Things do change, invariably

7 May 2018

Reviewing “Against the Grain - a deep history of the earliest states” by James C. Scott and “Ultrasociety: How 10000 Years of War Made Humans the greatest cooperators on Earth” by Peter Turchin

What is the nature of a state and where did it come from? Is it primarily a benevolent framework that enables civilization or is it a mechanism of suppression? I guess you will get different answers here. Most Intellectuals are the heirs of the ancient scribes - for them the state is the source of order and personal income and therefore a blessing; however, there are those who do not concur, for Intellectuals are supposed to have their own independent opinion!

“Against the Grain” tries to explain the state by looking at it from the position of the outsider - the nomad. Interactions between nomads and the state are quite complex (the author states that both the elites within a state and nomads are benefiting from the surpluses produced by agriculture - one by expropriation, the other by means of raids), however a look from a different direction is probably quite refreshing to an age long discussion.

When Pinsker and Turchin speak of the early state, they speak of progress: it allowed for a reduced level of extreme inter-personal violence (warfare) for an increasing population and gradually bigger societies mean an evolving ‘superstructure’ and are just better! James Scott sees the opposite - the live of a nomad or farmer under flood-retreat agriculture was much more varied and healthy than that of a laborer in a Mesopotamian city; city walls are primarily designed to keep their own population within the city wall (and to keep the enemy out of the gate); also, you need a great deal of violence to maintain a regime where the majority of the population are slaves.

Peter Turchin says that the multitude of city-states in Mesopotamia led to an arms race between the polities - the more populous cities with the bigger grain surplus were much stronger in this competition, so there was a strong ‘selection pressure’ towards bigger polities with bigger grain storage facilities. This led to more labor-intensive forms of agriculture and industry that given the could only be sustained by slavery, given that both agriculture and industry were of low productivity.

Another guess is that flood-retreat agriculture had a serious problem: the floods brough in silt, and this was also leading to soil salinization (see Salt and Silt in Ancient Mesopotamian Agriculture That would in turn require more labor intensive forms of irrigation, and these would drive more complex forms of centralization around temples (Mesopotamian temples were in charge of the irrigation effort, Kings with permanent palace structures were a later addition). Actually this possibility is no mentioned in ‘Against the Grain’.

Still, the collapse of a state often meant a return to smaller scale agriculture - that invariably would mean the deaths of many people. Also there is this thing called slave mentality - a person in bondage would be accustomed to his conditions; not for this fact only a few big slave uprisings are known throughout history.

The transitions towards labor without bondage happened a few millennia later; when increased productivity went in hand with more complex tools and social norms. A more complex environment requires the presence of a motivated workforce, this motivation is impossible to create with slaves, who are mostly passive. Again, the competition between states would favor those states that got rid of bondage in favor of free labor.

Competition is a force of change: the nature of the change can be different - it can bring about a society with more liberties or it can bring about more bondage; but things invariably do change.

Obligatory Jethro Tull song: heavy horses

“Heavy Horses, move the land under me
Behind the plough gliding - slipping and sliding free
Now you’re down to the few
And there’s no work to do
The tractor’s on its way”

My Questions while reading this text:

  • was the state a generally less violent place than the non-state fringes? The author denies this (in a different talk). Go figure.
  • what was the real level of violence in early states? (it can be that it was much more violent - as it had to take measures to keep its population in - just like communist countries did)
  • nomads were working less than peasants in the service of the state? Makes sense - the peasant has to maintain the whole edifice of the state by means of his surpluses; However, he does not get protection from law/law enforcement; needs to stand his own ground and be like a criminal - maintain his own law and order. So again the claim that level of violence is not too different does not hold up.
  • maybe the advances of the state also led to a less violent nomad society: More diverse and reliable income sources would mean that there are less reasons for fighting over resources - that means more loot (from looting) was make a more relaxed lifestyle. (Also nomads in a resource rich delta would have less to fight over than people in a savanna; so the level of violence might be in directly inverse to the risks of sustenance/availability of resources)
  • maybe its a general law: improvements of productivity lead to a more humane society by creating less reasons for fighting over resources (examples: abolition of slavery)l (Now the great crisis of 1928 that lead to WWII was a financial crisis, political crisis or crisis of overproduction ? Go figure. For every rule there is a counterexample).
  • are the criminal classes the new nomads? (they are not part of established hierarchies, form structures that are parallel to the state, also can have similar ‘protection’ roles as nomads did). However they are much more violent than a state. (is it possible to say that early nomads were also much more violent than nomads that live next to a modern state?)
  • how could a decentralized polity deal with the ‘tragedy of the commons’ ? (depletion due to overcrowding)
  • If the Sumerian state came only that late, then how to explain the millenium of earlier proto writing systems? (these were first done with the purpose of record keeping - so the state must have emerged a bit earlier)
  • Nomads as the dark twin of the state (vying to appropriate the surplus of the grain core): I think they could compete with a state until the industrial revolution - then the norms of production became so demanding that the nomads couldn’t keep up on equal terms) A tribe just could not stand against a disciplined army any longer (and discipline came from production regimentation) - I think that firearms alone can’t explain this switch.

Notes on “Against the Grain - a deep history of the earliest states by James C. Scott”

  • historical discourse is dominated by state records and narrative of progress; is this really the whole picture? (Progress is read as progression from hunter/gatherer to agriculture/state formation (and as a result of state formation). Is that the case?)

