Children of The Corn: Lecture on Homo sapiens and Agrarianism by Dr. James Scott

James Scott, the Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University, discusses his research on early agrarian states and the domestication of homo sapiens. Scott is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. (Jackson Haigis/The Daily Campus)

Contrary to popular belief, humans didn’t domesticate modern crop plants. according to Dr. James C. Scott, it’s the other way around.

As part of the Political Science Department’s lecture series, Dr. Scott, a Sterling Lecturer and Director of Agrarian Studies at Yale University, held a discussion on ‘Early Agrarian States and The Domestication of Homo sapiens’ at Oak Hall on Wednesday.

Dr. Scott generally focused on the parallels between the earliest known agrarian society of Mesopotamian city-states and the nomadic hunter-gatherer culture that had, before the development of farming, dominated the lifestyle of humans for nearly 200,000 years.

Domestication of plants and thus the advent of cereal grains, only occurred about 7,000 years ago, a drop in the bucket in terms of the extended evolutionary timeline of hominids. This, of course, has caused some physiological changes, since evolution takes awhile.

According to Scott, the diet of a hunter-gatherer was varied, coming from a variety of sources, including fish, wild-found grain, gathered fruits and hunted mammals. One humanity switched over to the so-called ‘Late-Neolithic Resettlement’ module, grains dominated the diet. Thus, tooth decay from excess sugars, along with nutritional deficiencies, began to rise in city populations. However, domestication didn’t just start with grains. Instead, it was more primal — the domestication of fire.

“Fire allowed us to change the landscapes to our liking,” said Scott, as he mentioned the ‘horticultural hunting’ techniques of the Native Americans, who would start a controlled blaze in a forest, cleaning out shrubs and allowing browse grass to grow.

Deer would be attracted to the grass and would allow the hunters to make their move. Thus, fire allowed for a less mobile form of hunting and for a more efficient procurement of sustenance.

Through this valuable tool, food was able to be cooked and encouraged the building of sedentary settlements, with a hearth or firepit for efficient food preparation.

Though it’s often taught that Homo sapiens only settled after the establishment of domesticated agrarianism, Scott noted that evidence of permanent settlements were dated to be around 11,000 years old, 4,000 years before domesticated agriculture was known to be established.

He also argued that government arose from agriculture. Once fields of mostly maize, grain, rice and wheat became a valuable commodity, coordinated efforts had to be made to build walls to protect farms. Standing armies were also coordinated and created to help defend the settlements and raid others. In return, taxes of grain were seized from the fields in order to keep the wall builders and soldiers fed.

Wheat was primarily encouraged to be grown, then, because of its ease in transport and collection. Grass grains were simple to measure and estimate and stored well, making tax collection a cinch for the state. Thus, we have ‘grain states’ instead of ‘chickpea states’. 

The battle to maintain the crop was a constant one and the process of watering, weeding and plowing was arduous and taxing.

“We create floral basket cases,” said Scott. “[and] we must defend from the wild, which is constantly encroaching.”

With all the effort humans put into the ensured survival of these plants, it begs the question- who domesticated whom?

Arguably, implied Scott, farming also cut down on the diversity of skills involved with hunter-gathering. Simpler, unitasking jobs were created for the sole purpose of raising corn. Instead of setting different traps for different animals, tracking across various types of terrain and adapting to the environment, human lives went through an ‘unskilling’, as the professor called it.

All in all, through controlling both plant and animal reproduction, civilization was created. Sedentary settlements rose into cities, which rose into city-states and thus became unified countries and cultures. Though carbs arguably make you fatter, it’s them that we can thank for life as we know it today.


Marlese Lessing is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu.