Friday, 12 January 2018

Rethinking the Deep Past

NB. Holiday post, off topic and longer than usual. Follows and mirrors last years holiday post on Researching the Far Future.

There is a conventional, widely held and well-understood story about the progress of humanity from pre-history to the present. After starting as a hunter-gatherer society after the end of the last ice age around 15,000 BCE (in Before the Current Era notation), the beginning of farming from 10,000 BCE led to the first villages of the Neolithic period. By 7,000 BCE the early agricultural societies in Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica and China had emerged, followed a few thousand years later by the first Bronze Age city states, which in turn led to civilization as we understand it today, as a form of social organization with advanced technological capabilities.

In the conventional narrative, farming saved humanity from a primitive hunter gatherer existence, allowing us to settle down and build villages, which over time became the city states that were the centres of these early civilisations. City populations grew as people took advantage of the security from raiders and the cultural and economic opportunities living inside the city walls created. By 3000 BCE Mesopotamian cities like Ur, Nippur and Lagash had populations as large as 50,000 people, enclosed by enormous city walls, behind which society was organised with a king/emperor at the top and classes of priests, administrators, warriors, merchants and peasants or slaves. Most of the thousands of clay tablets, the earliest evidence of writing, found in the stone ruins of these cities are tax records of grain harvests, and thousands of small bowls used to dole out rations have also been found.

The historical record also shows the periodic collapse of these city states, usually attributed to disease, barbarian invasions or insurgency, plunging ancient civilisations in Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica into periods called ‘Dark Ages’ during which the cities with their cultures and civilizations slowly get rebuilt. Thus, under the story told by the conventional narrative, civilizations rose and fell in a cyclical pattern with the growth and decline of these city-states. There is, however, a lot more to the story than this, and these cycles of history are not really an explanation of the frequency and severity of collapses of ancient civilizations.


In an unintended coincidence I started and finished 2017 with two books about ancient history. The first was Eric Cline’s 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed (2014), which looks at the sudden end, after centuries of stability, of the civilized world of the Bronze Age. The sophisticated economies and cultures of the late second millennium BCE stretched from Greece to Egypt and Mesopotamia, with the eight major kingdoms of Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites, Cypriots, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Assyrians and Babylonians linked by extensive diplomacy, commerce, trade and intermarriage. This interdependent world and its writing systems, technology, and monumental architecture suddenly ceased to exist as all the kingdoms collapsed over the course of a few decades. Over fifty years at the beginning of the twelfth century BCE almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again. Then followed a few centuries of a ‘Dark Age’ after the collapse of these Bronze Age civilizations, before Iron Age societies emerged, first in Greece and later Rome

The commonly accepted reason for the collapse was invasion and sacking of these cities by the Sea Peoples, marauders from the Western Mediterranean, but Cline presents evidence to support a argument of multiple interconnected failures, as more than one natural and man-made cataclysm caused the disintegration and fall of these ‘empires and globalized peoples’. Because they were so strongly linked together and interdependent, the collapse of one of the kingdoms led to the decline and collapse of the others. He concludes the primary cause of the collapse was climate change, which led to social breakdown and internal rebellions by an underclass of peasant populations facing severe food shortages, as well as invasions by migrating peoples fleeing the effects of climate change in their homelands. There was also a series of earthquakes from around 1225 to 1175 BCE. These, together with the famines and droughts and the cutting off of international trade routes, undermined the societies of the time and led to a widespread general collapse of civilizations around the eastern Mediterranean.


It was the striking parallels with our present situation that led me to Cline’s book. Climate change induced war in the Middle East explains Syria today, where the civil war started in 2012 after the worst drought in hundreds of years of records (according to NASA the worst drought in 900 years), and we have mass migration from the Middle East and the Sahel as a consequence of famine and drought. The only historical example of the collapse of a political system of great powers that are economically interdependent as a consequence of rapid climate change seems particularly relevant to the present. What was striking about the collapse was how fast it happened once the tipping point was reached.

One has to take care when extrapolating from the past to the present or the future. However, this history does bring one of the most important and salient issues currently facing us into focus, climate change and migration. In the world today there are no unpopulated inhabitable regions left, and those areas of low population density where migrants escaping state collapse might settle and rebuild are owned and controlled by other states that are not prepared to cede sovereignty. This makes forced migration a political issue, and today most people who leave their country of origin without a legal destination (with a visa or permit) due to conflict, war or persecution are cared for by the United Nations. According to the UNHCR in June 2017 there were 65.6 million forcibly displaced people, a record number, of whom 22.5 million were refugees.

