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The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

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A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution—from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality—and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.

For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike—either free and equal innocents, 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 conservative reaction to powerful critiques of European society posed by Indigenous observers and intellectuals. Revisiting this encounter has startling implications for how we make sense of human history today, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery, and civilization itself.

Drawing on pathbreaking research in archaeology and anthropology, the authors show how history becomes a far more interesting place once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there. If humans did not spend 95 percent 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 human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful, hopeful 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 a faith in the power of direct action.

692 pages, Hardcover

First published October 19, 2021

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About the author

David Graeber

84 books3,906 followers
David Rolfe Graeber was an American anthropologist and anarchist.

On June 15, 2007, Graeber accepted the offer of a lectureship in the anthropology department at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where he held the title of Reader in Social Anthropology.

Prior to that position, he was an associate professor of anthropology at Yale University, although Yale controversially declined to rehire him, and his term there ended in June 2007.

Graeber had a history of social and political activism, including his role in protests against the World Economic Forum in New York City (2002) and membership in the labor union Industrial Workers of the World. He was an core participant in the Occupy Movement.

He passed away in 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,202 reviews
Profile Image for Kevin.
289 reviews917 followers
May 11, 2023
Graeber’s final (and most ambitious) gift to us is only the beginning…

--There’s a certain joy seeing status quo liberals (think: cosmopolitan capitalism) frame Graeber’s social imagination as “dangerous” (most famously for Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years which coincided with Occupy Wall Street which he was involved in); suddenly, that inescapable “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.

How I read Graeber:
--Graeber occupies a peculiar position of being a radical author (my reading context) who has actually crossed over to mainstream readership. When I write reviews for obscure radical/academic books, I can skip casual readers. For this book, I'll have to first take a step back to bridge this divide:
i) My reading context is “historical materialism” in a broad sense (i.e. analytical tools, rather than rigid conclusions), meaning my foundation for analyzing history starts with the big-picture (systemic structures) of material conditions (production/distribution/surplus/reproduction) and its conflicts (ex. class)/contradictions. Yes, “Marxist”, if you're not using that in scare quotes.
ii) With this materialist foundation in place, Graeber waltzes in and flips everything on its head while still somewhat respecting the foundations by engaging with its concepts (rather than omitting it to create a parallel universe). So, I find Graeber's challenges invigorating.
iii) However, had I read Graeber without a materialist foundation, I personally would find Graeber's most provocative challenges disorienting. I do worry casual readers may miss Graeber playing with (rather than rejecting) materialism.

Re-reading Graeber:
--During my first read, I personally felt a certain relief from the Western Left/radical internet debates between “anarchists vs. Marxists”; self-professed “anarchist” Graeber often transcends vulgar caricatures by reframing assumptions shared by both “sides”. Given our messy real-world contradictions, we need more “anarchists” synthesizing geopolitics and more “Marxists” studying the latest in anthropology/archeology beyond vulgar stages-of-development (like Marx would have).
--However, after reading some Marxist/historical materialist critiques of this book and then re-reading, I am saddened to realize parts of this book (i.e. the provocative title and some of the rhetorical passages) do invite the needlessly-combative rhetoric tossed back at it (while the substance actually has much room for synthesis!). Both “sides” deploy excessive rhetoric; clearly this book features some mass marketing (the only excuse is to gain a wider audience), which ironically is mirrored back in this (still useful) historical materialist critique titled 'The Dawn of Everything' Gets Human History Wrong. I try to unpack this in my review's comment section below (comment #35).
--Having read Graeber’s other books early on, I am now revisiting them after reviewing Marx’s Capital Vol.1 and Global South Marxist Capital and Imperialism to seek synthesis rather than further division. I would like to dispel the sad irony that Graeber’s last book identifies “culture areas”/schismogensis (the creation of one’s own identity through difference from others, see later; we can add “narcissism of small differences” and capitalist atomization) as a key barrier to system change.
--Despite this baggage, I will still show solidarity for a radical book that reaches mainstream attention: 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 (lecture: https://youtu.be/EvUzdJSK4x8).


Myth #1: Prior to agriculture, humans lived in primitive egalitarian bands:
--This vulgar “stages of development” assumption can be traced to the Enlightenment and the shock of “an obscure and uninviting backwater full of religious fanatics” Europe’s sudden integration into the world economy.
--In typical “Great (Western) Man Theory” manner, modern liberals like smug muppet Steven Pinker (the Ayn Rand for Bill Gates) portray the Enlightenment in an isolationist manner of inventive European men. Even when these Enlightenment-era Europeans detail encounters with the rest of the world (American indigenous/Chinese/Indian/Persian etc.), this is either omitted or rendered as “mere projection of European fantasies”.
--This erases the dialogue behind the Enlightenment: missionary/travel literature became popular back in Europe for its critique of settlers/Europe and social imagination for alternatives. In particular, the “Indigenous critique” (ex. Kondiaronk) against European (ex. French) elite private property regime against mutual aide while the masses toiled + accumulation of oppressive power against individual freedoms/consensus-building (participatory democracy) caused Jesuit outrage and stimulated Enlightenment debates.
--A counter to this critique was based on Lockean property rights, where colonialists portrayed the indigenous as primitive i.e. not putting labour into the land, thus part of nature with no property claims. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was able to coopt the “Indigenous critique” and its reactionary backlash with the “stupid savage” myth (later abused in “Social Darwinism” and “scientific racism”; now known as “noble savage”) where primitive peoples were indeed egalitarian but this cannot be an alternative to the trap of private property’s progress. This myth and Thomas Hobbes“Leviathan” myth (violent primitive anarchy constrained by the benevolent State), the two “sides” of the modern debate, both assume a “primitive” stage.
--Since “stages” and “primitive” still run deep in mainstream imagination (Yuval Noah Harari casually compares “foragers” with chimpanzees/bonobos), Graeber/Wengrow presents a dynamic human history of conscious social experimentation, esp. the prominent example of seasonal fluidity between mass collective mobilization (i.e. harvests/festivals... often egalitarian) and nomadic bands (often hierarchical).

Myth #2: Surplus from agriculture/technologies traps societies into inequality:
--This technocratic justification for stages is popular amongst mainstream luminaries like chronically-wrong Francis Fukuyama and an-atlas-is-my-bible Jared Diamond; Harari considers the framing of wheat domesticating humans.
--Graeber/Wengrow review Neolithic cultivation to contrast the biodiversity of Neolithic botanists (and egalitarianism from women’s roles becoming more visible) vs. the “bio-power” of agricultural food productionism/domestication rule over animals (crucial to our biodiversity crisis; Rob Wallace would love this!)… flexible/collective flood-retreat farming/“play farming”/“ecology of freedom” conscious choices and experimentation vs. Enclosures private property/full-time peasant toil/“ecological imperialism” environmental determinism…
--A finer distinction is considering the rigidity of the “grain states” concept by fellow anarchist James C. Scott.
--Yanis Varoufakis, you’re still my favorite writer, but I beg of you, please replace your constant recommendation of Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies with this book. Also, replace Atwood’s Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth with Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

Myth #3: Urbanization’s increasing complexity/scale requires hierarchical rule:
--Another technocratic justification for stages... Note: in systems theory, complex systems both in nature and in society do not require top-down organization.
--Graeber/Wengrow review early cities that lacked rulers and had various egalitarian schemes: Ukraine “mega-sites”, Uruk (Mesopotamia), Indus Valley, China’s “Late Neolithic”, Teotihuacan (Mesoamerica), etc. This reminds me of Michael Hudson (who collaborated with Graeber) on ancient Mesopotamian cities; a pity they didn’t co-author a book.

New framework, new questions:
--By debunking the myths underlying the “origins of inequality” question and revealing the dynamic social possibilities throughout human history, new questions surfaces: “how did we get stuck?” and can we escape?
...Harari: “There is no way out of the imagined order [...] when we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.”. Mark Fisher's “Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?” leaves a similar feeling, quite frankly.

…First, a new framework is considered:
--3 principles of domination (note: not all 3 have to be present; indeed they can be contradicting forces):
1) control force: sovereignty
2) control knowledge: bureaucratic administration (interesting to note the esoteric component of this bureaucratic “knowledge”, which we can connect to today's financial instruments + intellectual property rights regime!)
3) charismatic politics: heroic competition
--3 basic freedoms:
1) leave: “expectations that make freedom of movement possible – the norms of hospitality and asylum, civility and shelter”
2) disobey
3) shape new social realities/switch between

--“How did we get stuck?”: a compelling first stab: The Roman Law roots of private property (right to use + enjoy products + *most crucially* right to damage/destroy) and its connection to slave law’s objectification (thus a “power” rather than a “right” involving mutual obligations negotiated with others)…
...Thus, the logic of war (arbitrary violence/interchangeable enemies) is inserted into the intimacy of domestic care (patriarchal household private property)... The effects on women and exiles regarding the basic freedoms
...The proliferation of “culture areas”/schismogenesis: “the process by which neighbouring groups began defining themselves against each other and, typically, exaggerating their differences. Identity came to be seen as a value in itself, setting in motion processes of cultural schismogenesis.” (for my 2nd reading, I tried to key in on this as I'm lacking in cultural studies; I need to review more of Graeber unpacking “identity politics” in politics/culture: https://youtu.be/H6oOj7BzciA).

--We have a lot to work on and a lot to work with thanks to Graeber (RIP... here's Hudson and Steve Keen remembering Graeber: https://youtu.be/tYipFH1_Y4k )
Max Planck once remarked that new scientific truths don’t replace old ones by convincing established scientists that they were wrong; they do so because proponents of the older theory eventually die, and generations that follow find the new truths and theories to be familiar, obvious even. We are optimists. We like to think it will not take that long.

In fact, we have already taken a first step. We can see more clearly now what is going on when, for example, a study that is rigorous in every other respect begins from the unexamined assumption that there was some ‘original’ form of human society; that its nature was fundamentally good or evil; that a time before inequality and political awareness existed; that something happened to change all this; that ‘civilization’ and ‘complexity’ always come at the price of human freedoms; that participatory democracy is natural in small groups but cannot possibly scale up to anything like a city or a nation state.

We know, now, that we are in the presence of myths.
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,085 reviews68.4k followers
December 6, 2021
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:

1. The 18th century European Enlightenment was in large part sparked by exposure to the indigenous tribes of the forests of Northeast North America.

2. The so-called European ‘cultural efflorescence ‘ of Homo Sapiens about 40,000 years ago is mythical and was in any case likely preceded by real events of equal significance in Africa that have little to do with an economic shift from hunting to farming.

3. So-called primitive peoples existing today on the fringes of modern states are not ‘windows to the past’ but sophisticated cosmopolitan societies which demonstrate imaginative solutions to perennial problems of human political organisation.

4. Our modern problems of economic, sexual, and political inequity arise not because of anything inherent in human nature but at the historical moment when personal wealth can be transformed into political power and coercive authority.

5. The formal freedoms provided in modern democracies are far more restrictive (and restricted) than the substantive freedoms afforded widely in pre-industrial, non-European societies.

6. Montesquieu’s The System of Laws (1748), a book highly influential in the constitutional deliberations of the Founders of the United States, was very likely the product of contact with the Osage people of the Great Plains.

7. Our traditions of social dominance and coercive authority are derived from Roman Law which conceived of the male head of the family as literally owning the lives of everyone in the household.

The list of interesting propositions contained in The Dawn of Everything could be easily trebled. They are purposely provocative, sometimes counter-intuitive, but always framed by outstanding scholarship. Above all, they are interesting. By challenging conventional wisdom, they demand consideration and attention to the logic behind the historical facts as conventionally reported.

So The Dawn of Everything is really not so much a human history as it is an historiographical critique of the sources, methods, presumptions, prejudices, and criteria of historical validity employed by the humans who have written human history. History is a political activity. And so are the anthropological and sociological studies upon which much of history has been based. This is the point. Whether or not any of the propositions presented by Graeber and Wengrow are ultimately verified is of secondary importance. They are serious hypotheses which have been crushed by lack of imagination.

The tales of human development we tell ourselves are riddled with the politics of the day and form the context of the politics of the future. Every once in a while someone comes along to shake the intellectual cages in which we have trapped ourselves to reveal just how much we have allowed ourselves to be lied to, misled, or deluded. We are beyond fortunate to have Graeber and Wengrow do that for today’s world. They will undoubtedly be castigated and derided but they cannot be ignored.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,301 reviews22k followers
December 31, 2021
This is something of a remarkable book. I’d learnt one of the authors had died, and having read two other of his books, and thought they were two of the best books I’ve read in quite a long time, I was very disappointed there would be no more. This couldn’t really have been too much ‘more’. It is stunningly good and has changed my understanding of early human societies.

