I first encountered David Graeber in early 2011, pitching his new book “Debt – The First 5000 Years” on rtv’s Keiser Report. That was before the anthropologist got world famous for “Debt” and the OWS slogan: “We are the “99%”. He told Keiser that when he started “Debt” he had no idea he was about to write a book about money. Keiser was nodding knowingly. Reading “Debt” was a massive eye opener on my learning curve. I am confident his late book will be, too. ‘This is not a book. This is an intellectual feast’, says Nassim Nicholas Taleb, not someone known for gratuitous generosity in his book reviews.

>archeology history civilisation power state power inequality – relevant articles – updates 4-2022

The Dawn of Everything


reviews here 11/2021 The Dawn of Everything – A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow

‘Pacey and potentially revolutionary’ Sunday Times

‘Iconoclastic and irreverent … an exhilarating read’ The Guardian

‘Boldly ambitious, entertaining and thought-provoking’ Observer

‘This is not a book. This is an intellectual feast’ Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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.

‘Fascinating, thought-provoking, groundbreaking. A book that will generate debate for years to come’ Rutger Bregman

‘Graeber and Wengrow have effectively overturned everything I ever thought about the history of the world. The most profound and exciting book I’ve read in thirty years’ Robin D. G. Kelley 11/2021 sampleThe Dawn of Everything Is Not a Book About the Origins of Inequality – Or, Why Rousseau and Hobbes Can Suck It – By David Graeber and David Wengrow 2019 La sagesse de Kandiaronk : la critique indigène, le mythe du progrès et la naissance de la Gauche – by David Graeber

Graeber, David; Wengrow, David. The Dawn of Everything – samples Recent advances in science have allowed us to discover more about early human societies than ever before. From egalitarian early cities in Mexico and Mesopotamia to part-time kings and queens in Ice Age Europe, this ambitious new world history brings together the latest scholarship and archaeological evidence to tell a new story about the last 30,000 years. An intellectual collaboration between the anthropologist David Graeber and the archaeologist David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything challenges our assumptions about the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy and slavery and, in doing this, overturns everything we thought we knew about human behaviour. It also offers a path toward imagining new forms of freedom and new ways of organising society. 17-12-2021 The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity – Wengrow shares 5 key insights from their new bookThe Dawn of Everything: A New History of HumanityListen to the audio version—read by Wengrow himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

More David Graeber on YouTube

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reviews 24-1-2022 The Dawn of Everything: Review By Eliza Daley

“The Dawn of Everything was a revelation. The “Everything” from the title may not exactly refer to our past, but it surely may refer to a sweeping revision of how we see ourselves. If so, it could be a dawning for our species — if we survive the mess left over from our present dark night of the collective soul. …

We don’t need to be what the books say we are. Most humans aren’t that person now and never have been. We don’t need to be a part of this system that benefits nobody. There is nothing determined about our social structures or ways of meeting our needs (or… largely not…) We can embrace our “first freedom” and walk away like most humans have done throughout our existence. We might be able to move beyond being allowed to futilely pursue happiness and instead create ways of being that actually make us happy. Again. Because that is the prime message here: we have done all this before. We can do it again. We are not bound to the intangible whims of our forefathers. We can step into another dawning day and leave this darkness behind like the nightmare that it was. We can begin everything again.” 24-1- 2022 The dawn of what? By Jesús Zamora Bonilla

…”…But the third of the liberties is probably the most important for the book’s argument, and also the most problematic from a philosophical point of view. To begin with, it is a freedom totally different from the other two, because the former were to be exercised at the level of single individuals or very small groups (perhaps a few families at most), whereas ‘the freedom to reorganise social relations’ is essentially what we can term a collective capacity: it is the society as a whole who ‘reorganises itself’, through a long and extended process of plural deliberation. Graeber and Wengrow apply this concept to another of the most fundamental ideas of their book: the polemical claim that one of the most important ‘mechanisms’ of differentiation and evolution of human societies is what they call schismogenesis, the capacity of separating and differentiating in a deliberate way from neighbouring communities to which one does one want ‘to look alike’. Our authors devote many pages to argue that this ‘choosing to become different from others’ is one cause of the diversity of human cultures much more important than the ‘ecological’, ‘optimising’, or ‘adaptationist’ mechanisms that (just because they look much more ‘scientific’) are most popular amongst social scientists. And I grant them that this may be as they say: after all, this is what ‘culture’ means, and we must also accept Graeber’s and Wengrow’s claim that human history (or ‘the evolution of cultures’) is utterly unpredictable no matter how many complex quantitative models we try to build in order to corset it. …”… 21-1-2022 The Black Radical Tradition in The Dawn of Everything By Kevin Suemnicht

Amidst ongoing racial injustice, the threat of global climate change, and the disappointing aftermath of the George Floyd Rebellion, is it still possible to imagine a better world than the one we’re currently living within? In their new work, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, David Graeber and David Wengrow answer this question in the affirmative. Yes, human society not only can be different but for much of human history, it was, in fact, very different. The product of a decade years of writing and exchange between the two authors, this book seeks nothing less than to turn our assumptions about human history on its head. In doing so, the authors confirm the Fanonian positions within the Black Radical Tradition that this world-system is inherently anti-Black and only global revolution can resolve it.

According to the standard view of our species’ history, humans once lived as hunter-gathers in a state of primitive equality. The adoption of agriculture eventually forced these ancient societies to adopt hierarchical forms of the command, and this allowed humanity to produce greater forms of complexity such as cities and global empires. This perspective – the evolutionary theory of human history – views other non-agricultural and non-urban societies as holdovers from a previous stage of human development.

The Dawn of Everything challenges this notion. The authors demonstrate that throughout our history, human societies have vacillated very radically. At times humanity lived within the throes of hierarchical violence where the masses were resigned to slavery and toil. At other times, those at the bottom of society created livelihoods based upon freedom and mutual aid. 

Debates about the origins of humanity have frequently revolved around the question of the origins of inequality. Surprisingly, the authors argue that this is the wrong question to ask, since, posed in this way, it assumes that humans once lived in a state of equality but have since fallen from grace. The authors argue that searching for the origins of inequality ultimately forces us to search for a time prior to inequality. This, in turn, leads to a historical model of social evolution that the authors see little evidence for. Instead, they ask why European thinkers began to consider human history in terms of the rise of inequality to begin with.

