The Archaeology of Hope

The Archaeology of Hope

The Dawn of Everything challenges us to shake off fatalism and embrace the creativity at the heart of doing politics.

David Graeber and David Wengrow write that Teotihuacan's murals (above) express the “ebullient face of Teotihuacan's civic identity.” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity
by David Graeber and David Wengrow
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 704 pp.

Last November, a 704-page doorstopper of a book with a sixty-three-page bibliography, démodé section headings, and winding ruminations on Rousseau landed in the number two spot on the New York Times Best Seller list. This event is just the sort of wacky, unpredictable quirk of human history that the book’s authors, David Graeber and David Wengrow, bask in. Maybe readers are hungry for iconoclasm, which The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity delivers in ample proportion. At their feet, idols lay shattered. In their epic retelling of our distant past, they challenge nearly every dogma littered across the pages of popular histories like Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, from the belief that humanity once lived in an egalitarian infancy to the conviction that agriculture made hierarchy and oppression inevitable. They offer tantalizing glimpses of cities without masters and tales of slave-owning hunter-gatherers to argue that the shape of our past was not inevitable—and neither is that of the future. Walter Benjamin said that “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”; Graeber and Wengrow would say we haven’t been looking hard enough.

Sifting through the remains of prehistory is a fraught exercise, though, and since the book appeared last fall, critics have pored over its lacunae and flighty logic. Graeber and Wengrow assert that when European settlers were abducted by indigenous societies, they almost always preferred to stay with their captors than return to their home societies—a claim that the historian Daniel Immerwahr called “ballistically false” after examining the book’s source material. The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah panned the authors’ tendency to treat the absence of evidence as the evidence of absence. Graeber and Wengrow like to dispatch counterexamples with just-so stories: citing a dearth of evidence of a ruling class in excavated tombs and artwork, they suggest that the pre-Aztec Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan had “found a way to govern itself without overlords.” But then we’re told that there are traces of what appear to be Teotihuacano kings in art surviving from Mayan city-states hundreds of miles away. The authors wave this inconvenient detail away with an elaborate tale: what looked like kings were in fact “adventurous travelers” who arrived in these Mayan cities and adopted regal raiment. “A naked ‘what if?’ conjecture,” Appiah wrote of such maneuvers, “has wandered off and returned in the three-piece suit of established fact.” 

Such critiques are fair, but just-so stories are the price of admission to the prehistoric realm. After all, pretty much every attempt to weave the strands of our ancient past into a coherent story is shot through with fantasies and wild speculation. Much of ancient society is irretrievably lost; there’s only so much one can learn from potsherds and bones. That doesn’t mean authors have a license to ignore the facts, but when the record is so sparse, only imagination can fill the gap. Reconstructing vanished worlds is, in part, a political exercise; writers can choose to acknowledge this truth or, like Diamond and Steven Pinker, smuggle in a political vision—that we live in the best of all possible worlds—under the guise of cold science. “Distant times can become a vast canvas for the working out of our collective fantasies,” Graeber and Wengrow write. Against this, the authors offer their own imaginative exercise, which is sometimes compelling, sometimes absurd, but always takes aim at fatalism. They inspire us to ask: what if the palette of human experience is wider, and more colorful, than we’ve been led to believe? The available evidence about Teotihuacan does point to something very unusual, even if we can’t pin down how, exactly, the society functioned. If it were not impossible that Teotihuacan flourished for hundreds of years without kings, what might we be able to hope for today? 

So even if we shouldn’t take Graeber and Wengrow literally, we should take them seriously. And that means grappling with the two core arguments of the book: that people, not social structures or material conditions, make history, and that freedom, not equality, is humankind’s most urgent political task. 

The Klamath River runs some 200 miles from Oregon through Northern California, emptying into the Pacific near the redwood forests. In the centuries before Columbus crossed the Atlantic, the waterway’s oxbows and meanders marked the border between two worlds. To the north, stretching to Alaska, were indigenous hunter-gatherer societies that specialized in fishing. They were warrior aristocracies in which up to a quarter of the population were chattel slaves seized in raids. In the southern communities, which subsisted on nuts and acorns, the institution of slavery did not exist. Instead, they had proto-market economies based on private property in which “money buys everything,” including, according to one anthropologist, “Wealth, resources, food, honor, and wives.” Why did these foraging humans, living in relative proximity, develop such radically differing social structures? 

One school of thought says that ecology is destiny. Foragers design their societies to reflect a maximum return in calories for a minimum outlay in labor. According to “optimal foraging theory,” acorns require intense leaching and grinding to be made edible, whereas fish don’t require such preparation, making them an attractive target of plunder. The northern communities developed into warrior aristocracies because fish was their staple. 