The potential for climate change to cause large-scale and widespread displacement and migration has been recognised for many years, although the more alarmist numbers lack credibility. The Paris Agreement established a task force to develop recommendations on displacement, and an earlier draft included the creation of a coordination facility with more powers, which was removed in the last days of the summit. Regardless of how seriously one takes the risk of climate change, the precautionary principle suggests that the links between climate change, displacement and migration need to be better understood and international and national policy responses better coordinated. There are straightforward responses to climate change that would allow people to adapt and stay in place, like irrigation or changing crops and repairing damaged infrastructure after storms and floods, but rapid change would bring many challenges and potentially many victims.


The evidence that cities are more productive, more inventive, and have higher incomes and better outcomes for their inhabitants is overwhelming, and larger cities have more of these than smaller ones. This leads to the view that cities are the greatest invention of humanity, because they are the necessary enabler of the stability, technology and culture that progress depends on. At a time of rapid urbanization, when the majority of the world’s population for the first time live in cities, a narrative that emphasises the beneficial role of cities and urbanization has great appeal. Therefore a book that challenges this view is highly unusual and very distinctive.

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017) by James Scott challenges this conventional view, and rethinks the origins of civilization and the development of society in Mesopotamia, which is the geographical focus of the book. He takes a new look at the implications of the historical change from hunting and gathering to farming and the cultivation of crops and livestock. Scott is a political scientist who challenges orthodoxy and the narrative of progress, arguing the foundation of early states was not consent but violence, their rise led to a decline in living standards and less healthy populations, and they all eventually collapsed.

Scott argues that the conventional view of the history of humanity is fundamentally wrong in certain key respects, and bases his argument on a wide range of recent research. He does not claim that the discovery of fire and later the change from hunting and gathering to farming, and eventually industrialization and the development of modern society, are not transformational, because obviously they are, but he does claim that there were unintended and misunderstood consequences when we changed from a hunting and gathering lifestyle to farming. This is not a weak argument, there are many facts from many places around the world that support his view that this progress did not come without costs, and his book collects evidence not just from history and archaeology but also from fields as diverse as epidemiology, biology, demography, geography and climate science to support his view.

Neolithic villages were often abandoned, it is thought because of endemic disease caused by their unsanitary conditions. Their people were less healthy than hunter-gathers because their diet was more restricted and the work harder and more repetitive. However, sedentary farming allowed much higher fertility rates than hunter gathering, and over time higher fertility allowed populations to increase. Eventually economic and demographic conditions were right for the emergence of city states and the seizing of power by their leaders. Scott believes this happened around 3,500 BCE, in the flat wetlands of the Fertile Crescent, and it was due to the link between food production and the development of state power.

Ancient city states were agricultural and dependent on cereals for food, like wheat and barley in Mesopotamia, millet in China, and maize in Mesoamerica. Cereals are easy to tax, they ripen at predictable times, the size of the harvest can be accurately assessed and the grain can be easily transported, stored and distributed in measured rations by weight and volume. Thus the early city states had tax collectors responsible for managing the harvest, its storage and distribution. It is much more difficult to tax merchants and trade, or crops that ripen slowly or can remain in the ground, like tubers. Significantly, the earliest (preserved) writing on clay tablets is for recording harvests and allotments. Scott argues that the state controlled food supply through taxation and producers became subjects, with the agricultural surplus used to feed the non-productive elites who emerged in this system, the priests and administrators, as well as the workers who did the harvesting and built the walls that surrounded their cities

Research by Tim Kohler and his colleagues on prehistoric inequality supports Scott in this. They studied 63 archaeological sites and estimated the levels of wealth inequality in the societies whose remains were dug up, by using the distributions of house sizes. The researchers suggested agriculture was to blame, because a nomadic lifestyle is cooperative and not conducive to wealth accumulation. After humans switched to farming people began to acquire material riches and inequality rose steadily with the shift to settled agriculture. In the Americas inequality levelled out after about 2,500 years, but inequality continued climbing for several millennia In Eurasia, which was richer in large mammals that could be domesticated. Horses and oxen greatly improved farm productivity, but livestock were mainly owned by the rich. 

Timothy A. Kohler, Michael E. Smith, Amy Bogaard, Gary M. Feinman et al., 2017. Greater post-Neolithic wealth disparities in Eurasia than in North America and Mesoamerica. Nature 551:619-623.

