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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 equ 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. Includes Black-and-White Illustrations


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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 equ 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. Includes Black-and-White Illustrations

30 review for The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    Graeber’s final (and most ambitious) gift to us is only the beginning… Preamble: --There’s a certain joy seeing status quo liberals frame Graeber’s social imagination as “dangerous”; suddenly, that inescapable Mark Fisher “Capitalist Realism” overcast disperses and the skies open with endless possibilities. What better time than now to revive social imagination as status quo faith propels us towards ecological collapse. --There’s also a certain relief from the Western Left internet debates (ex. “a Graeber’s final (and most ambitious) gift to us is only the beginning… Preamble: --There’s a certain joy seeing status quo liberals frame Graeber’s social imagination as “dangerous”; suddenly, that inescapable Mark Fisher “Capitalist Realism” overcast disperses and the skies open with endless possibilities. What better time than now to revive social imagination as status quo faith propels us towards ecological collapse. --There’s also a certain relief from the Western Left internet debates (ex. “anarchists vs. Marxists”); self-professed “anarchist” Graeber often transcends vulgar caricatures by reframing assumptions shared by both “sides”. We need more “anarchists” synthesizing statecraft and more “Marxists” studying the latest in anthropology/archeology beyond vulgar stages-of-development (like Marx would have). --Lastly, this can only be the beginning: the culmination of a project between anthropologist/activist Graeber and archeologist Wengrow started as an investigation on the “origins of inequality”, but ended with the authors presenting a complete reframing that raises new questions and possibilities (lecture: https://youtu.be/EvUzdJSK4x8) Highlights: 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, and 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”: “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.

  2. 4 out of 5

    BlackOxford

    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 tedio 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.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Giulio Ongaro

    Origin myths the world over have a basic psychological effect: regardless of their scientific validity, they have the sly power of justifying existing states of affairs, while simultaneously contouring a perception of what the world might look like in the future. Modern capitalist society has built itself upon two variants of one such myth. As one story goes, life as primitive hunter-gatherers was ‘nasty, brutish and short’ until the invention of the state allowed us to flourish. The other story 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.

  4. 4 out of 5

    David Wineberg

    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, th 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: IN WHICH WE OBSERVE HOW GRAND MONUMENTS, PRINCELY BURIALS AND OTHER UNEXPECTED FEATURES OF ICE AGE SOCIETIES HAVE UPENDED OUR ASSUMPTIONS OF WHAT HUNTER- GATHERERS ARE LIKE, AND CONSIDER WHAT IT MIGHT MEAN TO SAY THERE WAS ‘SOCIAL STRATIFICATION’ SOME 30,000 YEARS AGO (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-...

  5. 4 out of 5

    Brandon Westlake

    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 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.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Stetson

    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 the 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

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kosta Dalianas

    Dunks on idiots like Harari and Diamond

  8. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

    Seems like an odd thing to say, but this read like an Adam Curtis film. If the BBC archives went back to the dawn of time, I can imagine this alternative history playing out over low-fi synthonic beats. I think the reason I’m making that connection is because I was originally hipped to the work of Graeber from a quote in one of Curtis’ films. Clearly I can’t think of any better compliment to to give this book beyond drawing the aforementioned comparison. It seems strange that as time goes on, we Seems like an odd thing to say, but this read like an Adam Curtis film. If the BBC archives went back to the dawn of time, I can imagine this alternative history playing out over low-fi synthonic beats. I think the reason I’m making that connection is because I was originally hipped to the work of Graeber from a quote in one of Curtis’ films. Clearly I can’t think of any better compliment to to give this book beyond drawing the aforementioned comparison. It seems strange that as time goes on, we learn more about the past, and in doing so should realise that the future is largely what we choose to make it. That we choose to live the way we do, and we might just as well choose to live another way. Clearly paraphrasing here, but again, a clear link in the thesis’ of the two historians. One focused on the last 100 years, the other the last 10,000.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Lloyd Fassett

    10/20/21 found it because Google pushed a review from The Atlantic magazine to me, which is here https://amp.theatlantic.com/amp/artic... 10/20/21 found it because Google pushed a review from The Atlantic magazine to me, which is here https://amp.theatlantic.com/amp/artic...

