OF ALL THE social sciences, archaeology is the most like detective work. However advanced our technologies for investigating the past become, the core of archaeological analysis remains abductive reasoning, inferring a story from the available evidence. It’s often impossible to know with much precision what people were up to in the past, but the safe bet is that they were doing all sorts of things. The stories we tell about those things, fragmentary and conjectural as they must be, inevitably tend to be ideological self-portraits. In interviews, David Wengrow, co-author of The Dawn of Everything (along with the recently deceased David Graeber), has rightly pushed back against the reflexive dismissal of this or that book as a product merely of its ideology — as if any book, especially one about the grand narrative of human history, could be ideologically neutral. Inevitably, since Graeber was very publicly an anarchist, Dawn itself will be read through that lens. Far from compromising the book’s arguments, however, this potentially offers a welcome corrective to a field that has been dominated by a certain kind of teleological, and fundamentally conservative, story about human history.
As Wengrow outlines in his very moving introduction, the project grew out of a conversation between the two authors on the origins of inequality. Why do some people have more wealth, and more power, than others? Was this always the case, or did it have some definite beginning? What became clear very quickly, he says, is that inequality is simply too nebulous a concept to carry this sort of investigation. The real problem is how inequality can be translated into differential political power. Really, Graeber and Wengrow claim, the crucial question is how we “got stuck” with this particular political system. The usual story about how this happened is what might be called the “standard narrative” or “teleological model” (there is really no single standard narrative, but let’s concede the point), in which increasing population size (a possibility allowed, the story goes, by the invention of agriculture) gives birth to increasingly complex forms of hierarchy. There’s a trade-off, in this story, between freedom and prosperity, and a one-way movement from “simple” to “complex” societies. Aside from questions about its historical accuracy, this story also serves as a kind of Eurocentric fairy tale, justifying the alleged inevitability of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. This narrative crystallized quite a while ago, while archaeological discoveries proceed apace. The story bears some updating.
The book’s core premise is to take seriously the idea that people from outside the intellectual traditions of the contemporary West — up to and including prehistory — have been competent critical thinkers. This follows from what the archaeological record actually depicts. Far from a history of small, isolated “scattered bands” (an unfortunate consequence of the tendency to use contemporary hunter-gatherers as “models” for what preagricultural societies must have been like), we now know that prehistoric societies were in fact engaged in all sorts of long-distance exchanges, only some of which corresponded to contemporary notions of “trade.” People often traveled great distances, and societies with entirely different political morphologies — kingdoms, cities, acephalous farming communities, hunters and forgers, fishers and raiders — would not only have been aware of one another, but would also have formed opinions about what they were seeing. Some societies switched political morphologies or modes of production annually, repeatedly erasing and recreating hierarchies. Materials and technological expertise were exchanged between societies, but so were ideas, and these societies often dynamically, even self-consciously, evolved in response to each other. These were not just small-scale societies constrained by the cognitive demands of large-scale sociality; they were often embedded in larger “imagined communities” spanning considerable distances and incorporating far larger populations than previously thought.
In place of the dazzling political mosaic of early humanity, what we have today is something like a global political monoculture, or, if you prefer, a “monopolitics,” bogged down with such massive structural inertia that radical change is not just very difficult, but literally almost unimaginable. When we do imagine radical change, it is usually dystopian, and often, at least implicitly, predicated on ecological catastrophe. Seen from this vantage point, the change is striking, and the question of how we “got stuck” is indeed the crucial one. Graeber and Wengrow do not exactly articulate a new narrative to replace the existing one, in part because no such tidy narrative is possible: “There was,” they stress, “no truly ‘original’ state of affairs […] Human beings had many tens of thousands of years to experiment with different ways of life.” There is less coherence and directionality to the human story than was once assumed. Accordingly, the book is best not read as a systematic theory of everything, but rather as a series of thought-provoking reinterpretations of key events in human history. This mosaic is a lot more interesting and, frankly, a lot more intuitively plausible than structuralist pieties about the historical inevitability of this or that sociopolitical outcome.
Take, for instance, the book’s reworking of the history of agriculture. Rather than a single technology or cultural practice (another idea that seems ridiculous once you think about it closely), agriculture actually represents a vast set of partially overlapping practices, strategies, and bodies of knowledge pertaining to an enormous range of species and processes. There is, moreover, no reason to think that ancient humans would have thought of the various things we now collectively call “agriculture” as in any sense unified. Instead of a single “agricultural revolution,” different societies seem to have moved in and out of agricultural production repeatedly, with the various skills involved diffusing piecewise across a vast region, giving the impression of simultaneity. Over time, a number of small local innovations “were exchanged between villages, producing a degree of uniformity among a coalition of societies across the Middle East. A standard ‘package’ of mixed farming emerged, from the Iranian Zagros to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.”
“[I]t no longer makes sense to ask,” the authors continue, “‘what were the social implications of the transition to farming?’ — as if there was necessarily just one transition, and one set of implications.” In place of the “agricultural revolution,” they outline a much longer, and much less linear, story. Agricultural societies were predated “by sedentary villages and towns, some by then already ancient, as well as monumental sanctuaries and stockpiled wealth, much of it the work of ritual specialists, highly skilled artisans and architects.” Something similar can be said about the emergence of the state. Rather than a coherent whole that gradually became more distinct and more hegemonic, what we actually see in the archaeological record is the separate emergence, for entirely distinct purposes, of the various characteristics we now collectively attribute to statehood. This recurring theme, the piecewise assembling of modernity, suggests a great deal more fluidity in the categories under scrutiny. Dividing the world into “state” and “non-state,” “agricultural” and “preagricultural,” severely limits not only what we can see, but also what we can describe.
At the heart of the book is the notion of “Indigenous critique.” This is where the book is at its most radical, and most revolutionary. The first European colonists in the Americas did not regard Indigenous North Americans as in any sense primitive; they were far more likely to view them as the remnants of fallen empires, or lost exiles from Europe. Encountering a variety of often strikingly nonhierarchical societies, or chiefs who lacked any kind of coercive power, Europeans were often mystified and frustrated, lacking even the vocabulary to describe what they were looking at.
That frustration went both ways. Indigenous North Americans, as the book compellingly demonstrates, had their own ideas about politics, and over time articulated a critique of European institutions that was coherent, consistent, and comprehensive. It was also profoundly threatening to Europeans. Some of the first ideas about a structuralist progression of human political evolution, in which societies moved through predictable phases, were articulated in response to the Indigenous critique, which was transmitted back to Europe via the writings of the colonists, and in some cases by Indigenous individuals who visited Europe (the book has little to say about the medieval Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun, who outlined similar ideas quite a bit earlier). The “Columbian Exchange” refers to the massive transfer of animals, plants, technologies, and humans back and forth across the Atlantic in the wake of European colonization. What emerges here is a Columbian Exchange of ideas, in which the Indigenous critique — focusing on freedom, equality, and rational debate — and various European responses to it may, the authors suggest, have even laid some of the intellectual groundwork for the Enlightenment.
This is a bold claim, and the case they make for it is intriguing. Nevertheless, Graeber and Wengrow sometimes excitedly race ahead of the evidence to reach ideologically convenient conclusions (although they are probably less guilty of this than some of their competitors), and in any case the standard of evidence required by the authors is noticeably lower for conclusions they find advantageous. Probably the most instructive example is in the book’s handling of Kandiaronk (elsewhere Kondiaronk), a 17th-century Wendat (Huron) diplomat and strategist. Contemporary (colonial) sources unanimously portray Kandiaronk as a uniquely gifted orator and political mastermind, and certain episodes of his career are well attested in the literature. He also, it seems, had fairly damning views on French society and confounded French colonists with his debating skills. But, since Kandiaronk did not leave any written material of his own, we are left to conjecture about his actual critique of colonial institutions almost exclusively through what the French remembered and recorded.
The bulk of what Graeber and Wengrow draw upon is a book written by the vaguely aristocratic French soldier Lahontan, in which the author, drawing on his own extensive experiences in colonial Quebec, engages in a series of dialogues with a Wendat man named Adario — a lightly fictionalized Kandiaronk. Lahontan wrote his memoirs from exile in Amsterdam, more than a decade after he left North America. At the time, he was desperately poor and eager to return to his native France. By Graeber and Wengrow’s own admission, Lahontan “no doubt augmented and embellished” his own extensive notes, but, due to Lahontan’s familiarity with Kandiaronk, and the fact that the gist of Adario’s critique is corroborated elsewhere, there is “every reason to believe the basic arguments were Kandiaronk’s own.”
On one hand, it is entirely likely that Lahontan’s Adario is a fairly accurate representation of Kandiaronk and his critique, or at least accurate enough to be analytically useful. There is little doubt that Lahontan knew Kandiaronk, and he was probably quite familiar with his views and rhetorical style, but Graeber and Wengrow go a step further. In several instances, they attribute block quotes in the text directly to Kandiaronk, when the endnotes make clear that these are in fact excerpted from Lahontan’s memoirs. The notion of “Indigenous critique,” though, is a powerful one, even if it’s worth keeping in mind that most of what Graeber and Wengrow are drawing on are colonial representations of that critique; the broad strokes are fairly consistent, and it is safe to say that the original North Americans not only had distinct political, philosophical, and rhetorical traditions of their own, but were also frequently baffled and appalled by the political structures and ideological baggage of their visitors.
For all its radicalism, The Dawn of Everything still basically presents a Garden of Eden story, albeit a political garden. In the past, Graeber and Wengrow’s narrative goes, we organized ourselves in all sorts of ways, with virtually no limits on the freedom to carry out experiments in political configuration. Now we exist in exile from that freedom, under a global political system in which deviations from the norm can only ever be marginal or temporary. Previously, the limits of our imagination were also more or less the limits of our politics; now, although we can still imagine all sorts of alternative scenarios, it’s harder to see how we might carry out some of the experiments Graeber in particular has in mind without significant pushback. The result is a book that is both thrilling and bleak. If the past was so much more interesting, and so much more fruitful, than we previously thought, then the reality of what we’ve lost becomes much starker and much less palatable to fully digest. There might be all sorts of interesting and just and pleasant ways to organize society, and they might work, if we could only create them:
In some ways, such a perspective might seem even more tragic than our standard narrative of civilization as the inevitable fall from grace. It means we could have been living under radically different conceptions of what human society is actually about. It means that mass enslavement, genocide, prison camps, even patriarchy or regimes of wage labour never had to happen. But on the other hand it also suggests that, even now, the possibilities for human intervention are far greater than we’re inclined to think.
Does the massive variability of humanity’s political past really suggest that the “possibilities for human intervention” are still limitless? The closest the book gets to actually explaining how we “got stuck” is to break “freedom” down into three components: the freedom to leave, the freedom to disobey, and the freedom to reimagine society. Once the freedom to leave is undermined, disobedience becomes much harder, and once the freedom to disobey is lost, there are no longer any straightforward ways to restructure society beyond the bland exercise of power. The point is not that any particular human society was ever utopian; the point is that we may have lost the chance to find out what sorts of things we can build. If we are currently saddled with a bleakly unimaginative political moment, it is at least in part because our current political context does not seem rife with possibilities — certainly not in the way that a prehistoric social assemblage might have been. Our visions of possible future societies are constrained by the monopolitics of the present, and, more importantly, we are physically and materially constrained by the loss of the freedoms to move and to disobey.
That the book never really gets around to addressing its supposedly central question is potentially suggestive. For instance, when considering the emergence and disappearance of hierarchical forms of organization in precolonial North America, the authors present counterexamples to the idea that states, once established, are inevitable. If hierarchies could arise and recede, if their emergence did not in fact imply their perpetual hegemony (as the archaeological record in North America appears to suggest), then the teleological model suffers yet another blow. The problem with this, obviously, is that today North America is very much integrated into the global system of states. That this happened via colonial conquest rather than through the endogenous emergence of a state does not present such a radical revision to the established narrative. Arguing that all sorts of things were once possible does not answer the question of whether the current political model’s expansion was inevitable once it had coalesced. Perhaps we got stuck with a particular form of politics because this is, quite simply, the form of politics that tends to win wars in the long run — or at least the form of politics that happened to win the wars that Europe ended up waging.
Nevertheless, The Dawn of Everything is a thoroughly mesmerizing book. Its new story about human history is provocative, if not necessarily comprehensive. The book’s great value is that it provides a much better point of departure for future explorations of what was actually happening in the past. There are almost unlimited possibilities here to build upon, and a much more fruitful critical perspective from which to think about human history. Yet the narrative presented by Graeber and Wengrow is really not all that different from the overall directionality of the teleological model. Human societies varied a lot. Now they don’t vary as much, but the technology they employ is wildly more complex. People live longer, but they aren’t necessarily healthier or happier during their long lives. The overall average levels of violence may have decreased (although the massive variability in early human societies suggests that “average levels” is not a particularly useful way to think about violence, or really anything else in the archaeological record), but the violence that does happen is more spectacularly destructive. Most importantly: We can now fail on a global scale, and we seem to be in the process of failing.
If there are any lessons to be drawn from the past, it is that almost any cultural software can be run on human hardware. As Graeber and Wengrow compellingly demonstrate, this suggests a tantalizing range of possibilities for organizing the political world. Their stunning anthropological insights, though, are paired with less certain programmatic implications. Imagination is clearly a crucial component of political change, but we cannot simply imagine our way out of the monopolitics. And if there is nothing about “human nature” that makes a decent world impossible, then the depressing and dangerous corollary is also true. A world that slowly and inexorably gets worse is exactly the sort of thing to which humans can accustom themselves.
Matthew Porges is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS), University of Oxford. His writing has appeared in the London Review of Books, Los Angeles Review of Books, Jadaliyya, and elsewhere.