The surprising answer is that debates about equality (as well as liberty, the nature of government, and other cornerstone ideas of the Enlightenment) were in fact the result of an encounter between colonists and indigenous critics of European society. Indigenous critics pointed out the stark lack of freedom among the colonists. Through reasoned debate, indigenous thinkers like Wendat philosopher Kandiaronk argued for the superiority of indigenous society where individual freedom and the communist ethos of “to each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” prevailed.

Given the radicalism of this critique, much of what became the standard story of human civilization was in fact a way of censoring this critique. Non-European peoples were relegated to lower rungs of an evolutionary ladder that culminated in Europe itself. According to this scheme, indigenous societies are in fact inferior because their freedom is one of poverty, while European civilization promotes the prosperity of society as a whole through technological development and its inevitable profusion of class distinction and administrative hierarchy. Yet as the authors argue, such narratives are ultimately myths that exist to garner legitimacy for the depravity of European modernity. …

Finally, Graeber and Wengrow take aim at the concept of the state itself. They ask if the hierarchical rule could exist without a state and if complex irrigation systems could exist without a state. In short, why do we assume that “states” are necessary? Moreover, why do we need the concept at all? Instead, the authors propose that the elementary forms of social power lay in the control of violence, the control of information, and the machinations of individual charisma. Rather than utilizing a crude evolutionary schema—where humanity progresses from non-states to states— we should instead analyze how these forms of social control come together and drift apart. In doing so, we can better understand the diversity of hierarchical entities which we are in the habit of lumping within the category of the state.

Ultimately, if we want to understand how we lost our freedoms, we must turn to that most horrific of institutions: slavery. Drawing on Orlando Patterson, Graeber and Wengrow argue that slavery is a condition of social death characterized by the severing of previous relationships and the inability, in legal terms, of the slave to make promises or create ongoing social connections. The slave is characterized by “caring-relations” where the slave, who is denied personhood, exists to care for others so that the master can become a fully realized human being. In the process, we have inherited a whole set of relations that confuse caring relations with domination itself. Such is the nature of kings and their modern counterparts – the rich, the politicians, the White Man – to mobilize caring labor toward the realization of some at the expense of an Other.

Graeber and Wengrow’s work suggests that when people were faced with violence and domination, they would escape their situations and create something new somewhere else. Today, however, the racist world-system fully encapsulates everything, thus spatial escape is increasingly impossible. To deal with this impasse, perhaps we should follow Yannick Marshall’s suggestion to foreground the Maroon as the archetypical figure of Black Liberation –  riffing on George Jackson, to escape from Empire while grabbing a weapon and articulating other liberatory ways of life along the way. Indeed, this form of alterity is what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call “blackness” itself – that internal difference within society that brings law and the police online. There is thus an irrefutable and direct confrontation between this empire – bolstered by its founding myth which elevates white men to its overrepresentation as Man – and blackness itself, which will not be won through appeals to reform the system, but which will only be achieved by a revolutionary process. Black experience provides the raw material for constructing this other world, and the Black proletariat can alone play the part of a revolutionary vanguard simultaneously creating while burning it down. Whether in terms of the practical world-building and emancipation being articulated within some strands of abolitionist organizing, or the reappropriation and police demolitionism of the George Floyd Uprising – the Black Liberation consistently pushes beyond the aporias and willful omissions of the European history of humanity. As has always been the case, Black Liberation alone has the capacity to tear down this – the largest monument of all – and set the world free.” 18-12-2022 Review: ‘Dawn of Everything’ challenges notions of city-building, ruling classby Carlo Wolff

…”…This ambitious, polemical and subversive book, with its charmingly arrogant subtitle, aims to pulverize accepted ideas about history and philosophy. It suggests that the Indigenous people of 17th-century North America fueled what has come to be known as the Enlightenment far more than the European culture importers who “civilized” those people. It debunks the notion that a top-down, hierarchical structure is inherent in the development of cities and those cities’ only legitimate form; that size equals complexity; and that the cliché of the “noble savage” is not only wrong-headed and patronizing but the historical record does not reflect it. It credits women in certain ancient cultures — Crete is the prime example — with far more political, bureaucratic and spiritual power than they’ve been accorded in earlier, patriarchy-oriented anthropological literature. To this dynamic, brainy duo, evolution is anything but linear. …In reimagining history, “The Dawn of Everything” is fundamentally encouraging. It reminds us to be flexible and improvisational, and that even though we must learn from it, we need not be captive to the past. “… 13-1-2022 The Dawn of Everything review by Ryne Clos

“It is difficult to fully encapsulate the promises and shortcomings of David Graeber and David Wengrow’s immense .. The Dawn of Everything in a short, punchy review. Kwame Anthony Appiah’s  rightly celebrated review of the book from last month is, after all, several thousand words long. The reason it is so hard to cover the book thoroughly in a short space is less to do with its length and more because of the nature of the book. The Dawn of Everything should really be discussed as three separate books: one as an argument about how the past is understood today; one that describes prehistory in long anecdotes; and one that attempts to repurpose the past to make arguments about the future.

On the second of the three different types of book that The Dawn of Everything is, namely as a description of the prehistoric past (“prehistoric past” here meaning the history of people who did not produce or leave behind decipherable writing) using specific, academic archaeological evidence, the book is both immensely entertaining and incredibly informative. There are specific, detailed descriptions of Native American societies ranging from Florida to Louisiana to California to Cascadia that bring to life details about the natives that even I, a trained historian and working professor who teaches mostly ancient and medieval history survey courses, did not know. In this regard, then, The Dawn of Everything is both fun and needed. …

… The Dawn of Everything is a good book and one that should be widely read, but at the same time, it is a book to approach with caution. It is, rhetorically, full of shortcomings, mostly, for those familiar with rhetorical terminology, in the realm of ethos (that is, the reader will not and should not trust the authors). But narratively, it is an electric and engaging exploration of the deep and mostly unknown human past that is sure to enrich anyone who pores through its pages.”

back to top 13-1-2022 The Roots of Inequality: An Exchange – David Wengrow, reply by Kwame Anthony Appiah

In response to:  Digging for Utopia  In The Dawn of Everything David Graeber and David Wengrow search for historical examples of nonhierarchical societies to justify their anarchist vision of human freedom. But must we find our future in the past? by Kwame Anthony Appiah

David Wengrow
In The Dawn of Everything David Graeber and I present a new history of humanity, based on the latest findings in our fields of archaeology and anthropology. These findings challenge long-held assumptions about the origins of inequality, the nature of freedom and slavery, the roots of private property, and the relationship between society and the state. They present fresh opportunities for a dialogue between archaeology, anthropology, and philosophy, but Kwame Anthony Appiah in his review of the book prefers to challenge the empirical basis of our work. He argues that we distort our sources in order to present an artificially rosy picture of our species’ past and its prospects for greater freedom.

