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"The Dawn of Everything" Stretches its Evidence, But Makes Bold Arguments about Human Social Life

Excavation site at Çatalhöyük, a proto-urban settlement which dates to approximately 7,000 BCE

Photo Murat Özsoy 1958CC BY-SA 4.0

Review of David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux,  2021.     

The title of The Dawn of Everything announces the book’s grand ambition: to challenge the established narrative of civilization as progress in material comforts and power (for some) and decline (of the others) into greater deprivation and unfreedom. The authors contend that the developments and decisions that led to a world-wide system of mostly hierarchical and authoritarian states need not be considered inevitable, nor the result unavoidable. Through a remarkably wide-ranging synthesis of the last thirty years of work on the Neolithic Age and the transition to agriculture and urban life, Graeber and Wengrow seek to open our political imaginations to recognize other ways of caring for the common good, some of which, they contend, have been realized in the past, and survived for many hundreds of years. They succeed in decoupling urban life from farming, and then cite cases of cities that appear to have been organized along horizontal, egalitarian lines. In doing so, they accomplish part of their goal. However, like other writers of provocative works, in pressing their case to the utmost, Graeber and Wengrow at times strain the evidence, and in castigating the writers of speculative history, they often seem to forget that they are writing speculative history also.

Graeber and Wengrow follow the method of paying attention to groups that have largely been silent or invisible in history because they did not have writing, or did not construct large stone monuments—those who lived in darkness in the interregnum between empires. Providing a more detailed and accurate portrait of such people, not considering them simply as underdeveloped barbarians or savages, can lead to a fuller history of humanity, a history not solely based on a single line of cultural evolution, through which all societies must proceed in a fixed set of stages.

The authors, an anthropologist and an archaeologist, are most successful in contesting the narratives of two developments—the origins of farming and of cities—that have previously been considered to be closely and even necessarily related. In the established and popularly accepted narrative of cultural evolution dominant in the last two and a half centuries, stages of social life succeed each other fairly quickly and decisively. On this view, farming displaced hunting and foraging over perhaps a few generations; moreover, agriculture in its early stages must have included, as appears in the early written record, the use of ploughs and planting, leading to the founding of permanent settlements, the production of surplus food, a greater division of labor, the appearance of craftspeople, priests, and permanent political hierarchies. In addition, hunting and foraging would not have been carried over into the newer social form because they are incompatible with settled life and the requirements of agricultural labor.

By contrast, relying on archaeology of the Neolithic era that has been published in the last three decades, Graeber and Wengrow show that the appearance of farming and of cities have in some cases been separated from each other by centuries or millenia, that many complex, hybrid forms existed, and that sometimes a people chose to remain in such a hybrid state, or even to return to hunting and foraging after having engaged in agriculture for generations or centuries. It is probable that plant cultivation first developed in many places—for example, along the shores of rivers, lakes, and springs. Flood-retreat farming near rivers required no ploughing, little investment of effort and time, and could serve as supplement to other means of subsistence. It was not likely to lead to private property because different pieces of land would be exposed and be productive each year.

In the early Neolithic, farming probably developed in the valleys of the Jordan and Euphrates as a “niche activity”—one of several forms of specialization, supplements to economies based primarily on wild resources. In some locations, the first steps toward cultivation consisted of (mostly women) observing which plants bore fruit at which time of year, and returning to harvest them in season, perhaps eventually establishing gardens next to temporary dwellings. There is evidence for seasonal alternation of forms of social organization: a hierarchical, patriarchal structure under a single leader during the hunting season, and a more egalitarian, perhaps matriarchal, organization in the season for foraging and gardening, which were mostly performed by women. Graeber and Wengrow contend that this pattern of seasonal variations of social structure held at Çatalhöyük in modern Turkey, “the world’s oldest town” (212) for more than a thousand years.

Even though they might have persisted for centuries, many of these hybrid forms could be considered partial or provisional farming. Some groups, like many northern Californian tribes, which were probably acquainted with agriculture from other tribes, apparently deliberately chose not to pursue the practice, while others, like those in England at the time of Stonehenge around 3300 B.C.E., after a period when they engaged in farming, turned away from it.  Almost all these developments are necessarily conjectural, because such small societies made up of hunters, foragers, and gardeners or small-scale farmers did not produce systems of writing.  

The case of Çatalhöyük indicates how the authors’ arguments about the halting growth of farming and the emergence of non-hierarchical cities complement each other. Just as they cite evidence that many societies maintained themselves in hybrid states combining seasonal or small-scale cultivation with hunting, fishing, and foraging, so they contend that early cities produced neither a division of labor, nor classes based on unequal wealth, nor a bureaucracy to organize the distribution of surpluses, nor a centralized political or religious authority. They cite more than a half dozen sites from around the world that challenge the established narrative of a set of institutions originating at nearly the same time in urban civilizations.

