Human History Gets a Rewrite

By William Deresiewicz, via The Atlantic

Many years ago, when I was a junior professor at Yale, I cold-called a colleague in the anthropology department for assistance with a project I was working on. I didn’t know anything about the guy; I just selected him because he was young, and therefore, I figured, more likely to agree to talk.

Five minutes into our lunch, I realized that I was in the presence of a genius. Not an extremely intelligent person—a genius. There’s a qualitative difference. The individual across the table seemed to belong to a different order of being from me, like a visitor from a higher dimension. I had never experienced anything like it before. I quickly went from trying to keep up with him, to hanging on for dear life, to simply sitting there in wonder.

That person was David Graeber. In the 20 years after our lunch, he published two books; was let go by Yale despite a stellar record (a move universally attributed to his radical politics); published two more books; got a job at Goldsmiths, University of London; published four more books, including Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a magisterial revisionary history of human society from Sumer to the present; got a job at the London School of Economics; published two more books and co-wrote a third; and established himself not only as among the foremost social thinkers of our time—blazingly original, stunningly wide-ranging, impossibly well read—but also as an organizer and intellectual leader of the activist left on both sides of the Atlantic, credited, among other things, with helping launch the Occupy movement and coin its slogan, “We are the 99 percent.”

On September 2, 2020, at the age of 59, David Graeber died of necrotizing pancreatitis while on vacation in Venice. The news hit me like a blow. How many books have we lost, I thought, that will never get written now? How many insights, how much wisdom, will remain forever unexpressed? The appearance of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is thus bittersweet, at once a final, unexpected gift and a reminder of what might have been. In his foreword, Graeber’s co-author, David Wengrow, an archaeologist at University College London, mentions that the two had planned no fewer than three sequels.

And what a gift it is, no less ambitious a project than its subtitle claims. The Dawn of Everything is written against the conventional account of human social history as first developed by Hobbes and Rousseau; elaborated by subsequent thinkers; popularized today by the likes of Jared Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari, and Steven Pinker; and accepted more or less universally. The story goes like this. Once upon a time, human beings lived in small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers (the so-called state of nature). Then came the invention of agriculture, which led to surplus production and thus to population growth as well as private property. Bands swelled to tribes, and increasing scale required increasing organization: stratification, specialization; chiefs, warriors, holy men.

Eventually, cities emerged, and with them, civilization—literacy, philosophy, astronomy; hierarchies of wealth, status, and power; the first kingdoms and empires. Flash forward a few thousand years, and with science, capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution, we witness the creation of the modern bureaucratic state. The story is linear (the stages are followed in order, with no going back), uniform (they are followed the same way everywhere), progressive (the stages are “stages” in the first place, leading from lower to higher, more primitive to more sophisticated), deterministic (development is driven by technology, not human choice), and teleological (the process culminates in us).

It is also, according to Graeber and Wengrow, completely wrong. Drawing on a wealth of recent archaeological discoveries that span the globe, as well as deep reading in often neglected historical sources (their bibliography runs to 63 pages), the two dismantle not only every element of the received account but also the assumptions that it rests on. Yes, we’ve had bands, tribes, cities, and states; agriculture, inequality, and bureaucracy, but what each of these were, how they developed, and how we got from one to the next—all this and more, the authors comprehensively rewrite. More important, they demolish the idea that human beings are passive objects of material forces, moving helplessly along a technological conveyor belt that takes us from the Serengeti to the DMV. We’ve had choices, they show, and we’ve made them. 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.

The bulk of the book (which weighs in at more than 500 pages) takes us from the Ice Age to the early states (Egypt, China, Mexico, Peru). In fact, it starts by glancing back before the Ice Age to the dawn of the species. Homo sapiens developed in Africa, but it did so across the continent, from Morocco to the Cape, not just in the eastern savannas, and in a great variety of regional forms that only later coalesced into modern humans. There was no anthropological Garden of Eden, in other words—no Tanzanian plain inhabited by “mitochondrial Eve” and her offspring. As for the apparent delay between our biological emergence, and therefore the emergence of our cognitive capacity for culture, and the actual development of culture—a gap of many tens of thousands of years—that, the authors tell us, is an illusion. The more we look, especially in Africa (rather than mainly in Europe, where humans showed up relatively late), the older the evidence we find of complex symbolic behavior.

