Against the Grain

From Slate Star Codex, notice of an interesting book by the same guy who wrote Seeing Like a State:

Why should cereal grains play such a massive role in the earliest states? After all, other crops, in particular legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, and peas, had been domesticated in the Middle East and, in China, taro and soybean. Why were they not the basis of state formation? More broadly, why have no “lentil states,” chickpea states, taro states, sago states, breadfruit states, yam states, cassava states, potato states, peanut states, or banana states appeared in the historical record? Many of these cultivars provide more calories per unit of land than wheat and barley, some require less labor, and singly or in combination they would provide comparable basic nutrition. Many of them meet, in other words, the agro-demographic conditions of population density and food value as well as cereal grains. Only irrigated rice outclasses them in terms of sheer concentration of caloric value per unit of land.

The key to the nexus between grains and states lies, I believe, in the fact that only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and “rationable.” Other crops—legumes, tubers, and starch plants—have some of these desirable state-adapted qualities, but none has all of these advantages. To appreciate the unique advantages of the cereal grains, it helps to place yourself in the sandals of an ancient tax-collection official interested, above all, in the ease and efficiency of appropriation.

The fact that cereal grains grow above ground and ripen at roughly the same time makes the job of any would-be taxman that much easier. If the army or the tax officials arrive at the right time, they can cut, thresh, and confiscate the entire harvest in one operation. For a hostile army, cereal grains make a scorched-earth policy that much simpler; they can burn the harvest-ready grain fields and reduce the cultivators to flight or starvation. Better yet, a tax collector or enemy can simply wait until the crop has been threshed and stored and confiscate the entire contents of the granary.

Compare this situation with, say, that of farmers whose staple crops are tubers such as potatoes or cassava/manioc. Such crops ripen in a year but may be safely left in the ground for an additional year or two. They can be dug up as needed and the remainder stored where they grew, underground. If an army or tax collectors want your tubers, they will have to dig them up tuber by tuber, as the farmer does, and then they will have a cartload of potatoes which is far less valuable (either calorically or at the market) than a cartload of wheat, and is also more likely to spoil quickly. Frederick the Great of Prussia, when he ordered his subjects to plant potatoes, understood that, as planters of tubers, they could not be so easily dispersed by invading armies.

The “aboveground” simultaneous ripening of cereal grains has the inestimable advantage of being legible and assessable by the state tax collectors. These characteristics are what make wheat, barley, rice, millet, and maize the premier political crops. A tax assessor typically classifies fields in terms of soil quality and, knowing the average yield of a particular grain from such soil, is able to estimate a tax. If a year-to-year adjustment is required, fields can be surveyed and crop cuttings taken from a representative patch just before harvest to arrive at an estimated yield for that particular crop year. As we shall see, state officials tried to raise crop yields and taxes in kind by mandating techniques of cultivation; in Mesopotamia this included insisting on repeated ploughing to break up the large clods of earth and repeated harrowing for better rooting and nutrient delivery. The point is that with cereal grains and soil preparation, the planting, the condition of the crop, and the ultimate yield were more visible and assessable.

Scott Alexander comments further: “In this model, the gradual drying-out of Sumeria in the 4th millennium BC caused a shift away from wetland foraging and toward grain farming. The advent of grain farming made oppression possible, and a new class of oppression-entrepreneurs arose to turn this possibility into a reality. They incentivized farmers to intensify grain production further at the expense of other foods, and this turned into a vicious cycle of stronger states = more grain = stronger states.”

The Origins of Inequality

New Humanist magazine asks, “Are we city dwellers or hunter-gatherers? New research suggests that the familiar story of early human society is wrong – and the consequences are profound.” The authors take issue with the familiar story about how the members of hunter-gatherer bands enjoyed a certain social and political equality, but the invention of agriculture, and especially the rise of cities, represented a fall from Edenic grace. Essentially, the existence of surpluses allowed some people to exploit them, and set themselves up as kings (this is the kleptocratic theory of the origins of the state). 

But archaeological evidence throughout Europe keeps turning up graves of Paleolithic people who were clearly richer than everyone else, including one from 15000 BC showing “stunning signs of honor: bracelets of polished mammoth-ivory, a diadem or cap of fox’s teeth, and nearly 3,000 laboriously carved and polished ivory beads.” So it looks like hunter-gatherers had hierarchies too. Yet we do not find “fortifications, storehouses, palaces – all the usual trappings of emergent states.” The authors note that:

A wider look at the archaeological evidence suggests a key to resolving the dilemma. It lies in the seasonal rhythms of prehistoric social life. Most of the Palaeolithic sites discussed so far are associated with evidence for annual or biennial periods of aggregation, linked to the migrations of game herds – whether woolly mammoth, steppe bison, reindeer or (in the case of Göbekli Tepe) gazelle – as well as cyclical fish-runs and nut harvests. At less favourable times of year, at least some of our Ice Age ancestors no doubt really did live and forage in tiny bands. But there is overwhelming evidence to show that at others they congregated en masse within the kind of “micro-cities” found at Dolní Věstonice, in the Moravian basin south of Brno, Czech Republic, feasting on a superabundance of wild resources, engaging in complex rituals and ambitious artistic enterprises, and trading minerals, marine shells and animal pelts over striking distances.

The authors note that Plains Indians and arctic Inuit also practiced this sort of seasonal state construction, and that:

archaeological evidence suggests that in the highly seasonal environments of the last Ice Age, our remote ancestors were behaving in broadly similar ways: shifting back and forth between alternative social arrangements, permitting the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of year, on the proviso that they could not last; on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable….

Rather than idling in some primordial innocence, until the genie of inequality was somehow uncorked, our prehistoric ancestors seem to have successfully opened and shut the bottle on a regular basis, confining inequality to ritual costume dramas, constructing gods and kingdoms as they did their monuments, then cheerfully disassembling them once again.

Thus might Stonehenge* or Newgrange have gotten constructed without a permanent kingship, priesthood, and bureaucracy to commandeer all the surplus food and direct all the surplus labor. This issue came up this year in class. I mentioned the ziggurat of Ur and the Giza pyramids as evidence of the power of the state. I then showed Stonehenge and suggested that it too must point to the existence of powerful kingship. One student asked, “How do you know they didn’t just get together and build it because they wanted to?” – and I had to admit that she had a point! If some king directed its building, surely we would have the remains of a neolithic palace somewhere. So I had to modify my position – not all monumental architecture points to kingship. I would say that it does indicate economic surplus and (probably) religious motivation. And I’m sure that someone had to be in charge of the actual construction.

* From the article (emphasis added):

Careful excavation has shown that many of these structures – now plausibly interpreted as monuments to the progenitors of powerful Neolithic dynasties – were dismantled just a few generations after their construction. Still more strikingly, this practice of erecting and dismantling grand monuments coincides with a period when the peoples of Britain, having adopted the Neolithic farming economy from continental Europe, appear to have turned their backs on at least one crucial aspect of it, abandoning cereal farming and reverting – around 3300 BC – to the collection of hazelnuts as a staple food source. Keeping their herds of cattle, on which they feasted seasonally at nearby Durrington Walls, the builders of Stonehenge seem likely to have been neither foragers nor farmers, but something in between. And if anything like a royal court did hold sway in the festive season, when they gathered in great numbers, then it could only have dissolved away for most of the year, when the same people scattered back out across the island.