Perhaps once in a generation, a new contribution is made to our understanding of who we are and how we relate to our fellow human beings that brings about what the American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift. I believe David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything will soon be recognized as such a contribution.
Speculation on how human political institutions arose became prominent in 1651 with the publication of Leviathan: or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth, Eclesiasticall and Civil. by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who proclaimed life in the original state of nature to have been “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” and that the rise of the institutions of government, with all of their injustice, inequality, and oppression, constituted progress toward a better life.
The foil to Hobbes was the Enlightenment thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Discourse on Inequality first appeared in French in 1754. Rousseau did not espouse the so-called “myth of the noble savage”, which others attributed to him later. Rather he considered the simplicity and blissful condition of primitive peoples to reflect their primordial innocence. Graeber and Wengrow refer to that idea as “the myth of the stupid savage” (p. 73), and they contrast it with the work of 20th Century French anthropologist Pierre Clastres, whose Society Against the State depicted lowland South American indigenous leaders as astute and calculating politicians who maneuvered in a social environment where they could never exercise any real political power (p. 111).
In the 19th Century, the upstate New York lawyer Lewis Henry Morgan, who had been a defender of the rights of the Iroquois tribes, published Ancient Society in 1881 with an evolutionist perspective that traced the development of human societies through the stages from savagery through barbarism to civilization. From the Marxist perspective, Friedrich Engels, whose thinking was stimulated by Morgan’s, provided his analysis in The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, which first appeared in 1884.
Variations on this theme became commonplace within the evolutionist current in American anthropology culminating in the classic Theory of Culture Change by Julian H. Steward in 1955; Evolution and Culture, edited by Marshall Sahlins and Elman R. Service in 1960; Service’s Primitive Social Organization, in 1962; and Morton H. Fried’s The Evolution of Political Society, in 1967. There are other more recent approaches, but these set the evolutionist stage in the mid 20th Century and more recent political evolutionary theory has not led to significant rethinking of the concepts that were current in the days when I was a graduate student. They oriented my generation and subsequent ones on the proposed transition of human societies from patrilineal hunter-gather bands, through horticultural tribes with kinship-based social organization, ranked-society chiefdoms to contemporary state-structured civilizations.
Now we have a well-documented and provocative challenge to all of these theorists in The Dawn of Everything, released last year. It backs up its innovative arguments with 84 pages of detailed end notes and 63 pages of bibliographical references, including many that take positions that are opposed to theirs. The authors David Graeber and David Wengrow worked for a decade to produce this great work, which was completed just three weeks before Graeber’s death on September 2, 2020, of a pancreatic disorder, while he was on vacation with his wife in Venice; he was 59.
Graeber, an American cultural anthropologist, was trained at the University of Michigan by Sahlins, who later collaborated with him in On Kings, a study of monarchies published in 2015. He was teaching anthropology at the London School of Economics. A lifelong activist with anarchist leanings, he was prominent in the Occupy Wall Street movement in his native New York, where he was credited with coining the slogan “We are the 99 per cent”. Wengrow is a prominent, critical British archaeologist, specializing in Middle Eastern and African civilizations. He teaches at University College, London.
Graeber and Wengrow carefully document the fallacy of the evolutionists’ arguments in early and classical civilizations on all of the earth’s continents and through more than 30,000 years. They trace the enormous variety in all forms of social organization around the world and throughout history, including authoritarian governments and resistance to them.
One of the points they highlight in an early chapter is the influence on the Enlightenment thinkers like Charles Louis de Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau of the strong critique of class-structured and money-focused European society expressed by wise indigenous leaders in French Canada, who lived in hunter-gatherer bands and were engaged in the fur trade. Their perspectives were recorded by Jesuit missionaries and by the French Governor of that time and were widely discussed in early 18th Century France. Some of these indigenous critics traveled to Paris, where they were major news.
For example, when the French Governor, Lahontan, explained to him the need to punish the wicked and reward the good to prevent murder, robbery, and defamation spreading everywhere, leading to their becoming the most miserable people on the face of the earth, the Wendat sage, Kandiaronk, replied:
For my part, I find it hard to see how you could be much more miserable than you already are. What kind of human, what species of creature, must Europeans be, that they have to be forced to do good and only refrain from evil because of fear of punishment? . . .
You have observed that we lack judges. What is the reason for that? Well, we never bring lawsuits against one another. And why do we never bring lawsuits? Well, because we made a decision neither to accept nor make use of money. And why do we refuse to allow money into our communities? The reason is this: we are determined not to have laws – because, since the world was a world, our ancestors have been able to live contentedly without them.