For example, Appiah is dissatisfied with our account of the Ukrainian “mega-sites,” huge prehistoric settlements that exhibit no evidence for temples, palaces, central administration, rich burials, or other signs of social inequality. We note that population levels are “estimated in the many thousands per mega-site, and probably well over 10,000 in some cases.” Appiah alleges that these figures are inflated, based on a “discredited maximalist model.” He cites archaeologist John Chapman in support. According to Appiah, Chapman argues that the mega-sites were not cities at all, but seasonally occupied festival grounds.

In fact, Chapman proposes three models of habitation, ranging from seasonal to relatively permanent habitation. He discounts none of them and argues that—whichever one adopts—the mega-sites can indeed be considered “cities,” and strikingly egalitarian ones at that. Far from adopting a “maximalist model,” the population figures we give in The Dawn of Everything are more conservative than those offered by some other archaeologists, which range above 40,000. Appiah has misrepresented our position, and Chapman’s, to create a false impression.

Elsewhere, Appiah alleges that we mischaracterize the work of Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, an expert on the Bronze Age civilization of the Indus Valley. According to Appiah, Kenoyer argues that the ancient site of Mohenjo-daro was “likely governed as a city-state,” something we dispute in The Dawn of Everything. We are hardly the first to do so. Another expert, Gregory Possehl, argued that the Indus cities were organized on more egalitarian lines, and the most recent scholarship comes down firmly on his side. We don’t cite Kenoyer for his views on political organization, but for his work on urban craft specialization. So what is Appiah’s objection? Is he saying we cannot cite Kenoyer’s insights on any one aspect of Indus archaeology without subscribing to all his other views as well? Does Appiah’s own citation of Alvin Goldman on causal theories of knowledge grant us license to assume he agrees with Goldman on social epistemology?
With regard to Mesopotamia, Appiah accuses us of drifting, in the space of a hundred pages, from a negative characterization of Uruk’s early phases—as lacking evidence for monarchy—to their positive characterization as examples of collective self-rule. He forgets the ground we cover in those pages, which review diligent work on the topic by Assyriologists, ancient historians, and archaeologists. What it shows is that, even in later periods of monarchy and empire, Mesopotamian cities exhibited a remarkable degree of self-governance through neighborhood assemblies, local wards, and councils. Where does Appiah think those forms of urban self-government came from? Would he have us believe the inhabitants of the earliest cities had no knowledge of them?

With reference to Teotihuacan, in the Valley of Mexico, Appiah suggests that few archaeologists would countenance the views of art historian Esther Pasztory about the city’s political structure. But the opposite is true. The latest archaeological studies vindicate Pasztory’s view that Teotihuacanos rejected dynastic personality cults and built a society where wealth, resources, and high-quality housing were distributed in a more equal fashion. We could have listed every dissenting opinion, but then—as we say in the book—we are trying to strike a balance:
Had we tried to outline or refute every existing interpretation of the material we covered, this book would have been two or three times the size, and likely would have left the reader with a sense that the authors are engaged in a constant battle with demons who were in fact two inches tall.

Appiah presents as novel our “claim” that the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük, in Turkey, lacks evidence of central authority. In fact, this is the consensus among archaeologists. Ian Hodder, longtime site director, characterizes Çatalhöyük as a fiercely egalitarian community that, despite its large size, held inequality at bay for a thousand years. If our agenda—as Appiah insists—were to find some “primordial utopia” among our Neolithic ancestors, surely we would have embraced this conclusion. In fact, we question it, pointing out the likelihood of seasonal variations in the social organization of the town. According to Appiah, we see in Çatalhöyük a “gynocentric society.” Not so. We draw attention to the importance of women’s knowledge and roles in these early Neolithic societies, but that’s hardly the same thing.
Most of the archaeological ground covered in The Dawn of Everything lies beyond the scope of Appiah’s review, as does nearly all of the anthropology. His criticisms of our intellectual history rest on a surprisingly naive and unfounded expectation that what academics write will necessarily mirror their personal politics. “Learn to respect, and love, and be intimate with, a man of a far distant stage of life, and you see then how very deep down is the wide platform of elemental feeling and thought which you have together in common,” wrote the archaeologist Flinders Petrie in 1898. Petrie was also a fervent eugenicist.

Appiah claims we have a thesis, that Europeans, before the Enlightenment, lacked the concept of social (in)equality. In fact, we give a whole series of examples to the contrary. The question we ask is more specific: How did a consensus form among European intellectuals that human beings—innocent of civilization—lived in “societies of equals,” such that it made sense to inquire as to “the origins of inequality”? Appiah’s evocations of Gregory the Great, Thomas Müntzer, Montaigne, and the rest are beside the point, because—while all express powerful sentiments of equality and inequality—none root those ideas in a search for its origins.

The notion of a primordial society of equals may have pre-Enlightenment roots in Europe, notably in the constitutional antiquarianism of the seventeenth century (brilliantly discussed by J.G.A. Pocock in The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law). Jurists appealed to the customary freedoms of a preliterate past as a legal foil to royal absolutism. But Appiah makes no mention of that, or whether he thinks such juridical concepts were already extended beyond specific “peoples” and “nations” to humankind in general. Perhaps because he knows the answer. They were not, or at least, not yet.

Rousseau’s answer, in 1754, to the novel question “What is the origin of inequality?” was, we argue, a synthesis between ideals of human freedom—shaped by Native American critiques of European society—and the concept of history as stages of technological progress, which was then gaining ground through the writings of A.R.J. Turgot. The just-so story told by Rousseau gave us our modern concept of civilization, whereby each step toward cultural advancement—the invention of agriculture, metallurgy, writing, cities, and the arts, even philosophy itself—came with a loss of freedoms. It’s a familiar and deeply ambivalent story. As we show in The Dawn of Everything, it is also at odds with the facts of modern archaeology and anthropology.