Inequality was the outcome of slavery, because these were slave societies, which was the norm for agricultural economies for most of human history. Reversing conventional wisdom, Scott believes that the walls built around city states may have been to keep people in, so they could be controlled and compelled to work, rather than to keep others out. Wars were fought with smaller, weaker states to capture their people and add to the working population, and replace the many workers constantly lost through escape and mortality. With static technology, “The total population of a grain state, assuming it controlled sufficient fertile land, was a reliable, if not infallible, indicator of its relative wealth and military prowess.” Slavery maximized production and the agricultural surplus and “It would be almost impossible to exaggerate the centrality, in one form or another, of bondage in the development of the state”.

He argues the story of the development of city states is also a story about development of political elites in very specific locations, where fertile soil and river transport allowed concentration of people who could be forced to produce a grain surplus. The elite seize power when the opportunity arises from settled populations growing easily managed and taxed crops. They then control the labour and fertility of those populations to increase the yield of the crops their society depends on. His is a bleak picture, with these cities filled with slave or unpaid labour forced to toil in fields and workshops under constant supervision and the threat of punishment. On the other hand, many slaves ran away and had to be replaced, as they escaped to join the barbarian tribes who lived beyond the limited reach of the cities’ power. Also, over time slaves became citizens, as generations of surviving slaves became assimilated and often acquired new captives as slaves for themselves.

These ancient city states were fragile, and regularly went through collapses, and often a series of collapses. The Old Kingdom of Egypt collapsed around 2100 BCE and the Middle Kingdom around 1650 BCE, the Minoan palaces around 1450 BCE, and there was the twelfth century BCE when the Bronze Age came to an end due to climate change and other catastrophes, as argued by Cline. Whatever the reason, these early states did not survive permanently, with episodes of collapse punctuating their historical records. Three common reasons for collapse Scott gives are:
1.     The unhealthy environment, lack of sewerage and the consequent diseases. With urbanization came new infectious diseases such as cholera, smallpox and measles, and epidemics spread by transmission through trade and warfare as people moved from place to place.
2.     Deforestation caused by cutting down forests and excessive grazing by goats led to flooding and erosion, and with irrigation came salinity and declining yields.This also led to the drying out of the Middle East and climate change.
3.     Warfare between states and internal conflicts, with battles for succession, slave rebellions, civil wars and insurrections.

Scott sees collapse not as a disaster but as an opportunity, and this is where he rethinks the story of the origins of the state and the roots of civilization in the ruins of these cities. The oppressive state system is dismantled and the population disperses, redistributing itself across a wider territory. In the case of epidemics, flight and dispersion were the only options for the populace of an infected city. This dispersed population did not leave any records mainly because they were ungoverned, outside any city-state or grain empire and therefore not counted. They did not need the monumental architecture and clay tablets found in the ruins of the ancient cities, they were nomadic or semi-nomadic and their buildings were not made of stone. Because there are no records from these periods when people live outside city-states they are called dark ages, i.e. without information. “There may well be, then, a great deal to be said on behalf of classical dark ages in terms of human well-being. Much of the dispersion that characterises them is likely to be a flight from taxes, war, epidemics, crop failures, and conscription.”

Against the Grain is not just a rethinking of ancient history, it is also a re-evaluation of the state’s role in political thought. History has privileged states because they leave a record for archaeologists of ‘invariably state-centric texts: taxes, work units, tribute lists, royal genealogies, founding myths, laws’, while much of the world’s population, the ‘barbarians’, lived outside their borders, where they left little in the archaeological record of their activities, villages, culture and worldviews. Our understanding of early statecraft is about the management of large cities with a slave-based economy in fertile basins growing grain. In fact, during the first few thousand years of recorded history the majority of people have lived outside the borders of states. Scott’s view is that this barbarian age ended as recently as 400 years ago, when the power of the state finally became overwhelming, in part due to the invention of gunpowder.

Barbarian was the term used to describe people living outside the control of city states, despite the fact that they were varied and little more than loose assemblies of tribes. In Scott’s view barbarians and city states were dependent on each other, they rose and fell together, and he uses as examples the Huns and the Romans and the Sea People and Egyptians. For him the period of these early city states was a golden age for barbarians, because they could prey on states as a resource for hunting or harvesting, or they could trade with them, or become mercenary warriors, and sometimes invaded and conquered to become the new ruling class.