  10. 5 out of 5

    Rhys

    Graeber and Wengrow have offered an interesting synthesis of the anthropological/archeological record of human organization over the ages. They challenge the simple explanations of 'progress' from small clans to complex states. In essence, they challenge our 'stuckness', accepting State organization as the inevitable outcome of complex, urban life. The Dawn of Everything is bookended with the assertion that doctrines of individual liberty, mutual aid and political equality, as famously articulate Graeber and Wengrow have offered an interesting synthesis of the anthropological/archeological record of human organization over the ages. They challenge the simple explanations of 'progress' from small clans to complex states. In essence, they challenge our 'stuckness', accepting State organization as the inevitable outcome of complex, urban life. The Dawn of Everything is bookended with the assertion that doctrines of individual liberty, mutual aid and political equality, as famously articulated by Rousseau, were derived from the words of 'Amerindian' elders and sages in their contact with French colonists. For this alone, the book is worth reading. Freedom becomes the freedom 'to move, to disobey, to rearrange social ties', as illustrated many times in the span of human organization. One wonders how this could apply to today's surveillance-based state capitalism. I hope Wengrow will proceed with the future books the two authors had planned prior to Graeber's untimely death. The authors made a number of oblique correlations between female-lead organizations and the rise of art and culture; or was it during times of low-authoritarianism; or are these the same things? I am reminded of Rudolf Rocker's Nationalism & Culture - Greaber/Wengrow might offer new insights on this theme. I hope The Dawn of Everything will inspire a new worldview, one where we can become 'unstuck'.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Adrian Hon

    Hard-going at times (the intro and final chapters), frequently too hand-wavy - yet so dazzling and daring that it’s well worth the effort

  12. 5 out of 5

    Andy Jones

    Graeber and Wengrow discuss how latest research and new evidence supports a reinterpretation of how human societies evolved and interacted. Challenging the 'selfish humanity' that was first propounded by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th Century, the authors also reject Jean Jacques Rousseau's thinking around an idealised 'social contract' , and propose a third alternative based on their research into the interactions between various Native American cultures and the European explorers/invaders. When face Graeber and Wengrow discuss how latest research and new evidence supports a reinterpretation of how human societies evolved and interacted. Challenging the 'selfish humanity' that was first propounded by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th Century, the authors also reject Jean Jacques Rousseau's thinking around an idealised 'social contract' , and propose a third alternative based on their research into the interactions between various Native American cultures and the European explorers/invaders. When faced with a tome that runs to over 700 pages, of which Notes and Bibliography comprise about 30%, even without an index, it's clear that this is a publication targeted at an academic audience; both the style and content make it fairly inaccessible to the lay reader, which is disappointing because contained within are some fascinating insights that extend our understanding of how civilisation has impacted human society and personal development that should be relevant to contemporary discourse around freedom of the individual and the responsibilities of good governments.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Stetson

    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 the 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

  14. 4 out of 5

    Keith Daniels

    One of the best books I've ever read. An openly leftist-anarchist re-reading of human history which, fundamentally, seeks to demonstrate the idea that the late-stage capitalist dystopia we currently live in wasn't inevitable and isn't inescapable. Better alternatives not only can be conceived, they were implemented successfully many times throughout human history. RIP David Graeber, sorely missed. One of the best books I've ever read. An openly leftist-anarchist re-reading of human history which, fundamentally, seeks to demonstrate the idea that the late-stage capitalist dystopia we currently live in wasn't inevitable and isn't inescapable. Better alternatives not only can be conceived, they were implemented successfully many times throughout human history. RIP David Graeber, sorely missed.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Gregg

    Absolutely phenomenal. It's rare for a single work to have me question multiple assumptions I wasn't aware I had. It's going to take me a long time to properly digest this excellent study. Absolutely phenomenal. It's rare for a single work to have me question multiple assumptions I wasn't aware I had. It's going to take me a long time to properly digest this excellent study.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ed Stoddard

