G. Sampath reviews The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber & David Wengrow

Anthropologist and marshal archaeologist gather new evidence to produce a new narrative of the past that challenges the assumptions behind an evolutionary history of humanity

Big storytelling may no longer be fashionable in the social sciences. This does not mean that they are no longer in circulation. Epic forays into the past have continued to flourish, producing an influential crop of bestsellers, ranging from Jared Diamond’s Firearms, Germs and Steel (1997) and Steven Pinker The best angels of our nature (2011) to Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens (2014). Despite the authors’ diverse origins, all of these books share a common paradigm: an evolutionary approach to history.

No holdback

This approach presents the social history of humanity as a linear progression through different stages, from the simplest (primitive) to the most complex (advanced). In this diagram, after the emergence of Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago, they spent most of that time as small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. About 10,000 years ago, they discovered agriculture, which ushered in sedentary communities, a surplus and a hierarchy to protect the surplus. As agriculture developed, cities developed, as did a non-agricultural class specializing in arts, crafts, and commerce, ultimately leading to the formation of the state, as structures were needed. state-type – including an administrative and warrior elite – to manage the scale and complexity of humans living together in large numbers. This story has the sound of common sense. This not only explains the past, but also makes the present and all of its evils – inequality, violence, endless toil – inevitable, even acceptable. But this apparently rational explanation, argue David Graeber and David Wengrow in The dawn of everything, is just a myth, and a rather uninteresting myth that prevents us from exploring our full potential as political beings.

Over 700 pages of explanatory prose spanning six continents and 30,000 years, Graeber, an anthropologist, and Wengrow, an archaeologist, erase the patchwork of untested hypotheses that underlie the evolutionary paradigm of human history. Drawing on recent archaeological finds and obscure historical texts in different languages, they amass evidence that humans made conscious political and cultural choices long before conventional markers of civilization – such as kings, money , agriculture, social stratification – do not become mainstream.

Agriculture as gardening

For example, the idea that cities cannot be managed without top-down governance is shattered by many examples to the contrary, the most spectacular being the Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan, which had plenty of social housing but shows no evidence of having had a king or a ruling elite. The myth that the discovery of grain cultivation triggered the ‘agricultural revolution’ is exploded by Neolithic settlements such as Catalhoyuk (dated 7,400 BC. That so many Neolithic communities remained attached to the search for food even after the The acquisition of agricultural know-how demonstrates, write Graeber and Wengrow, that there was nothing inevitable or automatic about humanity’s drift towards agriculture, inequality or the formation of a State.

Two thematic axes cross the book: the consolidation of a body of archaeological evidence and a history of ideas. While archaeological expeditions – whether to Minoan Crete, run by a college of priestesses, or to Tlaxcala, an indigenous republic ruled by a democratic council – are fascinating, readers will find the journey of ideas an invigorating spree.

For example, what we call the Enlightenment, the authors argue, is not a legacy of Europe’s rediscovery of its former intellectual glory, but a reaction to the meteoric criticism of European civilization by Native American intellectuals. Foremost among them was the 17th century Wendat statesman Kandiaronk, a skeptical rationalist who held up a mirror to European society, describing it as a hell of greed, misery and despotism, unlike the cultures. natives where mutual aid was the highest value.

The European intellectual response to indigenous criticism ran along the Hobbes-Rousseau spectrum which held, at the Hobbesian end, that primitive life was “wicked, brutal and short” or that it was a “garden of Eden ”populated by“ noble savages ”. hence humanity “fell” to the “chains” of civilization (Rousseau). Regardless of their different starting points and political effects, both perspectives, Graeber and Wengrow argue, served to erase Native American intellectual traditions, paving the way for the propaganda that modernity and all its ideals – democracy, rationality, reasoned debate , equality – are a legacy of the West (the white race). The erasure and the claim together have also provided the ideological ballast for the “civilizing” genocides of European colonialism.

Three freedoms

Graeber and Wengrow identify three freedoms as fundamental in the cultural universe of pre-agricultural gathering communities: the freedom to move, the freedom to disobey, and the freedom to transform social relationships. They also set three criteria for a political formation to be considered a “state”: control of violence (standing army, police), control of information (bureaucracy) and competition for leadership based on charisma. (a political class). The prevailing consensus is that a dilution of our freedoms is the price we pay for the goods of modern civilization, such as tap water, democracy, and paracetamol. But then, ask Graeber and Wengrow, a market society where inequality is a given, and a democracy where the majority are spectators, is this the end point of the “social evolution” of humanity? Or, inspired by the rediscovery of an unknown past, can humanity imagine a future more worthy of itself? Read this amazing book and make up your own mind.

Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity; David Graeber, David Wengrow, Penguin Random House, 2,515.

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