The Dawn of Everything: A new history of humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Review by Peter Reason

This book offers a revision of our understanding of human cultural history, and so opens possibilities for different, maybe more creative and liberating, arrangements for contemporary and future society.

I always enjoy books that challenge assumptions that I wasn’t fully aware I held. This book is one such. I had not realized how firmly debate about the nature of human politics and culture remains stuck between Rousseau’s view that we are fallen from an innocent State of Nature; and Hobb’s contention that life without civilization would be a ‘war of all against all’ which could only be overcome by the creation of absolute sovereign power.  

Hobbs and Rousseau told their contemporaries things that were startling, profound, opened new doors of the imagination. Now their ideas are just tired common sense. There is nothing in them that justifies the continued simplification of human affairs.

Nor had I realized how I had swallowed a linear evolutionary view of the development of human society. The conventional view is that we started off in small, egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands, until the Neolithic ‘agricultural revolution’; this brought settlements and a surplus of food which was available to controlled by the powerful; this in turn led inexorably to cities, states, and empires in which complexity and hierarchy became necessarily entrenched.

Graeber and Wengrow argue in this book that these commonly held views ‘simply aren’t true… have dire political implications… [and] make the past needlessly dull’. Along the way they take to task and show the hidden assumptions of some of the world’s most esteemed and popular cultural historians including Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, Yuval Harari, Mircea Eliade, Francis Fukuyama. They write, ‘One of the most pernicious aspects of the standard world-historical narrative is precisely that they dry everything up, reduce everybody to cardboard stereotypes, simplify the issues…’. Now they’ve raised my awareness I see this oversimplified model everywhere—most recently in the BBC4 documentary with James Fox Art and Nature.

David Graeber was an anarchist anthropologist who died unexpectedly in 2020 to the dismay of the many who celebrated his creative contributions. David Wengrow is an archaeologist. This book is the outcome of their debate over the years. They write that the book started in research and conversations ‘essentially as a form of play… in a spirit of mild defiance toward our more “serious’ academic responsibilities”. The purpose of the book is to open up a new human history, and in doing this to open the possibilities of the contemporary imagination. 

Social theory as we know it today, they assert in their conclusions, ‘emerged largely from the ranks of reactionary thinkers’. The established view is that in pre-Enlightenment or ‘traditional’ societies, people did not act for themselves, but were slaves to custom, myth, gods, ancestors, and supernatural powers. Cultural change was determined by a series of technological revolutions ‘followed by long periods when we were prisoners of our own creations… Only modern, post-Enlightenment, people have the capacity to actively intervene in history and change its course’.

This way of seeing ourselves is ‘decidedly less thoughtful, less creative, less free than we turn out to have been.’ In contrast, we can describe history as a continual series of new ideas and innovations; and we can see human communities as making collective decisions about ‘which technologies they saw fit to apply to everyday purposes, and which to keep confined to the domain of experimentation and ritual play’. Time and again, the authors find ritual play not as the enactment of superstition, but as the site of social experimentation, as an encyclopaedia of social possibilities. They conclude: 

If something did go terribly wrong in human history—and given the current state of the world, it’s hard to deny that something did—then perhaps it began to go wrong precisely when people started losing that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence, to such a degree that some now feel this particular type of freedom hardly even existed, or was barely exercised, for the greater part of human history.

In particular, they assert that the role of women in cultural invention has been grossly underestimated, writing of ‘Woman, the scientist’: ‘Every time we sit down to breakfast, we are likely benefiting from a dozen… prehistoric inventions. Who was the first person to figure out that you could make bread rise by addition of those microorganisms we call yeasts? We have no idea, but we can be almost certain she was a woman and would most likely not be considered “white”…’

Graeber and Wengrow see their work as one of synthesis, required because while the anthropological and archaeological evidence is available in the academic literature, it is scattered and has not being brought together. This was in part because of the specialization of different fields, but also because of a ‘lack of appropriate language’. They claim that ‘In developing the scientific means to know our own past, we have exposed the mythical substructure of our “social science”—what once appeared unassailable axioms, the stable points around which our self-knowledge is organized, are scattering like mice’.