  • Many possible kinds of agriculture - sedentism (staying on the same spot, required for state building) is not required
    • sawing and moving around during harvest time
    • using wild wheat (not domesticated) possible too (what now counts as signs as domestication (larger grains, rachis that is not brittle) has been acquired later; there was no one domestication event: it was scattered over long time periods and different between regions.
  • “Early Near Eastern villages domesticated plants and animals. Uruk urban institutions, in turn, domesticated humans” (in terms of ruling / controlling / breeding)
  • early states were territorially quite small (as compared to area inhabited by tribes); population of tribes was larger than that of the early states (that’s why they were such a potent military threat);
  • state was brittle at first: consolidated (centralized) + effective rule was not the norm (example: Greek dark age); frequent challenges in the form of war and diseases. Also threat of raids (barbarians at the gate): the city state had to either invest in defense or pay tribute (very costly)
  • However relationship of state and barbarians was symbiotic: trade (state got a lot of materials, barbarians got manufactured goodies); Usually the state was shadowed by the rise of a barbarian twin (also they sold their own as slaves and were mercenaries - the barbarians contributed mightily to the decline of their brief golden age.)
  • many aspects of the life in states was undocumented (diseases, extent of slavery/bondage, number of escapes from city towards wilderness)
  • (all very different from the triumphalist vision of progresses inherent in the state form)
  • the state form became dominant only around 1600! (when the nomad could no longer effectively threaten it?)

  • the experience of a forager/nomad is much richer and healthier than that of full time agriculture in an early state (state was built around grain, mobile nomad had richer and more various food sources and life experience) ; (guesses that coercion is the basis, maybe because population was hemmed in by surrounding deserts or other hostile periphery)
  • grain hypothesis: all early states arose around grain because its suited for tax collection (can’t do that with tubers) needs determined harvest (tax collection time); easy storage: only grain has that.
  • the early state needs to get hold of land, get involved in landscaping (canal repair, silting) so that population and area is ready/standardized for uniform grain production. (often fails due to problems)
  • defines state as a social stratification with king at the top, walled cities, tax collectors (UR III) . Says that fixed settlements like Jericho do not fit this description.
  • a large bonded population was needed for canal construction/maintenance & agriculture; lots of coercion to keep them in (the wall of china was built to keep enemies out and tax payers in) examples helots in Sparta, frequent population flight in Babylon… violence was part of the system.
  • some reasons for state collapse extrinsic (drought/climate change) intrinsic
  • diseases due to lifestsyle (crowding/bad nutrition)
  • deforestation and resulting siltation/erosion
  • salinization of soil and resulting lower yields
  • collapse? If a kingdom was a loose confederation then that means temporary dispersal and later possible reunification. If barbarians conquered the lands then they might also adopt the culture of the rulers (see Babylon).

Chapter 1

fire appears 400.000 years ago; now the Human becomes master of the cave! first tool for shaping the landscape (burn it off) Native Americans burn wood areas off so as to attract game that they hunt. Also used as a tool for hunting (drive animals off the cliff) - before bows and arrows! (Even say that the little ice age (1500-1800) was because forests grew as Indians died of the plagues brought in by Europeans so they did not burn down the trees as they used to do). (other tools of landscape molding - selective hunting; moving eggs of birds, rearing young animals etc.). cooking had a big effect: we get concentrated food. can get more food sources (it makes it worth to dig up; brains became bigger as a result of cooking! (need less calories for chewing and needs a gut three times smaller than chimpanzee) In turn we are dependent on fire - so that it ‘domesticated us’


  • before 10.800BC - trend of population growth and settlements
  • 10800-9600BC - cooling (break - period called ‘younger Dryas (estimate of world population - 4 million)’
  • 9600BC - gets warmer, and better (evidence of yearlong settlement)
  • 6000-8000BC domestication of ‘founder’ crops and animals, first ‘urban agglomerations’ (what a word)
    • ‘proto urban settlements’ around 6500BC (Alluvium) - were around wetlands
    • (a cold century in 6200BC)
  • Note that these early settlements predate grain and livestock (!) (contradicts the assumption that grain was a prerequisite for settlement - and also they did not need irrigation projects as drivers - they were in wetlands - like Jericho at the time, and others all other early settlements as well….) during the Ubaid period (6500-3800BC) had a wide source of food (not just serials!) Says that alone hinders the establishment of centralized political control. Also had transportation by boat and trade (!)
  • 5000BC estimate of world population - 5 million
  • 3200BC - Uruk has population between 25000 - 5000)
  • 0BC estimate of world population - 100 million)

  • Still states must drain marshes and irrigate arid areas (areas can’t be governed, based on commons of the wetland, no hierarchy (no differences in burrial))- to grow wheat (that’s taxable)

  • Took 4000 years before we got to an early state - highly stable state of affairs! Agriculture was not the main source of calories. Lots of subsistence strategies and food sources - as the weather and rainfall is very variable.

  • People had shifting production roles and food sources; stigmatization of pastoralia came later - a comparative reading of Gilgamesh: early versions Enkidu is just a pastoralist; 1000 years later he is a subhuman barbarian (does not know to ‘bend the knee’) that has to be domesticated

How did we get started with agriculture?

  • Traditional view: grains can be stored over long time, so they are an ‘insurance policy’ for bad times
  • others say overhunting + population pressure lead to ‘broad spectrum revolution’ : a first wave where agriculture became the dominant food source (took several thousand years) (evidence of nutritional changes in bones) (wide spread anemia - grain based diets did not have iron or omega 3).
  • says the reasons are not clear: more plants after dryas?

