Evidence reveals our remote ancestors were neither brutes nor innocents, but complex beings whose experiments in living have much to teach us. Welcome news as disaster looms in every direction.
David Graeber, the electrifying social thinker who helped spark the Occupy Movement and challenged our acceptance of crippling debt and bullshit jobs, died at the age of fifty-nine in 2020. Lucky for us, he left a parting gift completed just three weeks before his death — something as expansive, fresh, and invigorating as his mind.
Thought-provoking and even thrilling, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, co-authored with archaeologist David Wengrow, weaves a tale of human history unlike anything you’ve read before. Erudite, witty, and rigorous, the book complicates, if not outright smashes, what we thought we knew about homo sapiens’ 200,000-year journey on Earth so far. This is a book that playfully spins us around with new insights until we are dizzy with possibilities.
As we hunger for something — anything — to lift us from the grim suspicion that humanity is destined to burn, crash, or fade away in lonely desolation, Graeber has laid out a sumptuous feast for thought. Let’s dive in.
First consideration: We don’t see others as they are, but load them up with our own assumptions, fantasies, and biases. We do it to our neighbors, and we do it to our remote human ancestors who aren’t around to argue with us – those funny-looking people in western civ textbooks who supposedly march through orderly stages of development, finally arriving at what we call “civilization.” During the Enlightenment, this history-in-stages approach grew popular with intellectuals like Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose fanciful armchair speculations about how we got to where we are soon became taken as facts.
You were meant to pick a team – either Team Hobbes (all was brutish and nasty until kings and cops beat us into submission) or Team Rousseau (we were happy innocents until the Agricultural Revolution saddled us with sad but inevitable property and inequality). Thence you could assemble the kind of social science narrative that has dominated our thinking in one form or another ever since, most recently in Noah Harari’s smash-hit “Sapiens” (Team Rousseau).
Like all origin stories, these tales lodged in our collective psyches explain us to ourselves. And like all origin stories, they conceal as much as they reveal.
Napoleon Bonaparte asked, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” Graeber and Wengrow come in to shake off the spell of prevailing fables — not as armchair theorists snatching ideas from thin air but as reviewers and synthesizers of a plethora of tantalizing recent discoveries, along with the work of neglected thinkers who (hello, feminist scholars) who drew ire for their attention to glaring inconsistencies in the established narratives. In doing so, they recover frameworks for the way ancient peoples experienced their world that help us to see that we could be organizing ourselves – socially, economically, politically — on principles much different from those that seem inevitable today. This is heartening.
Among the propositions of Graeber and Wengrow are these:
- We barely have the language to express what our remote ancestors were up to 95% of the time.
- The Agricultural Revolution wasn’t a revolution at all. The real story is much more complex – and interesting.
- Ancient peoples lived with a rich variety of social and political structures, even varying according to the season. (Very flexible, those folks).
- Humans aren’t just pawns on a chessboard of material conditions. We’ve been actively experimenting from the get-go.
- Inequality in large-scale human communities isn’t inevitable, nor is it a product of farming. Ditto, patriarchy.
- Past societies that valued women were happier places to live. (Duh).
- We can do better. We have done better.
The authors begin by pointing out that eighteenth-century theories of human history were partly a reaction to critiques of European society offered by indigenous observers. Consider Kandiaronk, a Wendat chief so skilled in debate he could easily shut down a Jesuit, who blew the minds of listeners with penetrating insights on authority, decency, social responsibility, and above all, freedom. Kandiaronk’s critiques, presented in a dialogue form by the Baron de Lahontan in 1703, sparked a whole genre of books voicing criticisms from a “primitive” outsider. Graeber and Wengrow illuminate how profoundly these products influenced Enlightenment thought and helped give rise to social and political experiments (including the U.S. Constitution), as well as defensive strategies to discount such perspectives (also including the U.S. Constitution).
Madame de Graffigny’s epistolary novel of 1747, “Letters from a Peruvian Woman” (1747) tells the story of an Incan princess who rails against the inequality she observes in French society – particularly the ill-treatment of women. This volume, in turn, helped shape the thinking of the economist A.R.J. Turgot, who responded by insisting that inequality was inevitable. He outlined a theory of social evolution posited as progress from hunters to pastoralism to farming to urban commercial civilization that placed anybody not at the final stage as a vestigial life form that had better get with the program. Turgot’s scheme of social evolution started popping up in lectures of his buddy Adam Smith over in Glasgow, and eventually worked its way into general theories of human history proposed by several of Smith’s influential colleagues such as Adam Ferguson.
The new default paradigm formed the lens through which Europeans viewed Indigenous peoples the world over; namely as childish innocents or brutal savages living in deplorable static conditions. Everybody was to be sorted according to how they acquired food, with egalitarian foraging societies banished to the bottom of the ladder. The Kandiaronks causing anxiety by pointing out the grotesque conditions of so-called civilization — from the large numbers of starving people to the need for two hours for a Frenchman to dress himself — could now be dismissed. This mindset became prevalent in the emerging field of archaeology, where practitioners churned out biased interpretations of ancient societies that rendered them non-threatening to the modern, capitalist way of life.