Marx and Engels begin the Manifesto by saying, ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle’. There is a footnote that then says that for most of human history, in fact, there wasn’t any class struggle, but rather what they refer to as primitive communism. This was a time when hunter/gatherer peoples (known at the time as savages) lived communally and shared everything they possessed. This vision didn’t allow for much variation between places – basically, everyone hunted, everyone gathered, everyone shared. The variety starts when a surplus exists.

The idea being that hunter-gatherers couldn’t really produce enough food to provide for more than the members of their own tribe – and sometimes not even that much food. So, if they captured someone in a war, it wasn’t much use ‘making them your slave’ since they would hardly have been able to feed more than themselves. Making them a slave would have effectively meant getting them to join your tribe. So, you either killed them or you killed and ate them. The first law of social organisation is basically determined by thermodynamics.

The thing is that the moment society gets over this thermodynamic threshold and people produce more than they need, you immediately get a small group of people hoarding that surplus for themselves and enslaving everyone else. You immediately get what Marx and Engels referred to as class society.

That isn’t the story that is told here. Rather, the authors make a compelling case for a much more complicated pre-history of humanity. They say that the variety of human societies in this longest phase of human history was much more diverse than we have ever given it credit for. They also point out that the shift to class society, in the Marxist sense, wasn’t as immediate or automatic as has generally been assumed – in fact, some groups moved between what Marx would have considered different social structures, more or less with the seasons. Many of the societies discussed at length here proved anything but identical or ‘simple’.

The start of the book discusses the difference between Hobbs and Rousseau. Essentially, these are alternative visions of pre-history. In one, everyone is selfish and nasty, and we only get to go on living because we hand over power to the state – which brings the war of all against each to an end. The other vision is of some naked guy strolling around the forest of Eden picking his nose and farting, and generally having a great time without a care in the world. Neither of these visions is particularly supported by any evidence. And it could be that neither was even intended to be taken literally, but take them literally we certainly have.

There is an interesting part in this where Native Americans are reported having extended debates with Europeans about the meaning of life, or more particularly, why European life looks complete repulsive to these ‘primitive savages’. Often these reported discussions have been assumed to have been invented by European writers putting words into the mouths of the savages as a means of critiquing their own society, without having to pay the price that that might have involved. As such, the ‘mouthpiece savage’ could say what the author wanted to say, but that he wouldn’t have gotten away with, while providing ‘plausible deniability’ as US presidents like to have when they execute a foreign leader, say.

The authors here make it clear that these works are probably much more fact than fantasy. That these debates seem to have occurred, to have been documented, and to have been pretty much what they claim to have been – Europeans being schooled in democracy, justice and the good life by these ‘damn savages’. It turns out that societies do like to gather a surplus, but while sometimes that surplus is in ‘stuff’, like in our societies, sometimes it is in ideas and understanding.

Profile Image for Stetson.
231 reviews160 followers
September 1, 2023
David Wengrow and the late David Graeber have chosen to venture into the pitched battlefield that is the telling and retelling of the origins of human civilization. Their tome (700+ pages or 24+ hours of audio) is ostensibly provocative though discursive and predicated on a questionable methodology (a more expansive, inclusive, and wide-eyed reading of primary sources on or from primitive human groups and their related artifacts) with the grandiose title The Dawn of Everything. They position their work as a more solemn, serious, and nuanced alternative to popular works by public intellectuals like Steven Pinker, Yuval Noah Harari, and Jared Diamond. The Davids assert these works are simplistic myth-making efforts that erroneously reify a Rosseauan or Hobbesian perspective on human nature (and thus are fatalistic about social organization) married to a teleological view of human progress. Although never explicitly acknowledged in the work, the authors have anarchic political sympathies and thus share the perspective that human nature is quite a bit more flexible and good natured (in the right conditions) than a mainstream read of the salient evidence from their discipline (anthropology) and related field like evolutionarily-oriented disciplines and sociology broadly would be. Considering these limitations, The Dawn of Everything is still probably a work worth reading; it just happens to either argue for things that aren't as impactful as they think they are (e.g. human behavior and social practices can be very flexible) or are just not well substantiated (e.g. that matriarchal societies existed in human history).

I think readers should forgive the Davids a bit for daring to make some zany claims (it is great to think daringly sometimes), but it would have landed better if they were a bit more deft and humble about it. A lot of their supposed rebuttals of fairly mainstream orthodoxies about the history and nature of human civilization (even ones that are simplifications) are premised on fairly tenuous evidence and often require some very generous interpretations of their sources. Moreover, the book is largely ignorant of or foolishly ignores the insights of linguistics, primatology, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, and ancient population genomics, especially in terms of the harder evidence they can provide about human behavior, socialization, and migration. This is a huge oversight as these types of discussions even make the pages of the purportedly simplistic popular works that the Davids scorn.

I think the real failing of the work is that the authors aren't actually able to provide an operational and detailed description of a supposed ideal modern human civilization at scale. There isn't a synthesis about what this should mean for our world despite their clear displeasure with how they think society is "stuck" in particular governing systems now. They give some small-scale and vague examples that aren't much more than fantasies. Plus, they dismiss concerns about scale, logistics, and transaction costs (not even addressed) flippantly and don't even tender a definitive perspective on human nature (implying inaccurately that it is more malleable than it actually is). There just is no serious thinking about political economy or information flow for a complex, technologically mature global society from their perspective. Despite often criticizing Rousseau's work, they still are seemingly siding with him about essential human nature, while ignoring the well-known, mainstream, agnostic resolution of the Rousseau-Hobbes debate, i.e. Lockean Social Contract Theory. Overall, The Dawn of Everything is an interesting but very messy and fanciful re-imagining of human history.

*Disclaimer: I received this audiobook as an ARC through NetGalley

Commentaries from experts in Cliodynamics on DoE -> https://escholarship.org/uc/irows_cli...

I strongly recommend Erik Hoel's review of this book --> https://erikhoel.substack.com/p/the-g...
Profile Image for Prerna.
222 reviews1,423 followers
August 11, 2022
If you plan on reading this book, buckle up kids. Because the authors here are going to completely overturn the very premise of all your history lessons. It was quite a blow to me frankly, given that most feminist studies begin with associations between the origins of private property, patriarchy and monogamy. And this book clearly shows that such an association is extremely reductive, because the notion of private property is as old as that of sacredness. The authors seem to be of the opinion that the obsession with property rights as the basis of society is a peculiarly western phenomenon. What we should be asking instead is why these notions grew to order and dictate so many other aspects of human affairs. Moreover, the authors argue that what we now regard as a 'state' hasn't been a constant of history (even recent history) even though many researchers seem to be tirelessly looking for its origins in many different periods.

Much of this book is marked by uncertainty (which is my favorite concept, proven by the fact that my research area is quantum physics) as to whether we can neatly draw lines and separate history into clear cut periods as most textbooks seem to do. The authors express deep uncertainty as to whether what we think of as 'civilization' and 'state' are even conjoined elements. They claim that contrary to popular opinion, 'civilization' hasn't been handed down to us through an evolutionary process. It is silly to even talk about the evolution of human society from band to tribe to chiefdom to state, when our starting points are groups that moved fluidly between these forms of social organisation as a matter of habitat.

Apparently, we've been asking all the wrong questions and ridiculously confining ourselves to the Rousseau-Hobbes debate on the origins of inequality. As if there ever was a distinct origin. As if it is either inherent to human nature or to the nature of civilization. The authors even scorn the leftist upholding of the Rousseau argument, because it is downright silly to assume humans ever lived in idyllic garden of Eden sort of communities. For them, questions regarding the origin of state and the question about origins of inequality are equally foolish.

What are the lessons we can learn from history then? What are the right questions to ask? For starters, we need to question why after millenia of constructing and disassembling forms of heirarchy, did we allow permanent and intractable system of inequality to take root? I, for one, am more than happy to jump on this bandwagon.

This is an extremely bold book, in the truest sense of the word. Oh and I'm totally into all the Yuval Noah Harari and Jared Diamond dissing.

If there is a particular story we should be telling, a big question we should be asking of human history (instead of the ‘origins of social inequality’), is it precisely this: how did we find ourselves stuck in just one form of social reality, and how did relations based ultimately on violence and domination come to be normalized within it?
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,275 followers
February 14, 2022
Social theory is largely a game of make-believe in which we pretend, just for the sake of argument, that there’s just one thing going on…

This is a difficult book to review. Not only is it long and extremely ambitious, it is also a beguiling mixture of strengths and weaknesses that are difficult to untangle. To begin with, this book is not, as its title promises, a history of humanity; and considering that the book only examines the past 10,000 years, it is also not about the dawn of humanity, much less everything. Really, this book has a far more focused purpose: to dismantle the standard narrative of how humans went from hunter-gatherers to urban-dwelling agriculturalists.

The standard narrative—as found in many popular books, from Steven Pinker to Jared Diamond to Yuval Noah Harari—goes something like this: In the beginning, humans were all hunter-gatherers, living in small groups, taking only what they needed from their environments. Only the most rudimentary technologies were employed; yet there was no war, no poverty, no oppression, no office jobs, no television commercials, no taxes, no bureaucracy, no robo-calls—in short, it was a simple time.

Now, depending on whether you follow Rousseau or Hobbes, you may differ as to whether you consider such a state of affairs a paradise or a slaughterhouse, and thus you may think that the switch to city life was a fall from grace or a stairway to heaven. But both camps agree that agriculture implies hierarchy, since the extra resources freed up some members of the group to do things other than just gather food; and once there was specialization, there had to be people to coordinate the specialists—in a word, leaders, middle-managers, and bureaucrats. Thus, the egalitarian band of hunter-gatherers eventually became the walled city controlled by an oligarchy, or the great empire ruled by a monarchy, or the insurance office run by the regional manager.

The simplest way to characterize this book is that it is a long refutation of this narrative. The authors do this by citing counter-example after counter-example from the archaeological record. This is where the book is most entertaining, as a great many of these archaeological anecdotes are both surprising and fascinating. By citing this evidence, the authors attempt to show, first, that hunter-gatherers did not all have the roaming lifestyle or the total lack of social structure that is often projected onto them. Elaborate burials and, most conspicuously, large stone monuments paint quite a different story of our ancestors.

The authors go on to show that the transition to farming was not sudden, nor did it immediately lead to dramatic social changes. Many communities, they aver, practiced a kind of limited farming for centuries before they became full-time agriculturalists. Furthermore, there is no necessary connection between the switch to city life and the rise of hierarchy, or the rise of empires and the invention of bureaucracy. In a nutshell, the authors contend that the main characteristics of the modern state—centralized leadership, a monopoly on violence, an administration to carry out laws, and so on—are a kind of constellation of social features, all of which have diverse and, often, quite unrelated origins, and which only came together to form the modern state gradually. To put the matter most succinctly, then, our world of nation states was not the inevitable outcome of a deterministic process.

Now, summarizing the book in the above manner is not exactly fair. The central thesis of the book is all too often in the background, and the reader is instead swimming through a sea of examples and ideas, struggling to spot land. This is both a vice and a virtue, since many of these observations, arguments, and examples—though leading off in a thousand directions from the central path—are quite intriguing. Still, it does often feel as though the authors are trying to take on the entire world, criticizing everything from the naming of epochs in archaeological literature to the academic treatment of feminist theories of prehistory. Interesting, yes, but a little distracting.

How to evaluate the book, then? As an attack on a commonly held myth of how humans went from agriculturalists to urbanites, it is successful. At the very least, the authors convince us that prehistory is an awful lot more complex and compelling than the simple, linear narratives we often project onto it. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering to what extent this myth predominates in the academic community. After all, the direct targets of the authors’ criticism are popular writers, whose specialty is not even prehistory (Pinker, Diamond, etc.). When academia is mentioned, the authors portray researchers as so hopelessly specialized, or so beholden to prejudices, as to be unable to see the big picture. Is that true? Regardless, I do think this book has a lot to offer the interested layperson, at least. It is a successful popularization of archaeology.

Yet it would be remiss of me not to mention the obvious political motivations of the authors. Both of them anarchists, this book can be read as one long justification of their beliefs. It is as if they are saying, “See? Humans don’t have to life in states, with huge bureaucracies and oppressive hierarchies!” But I do not think this was necessarily a good rhetorical strategy for promoting their philosophy. For one, when we are considering what we should do now, today, in a sense it does not matter whether humans lived in this or that place, at this or that time, in an approximately anarchist manner. History is not destiny. What is more, the societies the authors discuss are so totally unlike our own—in terms of scale, technology, and accumulated history—that it does not seem particularly relevant, anyway. (I am not, you understand, arguing against anarchism here, only the rather heavy-handed role their sympathies played in the writing of the book.)

While somewhat overbearing, disorganized, and not altogether convincing, as a corrective to many other popular accounts of human history, this book is valuable indeed.
Profile Image for Nate.
303 reviews4 followers
December 12, 2021
Okay—first I’ll try to say something nice about this book. I truly enjoyed reading about Kandiaronk. And about the evidence that North American Indian ideas about individual liberty and autonomy spread to and deeply affected settlers in the New World--perhaps changing the entire course of world history.

But I pretty well hated the entire book.

Because the authors are dressing up fanciful ideas as plausible, evidence-backed ideas. They do admit to some speculating, but the whole tone of the writing is meant to obscure the fact that they are basically spitballing. Every page is perfectly littered with the phrases, “perhaps,” and “it’s possible that.” The reader is bombarded with rhetorical questions meant to imply that some absurd, remote possibility is actually plausible and sensible.

The authors never once make a bold statement. They hide in the brush for all 500 pages, sniping at other writers, while never committing to an idea that could be challenged in broad daylight. Every vague idea they put forth, soon gets qualified in eight different ways, until it means almost nothing. It’s watered down tea. Unappetizing. My conclusion is that the authors, who seem to be quite intelligent, take this approach b/c they are keenly aware of how weak their arguments are. But it’s obnoxious. It would be better if they just said: Here’s some wild speculation, with very little evidence, just for fun.

Instead they take themselves quite seriously. They insinuate they are doing groundbreaking, earth-shattering work. But they are not. And so they strike me as arrogant and self-important. They are scrupulously and nauseatingly politically correct. Plus I think they wasted my time by not giving me much to sink my teeth into it.

Their big idea about “the 3 basic freedoms” is garbage in my opinion. Their relentless insistence that we of the modern age are “stuck” in our ideas about social arrangements is blindly ignorant. There have been, in recent history, in many different places, an incredible number of creative plots and daring attempts at all kinds of wildly different social arrangements.

One more thing I noticed. If you care about this sort of thing. The authors are die-hard Marxists. They don’t’ come out and say this. But the dead giveaway is a ridiculous over-usage of the adjective “radical.” I would guess it pops up about 30 times. Also, the word “revolutionary” pops up quite frequently. I’ve observed this pattern in 2 or 3 books I’ve read lately. I’m not sure why Marxists do this. Maybe to signal their peers? I don’t know. It’s amusing that they think it’s somehow subtle. But also, I see it as a sign that I am reading an agenda-pushing ideologue, and not a genuinely curious scientist. There are several other clues in the book regarding all this but I want to keep it short here.

I will try not to hold a grudge over any of these faults. I’m sure the authors meant well. But I will recommend you all avoid this one.//
2 reviews7 followers
October 22, 2021
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. Instead, what the available evidence shows is that the trajectory of human history has been a good deal more diverse and exciting and less boring than we tend to assume because, in an important sense, it has never been a trajectory. We never permanently lived in tiny hunter-gatherer bands. We also were never permanently egalitarian. If there is a defining trait of our prehistorical condition it is its bewildering capacity of shifting, almost constantly, across a diverse array of social systems of all kinds of political, economic, and religious nature. Graeber and Wengrow’s suggestion is that the only way to explain this kaleidoscopic variety of social forms is to assume that our ancestors were not actually that stupid, but were instead self-conscious political actors, capable of fashioning their own social arrangements depending on circumstances. More often than not, people would choose to switch seasonally between socio-political identities as to avoid the perils of lasting authoritarian power. And so, rather than asking ‘Why did inequality arise?’ the most interesting question to pose about human history becomes ‘Why did we get stuck with it?’ This is only one of many kindred claims advanced in this astounding new book.

The book draws much of its value from its eclectic approach. David Wengrow is a professor of comparative archaeology at UCL. He is well-known for his work on early cultural and political transformations in Africa and Eurasia. David Graeber, who died suddenly in September 2020, was a professor of anthropology at LSE, widely regarded as the most brilliant of his generation. Together, they explore a suite of recent archaeological findings that prove anomalous to the standard narrative (for instance, the existence of ancient large-scale egalitarian cities), but that, until now, had only been privy to a handful of experts who never quite unravelled the implications. Archaeological discoveries are therein appraised from anthropological eyes. The result is a sweeping tour into the past that hops from continent to continent and from one social sphere to another to tell stories that, depending on the reader’s familiarity with the archaeological record, might come as revelations.

We learn, for instance, that the uniformity in material culture across Eurasia in the Upper Palaeolithic meant that people lived in a large-scale imagined community spanning continents, putting to rest the idea that ‘primitives’ only spent their time in isolated bands. Counter-intuitively, the scale of single societies decreased over the course of human history as populations grew larger. From monumental sites such as Göbekli Tepe in Turkey or Hopewell in Ohio, we learn that people would seasonally come together from distant lands in what appear to have been large centres of cultural interactions for recreation and the exchange of knowledge. Journeying great distances while expecting to be welcomed into an extended community was a typical feature of our ancestors’ lives.

The book then pivots to agriculture. The received view has it that the birth of agriculture meant the more or less automatic emergence of stratified societies. Yet, this assumption runs into problems once we consider a phenomenon like ‘play farming’ across Amazonia, where acephalous societies like the Nambikwara, though familiar with techniques of plant domestication, consciously decided not to make agriculture the basis for their economy and to opt for a more relaxed approach that switched flexibly between foraging and cultivation. (Agriculture generally emerged in the absence of easier alternatives.) Further, we learn that some of the first agricultural societies of the Middle East formed themselves as egalitarian and peaceful responses to the predatory foragers of the surrounding hills. It was mostly women, here, that propelled the growth of agricultural science. We also learn that complex works of irrigation in some such places were executed communally without chiefs, and even where structures of hierarchy existed, these works were accomplished despite authority, not because of it. The gradual spread of agriculture across the globe was far less unilinear than anyone had previously guessed.

In what’s perhaps the best chapter of the book, the authors move on to examine cities. Nowadays, large-scale egalitarian cities, the mere idea of it, smacks of utopianism; but Graeber and Wengrow argue that it shouldn’t when we start thinking of cities as the coalescence, in a single physical space, of already existing extended imagined communities with their own egalitarian ethos and norms – first happening seasonally, then more stationarily, as conscious experiments in urban form. Sites like Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia and many others offer incontrovertible evidence of the past existence of such cities, where no sign of authoritarian rule can be found. (Generally, when these are found, they stand out in the form of palaces, temples, fortification, etc.) Other ancient cities like Cahokia in Mississippi or Shimao in China exhibit evidence of a temporal succession of different political orders, sometimes moving from authoritarian to egalitarian, which leaves the possibility of urban revolutions as a likely explanation for the change.

The final chapters focus on the ‘state’. Or better, on how misleading it is to define societies like the Inka or the Aztecs as ‘incipient states’ because these were far more diverse than what this straitjacket term would make us think. From the Olmec and the Chavin societies in Mesoamerica to the Shilluk of South Sudan, The Dawn of Everything offers a taste of the variety of authoritarian structures throughout history. By the end of the book, we encounter the archaeological gem that is Minoan Crete – a ‘beautiful irritant for archaeology’ – where all evidence points to the existence of an ancient system of female political rule, most likely a theocracy run by a college of priestesses.

There is much more. The leitmotif running through the chapters is that if we want to make sense of all these phenomena, we are obliged to put human collective intentionality back into the picture of human history, as a genuine explanatory variable. To assume, that is, that our ancestors were imaginative beings who were eminently capable of self-consciously creating their social arrangements. The authors by no means discount the importance of ecological determinants. Rather, they see their effort as moving the dial to a more sensible position within the agency–determinism continuum, which usually only takes one extreme. The key upshot is that this newfound view of our past equips us with an expanded sense of possibilities as to what we might do with ourselves in the future. Fatalistic sentiments about human nature melt away upon turning the pages.

Staying true to Ostrom’s law – ‘whatever works in practice must work in theory’ – Graeber and Wengrow set out a new framework for interpreting the social reality brought to light by empirical findings. Firstly, they urge us to abandon terms like ‘simple’ or ‘complex’ societies, let alone the ‘origin of the state’ or ‘origin of social complexity’. These terms already presuppose the kind of teleological thinking challenged in the book. The same goes for ‘modes of production’: whether a society relies on farming or fishing is a poor criterion for classification because it tells us almost nothing about its social dynamics. Secondly, they lay out some new descriptive categories of their own. They show, for instance, that social domination can be broken down into three elements – control of violence, control of knowledge, and charismatic power – and that permutations of these elements yield consistent patterns throughout history. While the modern nation state embodies all three, most hierarchical societies of the past had only one or two, and this allowed for the people who lived under them degrees of freedom that are barely imaginable for us today.

Graeber and Wengrow reflect at length on this last point. More than a work on the history of inequality, The Dawn of Everything is a treatise on human freedom. In parsing the anthropological record, they identify three types of freedom – freedom to abandon one’s community (knowing one will be welcomed in faraway lands), freedom to reshuffle the political system (often seasonally), and freedom to disobey authorities without consequences – that appear to have been simply assumed by our ancestors but are now largely lost (obviously, their conclusion is a far cry from Rousseau’s: there is nothing inevitable about this loss!). This analysis flips the question one should really be asking about the historical development of hierarchy: “The real puzzle is not when chiefs first appeared”, they suggest, “but rather when it was no longer possible to simply laugh them out of court.”

So much of what makes this book fascinating is the alien nature of what we encounter within, at least to contemporary eyes. Potlaches, headhunting and skull portraits, stranger kings, revolutions, shamanic art, vision quests… The Dawn of Everything reads like a work of sci-fi, except that what turns out to be fictional is our received view of human history. The writing is often funny, sometimes hilarious. At the same time, because hardly a paragraph goes by without bequeathing insight, this is a book that needs to be patiently taken in. It sits in a different class to all the other volumes on world history we are accustomed to reading.

The Dawn of Everything intellectually dwarfs the likes of Pinker, Diamond, or Fukuyama (and Harari too). Whenever non-specialists try their hands at human history, they inevitably end up reproducing the same old myths we have grown up with. Consider Steven Pinker: for all his talk about scientific progress, his books might as well have been written at the times of Hobbes, in the 17th century, when none of the evidence unearthed recently was available. Graeber and Wengrow casually expose these popular authors’ startling incompetence at handling the anthropological record. Only a solid command of the latter – namely, of the full documented range of human possibilities – affords a credible interpretative lens over the distant past. For it supplies the researcher with a refined sense of the rhythms of human history.

One of the experiences of delving into this book, at least in my case, was a gradual recognition of being in the presence of an intellectual oddity, something difficult to situate within the current landscape of social theory. By embracing once again the ‘grand narrative’, the book makes a clean break with post-structuralist and post-humanist trends widespread in contemporary academia. We know that Graeber, at least, liked to think himself as a ‘pre-humanist’, actively expecting to see humanity realise its full potential. One can certainly see this work as a contribution in that direction. One can also see The Dawn of Everything as belonging to the tradition of the Enlightenment (except that one of the other major claims in the book is that Enlightenment thought developed largely in response to indigenous intellectuals’ critiques of European society of the time). As for how it squares with current archaeological and anthropological theory, the book is of such a real sweep that I don’t think it admits easy comparisons.

If comparisons must be made, they should be made with works of similar calibre in other fields, most credibly, I venture, with the works of Galileo or Darwin. Graeber and Wengrow do to human history what the first two did to astronomy and biology respectively. The book produces a similar decentring effect: in dethroning our self-appointed position at the pinnacle of social evolution, it deals a blow to the teleological thinking that so insidiously shape our understanding of history. With the exception that while works such as Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems and On the Origin of Species hinted at the relative insignificance of humans in the face of the cosmos, The Dawn of Everything explores all the possibilities we have to act within it. And if Galileo and Darwin stirred turmoil of their own, this will do even more so for precisely this reason. Ultimately, a society that accepts the story presented here as its official origin story – a story that is taught in its schools, that seeps into its public consciousness – will have to be radically different than the society we are currently living in.
Profile Image for Marc.
3,108 reviews1,177 followers
March 13, 2023
Rating 2.5 stars. I'm still not quite sure what to think about this book. The first two hundred pages annoyed me immensely because of the ultra-polemical and even downright arrogant tone. Graeber and Wengrow target quite famous predecessors like Jared Diamond, Yuval Harari, and Steven Pinker and they boldly claim to offer a completely new look at world history. This creates expectations that almost by definition cannot be met. I also found their writing style annoying, with frequent digressions and half-finished arguments, and an accumulation of disputable facts. Because speculation is the main feature of their theses: they rightly state that very little is known about certain aspects of early human history, but instead they regularly refer to ethnographic data from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and then transfer that to the prehistoric and neolithic period as almost certain facts. On top of that one can clearly discriminate which chapters were mainly inspired by the political philosopher Graeber, with his glasses tinted by anarchism, and which chapters were more likely written by archaeologist Wengrow, with their greater factuality but still also with a large degree of speculation.

At the same time, this book also entices and offers intuitions that I think could touch ground. For example, the premise that prehistoric people, hunter-gatherers and early farmers, should not simply be dismissed as primitive, and that they were capable of arranging and organizing even complex matters. Or that human societies should not be captured in a simple modernist scheme, with a progressive rise from gang to tribe, to chiefdom and finally kingdom or state. And also that agriculture does not automatically lead to hierarchical societies, and so on. These are all plausible theses, but frankly, they're anything but new. Most scientific works have long rejected the simple evolutionary model of society (the so-called Turgot paradigm), they relativize the notion of Agricultural Revolution, and they do point to the remarkable long time span between the first forms of agriculture (actually rather horticulture), roughly ca 10,000 BCE and the emergence of real forms of government only after 3,000 BCE. In that sense, Graeber and Wengrow fight fictitious enemies (you can hardly take Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the dominant discourse, nor the mid-20th century archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe). But then they also make the mistake themselves to claim that things were completely different, and that, for example, the earliest agricultural communities and the first cities were almost certainly egalitarian (or at least, didn’t have an authoritarian hierarchy). That seems a step too far to me, because the empirical material they refer to does not allow us to draw that conclusion. In short, I think Graeber and Wengrow certainly ask the right questions, but I strongly doubt whether their idiosyncratic answers are any good.

In my History Account on Goodreads I go into more detail on the statements I support, and the ones I don't, see https://www.goodreads.com/review/show....
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 59 books8,593 followers
January 31, 2022
Well, that was large.

Basically a new take on how our distant ancestors lived and organised themselves, and at the assumptions we make. In particular, the vague idea that human history has been an inevitable progression towards our modern pinnacle of sophistication, hunter gatherer > village > absolute rule > organised state > democracy, or something like that.

The book spends a lot of time, like a lot, debunking other authors (wow do they not like Jared Diamond) and Rousseau in particular for his idea of the noble savage and the inevitability of land ownership concepts leading to where we are, which may be more compelling for those who have read Rousseau. It's got a lot of really interesting stuff when it gets going, about the vastly different ways societies have organised themselves (it's not always just a king, and those kings have not always had the power you might think), and the nature of freedom and the state in particular.

If the aim is to counter Guns Germs and Steel, which I absolutely applaud, this is crying out for a 'general reader' severely edited version. It's got so much that's fascinating and thought provoking but the bulk and density is honestly a lot to manage.
Profile Image for David Wineberg.
Author 2 books732 followers
October 24, 2021
For 350 years, it has been common knowledge that Man went from bands of hunter-gatherers, to pastoralists, to farming, to industry. In parallel, Man lived in families, in tribes, in villages and then in cities, as technology improved. Technology, the third parallel, took us from the stone age through the bronze age and the iron age to the industrial revolution. All neat, tidy and clearly separable. David Graeber and David Wengrow claim there is no evidence for this. In The Dawn of Everything, they show proof of an unbelievable variety of living styles, governance and intellectual activity all over the world and throughout time. It was never a straight line progression. It was never the result of technology. And possibly most stunning, the larger the population was did not also mean more restrictions, more crime, more laws, or more inequality. This is an important book.

The concepts the authors describe are so different that many don’t even have names. For example: “What do you call a city without top-down governance?" There simply are no words for this and numerous other concepts. They found far more variety right here in our own history than scientists have dreamed for alien civilizations in the galaxy. It is astonishing what we have tried, and succeeded with.

The misinformation all began in the mid 1700s, when a man named Turgot, a 23 year old seminary student, wrote to the author of Letters of a Peruvian Woman. He corrected her vision, insisting that the freedom demonstrated by native Peruvians (savages) was not a positive thing, but a reflection of their poverty. Only when technology permits people to live together in large urban settings does the poverty alleviate.

Turgot kept at this idea, eventually lecturing on it. With friends like Adam Smith, his ideas got repeated so often and so widely they became the standard truth. All societies started as hunter gatherers and progressed through specific, required stages to live in urban environments, thanks to farming and technology. It couldn’t work any other way.

Ah, but it can. And it did. One of the unsung positives that came of the Spanish and French invasions of the Americas, was the priesthood that accompanied it. These Catholics wrote everything down, learning the language of every tribe they encountered, absorbing all the structures and nuances of how they lived among themselves as well as with other tribes, and how they governed. Apparently no one has ever compiled all this ethnographic data before The Dawn of Everything. It shows stunning sophistication, different approaches to everything, and seemingly no two societies alike. We have a huge amount to learn from what has been tried, completely unrestricted by Turgot’s supposedly inescapable progression of society and hierarchy. Sadly, we have gone the opposite way, locking in Turgot’s dull theory, while dismissing everything to do with native societies as too primitive to learn from. You could drive trucks through the gaps in the literature.

A common theme among the tribes was equality. For many, there was no hierarchy, no police, no authority. Anyone could refuse to do the bidding of the chief, whose home was always open to all, who took in widows and orphans, and who often had to defend his position by giving the better speeches. Everyone was free to come and go and speak their mind.

Of the numerous whites who were captured and adopted, many found “the virtues of freedom in Native American societies, including sexual freedom, but also freedom from the expectation of the constant toil in pursuit of land and wealth. Others noted Indians’ reluctance to ever let anyone fall into a condition of poverty, hunger or destitution.” They were honor-bound to take in travelers who came upon their villages and camps. The authors say that “Insofar as we can speak of communism, it existed not in opposition to but in support of individual freedom.” This is a concept totally alien to the world today.

It is well known that many white abductees chose to remain, and many others, having returned to civilization, abandoned it and made their way back to live out their lives in the tribe. The reverse was never true; there are no cases of Indians wanting to return to live among whites in their cities.

Although the book has numerous examples of societies from all over the world, the most documentation comes from the Americas. One native in particular, a Wendat (Huron) Indian from the Michigan area called Kandiaronk, was a brilliant intellect, who drove the priests and soldiers crazy contradicting their religion and their society. They spent hours debating with him, and one French soldier turned his dialogues into a book (which I immediately tracked down. My review: https://medium.com/the-straight-dope/... ).

Here’s how the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia threw criticism back at the French: “They consider themselves better than the French: ‘For’, they say, ‘you are always fighting and quarreling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread, we share it with our neighbor.’ What seemed to irritate (chronicler) Biard the most was that Mi’kmaq would constantly assert that they were, as a result, ‘richer’ than the French. The French have more material possessions, the Mi’kmaq conceded; but they had other, greater assets: ease, comfort and time.”

Far from being “noble savages”, incapable of being analytical or erudite, and being subhumans to be killed on sight by whites, the natives proved to be able to argue the invaders into the ground. The priests had a terrible time trying to convert them to Catholicism. They refused to know their place in the hierarchy of European values. Nonetheless, the stories that came down to us all portrayed the natives as ignorant, incapable, naive savages to be converted or eliminated.

The authors conclude “There is no ‘original’ form of human society. Searching for one can only be a matter of myth-making.” Throughout history, there were bands, families, villages, towns and even cities with populations in six figures, all at the same time. It was not a linear progression. It did not reflect evolution. It did not reflect technology. And it did not reflect farming.

People formed societies in conjunction with three basic freedoms: freedom to move (away and live alone or join another group), freedom to disobey and ignore commands, and freedom to create or transform social relationships (make commitments to others). It is the administrative abuse of this last freedom that began the long slide to inequality, the authors say. Inequality is not a result of farming, technology or cities.

An important segment of the book deals with farming, because until now, social science believed it to be a focus and a goal of Homo sapiens the world over, and mastering it is what enabled cities to form.

Homo sapiens does not like to farm. It took thousands of years to domesticate wheat, a process that should take years, not millennia. People always look for the easy way out, in this case, taking wild wheat from hillsides and planting it in flood plains. Flood-retreat farming takes advantage of all the deposits from spring flooding, leaving the equivalent of plowed fields when it recedes. It is far less work than farming whole fields of wheat. It is the philosophy of farming-by-observation, maximizing the yield as nature does the necessary work. ”This Neolithic mode of cultivation was, moreover, highly successful,” the authors point out. Farming therefore took off much more slowly than we currently believe, and was not a prerequisite for the founding of cities, which had sprung up all over the world, three thousand years before farming became an industry. And when feasible, natives abandoned it altogether: “Even in the American southwest, the overall trend for 500 years or so before Europeans arrived was the gradual abandonment of maize and beans, which people had been growing in some cases for thousands of years, and a return to a foraging way of life.”

The result was an easier life, with time for sports, festivals and feasts. And arts. The Kwakiutl of the US and Canadian west coasts are world famous for their fantastical abstract art, from giant totem poles and canoes to tabletop artwork and jewelry. Many other native societies are recognized for their artistic achievements all up and down the Americas. Their system of governance produced a leisure ethic, permitted by respect for and working with nature to provide sufficient food and clothing and not be chained to accumulating material possessions.

Still at it a hundred pages later, the authors say “The underlying assumption was that these (Shang Chinese) were pretty much the same as Neolithic farmers were imagined to be anywhere else: living in villages, developing embryonic forms of social inequality, preparing the way for the sudden leap that would bring the rise of cities and, with cities, the first dynastic states and empires. But we now know this is not what happened at all.” What happened was that all forms of societies existed at the same time, often beside each other, without cross pollination.

As the authors say: “To say that cereal-farming was responsible for the rise of such states is a little like saying that the development of calculus in medieval Persia is responsible for the invention of the atom bomb.”

This sort of acidic comment is typical of David Graeber, who was direct, and stingingly so. Here’s another: “All this begins to make the anthropologists’ habit of lumping Yurok notables and Kwakiutl artists together as ‘affluent foragers’ or ‘complex hunter-gatherers’ seem rather silly: the equivalent of saying a Texas oil executive and medieval Egyptian poet were both ‘complex agriculturalists’ because they both ate a lot of wheat.”

And last but not least: “Who was the first person to figure out you could make bread rise by the addition of those microorganisms we call yeasts? We have no idea, but we can almost be certain she was a woman and would most likely not be considered ‘white’ if she tried to immigrate to a European country today,”

The lazy or labor-saving attitude toward farming is reflected in many other aspects of life in the Neolithic. Ceramics were invented long before the Neolithic, not for pottery, but for figurines of animals, people and spirits. Greek scientists developed the steam engine not for manufacturing, but to make temple doors magically open and close. The Chinese invented gunpowder for fireworks, not rifles. Mining was not about better weaponry, but pigments for decorating. Though Amerindians never employed the wheel for transport or work, they used them in toys. In plain English, our common knowledge is completely wrong.

There are three factors to governance from the anthropological view: sovereignty, administration (bureaucracy) and heroic/charismatic politics. Different cities and states exhibited one, two or three of these factors that differentiated them from their neighbors in other societies. The book shows it by examining the structures of societies in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica and China; it’s a valid approach globally. And this kind of society building was going on 3000 years before writing appeared, further burying the notion that farming and technology tilted the gameboard. Rather than evolve with farming as their basis, cities have come into being throughout history, flourished for sometimes a thousand years, and faded.

Societies might form around charismatic heroes - or not. Some formed around women, notably in Crete, where women ran everything. For American Indians, women were equal to men, period. Leaders could be chosen by sports or by eloquence. They could just as easily be deposed. Nobles were not permitted to intermarry. They had to marry commoners, precisely to prevent an elite class from forming. Farming was a communal task; no one fenced off fields and claimed No Trespassing. Some societies employed slavery. Severe justice was for aliens; tribal members treated their own as precious. Some societies had councils, some had corvées, where everyone right up to the chief had to labor on common projects. Some built mounds and pyramids. Some cities were famous for their parties and attracted residents from hundreds of miles around. Many cities ran peacefully without police or guards.

Still, there were angry tribes, empires, kingdoms and autarchies where live human sacrifices occurred regularly, but they were mixed right in with near total democracies or no leadership at all. There was a fully formed and stunning variety of systems in place globally 3000 and even 30,000 years ago, with far more variety than we see today, and many of them far less restrictive. Yet we have repressed this knowledge and learned nothing from it, thinking our ancestors were little more than erect apes, clubbing their way to survival. That’s why The Dawn of Everything is important.

While seriously monumental, the book also doesn’t take itself too seriously. I particularly like all the subheadings, written in a nineteenth century style, centered, large type, bold, far too long and all in capital letters. They appear every two or three pages. Here’s a typical one:

(The princely burials refers to archeologists always managing to find burial sites, with well-dressed skeletons surrounded by jewelry and cultural artifacts. When the authors thought about this, they realized this was not the way these societies buried their dead. Many people, if not most, weren’t buried at all. These particular burials were, judging by their skeletons, outliers. They were dwarves or overly tall, had physical disabilities and other markings setting them apart as special, beloved or appreciated far more than average. It was how humans honored their celebrities. They collected valuables to add to their graves out of respect, not because they belonged to the person.)