    History on a grand scale but through a completely new lens - wow, what an intellectual feast! The late David Graeber (who died before the book was published) and co-author David Wengrow conclude that "we are in the presence of myths." By that they mean the standard narrative of how history has unfolded over the past few thousand years, particularly our distant origins. New archeological discoveries over the past few decades across the world are raising many questions about our assumptions of the History on a grand scale but through a completely new lens - wow, what an intellectual feast! The late David Graeber (who died before the book was published) and co-author David Wengrow conclude that "we are in the presence of myths." By that they mean the standard narrative of how history has unfolded over the past few thousand years, particularly our distant origins. New archeological discoveries over the past few decades across the world are raising many questions about our assumptions of the transition from hunting/gathering to agriculture to cities to "states." Unlike, say, the short distance trajectory of a Neolithic arrow fired at an elephant, human history is not straightforward. It is far more interesting than that, and there was nothing inevitable about our current arrangements. One of their starting points is truly revolutionary, which is fitting for such a rich work of iconoclasm. They make the startling argument that theories of social evolution such as those advanced by Jean-Jacque Rousseau in the 18th century were the product of a Trans-Atlantic exchange of ideas: the Amerindian critique of the failure of European society to provide mutual aid and protect individual liberty. Among other things that will come as a shock the US right and the myths it is busy spinning over America's "righteous" origins. Trans-Atlantic exchanges in the early colonial period are generally seen through the prism of disease, crops, animals, and trade (such as slaves from Africa, sugar from the Americas, weapons from Europe and that kind of thing). That ideas crossed from the Americas to Europe and profoundly influenced "Western" intellectual history is a deviation from the norm, to say the least. But the authors provide plenty of evidence to suggest that this may have indeed been the case. One of the things at work here is our condescension towards hunter-gatherer societies. The authors for example take issue with Yuval Noah Harari’s influential "Sapiens". Take this quotation from that book" "The sociopolitical world of the foragers is another area about which we know next to nothing ... It's likely that different bands had different structures. Some may have been hierarchical, tense and violent as the nastiest chimpanzee group, while others were as laid-back, peaceful and lascivious as a bunch of bonobos." To which they make this telling observation: "So not only was everyone living in bands until farming came along, but these bands were basically ape-like in character. If this seems unfair to the author, remember hat Harari could just as easily have written 'as tense and violent as the nastiest biker gang,' and 'as laid-back, peaceful and lascivious as a hippie commune.' One might have imagined the obvious thing to compare one group of human beings with would be ... another group of human beings. Why, then, did Harari choose chimps instead of bikers? It's hard to escape the impression that the main point of difference is that bikers choose to live the way they do ..." I will probably do a longer review on this for the Daily Maverick. One other thing to note here - as it is a keen area of interest for this reviewer - is the extinction of much of the world's megafauna between 130,000 and a few thousand years ago. They note that foragers had contributed to such extinctions by 8,000 BC through land management techniques to stimulate the growth of desired species such as fruit-bearing trees, altering the habitat of the giants. But that is about the only mention they make in over 500 pages of the "overkill thesis" (a term that is not used in the book). Two things stand out here: one is that the removal of so many BIG dangerous animals (from a human perspective) ALSO altered habitats worldwide and surely had an outside impact on subsequent human history. The other is that the "overkilling" that took place is often portrayed as the start of the Anthropocene and casts humanity in a bad light - as an "overkiller ... pretty much right from the start," in the words of The New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert. Yet perhaps - as Graeber and Wengrow note - we should compare hunter/gatherers to other humans in a different light. For bikers and hippies have one thing in common: they don't much like to live in an environment where they are subject to wildlife attack. Virtually no human does in the 21st century, which is why I have made the case before that people who do live in such a terrifying environment live below what I dub the "faunal poverty line. https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/artic... Seen from that perspective, the "overkillers" were merely protecting their kith and kin from menacing megafauna. I maintain that human/wildlife conflict is the best explanation for the extinctions, and one that I have been unable to find in the literature beyond a couple of suggestive fragments related to the extinction of sabre-toothed cats near what is now Johannesburg. Graber and Wengrow, while they do not pursue this line of thought - in fairness to them, their canvas is mammoth-sized as it is - do provide evidence for this. They find that physically anomalous individuals - people with health-related disabilities - were given lavish burials in the last Ice Age and "must have been the focus of much caring attention while alive." Such caring and attention would presumably have involved protecting them, given their vulnerability, from big animal attack. In the roots of the Anthropocene we see a mirror of ourselves, but one that has now been distorted by current campaigns to "save the lion" which ignore the fact that big cats still prey on vulnerable humans - humans made vulnerable by their poverty. (Also stay tuned for an essay on this issue ...)