  • social evolution says that agriculture is a planned activity with ‘delayed gratification’ (as opposed to hunting). This ignores landscape sculpting and big hunts - these need planning too!
  • ‘flood retreat’ agriculture demands few labor (put seeds in silts put up by flood). Says that’s the earliest form suitable for hunter/gatherers.
  • still by 5000BC we had lots of villages that were farming cultivated wheat (labor intensive) as their main food source. Why?
  • ‘back to the wall hypothesis’ combination of population growth, less wildlife, a bit of coercion did the trick. (like Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden of Eden to toil the land)
  • says evidence contradicts this theory: agriculture came first in areas of abundance. Less labor- intensive Flood-retreat agriculture may have been the start.
  • how were grains domesticated? Natural selection works against desired traits - (favors small grains and grain heads, easy to shatter grains)
  • says early grains were selected for resistance to parasites and stresses, to a lesser extent for yield (!) only later came the fully domesticated strain that is fully dependent on our attention (and more labor intensive).

Domestication of animals.

  • says species that had preadapted where domesticated: needs herd behavior, social hierarchy, muted fright and flight response, can tolerate crowding, wide range of food, etc. (however gazelles, who live in herds can’t be domesticated),
  • new kinds of selective pressure: people cull males and animals past reproductive age (bone remains are judged by age to see if they come from wild or cultivated flocks)
  • domestication took short time - experiments with taming foxes says it takes 20 generations to get 35 tame foxes + physiological changes and lower adrenalin.
  • breeding gets less aggressive + more tolerant of other species; also get less male/female differences, more fertile, decreased brain sizes (for tameness) !
  • brain areas affected - limbic system (responsible for hormone and reactions to threats/other stimuli)
  • mortality of offspring is much higher than with wild species (crowding, feces) but is offset by higher fertility and younger reproductive age.
  • also bones of both man and sheep in cities got smaller with signs of nutritional distress (iron deficiencies)
  • speculates: can it be that emotional live of man declined? (just like the reaction of animals) - Can’t be answered objectively …. (only 240 generations have passed since agriculture started, so its hard to generalize)
  • says man has been domesticated by agriculture (as co-dependents of the plants that we grow - with all their special requirements)
  • hunter gatherers have lots of varied activities - all attuned to the rhythms of nature (animal migration, gathering of wild fruits - all dependent on the time and cycles of the year). Each activity needs its “tool kit” and techniques, each activity needs planning/coordination with other group members, also it needs a lot of detailed knowledge (naturalists have taken note of that!).
  • in contrast agricultural life is attuned to just the clock of the major cereal (less complex by a margin) dominated by public ritual “a time to sow and a time to reap”.

  • period from 10000BC - 5000BC population did not grow, in spite of invention of agriculture. Speculates that his was because of diseases: ‘the most lethal period in human history’ due to infectious diseases (and people were not used to them!). Problem: infectious diseases leave no marks on the bones, so it is hard to prove. Evidence to support this: frequent abandonment of settlements that does not correlate to cooling of weather. (mention of diseases in Gilgagmesh epos, lots of amulets and ceremonies against diseases - it must have been significant). In Mesopotamia they understood contagion and quarantined entire quarters of a city!) and long-distance traders were kept out of the city - as potential carriers of disease! (Akkadian word for disease means certain death) Many disease vectors due to crowding, gathering of feces, mosquitoes (all multiplied by immobility). (American natives crossed the Bering strait in 13000BC - before the plagues did develop due to crowding. That’s why they all died from imported plagues - imported from Europe)

  • parasites/fungi developed as a threat to the grain monocultures. Argues that crop failures were frequent and not understood at the time.
  • crops have to be defended against weeds, snails/rodents/birds (that’s why its so labor intensive); still they developed techniques like crop rotation and scattering of fields (so as to protect against contagion)
  • It’s a small wonder how agriculture became the dominant mode (has the advantage that it can feed greater number, but its so much more fragile…)

  • reproductions: farmers have a higher rate of reproduction (kids can be weaned earlier, it’s better to have more working hands, fertility is higher / women remain fertile for longer); with nomads they can have only few kids due to mobility requirements… this leads to a small percentage wise advantage for agriculture - and that accumulates over time.

  • agriculture already existed when the first states appeared, so it was not a result of state building. Rather says the state took advantage of the ‘grain and manpower module’ as the basis of its power grab.
  • how does he define ‘the state’ ?
    • needs officials that collect taxes and are answerable to ‘the ruler’
    • exercise power in hierarchic societies (with a division of labor)
    • needs an army, temple, palace + king, city with a wall (that’s Babylonia in 2800-3200BC, Uruk was first with the wall business, population tripled over 300 years - must have brought in slaves/prisoners)
    • how comes? 2500-3200BC had declining levels of sea level + Euphrates, increasing aridity + salinization; irrigation became labor intensive (needs canals)
    • says rich producted (flood deposited) alluvial or (wind deposited) loess soil are strictly required to feed the superstructure of a state. Needs lots of imported goods/materials to function (wood, metals) - so it also needs water transport! (Jerusalem is not near a river!)
    • first states were not formed in river delta’s, they were the site of the first cities but not of the first states (Egypt, Mesopotamia, China) - although these areas are abundant in food. (? the alluvial soil area is somewhere else ?)
    • serials (wheat, maize, rice) are the basis of the state because they ripen at the same time (yield can’t be hidden from the tax collector) and are taxable, and easy to store) (Tubers like potatoes doe not have to be gathered at the same time, hard to extract and to transport, hard to assess the yield - its underground)
    • states didn’t like/trusted merchants - they can hide their wealth.
    • serial crop farmer can evade taxes by harvesting not fully ripe grains, and to plant before the official time (the state always does make an effort to standardize planting time / calendars are really important! (easy for rice as it depends on flooding))