That evidence and more—from the Ice Age, from later Eurasian and Native North American groups—demonstrate, according to Graeber and Wengrow, that hunter-gatherer societies were far more complex, and more varied, than we have imagined. The authors introduce us to sumptuous Ice Age burials (the beadwork at one site alone is thought to have required 10,000 hours of work), as well as to monumental architectural sites like Göbekli Tepe, in modern Turkey, which dates from about 9000 B.C. (at least 6,000 years before Stonehenge) and features intricate carvings of wild beasts. They tell us of Poverty Point, a set of massive, symmetrical earthworks erected in Louisiana around 1600 B.C., a “hunter-gatherer metropolis the size of a Mesopotamian city-state.” They describe an indigenous Amazonian society that shifted seasonally between two entirely different forms of social organization (small, authoritarian nomadic bands during the dry months; large, consensual horticultural settlements during the rainy season). They speak of the kingdom of Calusa, a monarchy of hunter-gatherers the Spanish found when they arrived in Florida. All of these scenarios are unthinkable within the conventional narrative.

The overriding point is that hunter-gatherers made choices—conscious, deliberate, collective—about the ways that they wanted to organize their societies: to apportion work, dispose of wealth, distribute power. In other words, they practiced politics. Some of them experimented with agriculture and decided that it wasn’t worth the cost. Others looked at their neighbors and determined to live as differently as possible—a process that Graeber and Wengrow describe in detail with respect to the Indigenous peoples of Northern California, “puritans” who idealized thrift, simplicity, money, and work, in contrast to the ostentatious slaveholding chieftains of the Pacific Northwest. None of these groups, as far as we have reason to believe, resembled the simple savages of popular imagination, unselfconscious innocents who dwelt within a kind of eternal present or cyclical dreamtime, waiting for the Western hand to wake them up and fling them into history.

The authors carry this perspective forward to the ages that saw the emergence of farming, of cities, and of kings. In the locations where it first developed, about 10,000 years ago, agriculture did not take over all at once, uniformly and inexorably. (It also didn’t start in only a handful of centers—Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Mesoamerica, Peru, the same places where empires would first appear—but more like 15 or 20.) Early farming was typically flood-retreat farming, conducted seasonally in river valleys and wetlands, a process that is much less labor-intensive than the more familiar kind and does not conduce to the development of private property. It was also what the authors call “play farming”: farming as merely one element within a mix of food-producing activities that might include hunting, herding, foraging, and horticulture.

Settlements, in other words, preceded agriculture—not, as we’ve thought, the reverse. What’s more, it took some 3,000 years for the Fertile Crescent to go from the first cultivation of wild grains to the completion of the domestication process—about 10 times as long as necessary, recent analyses have shown, had biological considerations been the only ones. Early farming embodied what Graeber and Wengrow call “the ecology of freedom”: the freedom to move in and out of farming, to avoid getting trapped by its demands or endangered by the ecological fragility that it entails.

The authors write their chapters on cities against the idea that large populations need layers of bureaucracy to govern them—that scale leads inevitably to political inequality. Many early cities, places with thousands of people, show no sign of centralized administration: no palaces, no communal storage facilities, no evident distinctions of rank or wealth. This is the case with what may be the earliest cities of all, Ukrainian sites like Taljanky, which were discovered only in the 1970s and which date from as early as roughly 4100 B.C., hundreds of years before Uruk, the oldest known city in Mesopotamia. Even in that “land of kings,” urbanism antedated monarchy by centuries. And even after kings arose, “popular councils and citizen assemblies,” Graeber and Wengrow write, “were stable features of government,” with real power and autonomy. Despite what we like to believe, democratic institutions did not begin just once, millennia later, in Athens.

If anything, aristocracy emerged in smaller settlements, the warrior societies that flourished in the highlands of the Levant and elsewhere, and that are known to us from epic poetry—a form of existence that remained in tension with agricultural states throughout the history of Eurasia, from Homer to the Mongols and beyond. But the authors’ most compelling instance of urban egalitarianism is undoubtedly Teotihuacan, a Mesoamerican city that rivaled imperial Rome, its contemporary, for size and magnificence. After sliding toward authoritarianism, its people abruptly changed course, abandoning monument-building and human sacrifice for the construction of high-quality public housing. “Many citizens,” the authors write, “enjoyed a standard of living that is rarely achieved across such a wide sector of urban society in any period of urban history, including our own.”

