Read: October 2023

Inspiration: Interested to learn more about early civilization and state formation; recommended by a friend


Written with the help of ChatGPT, below is a brief summary to understand what is covered in the book.

“Against the Grain”, published in 2017 by professor and author James Scott, is a compelling exploration of early human societies and the dynamics of state formation. Scott challenges conventional narratives that portray the advent of settled agriculture and state structures as natural progress, arguing instead that these developments often led to social hierarchies and oppression. The book examines the lives of prehistoric communities and their strategies for resistance against early states. Scott introduces the concept of the “Zomia” region, a vast area of upland Southeast Asia where diverse groups historically evaded state control. He emphasizes the agency of so-called “barbarian” societies that resisted assimilation into state structures, offering a provocative perspective on the complexities of human history and the unintended consequences of societal changes. “Against the Grain” is a thought-provoking work that challenges traditional views of progress and raises questions about the trade-offs between stability and freedom in human societies.

Unedited Notes

Direct from my original book log, below are my unedited notes (abbreviations and misspellings included) to show how I take notes as I read.

Important to understand non-linear nature of societal development—particularly in that city/state was not always better/preferred life to outside “barbarians” and hunter gatherers, cities brought own issues, failed to appeal for centuries, “sedentism”=fixed residence, sedentism assumed to be tied to crop field agriculture and crops enabled state formation as people could settle, but not true in early Mesopotamia—sedentism existed despite no agriculture, history is told in a very state centric way that ignores how variable/on the periphery states really were for so long, due to states today tell self promoting history, also archaeology lends towards states over dispersed/hunter gatherer community by way of decomposition (stone/cement is discovered b/c lasting vs bamboo and wood disappear so completely overlooked and distorts true picture of state dominance vs weakness over time, states were variable historically—never superior, flux due to disease and instability, modern “state” not come to form until 2000 BCE—millenia before where humans operated alternatively, states sustained via coercion (perhaps why unfree labor was so central to state development), early Meso was a wetland not arid, Ubaid Period (6500-3800 BCE, named for pottery style) characterized by diverse web of subsistence (added to challenge of single authority), Qin dynasty lasted only 15 years, fragile, states traded with “barbarians”—i.e. those outside state control—to get necessary food and materials, as well as prevent raiding, was better to be barbarian as avoid tax/control but trade and healthy, fire shaped society via landscape architecture as well as via digestive impact—humans took advtange of fire most in this respect (3x smaller guts vs chimps, larger brains), fire opened the dietary door, Meso was not an arid land civilized via irrigation, it was a wetland society with diverse ecology, there was no single moment where agriculture and sedentism began and marked a shift to civilization, always was flux and coexistence with hunter/forager, traditional theory posits agriculture began as populations grew and proteins less abudant so became necessity—but lacks evidence given areas of first argiculture were those of abundance, “domus”=household, fully domesticated=of our creation and cannot survive without our attentions, domestication shows physical and behavioral changes, sheep brain reduced 24% in size, pigs brain reduced 1/3 vs wild ancestors, limbic system shrinkage noted across all domesticates which results in higher threshold to trigger fight or flight/reactions to external stimuli, disease leaves no archaeological marking, density-dependent diseases likely culprit of Neolithic rise and fall, ecological shifts bring diseases that stunt growth of any sort of early state, agriculture cereal diets lack necessary nurtients to fend off disease vs preagriculture diets (confirmed via skeleton analyses of bones), protein poor and lack diversity in diets, Uruk 3200 BCE thought to be first state—largely a result of archaelogical evidence, state making required rich alluvium soil, calm water/ease of water transport nearby or at a minimum irrigation for nearby water—necessary for concentration of population, grain also essential quality—population concentration does not make a state, wetlands had urbanism and commerce but no state, cereal grains vs other crops like lentil/chickpea/yam/taro, cereal grains provide basis for taxation whereas others do not—divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, non-grain people not conducive to statehood but adjacent and key trading partner, Great Wall of China (and other walls) symbolize the state of fixed field agriculture—walls keep Chinese tax paying cultivators in as much as barbarians out, walls preserve the state, earliest states in 3300 BCE arise alongside writing—writing is essential for state preservation and operations, lists from Uruk date 3300 BCE as earliest writing (lists of grain, manpower, taxes), writing in China appear 1000 years after Mesopotamia/along Yellow River, earliest wars 3500 BCE mesopotamia were about population not territory—people beget taxes and enhance state power, force into labor, slave labor has a history—in ancient Athens 2/3 population was slave, wars were about quality of captives not killing—want labor, taxes, “booty capitalism” is Max Weber term of military campaign with aim of profit, despite scant evidence of slave labor is early Mesopot and Egypt—likely certain to have been critical element to state power, 5000 years before first states of Mesopotamia in 3000 BCE where sporadic sedentism existed and collapsed for various reasons, fragility was the one constant, collapse really means dispersion and decentralization, sedentism always was vulnerable to disease, climate, war, often collapse is more a once unified area splitting into smaller units—often more stable, states required unique ecological circumstances (alluvial or loess soils), even 1800 to 700 BCE states shrink as % of land, one failed harvest would collapse an early state (lack of subsistence balance, single crop reliance), “Uruk World System” of 3500-3200 BCE was first noted instance of global integrated trade from the Caucasus in north to Persian Gulf in south and from Iranian Plateau to east Mediterr., also brought disease that caused havoc, often times “collapse” is simple redistribution of population, people moved away from grain core, people view what we refer to as state collapse as emancipation from all the aforementioned ills of concentration of population, “dark age” is blanket terms post-state collapse but not true—no lives lost often, just move to periphery, and lack artifacts so viewed as dark age but not so, “barbarians” begin where taxes end (i.e. nonstate=barbarians), but through 1600 BCE “barbarians” were overwhelming majority of the world (simply a term created by the state), typical narrative tells that once go “civilized” never leave, however was quite common to have exodus of people from state to “barbarian”—often lived longer, better diets, no taxes, left for economic and political reasons (hence need for walls), Amorites, Huns, Mongols, Goths—all state-given names of barbarian groups that were heterogenous but often was attractive life, states create great site for raiders as consolidate goods, barbarians/raiders were essential part of trade and economic system/prosperity of state for peace and resources

Leave a Comment


Subscribe to my Newsletter for new reads & other updates!

About Me

Welcome to JeffReads, where I share summaries of the best books I’ve read on business, politics, science, technology and more.




Subscribe to my Newsletter for new reads & other updates!

Copyright 2023 JeffReads | All Rights Reserved