Early states in the history of humankind: Agroecology, writing, grain and city walls

Scott J. Early states in the history of humankind: Agroecology, writing, grain and city walls // The Russian Peasant Studies. 2017. V.2. №2. P. 6-32.

DOI: 10.22394/2500-1809-2017-2-2-6-32


The article is devoted to what might be called the “grain hypothesis”. Why are the grassy grain crops—typically barley, rye, wheat, rice, maze, and millets—so closely associated with the earliest states? The author’s guess is that only such grains are best suited to concentrated production, tax assessment, appropriation, cadastral surveys, storage, and rationing. On suitable soil, wheat provides the agro-ecology for dense concentrations of human subjects. If we were evaluating crops from the perspective of the pre-modern tax man, the major grains (above all, irrigated rice) would be among the most preferred, and roots and tubers among the least preferred. It follows that state formation becomes possible only when there are few alternatives to a diet dominated by domesticated grains. So long as subsistence is spread across several food-webs, as it is for hunter-gatherers, swidden cultivators, marine foragers, etc., a state is unlikely to arise, inasmuch as there is no readily assessable and accessible staple to serve as a basis for appropriation. Contrary to some earlier assumptions, the state did not invent irrigation as a way of concentrating population, let alone crop domestication; both were the achievements of pre-state peoples. What the state has often done, once established, however, is to maintain, amplify and expand the agro-ecological setting that is the basis of its power by what we might call state-landscaping. This has included repairing silted channels, digging new feeder canals, settling war captives on arable land, penalizing subjects who are not cultivating, clearing new fields, forbidding nontaxable subsistence activities such as swiddening and foraging, and trying to prevent the flight of its subjects. The early state strives to create a legible, measured, and fairly uniform landscape of taxable grain crops and to hold on this land a large population available for corvée labor, conscription, and, of course, grain production. For dozens of reasons, ecological and political, the state often fails to achieve this aim, but this is, as it were, the steady glint in its eye.


grain hypothesis, early state, agro-ecology, state building, concentration of population, sedentism, pre-state people, uniform landscape, ecological and political reasons

About the author

Scott James C., Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale University and Co-Director of Yale Program in Agrarian Studies; Yale University, Box 208209, New Haven, CT 06520–8206.
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 


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