And so we arrive at the state, with its structures of central authority, exemplified variously by large-scale kingdoms, by empires, by modern republics—supposedly the climax form, to borrow a term from ecology, of human social organization. What is the state? the authors ask. Not a single stable package that’s persisted all the way from pharaonic Egypt to today, but a shifting combination of, as they enumerate them, the three elementary forms of domination: control of violence (sovereignty), control of information (bureaucracy), and personal charisma (manifested, for example, in electoral politics). Some states have displayed just two, some only one—which means the union of all three, as in the modern state, is not inevitable (and may indeed, with the rise of planetary bureaucracies like the World Trade Organization, be already decomposing). More to the point, the state itself may not be inevitable. For most of the past 5,000 years, the authors write, kingdoms and empires were “exceptional islands of political hierarchy, surrounded by much larger territories whose inhabitants … systematically avoided fixed, overarching systems of authority.”

Is “civilization” worth it, the authors want to know, if civilization—ancient Egypt, the Aztecs, imperial Rome, the modern regime of bureaucratic capitalism enforced by state violence—means the loss of what they see as our three basic freedoms: the freedom to disobey, the freedom to go somewhere else, and the freedom to create new social arrangements? Or does civilization rather mean “mutual aid, social co-operation, civic activism, hospitality [and] simply caring for others”?

These are questions that Graeber, a committed anarchist—an exponent not of anarchy but of anarchism, the idea that people can get along perfectly well without governments—asked throughout his career. The Dawn of Everything is framed by an account of what the authors call the “indigenous critique.” In a remarkable chapter, they describe the encounter between early French arrivals in North America, primarily Jesuit missionaries, and a series of Native intellectuals—individuals who had inherited a long tradition of political conflict and debate and who had thought deeply and spoke incisively on such matters as “generosity, sociability, material wealth, crime, punishment and liberty.”

The Indigenous critique, as articulated by these figures in conversation with their French interlocutors, amounted to a wholesale condemnation of French—and, by extension, European—society: its incessant competition, its paucity of kindness and mutual care, its religious dogmatism and irrationalism, and most of all, its horrific inequality and lack of freedom. The authors persuasively argue that Indigenous ideas, carried back and publicized in Europe, went on to inspire the Enlightenment (the ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy, they note, had theretofore been all but absent from the Western philosophical tradition). They go further, making the case that the conventional account of human history as a saga of material progress was developed in reaction to the Indigenous critique in order to salvage the honor of the West. We’re richer, went the logic, so we’re better. The authors ask us to rethink what better might actually mean.

The Dawn of Everything is not a brief for anarchism, though anarchist values—antiauthoritarianism, participatory democracy, small-c communism—are everywhere implicit in it. Above all, it is a brief for possibility, which was, for Graeber, perhaps the highest value of all. The book is something of a glorious mess, full of fascinating digressions, open questions, and missing pieces. It aims to replace the dominant grand narrative of history not with another of its own devising, but with the outline of a picture, only just becoming visible, of a human past replete with political experiment and creativity.

“How did we get stuck?” the authors ask—stuck, that is, in a world of “war, greed, exploitation [and] systematic indifference to others’ suffering”? It’s a pretty good question. “If something did go terribly wrong in human history,” they write, “then perhaps it began to go wrong precisely when people started losing that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence.” It isn’t clear to me how many possibilities are left us now, in a world of polities whose populations number in the tens or hundreds of millions. But stuck we certainly are.

There are 6 Comments

excited to read this

maybe it's better this attempt will be unfinished, more fitting? an anarchist unified field theory of history is pretty fukin ambitious but if you die partway through writing it, we can imagine you might have succeeded!

"And what a gift it is, no less ambitious a project than its subtitle claims. The Dawn of Everything is written against the conventional account of human social history as first developed by Hobbes and Rousseau; elaborated by subsequent thinkers; popularized today by the likes of Jared Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari, and Steven Pinker; and accepted more or less universally."

If I wanted to write a book against these conventional accounts, like that of Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature", I'd name it something like "Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed" or "Against the Grain", or even "Against His-Story, Against Leviathan".

"The Dawn of Everything" is how I would name one more book in a long line of conventional accounts of human social history.

well, considering Graeber's endless flirtations with the liberal left (by portraying himself as a targeted academic refused a teaching contract at Yale, that noted hotbed of anarchist professors!) and his constant attempts to position himself in the center of whatever leftist social movement was happening while he was watching (from Occupy, where he refined what was to become the idiotic slogan "We Are the 99%" to Rojava, where he and Milstein toured a few Potemkin villages and sang the praises of the marxist-leninist militants of the YPG), it makes perfect sense that he and his co-author would promote some sort of Unified Field Theory of human history that would appeal to "the masses" as well as mainstream academia. it should probably also be pointed out that Diamond, Harari, and Pinker are all politically center-right, and so come to (perhaps) different conclusions...

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