It’s an elegant theory, but, as the authors tell us, there’s a problem: the northern communities never raided fish, only people. Where economic determinism fails, historians can turn to culture. Yet cultural forms tend to be contingent. There’s “no ‘explanation’ for why Chinese is a tonal language and Finnish an agglutinative one,” Graeber and Wengrow write, summarizing this view. “That’s just the way things happened to turn out.”

But we can’t change the world without trying to explain it first—even if those explanations are a rough guess. So the authors offer an alternative theory: In the northern communities, the chieftains were unable to reduce their own subjects to bondage because of resistance, so they were forced to raid other northern communities for slaves. In the south, meanwhile, people watched the development of slavery by their neighbors and didn’t like the look of it. They consciously organized their society on an alternative ethical basis. Where the north indulged in rituals of excess, the south promoted asceticism and diligence. Where the northern lords ladled grease onto their prodigious bellies, southern elites did something like the opposite by burning calories in sweat lodges. Graeber and Wengrow call this process, in which societies choose to become mirror images of each other, “schismogenesis,” a term coined by anthropologist Gregory Bateson.

This explanation hinges on an imaginative reading of a single oral tale recorded in the nineteenth century. But the deeper point is worth considering: “Ecology does not explain the presence of slavery on the Northwest Coast,” Graeber and Wengrow write. “Freedom does.” In other words, it was the self-conscious political and ethical reasoning of northern commoners on the one hand, and the southern communities on the other, that produced these social structures. The core idea here is voluntarism, the doctrine that human will is a driving force in history, strong enough to overcome structural constraints. Voluntarism is rooted in the anarchist tradition; it is an animating principle behind the political strategy of “prefiguring the future,” which holds that by organizing ourselves into egalitarian collectives that mimic the type of world we wish to inhabit, we can help bring that world into being. In Graeber and Wengrow’s voluntarist reading of history, Neolithic farmers in England abandoned cereal cultivation simply because they preferred another way; the range of class structures in ancient cities—from egalitarian to hierarchical—reflects deliberate experiments; the Inuit organized themselves in an authoritarian patriarchy in the summers and an egalitarian communism in the winters because they decided “that’s how humans ought to live.”

The problem with the voluntarist conception of history is that while it might explain instances when communities chose an egalitarian path, it fails to explain why other communities chose not to live this way. Nor does it explain why, in Graeber and Wengrow’s terms, we eventually “got stuck” with states and hierarchies. In fact, societies don’t choose anything—individuals and groups do. Social structures reflect many interacting factors, from conscious deliberation to economic pressures to internal struggles. Just as it would be an oversimplification for a future historian to look back at American capitalism and conclude that this is how Americans collectively decided to live, it’s wrong to boil down Inuit living patterns to conscious deliberation. A serious investigation of the various factors involved in shaping a society’s trajectory requires a richness of empirical detail—and that simply isn’t available for most early societies.

There is, however, one way to glimpse into the lives of our distant ancestors: anthropologists have documented contemporary hunter-gatherer societies with remarkable levels of equality, such as the Hadza of Tanzania and the Mbendjele BaYaka of the Congo. These societies don’t create a surplus of wealth; everything is shared and consumed immediately. The trouble is, this doesn’t tell us much about the possibility of egalitarianism in complex societies; once communities produce more than they need, certain groups or individuals often seize control of the surplus. States and class divisions then arise, which is why most of recent history is littered with kings and slaves. Is egalitarianism, then, a mark of humanity’s childhood, never to be recovered? Marx gives one answer to this conundrum: the surplus can be collectively and equitably managed. But this is an article of faith, since we lack modern examples. The other approach is to throw out the ideal of equality altogether. 

That’s the tack preferred by libertarians and conservatives—and, surprisingly, by Wengrow and Graeber, who was a leading figure in Occupy Wall Street. Dig into the details of so-called egalitarian societies, they claim, and you will discover any number of iniquities. The Wendat, for example, which the authors hail as an alternative to European society, contained several wealthy men, along with an elaborate system of chiefs and other officeholders. The Nuer of South Sudan, long held to be a society in which, according to E.E. Evans-Pritchard, “there is no master and no servant,” also featured wealth and rank differences: only men of privileged status had access to enough cattle to secure official marriages and make paternal claims over children.

Even the concept of equality itself is ill-defined, Graeber and Wengrow say. Does it refer to equality of status? Wealth? Moral worth? As an alternative, they want to replace equality with freedom. If there are few examples of egalitarianism in history, they tell us, there are plenty of examples of societies that embraced three “primordial freedoms”: to relocate, to disobey orders, and to reconfigure social relations. It was only in modernity that we forgot our essentially free nature. 