The book can be seen as constructed at the intersection of two forms of inquiry. One, drawing on the vast amount of evidence being turned up though modern research, provides narratives of cultural arrangements and political beliefs, across time and around the globe. I have chosen to summarize just four examples. The first comes from North America. From a careful examination of documentary evidence, we learn that the European Enlightenment ideas of freedom and rational debate did not arise sui generis. Rather, early Europeans in North America—Jesuit priests and French diplomats among them—were quite shocked to see the resistance to hierarchy, the value placed on personal freedom, and the quality of political debate in indigenous American societies. Indigenous Americans in turn regarded European societies, with their strict hierarchy, violence, and lack for freedom, with ‘outrage and distaste’. News of North American societies returned across the Atlantic in diaries and travel accounts of European travellers, and through the visits of people like the Wendat philosopher statesman Kandiaronk. European thinkers began to see their society from the outside and were deeply influenced by this emphasis on individual autonomy and freedom as consummate values, leading to debates about the nature of authority and freedom— which our politicians now claim as distinctly ‘European’ values.

In another review of evidence, Graeber and Wengrow show how Paleolithic societies were not limited to small, egalitarian hunter-gather bands. There was no ‘revolution’ at which point human society began to take off. There is, rather, evidence of a variety of social forms, including ‘princely burials’ and ‘grand communal buildings’, from very early in human history: ‘from the very beginning, or at least as far back as we can trace, human beings were self-consciously experimenting with different social possibilities’. The authors argue that what makes distinctively human society is the creation of cultural forms that resist to the dominance of the powerful; that human beings, as self-conscious political actors, have ‘moved back and forth between different social arrangements, assembling and disassembling hierarchies on a regular basis.’

A further important set of evidence is presented about the development of agriculture. Farming did not arrive in an ‘agricultural revolution’ in the Fertile Crescent.  Rather, there were some fifteen to twenty independent centres of domestication across the world, all of which followed quite different cultural paths: ‘None formed a linear transition from food production to state formation’. We tend to see agriculture through the lens of the last few centuries in which Old World domesticates dominate environments worldwide—which is itself the outcome of colonialism and capitalism. In earlier times the picture is much more complex, with societies moving in and out of farming, or hovering on the threshold in what the authors call ‘play farming’. ‘Fluid ecological arrangement—combining garden cultivation, flood retreat farming on the margins of lakes and springs, small-scale landscape management… and the corralling or keeping of animals… combined with a spectrum of hunting, fishing and collecting activities… [were] sustained for thousands of years’.

Later in the book, the authors turn to the evolution of cities and the ‘state’. There is a chapter on ‘Hiding in plain sight’ which charts ‘the indigenous origins of social housing and democracy in the Americas’ and several discussions of the origins of cities in both their autocratic and more egalitarian forms. One particularly interesting example is Tlaxcala, a society in Meso America at the time of the Spanish invasion. Tlazcala might be described as a republic (back to the difficulties of appropriate language), with a ‘mature urban parliament, which sought consensus for its decisions through reasoned argument and lengthy deliberations.’ According to contemporary Spanish sources, this parliament debated—at length—whether to ally with Cortes against the dominant Aztec Empire, giving us a glimpse of collective indigenous government. Later, we learn of the city now known as Cahokia, which existed from roughly 1050 to 1350 on the Mississippi plain where East St Louis now stands. It appears to have been the capital of what might be called a ‘grain state’ built on an agricultural surplus. Archaeological evidence charts the growth of the city, the rise of social hierarchy and religious domination, and its dominance over a large area. Then it appears that the city simply collapsed. The evidence suggests that there was a mass defection: whatever the cause, the inhabitants simply walked away. But they took with them extremely unpleasant memories, leading cultural resistance to hierarchy and the establishment of far smaller ‘tribal republics’ across the region.

