David Graeber and David Wengrow. Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. xii+692 pp. US$35.
Completed a few weeks before, the last book by renowned anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, co-written with renowned archaeologist David Wengrow, is quite simply a masterpiece. When it was published last year, book corners of the internet beamed with praise, the rarefied of the new yorker in the opinion of readers. In particular, the praise stops at this bastion of capitalism, the the wall street journalwhich one might think is just the prehistoric version of Howard Zinn’s leftist expression A People’s History of the United States (1980).
And while it leans left, in the very basic sense that it seeks to overturn conventional wisdom and is therefore different from the more recent “great history books” written by people such as Steven Pinker (The best angels of our nature2012) and Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens, 2014), it aims to do much more than show the other side of the coin. In fact, his reading gives the impression that he may be trying to do too much.
Yet somehow he does everything he says he will. The stated aim of the book is to show how, rhythm Margaret Thatcher, there are alternatives to neoliberal patriarchal settler capitalism, by disseminating recent archaeological and anthropological findings that disprove the standard story of human evolution, which runs linearly from hunter-gatherer bands to tribes and chiefdoms to hierarchical urban civilizations. It also has the secondary purpose of asking: since there are alternatives and social evolution was not so linear and purposive, then how did we “get stuck” where we are now? But there is also a third hidden objective: to present a new framework for understanding societal logics of domination and the freedoms that flow from it.
That’s a lot of ground to cover, even for this doorstop. It’s no small praise to say that the book succeeds in every way. On the myth-busting front in particular, the Davids show how notable technological and social inventions, from the wheel and the jar to agriculture and kings, were first used for pleasure, rituals or as a hobby, and were only later adopted as tools and conventions. . It turns out that the need is do not the mother of invention.
Throughout the more than 600 pages of arguments (including 84 pages of endnotes, many of which are discursive), only one point struck me as moot; but even then, another, more convincing point is quickly brought up to support the same argument. (For the record, that’s when they say, “Over time, any group of close friends, let alone family, will eventually develop a complicated history that makes it difficult to agree on almost anything. “I was in disbelief, but a Twitter poll was also split.)
Along the way, the prose is peppered with Graeber’s famous wit — the classic hallmark of genius — and factoid little gems that casually reorient our understanding of entire areas. For example, the book notes that many of Shakespeare’s linguistic inventions were in common use in his day; it’s just that no one else thought of writing them into literary works.
Graeber is the more famous of the two Davids, but Wengrow is no second fiddle. He says in the preface that the book is essentially an account of their decade-long conversation, and that archaeological evidence is at least as important as anthropological evidence in supporting the book’s claims. At many points the book laments the lack of written records to guide archaeological inference in any given prehistoric culture (although what counts as “prehistory” is upended when the book notes that Native American cultures often supplemented their oral histories with conventional pictographs, i.e., written – another seismic factoid).
And when there’s written evidence, half the fun is how the book excoriates early scholars for being racist, sexist, and condescending. The Davids remind us that we were and are all considered homo sapiens For a reason. They fault scholars of Minoan culture for refusing, in the face of overwhelming evidence, to believe that the Minoans were matriarchal; and stuffed into an endnote is this zinger in response to accusations of poetic license:
The possibility that [17th-century Native American diplomat] Kandiaronk, considered by the Jesuits to be one of the most intelligent people who ever lived, might himself have learned some of the [Greek satirist] Lucian’s best line in his conversations with the French, impressed and deployed variants of it in later debates is one that seems quite inconceivable to such [earlier Western] scholars.
This last point is made as part of the book’s flashy opening argument – a “hook”, if you will – that the Enlightenment was primarily a rewrite of contemporary Native American political thought. The second chapter details the intercultural links; the penultimate chapter traces how the Native Americans themselves got there. The first and last chapters are respectively the introduction and the conclusion.
Don’t be fooled by this apparent symmetry: the book is, structurally speaking, everywhere. The Davids seem to recognize this, and they try in vain to organize the spread by inserting descriptive section headings at every turn of their argument, such as “in which we observe how great monuments, princely burials and the like Unexpected features of Ice Age societies have upended our assumptions of what hunter-gatherers are, and let’s consider what it might mean to say that there was “social stratification” around 30,000 years ago. But as the Chinese idiom says, it’s like closing the door after the sheep have escaped.
To be fair, a project like this is difficult to structure. It is based on rigorous scholarship (even when the interpretation of scholarship is less common, but never unconvincing), so the evidence must be clearly presented, analyzed and documented. On the other hand, the Davids want to distribute their synthesis to as wide an audience as possible, so they have chosen a professional publisher and not an academic press.
This resulted in awkward compromises. Endnotes are located at the end, following the conventions of trade publishing, although many of them are asides or additional explanations that extend or complete the main argument. The book strives to create a compelling, unified, and (judging by the table of contents) chronological story out of the essentially centrifugal project of debunking. And in-depth signage – one of the best conventions of academic writing, in which the introduction describes in detail what will happen in the book – is avoided in favor of an attempt to pique the reader’s interest; while the conclusion may look like a signage rewritten as a recap.
The end result is a disjunction between the general aims of the book and the specific argument advanced in a given section. The conclusion attempts to tie everything together, as the saying goes, but 500 pages of archaeological and anthropological information is not so easily held together. Often I found myself skimming through a section, hoping to God that I would remember the key points when they became important. Alas.
It may be the academic in me, but I would have preferred to be presented with an outline at the beginning and recorded at the top and bottom of each chapter. Instead, each chapter begins more or less anew and ends with a retrospective summary. Those goals that I mentioned in paragraph three? I gleaned them from odd points in the book (most are touched on in the introduction, but the clearest statement on debunking appears on page 447; getting stuck at 510; logics of domination at 365; and freedoms at 131).
There is also a whiff of ideological strategy in this strange structure. Graeber’s anarchism probably kept him out of office throughout his American career, and perhaps the Davids wanted to temper the book’s stance to appeal to more mainstream readers. After all, their three freedoms from societal domination are the freedom to leave one’s community and be welcomed elsewhere, to disobey orders, and to reimagine and restructure society. (While we’re at it, the three sources of dominance are sovereign, bureaucratic, and charismatic power. And we got “stuck” when domestic care and outgroup violence intermingled with domestic and social violence as care – the beginning of the Roman era paterfamilias having the right to kill his minor children as punishment, and James I saying he punishes social deviants because he loves them.)
A quick note on language. Wengrow teaches at University College London, Graeber ended up at the London School of Economics, and even the American edition uses British English, including the rhetorical use of punctuation first described in Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler. The King’s English (1906): Period (full stop), colon, semicolon, and comma all denote pauses of varying lengths, from longest to shortest. M dashes are also often deployed asymmetrically. Just in case, like me, you are easily thrown off by this sort of thing.
The book’s signature contribution, which is rightly to be remembered, is its demonstration of just how separate most “great history” books truly are from the evidence, including bestsellers like Jared Diamond’s. Guns, germs and steel (1997). (It should be noted that these books and their authors are the only specified objects of criticism and ridicule; Diamond is described – accurately – as holding “a doctorate in gallbladder physiology.”) Graeber, that coy titan, we will be deeply missed.
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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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