  17. 4 out of 5

    Devina Heriyanto

    The Dawn of Everything, posthumously published after David Graeber's passing in September 2020, is an ambitious project. At its heart, the book asks us to unlearn what we think we know about how civilizations came to be (including what the word even means) and to imagine systems or structures of society that can be organized with what we learn through archaeological and anthropological findings in recent decades. Graeber and his co-author David Wengrow began the book by tracing the history of our The Dawn of Everything, posthumously published after David Graeber's passing in September 2020, is an ambitious project. At its heart, the book asks us to unlearn what we think we know about how civilizations came to be (including what the word even means) and to imagine systems or structures of society that can be organized with what we learn through archaeological and anthropological findings in recent decades. Graeber and his co-author David Wengrow began the book by tracing the history of our knowledge of the past, in which we think of pre-history as linear progress: humans started as hunter-gatherers, before discovering agriculture and settling down into small villages and towns, then forming hierarchy as society became bigger and finally, there was kingdoms, empires, and states. As a result of this understanding, there is this conception that we have reached the highest level of human civilization, meaning that everyone else who's still living in traditional or indigenous societies is backward and simple-minded. This in turn leads to our failure in imagining that our ancestors have the intellectual ability and complexity while living as a hunter-gatherer or as an early farmer. The Dawn of Everything has a lot to unpack, and the book does it meticulously by elaborating on where our misconception of the past came from and the findings or theories that can debunk or challenge the status quo. While others are pondering on the origin of inequalities, the authors question how we get stuck in such an unequal society, arguing that even in small empires with kings and hierarchy, society can still uphold egalitarian principles so long as everyone has liberty and freedom. The latter, in the book, is defined with three aspects: the freedom to move, the freedom to disobey, and the freedom to shape or transform society. In this sense, what The Dawn of Everything aims to tell us boils down to one point: that we are stuck in our current way of living because we are losing our freedom gradually. In our globalized world, only a few percent of the society is able to move around due to regulations and financial restrictions. The freedom to disobey is such a rare thing that civil disobedience has become a radical act. The last, the freedom to shape or transform society, is largely eradicated since the 20th century, with some people even arguing that we have reached the end of history. Reading this reminds me why one reads at all: to understand something that is beyond our own self, to acknowledge our own limited knowledge and bias, and to discover new possibilities of the past and the future. Imagination is a kind of freedom that we all need to seize back.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Marks54

    This is a long book by an anthropologist and an archaeologist that is trying to do too much at once but ends up still doing quite a bit. It is not really trying to provide a new history of humanity (its complicated). Rather the authors are arguing against some traditional approaches to a history of humanity. Note that most of this involves history based on anthropological and archaeological research since the majority of the history of humanity came before the written records that most of us ass This is a long book by an anthropologist and an archaeologist that is trying to do too much at once but ends up still doing quite a bit. It is not really trying to provide a new history of humanity (its complicated). Rather the authors are arguing against some traditional approaches to a history of humanity. Note that most of this involves history based on anthropological and archaeological research since the majority of the history of humanity came before the written records that most of us associate with “big history”. The authors are also arguing against some ways in which much history, including “big history” has been written - for example constructing arguments backwards from the present to argue that what has developed in the past had to develop that way and that whatever is, largely had to be that way. A new history would also be one that reflects how people actually, lived, thought, and interacted rather than oversimplifying the ancients as simpletons, stereotypes, barbarians, or “noble savages”. They argue that the historical record today shows that ancient man was more thoughtful and sophisticated than western conquerors ever thought and that if anything, enlightenment notions of “civilization” and social relations had analogs in American peoples at the time of the conquest such that the European “Enlightenment” was influenced by native conceptions of social and political theory in influential ways. Moreover, what we now know about native societies shows them to be more more comparable to European societies - especially using evidence from the life stories of captives from both sides. Most intriguingly, the authors develop the idea of large “mass” societies in archaic times that did not display the hierarchies of status and power and lethal force that we have come to associate with modern states and societies. Think about that … This is thoughtful and provocative work and what I have said here only touches the surface of this rich book. I had only recently heard of Graeber and his work on “BS” jobs. He had a whole career in anthropology and recently passed away shortly after this book was published. What a loss. The book is deep, provocative, easy to read, and well documented. I will likely go back to it.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Shan

    This is a big honking book so I'm going to write some notes as I go along. It's actually very readable and an alternative approach would be to just read straight through and come out with some general impressions. 11/14 Feeling some cracks beginning to form in some long-standing mental scaffolding. I'm wondering if this is a common structure for histories, because I encountered the same thing in a book (A History of Warfare) I started a while back when trying to understand a bit about war: the au This is a big honking book so I'm going to write some notes as I go along. It's actually very readable and an alternative approach would be to just read straight through and come out with some general impressions. 11/14 Feeling some cracks beginning to form in some long-standing mental scaffolding. I'm wondering if this is a common structure for histories, because I encountered the same thing in a book (A History of Warfare) I started a while back when trying to understand a bit about war: the authors begin with a long discussion of what everyone else has said about the topic and why they were wrong. (In the war one, it centered on a particular theorist, Clausewitz, who has apparently influenced everyone else for 200 years.) I'm only on pg 37 but flipping through the chapters and reading the section blurbs (like "In which we consider what the inhabitants of New France made of their European invaders, especially in matters of generosity, sociability, material wealth, crime, punishment, and liberty") it appears Graeber and Wengrow spend 6 chapters on this argument phase of the book before moving on to straight presentation of their own findings in chapters 7-10, then returning for 2 chapters to conclude the argument. It makes for slow reading, because as a history outsider I have to keep stopping to think about whether I've encountered the earlier writer, whether G&W are accurately presenting what the earlier thinker said, whether those earlier thoughts are actually part of what lives in my own head, before I can start thinking about what G&W are telling me is the actual truth of the matter. It's scratching an itch I've had for a while. In the Middle Ages, most people in other parts of the world who actually knew anything about northern Europe at all considered it an obscure and uninviting backwater full of religious fanatics who, aside from occasional attacks on their neighbors ('the Crusades'), were largely irrelevant to global trade and world politics.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Sol Smith

    Yes again, I find myself completely captivated by an Anthropology book. This one brings into question many of the assumptions that we’ve been raised understanding as some kind of hard science. If you haven’t read “Sapiens,” by Harari, you still have to; and then you should read this one, which takes issue with “Sapiens” on several different fronts. Basically, this book recognized that most of how we broadly understand the last 50,000 years of human history is a “Just-So” story that provides us w Yes again, I find myself completely captivated by an Anthropology book. This one brings into question many of the assumptions that we’ve been raised understanding as some kind of hard science. If you haven’t read “Sapiens,” by Harari, you still have to; and then you should read this one, which takes issue with “Sapiens” on several different fronts. Basically, this book recognized that most of how we broadly understand the last 50,000 years of human history is a “Just-So” story that provides us with a cognitive block so that we don’t have to think about it. But in not thinking about how and why our society developed the way that it did, is to accept society as a basic, natural reality that was destined from the beginning. There are specific intersections of history that are brought into question, but through those, everything is examined, as is the reasons behind the profound lack of curiosity displayed in the study. Captivating.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jake Tracy

    I went into this book with a high degree of skepticism given some of the things I’d read about it beforehand. However, I came away thinking that this is an essential work to read for anyone interested in human history and prehistory. The authors point out a number of flaws underlying common assumptions about prehistory and early history, citing numerous examples, many from recent research. While the authors’ alternative frameworks to explain the new (or old) evidence are not always entirely conv I went into this book with a high degree of skepticism given some of the things I’d read about it beforehand. However, I came away thinking that this is an essential work to read for anyone interested in human history and prehistory. The authors point out a number of flaws underlying common assumptions about prehistory and early history, citing numerous examples, many from recent research. While the authors’ alternative frameworks to explain the new (or old) evidence are not always entirely convincing, the holes they poke in standard conceptions about the evolution of inequality, subsistence methods, power dynamics, and urbanity seem sure to open new areas for study and debate across a number of disciplines.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Tamara

    Meh, just ok.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Andrea Wenger

    The Dawn of Everything challenges popular beliefs about the origin of civilization and the implications of social complexity. It also credits indigenous peoples for the rise of values like freedom and equality in Europe during the Enlightenment. The examination of societies throughout history and throughout the globe brings new insights that expose how racism and patriarchy have poisoned Western understanding of how human cultures organize themselves. This book is transformational. It's long but The Dawn of Everything challenges popular beliefs about the origin of civilization and the implications of social complexity. It also credits indigenous peoples for the rise of values like freedom and equality in Europe during the Enlightenment. The examination of societies throughout history and throughout the globe brings new insights that expose how racism and patriarchy have poisoned Western understanding of how human cultures organize themselves. This book is transformational. It's long but worth the read. The audiobook is a good choice—well narrated and easy to listen to. Thanks, NetGalley, for the ARC I received. This is my honest and voluntary review.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Sharon

    This is not light reading! The authors put forth several ideas about the development of agriculture, civilization and inequality. They question current thoughts ideas and provide hope that we can do better!

  25. 4 out of 5

    Kobe Bryant

    really interesting and surprisingly readable overview. learning about all the different cultures and societies was cool

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Marshall

    Hope It didn't have to turn out this way. There's plenty of new evidence that bands->settled agriculture->cities->industrial->post did not have to result in the inequality we see today. Lots of new lenses to see a new way. Hope It didn't have to turn out this way. There's plenty of new evidence that bands->settled agriculture->cities->industrial->post did not have to result in the inequality we see today. Lots of new lenses to see a new way.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Mick Harvey

    It's difficult to review a book like this for a number of reasons. One is the broad sweep of material and scale it covers. This is a book about virtually the entire history of humanity by two authors, at least one of whom is the most celebrated in his field of his generation and seems to have read everything published in it. Another reason is that this book repeatedly challenges fundamental intellectual assumptions that one didn't even know one had. After the tenth time, it starts to get difficu It's difficult to review a book like this for a number of reasons. One is the broad sweep of material and scale it covers. This is a book about virtually the entire history of humanity by two authors, at least one of whom is the most celebrated in his field of his generation and seems to have read everything published in it. Another reason is that this book repeatedly challenges fundamental intellectual assumptions that one didn't even know one had. After the tenth time, it starts to get difficult to remember what you had thought before you read it. Another reason is that in the last analysis, some of the claims Wengrow and Graeber are making are a wee bit tendentious. But really this is all purposeful; their project does nothing if not expose the vapidity of existing understandings of 'grand history', and their own even more extreme tendentiousness. The beauty of this book lies in the wealth of empirical detail it marshals to make its case. Memorable lessons include tracing nothing less than contemporary understandings of popular democracy and political engagement to European encounters with new world culture and intellectuals; a variety of examples of neolithic egalitarian urbanism, and evidence of a mesoamerican revolution around the time of late antiquity which brought about a successful programme of 'palatial' public housing for a city of as much as 100,000 people(!) Really, the effect is to project 'permanent revolution' back into the past, and freeing up our calcified imaginations in the process. A few times whilst listening to this (the audiobook is very well read, and the conversational style helps) I had to laugh, and pump my fist at the audacity of the revisionist takes, just about designed to annoy doctrinaires of every stripe. Laughter with a pang of grief thinking about what more David Graeber could have given us had he not died in 2020. Ultimately though, this book is one that anyone who is interested in the human social world will have to engage with, directly or indirectly at some point, and is thus a fitting tribute to his memory.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Eric Lawson