Walls make states

  • Mesopotamian cities were walled. In epic of Gilgamesh walls were erected to protect the people. When a city was defeated its walls were destroyed - no more agriculture around the place.
  • but says these walls also had to keep the population from running away! A city wall defines the limits of political control. (One of the hallmarks of early statecraft in agrarian kingdoms was to hold the population in place and prevent any unauthorized movement. Physical mobility and dispersal are the bane of the tax man”)

  • states are record keeping machines (as a means of controlling the populace); peasant revolts always burn down the office where official records are kept.
  • proto-writing systems first appeared as a way of keeping records (instrument of state building); 500 years before writing texts. Symbols in Sumer were the rod and the line (tools of the surveyor).
  • record Uruk IV (3100-3300BC) was all lists of grain, slaves, labor (they had work points - to designate units of works, two liter sized bowels for grain (to measure food rations))
  • says URIII was a heavily centralized economy
  • Similar in China (though first signs of writing were used for divination). Qin: had a land registry that recorded owner, rainfalls, quality of soil (so as to compute expected yield for taxation) (see equal field system )
  • super centralized early states did not last long (Ur III - 100 years, Qin - 50 years)
  • as the state disappeared so did literacy (was limited to officials). Fringes did not accept literacy out of fear of control/subjugation that comes with it (the taxman)

The Question Of Surpluses

  • subjects need to be forced to produce surpluses (once self-sufficiency is achieved people do not produce more on their own - nobody likes to work too hard (Chayanov)).
  • bondage/force was required to keep people from escaping to the woods. (that was relaxed when land ownership was a universal concept - nowhere to run to).
  • state had to be careful: not press it too hard so that people would not have a strong desire to get out. Were at a constant fight to fill losses due to people running away. (Babylonian legal code is full with what to do with runaways)


  • population was a reliable measure for a states wealth/military strength. Wars were more about acquiring population (for transfer into the winner city) than about acquiring territory. (most wars in Mesopotamia were about grabbing a smaller community rather than full wars between cities)

  • up to 1800 a third of the worlds population was in bondage (slavery or serfdom)
  • no slavery, no state; In Athens it is estimated that two thirds of all people were slaves.
  • what about slavery in Mesopotamia? The consensus is that they were fewer in numbers/of minor importance (author thinks otherwise) - says its important because slaves were producing textiles (the main export good) (in Uruk - 9000 worker, some debt slaves, some POWs); used for canal digging and wall building. In Uruk they got ‘houses of prisoners’ with slaves - these were hired out in small groups (so that they would not escape)) (Still here was a smaller total number of slave than in Greece or Rome)
  • seems that Uruk scribes counted slaves as similar in status to domesticated animals, frequent mention on cylinder seals of troops that are clubbing prisoners; reports of blinding prisoners (not clear how common). Work houses were slaves were rented out in small number (so as to avoid revolts).
  • lots of effort to keep them in (bounty hunters of escaped slaves in URIII; Hammurabi code mentions punishment for escaped slaves; depiction of slaves in neck fetters; also slaves did not reproduce in captivity (probably died from overwork) (? much later: Hebrew slaves did manage to return from Babylonian captivity?)
  • not clear if they had slaves in the old kingdom of Egypt; seem to have chattel slavery during the Middle kingdom (demand for shackles for POWs) (first recorded strike during Ramses III - after rations were not delivered to slaves, and scribes!)
  • Qin and Han dynasties: says cultivation was done mostly by slaves and ‘criminals’; slave markets; Also resettled population of conquered areas - an even put up replicates of their temples!

  • states made an effort to capture skilled workers during conflicts (slavery as HR strategy).
  • records of wars often mention number of prisoners taken (and their skills!) - don’t mention the captured territory in detail - the bounty is what counts.
  • these workers are detached from their society of origin, so they can’t form an effective opposition (Janissaries, court Jews)
  • In Greece and Rome the huge concentration of slaves led to revolts (Babylon and Egypt did not have this concentration of slaves)
  • women slaves; in Babylon and Egypt the children of slaves were free (unlike Greece, Rome). Women slaves were valued (because of child mortality they needed lots of offsprings)
  • other uses of male slaves - mining, quarrying, timber (gulags with high mortality - far from the household - not a political danger?)
  • slaves were an important supplement to the demographically challenged state - (“to extract such labor exclusively from their own core subjects, they would have run a high risk of provoking flight or rebellion”)

Mesopotamian states had smaller number of slaves because

  • did not have the geographical reach of Athens or Rome; therefore
  • neighboring polities were quite similar in culture, so captives would assimilate in a couple of generations (women slaves and children)
  • special categories: Metics, ex slaves - 10 of population with restricted rights; Did Babylonia have a similar concept?
  • says a substantial population of slaves was far away from urban centers (Mesopotamia had less of than compared to Greece) - working in quarries/mines/forests.
  • says forced resettlement (Assyrian empire was huge operator here, probably moved to fill abandoned areas were probably known earlier and were practiced
  • ‘the central role of bondage and coercion in creating and maintaining the grain-and-manpower nexus of the early agrarian state would be perfectly evident’

stability and collapse - what are the reasons for collapse?