These are just a few summaries of the detailed evidence to support conclusions about the huge variety of social arrangements through human history. Graeber and Wengrow examine these examples in the light of conceptual structures that help us understand dominance and freedom. They articulate three elementary forms of dominance: the control of violence, the control of information, and individual charisma. The monopoly of violence has been seen as a hallmark of the modern state since Hobbs. The control of information arises through technical or spiritual know-how and leads to the establishment of a priestly caste and/or bureaucracy. Charisma is the most ephemeral of the three: there are always some people more attractive, or persuasive than others—or, dare I add, more blatant liars. All three of these seem to come together in the modern state, but Graeber and Wengrow argue that these three forms of dominance are not necessarily bound together. They show, for example, evidence of stable societies without large scale domination, in which large numbers of people lived over many centuries. 

They also refer to ‘three primordial freedoms’: the freedom to move, the freedom to disobey, and the freedom to create and transform social relations. These freedoms are essential points of resistance to domination. ‘Freedom’, they point out, derives from the German word meaning ‘friend’, one who is free to make commitments and promises. This notion of freedom, they suggest, is lost when those promises become impersonal, transferable, in other words bureaucratized.

We must read the book knowing that they bring a perspective: Graeber, in particular, was a committed anarchist, as well as an activist academic with influence on the Occupy and other movements. The anarchist perspective holds that people can get along perfectly well without governments. Wengrow holds his political commitments more privately, although in the acknowledgments he is clear that their styles of writing and thought converged over the years of conversation that led to the book. But the book has the benefit of transparency in this regard: the authors are not shy to let us know the direction of their arguments.

The Dawn of Everything is a big, serious book full of evidence and argument. At a total of nearly 700 pages (including extensive notes and references) it takes a commitment to read (and is heavy on the lap!). It will appeal to those who have enjoyed other big, serious, non-fiction books like Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, Merlin Sheldrake’s. Entangled Life, and William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy. In some ways it is an academic book, drawing on research and seeking to influence the informed debate. But is written with a clarity and regular recapitulations that makes it accessible to the serious lay reader. In particular, the extensive and capitalized headings of the sections offer helpful signposts. One in particular might summarise the whole book: IN WHICH, ARMED WITH NEW KNOWLEDGE, WE RETHINK SOME BASIC PREMISES OF SOCIAL EVOLUTION.  

This is also a supremely important book, because it opens up our imagination to possibilities of freedom and creativity in our cultural and political arrangements. It contradicts any claims that our political arrangements are the peak of cultural forms. It gives power to those who campaign for new and more creative ways of organizing contemporary politics and societies. We can see, for example, that Extinction Rebellion’s call for citizens’ assemblies with decision making power is not so ‘off the wall’ as might first appear: As David Wengrow writes in the Observer, such calls are ‘not going against the grain of our evolution [but] asking us to reclaim the spark of political creativity… in the hope of discerning a future for the planet we all share”.

Those who don’t feel up to reading the whole book still would gain a lot from just the first and last chapters (although they would miss a lot of fascinating detail). And there are excellent reviews available that would supplement this one, notably in The Observer and The Atlantic. My guess is that the arguments stimulated by this book will influence debate about political and cultural forms over the years to come.

Shiny New Books Logo

Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes regularly for Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. He has written two books of ecological pilgrimage, In Search of Grace (Earth Books, 2017) and Spindrift (Jessica Kingsley, 2014). With artist Sarah Gillespie he has published On Presence: Essays | Drawings in 2019 and On Sentience: Essays | Drawings in 2021, both available directly from the author/artist. Find Peter at peterreason.net, and on Twitter @peterreason.

Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything (Allen Lane, 2021). 978-0241402429, 608pp., hardback.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

About the author

Comments

Do tell us what you think - thank you.

%d bloggers like this: