“The dawn of everything” rewrites the history of human civilization


A new book aims to rewrite the standard version of early human history that inequality was the inevitable result of the rise of agriculture and urban civilization.

Why is this important: If some of our early ancestors were able to cultivate and build cities without adopting a highly layered social organization, then it is possible that we too could chart a fairer and more egalitarian future.

The big picture: The standard story of humanity’s transition from hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers is simple.

  • Agriculture – unlike hunting and gathering – created surplus value that could support larger populations and larger settlements, but it led to the rise of rent-seeking elites and social stratification. which now seems to be an inevitable fact of human life.
  • Civilization seemed to come as a whole,” wrote “Dawn of Everything” authors David Wengrow and David Graeber in a recent essay. “It meant misery and suffering for those who would inevitably be reduced to serfs, slaves or debtors, but it also allowed the possibility of art, technology and science.”
  • But in their new book, Wengrow and Graeber explore recent discoveries in archeology to claim that some of our early ancestors were much more experimental and skeptical of urbanization and centralization than we thought, and much less. willing to give up their freedom for the benefit of civilization.

Between the lines: The city of Çatalhöyük in present-day Turkey was colonized around 7,400 BC.

  • The city of Teotihuacan in present-day Mexico was founded in 100 BC and initially featured the kind of grand palaces and temples that indicate social hierarchy. But the authors argue that its citizens have deliberately turned away from central control, channeling their resources to provide high-quality, egalitarian housing for nearly all of the population.
  • Even as some of the earliest known cities of Mesopotamia developed along what were assumed to be standard lines, with kings, priests, and social classes, the colonies of present-day Ukraine and Moldova were organizing without centralization – evidence that Wengrow and Marshal Graeber support other avenues of human development are actively explored.
  • If something has gone terribly wrong in human history – and given the current state of the world, it’s hard to deny that something has happened – then maybe it has started to go wrong. precisely when people began to lose this freedom to imagine and adopt other forms of social existence, “write Wengrow and Graeber.

The context: Although “Dawn” traces thousands of years of human history, it is a work very concerned with politics today and its authors.

  • Graeber – who died suddenly last year at the age of 59, just after the end of “Dawn” – was a committed anarchist and a leading intellectual figure of the Occupy movement that began 10 years ago this fall.
  • Anarchism maintains that human beings can organize without the heavy hand of the state, and in “Dawn,” Graeber and Wengrow essentially argue that humans are natural anarchists, but for the last few thousand years “ have been trapped in conceptual chains so tight that we can’t even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves. “
  • It is possible to consider the growth of technologies like blockchain and decentralized autonomous organizations as evidence that Homo sapiens we can still invent new ways of organizing ourselves, 300,000 years after the emergence of our species.

The other side: “Dawn” has been widely praised by academics and critics, but its findings are far from bulletproof.

  • The fact that much of human prehistory remains unknown to us means that Wengrow and Graeber take broad and questionable readings from relatively thin physical evidence, and it is often difficult to know how much they say is a fact and how much is a wish.
  • Historian Daniel Immerwahr writes that Graeber was “more famous for being interesting than fair,” and he notes an inescapable fact: “if states aren’t inevitable, why are they everywhere?
  • Philosopher John Gray cites the general failure of the Occupy movement, and finds little evidence that a truly anarchist social organization can thrive in a world as crowded and complex as ours. Far from becoming more decentralized, Gray writes, “history is moving in the opposite direction” as states reassert their authority amid pandemic and climate change.

The bottom line: It’s hard to argue with Wengrow and Graeber’s argument that humanity has “stuck” in some ways, but the very possibility that our ancestors imagined radically different lifestyles offers hope, however weak, that we can get by.