In This Review

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

Just how new can a new history of humanity hope to be? Scholars have long agreed on the overall contours of human social evolution. For most of their existence, humans were few in number, lived in small groups, and spent much of their time foraging and hunting. Once the climate stabilized after the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago, novel ways of feeding and organizing humanity finally became possible, from farming and herding to cities and states. People, domesticated crops, and livestock multiplied and were drawn into an ever-tighter symbiosis. Before long, social hierarchies and structures of control proliferated. Kings, priests, and scribes learned how to lord it over the masses. Such early civilizations laid the foundations for the world today.

The Dawn of Everything, a recent bid to rewrite human history from the late anthropologist David Graeber and the archaeologist David Wengrow, does not dispute the outlines of this story. Instead, the authors sift the grain of the past to offer a tantalizing tale of complexity and hope. Graeber and Wengrow argue that the emergence of hierarchical societies and freedom-quashing states was not inevitable. People have long cherished their freedoms and experimented with a wide variety of social and political arrangements. The book trawls the depths of human history, meandering from Neolithic Ukraine to the Sumerians of Mesopotamia to the Harappan civilization of the Indus River basin to the Olmec, Yurok, and Wyandot peoples of the Americas and on even to the European Enlightenment. The pathways of history, the authors insist, were actually rather tangled, full of twists and forks and detours. The world may now consist of deeply unequal societies and states that can exert once unimaginable degrees of control over their citizens, but it didn’t have to be this way—and maybe it doesn’t have to be this way in the future.

The authors imagine that once properly appreciated, the richness of the human experience and the contingency of historical outcomes will inspire people in the present to reconsider their own options. After the great financial crisis of 2008, the battered masses failed to shake up the late-capitalist order and forge a more righteous path. That came as a disappointment to Graeber, an anticapitalist scholar with anarchist sympathies, known for his spirited critiques of debt and “bullshit jobs.” A seasoned activist, he was involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, which eventually fizzled out after months of grabbing headlines.

But if Graeber couldn’t maintain an occupation of the present, perhaps the past would make a more obliging subject. He set out to show that grassroots democracy—the freedom for people to associate, deliberate, and decide how to lead their lives—had long been common around the world before uncompromising bureaucrats came on the scene to snuff it out. And better still, rediscovering those buried traditions could inspire people today to give it another try, armed with the knowledge that civilization and popular self-determination had once thrived side by side.

Graeber joined forces with Wengrow, a well-known archaeologist of the ancient Middle East, to get the ball rolling. They completed their project only days before Graeber’s untimely death in September 2020, just as it was becoming clear that the revolution had once again been postponed. Central banks, scientific breakthroughs, and Zoom were taming the effects of COVID-19, which hopeful pundits had initially talked up as a possible catalyst for progressive political transformation. What remained, just as it did after the 2008 financial crash, was a lingering craving for change, or at least for an uplifting vision of a better world. Graeber and Wengrow seek to address that desire with a seductive story in which human agency rules supreme. In the process, they sideline powerful material drivers of social change—such as ecology, demographics, and technology—to offer readers a welcome escape from modern anxieties about global warming, immigration, and job-stealing robots. Materialistic explanations of the past might interfere with their goals, since such interpretations might persuade people that they are pinned down by forces and circumstances beyond their control. Self-styled myth busters, Graeber and Wengrow eagerly lay the foundations for a new, more upbeat myth, one of ancient human self-determination ready to break free once again. The result is a dizzying mix of subtle feints, playful conjectures, and strategic silences, far less revolutionary than promised, yet strewn with snares for inexpert and unwary readers.

CITIES WITHOUT KINGS

Conventional narratives of human social evolution tend to skip over the many thousands of years that separated Ice Age hunter-gatherers from the first literate civilizations, such as Egypt in the time of its glamorous pharaohs and mighty pyramids. The authors seek to train attention on this neglected period of human history—a worthy goal. They contend that prehistoric foragers were not simply ancestral versions of the tiny bands that hang on today in remote corners of the planet. Back when everyone hunted and gathered, the world’s prime real estate was theirs for the taking. Feasting on the abundant game, seafood, and wild plants of the early Holocene, they were free to come together in large collectives and also free to disperse. Hunter-gatherers didn’t just drift through the centuries; they left their mark. Seasonal gatherings enabled them to tackle grand projects. Eleven thousand years ago, for instance, foragers quarried and hauled huge stone pillars to erect ceremonial structures at Gobekli Tepe, in present-day Turkey.

This flexibility to shift between different lifestyles and group sizes survived long after people began to cultivate crops in different parts of the globe, anywhere from 12,000 to 5,000 years ago. For millennia, foragers experimented with food production without fully submitting to its harsh strictures, stepping in and out of agriculture in lives of “play farming,” as Graeber and Wengrow somewhat patronizingly put it. Modest human populations and easy access to wild resources allowed these societies to keep viable exit options open until ongoing population growth made abandoning agriculture impossible.

Hunter-gatherers didn’t just drift through the centuries; they left their mark.

Graeber and Wengrow conclude that the simplistic models of social evolution that draw a straight line from forager bands to tribes and chiefdoms to ever-larger states are too crude to be of much value. With impressive élan, they delve into “what happens if we accord significance to the 5,000 years in which cereal domestication did not lead to the emergence of pampered aristocracies, standing armies, or debt peonage, rather than just the 5,000 years in which it did.” For instance, the rise of cities didn’t necessarily augur the emergence of rigid hierarchies and institutions of social control. In around 7,000 BC, thousands of people lived in densely packed housing in one of the earliest known large communities, Catalhuyuk (also in present-day Turkey). Curiously, scholars have not found any evidence of ruling elites at the site or of the practice of agriculture.

Later urban centers that relied on cultivated crops did not automatically come with the conventional package of kings, priests, and bureaucrats. Some did just fine without monarchs, most notably the enigmatic Indus Valley civilization, which stretched over much of modern-day Pakistan and northwestern India in the second millennium BC, and Teotihuacán, a grand metropolis of a whopping 100,000 residents in central Mexico that flourished during the first five centuries AD. In both cases, archaeologists have found little evidence of kingship or social stratification, and commoners seemed to enjoy high-quality housing. Autocracy may have spread far and wide, but it was never universal. Forms of representative governance persisted in many parts of the world.

In 1519, Hernán Cortés’s conquistadors chanced on Tlaxcala, in central Mexico, a republic run by a council that convened popular assemblies to deliberate about public affairs. Graeber and Wengrow rightly insist that the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus deserve the attention of historians; the pre-Columbian New World should not be consigned to anthropologists and archaeologists alone.

More broadly, the authors are at their best when they question the scholarly and popular fixation with monumental splendor and powerful states. Even if the art produced by the Mayas in the “post-classic” era, after AD 900, was less sophisticated than that of the “classic” period, which stretched from the third to the ninth century, would anyone, they ask, prefer to live under a ruler of the classic era, “who, for all his patronage of fine arts, counted tearing the hearts out of living human bodies among his most significant accomplishments?” Everybody needs a periodic reminder that the societies whose works yielded the fanciest museum exhibits and the most spectacular tourist sites were not always the most appealing.

MAKING A RULE OUT OF EXCEPTIONS

The range of the authors’ curiosity makes the book very much worth reading. But quicksand lurks underneath. Graeber and Wengrow are unhappy about the course of history: “There is no doubt that something has gone terribly wrong with the world,” they write. Fully aware of how historical outcomes converged over time toward growing state power and social inequality, they nevertheless prefer to dwell on cherry-picked cases that, it seems, bucked the trend. They don’t resolve the resulting tension between individual examples and the overall direction of human development, granting the exceptions far more significance than the rule.

That habit, in turn, makes it needlessly difficult to explain historical transitions. They warn against assuming that advanced forager societies were always poised to embrace agriculture. That may be—but if none of them had ever crossed that threshold, there would never have been any farmers at all. Making light of the connection between an early adoption of farming and the subsequent emergence of large-scale societies and states, they fail to note that the latter invariably appeared in areas blessed with the most useful food crops, including the Middle East, northern China, Mexico, and Peru. The spread of nutritious crops that grew on a predictable schedule and could be taxed and stored by landlords and rulers facilitated state formation and strengthened hierarchies. Even though this nexus could not be any clearer, Graeber and Wengrow dismiss it as “so broad as to have very little explanatory power.”

The few cases of early cities without documented autocracies that Graeber and Wengrow find are so poorly known that they can hardly be said to add up to a “surprisingly common pattern” of communities scaling up without elite control. But in the absence of systematic and reliable evidence, anything goes. Six thousand years ago, early grain farmers set up large oblong settlements in western Ukraine. Scholars have no idea what belief systems motivated these farmers. No matter: in some present-day Basque communities, people picture their social relations in circular terms, as a loop of connections among equals. Suddenly, Graeber and Wengrow draft those faraway Basque villagers in their effort to reconstruct the mentalities of the ancient site builders and even cite them as “proof” that “highly egalitarian organization” was possible back in the Neolithic age.

Pyramids in Teotihuacán, Mexico, February 2021
Pyramids in Teotihuacán, Mexico, February 2021
Toya Sarno Jordan / Reuters

For reasons they never quite explain, Graeber and Wengrow spend a large chunk of their book inveighing against the concept of the state, which they are determined to banish from ancient history. For them, statehood implies sweeping ambitions and capabilities that are commonly associated with modern states, such as a claim to a monopoly on violence. Apparently, if early kingdoms did not measure up to modern nation-states, they should not count as states at all. Yet that is a nonissue entirely of the authors’ own making, caused by their insistence on an anachronistically maximalist definition of the state that is not normally applied to premodern societies. Several generations of scholarship on how to establish the key attributes of early states fall by the wayside.

With equal confidence, the authors declare that “seeking the origins of the state is little more than chasing a phantasm.” Never mind that they themselves are doing exactly that: they channel the ghost of the German sociologist Max Weber when they explore the interplay of three different sources of social power (control over violence, control over information, and charismatic politics) in the emergence of stronger political systems. Yet they leave readers in the dark about the factors behind the gradual but inexorable growth of hierarchy, which include easily taxable crops, the struggle over resources fueled by population growth, and, in some cases, mounted warfare. Except for a belated and somewhat grudging acknowledgment of the anthropologist James Scott’s 2017 book, Against the Grain, relevant scholarship is ignored rather than rejected, as if it did not exist.

Graeber and Wengrow claim that this snubbing of alternative viewpoints is necessary to avoid overburdening their readers. True, big global history is not for pedants and must be selective to remain accessible. But that does not mean that entire schools of thought can simply be swept under the rug. The authors always find the time to beat up straw men, whether it is unnamed “social scientists” who are never right or popularizers such as Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, and Yuval Harari, who are miscast as representatives of mainstream historical thinking. They boast impishly of taking “the toys back from the children” when dispatching their rivals, a claim that speaks for itself.

Yet no amount of rhetorical posturing can conceal the fatal weakness of their approach. Even as Graeber and Wengrow keep asking how the human species became “stuck” in a hierarchical way of life, they don’t seem to realize that their aggressive antimaterialism makes it much harder for them to answer their own question. After all, if the innate human desire to live in free and more equal arrangements was such a strong historical force, why had “lords and kings and would-be world emperors . . . popped up almost everywhere” long before the age of European colonization?

A GOOD YARN

Stymied by this inconvenient conundrum, Graeber and Wengrow beat a tactical retreat to a much narrower question: Did history necessarily have to turn out the way it did? For the most part, they don’t put up much of a fight, obliquely conceding that the Old World was probably doomed to hierarchies and thuggish autocrats with the advent of grain cultivation and the appearance of early states. In the Americas, too, the Aztecs and the Incas established grimly oppressive and violent empires.

In the authors’ telling, northern America (present-day Canada and the United States) held out the only real alternative. Cereal farming made just limited inroads and became even less popular after the demise of Cahokia, a massive settlement established in the eleventh century outside present-day St. Louis. The center of a precocious grain-based state run by a powerful elite that kept its people on a tight leash and orchestrated intimidating atrocities, Cahokia crashed spectacularly in the fourteenth century.

If people want to change the world, they have to build on what it has become, not on what it might once have been.

Graeber and Wengrow spin a good yarn from this. They imagine that in a deliberate “backlash” against the Cahokian model, some indigenous societies not only turned away from farming and state building but also developed powerful concepts of freedom and equality, which, transmitted by Iroquois interlocutors to European colonizers, inspired Enlightenment discourses on those themes.

Historians of ideas will have their say about this web of conjectures. In any event, it does not actually support the notion that northern America somehow broke the familiar mold of social evolution. The region’s low population densities had always made it relatively easy for societies to abandon farming and turn to foraging and hunting. Those populations shrank even further as Old World diseases and settlers wreaked havoc from the sixteenth century on. In other parts of the world, thousands of years had passed between the onset of crop domestication and the emergence of states. From that perspective, precolonial North America, where farming had begun rather late and maize had been an even later import, was not obviously lagging behind. That part of the world was unpromising terrain for conventional forms of state formation, and so the failure of such processes is not particularly remarkable. And before long, European conquest snuffed out whatever the next chapter of the story might have been. All in all, there simply isn’t any reason to assume that the collapse of Cahokia had somehow opened up an alternative path for human development—unless readers follow Graeber and Wengrow in elevating ideas and free choice as the principal drivers of historical change and discarding everything else as background noise.

If their approach fails to yield convincing explanations of history, does it at least serve their second goal, to inspire activism today? Can their reimagining of the dawn of today’s flawed societies help foster new, better ones? Graeber and Wengrow think so, but for no good reason.

The further foragers, gardeners, and herders have receded into the past, the less relevant their experiences have become. People today have little to learn from ancestors who, roaming a lost world of wide open spaces and abundant wildlife, were able to dodge bullies and walk away from drudgery whenever they chose. Those ancestors did not inhabit a planet of eight billion people bound together by unprecedented interdependencies, a world that needs to keep running just to stay in place. Today, people shouldn’t have to fall back on ancient “play farmers” and kingless cities to envision a better future: if they want to change the world, they have to build on what it has become, not on what it might once have been.

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  • WALTER SCHEIDEL is Dickason Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Classics and History at Stanford University.
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