Importantly, for the great part of recorded history the majority of people lived on the frontier, in the barbarian world, a far less regimented world than in the cities and developing nation states. Away from fertile river basins like Mesopotamia and Egypt, or China and India, were many other cultures and civilizations, many of which also existed for hundreds of years. Until quite recently there has always been a frontier where people could go to escape civilization, but the spread of nation states across the world means that frontier no longer exists.


It seems to me the lessons from the deep past on this are twofold. Firstly, state collapse in the past was often rapid, whether due to disease, climate change, civil war or natural disasters. The ancient agricultural empires based on fortified cities ended in periods where trade, technology and writing were lost, called dark ages because little archaeological information survives from those periods, and few survived more than a century or two. There appears to have been a tipping point at the end of the Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean when the effects of invasion, climate change and natural disasters on food supply caused the sudden collapse of a complex, interconnected civilization of eight kingdoms. That example, of a world with a number of deeply linked great powers, is particularly relevant I think, because the collapse of one weakens the others. This point is easily lost in a time of populist politics and economic transition.

In the past, when epidemics, climate change or state collapse displaced people, there was always the alternative of the frontier. People could leave the cities and become fishermen, foragers or hunters, pastoralists and herders, or start slash and burn farming (or more likely a combination of these). Today, however, there is no longer a frontier where people can go if their city or society collapses. In our world of nation-states and the associated doctrine of territorial integrity, a frontier beyond the reach of the power of the state no longer exists. (Space may be the new frontier, or possibly seasteading, but these are not viable options for large numbers of people).

Second, insurrection and revolution was often a cause collapse of state control in the deep past, and increased inequality made ancient societies and states less resilient, with insurrection and revolution more likely. In the Pueblo civilization in Mesoamerica there were several revolutions that followed droughts and food shortages between 500 and 1400 CE, just as droughts contributed to collapse in twelfth century Mesopotamia BCE and twenty-first century Syria today. State power and control of the population did not survive climate change in the ancient world. Applying history to present issues, or to the unfolding of the future, is always problematic. However, this history does provides a perspective on the fragility of civilization.

The political argument underlying Against the Grain is that the origins of the state have been misunderstood, because ancient city-states were ruled with coercion, not consent. Given these were slave societies that is not surprising, and Scott does not really challenge the contractual view of politics that emerged as private property, markets and parliaments became more common after the 16th century with examples from ancient history. Also, there are two other significant factors the modern world has that the ancient world lacked.

The modern nation state has a far more extensive and effective range of powers and resources, both coercive and civil, than city-states ever had. Collapse is much less probable, and some causes like disease and natural disaster no longer apply because the state is expected to deal with them. What would most threaten collapse today is severe disruption to food supply. On the other hand, without a frontier to disappear into, malcontents, misfits and others likely to oppose the state have nowhere to go, and in many places the state is becoming more authoritarian and coercive over time.

The other key point of difference between now and the deep past is the level of technology. On one level this is obvious, but technology can addresses fragility in many ways. For example, high-tech foods such as home grown meat and local food production are in the early stages of development. Local food is taking off in many major cities, like the Square Roots container farms in New York. If the most likely cause of a contemporary collapse is food shortages then technology is an answer. A similar argument can be made for technologies like carbon capture (e.g. Climeworks) and geoengineering.

The idea that the role of ‘barbarians’ living outside city-states on the frontier has been misunderstood and downplayed because these people left little behind that can be studied, like stone monuments and cay tablets, seems right. In Scott’s view this was the great majority of people for most of history, and he portrays the deep past as a mixture of powerful cities with substantial populations of up to 50,000 people, dominated by an elite of priests and administrators, and the egalitarian and cooperative cultures found in less settled cultures. The ancient cities were located in fertile river basins where the rivers provided transport and an agricultural surplus could be produced by a slave or servile population. Only grain crops like wheat and barley in Mesopotamia, millet in China and maize in Mesoamerica allowed this surplus to be controlled by the elite. Beyond these specific locations was the frontier, which was nonetheless strongly connected to the cities by trade, particularly in slaves, and commerce.

Scott's view of history has these two distinct populations of people. One lives in a heirarchical, highly regulated  urban environment with a restricted diet and repetitive work. The other lives in a more cooperative and egalitarian culture, learns many diverse skills to build, hunt and cook, has a varied diet and significant free time. Some things never change.