  • early pre-state settlements were frequently abandoned - very fragile.
  • early states were very fragile entities too) (collapse of UrIII (they lasted for 100 years, that’s a lot!) Old Kingdom collapsed, etc. etc.) Comes with abandonment & dispersal of population centers (+ no long-distance trading, no records kept, elites disappear; means decentralization and less hierarchy (not necessarily collapse of population numbers (? But not after Rome?) (that’s what they mean by ‘collapse’)
  • archeology focuses on the state and its records; now we know to look at the larger picture: from 1800BC-800BC the big cities in Mesopotamia got to 1/14th of previous size (and fewer of them - 1/16th of previous number!) Don’t know why.
  • speculates that long distance trade in ‘Uruk world system’ brought in diseases that lead to the downfall, warfare with population movement also move disease vectors (like the Romans were did in by plagues, and the Mongol realm with its silk road).
  • other factors: soil salinization, erosion and deforestation (wood needs to be transportable, deletion within that range leads to scarcity) The more charcoal is found in a layer - the more deforestation occurred
  • land clearance/deforestation leads to malaria
  • diminishing yields due to problems may lead to ‘fading away’ of the state
  • also war between states , or it pays tribute)
  • waging war contributes to fragility of the state ; also a defensible position for the city is chosen
  • states that loose wars will have manpower running away
  • size of the state depends on transportation costs ; whoever the reach can be greater with water transport ! This leads to concentration of resources around palace/temple complex and its vulnerability
  • early states lacked detailed accounting of yields
  • in times of crisis over-taxation then becomes necessity~~ leading to further manpower flight (leading to collapse of the grain core)
  • crisis often coincides with demands to increase production (shorten fallows and demand for more to be planted)
  • hard to estimate dynamics (population flight vs increase due to captives, etc.).

Praising collapse

  • says the period without a state (intermediate period, dark age) wasn’t that bad; better for most people (? what about the recorded lamentations to that respect?) - high state period (Akkad, UrIII, Babylon - was short compared to ‘intermediate periods’ (!)) (shortest interlude in Egypt - 100 years of intermediate period between old and middle kingdom)
  • says a more dispersed population was less prone to diseases or wars, so overall a lot of lives would be spared (? how is the same limited ecology supposed to support the same number of people living a dispersed lifestyle?)
  • even culture survives the dispersal to multiple centers.
  • example: Amorite rule after Ur III: new rulers reduced taxes and forced labor - but encourage free farmers and merchants. People dispersed from cities, but did not vanish (?) ; Intermediate period in Egypt did not come with sharp population decline (?) (still not much is known as there are no records (catch 22BC)) but with decentralization (regional centers took over instead of centralized realm)
  • ‘golden age of barbarians’ state was a great target for raids - when the state was not able to impose its will on barbarians; also trade with states was very lucrative for ‘barbarians’ (he calls them non state people - their position is primarily defined in relation to the state, not in ‘culture’ (as they can be incorporated to varying degree by a state) ‘They were, by virtue of their mobility, their diverse livelihoods, and their dispersal, unsuitable raw material for appropriation and state building, and it was for precisely these reasons that they were called barbarians.’ (?but the late Romans still made a distinction based on origin !)) Says that’s wrong because people did switch between state and nomad live stiles (state foundation and dispersal in times of crises, or flight from arbitrariness of state) (lots of Romans would find Huns and Gothic rule preferable to Roman taxes and arbitrariness of elites - Totilla promised freedom and land ownership - and got many Roman conscripts that way)
  • raiding had its problem because of ‘killing the goose that lays the eggs’. Instead they also did protection rackets (require stable military/political environment) (form of gifts in return for formal submission or payment for protection from other ‘tribes’ or payment for trade monopoly) Schemes like this were frequent - and were often kept secret (to protect the standing of the state) Says both ‘barbarians’ and the state would exploit the grain core (base of accumulation) (state and its barbarian twin were both as protection rackets to the agrarian core - taking slaves etc. (Mongol expression for agrarian population: ra’aya, “herds.”)
  • in late antiquity there was a large volume in long distance trade (grain from Egypt); this ability to transport goods made stuff collected at fringes more important (foraging boom) (bee wax, lumber, aromatic woods, etc.), thus further integrating the non-state fringe.
  • when the state is in problems then it presses harder for taxes and conscripts - that makes people run away (downward spiral) (but early palace states would have walls for keeping people from running away - so that didn’t work either?)
  • geographically the early state was limited (to soil suitable for intensive agriculture) (that is up to the middle Roman period where ships could transport large quantities of grain over a distance); all other areas were ‘barbarian’ by definition.
  • non-state entities were the dark twins of the real state; complex relationship - sometime a state would conquer and extend its rule (Rome and Gaul); sometimes tributes were extracted from the state; sometimes a state was conquered (but then the invaders turned rulers); sometimes nomads became the cavalry of the state.
  • Why did the ‘golden age of barbarians’ end around 1600? ‘As states and durable gunpowder empires grew, the ability of nonstate peoples to raid and dominate small states shrank at a pace that depended greatly on the region and its geography’. Still ‘barbarians’ were all slavers - and this trade made the core state stronger (at the expense of the fringes); they were often paid mercenaries of the state - this further eroded their own independence from the state.

Other authors do have a totally different perspective and interpretation;

See Peter Turchin’s “Ultrasociety: How 10000 Years of War Made Humans the greatest cooperators on Earth”

The author maintains that early societies were very violent places - graves from this period have a lot of signs of inter personal violence. The early city-state reduced this level of violence and channeled it into conflicts between states - these are fought by a small number of warriors (well, all-out conflicts like WW2 on the eastern front don’t quite fit in with this picture). The polities were competing with each other and had to become better at mobilizing the cooperation of the populace and had to get better at organizing this cooperating in general.

here are my notes from reading this highly interesting book:


notes on “Ultrasociety: How 10000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth” by Peter Turchin

‘cooperation is actually astonishingly difficult to achieve and, once achieved, hard to preserve’ - is brittle, can always fail.

