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The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity Hardcover – 2 December 2021
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For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike - either free and equal, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a reaction to indigenous critiques of European society, and why they are wrong. In doing so, they overturn our view of human history, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery and civilization itself.
Drawing on path-breaking research in archaeology and anthropology, the authors show how history becomes a far more interesting place once we begin to see what's really there. If humans did not spend 95 per cent of their evolutionary past in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, what were they doing all that time? If agriculture, and cities, did not mean a plunge into hierarchy and domination, then what kinds of social and economic organization did they lead to? The answers are often unexpected, and suggest that the course of history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful possibilities than we tend to assume.
The Dawn of Everything fundamentally transforms our understanding of the human past and offers a path toward imagining new forms of freedom, new ways of organizing society. This is a monumental book of formidable intellectual range, animated by curiosity, moral vision and faith in the power of direct action.
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What a gift ... Graeber and Wengrow offer a history of the past 30,000 years that is not only wildly different from anything we're used to, but also far more interesting: textured, surprising, paradoxical, inspiring. -- William Deresiewicz ― The Atlantic
Iconoclastic and irreverent ... an exhilarating read ... As we seek new, sustainable ways to organise our world, we need to understand the full range of ways our ancestors thought and lived. And we must certainly question conventional versions of our history which we have accepted, unexamined, for far too long. -- David Priestland ― The Guardian
Pacey and potentially revolutionary ... This is more than an argument about the past, it is about the human condition in the present. -- Bryan Appleyard ― Sunday Times
A fascinating, radical, and playful entry into a seemingly exhaustively well-trodden genre, the grand evolutionary history of humanity. It seeks nothing less than to completely upend the terms on which the Standard Narrative rests ... erudite, compelling, generative, and frequently remarkably funny ... once you start thinking like Graeber and Wengrow, it's difficult to stop. -- Emily M. Kern ― Boston Review
A spectacular, flashy and ground-breaking retelling of human history, blazing with iconoclastic rebuttals to conventional wisdom. Full of fresh thinking, it's a pleasure to read and offers a bracing challenge on every page. -- Simon Sebag Montefiore ― BBC History
A timely, intriguing, original and provocative take on the most recent thirty thousand years of human history ... consistently thought-provoking ... In forcing us to re-examine some of the cosy assumptions about our deep past, Graeber and Wengrow remind us very clearly of the perils of holding ourselves captive to a deterministic vision of human history as we try to shape our future. -- James Suzman ― Literary Review
An engrossing series of insights ... They re-inject humanity into our distant forebears, suggesting that our prevailing story about human history - that not much innovation occurred in human societies until the invention of agriculture - is utterly wrong. -- Anthony Doerr ― Observer
Fascinating, thought-provoking, groundbreaking. A book that will generate debate for years to come. -- Rutger Bregman
The Dawn of Everything is also the radical revision of everything, liberating us from the familiar stories about humanity's past that are too often deployed to impose limitations on how we imagine humanity's future. Instead they tell us that what human beings are most of all is creative, from the beginning, so that there is no one way we were or should or could be. Another of the powerful currents running through this book is a reclaiming of Indigenous perspectives as a colossal influence on European thought, a valuable contribution to decolonizing global histories. -- Rebecca Solnit
Synthesizing much recent scholarship, The Dawn of Everything briskly overthrows old and obsolete assumptions about the past, renews our intellectual and spiritual resources, and reveals, miraculously, the future as open-ended. It is the most bracing book I have read in recent years. -- Pankaj Mishra
This is not a book. This is an intellectual feast. There is not a single chapter that does not (playfully) disrupt well seated intellectual beliefs. It is deep, effortlessly iconoclastic, factually rigorous, and pleasurable to read. -- Nassim Nicholas Taleb
A fascinating inquiry, which leads us to rethink the nature of human capacities, as well as the proudest moments of our own history, and our interactions with and indebtedness to the cultures and forgotten intellectuals of indigenous societies. Challenging and illuminating. -- Noam Chomsky
Graeber and Wengrow have effectively overturned everything I ever thought about the history of the world ... The authors don't just debunk the myths, they give a thrilling intellectual history of how they came about, why they persist, and what it all means for the just future we hope to create. The most profound and exciting book I've read in thirty years. -- Robin D.G. Kelley, Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History, UCLA, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
Scholarly, irreverent, radical and genuinely ground-breaking - my kind of non-fiction. -- Emma Dabiri
A fascinating, intellectually challenging big book about big ideas.― Kirkus
A work of dizzying ambition, one that seeks to rescue stateless societies from the condescension with which they're usually treated ... Our forebears crafted their societies intentionally and intelligently: This is the fundamental, electrifying insight of The Dawn of Everything. It's a book that refuses to dismiss long-ago peoples as corks floating on the waves of prehistory. Instead, it treats them as reflective political thinkers from whom we might learn something. -- Daniel Immerwahr ― The Nation
Not content with different answers to the great questions of human history, Graeber and Wengrow insist on revolutionizing the very questions we ask. The result: a dazzling, original, and convincing account of the rich, playful, reflective, and experimental symposia that 'pre-modern' indigenous life represents; and a challenging re-writing of the intellectual history of anthropology and archaeology. The Dawn of Everything deserves to become the port of embarkation for virtually all subsequent work on these massive themes. Those who do embark will have, in the two Davids, incomparable navigators. -- James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology, Yale University, author of Seeing Like a State
Graeber and Wengrow debug cliches about humanity's deep history to open up our thinking about what's possible in the future. There is no more vital or timely project. -- Jaron Lanier
About the Author
David Wengrow is a professor of comparative archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, and has been a visiting professor at New York University. He is the author of three books, including What Makes Civilization?. Wengrow conducts archaeological fieldwork in various parts of Africa and the Middle East.
- Publisher : Allen Lane; 1st edition (2 December 2021)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 704 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0241402425
- ISBN-13 : 978-0241402429
- Dimensions : 16.2 x 4.5 x 24 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 1,823 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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And it’s thrilling. It’s empirically rigorous despite the breezy (often funny, sometimes scorching) tone. And I hope it shatters the existing view of prehistory in the popular imagination, because Graeber and Wengrow are categorically right that said view is factually wrong, politically disastrous, and astonishingly boring.
The way I see it, this book is tackling two necessarily interrelated projects at the same time. First, it marshals mountains of evidence from all over the world and all periods of time to make the argument that from the very beginning—ca. 300,000 years ago—human beings have lived together in an astonishing variety of arrangements and that none of those arrangements has any single point of origin, or single scalar or economic correlate: tiny hunter-gatherer bands can be fastidiously democratic or violently authoritarian; industrial cities have existed at the heart of empires and in the total absence of sovereign government altogether. These societies have been peaceful and violent; patriarchal and matriarchal; slaveholding and abolitionist. Many societies have deliberately and self-consciously moved between different forms of social and political organization at different times of year, or deliberately reoriented themselves toward another way of living in the space of a generation or two. In other words, the human career has been marked by an extraordinary variety of political and social possibilities that most modern people not only don’t KNOW about, but do not IMAGINE to be possible.
And so the second project Graeber and Wengrow take on with this book is to reconstruct how we came to be so intellectually shackled as to think that many of the ways people have organized themselves are not only unusual or hard to achieve or whatever—but actually not even possible at all (they implicitly invoke Ostrom’s Law: “what’s possible in practice must be possible in theory,” and illustrate how prevailing theories of human’s history run afoul of it). They trace the history of thought that elevated a completely unscientific set of Enlightenment origin myths (Hobbes’s bit about life before the state being “nasty, brutish, and short,” and Rousseau’s about the idyllic pre-agricultural “state of nature”) to the scientific canon. And they counter by saying, in essence, that both of these ideas are testable scientific hypotheses, and they are both demonstrably and catastrophically wrong.
What that should make clear is that any claim that this book is romantic—or, as an earlier Amazon reviewer said, “woke revisionism” (that person went on to invoke Ye Olde “days of kings and serfs,” and the “way our ancestors actually lived,” which is an interesting way of establishing authority by demonstrating total lack of subject knowledge. But I digress—has not actually read the book. This book abounds with examples of all sorts of human unpleasantness, along with all sorts of social wonders. That is, in fact, the point: Graeber and Wengrow demonstrate that ancient and non-western societies obey no evolutionary taxonomy, no linear moral or organizational trajectory. Rather they demonstrate that people have always made choices about how to live together, that some of those choices have had better or more durable consequences than others, and that by telling ourselves a simplistic and teleological myth about the relationship between political organization and economic organization or social scale, we have dramatically limited our ability to imagine better ways of doing things.
To my enormous frustration, reviews of this book in major outlets (notably the NYT) have rhetorically asked "how can we know whether all of the facts presented in this book are true?” but never actually bothered to ask anyone qualified to answer that question.
(They have instead played up a silly and minor flap about a single claim early in the book, which is easily resolved if you understand the difference between reading an entire document and reading its abstract. It isn’t my turf, but Wengrow’s comments on the matter thoroughly convinced me. Emily Kern has a whole section on this in her excellent review of TDoE for Boston Review.)
So let me do so: In all the areas directly touched by my expertise, this book gets it right. So much so that most of the material they survey is in no way “revolutionary”: these are things that have been fixtures of archaeology courses for decades, and they are not controversial. That Poverty Point was a vast, monumental building project carried out by hunter-gatherers who did not permanently live on-site is not something new: it is the reason Poverty Point is a world heritage site (and if you don’t have much patience, the world expert on Poverty Point, T.R. Kidder, has a great YouTube video where the whole argument is laid out with cartoons). That Tlaxcallan in 16th Century Mexico was a republic is not new, or revisionist, or “woke”: Cortez literally calls it a republic in his letter to the king of Spain, and more recent archaeological and ethnohistoric research published in major journals has borne this observation out.
What is novel and revolutionary about this book is not the evidence it presents, but rather the coherent argument it makes about the diversity of social and political life across the sweep of the human story.
Synthesis is a process of simplification, and so any synthetic work necessarily simplifies and condenses the source material in the service of a larger argument. Graeber and Wengrow of course do that here, and there is no reason to fault them for it. Where they address the things I have published on, they demonstrate far better respect for and command of the published literature than other big syntheses published by non-anthropologists (which makes sense; they actually know this literature because they’ve spent decades immersed in it). They cite everything I would have hoped for a big synthetic treatment to cite, and then some. Their reading of the literature in fast-moving subfields is extremely current. Glancing through the acknowledgements, it is clear that they enlisted the very experts I would have pointed them to as guides to some of the case studies that emerge as particularly important in their book, like Teotihuacan in Central Mexico.
So while they may simplify and sometimes offer interpretations that are a little bit out of the mainstream, they do not misrepresent and their interpretations are still well-constrained by the evidence. Which brings me to another important point:
“Speculative.” When archaeology challenges a particular cherished origin story (like this one, my favorite: “women like to shop because they instinctively want to gather berries, since back in cave man days…”), the inevitable rejoinder is that archaeology is speculative, so people can go on believing whatever they want about the past. Again, a lot of major media reviews have lobbed The S Word, without referring to a single archaeologist for comment. This is crap. Archaeology is not speculative. Archaeological interpretations are constrained by evidence, and the more evidence one has the fewer and fewer viable interpretations of that evidence there are. That multiple hypothesis can remain viable despite evidence at hand does not render a science speculative: it makes it a science, one whose precision at describing reality improves with time. And so anybody who comes out and says “this is all really speculative, so I’m going to stick with Hobbes” has no concept of how science works, or of just how much archaeologists know about the ancient world. This book is imaginative—a high compliment—but not speculative. There is a difference.
In sum: This is a really, really good book. You should read it.
What makes Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything an instant classic is its comprehensive scientific demolition of this myth – what they call ‘the Myth of the Stupid Savage’. Not a shred of archaeological evidence tells us that the picture of the human past is remotely close to what the foundational myth suggests. Instead, what the available evidence shows is that the trajectory of human history has been a good deal more diverse and exciting and less boring than we tend to assume because, in an important sense, it has never been a trajectory. We never permanently lived in tiny hunter-gatherer bands. We also were never permanently egalitarian. If there is a defining trait of our prehistorical condition it is its bewildering capacity of shifting, almost constantly, across a diverse array of social systems of all kinds of political, economic, and religious nature. Graeber and Wengrow’s suggestion is that the only way to explain this kaleidoscopic variety of social forms is to assume that our ancestors were not actually that stupid, but were instead self-conscious political actors, capable of fashioning their own social arrangements depending on circumstances. More often than not, people would choose to switch seasonally between socio-political identities as to avoid the perils of lasting authoritarian power. And so, rather than asking ‘Why did inequality arise?’ the most interesting question to pose about human history becomes ‘Why did we get stuck with it?’ This is only one of many kindred claims advanced in this astounding new book.
The book draws much of its value from its eclectic approach. David Wengrow is a professor of comparative archaeology at UCL. He is well-known for his work on early cultural and political transformations in Africa and Eurasia. David Graeber, who died suddenly in September 2020, was a professor of anthropology at LSE, widely regarded as the most brilliant of his generation. Together, they explore a suite of recent archaeological findings that prove anomalous to the standard narrative (for instance, the existence of ancient large-scale egalitarian cities), but that, until now, had only been privy to a handful of experts who never quite unravelled the implications. Archaeological discoveries are therein appraised from anthropological eyes. The result is a sweeping tour into the past that hops from continent to continent and from one social sphere to another to tell stories that, depending on the reader’s familiarity with the archaeological record, might come as revelations.
We learn, for instance, that the uniformity in material culture across Eurasia in the Upper Palaeolithic meant that people lived in a large-scale imagined community spanning continents, putting to rest the idea that ‘primitives’ only spent their time in isolated bands. Counter-intuitively, the scale of single societies decreased over the course of human history as populations grew larger. From monumental sites such as Göbekli Tepe in Turkey or Hopewell in Ohio, we learn that people would seasonally come together from distant lands in what appear to have been large centres of cultural interactions for recreation and the exchange of knowledge. Journeying great distances while expecting to be welcomed into an extended community was a typical feature of our ancestors’ lives.
The book then pivots to agriculture. The received view has it that the birth of agriculture meant the more or less automatic emergence of stratified societies. Yet, this assumption runs into problems once we consider a phenomenon like ‘play farming’ across Amazonia, where acephalous societies like the Nambikwara, though familiar with techniques of plant domestication, consciously decided not to make agriculture the basis for their economy and to opt for a more relaxed approach that switched flexibly between foraging and cultivation. (Agriculture generally emerged in the absence of easier alternatives.) Further, we learn that some of the first agricultural societies of the Middle East formed themselves as egalitarian and peaceful responses to the predatory foragers of the surrounding hills. It was mostly women, here, that propelled the growth of agricultural science. We also learn that complex works of irrigation in some such places were executed communally without chiefs, and even where structures of hierarchy existed, these works were accomplished despite authority, not because of it. The gradual spread of agriculture across the globe was far less unilinear than anyone had previously guessed.
In what’s perhaps the best chapter of the book, the authors move on to examine cities. Nowadays, large-scale egalitarian cities, the mere idea of it, smacks of utopianism; but Graeber and Wengrow argue that it shouldn’t when we start thinking of cities as the coalescence, in a single physical space, of already existing extended imagined communities with their own egalitarian ethos and norms – first happening seasonally, then more stationarily, as conscious experiments in urban form. Sites like Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia and many others offer incontrovertible evidence of the past existence of such cities, where no sign of authoritarian rule can be found. (Generally, when these are found, they stand out in the form of palaces, temples, fortification, etc.) Other ancient cities like Cahokia in Mississippi or Shimao in China exhibit evidence of a temporal succession of different political orders, sometimes moving from authoritarian to egalitarian, which leaves the possibility of urban revolutions as a likely explanation for the change.
The final chapters focus on the ‘state’. Or better, on how misleading it is to define societies like the Inka or the Aztecs as ‘incipient states’ because these were far more diverse than what this straitjacket term would make us think. From the Olmec and the Chavin societies in Mesoamerica to the Shilluk of South Sudan, The Dawn of Everything offers a taste of the variety of authoritarian structures throughout history. By the end of the book, we encounter the archaeological gem that is Minoan Crete – a ‘beautiful irritant for archaeology’ – where all evidence points to the existence of an ancient system of female political rule, most likely a theocracy run by a college of priestesses.
There is much more. The leitmotif running through the chapters is that if we want to make sense of all these phenomena, we are obliged to put human collective intentionality back into the picture of human history, as a genuine explanatory variable. To assume, that is, that our ancestors were imaginative beings who were eminently capable of self-consciously creating their social arrangements. The authors by no means discount the importance of ecological determinants. Rather, they see their effort as moving the dial to a more sensible position within the agency–determinism continuum, which usually only takes one extreme. The key upshot is that this newfound view of our past equips us with an expanded sense of possibilities as to what we might do with ourselves in the future. Fatalistic sentiments about human nature melt away upon turning the pages.
Staying true to Ostrom’s law – ‘whatever works in practice must work in theory’ – Graeber and Wengrow set out a new framework for interpreting the social reality brought to light by empirical findings. Firstly, they urge us to abandon terms like ‘simple’ or ‘complex’ societies, let alone the ‘origin of the state’ or ‘origin of social complexity’. These terms already presuppose the kind of teleological thinking challenged in the book. The same goes for ‘modes of production’: whether a society relies on farming or fishing is a poor criterion for classification because it tells us almost nothing about its social dynamics. Secondly, they lay out some new descriptive categories of their own. They show, for instance, that social domination can be broken down into three elements – control of violence, control of knowledge, and charismatic power – and that permutations of these elements yield consistent patterns throughout history. While the modern nation state embodies all three, most hierarchical societies of the past had only one or two, and this allowed for the people who lived under them degrees of freedom that are barely imaginable for us today.
Graeber and Wengrow reflect at length on this last point. More than a work on the history of inequality, The Dawn of Everything is a treatise on human freedom. In parsing the anthropological record, they identify three types of freedom – freedom to abandon one’s community (knowing one will be welcomed in faraway lands), freedom to reshuffle the political system (often seasonally), and freedom to disobey authorities without consequences – that appear to have been simply assumed by our ancestors but are now largely lost (obviously, their conclusion is a far cry from Rousseau’s: there is nothing inevitable about this loss!). This analysis flips the question one should really be asking about the historical development of hierarchy: “The real puzzle is not when chiefs first appeared”, they suggest, “but rather when it was no longer possible to simply laugh them out of court.”
So much of what makes this book fascinating is the alien nature of what we encounter within, at least to contemporary eyes. Potlaches, headhunting and skull portraits, stranger kings, revolutions, shamanic art, vision quests… The Dawn of Everything reads like a work of sci-fi, except that what turns out to be fictional is our received view of human history. The writing is often funny, sometimes hilarious. At the same time, because hardly a paragraph goes by without bequeathing insight, this is a book that needs to be patiently taken in. It sits in a different class to all the other volumes on world history we are accustomed to reading.
The Dawn of Everything intellectually dwarfs the likes of Pinker, Diamond, or Fukuyama (and Harari too). Whenever non-specialists try their hands at human history, they inevitably end up reproducing the same old myths we have grown up with. Consider Steven Pinker: for all his talk about scientific progress, his books might as well have been written at the times of Hobbes, in the 17th century, when none of the evidence unearthed recently was available. Graeber and Wengrow casually expose these popular authors’ startling incompetence at handling the anthropological record. Only a solid command of the latter – namely, of the full documented range of human possibilities – affords a credible interpretative lens over the distant past. For it supplies the researcher with a refined sense of the rhythms of human history.
One of the experiences of delving into this book, at least in my case, was a gradual recognition of being in the presence of an intellectual oddity, something difficult to situate within the current landscape of social theory. By embracing once again the ‘grand narrative’, the book makes a clean break with post-structuralist and post-humanist trends widespread in contemporary academia. We know that Graeber, at least, liked to think himself as a ‘pre-humanist’, actively expecting to see humanity realise its full potential. One can certainly see this work as a contribution in that direction. One can also see The Dawn of Everything as belonging to the tradition of the Enlightenment (except that one of the other major claims in the book is that Enlightenment thought developed largely in response to indigenous intellectuals’ critiques of European society of the time). As for how it squares with current archaeological and anthropological theory, the book is of such a real sweep that I don’t think it admits easy comparisons.
If comparisons must be made, they should be made with works of similar calibre in other fields, most credibly, I venture, with the works of Galileo or Darwin. Graeber and Wengrow do to human history what the first two did to astronomy and biology respectively. The book produces a similar decentring effect: in dethroning our self-appointed position at the pinnacle of social evolution, it deals a blow to the teleological thinking that so insidiously shape our understanding of history. With the exception that while works such as Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems and On the Origin of Species hinted at the relative insignificance of humans in the face of the cosmos, The Dawn of Everything explores all the possibilities we have to act within it. And if Galileo and Darwin stirred turmoil of their own, this will do even more so for precisely this reason. Ultimately, a society that accepts the story presented here as its official origin story – a story that is taught in its schools, that seeps into its public consciousness – will have to be radically different than the society we are currently living in.
This is exciting and amazing. If my history classes ever taught this, I would have paid attention. Much more than a series of thoughts, more a criticism of how we think in terms of history and our relationship to the people therein.
In short: I love this book.