Teleological history was the name of the game, and scholars played it endlessly.
Archaeologists fixated on what looked “civilized” to them — mainly large, stratified societies like Pharaonic Egypt, Imperial Rome, Aztec Mexico, Han China, or ancient Greece – the kinds of places where you get big monuments (archaeologists can easily study these), authoritarian rulers, and plenty of violence, usually accompanied by the subordination of women. This construct of civilization rests on the idea of sacrifice: we must give up basic freedoms, like the freedom to object to nonsensical orders, if we want the touted benefits. Maybe we should even give up life itself if the gods or the rulers say it must be so. We can see this today in our own society, with low-wage workers expected to sacrifice themselves for the gods of the market. (Females are deemed especially suitable offerings).
There is definitely something wrong with this picture. Whether you’re a young girl snatched up to serve an Aztec emperor or a woman used as a breeding machine by Texan politicians, “civilization” is not really working for you.
Graeber and Wengrow try to shed the bad habits of their colleagues by presenting multi-dimensional portraits of ancient peoples, going all the way back to the Stone Age, that make them appear less exotic and truer to life. We see them playing, preening, working, and arguing with one another. They build and blunder. They try new things, then toss them aside. Some create societies that are fair-minded and generous, others that are domineering and violent. All are trying to figure out how to live better, and often screwing up. The new narrative that emerges shows that flexibility, experimentation, and a drive to live with dignity and joy are a bigger part of our human heritage than we ever realized.
Graeber and Wengrow posit that certain basic freedoms, like the freedom to move away from a society that doesn’t suit you, or to disobey orders, were seen as precious in many ancient societies—particularly the ones that archaeologists haven’t known quite how to categorize. And these values didn’t disappear the first time somebody planted a crop. The authors provide copious evidence that just because a society feeds itself one way doesn’t mean that a particular social organization or orientation automatically follows.
The familiar story of human social evolution holds that foraging societies were little more than the prelude to the Agricultural Revolution, which purportedly changed everything. The picture was supposed to look like this: Foragers were mobile; farmers were sedentary. Foragers collected food; farmers produced it. Foragers didn’t have private property; farmers did. Foragers were innately egalitarian; farmers stratified. If social scientists found evidence of people who didn’t live by agriculture behaving differently from this formula, they were described as “emergent” or “deviant.”
But Graeber and Wengrow make a strong case that none of this is actually supported by the evidence. They highlight how in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, for example, there was never any “switch” from Paleolithic forager to Neolithic farmer. The transition from living mainly on wild resources to a life based on food production actually took place over 3,000 years – hardly a revolutionary timeframe. And while the authors acknowledge that agriculture allowed for the possibility of more unequal concentrations of wealth, in most cases this only began to happen millennia after farming got going. In the centuries before, people were effectively trying farming out, switching between modes of production, hunting a bit here, growing a bit there. Changing things up as new conditions emerged. Concentrations of wealth sometimes occurred, but other times they didn’t.
What looked like a static picture of the past starts to shift into a colorful kaleidoscope.
The authors argue that instead of an Agricultural Revolution, our ancestors engaged in a lengthy and complex process that didn’t lead to neat categories of social and political structures. They point out that in the Fertile Crescent, some people who were not dependent on agriculture could be quite stratified and violent, while others in neighboring farming areas look much more egalitarian, with women enjoying pronounced social and economic visibility.
There’s no reason, say the authors, to assume that agriculture in remote periods meant private land ownership, territoriality, or a no-return passage to hierarchical arrangements.
They point to Amazonia during the Holocene period, where a “playful tradition” of farming meant that people spent the rainy season in villages growing stuff in a rather haphazard way and living communally, and then abandoned their homes during the dry season to hunt and fish under an autocratic structure, only to start it all over somewhere else the next year. There was no clear line between domestic and non-domestic animals, but something more like traveling zoos of tamed forest creatures that went along with humans for the ride. Instead of a refuge of solitary peoples, Amazonia emerges as home to people with wide, intricate networks over vast distances and flexible arrangements that are difficult to study because they didn’t leave behind tax records and monuments. Amazonians didn’t do agriculture the way the standard narrative says they should for a simple reason: they didn’t have to. Food was abundant enough, and strategies to access it smart enough, that there wasn’t any reason to pick up a hoe or confine yourself to one place.
“Farming,” argue Graeber and Wengrow, “often started out as an economy of deprivation; which is why it tended to happen first in areas where wild resources were thinnest on the ground.” In other words, agriculture was the odd-person-out strategy for survival for much of human history. Its practitioners seem much more prevalent in the past because they built mud houses and stayed in place, thus leaving behind more visible signs.
