For centuries, the conventional wisdom has been that after 150 000 years as hunter-gatherers, mankind discovered both agriculture in the form of cultivated grasses (wheat, rice, corn and barley, for
example) and the domestication of animals, not least the cow and the pig. Cereals, still today the staple of human diet, allowed for population growth, the birth of cities, the development of states and the rise of complex societies.
discoveries 12 000 years ago, called the Neolithic Revolution, were the beginning of civilization and they happened in at least four different parts of the world, all river valleys, virtually simultaneously. Thus were we saved from a grim, nasty, disease-ridden,
Drawing on contemporary archaeological research, James C. Scott challenges this interpretation in “Against the Grain : A Deep History of Earliest States.” Focusing on Mesopotamia, he disputes
that agriculture and permanent settlement happened concurrently; rather there was a 4 000 year gap separating the domestication of grains and animals from the agrarian economies based on them. Our ancestors, he argues, evidently took a long hard look
at the possibilities of agriculture before adopting it wholesale, and they could do that because of the abundance of fish, animals and migratory birds traveling along the river routes. With such a diverse web of food sources, why rely on just one source
that was liable to fail?
Indeed the archaeological record shows that for two thousand years at least, life for agriculturists was much harder than it was for hunter-gatherers. They lived in small bands without social grouping or hierarchy. Their
bones show signs of dietary stress : they were shorter, more sickly, with high mortality levels. Diseases crossed the species as newly domesticated animals lived in close proximity to humans - even today, in some rural areas of Europe, families
sleep with the livestock for winter warmth.
What did lead to the birth of the first states, Scott argues, after some 4 millennia of agricultural experimentation, was cereals, in that they have a long growing season and are thus
easy to tax. Whereas agriculture involved division of labor, including slaves captured by war, tax collection required hierarchies, specialization and writing. For the first 500 years after its invention in Mesopotamia, writing was used entirely
for bookkeeping. Grain was the root of state formation.
Jared Diamond has called the Neolithic Revolution ‘the worst mistake in human history’, citing war, slavery, epidemics, oppression by an elite minority
and the frequent implosion of early states. Early settled communities were, in Scott’s opinion, ‘a disaster for most of the people who lived through it’, and until the C17th AD most of the world’s population was rural, living
beyond the grasp of the state. In other words, we have lived in rural communities for 99.98% of our existence as a human species. Those like Thoreau who seek an exit strategy from modernism, attract a fascination that seems endless.
argument, in a nutshell, is that the life of our early ancestors was not so grim and our modern, civilized life is not so great by comparison. The suggestion that mankind was saved by civilization is further challenged by James Suzman who spent two years
studying two groups of Bushmen (sometimes called Khoisan or San) in the Kalahari Desert. The first group has retained significant control over their traditional lands where they still practice the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that has been theirs for 150 000
years; the second group had been relocated from their traditional lands into more modern ways of living. The first group spends 17 hours a week hunting and gathering food, 19 hours on domestic labor, with a daily caloric intake of 2300 calories. The
comparative figures for the US are 40 hours of work in the office and 36 in the home. This Bushman group does not accumulate surpluses and shares everything equally. Hierarchy, trading for profit and material inequality are not tolerated and Suzman
describes social mores designed to maintain a ferocious egalitarianism.
The second group is, like so many Native American communities, displaced, unhappy, victimized as a work force, and addicted to alcohol in particular. As
in Mesopotamia, it appears that non-state people are better fed and work less without the need to adopt the drudgery of agricultural labor and state organization .
The above is a simplified version of a complex theses (James Scott is 80 years
old and this, after at least seven previous books, is, at 300 pages, his magnum opus.) Reading it I was reminded consistently of a colony of honey bees, not least in terms of the two groups of Bushmen. Bees are gatherers rather than hunters (the latter
is the preserve of wasps and hornets,) and yes, many of them accumulate surpluses because, unlike the Bushmen, they have to survive a food-less winter during which a new generation is born. Interestingly most African bees, eg. A.m.scutellata, do not
store much honey; rather they quickly disperse (as compared to abscond or swarm) and make maximum use of meager resources that are available year round.
Bees within a colony share everything, any materials such as wax comb are built and
used by the community and are essential to the continued life form, and the concept of hierarchy (eg, a ‘queen’) is one that we have imposed on the bees, the supposed monarch being in fact a superb ovipositorwho has neither maternal instincts nor
an inclination to rule.
A honey bees colony is an example of a successful gatherer community, every action of which is designed to ascertain the long term survival of the species in the strongest form possible.
does not support the notion of the noble savage - the life of a peasant farmer was not easy and no one would choose to go back to that lifestyle - nor is it an argument for the abolition of all state control. We could live a more egalitarian life style,
abundant in its own right but without excess and competitive acquisition, and choose instead a culture of inequality and envy, which can lead to frustration, anger, and much too often, violence.
A Mesopotamian hunter-gatherer, a modern day
Bushman or a verbose honey bee, each with their intimate knowledge of the environment and the natural resources available within it, would probably be a more interesting dinner companion than a modern day worker in say the fast food or cyber industries.