Unstuck in Deep Time


The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanityby David Graeber and David Wengrow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 704 pages, $35

There’s a simple story about life before civilization, retold by evolutionary scholars and New York Times bestsellers like Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow summarize it skeptically in their big new book, The Dawn of Everything.

Long ago, the story goes, we were hunter-gatherers, “living…in tiny bands. These bands were egalitarian; they could be for the very reason that they were so small.” We did this for hundreds of thousands of years, until an Agricultural Revolution fed an Urban Revolution, which heralded civilization and states. That meant “the appearance of written literature, science and philosophy,” but also “patriarchy, standing armies, mass executions, and annoying bureaucrats demanding that we spend much of our lives filling in forms.”

Or perhaps, interjects Steven Pinker, those bands weren’t childlike innocents, but brutal and chaotically violent: We shouldn’t regret armies or bureaucrats, but greet them as liberators. Either telling maintains the long arc: We were all one way for so long, until changes came and we were irreversibly another.

Dawn complicates this story, chapter by chapter. It begins not in prehistory but with how the Simple Story captured thinking about prehistory. In Graeber and Wengrow’s account, theories of social evolution through stages of material progress first developed “in direct response to the power of the indigenous critique,” a trans-Atlantic exchange anticipating the French Enlightenment.

Philosophy ideals of reason and individual liberty, they contend, drew directly from French colonists arguments encountered first in dialogue with Native Americans like Kandiaronk, a charismatic Wendat statesman-philosopher with a taste for skeptical debates and individual liberty. Kandiaronk’s dinner table arguments reached Parisian salons through travelogues and Louis-Armand de Lahontan’s 1703 Curious Dialogues With a Savage of Good Sense Who Has Traveled. Older histories dismissed the dialogues as exotic literary ventriloquism for Lahontan’s own views, but Graeber and Wengrow marshal sources suggesting Lahontan actually conveyed his friend Kandiaronk’s characteristic points.

Later European critics exploited technological gaps between French and native societies to sidetrack dangerous debates over liberty onto the social conditions for material equality. Small, simple societies could live like that, these theorists demurred, because they had so little to plan or fight over; Europe’s complex, commercial societies depended on governments’ civilizing constraints. Civilization, they argued, posed a tragic dilemma: wild, childish freedom or mature, comfortable confinement.

What if that dilemma is an illusion? Dawn‘s archaeological chapters slice up the Simple Story’s film-strip progression of evolutionary stages and (pre)historical inevitability. There was no Age of Innocence: Prehistoric people were already smart; their world was already old, with long histories now lost to us. Ice Age excavations revealed sophisticated, polymorphous diversity that simplistic questions about “egalitarianism” or “hierarch” obscure. Nomadic hunter-gatherers left remains that “defy our image of a world made up of tiny egalitarian forager bands” with evidence of “princely burials, mammoth monuments and bustling centers of trade.”

Graeber and Wengrow invoke “seasonal duality,” anthropologists’ term for modern indigenous societies inhabiting “two social structures, one in summer and one in winter.” They suggest similar revolving cycles in Pleistocene hunters’ social worlds to explain “strange, staccato” patterns in Ice Age inequalities: following herds, gathering nuts, crowding into trade centers; seasons of equality and “hierarchies raised to the sky, only to be swiftly torn down again.”

Foragers after the Holocene that remained fluid and diverse. Some developed small-scale, equalizing societies, like the Tanzanian Hadza people; others erected monumental stone sanctuaries, gathered seasonally, rejected farming but traded with early agriculturalists, founded sedentary villages and maritime kingdoms on coastal fishing and acorn gathering, and diverged radically even in virtually identical environments—from the Pacific Northwest’s grandiose slave-raiding “fisher kings” ” to puritanical, energetically acquisitive Californians who repudiated slavery and glorified private property.

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

Early cities’ concentrated populations and burgeoning scale didn’t spontaneously summon pharaonic god-kings or mandarin bureaucrats. Wengrow and Graeber favor recent reinterpretations of the Indus Valley metropolis Mohenjo-daro as organized with no evident palaces, rulers, or institutional government. Bustling cities from Uruk to Teotihuacan seemingly alternated epochs when rulers took hold with centuries when the populace repudiated them.