For most of humanities history we had small tribes – everyone knew each other; how did human society change to big hives? lets measure cooperation by looking at big projects:

  • ISS - 3 million people years - a billion tax payers funded that.
  • Gothic cathedrals – 15.000 people years (300 builders working over 50 years) - several hundred thousand supporters/tax payers.
  • Colosseum - 12 thousand slaves for eight years - 30 million sesteros (they got that by looting/sacking Jerusalem)
  • Great pyramid of Giza – 400.000 people years.
  • Goebleki Teppe - neolithic structure - ??? (no written records)

Goebleki Teppe - (estimated 240-300 people years) purpose was to bring people together (and build community and cooperation) - and then have festival with drink beer together. How did they build it? (small number of people over long period or lots of them over short period?) Poverty Point in Louisiana (1000 people years) - another neolithic structure was erected over short time (otherwise the rain would have washed away layered levels of different kinds of soil)

Classifies polities by their size

  • foraging bands – 10s individuals
  • farming villages – 100s
  • simple chiefdom (several villages under one chief) - 1000s
  • complex chiefdom (three subordinate chiefs) - 10000s.
  • archaic states – 10000
  • macro-states – 1.000.000
  • mega-empires – 10.000.000
  • large-nation states = 100.000.000

Between 1500BC and 1500BC they had based on adoption of horses – open plains with nomads would favor intensive warfare, hilly terrain would inhibit that. They modeled spread of agriculture and growth of states – and warfare would be a decisive part of the model. War as ‘destructive creation’ - it prompted institutes that support cooperation. (In Hinduism Shiva is both god of war and creation)

  • tribal societies were very violent (significant number of remains have marks of violent death); the ‘peaceful savage’ is a myth.
  • (still tribal society is very cooperative – easy to organize collective action in small groups; the wonder is that large groups are still cooperative – yet some have to sacrifice for this (like cops))
  • as society became more complex violence became more ‘controlled’ (and there is less of it). what happened? Many social theories: agriculture, hydraulic theory, conquest as social change, Marx: elites expropriate surplussed. Then biology came in: (attempts to unify by evolution) Darwin said that morality gives a huge advance (‘The Descent of man’); also there is social Darwinism; Wilson: behavior is regulated by genes (Sociobiology); cultural evolution (they like math models here)
  • instead of asking ‘how did empire X fail’ he is asking ‘how was empire X possible?’ - at each growth step arrangements had to be found to allow coop. with strangers.
  • after empire gets big internal cohesion declines (not needed as wars have been won); elites no longer restrained by common goals grab it all, cooperation declines; empire declines.

Enron: says CEO Skilling instituted internal in-group competition (lowest performers got fired – rank and yank) that destroyed cooperation and bred cheating/unethical behavior towards customers. Says ‘rank and yank’ is common practice – began in 70ies and 80ies when ‘unwritten compact previously existing during a past period of growth and progress’ was ended; Putnam: civic engagement lasted 30 years after New deal. “features of social life—networks, norms, and trust—that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives.” Elites were more cooperative back then. Since 80ies the elites are into competition & individualism of Ayn-Rand and Hayek (?) Social Darwinism where ‘Greed is right, Greed works’; Says crash of 2008 is similar to crash of the 1870ies.

there is ‘kin selection’ - altruism is good for the species so this trait is beneficial for survival/evolution selects it in. Problem: doesn’t work ‘rational agents’ would always prefer to defect from battle – the potential personal cost is too high.

Dawkins ‘selfish gene’: evolution selects for self interest of passing your genes on still altruistic behavior can be evolutionary advantage if it helps to get close relatives through (kin selection) ‘tragedy of commons’ - everyone wins if the commons is preserved, but your own benefit is to grab as much as possible (this destroys the commons). Dawkins says reciprocal altruism fixes this (handy to do good – and to get a favor in return)

:: still all this does not explain behavior of unrelated individuals; also ‘kin selection’ and ‘reciprocal altruism’ work adversely in very large societies – here they take the form of nepotism and cronyism. Says that ‘ultra society’ is fundamentally different from small scale tribe and that it came out of cultural evolution.

Sport teams: conflict of either help your peers (group goal of winning) or playing it out on yourself (goal of higher standing in group) ‘multilevel selection’ deals with such conflicting situations.

Should high performing team mates get higher pay? Cultural thing: Nordic countries (and Australia) are egalitarian so all team members get the same pay; Americans don’t do that. Too unequal teams have great players – but the rest slack off (and in group competition makes you play against your own team), so they loose games (players work harder in more equal teams) (says they still do it because stars draw crowds, and wealthy backers overestimate the role of stars) Same for business.

Multilevel selection says: in-group competition destroys cooperation/teams; competition between group creates cooperation/teams. That’s why European soccer is relegating lowest performing teams to the lower league – rank and yank applied to groups.

enter the very vague field of Cultural evolution – how do cultures progress? One problem – they classify clear stages of development (whereas different cultures took different paths). Another problem – how is cultural information represented in the brain? What is the subject of the study? - Don’t know. What about concrete features - is trust of strangers (generalized trust) a cultural feature? Banfield: south Italy they don’t trust strangers - this is used to explain their poverty. However attitudes seem to change over time – evolve.

Price equation is supposed to explain how conflicting traits balance out – but i did not get it. (free riders are good for individual, but bad for society, altruism is bad for individual but good for society, anyway you need both of them in the long run)

Says that the equation does not care if culture is transmitted by education or by genes or by imitation. Where did culture come from? Says that extremely variable/cyclic culture + long lifespan of Humans forced us to do behavioral adaptation (learning) instead of adapting the organism to changing conditions.

