Look Back in Anger

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by david graeber and david wengrow. new york: farrar, straus and giroux. 705 pages. $35.

The cover of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

ONCE UPON A TIME, humans lived in small, nomadic, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then, several thousand years ago, they domesticated plants and animals, discovered agriculture, and grew sedentary, eventually erecting cities, which gave rise to civilization—emperors, taxes, public works, the DMV. This was either a good thing (Hobbes) or a bad thing (Rousseau).

So the story goes; maybe you heard it in college. Anthropologists and archaeologists have understood for decades it’s not true. James C. Scott summed up what we now know of early humanity in Against the Grain (2017): “It turns out that sedentism long preceded evidence of plant and animal domestication and that both sedentism and domestication were in place at least four millennia before anything like agricultural villages appeared.” The societies of early humans, like those of later Indigenous groups, were in fact wildly heterogeneous and complex, only rarely conforming to the textbook stereotype. The same society might be egalitarian and nomadic for part of the year, authoritarian and sedentary for another part. Our own stratified civilization, defined by domination and coercion, seems monochromatic in contrast, as the late American anthropologist David Graeber and the British archaeologist David Wengrow (henceforth G&W) argue in The Dawn of Everything.

One way to read this unwieldy book, with its sixty-two-page bibliography, is as a grand tour of societies from prehistory to the eighteenth century once classed by anthropologists as “primitive” according to the evolutionary model that Dawn blows to smithereens. The Kwakiutl peoples of the Northwest Coast practiced chattel slavery; their neighbors to the south in what is now California, the Yurok, did not. At Göbekli Tepe in modern Turkey, foragers erected intricately carved megaliths six thousand years before Stonehenge. The Natchez Great Sun wielded absolute power over his subjects but rarely left the Great Village, so most Natchez just stayed out of his reach. The Kwakiutl were aristocratic during winter but splintered into clan formations for the summer fishing season. Cheyenne and Lakota appointed an authoritarian police force to keep order during the buffalo hunt then dispersed into small, “anarchic” bands. The ancient Mesoamerican Olmec of present-day Mexico appear to have organized their society in part around ball games, erecting colossal stone heads depicting helmeted champions. And Chavín de Huántar in northern Peru in the first millennium BCE, with its sophisticated cut-stone architecture and monumental sculpture—well, if the authors are to be believed, it was a gigantic memory palace, a storehouse for imagistic records of shamanic journeys and hallucinogenic visions.

G&W demonstrate that societies did not necessarily develop from agriculture to settlements to cities to states—even the classic case of the Fertile Crescent is more complicated than that. Indeed, a given society might alternate between farming and foraging, settling down for one season, on the move the next, rigidly aristocratic part of the year, egalitarian the rest. Some societies whose complexity and sophistication rivaled those of ancient Egypt or China do not appear to have been “states” in any strict sense. And some early cities in Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, Ukraine, and China had neither kings nor class divisions nor administrative hierarchies, exhibiting “such extreme variability as to imply . . . a conscious experimentation in urban form.”

Prehistoric Nswatugi cave paintings, Matobo Hills, Zimbabwe, 2013. K8Carine/Wikicommons
Prehistoric Nswatugi cave paintings, Matobo Hills, Zimbabwe, 2013. K8Carine/Wikicommons

None of this is exactly news, but it has yet to penetrate the bunk-history best-seller set. G&W drag Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, and Yuval Noah Harari to the woodshed for writing big dumb books about how society works that regurgitate fundamental errors about early human history. They quote a sample of Diamond’s hand-waving confidence as typical of the genre:

Large populations can’t function without leaders who make the decisions, executives who carry out the decisions, and bureaucrats who administer the decisions and laws. Alas for all you readers who are anarchists and dream of living without any state government, those are the reasons why your dream is unrealistic: you’ll have to find some tiny band or tribe willing to accept you, where no one is a stranger, and where kings, presidents, and bureaucrats are unnecessary. 

Diamond is, as G&W claim, simply mouthing “prejudices dressed up as facts, or even as laws of history.” In truth, large populations have existed without kings, presidents, or bureaucrats, and tiny bands are not especially likely to be egalitarian. So “how inevitable, really,” G&W write, “were the type of governments we have today, with their particular fusion of territorial sovereignty, intense administration and competitive politics? Was this really the necessary culmination of human history?” In one sense, the question is at least as old as Aristotle: “Or was that only possible which came to pass?” as Stephen Dedalus puts it in Ulysses

Of course G&W are really asking about humanity’s future. What they ultimately want to know isn’t “How did early humans live?” but “How did we get stuck? Can we get unstuck?” Yet does a more accurate understanding of the past tell us more about what sort of systemic social alternatives are now possible than do Diamond’s and Pinker’s reductive misapprehensions? Turn it around: if Diamond were right and no large society had ever existed without administrative hierarchies, would that necessarily imply anything about whether such a society could exist? Just how relevant is the history of, e.g., pre-Columbian North American civilization to the trillion-tentacled Apple Store we call global society? G&W cite Marx’s dictum from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte—“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please”—but place far more emphasis on the first clause than on the second. (The authors’ grasp of Marx is generally tenuous: they devote several pages to a critique of the concept of “modes of production” that unwittingly repeats arguments Marxists themselves—Rosa Luxemburg and Perry Anderson, to name two—made long ago.)

Thus G&W can give the impression that some cultures resisted farming for so long because it was more fun to hunt; and they argue that Gregory Bateson’s concept of “schismogenesis,” the “process by which cultures define themselves against each other,” explains the differences between, for instance, the Kwakiutl and the Yurok. G&W write that their “intention is simply to treat those who created these forms of culture as intelligent adults, capable of reflecting on the social worlds they were building or rejecting,” and they are surely right to do so. But this arrives just after the concession that the “intersection of environment and technology does make a difference, often a huge difference,” and just before the claim that “precisely where one wishes to set the dial between freedom and determinism is largely a matter of taste.” Indeed, the authors come perilously close to suggesting that people make their own history largely as a matter of taste.

As soon as I register these reservations, however, I draw back, lest I fall into the opposite trap, emphasizing Marx’s subordinate over his main clause. G&W push back against the fatalism that assumes that things have to be this way, that this world, which everyone admits is fucked up, is the best we can do or could have done. It can only be good to reiterate that everyday life has been artificially severed from historical consciousness. To be clear, it is my most fervent hope that we can and will demolish this administered society and build one without cops or bosses or landlords or leaders. 

My pessimism arises from a recognition, which G&W share, that capitalism has dissolved the older forms of collective relations that permitted such variability and experimentation in the communities celebrated in The Dawn of Everything. We live in a world of ecocide, climate apocalypse, nuclear warheads, mass surveillance, overwhelming repressive technologies. A totality, a war, without any historical precedent. Where would you even begin to attack it?

PERHAPS THE MOST SALUTARY LESSON of this maddening, wonderful book, then, is that while there is no single answer to the question of how to secure human freedom, the question is one that humans have always asked and, presumably, always will. G&W write of “the indigenous critique,” whereby colonized peoples again and again launched a “consistent moral and intellectual assault on European society.” The authors make a compelling case that such Enlightenment ideals as “freedom, equality and democracy” originate not in the Western tradition but with “indigenous commentators and observers of European society” like the Wendat statesman Kandiaronk. This remarkable person informed his French interlocutors that he and his people found the very basis of their society, private property, as well as the European system of law and punishment, positively barbaric: “I still can’t think of a single way [Europeans] act that’s not inhuman, and I genuinely think this can only be the case, as long as you stick to your distinctions of ‘mine’ and ‘thine.’”

Whose is the savage mind? In Seasonal Associate, an account of temp labor at an Amazon fulfillment center, Heike Geissler writes, “Of course you’ve heard tales of people who walk miles every day through terrible weather to get to work and back, but those are stories from a time when it was perfectly normal to be subjugated.” Geissler’s memoir tells us that it is, to this day, perfectly normal to be subjugated. The Dawn of Everything tells us that there were times—much of human existence, in fact—when it was not.

Michael Robbins is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Walkman (Penguin Books, 2021). He is an associate professor of English at Montclair State University.