Everything you thought you knew about human history is wrong. And that’s a good thing.
That’s the key message of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, a monumental work of scholarship by David Graeber and David Wengrow.
David Graeber was a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. He died in 2020 after this book had been written but before it was published. David Wengrow is a professor of comparative archaeology at University College London.
The Dawn of Everything isn’t an easy book, in fact it’s hard yakka. It’s sprawling, over 500 pages long, densely packed with historical and archaeological details leading to controversial yet fascinating new theories. It tackles fundamental questions about how we humans have organized ourselves into communities and polities, and why we seem stuck with domination and inequality. It’s also a pointed critique of existing orthodoxy: Harari, Pinker, Diamond, Fukuyama, not to mention other lesser known (to me) specialists in the field – they spare no one.
I won’t even attempt to describe their theories in any detail; I could never do them justice. I’ll just try sketch out a view of the book from 30,00o feet.
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity
By David Graeber and David Wengrow
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2021
The Standard Model of Human History
The commonly accepted version of human history, the standard model if you will, goes something like this:
Our species, homo sapiens, originated in East Africa and spread from there to every continent, out-competing (possibly exterminating) the Neanderthals and other hominid species.
To begin with, we were hunters and gatherers, organized in small bands of 3 or 4 families, maybe a couple dozen individuals at most. Gradually, we started domesticating some plants and animals, and forming larger groups. Then there was an historical inflection point called the “agricultural revolution” where we embraced farming, gave up our nomadic ways and started settling into villages, towns and eventually large cities. Fast forward a few millennia and we come to the industrial revolution, the rise of nation states and, voilà, here we are.
This linear progression has enabled us to feed, clothe and house vastly greater numbers of people, but along the way we gave up our freedom and equality. Today, people everywhere live under more-or-less oppressive political and social structures, and under conditions of gaping inequality of wealth, power and privilege.
Grossly oversimplified, I know, but if you’ve read Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, which I reviewed here, or other popular books about anthropology or ancient history, this will all sound pretty familiar.
According to Graeber and Wengrow, it’s pretty much all wrong too.
A Fall from Grace?
One thing that’s wrong with the standard model, they argue, is that it assumes humans started off in some idyllic past where everyone really was free and equal – philosophers have called this the “state of nature” – and that we can never return to that state. In this sense, human development is essentially a Biblical fall from grace.
The authors describe how this view has given rise to two opposing strands of Western political thought. One strand, best articulated by the 18th century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is that individuals are sovereign, born free and equal, but we’ve been fooled into sacrificing our freedom. “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains,” he said. For Rousseau, our task is to create political institutions that allow humans to live together in a community as free and equal citizens. Rousseau is often credited, or accused depending on your point of view, of originating what we today call left-wing political thought.
The opposing view, the right-wing view, is that of Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher. He’s the guy famous for saying our lives in the state of nature were “nasty, brutish and short.” Nothing idyllic or romantic about Hobbes. In his view, we humans are a violent lot. Left to our own devices, we’ll degenerate into a “war of all against all.” Therefore, we should give up our freedom and submit to a single, overwhelming sovereign power – which he called the Leviathan – in return for safety and security.
Though they seem more sympathetic to Rousseau, Graeber and Wengrow reject both these views. There was no single, common state of nature, they claim. Human societies evolved all over the planet in wildly, imaginatively different ways. They present evidence based on archaeological findings from around the world that humans have lived in a wide variety of political structures throughout history. Many were monarchies but many of them were also characterized by equality and communal decision-making that even today would seem radical. In some cases, they show, communities turned away from monarchial rule and deliberately constructed freer, more equal societies.
This leads to their second major criticism of the standard historical model.
Inevitable or Playful?
Historical evolution from the state of nature to today’s hierarchical and unequal nation states is often presented as inevitable. One common argument is that there’s just no way to scale up the size of human communities without introducing hierarchies. Someone, or some few, must lead, and the rest have to follow, for the good of us all, or so the argument goes.
Once people embraced agriculture, in fact, “all ran headlong to their chains” as Rousseau put it.
Not only are domination and inequality inevitable, the theory goes, they’re also irreversible. It’s as if we passed through an “historical turnstile” with no possibility of retracing our steps and choosing a different path.
Graeber and Wengrow reject this idea too. They take us through historical case studies of ancient civilizations that consciously chose different paths either through experimentation within their own communities, or through observing and rejecting the examples of neighboring civilizations.
The authors also present evidence that many communities adopted different social structures at different times of year. For example, groups might live independently in dispersed settlements in some seasons, but come together at other times to collaborate on a large hunt, or a harvest, or to build a monument or a temple. At these times they might temporarily live under the direction of a leader while in general retaining the freedom to leave or disobey at any time.
They suggest that early humans played with farming or played with kingdoms in various ways and at various times. They felt free, they were free, to imagine and to experiment.
In other words, people were fully cognizant of the choices and the trade-offs they were making. And they freely changed their minds more often than we realize.
Forms of Freedom
What freedoms did people in these ancient societies enjoy? Clearly it wasn’t freedom of the press. Graeber and Wengrow contend that there were three fundamental freedoms that underpin all others: the freedom to move, the freedom to disobey and the freedom to form new social relationships. They explore how these freedoms operated in early civilizations, even though they were not written down anywhere. (They pre-date writing itself let alone laws and constitutions,)
The freedom to move, for example, might seem redundant for nomadic societies, but there’s evidence it applied to individuals as well as groups. Individuals from one band or clan could move to another through tribal networks spanning vast geographic regions, and be welcomed and cared for. With groups and individuals free to move around all the time, the remit if chiefs and kings didn’t extend very far. People were mostly free, according to the authors, to ignore commands they didn’t like. And the freedom to form new relationships is the foundation for creating all types of political and social structures.
In modern times, we’ve lost these freedoms, to greater or lesser degrees, in different parts of the world. Try crossing a border without a passport. In some places you can’t even go to the next town without papers and permission.
Forms of Domination
The opposite of freedom is domination of course. Graeber and Wengrow suggest there are three fundamental forms of domination, three ways in which some people can impose their will on others. They are violence, information control, and personal charisma.
We can obviously be dominated by others who threaten or carry out violence against us. We can be dominated by people who possess and control more information than we do. And we can sometimes willingly succumb to dominance by the personal charisma of others.
These three forms of domination lead to three different systems that embody domination in our societies:
- Sovereignty: the idea that the ruler or the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.
- Bureaucracy: the systems of often complex rules and procedures by which the will of the sovereign is enforced
- Competitive politics: contests in which aspiring leaders vie for our willing obedience through persuasion or demagoguery, sometimes mediated through the ballot box.
Throughout the book, the authors explore how different societies have used different combinations and configurations of these forms of domination in their political and social structures at the cost of the three freedoms.
The overall message of The Dawn of Everything is that the evolution of human civilization is neither as linear nor as inevitable as we might think. In different places and at different times we humans have experimented with, played with, tinkered with, adopted and rejected a wide range of political and social structures.
If we now seem stuck with forms of domination and inequality that appear universal and inescapable, then perhaps we can take some hope and some inspiration from earlier times.
“If something did go terribly wrong in human history – and given the current state of the world, it’s hard to deny something did – then perhaps it began to go wrong precisely when people started losing that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence, to such a degree that some now feel this particular type of freedom hardly ever existed, or was barely exercised, for the greater part of human history.” [p. 502]
The Dawn of Everything awakens us to other possibilities.
There’s no way I can evaluate the evidence that Graeber and Wengrow present in this book or the conclusions they reach. The book is based on a staggering amount of research and I have zero background in anthropology or archaeology. All I can try to do is assess the book against its own goals and against whatever limited, and possibly faulty prior knowledge I do have. I’ll try to do that now.
The Dawn of Everything is a contrarian book, going against the grain of academic orthodoxy. I would love it if its more hopeful conclusions were correct, but I’m not quite convinced.
The authors rely heavily on new archaeological evidence that’s been unearthed in the last thirty years, and on neglected evidence from books, manuscripts and historical documents that other scholars have either ignored or dismissed.
So did they cherry-pick evidence that supports their new theories? I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here and assume not. Did they give that evidence more weight than it deserves? Possibly. Again, I have no way to evaluate this.
To their credit, they acknowledge that the archaeological record is sparse, and gets sparser the farther back in time you go. They are cautious about drawing firm conclusions.
Still as Carl Sagan said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I’m not sure Graeber and Wengrow have met that bar. To be fair, it’s not clear that more conventional scholars have either.
My main concern about The Dawn of Everything is that after 526 pages Graeber and Wengrow leave a lot of questions unanswered.
The main question this book tries to answer is “how did we get stuck?” That is, how, despite a wide variety of experiences and experiments, did human civilization get stuck in systems of domination and inequality? They present a mountain of evidence that other structures have been tried, and other outcomes are possible, but they never really answer this question.
Having not answered the main question, they say nothing at all about how we might, today, get ourselves unstuck. In other words, what changes could we make to our societies and structures to become more free and more equal? There’s nothing in the book about this.
They also don’t answer the question of whether and how human civilization can scale up to billions of people and still retain freedom and equality. They point to examples of ancient cities with perhaps a few tens of thousands of inhabitants living that way. That’s great, and certainly hopeful, but it’s small potatoes. Since our population didn’t reach even one billion until the 1800’s, I doubt archaeology has much to teach us about scaling to billions.
Graeber and Wengrow discuss the role of women in historical societies at several places in the book. They note that in most societies, there have been divisions of labor along gendered lines, but the archaeological record shows that women were respected and often honored.
The authors credit women with being humanity’s first scientists and first mathematicians. It was women who first started planting small gardens and selecting the best plants, and it was women who did the beadwork and basket weaving thereby developing our earliest understanding of patterns, geometry, and ratios.
So how and why were women universally subjugated by men in every modern civilization? They don’t address this question at all.
OK, time to wrap up.
It doesn’t draw firm conclusions, but The Dawn of Everything puts forward some new and exciting ideas that point to a far more varied and nuanced understanding of our early history. If Graeber and Wengrow’s critique causes scientists to re-evaluate the evidence and revise their theories, then they will have done us all a great service.
It’s probably not for everyone, but if you’re really interested in archaeology, anthropology or ancient history, you’ll probably find this book interesting too. It’ll challenge a lot of what you think you know.
For the rest of us, I think the best part of this book is the hopeful message that our present circumstances are not necessarily permanent or inevitable. We can choose a different future. We’ve done it before. We could do it again.
A long summary of a long book. Thanks for reading.
My first question about any book like this is how does it account for gender… and I see I was right to wonder 😏
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Yes, the book presents some really interesting and new (for me) historical information about the role of women, but it completely misses bigger questions. Thanks!
A great review of an interesting sounding book; I am into archaeology and anthropology but this does sound a bit cherry-picky to me and a bit of a slog, too. Thank you for reading it for us!
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Thanks! I got interested in this book because it had a different take than Sapiens, which I really liked. But yes it is a slog!
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I probably won’t read this one, so I loved getting your great summary as a nice substitute! You just saved me hours and hours of time. 🙂 It’s interesting to hear such a variety of thought about humanity, even if we can’t decide exactly which parts are true and which aren’t.
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Thanks! Happy to help 🙂
This book got a great review in The Atlantic and it sounds fascinating! I’ve read about an interesting case where female vikings were misidentified as male because they were buried with armor and weapons, despite anatomical details suggesting they were women, until DNA evidence forced us to reevaluate. Like you, I don’t have the background to know whether the authors of this book are right or wrong, but I do appreciate that they’re trying to look at history from a different perspective. Hopefully that will help up avoid the blinders of our expectations that have led to mistakes like the one made with the female vikings 🙂
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I read the review in The Atlantic too. It was that one plus another in the NYT Book Review that got me interested.
The authors discuss a case like those mis-identified female Vikings, can’t remember if it’s exactly the same, but I agree with you that new techniques like DNA analysis help us better understand our history, and overcome biases and assumptions.
The perspective in this book really is different and it’s made me realize that while the past might be fixed, our understanding of it sure isn’t.
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