Appiah finds our reading of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality “perplexing.” How, he asks, could Rousseau promulgate the indigenous critique of European society—with its passionate advocacy of freedom—and smother it at the same time? But surely this is precisely why myths endure. As Claude Lévi-Strauss observed, myths take root in the human imagination by evoking profound oppositions (“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”) and then work to mediate those contradictions. “We will not find our future in our past,” writes Appiah. But myths are not just about our past. They work in the present to circumscribe our understanding of human possibilities. In The Dawn of Everything, we show that conventional tellings of the broad sweep of human history are one such myth, inculcating a profound sense of pessimism about the prospects for change in our societies.

Archaeology, like all historical reconstruction, is partly a work of imagination. But it is constrained by evidence, and underpinned by scientific principles of discovery, interpretation, and refutation. Occasionally, it has the power to challenge myths and overthrow dogma. The strength of the past lies precisely there, in its unpredictability, its capacity to surprise and upset conventional wisdom. Today the information available to us, even for remote periods of the human past, reveals a kaleidoscope of social possibilities undreamed of in the philosophies of Hobbes and Rousseau, and also, it seems, in the philosophy of Appiah.

Kwame Anthony Appiah replies:
The Dawn of Everything is a mammoth undertaking and, inevitably, it characterizes archaeological research its authors know only through the scholarly literature they have consulted—through the authorities they enlist. They’re entitled to sift through the evidence and present their own conclusions; I agree with Wengrow on this. The difficulty arises when what they present as a summary of the archaeology is at variance with the scholarship they cite. “Experts have largely come to agree that there’s no evidence for…anything like what we would recognize as a ‘state’ in the urban civilization of the Indus Valley,” they say. Then we turn to the source material and find that experts are quite divided on the topic.

My point was not that The Dawn of Everything mischaracterizes Kenoyer’s judgments about Mohenjo-daro’s political structure but that it doesn’t characterize them at all. I was observing, that is, a pattern about which views get a hearing. Wengrow says that “the most recent scholarship” supports Possehl, but the paper he has in mind—a fascinating theoretical overview by Adam S. Green, which indeed stresses the evidence for egalitarianism—gingerly dissents both from Kenoyer’s “managerial elite” model and from Possehl’s “stateless paradigm.” Green’s paper, exquisitely provisional, makes clear that the nature of Indus politics is a topic of contention, not consensus.

The Dawn of Everything likewise suggests that archaeological research has converged on the view that Teotihuacan, starting around 300 AD, embraced egalitarianism and collective governance and rejected overlords, even “strong leaders.” It’s what “all the evidence suggests.” We hear that “other scholars, eliminating virtually every other possibility, arrived at similar conclusions”; we hear that its self-conscious egalitarianism is affirmed by a “general consensus among those who know the site best.” But only a strategy of bifurcation would force us to say that the place was either purely autocratic or purely collective. What I observed was not that few archaeologists would countenance Pasztory’s view but that we get no sense that many have reached different conclusions.

Those archaeologists include the authorities The Dawn of Everything cites in support of Pasztory, such as René Millon, who cataloged evidence of hierarchy and militarism in Teotihuacan, and thought its governance might have become oligarchical; and George Cowgill, who explicitly demurs from Pasztory’s “utopian” account and proposes Renaissance Venice, a republic under a doge, as a model. The epigrapher David Stuart says that, in the late fourth and early fifth century, someone represented by an owlish glyph was the king of Teotihuacan, while other archaeologists conjecture that there might have been an elite assembly or aristocracy rather than a monarch; this glyph might have designated an office rather than an officeholder. Recent discoveries have rekindled such debates. Again, Graeber and Wengrow are free to reach their own conclusion as to whether Teotihuacan was “a utopian experiment in urban life,” but it cannot be said to represent a professional consensus.

As for the “at least seven centuries of collective self-rule” that Uruk enjoyed, per Graeber and Wengrow, is the proof really to be found in the wards and councils of the monarchical era? Or does the very coexistence of monarchs and councils suggest that we may be building castles, or communes, in the air? I don’t say that Uruk did or didn’t enjoy those seven centuries of “collective self-rule,” but unless the term is being used in a very permissive way, I struggle to see how this possibility qualifies as a settled fact.

With respect to Çatalhöyük, my discussion didn’t take up The Dawn of Everything’s broad political characterization of the place. It took up what inferences we should draw from the existence of female figurines, and the putative absence of equivalent male ones. Did such representations demonstrate “a new awareness of women’s status”? Graeber and Wengrow never use the term “gynocentric” with respect to Çatalhöyük; they use, in this context, the term “matriarchal” and devote a few helpful paragraphs to defining this term in a special way that sidesteps the “-archy,” the connection with rulership. (I avoided the term “matriarchal” because, without their careful definition, it risks implying a form of rulership The Dawn of Everything disputes.) Graeber and Wengrow, following Hodder, find it obvious that the female figurines, with their pendulous breasts and avoirdupois, could have nothing to do with eros or fertility but are “quite possibly matriarchs of some sort, their forms revealing an interest in female elders.” Here, questions arise. One is whether we’d weigh the evidence differently had The Dawn of Everything mentioned that most Çatalhöyük figurines that archaeologists have cataloged are of quadrupeds (or their horns).

Why does this matter? Because when it comes to a certain class of cases—prehistoric cities that they think lacked a ruling or managerial elite—Graeber and Wengrow appear to cherish their thesis a little too much and, like overprotective parents, tend to keep it away from the chilly drafts of adverse evidence. Which brings us to those Ukrainian mega-sites. In a 2017 article, John Chapman methodically challenges the view of them as “permanent, long-term settlements comprising many thousands of people,” a view he divides into a maximalist and a standard model. Drawing on evidence from his work in Nebelivka and calculations based on available evidence about the other sites, he concludes that the only logical response is to replace the standard model (not to mention the maximalist model) with a version of the minimalist model that envisions a less permanent, more seasonal settlement mode, or a smaller permanent settlement involving coeval dwelling of far fewer people. Perhaps there was a small year-round population; perhaps these were sites where “hundreds of pilgrims or festival-goers” showed up in a seasonal way; perhaps both occurred.