    Step One in How to be Unpopular: be ambiguous in your response to this book, which has received a huge amount of positive buzz. What I liked is that it is provocative; no question, it made me think. There were a few things I didn't like, mostly that it is entirely discursive (a personal reading taste, I acknowledge, but this book's structure reminded me of a Winnie the Pooh story I read to my children when they were growing up wherein Pooh and Piglet keep circling a tree and, whenever they circl Step One in How to be Unpopular: be ambiguous in your response to this book, which has received a huge amount of positive buzz. What I liked is that it is provocative; no question, it made me think. There were a few things I didn't like, mostly that it is entirely discursive (a personal reading taste, I acknowledge, but this book's structure reminded me of a Winnie the Pooh story I read to my children when they were growing up wherein Pooh and Piglet keep circling a tree and, whenever they circle back on their own footprints, think someone new has started following them). And, as others have noted, Graeber and Wengrow do not substantiate their own arguments with any level of detail. I decided somewhere around the mid-point that enjoying this book requires a different way of reading it. If you approach The Dawn of Everything with the idea that the authors are being provocateurs and just want to challenge you with new ideas, not walk you through a graduate seminar point-by-point, the sweeping generalizations can be taken as a jolt of intellectual caffeine. I found it rewarding to read for a while, put the book down and read other things, return to Dawn of Everything to read for a while, put it down to read something else, lather, rinse, and repeat in an ongoing cycle. For me at least, the lack of a strong narrative spine was less frustrating when I dipped into the book rather than tried to read it straight through. On balance, I found the book's thesis bracing. I do not possess the scholarly background needed to assess whether Graeber and Wengrow are correct, but their ideas are a breath of fresh air.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Supriyo Chaudhuri

    This is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read, so much so that now I possibly have two distinct phases of my entire reading history: Before and after this book! I hope that will happen to the discipline of history overall: The detailed, erudite and yet humble and curious treatment that this book offers to world history will define a new 'paradigm'. But more importantly, the book's central message - a political one - that history isn't an one-way Street, moving from one stage to anot This is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read, so much so that now I possibly have two distinct phases of my entire reading history: Before and after this book! I hope that will happen to the discipline of history overall: The detailed, erudite and yet humble and curious treatment that this book offers to world history will define a new 'paradigm'. But more importantly, the book's central message - a political one - that history isn't an one-way Street, moving from one stage to another, but it is full of possibilities of departure and we can, as our predecessors have done in the past, create new architectures of freedom when the existing political and institutional structures become too oppressive.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Carla

    Interesting times call for urgent explanations. It it always wiser, nonetheless, to hold back and wait... However... Our interesting times seem to have given rise to a whole bunch of panoramic explanations. Coming from different angles, this trend encompasses Pinker, Diamond, Ferguson - and Graeber. One thing they all share - the claim to bring to light results of recent research still not widely known. Aonther common feature : their explanations ally occasional wit, all encompassing vagueness, an Interesting times call for urgent explanations. It it always wiser, nonetheless, to hold back and wait... However... Our interesting times seem to have given rise to a whole bunch of panoramic explanations. Coming from different angles, this trend encompasses Pinker, Diamond, Ferguson - and Graeber. One thing they all share - the claim to bring to light results of recent research still not widely known. Aonther common feature : their explanations ally occasional wit, all encompassing vagueness, and "ashtonishing" findings and conclusions. Do they...

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