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 boy 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.

David Wineberg

If you liked this review, I invite you to read my book The Straight Dope. It’s an essay collection based on my first thousand reviews and what I learned. Right now it’s FREE for Prime members, otherwise — cheap! Reputed to be fascinating and a superfast read. https://www.amazon.com/Straight-Dope-...
Profile Image for William2.
758 reviews3,076 followers
August 4, 2023
The thematic through line is how did agriculture lead homo sapiens away from egalitarian social arrangements to inequitable kingdoms or empires and then to nation states — or did it? The authors cite the rich complexity of recent research which the archaeological community as a whole has — paradoxically — yet to embrace.

There are hundreds of a-ha moments in this book. Perhaps the biggest one for me was a result of something called the "indigenous critique." That is, the valuation of European society, institutions, and mores by well-known indigenous Americans, the foremost example being Kandiaronk of the Wendats. Kandiaronk said many wise things of which this is one.

"Come on, my brother. Don't get up in arms . . . It's only natural for Christians to have faith in the holy scriptures, since, from their infancy, they've heard so much of them. Still, it is nothing if not reasonable for those born without such prejudice, such as the Wendats, to examine matters more closely. However, having thought long and hard over the course of a decade about what the Jesuits have told us of the life and death of the son of the Great Spirit [Jesus], any Wendat could give you twenty reasons against the notion. For myself, I've always held that, if it were possible that God had lowered his standards sufficiently to come down to earth, he would have done it in full view of everyone, descending in triumph, with pomp and majesty, and most publicly . . . He would have gone from nation to nation performing mighty miracles, thus giving everyone the same laws. Then we would all have had exactly the same religion, uniformly spread and equally known throughout the four corners of the world, proving to our descendants, from then till ten thousand years into the future, the truth of this religion. Instead, there are five or six hundred religions, each distinct from the other, of which according to you, the religion of the French, alone, is any good, sainted, or true." (p. 53)

*Cited here from Curious Dialogues with a Savage of Good Sense Who Has Traveled (1703), by Louis-Armand de d'Arce, Baron de la Hontan (Lahontan).

This "indigenous critique," gleaned from figures like Kandiaronk, was published by a number of European authors, some of them Jesuits. That's how it made its way from wilderness America to the salons of Paris and into the heads of Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire, et al. — therby having a major influence on The Enlightenment.
Profile Image for Steffi.
280 reviews241 followers
January 5, 2022

First of all, this was another Mark Fisher moment for me aka I only found out about one of the authors, David Graeber, just after he died last year and upon stumbling his latest/final book. Then also realizing that I must have come across him - organizer and intellectual leader of the activist left on both sides of the Atlantic, credited, among other things, with helping launch the Occupy movement - a hundred times in my bubble but somehow didn't. Anyhow.

Fuck 2.

What an epic undertaking is THIS. In a nutshell, the book 'The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity' by David Graeber and David Wengrow (2021) provides a ‘totally new’ account of human social history as first developed by Hobbes and Rousseau (and elaborated by subsequent thinkers). In other words, this 600 or so page book upends bedrock assumptions about 30,000 years of change. ‘In a nutshell’ lol.

One must really read this book (yay to very long winter holidays), there's almost no point in summarizing this book (at least not by someone like me) but here follow a few personal takeaways which, in no way, will do any justice to this epic book.

#1 - It took me a while to figure out what this book is 'really' about. Obviously, the point of challenging conventional accounts of social history is also to challenge conventional assumptions about human nature, and as such fundamental questions about freedom and equality and, of course, possible futures. Our understanding of history also determines our imagination of the future - you know how so many people will always say that certain more humane and egalitarian forms of social organizing are impossible because 'it never worked' and 'people are just like this' etc. This often comes down to specific assumptions about human nature that are usually derived from specific understandings of social history. So, the core argument of the book (see below) is extremely political and very relevant at this juncture of near-total destruction and exploitation of people and planet where we are being tested to think big but remain limited with shitty reforms of the status quo. It is no coincidence that the book opens with a line on the Greek concept of ‘kairos’ as one of those occasional moments in a society's history when its frames of reference undergo a shift and where real change is imaginable.

#2 - So, conventional history goes something like this: 'back in the day' (lol) humans lived in a simple state, either in total egalitarian forms (Rousseau) or constantly at each other's throats (Hobbes), but basically in some kind of 'natural human state' of foragers. Then, give or take 10,000 BC, came the Neolithic revolution, agriculture, settlements, cities, civilization, complex hierarchies and administrations, states, kings, inequality. A more or less straight line from the first domestication of plants and animals in what is now the Middle East down to f* 21st century capitalism and Amazon.

#3 - Now, turns out that, according to newer archeological evidence, human societies before the advent of farming were not confined to small, egalitarian bands - the world of hunter-gatherers was actually one of bold social experiments and political forms. Contra the myth of the ‘stupid savage’ (which finds its origin in specific European Enlightenment thought), the authors show that our ancestors were not actually that stupid, but were instead self-conscious political actors, capable of making their own social arrangements depending on circumstances, often people would choose to switch seasonally between sociopolitical identities as to avoid the perils of lasting authoritarian power.

#4 – Newer evidence also shows that agriculture did not mean the inception of private property nor did it mark an irreversible step towards inequality. in fact, many of the world's earliest cities were organized on egalitarian lines - new pieces of research exist to create an entirely different understanding of the ‘evolution’ of civilization. In fact, the very question of the ‘origin of inequality’ is misleading as it also presupposes some kind of Eden like state of innocence. The premise of the book is precisely to turn the question on the ‘origin of inequality’ into one of ‘why did we get stuck with it’ since nothing about inequality is a ‘natural outcome’ of technological progress and more complex forms of social organization (e.g., agriculture and the opportunity to create material surplus).

#5 – Various pieces of archaeological and anthropological evidence (reflecting the respective backgrounds of the authors) show 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. 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. Hence, it also doesn’t make sense to speak of a ‘Neolithic revolution’ as there were long periods, covering millennia, where societies used certain agricultural practices in an experimental and playful manner, with newer research on the origins of agriculture (conventionally believed to be in Mesopotamia), showing that there are at least 15 independent sites of origin of agriculture and it actually took about 3,000 years where people deliberately engaged in some forms of agriculture but not fully committing to it.

#6 – Similarly, there are chapters on early settlements and cities and states (predating agriculture not the other way around) with the most diverse evidence from Mesoamerica, East Africa and Eurasia on large cities with no signs of authoritarian rule as well as temporal succession of different political orders, sometimes moving from authoritarian to egalitarian, which leaves the possibility of urban revolutions as a likely explanation for the change. The chapters on cities also put an end to 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 (modern day Syria). Btw, I was fortunate enough to visit Uruk in 2021 – I love when real life and reading experience connect in these ways.

#7 – The book also highlights that many of the most popular books on human history, think non-specialists in anthropology nor archeology like Steven Pinker (psychologist), Francis Fukuyama (political economist) or Yuval Noah Harari (historian), essentially reproduce the same old myths without being able to appreciate and interpret the massive shifts in archeological and anthropological science. Basically, recycling the same old myth about human nature to justify the status quo/ their political projects.

#8 - Actually, more than a book on inequality, the book’s central theme is human freedom. Based on their review of anthropological records, the authors identify three types of freedoms: freedom to abandon one’s community (knowing one will be welcomed in faraway lands), freedom to reshuffle the political system (often seasonally), and freedom to disobey authorities without consequences — freedoms that appear to have been a given for our ancestors but are now largely lost (again, raising the question: how did we get stuck?). In fact, today’s (18th century Enlightenment based) concept of civilization is largely reserved for societies whose defining characteristics include autocrats, imperial conquests and the use of slave labour while rendering entire epochs of relative freedom, democracy and women's rights as so many 'dark ages'.

#9 – The book is also remarkable slash mind-blowing in terms of its approach and style. It is the outcome of a ten-year intellectual exchange between the two friends, the British archeologist David Wengrow and American anthropologist David Graeber. You can see that from the beginning this was a playful and experimental intellectual project, the two comparing notes on the latest shifts in their respective disciplines and slowly letting this develop into this humble (pointing out limitations) yet epic re-telling of human history. The playfulness and many digressions are of course also a challenge to the reader accustomed to scientific books with clear and logical lines of argumentation, oftentimes finding yourself lost in elaborations on, say, specific burial rituals of one group of prehistoric forager-farmers lol. Making it through this ‘beautiful chaos’ does take a good deal of patience and it’s best enjoyed once you manage to let go of the question of how exactly all of this links to the bigger picture (and what was this again?!) and just take it in; like in those movies where the story is told in reverse, all will make sense, eventually (for those with less time and patience at hand, there’s also a great The Dig podcast episode with an interview with the book’s co-author David Wengrow.)

#10 Of course, the most beautiful freedom 'the freedom to imagine society differently' which – and this is probably ably the bottom line of this book - seems to be what people have been doing since the beginning of time ❤
Profile Image for Graeme Newell.
221 reviews56 followers
December 25, 2021
Five stars for information…two stars for readability.

This book lays out some fascinating new findings on the origins of humanity and civilization. I was taught in school that hunter-gatherers led short brutal lives; then, humanity’s ascent to agriculture, cities, and governments was a deliverance from darkness and ignorance. Well, this book pretty much turns this whole model on its head.

Because Europeans wrote down their history in books and ancient civilizations didn’t, the 18th & 19th century scholars conveniently conjectured a self-aggrandizing story of our ancestors. The “noble savage” myth was born - grunting cave people more akin to apes than men.

Turns out that most of this trope got started back in the heyday of colonialism when Europeans needed moral justification for the genocide they were perpetrating across the globe. Gaeber & Wengrow present a trove of convincing evidence that the pinnacle of civilization was actually achieved in ancient times.

New archeological evidence shows that life in ancient times was pretty darn nice: large cities, sustainable land management, effective community policing, and a good life. The authors lay out a solid case that some of humanities greatest suffering has just come about recently with the advent of large centralized governments.

For most of human history we haven’t had priests, bureaucracies, and kings. Instead, we’ve had local municipalities, much like old-style New England town meetings. These governing councils did a bang-up job of building a good quality of life for most everyone. And many of these cities were BIG…many with thousands and thousands of people. They got big municipal projects accomplished, prevented abuses of power, and assured that no one person subjugated the populace.

It’s only been in modern times that this has fallen apart. Today, the top 1% have 43% of the resources. New archeological evidence shows this rarely happened in ancient times. The authors make the case that today we’re living at the nadir of civilization.

The evidence presented in this book is quite convincing and quite exhaustive, and I mean that literally. This is an exhausting book - 700 pages of minutia. I get the feeling the authors were primarily interested in building a solid case for their premise. Unfortunately, they neglected basic storytelling. I continually found myself nodding off in the middle of a paragraph on some esoteric piece of evidence. There are so many examples and so many civilizations profiled that it’s just darn hard to follow.

This could have been an outstanding book…if only it had been graced with a capable editor.

The information is groundbreaking, but it’s a long slog.
Profile Image for Morgan Blackledge.
621 reviews2,031 followers
January 9, 2022
Author David Graeber is an anarchist anthropologist (AA).

That has to be dorkiest/coolest profession of all time.


The only way to amp up that (anarchist/anthropologist) résumé would be to add dungeon master to it somewhere.

By dungeon master I mean the dungeons and dragons (D&D) kind not the bondage and dominance, sadism and masochism (BDSM) kind.

Although, real talk, there actually is a big crossover between the D&D crowd and the BDSM crowd.

I totally shit you not.

I know (or have known) a good many BDSM folks, and their dirty little secret is, they’re all nerds.

Like, hook up at a Magic: The Gathering (MTG) tournament, Star Trek: The Next Generation (STNG) super-fan types.

Maybe Harry Potter (HP) is a better (more timely and ironically MUCH more loaded - based on miss thing’s outspokenness against trans folk) emblem of nerdiness.

Extruding on that (however cringy) Graeber Is a good little wizard, and this book is legit spellbinding.


Moving on from this AA/D&D/BDSM/MTG/STNG/HP tangent.


From what I gather, if you’re a scholar/anarchist, your vocation (day job) is to research and publish in your field, and your avocation (raison d’être - that’s French for ‘the most important reason or purpose for someone or something's existence’, not diet of raisins as you may reasonably guess) is to undermine state power by (in part) challenging banal assumptions regarding the inevitability, efficacy and favorability of state control.

Mind you, I’m reverse engineering this (scholar/anarchist) job description based on this reading alone. So please forgive me if it’s either primitive (primate and primitive have the same Latin root word by the way, primus meaning ‘first’ or essential) or naïve (derived from the mid 17th century French word naïve, meaning feminine, or maybe from Latin nativus ‘native, natural’).

Just as words like ‘primitive’ and ‘naïve’ are both problematic as fuck (in that racist, sexist, classist, imperialistic, heteronormative, homophobic, humanocentric, phallocentric, eurocentric kind of way), particularly when you know their origin.

NOTE: noxious examples may include: Monkeys (primates) are ‘primitive’ people. Primitive people are like monkeys. Women are naïve, and naivety is the feminine quality. Native people are natural, and therefore naïve. I could go on but…yuck🤮.


Just like all that.

Graeber asserts that similar commonplace assumptions regarding the inevitability and primacy of nation statehood are equally problematic.

According to Graeber, modern (as opposed to postmodern) scholars observed that nation states were the dominant form of government in their day, and assumed that this was the ‘pinnacle’ and teleological end game of human progress and evolution.

Then they went digging around in the dirt for evidence of the evolutionary trajectory from ‘primitive’ statehood, to contemporary ‘advanced’ statehood, wile concurrently and conveniently (two of my very favorite C words) dismissing all of the copious (there’s another C word) disconfirmatory evidence a priori.

Graeber cites Steven Pinker’s Better Angels (incidentally one of my all-time favorite books by one of my all-time favorite intellectuals) as the most recent and most egregious one of those, and claims Pinker is the heir apparent to this tradition.

For those of you that haven’t read Pinker’s work in this area. His basic claim is: over the long term, and on average, life for people is getting better and better all the time, as evidenced by longer lifespan‘s, less violence, and more political freedom and equality for more and more people (not just westerners), due to the humanitarian and stabilizing affects of science, technology, civilization, rule of law, advanced capitalism, and yes… nation states.

Graeber installs a new a-hole into Pinker’s posterior by making plausible claim after plausible claim that the history of human governance is far from homogeneous.

Graeber presents plausible example after plausible example as evidence for the claim that people have achieved egalitarian self governance via many means, throughout pre-history and to the present.

Graeber claims that autocratic statehood is founded on: (a) control over violence, (b) control over information, and (c) charismatic power (think Donald Twitler and/or Adolf Stalin if you need a quick reference).

Graeber ultimately claims that autocratic state control is FAR from inevitable, and that we could just as easily create a just culture, with social justice, cooperation and sustainability as organizing principles.

And yes to that.


And yes to Pinker too, I guess?

I think their (somehow) both right.

But whatever.

I am neither a anarchist/anthropologist or a rational optimist/evolutionary psychologist/linguist. So I’ll leave that clash to these titans (but I will enjoy the hell out of my front row seats).

Some of Graeber‘s best work in this book is in his account of what he terms “the indigenous critique of European civilization”, whereby Native American intellectuals met with early European missionaries and philosophers and other such thinkers, and not only demonstrated a superior, more egalitarian way of life, but also deconstructed and critiqued systems of European autocratic domination in favor of what we now call democracy.

Essentially, Graeber asserts that Native American intellectuals were highly influential (seminal if you will 😜) to the western enlightenment. And we’re nearly entirely expunged from the historical record, but who’s influence is very clear when examining source and documentary texts of the time.

NOTE: the failure of most historians to even do so much as to acknowledge the fact that there were highly influential Native American intellectuals that played a prominent role in the “western enlightenment” is one big fat clue to how Eurocentric conventional historical accounts are.

Graeber further asserts that many of the Janus Faced (referencing the two faced Roman god Janus, and referring to having two sharply contrasting characteristics) nature of American society we currently experience (and will hopefully outlive) was present long before European’s arrived.

Specifically, the polarity between the interests and politics of a slave holding, land holding elites verses those of egalitarian peace loving migratory common folk were common place among first nationals of the time, explaining (in-part) some of their advanced insights regarding politics and governance of culturally and politically diverse people.


Graeber concludes with another numbered list (and I ❤️ those -particularly this one) the 3 basic freedoms:

1. the freedom to relocate
- i.e. the freedom to DIP!

2. the freedom to disobey
- i.e. the freedom to say FUCK YOU and FUCK ALL THIS

And (last but ABSOLUTELY not least)

3. the freedom to create new and different forms of social reality.

Let’s all please savor that for a moment…

The freedom to create new and different forms of social reality.

I vote for that.

There’s much more (or perhaps much less) to say about this remarkable, entertaining and yes, enlightening book.

But I will conclude this (tragic hot mess of a) book review by declaring:

David Graeber is the doyen (doy·en /doiˈ(y)en,ˈdôyən/ noun 1. the most respected or prominent person in a particular field) of dungeon master anarchist/anthropologist’s.

This is a fucking FANTASTIC book.

5/5 ⭐️ (without reservations - no pun intended)

From Wikipedia: Graeber died unexpectedly in September 2020, while on vacation in Venice. His last book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, co-written with archaeologist David Wengrow, was published posthumously in 2021.
Profile Image for Greg.
599 reviews39 followers
February 8, 2022
I cannot recall the last time I was so disappointed by a book that seemed to promise so much!

First of all, and very importantly, this work is BLOATED and desperately calls out for a good editor who would likely be able to slash at least 1/3 or more of its current bulk without losing anything of importance.

The "arguments" contained are repetitious and often circular, and I hardly think it deserves the title "A New History of Humanity."

Yes, we are learning -- and clearly have much yet to learn -- about our distant ancestors, human and prehuman hominids, and yes, they were far more accomplished in using the things of their world and time than we once thought. There is intriguing evidence that their social structures -- including governance patterns -- were much more wide-ranging than we once believed.

In my reading, I have found others arguing for the virtues and freedom that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle offered and who questioned whether the "advance" of agriculture that we have so long thought heralded the "dawn of civilization" occurred quite the way we once thought.

But their suggestions that human beings may be more peaceful and cooperatively inclined than current evidence suggestions were very hard for me to swallow. Did our "nature" change suddenly from the times of pre-recorded history (most of our past) so that it is only in recorded history that we have kings, hierarchical structures, wealth inequities, and near-constant warfare? Were not the "seeds" of such behavior "planted" in our very nature from the beginning?

For those with the time and patience to wade through this inflated volume, there are, indeed, many interesting and wonderful things to discover and ponder.

But I believe the same could have been achieved in a volume of half the size, with brisker and more succinct language.

Color me highly disappointed!
Profile Image for Krista.
1,399 reviews589 followers
January 2, 2022
We are projects of collective self-creation. What if we approached human history that way? What if we treat people, from the beginning, as imaginative, intelligent, playful creatures who deserve to be understood as such? What if, instead of telling a story about how our species fell from some idyllic state of equality, we ask how we came to be trapped in such tight conceptual shackles that we can no longer even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves?

With the grandiose subtitle of “A New History of Humanity”, I was certainly expecting a lot from David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything; and in retrospect, I may have been expecting too much, and too much of something different altogether. I love reading stories of how people live in different places and different times — and those stories are here — but mostly, this reads like a one-sided argument that I don’t know anything about and that I didn’t know was taking place. The bottom line: Graeber and Wengrow argue that there’s nothing inevitable about the progression of human civilisation to the point where we find ourselves today; and that modern academia is an echochamber for that theory of progress, dismissing and suppressing evidence to the contrary. I didn’t realise until afterwards that Graeber, who has since passed, was a noted anarchist activist and one of the founders of the Occupy Movement, so while I understand why this book is antiestablishment, I was nevertheless disappointed that it didn’t offer up any ideas for how we could be doing things better. Overall, this was an often fascinating and paradigm-challenging read, but it didn’t amount to much, and some quirky writing (which only served to lengthen a long book) force me to round down to three stars. (Note: I read an ARC and passages quoted may not be in their final forms.)

Social theory is largely a game of make-believe in which we pretend, just for the sake of argument, that there’s just one thing going on: essentially, we reduce everything to a cartoon so as to be able to detect patterns that would otherwise be invisible. As a result, all real progress in social science has been rooted in the courage to say that things are, in the final analysis, slightly ridiculous: the work of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud or Claude Lévis-Strauss being only particularly salient cases in point. One must simplify the world to discover something new about it. The problem comes when, long after the discovery has been made, people continue to simplify.

Post-Enlightenment, we have been taught to think of early humans as living in one of two opposing states: that described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (a state of peaceful harmony with nature until the first person claimed a plot of land as their own; ushering in inequality, onerous bureaucracy, and state-sponsored violence) and that of Thomas Hobbes (who described life as “nasty, brutish, and short” until state control was introduced to stem interpersonal violence). Following in this vein, modern pop history writers — the likes of Francis Fukuyama, Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, and Yuval Noah Harari; all smugly dismissed by Graeber and Wengrow — take it for granted that the rise of human civilsation was an inevitable progression from unself-examined hunter-gatherer societies to early agriculture, the formation of cities, through to a culmination in modern democracy and capitalism. In particular, the authors chastise Harari (who once wrote that early humans were either as aggressive as chimpanzees or as peaceful as bonobos) as denying humanity to these early humans (literally comparing them to animals until they first started cultivating grain), and I must admit that that is a valid criticism: why can’t we think of early humans as actual people who made conscious choices about the kind of society in which they wanted to live? By telling the stories of many types of societies across time and space — including those that experimented with agriculture, monarchy, and city-states before abandoning them as untenable — the authors prove that there really isn’t anything inevitable about where we find ourselves today. I liked learning the stories of those who experimented with agriculture before giving it up (including the folks who built Stonehenge, who had reverted to acorn-harvesting at the time of their big project) and I appreciated that the authors took issue with historians who use terms like “intermediary period” or “proto-something” to describe times when early humans weren’t engaging in those activities we think of as markers of civilisation (as though people were living in stable societies for generations, just waiting for something important to happen). My thinking was challenged about these early societies — especially as it was mostly formed by the pop history writers that Graeber and Wengrow dismiss — and I like being challenged.

Perhaps if our species does endure, and we one day look backwards from this yet unknowable future, aspects of the remote past that now seem like anomalies — say, bureaucracies that work on a community scale; cities governed by neighbourhood councils; systems of government where women hold a preponderance of formal positions; or forms of land management based on care-taking rather than ownership and extraction — will seem like the really significant breakthroughs, and great stone pyramids or statues more like historical curiosities. What if we were to take that approach now and look at, say, Minoan Crete or Hopewell not as random bumps on a road that leads inexorably to states and empires, but as alternate possibilities: roads not taken?

Again, I appreciate the scholarship on display in The Dawn of Everything — and especially as it describes those people who simply walked away from the bureaucracies and overlords who made their lives unpleasant, leading to the ruins of former cities that now dot the globe — but while it is provocative to think of modern Western civilisation as an entirely replaceable construct (and I can’t deny that it doesn’t work for everyone), it feels naive for the authors to imply that it can all be torn down without offering an idea of what would come next. Honestly, as interesting as the history was, I kept waiting for the point; it’s not like today we could just walk away from our cities and countries and find empty space in which to mindfully start over; understanding history in this case does not feel, in itself, like a road map to a better future. I still enjoyed the read.
Profile Image for Veronica Watson.
112 reviews70 followers
May 28, 2023
Having read Sapiens and Guns, Germs and Steel, or various nature writers, I am familiar with the assumptions that have tended to crop up in Big History. And then, forming inklings that something just didn't connect, I enjoyed the sweep of their logic and arguments. I shook my head with vague consternation at what seemed to be insurmountable ideology. This book, brilliantly elucidated, written for the general reader (ie well written) lays out in so many ways my issues with Big History books.

The authors clearly and pragmatically disentangle myths around prehistory and popular philosophical understanding of human nature, the past and all that combines in social theory dealing with history. They do it masterfully so the readers are like "but of course!" Yet...it's not as obvious, seeing many of the ways researchers and authors continue to frame the past even until the present. Ideas have their history too and some have become integrated in our modern consciousness and proliferate in the popular imagination and academic writing for centuries. The question of the origin of social equality itself has origin and that's where the authors begin.

Let's go on and name a few myths. That we must choose between Rousseau or Hobbs when describing the nature of man and stripped away from "civilization". And underlining this assumption is that only Modern Man has historical consciousness, imagination and social awareness enough to be agents of history and consider implications of power and culture. Or as they say become historical actors within the constraints that always are involved.Those humans in prehistory either dwelt in some mysterious and unburdened garden of Eden (equal in all) in a state of blissful nature or they were at any time waiting to act on brutal impulses and competitive, testosterone laden displays of power. I'm being facetious but the stereotype is not without justification.

Second, there is a implicit teological impetus within historical epochs as previously described. That social evolution progresses the same way in all parts of the world and never goes back or follows different ways or paths. In this, we are chained to the consciousness and cultural prison of whatever epoch we happen to be in. "Here are measurable historical landmarks such as the agricultural revolution, the urban revolution and the industrial revolution." And change happened, just like that. Social evolution went the way of the arrow, bands of hunter/gatherers, chieftain and charismatic leaders, cities, bureaucratic infrastructure and kings to large scale civilization. Moving forwards like the goal was static, a flag waving in the distance of time.

There is no such teleology, as shown in the archaeological record or in history seen from a broader standpoint. The physical evidence is simply not there to support this tidy evolution. It stands there's more evidence that Paleolithic and Mesolithic peoples played with political arrangements and with materials/technologies a long time before they became used in what we think as "important". They played with agriculture...meaning starting in gardening and botany, on small scales most likely in the science of women. Moreover, women played various parts on social arrangements all over the world, neither always the dominated or privileged gender as seen by so many gender focused thinkers.

Just as it is in cultures all over the world today, people of the upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic had different ideas about how to live, sometimes contrasting with their neighbors intentionally. These ancestors were just as complex and diverse as modern people, yet the forms that their complexities took is richly different from our own. What we think happened is never as interesting as what often did happen. In some ways, casting back our own presumptions into the past is just as problematic as envisioning them as blissfully ignorant.

The authors offered several new conceptions and probable causes for cultural differences that we see in history, or the origin of our singular ways of thinking and in the process call into questions so many of the ways that we have framed these sciences and disciplines, particularly in the popular science/nonfiction sphere.

In effort not to go on and on I will wrap up this review by saying I highly recommend this book to any and all whom are interested. It is a long book but not egregious. I felt it was well written, in an engaging, refreshing style. But more than anything it is conceptually refreshing.
Profile Image for Leftbanker.
833 reviews332 followers
March 16, 2023
I'm still plodding through this, but I wanted to jot things down as I go.

Do you know what makes for bad science? Bad science is when you begin with an answer and work backwards. Good science is asking questions and seeking answers. These guys began with an answer.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, but it’s more like wishful thinking. I’ve never read any book in which the authors want so much for their own version of the outcome to be realized regardless of the obstacles in their path, namely their absence of proof.

I need to begin this review by stating that I am a socialist which may seem like an odd and inappropriate introduction, except that many of the negative opinions of this book are from American conservatives with whom I have zero in common. They disparage this work because they claim it promotes some sort of communism or a concept known as CRT (google it, because I can't be bothered) that they claim is being pushed on American society

I live in a socialist democracy that I have found to be vastly superior in attending to the needs of the greatest number of its citizens. I’m an American and have lived all over the USA and nothing there compares to Spanish cities, not when it comes to income equality. Even Spain’s higher rate of poverty than that in the USA is mitigated by the fact that everyone has free health care, schooling, and prescription drugs are available at low cost to patients.

While others claim this book is leftist, I would counter that this isn’t the Left I support. Mostly what these ultra-conservatives are lambasting is everything that criticizes Western hegemony and influence, something that I, too, disagree with, but am not offended by it. Instead, I’d rather present a counterargument.

Modern life is, for Pinker, in almost every way superior to what came before; and here he does produce elaborate statistics which purport to show how every day in every way – health, security, education, comfort, and by almost any other conceivable parameter – everything is actually getting better and better.

It’s hard to argue with the numbers, but as any statistician will tell you, statistics are only as good as the premises on which they are based (Huh?) . Has ‘Western civilization’ really made life better for everyone? This ultimately comes down to the question of how to measure human happiness, which is a notoriously difficult thing to do. About the only dependable way anyone has ever discovered to determine whether one way of living is really more satisfying, fulfilling, happy or otherwise preferable to any other is to allow people to fully experience both, give them a choice, then watch what they actually do. For instance, if Pinker is correct, then any sane person who had to choose between (a) the violent chaos and abject poverty of the ‘tribal’ stage in human development and (b) the relative security and prosperity of Western civilization would not hesitate to leap for safety.25

But empirical data is available here, and it suggests something is very wrong with Pinker’s conclusions.

“It’s hard to argue with the numbers, but as any statistician will tell you, statistics are only as good as the premises on which they are based.” A ridiculous statement that sounds like it’s coming from someone with no statistics to back up their argument, and that’s just what the authors do by retelling an anecdotal account of a woman who was kidnapped by tribesmen, went back home, and returned. This could be a result of Stockholm Syndrome, or whatever, but it’s one fucking case. To use one anecdotal account to prop up your argument is just shabby science and certainly not “empirical data.”

About the only dependable way anyone has ever discovered to determine whether one way of living is really more satisfying, fulfilling, happy…

Happy? What the fuck is happy? Can you measure happy? You can measure poverty, health, and life expectancy.

Over the last several centuries, there have been numerous occasions when individuals found themselves in a position to make precisely this choice – and they almost never go the way Pinker would have predicted.

Numerous occasions? That sounds like a lot but could mean three.

They claim that in Britain, the people gave up on agriculture voluntarily without any proof to back up this claim. None. Their proof is that no evidence has been discovered to show that war or some other calamity may have veered people away from growing crops.

For the life of me, I don’t get the whole point of this book, their main thrust is this: Western European civilization is the worst, seems to be the main message, and cultures we usurped were all paradises. Even if this were true, what’s the point? Maybe they deal with this later on.

The authors make it appear that all science has done for the past several centuries is make fun of indigenous people of the past, present, and future, and that they alone are the beacons shedding light on freedom, democracy, women’s rights, and every other thing that almost every educated person today believes in.
4 reviews1 follower
October 21, 2021
Dunks on idiots like Harari and Diamond
193 reviews12 followers
June 26, 2021
This unique book combines the skill of historical thinking and anthropology. Definitely not what I thought I was going to read; it ended up being much more than that. There are some echoes of the work of Diamond here, but on a different scale and perspective. It is a great look at the long view of history and how we have come to understand ourselves. The idea of inequality is at the heart of the book, and makes the case that our view of humanity is quite inaccurate. There's a lot to work through here, and there are instances where the writing can get a bit heady. This is not a quick read; you'll want to take it in slow, savory doses.
April 21, 2022
The State Has No Origin
This work sits within the same category as another book; Humankind, by Rutger Bregman (released not that long ago). I say this as its clear that across both books, all three authors have taken the mantle (probably unassumingly) of becoming individuals opening doors to previously settled questions relating to gigantic topics regarding human history and behaviour. I would almost categorise them as 'Gateway' texts; which have the potential to pave the way for further works yet to come.

With this said, the scale of such an undertaking absolutely shows within this book. At times, this is a dense read, sparing no detail in analysing the various societies under the microscope of the authors. To any anthropologists or archaeologists reading this, your response may be "Well, duh. Of course there'd be no detail spared." But it's worth remembering this has been released to wider lay audiences such as myself, and it definitely took me some time to adjust to the flow and prose of Graeber and Wengrow.

To anyone reading this review who has yet to pick this text up, I won't bog you down with the details of what this book tries to cover. However, it's worth giving you a heads up as to what to expect stylistically.

I made the mistake of reading this book in bursts. Don't do that (if you can avoid it) because this work requires a reader to sit and process much of the ideas presented by its authors. And it really has to be said, there are many ideas and questions crammed into The Dawn of Everything. Even within chapter sub-headings I found myself being presented with big questions wrapped within even larger questions.

The main thrust of enquiry that this book encapsulates - how did we, as a global society, ocify into such hierarchically dominated social theatres - is reiterated by its authors multiple times when discussing say, pre-colombus North America, mesoamerica, or neolithic Turkey / Syria. As such, this book can become a slightly bewildering landscape for a lay reader.

The authors systematically deconstruct pre-conceived notions about ancient societies, lay out new evidence based on archaeological findings in the last decade, and list rituals, pottery, food, oral traditions as well as artwork discussed by previous individuals within their respective fields. They then hypothosise about what people may or may not have thought or done in such societies, suggest new narratives we should consider based on the prior mentioned new evidence, and then present open ended questions (easily books unto themselves) for readers to consider. If this sounds like a lot; it is. A good example of how this plays out goes as follows:

"Was such a society really capable of falling out of nurturing and caring for others into dominating them? Perhaps. But it's worth bearing in mind that the literature on the topic is incomplete and biased. Are we suggesting that because of this fact that prior conclusions regarding such societies are wrong? Of course not. However, its difficult to really ignore the fact that evidence A, B and C have been discredited by main stream archaeology for decades. As such, was *insert society* really what we think it is? Were its citizens in fact actually acting out a ritual based on..."

You get the idea. Of course this isn't actually from the text and I'm exaggerating a little, but the general idea is conveyed here for you to understand. Isolated, this doesn't read too difficultly, but about 250 pages into The Dawn of Everything and you'll see why it can become a little overwhelming.

Questions begin to stack on top of one another at such a rapid pace that the main direction of the narrative begins to lose its speed at times, and I couldn't help but feel the book beginning to buckle under the sheer weight of its topical undertaking.

Yet, the fact that we are able to read something as challenging to the mainstream narrative as this, and, as lay readers, are able to find it remotely accessible in the first place, is an achievement unto itself. There's an absolute cornucopia of fascinating material in here that will leave readers (including very hard left leaning ones like myself) reassessing what they though they knew about the human story. I even felt glad at times that this book offers not definitive explanation to the questions it poses. Like any good Anarchist (such as Graeber) would point out, a book such as this may guide us, but its really up to us to decide what we think the answers to such questions could be. We are, after all, just as human as the many groups and societies described in these pages.

I can only hope this is the first of many books to come.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,106 reviews748 followers
October 4, 2022
This tome contains an extensive compilation of current knowledge of archaeology, sociology, and ethnology of prehistory and ancient history time periods. As the book's narrative presents this information taken from many different parts of the earth, particular attention is given to the exceptions to the prevailing understanding—shown below—of the path followed toward the development of civilization:
hunter/gatherer (egalitarian)—>agriculture
—>cities—>kings (inequality)
Contrary to perceptions that the above was the inevitable arc of human history, this book maintains that there were many exceptions and a wide variety of paths taken (i.e. it's complicated).

No Age of Innocence:
Prehistoric people were already smart; their world was already old, with long histories now lost to us. Ice Age excavations increasingly reveal sophisticated, polymorphous diversity that simplistic questions about "egalitarianism" or "hierarchy" obscure. Nomadic hunter-gatherers left remains that "defy our image of a world made up of tiny egalitarian forager bands" with evidence of "princely burials, mammoth monuments and bustling centres of trade."

Agriculture Not a Trap:
Agriculture and urbanization didn't impose sudden, one-way "revolutions" or trap farmers on demographic roads to serfdom. Early Fertile Crescent farming settlements like Çatalhöyük appear "relatively free of ranks and hierarchies"; experimentation, long-distance trade, reversals, and flexible strategies sprouted not for moments but over thousands of years before bureaucratic grain states appeared.

Inequality Not Inevitable:
Early cities' concentrated populations and burgeoning scale didn't spontaneously summon pharaonic god-kings or mandarin bureaucrats. Bustling cities from Uruk to Teotihuacan seemingly alternated epochs when rulers took hold with centuries when the populace repudiated them.

Fluidity Typical Characteristic:
This book shifts focus from equality to fluidity: "If human beings, through most of our history, have moved back and forth fluidly between different social arrangements…maybe the real question should be 'how did we get stuck?'…How did we come to treat eminence and subservience not as temporary expedients…but as inescapable elements of the human condition?"

Formation of the State:
On the subject of "state formation," if farming and cities lasted centuries without governments, how did states arise? The book rejects one-track theories, distinguishing three paths to domination: sovereignty (spectacular violence, dynastic divine kingship), information control (administrative technique, bureaucracy), and charisma (competitive conflict, conquering warlords). The book provides examples where only parts of these components were present for long stretches of time.

This book claims to offer a revolutionary view of human prehistory, and even suggests that it didn't have to end up with what we now have.

My Observation:
My own perception is that this book is offering shades of differences regarding understands of human social prehistory. It's like most subjects, the more you learn about it the more complicated it becomes.
Profile Image for John Devlin.
Author 22 books79 followers
July 31, 2023
Argh, this book trapped me. Somehow it showed on a few must read lists…by people who did not read the whole thing.

Dawn pushes back against the conventional evolving civilization models.
From nomadic foragers to agricultural uptake to the creation of vast metropolis’ and States.
Their point is that history is far more conflicted and complicated.
Sure, but where they want to go is to some kind of socialist nirvana focused on equity. Of course, they never lay out how this would work.

Their industrious and scholarship is formidable but they engage in wild hypotheticals. One minute they acknowledge how knowing anything about amerindians from several thousand years ago is impossible…and then they spend pages and pages and pages in suppositions.

I can’t see anyone outside this discipline reading the whole book.

There’s other modest conceits: trying to give amerindians some credit for the European enlightenment, Even going so far as claiming a two man diplomatic meeting in France Must have included this special Amerindian philosopher, And of course The societies that raised up women against the patriarchy.

There’s a lot more but the book exhausted me and I’m done.
Profile Image for Sense of History.
408 reviews482 followers
January 12, 2023
Graeber and Wengrow take a lot of hay on their fork in this book, so it is impossible to cover all the issues they touch on. At the heart of their claim is that our way of looking at early human history—especially the transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculturists and eventually cities and states—is fundamentally wrong: we underestimate the level of complexity these early societies could cope with without resorting to authoritarianism. My brief assessment is that their criticisms certainly make sense on some points (especially since it is not entirely new), but they fail to formulate a credible alternative (see my discussion in my general account on GR, here). In this review I zoom in on some of their statements.

Let me start with a few theses that I strongly disagree with simply because they rest on quicksand. The most spectacular is that the Western Enlightenment philosophers in the 18th century simply 'stole' their progressive ideas from Native Americans in Northeast America. Graeber and Wengrow zoom in on the infamous case of chief Kandiaronk of the Wendegat confederation, who, according to them, passed almost literally all Enlightenment ideas to the French. This thesis has already been extensively denounced by numerous critics (see, for example, here). The way in which the authors formulate this thesis is typical of their speculative approach, in which they start from half-conjectures, transforming them into certainties.

Another problem is their systematic use of ethnographic data on indigenous peoples to support their claim that these regularly changed organizational form, or left a great deal of room for members of their ethnicity to go their own way. A well-known example is their discussion of Cahondia, in the American Midwest, which was indeed a fairly large city in the period 1000-1400 AD, but fell into decline. Graeber and Wengrow claim that this urbanistic form was deliberately abandoned, a statement that is contested by almost all experts in the field. And so I can go on for a while.

But I have to concede that the authors also put forward a number of hypotheses that may explain some phenomena, albeit not entirely convincingly. For example, there is their emphasis on 'seasonality' to explain the loose form of certain organizational structures: namely, the tradition to maintain hierarchies, such as kingship, only very temporarily, for example during festivals. It is an explanation that can certainly hold true for some historical phenomena, but which Graeber and Wengrow then transform into a general rule, clearly a step too far.

Also, there is the observation that while human history focuses on the rise and fall of states and kingdoms, only a limited portion of the human population was absorbed in such a complex organizational form; they were exceptions in the midst of a majority of loose associations, or groups without systems of authority. Needless to say this is right, though it disregards the interaction of these groups with 'regular societies'. Another correct intuition is that the Agrarian/Neolithic Revolution was not a very rapid process, but an evolution of many millennia, with continuous trial and error and experimentation, both in cultivation/domestication and in the organizational forms that accompanied it. This means that Graeber and Wengrow’s most important thesis, that agriculture did not necessarily lead to property (Rousseau's thesis) and therefore to inequality, certainly also is a sensible one. But this is an insight that in the meantime almost all archaeologists share. Here again the observation applies that Graeber and Wengrow tend to make this relativization the starting point of a new certainty, namely that human societies fundamentally ('by nature') have built in much more freedom and flexibility than has been assumed until now. Again, I think they're taking it one step too far. In short, some of the assumptions in this book certainly are not nonsensical, but the supposed conclusion that the entire human history must be rewritten clearly is way out of line. Rating 2.5 stars.
Profile Image for Wick Welker.
Author 6 books378 followers
June 16, 2023
Nothing is inevitable.

This is a prodigious and ambitious take on how societies actually form and the authors tear apart all the assumptions about our current sociological arrangement by looking to the neolithic past. The main point of this book is that the current social structure, one in which almost every human being is a subject to state authority, is not the culmination of an inevitable series of events. Meaning, the current social arrangement is not the consequence of natural sociological evolution.

The myth has to do with the dichotomy between Rousseau and Hobbes and the modern day quest for equality. The Rousseau myth evokes a picture of infantile humanity living as simple bands of foragers who were naturally egalitarian and that modern day we are seeking out a similar arrangement. What the authors do here is treat neolithic people like knowing, self aware adults who didn’t form autonomous societies because it was a natural inclination but that it was an active choice they were making, fully aware of and rejecting authoritarian rule. Many, many examples abound in this book of past cultures understanding the dangers of power and forming their societies in such a way that provided safeguards against the tyranny of concentrated power or state power. The modern enlightenment about the quest for equality probably came from American indigenous intellectuals critiquing the western power structures. When we look back and see the absence of state power, we project our own acceptance of this inevitability and believe that these past societies hadn’t achieved anything close to modernity when the reality is that they were much more in control then we possibly are.

There is a huge catalog here of societies functioning with great complexity, agriculture, art and city planning without any central authority or monarchical rule. Now of course there were plenty of societies that did have central authority but the point is we are not at the zenith of human civilization. We are probably just trapped in a very large cage that we call modernity. In a way, this book is the answer to Diamonds Guns, Germs and Steel which asserts this incremental progression into modernity that comes about because of agriculture and geographical determinism. Only agriculture does not necessarily lead to concentrated division of labor, private property and central rule as the authors demonstrate over and over again. We constantly project our own modern pathologies when we look at the people of the past.

The authors argue there are three ways people get power: control over violence, control over information and charisma of personality. The modern state clearly has harnessed these three things very, very well. Neolithic societies probably understood these levers of control and many cultures arranged themselves in such a way to prevent anyone co-opting these levers to then create central control. Sometimes it did happen, sometimes it didn’t.

What these authors do is upend the modern concepts of equality and freedom. They talk about three basic freedoms that many neolithic people enjoyed.

1. Freedom to move
2. Freedom to disobey
3. Freedom to change the social structure

Do we (meaning the vast majority who live under state authority) enjoy any of these freedoms right now? Not really.
And the truth of the matter is our ancestors likely had a much better grasp on how to run a society than possibly ourselves which is a realization that has made this book so striking to me. Here’s the take home: most modern day state and political power is arbitrary.

This is a must read along with Graeber’s two other amazing books Bullshit Jobs and Debt: The First 5,000 Years.
Profile Image for Gary  Beauregard Bottomley.
1,008 reviews603 followers
December 16, 2021
The authors know there is no central overriding authoritative narrative explaining the past through fabricated “just so stories” and our understanding of our beginnings is often tainted by pernicious teleology.

Charles Mann, an author cited in this book for falsely describing pre-Columbus South America in terms of Kingdoms because he could only think in terms of his own world-view. Mann wrote the Wall Street Journal book review for Homo Sapiens and it was clear he had no idea what it meant since Mann was only capable of seeing the world linearly as a series of progressions and with the end point already known since history had led to him and according to him history must always have a narrative about the narrative which justifies that end point. These authors will make the point that the word “state” would have not been in the vocabulary of the early conquistadors and that way of thinking about the world would have been an anachronism.

These authors understand that Mann’s way is fraught with errors. Stephen Pinker’s evolutionary psychology is bogus, Jared Diamond’s generalities are dangerous, Fukuyama’s end of history and tone deaf understanding of identity is bereft of wisdom, and at times Yuval Harari was intentionally misleading.

There is no meaning to the past except for the meaning we give to it today. As things are happening, they are not understood through modern eyes at the time they happened. Marc Bloch, a medieval historian, said that it was impossible to have been an atheist in medieval European times since everything that made the world including culture, knowledge, religion, education and language would have included the assumption of a creator God and to have believed differently would have meant to be completely removed from everything around you and the world described by those experiences would have failed you. These authors understand the trap that others have fallen into through using the false Rousseau and Hobbes narratives and they guide the reader from falling into the same outmoded way of thinking.

There was no smooth transition from hunter-gatherers to larger groups of humans and there was no teleological certainty. The authors will argue that pre-historical societies and indigenous peoples were more just than previously acknowledged and often our current end points of today do not indicate progress but a regression from what was.

With all human understanding there is a dichotomy between the individual and the self-identified group they belong too. The authors tilt towards the individual in most of their pre-history explanations and describe freedom and equality with that in mind. The Bhagavad Gita paradox between what is within us and outside of us and resolving it through our actions, knowledge and acceptance of the universe or divine is never that clear cut for me.

It’s hard not to enjoy a book that calls out some of my least favorite authors for their misleading takes on pre-history or their inability to understand the Enlightenment while writing books with that in their title. These authors of this book know there is no universal story about the story concerning early human development and tell their story with the complexity and the moving pieces that it deserves.
Profile Image for Scottsdale Public Library.
3,280 reviews261 followers
July 25, 2023
For those scientists stuck in the status quo, this book is for you.
I thought that its thickness hinted at a stodgy review of history and prehistory, but it was anything but. Its refreshing skepticism for getting caught in traditional thinking is kicked to the curb early on and then complemented with fresh reviews of innumerable examples of people that simply didn't fit the trajectory of typical historical thinking.

And the examples....the fun of this book is learning about much social and cultural variety existing across the globe. The lesson I received was unexpected and maybe unintended by the author. History and prehistory, instead of being a neatly packaged lineage, was a bit of mishmash of habits, traditions, capabilities, et al that acted more like markets, or possibly like the evolution of life. Starts and stops; mixing of some notions by people but not others. The book gave me a whole new sense of how we got here and how to know where we might go in the future.

Pick this up if you are stuck in the intellectual mud...or even if you are not. This is a great read.
-Tom L.
Profile Image for Fredrik deBoer.
Author 3 books574 followers
July 10, 2023
Just impossibly irresponsible in terms of citing evidence - many statement of facts lacking citations, many citations that don't say what the authors say they do, many that are superficially correct but which are manipulated in the text. Call me a literalist or close-minded, fine. This is not a serious book.
Profile Image for Stetson.
231 reviews160 followers
September 1, 2023
David Wengrow and the late David Graeber have chosen to venture into the pitched battlefield that is the telling and retelling of the origins of human civilization. Their tome (700+ pages or 24+ hours of audio) is ostensibly provocative though discursive and predicated on a questionable methodology (a more expansive, inclusive, and wide-eyed reading of primary sources on or from primitive human groups and their related artifacts) with the grandiose title The Dawn of Everything. They position their work as a more solemn, serious, and nuanced alternative to popular works by public intellectuals like Steven Pinker, Yuval Noah Harari, and Jared Diamond. The Davids assert these works are simplistic myth-making efforts that erroneously reify a Rosseauan or Hobbesian perspective on human nature (and thus are fatalistic about social organization) married to a teleological view of human progress. Although never explicitly acknowledged in the work, the authors have anarchic political sympathies and thus share the perspective that human nature is quite a bit more flexible and good natured (in the right conditions) than a mainstream read of the salient evidence from their discipline (anthropology) and related field like evolutionarily-oriented disciplines and sociology broadly would be. Considering these limitations, The Dawn of Everything is still probably a work worth reading; it just happens to either argue for things that aren't as impactful as they think they are (e.g. human behavior and social practices can be very flexible) or are just not well substantiated (e.g. that matriarchal societies existed in human history).

I think readers should forgive the Davids a bit for daring to make some zany claims (it is great to think daringly sometimes), but it would have landed better if they were a bit more deft and humble about it. A lot of their supposed rebuttals of fairly mainstream orthodoxies about the history and nature of human civilization (even ones that are simplifications) are premised on fairly tenuous evidence and often require some very generous interpretations of their sources. Moreover, the book is largely ignorant of or foolishly ignores the insights of linguistics, primatology, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, and ancient population genomics, especially in terms of the harder evidence they can provide about human behavior, socialization, and migration. This is a huge oversight as these types of discussions even make the pages of the purportedly simplistic popular works that the Davids scorn.

I think the real failing of the work is that the authors aren't actually able to provide an operational and detailed description of a supposed ideal modern human civilization at scale. There isn't a synthesis about what this should mean for our world despite their clear displeasure with how they think society is "stuck" in particular governing systems now. They give some small-scale and vague examples that aren't much more than fantasies. Plus, they dismiss concerns about scale, logistics, and transaction costs (not even addressed) flippantly and don't even tender a definitive perspective on human nature (implying inaccurately that it is more malleable than it actually is). There just is no serious thinking about political economy or information flow for a complex, technologically mature global society from their perspective. Despite often criticizing Rousseau's work, they still are seemingly siding with him about essential human nature, while ignoring the well-known, mainstream, agnostic resolution of the Rousseau-Hobbes debate, i.e. Lockean Social Contract Theory. Overall, The Dawn of Everything is an interesting but very messy and fanciful re-imagining of human history.

*Disclaimer: I received this audiobook as an ARC through NetGalley

I also strongly recommend Erik Hoel's review of this book --> https://erikhoel.substack.com/p/the-g...
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