But if “equality” is a fuzzy concept, so is “freedom.” Do we mean collective or individual freedom? The freedom from forces outside our control, or the freedom to fulfill our potential? When socialists and prison abolitionists and free-market liberals and anti-mask protesters all invoke “freedom,” it’s not clear we get much mileage out of the concept at all. Graeber and Wengrow’s approach doesn’t really address this confusion, nor do they explain why their three freedoms are worth prioritizing. For example, they claim that among the Nuer, people are free to relocate; this is not because the Nuer have formal laws allowing people to move from one village to the next, but rather because their culture of hospitality to strangers makes it possible. This is the inverse of modern Western society, where many of us enjoy the legal right to move from one state to another, but no substantive freedom to do so if we can’t support ourselves financially. In fact, substantive freedoms always come with costs. The freedom to relocate among the Nuer depends on the norm of hospitality—and a social norm only works if its violation brings sanction. In other words, the freedom to relocate depends on limiting the host’s freedom to reject the person seeking refuge. 

Graeber and Wengrow’s second primordial freedom—to disobey orders—seems at odds with the existence of chiefs and councils that pervaded many so-called free societies. The authors insist that there’s no contradiction here, because the hierarchies of, say, the Wendat are “largely theatrical.” Or sometimes, the power wielded by chiefs was all too real, but limited. There’s the odd case of the Shilluk, who live alongside the Nuer; their king could act with impunity, seizing girls for his harem or raiding villages. But this power was limited to his immediate presence, for he lacked the means to delegate authority in other villages. For Graeber and Wengrow, the Shilluk are an example of a society organized around the freedom to disobey orders. But this confuses bureaucratic weakness with freedom. More conventional kingships also had difficulty enforcing order beyond the capital. And even if it is true that the Shilluk were an example of a society consciously organized around primordial freedoms, there’s nothing inherently good about possessing the ability to disobey orders: in our society, corporations are free to disobey a variety of laws with abandon.

Graeber and Wengrow choose to emphasize libertarian freedoms. What about freedom from hunger? Egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies like the Hadza have powerful social norms against hoarding food—and social norms are, of course, rules that one should obey with consequences for their breach. What’s important is not that a society is organized around “freedom,” but which freedoms have priority. The right question to ask therefore is not whether we are free to disobey orders, but whether those orders promote human flourishing. And the best way to ensure that they do is to enable every member of society to participate in decision-making—that is, for everyone to have an equal share of political and economic power. That’s why equality, and not only freedom, has been a central concern of left movements for 200 years.

When they aren’t indulging in speculative reveries, Graeber and Wengrow seem to recognize that a voluntarist rendering of history can be taken “to ridiculous extremes.” They agree, ultimately, with Marx that people make their own history, but not under conditions of their own choosing. Other big histories home in on the second half of Marx’s dictum and ignore the first. And that might be the real value of The Dawn of Everything. Look past the libertarian talk of “freedom” and there’s a deeper point in these pages that goes straight to the beating heart of anyone fighting for a better world. When we view history as a mechanical response to economics, or reduce it to a system of cultural meanings shaped by power, we lose sight of the essentially political nature of the human condition. In a brilliant passage, Graeber and Wengrow write, “Humans were only fully self-conscious when arguing with one another, trying to sway each other’s views, or working out a common problem.” The sunken ruins of an ancient city may be the vestiges of a slave-owning theocracy or a republican polis; we may never know. But what’s certain is that while all societies reflect modes of production, technology, and ecology, they also reflect conscious political activity. Social structures arise, in part, due to human agency—which means domination and exploitation are not inevitable. The book’s most thrilling chapter covers the rise of cities and presents evidence of urban centers that might have existed for hundreds of years without class divisions. To be sure, the evidence is highly conjectural—but so is the opposing claim that they were hierarchical societies. In the Fertile Crescent, historians have even uncovered intriguing hints of popular assemblies in early cities. Texts recovered at Nippur describe a council, presiding over a murder case, comprised of “a bird catcher, one potter, two gardeners, and a soldier in the service of a temple.” Participatory democracy might be older than most of us ever imagined.  

Perhaps that’s why this exasperating, antic tome on prehistory rocketed up the best-seller list. Its relentless assault on the myths of our age offers something for everyone. All popular renderings of prehistory make conjectures, but Graeber and Wengrow do so in the service of hope. “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world,” Graeber wrote in The Utopia of Rules, “is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” Capitalism is, if anything, an assault on that spirit. Faced with climate change and creeping authoritarianism, it’s easy to despair. But The Dawn of Everything is electric and unforgettable because it challenges us to shake off fatalism, to embrace the creativity and imagination at the heart of doing politics. And it reminds us that we humans have been doing this all along. 

Anand Gopal is a writer for the New Yorker and the author of No Good Men Among the Living.

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