Paleo Politics: What if the story of civilization is wrong?

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https://newrepublic.com/article/145444/p...vilization

EXCERPT: ... The truth, [James C.] Scott proposes, may be the opposite. What if early civilization was not a boon to humankind but a disaster: for health and safety, for freedom, and for the natural world? What if the first cities were, above all, vast technologies of exploitation by a small and rapacious elite? If that is where we come from, who are we now? What possibilities might we discover by tracing our origins to a different kind of ancestor?

[...] The conventional story of human development, he shows, is based on faulty chronology. It turns out that cultivating grain—long thought to be the crucial step from roaming to civilization—does not naturally lead people to stay put in large settlements. New archaeological evidence suggests that people planted and harvested grain as part of a mix of food sources for many centuries, perhaps millennia, without settling into cities. And there were, in fact, places where people did settle down and build towns without farming grain: ecologically rich places, often wetlands bordering the migration routes of birds and animals, where foraging, fishing, and hunting made for a good life in all seasons. There is nothing about grain that fastens humanity’s foot to the earth, as President John Quincy Adams put it in one of the innumerable retellings of the standard story.

[...] The conventional story of human development, he shows, is based on faulty chronology. It turns out that cultivating grain—long thought to be the crucial step from roaming to civilization—does not naturally lead people to stay put in large settlements. New archaeological evidence suggests that people planted and harvested grain as part of a mix of food sources for many centuries, perhaps millennia, without settling into cities. And there were, in fact, places where people did settle down and build towns without farming grain: ecologically rich places, often wetlands bordering the migration routes of birds and animals, where foraging, fishing, and hunting made for a good life in all seasons. There is nothing about grain that fastens humanity’s foot to the earth, as President John Quincy Adams put it in one of the innumerable retellings of the standard story.

Grain is special, but for a different reason. It is easy to standardize—to plant in rows or paddies, and store and record in units such as bushels. This makes grain an ideal target for taxation. [...]

Scott’s retelling, however, goes deeper than scrambling the chronology and emphasizing the dark side of early institutions. Life in cities, he argues, was probably worse than foraging or herding. City dwellers were vulnerable to epidemics. Their diets were less varied than those of people on the outside. Unless they were in the small ruling class, they had less leisure, because they had to produce food not just for their own survival, but also to support their rulers. Their labor might be called on to build fortresses, monuments, and those ever-looming walls. Outside the walls, by contrast, a fortunate savage or barbarian might be a hunter in the morning, a herder or fisherman in the afternoon, and a bard singing tales around the fire in the evening. To enter the city meant joining the world’s first proletariat.

So why would anyone come into the city? Scott argues, based on reconstruction of ancient soils and climate, that around 5,000 years ago...

MORE: https://newrepublic.com/article/145444/p...vilization
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