Graeber and Wengrow point out that it has taken a long time for scholars – let’s face it, mostly white, male, western scholars — to understand evidence under their noses because they couldn’t help projecting themselves backward in time. They looked at a Mayan wall mural and saw a jumble of fantastic creatures rather than a storytelling device that provided detailed information in lieu of writing. They gazed on curvy female figurines and imagined that such bodies could only be valued for their fertility, rather than understanding that those curves were sagging breasts and rolls of fat representing the bodies of elder women in high political positions. Because “writing” in fantastic painted beasts and valuing older women with authority were alien concepts, scholars just made stuff up to fit with their own biases.
Blindness to the contributions of women has been a particular blight on our ability to see human history clearly. As the authors note (and many a feminist scholar could have told you), social scientists analyzing early cities and “mega-sites” have tended to concentrate particular types of cultural development, like the easily-visible knowledge of building pyramids or collecting taxes. But the knowledge of cooking and healing, far less visible, (though much more critical to survival), associated with the activities of women, got demoted far beneath the knowledge of things like how to wage war on somebody. More peaceful societies that emphasized the former were misunderstood and ignored.
Graeber and Wengrow show that if we look with fresh eyes, we can see ancient cities where even the most autocratic rulers are answerable to town councils and assemblies, many of them affording women equal status. Democracy, in their narrative, isn’t something that sprung up out of ancient Greece fully formed like Athena, but part of a heritage of ideas of governance along egalitarian lines that appeared over and over among ancient peoples. Some ancient cities developed an aristocratic ethos and favored charismatic authority figures, but others didn’t, even quite large ones. Interestingly, what they refer to the “heroic” type of settlements that organized around powerful and charismatic rulers appear to come after, and in reaction to, the more egalitarian cities. The authors discuss a theory of how settlements with entirely different social and political structures often arise in close proximity, suggesting the influence of “schismogenesis” – a sort of competitive relationship between groups of people that drive them to identify as opposite of each other (think Sparta and Athens).
Graeber and Wengrow suggest that it was by this process of schismogenesis that we got cities ruled by kings instead of councils: “Aristocracies, perhaps monarchy itself, first emerged in opposition to the egalitarian cities of the Mesopotamian plans,” they write.
The case Teotihuacan is one of their most vivid examples of how different things look when scholars put can put old habits aside. The largest urban center of Mesoamerica before the Aztecs, which peaked at about 100,000 people, Teotihuacan had autocratic overlords — but then got rid of them. What looked first to scholars like a static city dominated by monumental buildings and human sacrifice (an indication of powerful rulers and stratification) turns out to have abandoned this structure to focus on shared governance and top-quality public housing, possibly after some kind of revolution. At first, archaeologists took the fancy apartments of Teotihuacan to be palaces, but now it’s clear that most of the city’s residents lived in digs with drainage facilities, beautifully plastered floors and walls, and attractive communal spaces decorated with murals. Evidence of diets indicates that most everyone was eating well. But since the Teotihuacans didn’t leave written evidence, it has taken a long time for scholars to imagine a city likely organized by local assemblies answerable to a governing council — one in which everybody expected to live well.
OK, so what?
If we’re really honest, what passes for civilization today is frequently a system of dominance and deprivation for most people, and one that would have repelled many of our ancestors. Far from living in conditions that maximize our freedom and wellbeing, we struggle with inequality, distrust, powerlessness, and disillusionment. In the world’s richest country, a lot of us can’t even afford a doctor when we’re sick.
Graeber and Wengrow define the modern state, which most of us live in, as a political structure that combines at least two common forms of domination: control of violence, control of information, and dominance via personal charisma (see: American elections). They are societies where power is not widely shared, and where the values of caring and cooperation are emphasized far less than those of competition and possessing more than your neighbor.
The many forms of freedom and enjoyment that early humans obviously deemed essential to life are not accessible to the vast majority. Who can travel about freely with minimal vacation time and insufficient funds? Who can freely reject conditions that don’t suit them? Who can refuse the arbitrary commands that bombard us daily (pay for this crappy service, take this shitty job, do what this racist cop tells you to do)? No one but the very affluent.
It’s really hard to imagine it can be any other way because for the last couple thousand years, most of us have lived under kings or emperors, or, where those didn’t exist, patriarchy or other forms of violent domination. Graeber and Wengrow acknowledge that once established, these structures are hard to get rid of – especially in our mental habits.
But a close look at the diversity and richness of our human history ought to help us to gather the courage to reimagine how life can be better and to put these visions into action. Hints of social possibilities dropped in from the remote past can inspire us with the knowledge that we do not have to accept being bullied by tyrants or plutocrats. By bringing the there and then into the here and now, we can consider that unequal, warlike, patriarchal societies are not the human norm, and are far from normal. Just like our forebearers, we can make choices.
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