Also if variation is allowed within an organization then the best approach can be selected (also follows from price equation). In-group competition must be reduced for a team to win.

Throwing stones is the first weapon of humans – homo erectus has shoulders for doing so (other apes are not very good at throwing) => Now can get bone marrow and meat; energy requirement for brains. Gintin, van Schaik say that projectile weapons (spears) made us human; Wranham says fire was important (digestive track shrank - more energy from cooked food enabled larger brains; family formed around fire…) Early Human forager societies were more egalitarian than Chimps or Gorillas (here the alpha male/beta beats up all the others and get all females, but there can be coalitions against alpha) Says that projectile weapons were equalizer and restraining the alpha males (easy to surprise the enemy with projectiles; can be used as collective attack; skill more important than physical strength) Also Humans do coalitions of ten or more individuals - tools and language help. (Chimps have two or maximum three); Leaders had to persuade and build consensus (not by force) = free riders get isolated and punished (moralistic punishment) social/political skills become important so that women can gain influence. competition between groups selects for those who developed corporation.

==== Enga island of New Guinea – had people still in stone age; here guys are busy with war - (this kills 35% of them). War is ceremonial business – not many get killed in each battle – but over time it accumulates (that’s why they got the notion of ‘primitive war’ - misconception) Now all this fighting did not result in any cultural evolution – the tribes stay the same (surprise) - here everyone is suspicious of everybody else (outsiders could be spies) all Enga tribes had the same culture - both victors and those defeated; no evolution. (in other forest ares of Indonesia there is also a lot of linguistic diversity – means that no group got extinct; no intense competition; flatland of Eurasia is different – languages spread out)

Ian Morris: wars between societies create competition and larger societies; in-group war (same society) does not create anything - Author says inconclusive wars do not select anyone out; Destruction of cultural traits means to ‘select out’ - can be genocide or ethnocide (assimilation of culture) or voluntary decision of a culture to change.

Funny thing is that both anthropologists and military historians get the nature of warfare wrong – because they don’t get asymmetric warfare or because they don’t get the details right (important thing is mobility & strike at a distance) Western way of war’ often glorifies short range combat (bayonets in WW1; hoplites in Greece) ; but mounted horsemen killing at a distance with bows are always more efficient (Parthian armored cavalry against Roman testudo (turtle formation); English archers at Agincourt; cannons in hundred year war)


Says early agricultural states were much more unequal than hunter gatherers – the leader would be deified and get total subordination / slavery is wide spread; women were much more suppressed. Example: Cook expedition was amazed how despotic Hawaiian chiefs were towards their subjects (included human sacrifice; deification of the ruler; etc) Bruce Trigger says all early societies were despotic, with human sacrifice, some with deified leader. Says commoners did not like their ‘god rulers’ too much in kind – songs preserved from the Shi Jing (500BC) say so. seems to take several thousand years from adoption of agriculture until you get archaic states with deified rulers. Examples of agricultural society that stayed small farm and did not get hierarchies – New Guinea, areas in South America, Africa Says size is important: once farming community gets larger than 10k people then it get hierarchical; large groups out competed the small ones (‘increasing returns to scale’) Wittvogel: large scale irrigation needed lot of work and required large groups and centralized administration – that became despotic. Problem: Russia for example needs no irrigation – but has despotism. Problem: Mesopotamia – irrigation systems were constructed on village level – don’t need a centralized bureaucracy. Other advantages: long distance trade; food reserves to cope with famines. Leeuw: need large groups to solve complex problems + specialized knowledge. Larger groups create more problems - require even larger groups. Another theory: theocracies drove creation of states (me – problem: in Mesopotamia king and court were parallel structures) Example: Harrison: in Polynesia sometimes a clan tries to concentrate both priest + ruler position (normally these are separate); sometimes they manage. Still does not explain how these groups took hold – people would get rid of them (egalitarian impulse). Could ‘economies of scale’ persuade people that despotic rule is better? Oppenheimer: One reason is force - people internalized that they had to bow, and did so + religious propaganda. Did stratification arise spontaneously out of differentiation by wealth? Problem: Egypt old kingdom was not unified by force – unification came from within. Says the advantage is warfare – Lanchester’s square law – twice the size of the army gives you twofold advantage (for raged weapons that allow simultaneous firing on flat terrain); this translates into selection pressure for larger polities that can field larger armies. Robert Michel: Iron law of oligarchy – all forms of organization end up as oligarchies. Robert Carneiro: temporary war chiefs would stay as permanent maximum leader => permanent chiefdom (were this went wrong: Arminius and Marabous got killed when they tried to extend their war chief position; Julius Cesar got killed by fans of the Roman Republic) Turchin says it was most likely a clique around the temporary war chief; as there is a lot of institutionalized opposition against usurpers – Roman Republic as an example of institutions that tried to avert usurpers. Still Octavian succeeded to become emperor – because he was modest, got popular support and people were tired of the civil wars. Same for Germanic society: 100BC – bands of marauding warriors; 1st century – alliances of tribes with centralized command (Arminius); 300BC – permanent confederations Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Merovingians; etc.