Again and again, stereotyped stages and “origins of social inequality” obscure more than they reveal about prehistoric complexity. Dawn shifts focus from equality to fluidity: “If human beings, through most of our history, have moved back and forth fluidly between different social arrangements…maybe the real question should be ‘how did we get stuck?’…How did we come to treat eminence and subservience not as temporary expedients…but as inescapable elements of the human condition?”

Dawn‘s longest chapter revisits stuckedness in “state formation.” If farming and cities lasted centuries without governments, how did states arise? Wengrow and Graeber reject one-track theories, distinguishing three paths to domination: sovereignty (spectacular violence, dynastic divine kingship), information control (administrative technique, bureaucracy), and charisma (competitive conflict, conquering warlords).

Regimes that master just one path may appear state-like but exhibit decidedly weird patterns of rule. Consider the Great Sun of the Natchez, a Mississippian god-king whose word carried the power of life or death over his subjects—but only in his physical presence. The Sun’s sovereignty couldn’t be delegated to emissaries; his writ couldn’t run past the sacred city limits. Unsurprisingly, this prompted a flight to the Natchez exurbs, where people lived prosperously, disobeyed orders, and avoided the sacred city whenever possible.

Stable state politics congealed when “second-order regimes” interlocked multiple forms of domination, keeping “stuck” in each—but with no predictable sequence that everyone followed. Pharaohs arose one way in Egypt; lugals commandeered Uruk in another. Modern nation-states aren’t the end of “a long evolutionary process that began in the Bronze Age,” just the peculiar confluence of three dominations we got stuck with, and “there was nothing inevitable about it.”

This is an enormously ambitious book, evoking the grand style of Enlightenment treatises. But Dawn is never ponderous in style. Graeber and Wengrow are lively and lucid in analytical passages, and compelling narrators of archaeological interpretations. Their descriptions of lost landscapes and spectacular sites like Göbekli Tepe and Chavín de Huántar sometimes approach the lyrical.

No book so ambitious could completely avoid moments of hubris or overconfidently idiosyncratic readings of sources. How much trust you place in evocative reconstructions of silent ruins depends on your confidence in the conjectural process of archaeological interpretation. Graeber and Wengrow are forthcoming about that, frequently noting the limitations of the evidence (“Much of this remains speculative…”). But cautionary hedges sometimes vanish when earlier conjectures return to bolster later conclusions. Many interpretations are best read with a keen eye to possibilities, probabilities, and certainties.

Dawn is at its weakest when the authors are most polemical. Their rebuttals to Pinker on prehistoric violence uncharitably discount his engagement with paleoanthropological evidence, replying with facile competing anecdotes. Elsewhere they glibly dismiss neo-Hobbesian historical outlooks as “extremely popular among billionaires but [holding] little appeal to anyone else.” (Anyone?) Their handling of economic thought is sometimes tendentious and caricatured.

Dawn‘s archaeologically grounded discussions of trade and private property nevertheless can be thoughtful, curious, and nondogmatic. Graeber and Wengrow’s view of private property’s sacral origins suggests polychromatic pictures, not a single simplistic story. They’re eager to dissociate agriculture from the advent of private property in land; but note their sympathetic discussion of private property’s role in Yurok foragers’ repudiation of slave raiding. Libertarians could profitably engage a Big History framework that takes human agency seriously as a historical force, questions the necessity of Leviathan states for complexity and technological development, and renovates Enlightenment liberties as a hopeful program for urbanized global society.

The Dawn of Everything was finished weeks before Graeber’s untimely death in 2020. In the foreword, Wengrow recalls how their collaboration grew luxuriantly from a decadelong sprawling correspondence. Seeing how much was left to say, the authors “planned to write sequels; no less than three.” The book we have is a worthy capstone to Graeber’s work, bursting with exhilarating possibilities and provocative questions. I can only hope Wengrow will continue the conversation, despite the loss of his co-conspirator.

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