In this account, what we’d find on the mega-sites, even one as expansive as Taljanky, aren’t cities—that is, these settlements are remote from the dictionary definition of a city, from what we readers understand by the word, and, as best as I can judge, from what Graeber and Wengrow mean by it. They say most archaeologists will call “any densely inhabited settlement” of 150 or 200 hectares a city; yet one thing Chapman is confident about is that the “mega-sites were low-density settlements.”

Now, archaeologists sometimes use the word “city” differently; the idea is that if a settlement, including one that looks like a hamlet, is the biggest thing around, it might function as a city. A hundred people living in face-to-face autarky, a seasonal festival site like Burning Man: even these could, in the right circumstances, count as cities. The paper Wengrow cites, though it pointedly declines to define “city,” sets aside absolute scale as a prerequisite. For Graeber and Wengrow, however, a central question is whether lots of people can live in a dense settlement without rules and rulers. That’s why they say cities often emerged as “civic experiments on a grand scale.” In their concept of a city, absolute scale can’t be set aside.

Nor should we set aside the vigorous medieval arguments about the nature and origins of social inequality, as when The Dawn of Everything states that in the Middle Ages “‘social equality’—and therefore, its opposite, inequality—simply did not exist as a concept.” Many thought, as Pope Gregory did, that people, in their primordial, Edenic state, were equal in their liberty. Then some act of human sinfulness left us with masters and serfs. For Gregory, Christ’s redemptive sacrifice was meant to bring back our original freedom. Such arguments had real-world reverberations. “When Adam delved and Eve span/Who was then the gentleman?” was an English saying that the priest John Ball declaimed amid the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, calling for a primordial classless society to be restored by force.
Wengrow’s cautions about “personal” politics are well taken; Lévi-Strauss’s emerging conservatism is no key to his thought. By contrast, the political tenets Lewis Henry Morgan espoused within the book that entrenched social evolutionism were integral to his intellectual vision. Thorstein Veblen’s theory of predatory and productive activities seamlessly connected his prehistory to his politics. And so it goes; we would do the great James C. Scott, whose studies have been invaluable to people from a range of ideological positions, a disservice to suppose that his political vision and his political science belonged in separate bins.

Yet this procession of caveats, I fear, risks obscuring The Dawn of Everything’s real triumphs. It is the work of two remarkable scholars, and almost every page is energized by their intelligence, imagination, and surly sense of mischief. When it comes to confident claims about dense large-scale settlements free of rulers or rules (or, for that matter, the Haudenosaunee attitude toward commands), readers might well adopt Gertrude Stein’s mot “Interesting if true.”

But as I hope I made plain, there’s much more to the book than that. Graeber and Wengrow’s argument against historical determinism—against the alluring notion that what happened had to have happened—is itself immensely valuable. Readers who imagine foragers on the Sahlinesque model of the San will encounter foraging societies with aristocrats and slavery, while the book’s account of the Poverty Point earthworks is a riveting study of collective action. We get an intriguing proposal about the nature of the state. And this is just to begin a long list of fascinations. That “kaleidoscope of social possibilities” emerges vibrantly from these pages.

If readers should be a little cautious—possibilities may not be probabilities—they should be much more than a little grateful, as I am. “This book is mainly about freedom,” Graeber and Wengrow tell us, but it’s also for freedom. I’m glad of that; oddly enough, freedom needs advocates these days, and few have been as eloquent.

back to top 14/12/2021 The Dawn of Everything – by Miriam Ronzoni Part1Part2 10/2021 David Graeber & David Wengrow – Thinkers – Showing how alternatives of social and economic organisation have been a deep part of our ancestry all along

“The late radical anthropologist David Graeber (1961–2020) no doubt would have had something brilliant to say about what has become known as ‘the great resignation’, shorthand for the numerous people exiting the postpandemic workforce (or not returning to it all). The author of, among other important works, Bullshit Jobs (2018) and the magisterial Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), Graeber understood better than most how our current ideals amount to fraudulent advertising for crap goods. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021), which Graeber cowrote over the last decade with the archaeologist David Wengrow, was published posthumously this year. Wengrow and Graeber’s project has been to show how alternatives of social and economic organisation have been a deep part of our ancestry all along; the Rousseauian ‘state of nature’ is the myth to be shed, and what the two call the ‘Indigenous Critique’ of ‘western’ societies offers an enduring, and heartening, means to enact social and cultural innovation in the present. No recent book is gaining faster traction in the artworld right now. Artists, take note…”…

goodreads Kevin 5* Graeber’s final (and most ambitious) gift to us is only the beginning…

“Preamble: There’s a certain joy seeing status quo liberals frame Graeber’s social imagination as “dangerous”; suddenly, that inescapable Mark Fisher “Capitalist Realism” overcast disperses and the skies open with endless possibilities. What better time than now to revive social imagination as status quo faith propels us towards ecological collapse. There’s also a certain relief from the Western Left internet debates (ex. “anarchists vs. Marxists”); self-professed “anarchist” Graeber often transcends vulgar caricatures by reframing assumptions shared by both “sides”. We need more “anarchists” synthesizing statecraft and more “Marxists” studying the latest in anthropology/archeology beyond vulgar stages-of-development (like Marx would have). Lastly, this can only be the beginning: the culmination of a project between anthropologist/activist Graeber and archeologist Wengrow started as an investigation on the “origins of inequality”, but ended with the authors presenting a complete reframing that raises new questions and possibilities…”…

goodreads BlackOxford  5* Rekindling Historical Imagination

“David Graeber and David Wengrow are super-heroes in the scholarship of human development, the equivalent, perhaps, of a Howard Zinn for world history. In The Dawn of Everything they expose the culturally biased pseudo-histories of the likes of Fukuyama, Diamond, and Pinker, not to mention the influential fictions of Hobbes and Rousseau on which they are based. These and many others are little more than literate rumour-mongers, closet racists, and tellers of tedious time-worn tales lacking evidence or logic. That David Graeber died almost immediately upon completion of this original and provocative work is a tragedy. There are so many more idols that need toppling; so many better historical questions to ask. Here are just several highlights of the meticulously documented conclusions in The Dawn of Everything…”… 11/2021 What if Everything You Learned About Human History Is Wrong? – In “The Dawn of Everything,” the anthropologist David Graeber and the archaeologist David Wengrow aim to rewrite the story of our shared past — and future. review by Jennifer Schuessler

amazon reviewsgoodreads reviews

goodreads.David Wineberg 5* …”This is the fourth book of David Graeber’s that I have reviewed. With the others, Debt, The Democracy Project (Occupy Wall Street) and Bullshit Jobs, Graeber proved himself to be so widely read, so insightful, so challenging and in so many widely dispersed domains, it was a major crime that he died weeks after finishing The Dawn of Everything. He died last year at the age of 59, depriving the world of another three decades of his no-holds-barred attacks on misconceptions, misinformation, errors and outright lies in so much of modern life. He was a bad by in the way Noam Chomsky is a bad boy, slinging discoveries and truths left and right regardless of how they might offend the establishment in government, military or academia.