How did we get states? Bottom up theory: agriculture allowed to sustain cities + division of labor; surpluses could feed priests and rulers. Now some theories favor economy, some religion, some war aspects. Problem: Goebeki Teppe and Poverty Point came before agriculture; whereas agriculture is supposed to be prerequisite. Problem: small communities do food sharing - but hoarding of surpluses would not be ethical. Problem: with agriculture people were more sick - (pathogens from cattle, field toil is hard, food is worse - from bones of remains )

Turchin explains this as follows: (Pleistocene – last ice age) 12800-11800 – climate became really dry; plants became scarce -> conflict between tribes spiked; created pressure to make tribes bigger. Now need glue to keep society together – act of building stone henge and megaliths did the job (focus of collective action). Group selection for best fighters made them swallow the disadvantages of agriculture + everyone had to adopt it (came with institutions, property rights, etc). Property rights -> wealth differential (Mathew principle) Problems: communities have institutions for wealth redistribution – rich men are expected to donate significant means to festivals – to gain respect; greedy hording is not honorable. (that is called Big Man society) Says upstart could not keep temporary war chief privileges – but god kings could keep them (by combining position of king and priest/god) God kings were more effective warrior states - because ruler was not restrained by moral obligations (? internal cohesion problems?)

The tide turned during the axial age: Mega empires have been formed (Achimenid empire; Maruyan empire; Han dynasty) - tens of millions subjects. Ashoka – founder of Buddhism comes of as a king that is concerned for the well being of his subjects! Also propaganda is not as bombastic as it used to be for the rulers of old. Same independently occurs in Judaism – an unrelated religions (Judaism). Says archaic states were fragile in time of peace - due to restiveness/internal upheaval caused by grave inequalities; for stability you need legitimate authority (hierarchy) ; not ‘dominance’ (R. Bellah) Axial age sees social criticism – by Prophets (Amos, Samuel); Buddha; Taoists/Confucians; Plato (?)

Trigger: Mil-tech advance of horse (needs saddle and bridle)/chariots – later mounted cavalry/ + composite bows: both were pushed by nomads (1000BC) This intensified warfare. Iron use – was more abundant than Copper/tin; now mobile warfare was in. First ones to integrate cavalry + infantry + siege engines were the Achaemenids/Medes; Jaspers also thought that axial age was prompted because Nomads caused intensification of warfare. Greek Hoplites (armed infantry with shields) + phalanx formation could counter the mounted cavalry + archers; but it needed larger states to field huge armies and defend borders - this countered the disadvantage in mobility; needed large armies of commoners so it could no longer subject them by force alone (also had to give commoners weapons) ; elites became more receptive to message of prophets.

Example: Rome at 500BC - the plebeians were hoplite warriors and went on strike (secessions); got concessions of more equality + share in the spoils in return for cooperation (? why didn’t rome get an axial age religion back in the Republic; what about Stoicism ?)

Here come axial age empires (Achemenid Persia, Rome, Han dynasty, Mauryan (? How could fragmented Greece do without a centralized one ?) Achaemenid empire had huge problems with stability - problem of uprisings. says Axial age religions became important to hold things togather (? Christianity came in towards the end of western Rome - Gibbons says it did them in ?) Still Zoroastrism; Budhism and Confucianism were all attempts to hold their empire togather. Mechanism is that large empires have multiple layered levels of idenity - one of these identities is the state religion of an empire; and that is a prerequisite for trust in large societies were people have to deal with strangers. Cooperation is higher in societies that believe in a big God (Norenzayan) who 1) knows your thoughts 2) evaluates if you are virtuous 3) punishes for transgression; fear of a bad afterlife will cause you to be a better cooperator (in large societies). Nonbelievers will not be trusted - don’t get any deals; its very costly. Rulers have to take that into account (in US an atheist candidate for president will not be trusted).

====== Summary:

if you measure eqauality on a graph over time then it follows a z curve - Humanoid/apes are very unequal with dominating alpha; early humans developed ‘equalizers’ and institutions that stood for it - also selected for the tribes that were able to achieve collective action; then advances of warfare turned larger batallions into the winning argument, so god-kings turned tyrants and took it all; then the model did not scale - further intensification made it important to have mega-empires that needed a more equal approach (axial age).

Violence took a spike in the pleistocene (last ice age) - climate took turn for the worse - tribes fought over territory; groups that succeded to develop collective action won (team building done by doing megalyths) Later development saw decrease in violence (percentage wise always a decrease of casualties (? except for very bad wars that cut down half a significant portion of the population - ask the war widows in the USSR ?)) Soedberg: half of deaths in foragging bands was due to interpersonal violence/’crime’.

Pinker: reasons for decline in violence / monopoly of state on force - inhibits revenge impulse / Comerce - everybody wins from the exchange, no profit in dehumanising the ‘enemy’ / Feminization - violence no longer glorified, guys don’t form gangs / cosmopolitanism - increases sympathy for the other one

Problem: many reasons, here he searches for unifying causes – cooperation evolved, institutions & values got formed that diminish strive: you can have the best judges, but if everyone says that bribes are OK then it does not work. Problem: evolutionary psychology of Pinker focuses on motives of individuals, so he ignores the factor of cultural change over time and how states have arisen – cultural evolution does not have this problem because that is what it studies. Also helping your friends is OK in small societies – in state structures it takes the form of nepotism/cronyism. Problem: commerce not always zero sum game, can be very unequal – like in colonialism;

In Mega empires the percentage wise number of casualties was falling – but importance of the rest of society to the war effort increased. Post WW-2 competition was who has the better economy and propaganda (and the biggest bombs…)

Says cultural traits get adopted if they are of advantage: monogamy – it spread by imitation to Asian societies, but it also makes society more competitive: more equality among men & women, less in-group competition, less crime (less single males), more investment into offspring, more prosperous society.

Prevention of failed states – as cooperation breaks down, so do states. finding out why cooperation happens will help to preserve it + effective policy recommendations.