They assert that the early cities of Southern Mesopotamia such as Uruk provide no evidence of monarchy. The archealogical remains of Taljanky, the largest of the “mega-sites” in Ukraine dating to 4100-3300 B.C.E, with an estimated population of over 10,000, provide no signs of central administration, government buildings, or monumental architecture, no temples, palaces, or fortifications. However, the site presents evidence of small-scale gardening and the cultivation of orchards, some enclosed livestock, as well as hunting and foraging. According to the archaeological record, this town survived and prospered for more than five hundred years.

Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico provides perhaps the most striking example of urban life without kingship, central religious authority, bureaucracy, or wide inequalities. At its height, it is thought to have housed a population of about 100,000. In its early centuries (100-300 C.E.), Teotihuacan followed the pattern of other Meso-american cities ruled by warrior aristocracies, erecting monumental pyramids and other sacred structures, requiring the work of thousands of laborers and involving the ritual sacrifice of hundreds of warriors, infants, and captives who were buried in the pyramids’ foundations.

Yet the people of Teotihuacan appear to have reversed course around 300 when the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, was sacked and burned, and work on all pyramids came to a halt. Instead of pursuing the construction of palaces and temples, the city embarked on an ambitious program of building stone housing for the entire population. Each dwelling of about 10,000 square feet with plastered floors and painted walls would have housed 60 to 100 people, ten or twelve families, each with its own set of rooms.

The wall paintings of the new order contain scenes of everyday life, but no representations of warfare, captives, overlords, or kings. These colorful paintings appear to celebrate the activities of the entire community, not the greatness of a royal dynasty. Three-building complexes distributed throughout the city might have been used as assembly halls, suggesting that the unit of organization was the neighborhood, with local councils providing for the construction and maintenance of buildings, overseeing the distribution of necessary goods and services, and performing other public functions. This egalitarian, “republican,” de-centralized social organization—which has been called a “utopian experiment in urban life” (332)—survived for about 250 years before the bonds holding the city together seem to have dissolved, and the population dispersed, perhaps because of tensions between neighboring ethnic, linguistic, and occupational groups.

Graeber and Wengrow cite other, more ambiguous sites as evidence of egalitarian early cities. For example, Mohenjo-daro, founded in the Indus valley near the middle of the third millennium B.C.E., attained a peak population of perhaps 40,000. Its Lower Town, laid out in a grid of nearly straight lines, possessed an extensive system of terracotta sewage pipes, private and public toilets, and bathing facilities. Merchants and craftsmen in the Lower Town possessed metals and gems, signs of wealth absent in the Upper Citadel. On the other hand, the Citadel contained the Great Bath, a pool forty feet long by six feet deep that appears to have been the center of civic life. Excavations of the city have uncovered no evidence of monumental architecture, monarchs, warriors, or priests with political authority. However, the remains do give clear evidence of hierarchical organization, containing three of the four groups that later would be classified as castes in the Rig Veda (c. 1250 B.C.E.): ascetic priests in the Upper Citadel, merchants and laborers in the Lower Town (the absent fourth caste would have been composed of warriors). This hierarchy may not have distinguished groups on the basis of political authority, but it does classify on the basis of purity and cleanliness Although we do not know how public affairs were administered, it seems a stretch to consider Mohenjo-daro an instance of an early egalitarian city.

This example points to one of the principal limitations of Graeber and Wengrow’s book. In trying to provide a counterweight to a narrative they believe has paid inordinate attention to centralized, authoritarian regimes, they lean toward interpretations that accept the possibility of large-scale, nonliterate, non-hierarchical societies. Like most polemical writers, however, they tend to exaggerate and to strain the evidence. For example, Graeber and Wengrow want to argue that many despotic regimes have been brought down when oppressed people reclaimed their freedom by just walking away from their oppressors. Their argument is in line with the literal sense of the Sumerian word for “freedom,” ama(r)gi—a “return to mother” (426)—or with the verbal phrase for governmental change in Osage—to “move to another country” (469). But the authors cite only two clear examples of such desertions, both from Mississippian civilizations: Cahokia, centered at present-day East St. Louis, where, from 1150 to the city’s collapse in 1350, much of the commoner population deserted a culture based on aggressive warfare, mass executions for the burials of nobles, and strict surveillance of commoners. A similar exodus occurred several centuries later among the Natchez in the Lower Mississippi. But as they seek to generalize this finding, Graeber and Wengrow erroneously maintain that it was similarly possible to reclaim freedom by simply walking away from large empires such as the Roman, Han, or Incan. It was a notorious and bitter complaint among Romans, for instance, that one could not escape the reach of the Emperor, whose power extended to the ends of the known world.

Graeber and Wengrow similarly overreach in order to produce what they call the “indigenous critique” of European civilization. In 1703, an impoverished Baron Lahontan, who had spent ten years as a soldier and traveller in New France, published his Dialogues with a Savage of Good Sense, which recount the author’s conversations with a Native American he calls Adario, who articulates a devastating critique of French civilization. His targets include monarchy, the chasm between rich and poor, the dishonesty and faithlessness of the French, their lack of charity, the absurdities of Christian beliefs, the celibacy of priests, and many other institutions and practices. Lahontan calls Adario “the Rat,” which was also the (non-pejorative) cognomen of the celebrated Wendat (Huron) orator, statesman, and strategist, Kandiaronk, on whom Adario is clearly based. It is true, as Graeber and Wengrow state, that throughout the eighteenth century, European readers assumed that “Adario” was simply a fictional mouthpiece used by Lahontan to avoid persecution or censorship. Europeans, the authors claim, refused to believe that a “savage” Native American could have formulated a thoughtful political and social analysis of European society.

By contrast, Graeber and Wengrow at the other extreme assert that Adario’s criticisms and arguments are entirely Kandiaronk’s, as though no European could advance a forceful critique of their own civilization (it is likely that Adario’s critique derives from both Kandiaronk and Lahontan, more from the former than the latter). The authors go much further to infer that the criticism in the Dialogues constitutes not just one brilliant native’s considered insights, but a systematic judgment of Europeans by Native American political thought. Thus, their “indigenous critique” plays the role of a fully formulated political philosophy to contrast with the emerging narrative of progress. In fact, the “indigenous critique” may also have been in part a European “autocritique” of Enlightenment (as Mark Hulliung names his study of Rousseau’s thought). Graeber and Wengrow assert repeatedly that the “indigenous critique” influenced and perhaps catalyzed Enlightenment social and political thought and revolutionary practice—for which they believe Kandiaronk deserves credit. At the same time, they deplore  Enlightenment conjectural histories of early human societies as conservative responses intended to counteract the “indigenous critique.” In this way, they at once implicitly celebrate and explicitly disparage Enlightenment political and historical thought.

In fact, The Dawn of Everything stands in a much closer relation to the Enlightenment conjectural histories than its authors acknowledge. They recognize Rousseau’s importance, blaming him throughout for asserting, even while lamenting, the full-blown simultaneous appearance of agriculture and property, as well as the disappearance of innocent but stupid savages. They also refer to Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson, who proposed influential, clearly demarcated three- and four-stage theories of universal social development. But they do not mention alternate conjectural histories by Germans such as J. G. Herder and Georg Forster, who avoided a single, rigid scheme of social evolution, and argued in different ways that each people follows its own path of development at its own speed. Even among the Scots, James Dunbar questioned the category of savagery, contending that a society termed savage might be morally superior to a “civilized” empire. Through their almost exclusive focus on Rousseau, whose thought was unrepresentative in its utter condemnation of agriculture and property, Graeber and Wengrow may do what they accuse the Enlightenment thinkers of doing to indigenous people: they simplify a complex phenomenon in order to produce a derogatory representation of it.

The conjectural histories of the late eighteenth century were attempting to make sense of the fragmentary and often unreliable accounts from the previous two centuries of the world about which Europeans had previously known nothing or close to nothing. They speculated by necessity; they were thinking about periods for which there were no written records and few material remains. Yet they were speculating responsibly, attempting to work out an understanding of nonliterate societies that did not conform to Biblical accounts, mythical narratives, or dynastic histories, but was based on the best, if scanty, evidence they had before them. In that sense, they took a scientific approach.

Graeber and Wengrow also write responsible speculative history concerning societies about which much remains unknown, again in large part because of an absence of written records. Their speculations are based on many sites, material remains, and methods of analysis that were not available in the eighteenth century. Çatalhöyük was only excavated beginning in the late 1950s, and the Ukrainian mega-sites in the 1970s. It makes sense that Graeber and Wengrow have a different story to tell based on different, more plentiful evidence. In providing a provocative synthesis of the last thirty years of specialized archaeological research, however, their speculations are not more scientific than those of their Enlightenment predecessors. 

In fact, despite their straining of the evidence and occasional glib remarks (calling Rousseau, for example, a “not particularly successful eighteenth-century Swiss musician” [494]), they largely succeed in their primary aim of showing that the currently dominant form of bureaucratic, centralized, warlike state is neither inevitable nor inescapable. Most significant, perhaps, is their report that current reseach shows that cities with 100,000 people could be organized on egalitarian lines so that they were not centrally and hierarchically administered by a monarchy, aristocracy, or priesthood. Instead, neighborhood councils based on widespread participation were able to organize peaceful communal life for  hundreds of years at Teotihuacan, the Ukrainian mega-sites, the Hopewell Interactive Zone in Ohio, and Knossos in Crete, where the prominent role played by women appears to have been of signal importance.

In addition, the existence of societies that have been acquainted with or practiced full-scale farming, but turned away from the complete set of agricultural practices, enjoying greater freedom of thought and action for hundreds or even thousands of years—longer than most empires—indicates that human groups can evaluate the undesirable consequences of technological innovations and choose not to adopt all means of cultural or territorial expansion, economic growth, and resource exploitation. Indeed, the survival of our species and of others may depend on our developing sustainable forms of democratic self-government and adopting self-imposed restrictions on unchecked growth. Although such forms of social organization are widely dismissed as utopian, by showing their existence at many places and times in the past, this book demonstrates that they are indeed possible. Recognizing that such possibilities actually took shape in the past may encourage the realization of similar egalitarian societies in the future.