In ‘The Dawn of Everything,’ Graeber and Wengrow Place Imagination at the Center of Humanity’s Journey
“The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity,” by David Graeber and David Wengrow, was released in the U.S. on Nov. 9.
The way we think about the human journey is based on myths that are too simplistic. People have consciously walked many paths, sometimes reverting rather than following each other down a one-way super-highway towards a destination of post-industrialised progress. The Eurocentric myth that history represents linear progress is both racist and can induce a collective, political lobotomy — removing the possibility things could be different from the way they are now.
David Graeber and David Wengrow’s new book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, gives a broad and pluralistic account sweeping across millenia and around the globe. By reframing the past and asking different questions about it based on evidence, the book shows that collaboratively we can reconnect the vital cortex and imagine different answers for the future.
Time to reframe history
One insidious question is this: were Paleolithic hunter-gatherers rich or poor? Historian Ian Morris suggested that they earned roughly €1.10 a day, based on food intake. But as Graeber and Wengrow point out, this is a silly projection. Surely they enjoyed lots of things, from organic food to free childcare, and from painting classes to rent-free camping.
Morris compared people living 15,000 years ago to those since, arguing that every period has its optimum level of human inequality. He essentially excuses today’s system based on exploitation and suffering as something both necessary and inevitable.
Anyone is entitled to be wrong. But Morris is a Stanford University professor who is mass-producing myths in The New York Times among other platforms. Worse still, he is hardly alone. The Dawn of Everything shines the archaeological specialism of Wengrow through the anthropological lens of the late Graeber. Together, they show gaping holes in many grand histrionic narratives. The book shreds a spectrum of writers, from contemporaries to Thomas Locke and Jean-Jacques Hobbes — two of the earliest Western theorists who conjured tales of early man.
Based on new evidence, which has often been ignored or only emerged in recent decades, and traditional evidence (considered an interdisciplinary approach) the book frees us from confining rules of history. The authors debunk the notion that industrialised or agricultural societies are more complex, and quash ideas that farming always caused land ownership, surplus and hierarchy.
Instead, we hear about non-patriarchal societies, ancient cities that ran along democratic lines, and many cultures that changed their political fabric on a seasonal basis, including trying play-kings and seasonal police.
This is no fairytale. Evidence shows that for periods slavery was abolished (but of course restarted) and similarly with war. In more myth-busting, we discover some hunter-gatherer societies enslaved people, and that the start of royal or imperial dynasties often came with massive blood-letting. In contrast, there were authoritarian regimes where all of a sudden the archaeological evidence for domination ceased and instead everyone started living in social housing villas.
Many books can be defined as a must-read. The Dawn of Everything goes beyond that and will reshape how we identify with prehistory and thus with our humanity. Unlike other books, it does not set out merely to start a conversation. Nevertheless, in Europe, where it has already been released, it has done that and more.
The book networks swathes of archaeology, anthropology and other disciplines that look through de-colonised and pe-patriarchicalised perspectives. At its heart, this is a manifesto for a human revolution of the mind.
Time to reframe the future
That most of the deconstruction of Professor Morris’s take on inequality is in the footnotes speaks of this book’s richess. Graeber and Wengrow dismantle many myths about how we think about being human, inequality included. About the latter, while statistics of what the richest few own might be revealing, the authors highlight how this framing only leads to policies that tinker. It makes people think: what level of inequality is acceptable?
With the COP-26 climate summit underway, the more prescient question is the relationship between power and wealth. The book showcases how this link is relatively rare across humankind.
The Dawn of Everything lays out three universal freedoms, common to most humans over time: “The freedom to move, the freedom to disobey and the freedom to create or transform social relationships.”
Over millennia, the book shows how often the decay of one of these ‘’primordial freedoms” erode the others. This understanding is also overtly applicable now. An example is migration; the norm for humans was to travel great distances, particularly before the emergence of cities. Borders are not only human constructions, argue Graeber and Wengrow, but they enclose us from grains of our humanity.
Two other seminal issues we face in today’s world is violence against women and abusive police. Again, the book opens the door to histories that offer alternatives. To defund the police we could assign policing on a rotational basis to stop power being institutionalised or abused.
Prehistorically, the ability of women to find refuge is related to the overall freedom of women across societies. Two leading examples of democratic autonomy today, which Graeber did so much to showcase, are the Zapatistas in Mexico and the citizens of Rojava, Syria. Both have rotational roles for police and are society-wide revolutions that started with deconstructing patriarchy in the home.
In its ambition, The Dawn of Everything suggests our language needs to be reimagined, a route to rethink the world. One example is civilisation itself — after all, what is really that civilised about the European-dominated world created by so much war and murder?
Another rethink the book calls for is about the first cities. Archaeological evidence inverts the traditional view, as the first cities were actually run by democratic councils — without the trappings of top-down power. Perhaps a contemporary people-power based movement can assist here. We could say these first cities are municipalist in the way we have in recent years come to understand the term. Municipalism means that power is shared by the people collectively and collaboratively, rather than bestowed to a political elite.
Freeing our imagination
One explosive potential about the book is its scope to spark people’s imagination in different ways. As, in one sense, it tells multifold stories of human pathways back to the archeological fragments of prehistory.
As for many activists on each side of the Atlantic who knew Graeber, or through his writings, the book is also deeply painful. Co-written with Wengrow, the work was completed just weeks before David died in September 2020.
In person, in his activism, in his writings, David Graeber delved with joyful exuberance and mischievous glee to make sense of many and any subject matters. Readers of this book will get another glimpse into his incredible thinking, alongside Wengrow’s, on subjects ranging from bureaucracy to state power, and from the value of play to the social norms that control our lives.
A seminal thread running through the book concerns free thinking. David Graeber was a spokesperson for free education to unleash people’s potential. In this book, he and Wengrow have created a monumental book to free academia from myths that have served to limit humanity’s potential. More than that, it is another gift to lead us all toward a place where our imaginations can be unconfined and free — as David’s was.