The birth of city-states (and government itself) didn’t happen like we thought.

New Scientist reviews research that shows the first governments weren’t born as a consequence of agriculture. Instead, they might have had more to do with hunger, fear, and the threat of violence:

Traditional definitions of the state and its authority hinged on the right to raise taxes, and on its legal monopoly on coercing its people, from punishing and imprisoning them to waging formal war.

But as James Scott points out, roughly between 8000 BC and 4000 BC we find settled agricultural communities with developing craft skills – yet no evidence of anything much by way of state authority.

This also poses a key question, one which resonates in the 21st century, about whether there is a necessary link between state power and community life.

Scott is a political science researcher at Yale University who has stepped out of his academic comfort zone to grapple with the new archaeological reality. Against the Grain delivers not only a darker story, but also a broad understanding of the forces that shaped the formation of states and why they collapsed – right up to the industrial age.

Interestingly, his conclusions find grim contemporary echoes in a new book about the San Bushmen of the Kalahari by anthropologist James Suzman, who spent 25 years with them. In Affluence without Abundance, Suzman, an African studies fellow at the University of Cambridge, documents what happened when pastoralists, encouraged by governments, enclosed the San’s lands and took away their hunter-gatherer way of life.

The San’s recent past is like a speeded-up version of Scott’s tale.

Scott describes the creation, from around 4000 BC, of what he calls “late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camps”. Faced with a shortage of wild resources, these made use of domesticated animals and plants. Life in these settlements was much tougher than foraging, and the daily drudgery, chronic illness and epidemics brought on by increased reliance on domesticated species are apparent in skeletal remains and sudden collapses in population.

As the Danish agricultural economist Ester Boserup and some anthropologists have noted, there is little reason to imagine foragers would have adopted this way of life unless they were hungry, afraid or coerced.

A combination of factors seems to have caused people to cluster in those Mesopotamian plains, including rising populations in areas where wild food was more abundant, a cold spell in the climate, and possibly a rise in sea level. The populations in Scott’s camps developed even better craft skills and social cohesion.

Early state development around the world has another defining feature, a staple diet of cereals. By contrast, agricultures based on tubers or pulses have no fixed harvest period and create no stockpiles. As Scott remarks, there are no early states founded on manioc, yam or sweet potato.

But the annual grain harvest creates two problems: storage, which requires protection; and vulnerability to thieving supervisors or outside raiders. It also ties producers to their store in time and space – no wandering off with a bow and arrow.

It seems likely, says Scott, that at first there was a voluntary approach to collective labour in fields, and to grain being pooled for safekeeping and even redistribution to the needy. But this created all the technical and organisational know-how for an increasingly coercive state. Constrained to a relatively small area, people were dependent on central grain stores, and grew used to supervision of both food distribution and their labour – things that feature almost obsessively in early writing.

By 3000 BC, we have the first definitive evidence of city states, with kings, bureaucracies, compulsory labour, taxation and punishment for non-compliance.

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