David Wengrow spent ten years working with Graeber on this book. They clearly had too much fun. The research is, as I hope I’ve transmitted, phenomenal. I have not read any of his other books (mostly on archaeology), but this book is so well done, he is now on my list going forward. Together, they found so much that is new, so much that needs correcting and so many gaps where nothing is written at all, that this would have been the first of a shelf of books that would have rewritten the social sciences completely. We can only hope.”… read whole review 10/2021 David Graeber’s Final Challenge – A new book by David Wengrow and the late David Graeber is a rejection of the fatalistic myths of human history – and a defence of our power to shape our own world. By Giulio Ongaro

“Origin myths the world over have a basic psychological effect: regardless of their scientific validity, they have the sly power of justifying existing states of affairs, while simultaneously contouring a perception of what the world might look like in the future. Modern capitalist society has built itself upon two variants of one such myth. As one story goes, life as primitive hunter-gatherers was ‘nasty, brutish and short’ until the invention of the state allowed us to flourish. The other story says that in their childlike state of nature, humans were happy and free, and that it was only with the advent of civilisation that ‘they all ran headlong to their chains’. These are two variants of the same myth because they both posit an unilinear historical trajectory, one that begins from simple egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands and ends with increasing social complexity and hierarchy. They also nurture a similar fatalistic perspective on the future: whether we go with Hobbes (the first) or Rousseau (the second), we are left with the idea that the most we can do to change our current predicament is, at best, a bit of modest political tinkering. Hierarchy and inequality are the inevitable price to pay for having truly come of age. Both versions of the myth picture the human past as a primordial soup of small bands of hunter-gatherers, lacking in vision and critical thought, and where nothing much happened until we embarked on the process that, with the advent of agriculture and the birth of cities, culminated in the modern Enlightenment. …

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. …

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.”

read whole review at tribunemag or at amazon:”Eta Carinae” 12/11/2021 The story of us & what we can be: Questioning current narratives on humans 9/11/2021 ‘The Dawn of Everything’ rewrites 40,000 years of human history – A new book recasts social evolution as surprisingly varied

Concerns abound about what’s gone wrong in modern societies. Many scholars explain growing gaps between the haves and the have-nots as partly a by-product of living in dense, urban populations. The bigger the crowd, from this perspective, the more we need power brokers to run the show. Societies have scaled up for thousands of years, which has magnified the distance between the wealthy and those left wanting.

In The Dawn of Everything, anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow challenge the assumption that bigger societies inevitably produce a range of inequalities. Using examples from past societies, the pair also rejects the popular idea that social evolution occurred in stages.

Such stages, according to conventional wisdom, began with humans living in small hunter-gatherer bands where everyone was on equal footing. Then an agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago fueled population growth and the emergence of tribes, then chiefdoms and eventually bureaucratic states. Or perhaps murderous alpha males dominated ancient hunter-gatherer groups. If so, early states may have represented attempts to corral our selfish, violent natures.

Neither scenario makes sense to Graeber and Wengrow. Their research synthesis — which extends for 526 pages — paints a more hopeful picture of social life over the last 30,000 to 40,000 years. For most of that time, the authors argue, humans have tactically alternated between small and large social setups. Some social systems featured ruling elites, working stiffs and enslaved people. Others emphasized decentralized, collective decision making. Some were run by men, others by women. The big question — one the authors can’t yet answer — is why, after tens of thousands of years of social flexibility, many people today can’t conceive of how society might effectively be reorganized.

Hunter-gatherers have a long history of revamping social systems from one season to the next, the authors write. About a century ago, researchers observed that Indigenous populations in North America and elsewhere often operated in small, mobile groups for part of the year and crystallized into large, sedentary communities the rest of the year. For example, each winter, Canada’s Northwest Coast Kwakiutl hunter-gatherers built wooden structures where nobles ruled over designated commoners and enslaved people, and held banquets called potlatch. In summers, aristocratic courts disbanded, and clans with less formal social ranks fished along the coast.

Many Late Stone Age hunter-gatherers similarly assembled and dismantled social systems on a seasonal basis, evidence gathered over the last few decades suggests. Scattered discoveries of elaborate graves for apparently esteemed individuals (SN: 10/5/17) and huge structures made of stone (SN: 2/11/21), mammoth bones and other material dot Eurasian landscapes. The graves may hold individuals who were accorded special status, at least at times of the year when mobile groups formed large communities and built large structures, the authors speculate. Seasonal gatherings to conduct rituals and feasts probably occurred at the monumental sites. No signs of centralized power, such as palaces or storehouses, accompany those sites.

Social flexibility and experimentation, rather than a revolutionary shift, also characterized ancient transitions to agriculture, Graeber and Wengrow write. Middle Eastern village excavations now indicate that the domestication of cereals and other crops occurred in fits and starts from around 12,000 to 9,000 years ago. Ancient Fertile Crescent communities periodically gave farming a go while still hunting, foraging, fishing and trading. Early cultivators were in no rush to treat tracts of land as private property or to form political systems headed by kings, the authors conclude.

Even in early cities of Mesopotamia and Eurasia around 6,000 years ago (SN: 2/19/20), absolute rule by monarchs did not exist. Collective decisions were made by district councils and citizen assemblies, archaeological evidence suggests. In contrast, authoritarian, violent political systems appeared in the region’s mobile, nonagricultural populations at that time.

Early states formed in piecemeal fashion, the authors argue. These political systems incorporated one or more of three basic elements of domination: violent control of the masses by authorities, bureaucratic management of special knowledge and information, and public demonstrations of rulers’ power and charisma. Egypt’s early rulers more than 4,000 years ago fused violent coercion of their subjects with extensive bureaucratic controls over daily affairs. Classic Maya rulers in Central America 1,100 years ago or more relied on administrators to monitor cosmic events while grounding earthly power in violent control and alliances with other kings.

States can take many forms, though. Graeber and Wengrow point to Bronze Age Minoan society on Crete as an example of a political system run by priestesses who called on citizens to transcend individuality via ecstatic experiences that bound the population together.

What seems to have changed today is that basic social liberties have receded, the authors contend. The freedom to relocate to new kinds of communities, to disobey commands issued by others and to create new social systems or alternate between different ones has become a scarce commodity. Finding ways to reclaim that freedom is a major challenge.

These examples give just a taste of the geographic and historical ground covered by the authors. Shortly after finishing writing the book, Graeber, who died in 2020, tweeted: “My brain feels bruised with numb surprise.” That sense of revelation animates this provocative take on humankind’s social journey. gmcopy 9/2021 Beyond the State – David Graeber and David Wengrow’s anarchist history of humanity. By Daniel Immerwahr

…”Statists believe that overarching hierarchies are both natural and desirable. Graeber and Wengrow energetically attack that position, but the big question still looms: If states aren’t inevitable, why are they everywhere? This question becomes even more of a stumper if, like the authors, you attribute a great deal of agency to non-state peoples. The more thoughtful and capable you take them to be, the harder it becomes to explain how they all came to live in the sorts of societies they ostensibly wouldn’t have chosen.

Two popular history-of-everything writers, Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari, have an answer. The sequence of farming, private property, war, and states was a trap, they write. Humans entered it without realizing they wouldn’t be able to leave, and for most of history, all they found was despotism and disease. The agricultural revolution was thus “the worst mistake in the history of the human race,” as Diamond asserts, or “history’s biggest fraud,” as Harari does.

Graeber and Wengrow recoil at this explanation. Were our ancestors truly doltish enough to tumble, one after another, into the same trap? More important, they’re wary of Diamond’s and Harari’s fatalism, of the suggestion that State Street runs only one way. In Graeber and Wengrow’s rendition, agriculture was, like everything else, a considered and revocable choice. The Dawn of Everything thus tells of people “flirting and tinkering with the possibilities of farming”—taking it up, putting it down—without thereby “enslaving themselves.”

Yet somewhere, something did go “terribly wrong,” Graeber and Wengrow admit. People went from creatively experimenting with kings and farms to getting “stuck” with them. That metaphor—being stuck in states rather than evolving to them—is useful, in that it suggests people might get unstuck. It captures Graeber and Wengrow’s sense that there is no natural progression from leaderless bands to sophisticated hierarchies.

So, again, how did states take over? What’s exasperating about The Dawn of Everything is that it never really answers the question; at most, it offers quick hints and hypotheses. The loss of physical mobility seems important—people’s inability to leave societies they dislike. So does the tendency of bureaucracies to become impersonal and uncaring. Still, blaming durable hierarchies, as Graeber and Wengrow do, on “a confluence of violence and maths” does not settle the issue.

Perhaps the two were leaving this for a later volume, but it’s not clear that they want to give an answer. To do so would be to offer a grand historical narrative, to explain—as Diamond and Harari do—how humanity moved permanently from one thing to another. Yet Graeber and Wengrow seem almost allergic to the idea that there’s any natural sequence in social arrangements. There’s “simply no reason,” they write, to believe that societies require more leadership or bureaucracy as they grow.

The effects of that contention on their narrative are profound. Once you’ve thrown out the notion that there’s some law or pattern governing the development of societies, it becomes hard to tell any overarching story. The Dawn of Everything is thus less a biography of the species than a scrapbook, filled with accounts of different societies doing different things. That is very much on purpose; for Graeber and Wengrow, early history doesn’t march from A to B but instead wanders like a Ouija pointer all over the alphabet.

So are our wandering days over? Not according to Graeber and Wengrow: They believe we can still wriggle free from states. There’s something embarrassing, they acknowledge, in the thought that we could have been living differently this whole time, and thus that “enslavement, genocide, prison camps, even patriarchy or regimes of wage labour never had to happen.” Yet their upbeat conclusion is that “even now, the possibilities for human intervention are far greater than we’re inclined to think.”

This is anarchism’s heady promise: Break people out of their stupor, show them the alternatives, and they’ll take the hint. You occupy the park not to push for policies (what was their one demand?) but as proof of concept, to demonstrate what a society free of domination looks like.

Similarly, an anarchist history, at least in Graeber and Wengrow’s hands, isn’t the story of change over time but a high-spirited tour of political diversity. It’s a chance to lay out the options, with little sense that population growth or new technologies have pushed any of them permanently off the table. Humans lived without states before, thus they can do so again. Because, ultimately, the point isn’t what happened, but rather all the possibilities that remain.” 10/2021 The Dawn of Everything – How Sapiens got it wrong: Everyone from Yuval Noah Harari to Steven Pinker is savaged in this revolutionary look at where we came from – review by Bryan Appleyard

First, a brief history of our species: humans appeared 300,000 years ago, then nothing much happened until 288,000 years later when some bright spark invented agriculture. Then it was all plain sailing to capitalism, global warfare, iPhones and Facebook. That, with a few added details, is the story taught in schools and universities. And it is, according to the authors of this long, pacey and potentially revolutionary book, a myth.

At the core of this myth lies the belief that humans were, until they became farmers, still basically apes who hunted and foraged in bands of 30 or so. Yuval Noah Harari, one of the many distinguished figures lacerated in this book, said that these early human bands might have been as violent as chimpanzees …”… 10/2021 The Dawn of Everything review – inequality is not the price of civilisation. An archaeologist and an anthropologist dismantle received wisdom about the way early societies operated – by David Priestland

History matters. As we debate statues and slavery and dispute the role of empire, we have become accustomed to constant sparring over the past. But there is one branch of history that has, so far, remained above the fray: the story of our very early past, the “dawn” of humanity. For the anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow, this consensus is a problem. As they argue in this iconoclastic and irreverent book, much of what we think we know of this distant era is actually a myth – indeed it is our origin myth, a modern equivalent of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. At its core is a story of the rise of civilisation and, with it, the rise of the state. Like all origin myths, this narrative has enormous power, and its reach and resilience are preventing us from thinking clearly about our present crises.

This myth, they argue, can be found on the shelves of every high-street and airport bookshop, in super-sellers such as Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday and Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order. All of these books share a common assumption: as societies become larger, more complex, wealthy and “civilised”, they inevitably become less equal. Early humans, it is said, lived like the foragers of the Kalahari, in small, mobile bands that were casually egalitarian and democratic. But this primitive idyll or Hobbesian hell (views differ) disappeared with settlement and farming, which required the management of labour and land. The emergence of early cities, and ultimately states, demanded even steeper hierarchies, and with them the whole civilisational package – leaders, administrators, the division of labour and social classes. The lesson, then, is clear: human equality and freedom have to be traded for progress. …

Meanwhile, the so-called “agricultural revolution” – the Neolithic Faustian bargain when humanity swapped egalitarian simplicity for wealth, status and hierarchy – simply didn’t happen. The shift from foraging to agriculture was slow and patchy; much of what has been thought of as farming was actually small-scale horticulture, and perfectly compatible with flat social structures. Similarly, the rise of cities did not necessitate kings, priests and bureaucrats. Indus valley settlements such as Harappa (c2600BC) show no signs of palaces or temples and instead suggest dispersed, not concentrated power. While Graeber and Wengrow are open about the very limited evidence and the disputes over its interpretation, they build a compelling case.

Yet they reserve particular scorn for another myth: the assumption that the “savage” was stupid as well as noble. In an age that worships the tech-gods of Silicon Valley, it is tempting to believe that we are more sapiens than our distant ancestors. But 17th-century Jesuit missionaries were exasperated to discover the intellectual agility of the Native American Wendat people in resisting conversion; indeed, they showed themselves more eloquent than the “shrewdest citizens and merchants in France”. This sophistication was attributed to the Wendats’ democratic councils, which were “held almost every day in the Villages, and on almost all matters” and “improve[d] their capacity for talking”. These skills and habits, Graeber and Wengrow suggest, actually made so-called primitive peoples more truly “political animals” than we are now – engaged in the day-to-day business of organising their communities rather than impotently tweeting about it. …”… 10/2021 The Dawn of Everything review – have we got our ancestors wrong? by Andrew Anthony

…”The author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs, Graeber, it’s worth bearing in mind, was a committed anarchist who was instrumental in setting up the Occupy Wall Street protest. Another factor that bears consideration is that both archaeology and anthropology are disciplines that are notoriously vulnerable to subjective interpretation. Such “distant times can become a vast canvas for the working out of our collective fantasies”, the authors caution, but then do not entirely heed their own warning. While readily acknowledging the limitations of verifiable evidence, they nonetheless engage in creative speculation, albeit with a host of covering “most likelys”.

All the same, the strength of the book is the manner in which it asks us to rethink our assumptions. It isn’t, say the authors, that earlier humans were egalitarian, for there were often differences in material wealth. Rather, they enjoyed an equality of social – and therefore political – participation and, moreover, a shared sense of freedom: of movement, to disobey command and to “shape entirely new social realities, or shift back and forth between different ones”.

Most significantly, the authors replace the idea of humanity being forced along through evolutionary stages with a picture of prehistoric communities making their own conscious decisions of how to live. Our distant forebears were not hopeless puppets of historical inevitability but masters of their own trajectory. …”… An ingenious new look at “the broad sweep of human history” and many of its “foundational” stories. A fascinating, intellectually challenging big book about big ideas.

Graeber, a former professor of anthropology at London School of Economics who died in 2020, and Wengrow, professor of comparative archaeology at University College London, take a dim view of conventional accounts of the rise of civilizations, emphasize contributions from Indigenous cultures and the missteps of the great Enlightenment thinkers, and draw countless thought-provoking conclusions. In 1651, British philosopher Thomas Hobbes proclaimed that humans require laws and government authority because life in primitive cultures was “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” A few decades later, French thinker Rousseau wrote that humans in a state of nature were free until they acquired property that required legal protection. Graeber and Wengrow point out that these conceptions of historical progression dominate the opinions of many experts, who assume that society passed through stages of development: hunter-gatherers, farmers, urban-industrial society, and so on. Graeber and Wengrow maintain that no scientific evidence supports this view, adding that traditional scholarship says little about “prehistory,” during which supposedly egalitarian hunter-gatherers roamed and foraged until about 10,000 years ago, when they purportedly took up agriculture and things became interesting. This orthodox view dismisses countless peoples who had royal courts and standing armies, built palaces, and accumulated wealth. As the authors write, “there is simply no reason to assume that the adoption of agriculture in more remote periods also meant the inception of private land ownership, territoriality, or an irreversible departure from forager egalitarianism.” Many early cities thrived for centuries with no sign of hierarchy, contradicting scholars who assume that authoritarian rule appears naturally whenever large populations gather. The quest for the “origin of the state,” given scattered and contradictory evidence, may be a fool’s errand. Graeber and Wengrow, while providing no definitive answers, cast grave doubts on those theories that have been advanced to date.

A fascinating, intellectually challenging big book about big ideas.

back to top 11/2021 Human History Gets a Rewrite – A brilliant new account upends bedrock assumptions about 30,000 years of change. By William Deresiewicz

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.  


GG Graeber/Debt page here 9/2020 In memory of David Graeber – In this episode of the Keiser Report, Max and Stacy eulogize David Graeber, author of ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’. In memory of his work, they look at the accumulation of debt that is seeing young adults moving back in with their parents at the highest rate since the Great Depression and thus depressing the formation of new households – an important part of a healthy economy. In the second half, Max continues his conversation with Otavio ‘Tavi’ Costa, portfolio manager at Crescat Capital, about gold, the dollar, credit exhaustion, deglobalization, and more.

Keiser Report: In memory of David Graeber

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relevant articles – updates 4-2022 there-s-a-new-hypothesis-for-how-human-civilizations-first-got-started 4-2022 The Origin of the State: Land Productivity or Appropriability? Joram Mayshar, Omer Moav, Luigi Pascali

Abstract – The conventional theory about the origin of the state is that the adoption of farming increased land productivity, which led to the production of food surplus. This surplus was a prerequisite for the emergence of tax-levying elites and, eventually, states. We challenge this theory and propose that hierarchy arose as a result of the shift to dependence on appropriable cereal grains. Our empirical investigation, utilizing multiple data sets spanning several millennia, demonstrates a causal effect of the cultivation of cereals on hierarchy, without finding a similar effect for land productivity. We further support our claims with several case studies.

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