. . .
I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society, and I still can’t think of a single way they act that is not inhuman, and I genuinely think this can only be the case as long as you stick to your distinctions between ‘mine’ and ‘thine’. I affirm that what you call money is the devil of devils, the tyrant of the French, the source of all evils, the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living. To imagine that one can live in the country of money and preserve one’s soul is like imagining that one could preserve one’s life at the bottom of a lake. Money is the father of luxury, lasciviousness, intrigue, trickery, lies, betrayal. Husbands sell their wives; wives betray their husbands; brothers kill each other; friends are false –and all because of money. In the light of all this, tell me that we Wendat are not right in refusing to touch, or so much as look at silver? (pp. 54-55).
Such reflections drew much attention in early 18th Century France to the question of how societies became unequal, adopted inhuman institutions like slavery, accepted social class distinctions, became dominated by tyrants, and fostered violent and mutually destructive relationships. Through the Enlightenment thinkers, they influenced the founding fathers of the United States of America and, a decade later, the protagonists of the French Revolution, thus bringing powerful changes to the course of human history.
Hunter-forager or fisher “egalitarian” bands
Graeber and Wengrow provide evidence of grand monuments, princely burials and other evidence of social stratification among Ice Age hunters and gatherers in Russia and eastern Europe living more than 30,000 years ago (pp. 87-92). And in the Fertile Crescent, between 10,000 and 8,000 BC, foragers in villages and hamlets, seasonal camps, and ritual and ceremonial centers with impressive public buildings, underwent marked transformations in different directions. During this period, in the upland plains and foothills of eastern Turkey, there was increased hierarchy among the settled hunter-foragers at the Göbekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe sites, while in the lowland areas of the Euphrates and Jordan Valleys, there were no such megalithic monuments. And there was extensive trade in the Levantine Corridor between these two areas (pp. 226-227).
In the Western Hemisphere, the Calusa, a non-agricultural hunting and fishing people of the West Coast of Florida, had a highly structured kingdom. When Juan Ponce de León arrived in 1513, his expedition was met by a flotilla of canoes manned by armed warriors and a powerful king whose subjects were subservient to him (pp. 150-151).
Prior to the arrival of European and North American settlers, Californian foragers, like the Northwest Coast peoples had no agriculture, although they were certainly aware of the maize, beans and squash production of their neighbors in the South West of the North American continent; clearly, the Californians preferred acorns and shunned agricultural labor. The Kwakiutl and their close neighbors on the Northwest Coast had slaves, who hewed wood, drew water, and harvested and cleaned salmon for their masters, while their equally prosperous California neighbors did not have slaves (pp. 148-187).
The Agricultural “Revolution”
In the Fertile Crescent, the first two crops to be domesticated were wheat and barley, wild grasses with which the local populations began to experiment to increase their productivity, beginning around 10,000 BC, as they did with lentils, flax, peas, chickpeas, and bitter vetch. But full crop domestication did not occur until around 7000 BC and then in a wide range of localities, not a single site. During those 3000 years, hardly a revolution, these early farmers moved in and out of cultivation, flirting and tinkering with the possibilities, in no way tying themselves rigidly to the needs of their crops or working only on crop cultivation, one of many ways in which they adapted to their environment (pp. 229-236).
Similar processes occurred in Nile Valley, where between c. 5000 and c. 4000 BC, cereal cultivation had a secondary role to animal husbandry, and in island Oceania, between c. 1600 and c. 500 BC with rice and millet (pp. 251-266). The rise of agricultural production in northern China began with soy beans 8000 BC in the Yangtze and Yellow River Valleys, but cultivated millet only arrived in the Yellow River Basin 3000 years later, and fully developed rice cultivation entered the Yangtze Basin 1500 years after experimentation with japonica rice began (p. 271).
In Mexico, cultivated squash and maize existed by 7000 BC, but these plants only became staple crops 5000 years later (p. 271). Graeber and Wengrow give special attention to the off-and-on cultivation of manioc and other tubers, maize, and a wide and diverse range of other cultivated plants in Amazonia (pp. 267-271). Some researchers claim that Amazonian horticultural efforts never did consolidate into fully domesticated agriculture, which raises the issue of why should they? Graeber and Wengrow employ Murray Bookchin’s phrase “the ecology of freedom” to explain the proclivity of human societies to move in and out of farming in order to take advantage of other, less labor-intensive, opportunities within their ecosystems (p. 260).
The Rise of Cities
The world’s first town, Çatalhöyük in central Turkey, was first settled around 7400 BC. It was originally associated with the origins of farming, mainly because of the beginnings of agriculture in other parts of the same region 1000 years earlier, and also because of the presence of female figurines considered fertility symbols. However, this association has been refuted by recent discoveries that show no relationship with farming in a local environment ill-suited for it, and evidence that the cattle, whose skulls were found in many homes, have been determined to be wild, not domesticated (pp. 212-224).
Urban centers first arose in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, the Ukraine, and China, beginning around 3500 BC, and they were built by societies without monarchs (pp. 276-327). Teotihuacán, in central Mexico, which flourished between 100 BC and 600 CE, and which at its climax had a population of around 100,000 people, was at first an egalitarian society with no authoritarian leadership (pp. 329-333). Although by 300 CE there were the monumental architecture, wealthy and privileged rulers, and lucrative tribute relationships, characteristic of most contemporary Mesoamerican sites, soon afterwards the temples were looted and desecrated, pyramid construction ceased, and human sacrifice abandoned, as they embarked on a unique social housing effort (pp. 337-345).
The Origins of the State
Much discussion has appeared in the literature on the purported causes of the rise of state-structured polities with centrally organized governments and social inequality, often including slavery and tyranny. Among these are the adoption of new technologies, population pressure, and environmental factors like climate change. Graeber and Wengrow use the definition of the state provided in the late 19th Century by the German philosopher Rudolf von Ihring, as an institution that claims a certain territory in which it has a monopoly on coercive force; that is, its agents can kill people, maim them, and lock them up in dungeons or cages, or decide who else has the right to do that on its behalf (p. 359).
Graeber and Wengrow have shown effectively that states have emerged over the last 5000 years in diverse parts of the world like ancient Egypt, Inka Peru, and Shang China, not as part of an evolutionary process, but rather as a confluence of sovereignty, administration, and charismatic competition, exceptional experiences that were not shared by most of their neighboring societies until much later (p. 431). In short, the state has no single origin, but rather arose in many different parts of the world in a wide variety of forms and at different times and under exceptional circumstances initially, only becoming predominate in recent centuries. Moreover, throughout the process of state formation, there was constant resistance from the peoples included in those early states, and many of the early states collapsed and disintegrated into kinship-based segmented societies that had no central authority.
In the Americas, there is general consensus that there were two pre-Columbian states, the Aztecs, in Mexico, and the Inka, in Peru. But there were earlier civilizations that show clear signs of inequality going back 5000 years to Caral in the central Peruvian coastal region, and somewhat later the Chavín, Wari, and Tiwanaku in the Andes, and the Olmec, Zapotec, and Maya civilizations in Mesoamerica.
And in the United States, the Mississippian civilization centered around Cahokia in what is now East Saint Louis (800-1100 CE) clearly mobilized populations under some level of centralized control, while the earlier Hopewell complex in the Ohio Valley (400BC-500CE) was decentralized, dispersed and organized around an egalitarian clan system that became dominant in most of the North American eastern woodlands (pp. 377-391, 457-469).
Moreover, all of the early proto-states collapsed and disintegrated after a few centuries, and even in the Aztec and Inka states, resisters to their tyranny like the Tlaxcalans in Mexico and several of the Inka subject peoples allied themselves with the Spanish conquistadors to seek freedom from tyrannical control (pp. 346-358, 372-375).
Graeber and Wengrow argue that there is no utility in seeking explanations of the origin of the state, which arose without anyone directing or organizing it in parallel, but different, expressions in relative isolation one from another, not from single causes like new technologies, population pressure, or climate change, nor was the collapse of most of them. But what is evident is a clear pattern of resistance throughout history to those forces that centralize power and implement unequal, political structures that marginalize the majority of their populations. The proper question is “How did we get stuck [in unequal and unjust power relationships]?” (pp. 112-118).
The remaining indigenous societies that struggle for survival in perhaps 20% of the earth’s land surface still control the governance of their territories of life, although those territories of life are threatened by ever more tyrannical global economic forces. It would be wise to learn from them as the 18th Century French thinkers did from the French-Canadian indigenous peoples and promote more viable, decentralized, dispersed, and egalitarian ways to affirm sovereignty. That task needs to become consolidated very soon to prevent the collapse of civilization as we know it. The Dawn of Everything is an excellent source of information that can orient our policies and help address these concerns.
The Dawn of Everything: a New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. 692 p. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2021.
The illustration is a detail from Abraham Bosse’s frontispiece for Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (from Wikipedia, Creative Commons License, sepia tone added).