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A Bigger Picture Gives Our Ancestors Their Full Humanity
“The Dawn of Everything” confronts deep assumptions about how human society developed from its humble origins.
In 1611, Father Pierre Biard, a French missionary assigned to colonial Canada, wrote home to complain about the locals. Apparently, the Indigenous Mi’kmaq didn’t think much of what they’d seen of European civilization:
“They consider themselves better than the French … they say, ‘you are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other … you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbour.’ They are saying these and like things continually.”
Readers brought up on a certain kind of history may find this account somewhat surprising. To say the least, it is uncommon to read of Native Americans as social theorists probing into European settlers’ psyches. The Dawn of Everything, the new book from which this passage comes, offers many such charged moments. In it, archeologist David Wengrow and the late David Graeber, an anthropologist, public thinker, and activist, confront deep assumptions about how human society developed from its humble origins. By turning the conventional history inside out, the book also manages to pose startling questions.
The Dawn of Everything joins other popular history books which garnered global attention with sweeping versions of the whole human story, including Jared Diamond’s Collapse (2005), Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (2011), and Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (2018). In The Dawn of Everything, each of these big-picture accounts of human history comes in for ample critique. The issue, according to Graeber and Wengrow, is that they rely on and reinforce a flawed framing. Once upon a time, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, then private property, the rise of cities, and “the emergence of civilization.” In this meta-narrative of deep human time, societies require ever-more complex hierarchy, abstract administration, and state institutions as they scale, shedding primitive freedoms and fairness along the way. In the authors’ view, this narrow myth of progress functions in pernicious ways, mostly cropping up “when reflecting on why the world seems to be in such a mess.”
The Dawn of Everything aims to produce new answers to those perennial lamentations. To do so, the authors strive toward a new synthesis of evidence emerging across archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines. They steer clear of traps that have ensnared similar endeavors, like the quest for the origins of inequality that either presupposes a “fall from primordial innocence” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jared Diamond), or holds that life pre-civilization was “nasty, brutish, and short” (Thomas Hobbes and Steven Pinker). Rejecting what they describe as essentially a theological debate, Graeber and Wengrow set out to tell a new story of social development, one capable of undoing the myth of the savage and restoring our ancestors to their full humanity.
Upon contact with Europeans, Native American groups like the Iroquois and Wendat had well-established democratic institutions, and individuals’ material needs were generally guaranteed among their communities. In the face of such radically different social arrangements, apologists for European systems rationalized their own structures by belittling Native Americans’ accomplishments as “savagery.” Whether based on production modes (such as hunting-gathering, farming, or complex urban specialization) or governmental arrangement (tribes, chiefdoms, and states), the resulting narrow models of social development remain more or less baked into history textbooks, right down to the present day.
The Western Enlightenment view of social progress is not only chauvinistic but, as these two social scientists contend, is increasingly untenable in the face of mounting scholarly evidence. By ditching the “myth of progress,” Graeber and Wengrow are free to examine prehistorical and precolonial societies with fresh eyes. From the earliest bands of hunter-gatherers, to the rise of cities, up to major moments of first contact, the book brings together previously siloed academic evidence and little-publicized interpretations. Marijuana, we learn, was widely cultivated in prehistoric Japan. Centuries before Montezuma, Mesoamerican city-dwellers developed a precursor to urban social housing. Each mini-revelation is fascinating in its own right; together, they pose a serious challenge to both the Hobbesian and Rousseau-ite interpretations of the human past.
The conceptual shift away from linear models of social evolution also bears profound implications for our present. The old framework offered too neat an origin story, distorting our understanding of the past. Too often, it merely served to make our current, rather dismal societal outlook—marked by state surveillance, extractive capitalism, dominating hierarchies, and ecological destruction—seem all but inevitable. An epistemological break with that meta-narrative offers a startlingly new picture of our shared past: messier and more complicated, flush with diversity, experimentation, and, above all, freedom.
The book’s emphatic insistence on a broader, deeper understanding of freedom than is typical recalls past works by Graeber, many of which inspired activists, anarchists, and slackers the world over. The “three primordial freedoms” he and Wengrow arrive at—the freedom to move away, to disobey, and to transform social relationships—encompass and fortify the dissenting positions expounded in Graeber’s books Bullshit Jobs and Debt: The First 5,000 Years. As much as any one work can, The Dawn of Everything reads as a culmination of Graeber’s lifelong project, as well as a testament to the power of intellectual collaboration.
Developing a renewed conception of fundamental social freedoms also brings the Indigenous critique full circle, with the Eastern Woodlands confederacies of North America as their exemplars. Crucially for Graeber and Wengrow, there was among these groups no obvious way to convert wealth into the kind of power over others that coerces or forces labor. Leaders were elected, but office holders “couldn’t compel anyone to do anything they didn’t wish to do.” We learn how, through generous social welfare provisions and consensus-seeking deliberations, groups like the Iroquois and Wendat self-consciously cultivated communal practices and institutions that vouchsafed human dignity without undue sacrifice of agency. Native American societies are once more cast as noble, but not as the pure, Edenic “savages” of Enlightenment imaginary.
The rabble-rousing authors clearly side with those Mi’kmaq critics who jibed that they were richer than their French counterparts—not in material possessions or extractive technologies, but in “other, greater assets: ease, comfort and time.”
The point, as with the whole book, is not only to reevaluate our sense of the past. Readers are invited to weigh starkly unfamiliar societal arrangements against our own, and to feel the sting. “Something has been lost,” Graeber and Wengrow stubbornly insist. The Dawn of Everything begins a new origin story of human societies, one with a horizon beyond our present disillusionment.