society of the domus civilisation.

Focus : History, Philosophy, Storytelling