Introduction And Index To New Series On The Dawn Of Everything

Enough With Hobbes And Rousseau
Symbolic Violence In Politics
The Origins Of European Thought On Inequality
Attitudes Toward Freedom And Equality
The Insights Of Kandiaronk
A Brief Introduction To The History Of Early Modern Humans
The Sophistication Of Forager Societies
Cultural Differentiation In Non-Agricultural Societies
Women Led The Move To Farming
The Rise Of Cities In Eurasia
Egalitarian Cities In Early Central America with a side note on the rise of religion
The Search For The Origins Of The State

The Dawn Of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow is an effort to evaluate and replace a fundamental set of ideas about human history.

The Authors. David Graeber was an American anthropologist, famous partly because he’s one of the few academics who identify as anarchists. He taught at Yale from 1998 to 2005 but was denied tenure for obscure reasons having nothing to do with his anarchism, I’m sure. He took a position at the London School of Economics where he taught until his untimely death in 2020. Here’s his Wikipedia entry. I’ve read Debt: The First 5,000 Years. He also wrote Bullshit Jobs.

David Wengrow is an archaeologist at the University College of London. Here’s his Wikipedia entry.

The Subject of the Book. Since the mid-18th Century, people have thought that human beings of more than 10,000 years ago lived in egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands, small groups that foraged for nuts and berries, and hunted for small game and fish. Eventually they developed agriculture and stopped their nomadic life-styles. This led to the idea of property, and as populations increased they began to live in small settled groups, then villages, then towns, and then in cities. Hierarchies arose to deal with the ensuing complexities, and bureaucracies and rules enforceable by state violence, and all this led to civilizations as we know them in all their hierarchical splendor. It’s an inevitable process, repeated around the world.

Graeber and Wengrow attribute this story to Rousseau, in an essay entitled Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind, written in 1754. and to other Enlightenment thinkers of his day. It’s a pervasive story, one we all learn as if by osmosis. There is no alternative. This book is a first step towards a different origin story, one with much wider potential for human societies.

The authors explain that they set out to write about the origins of inequality, making Rousseau’s essay a good starting point. But they realized that wasn’t a very smart question, and that there are better questions, starting with why is that the question everyone asks, and moving on to other questions, such as:

1. Why are we stuck in a single social structure, repeated with minor variations everywhere?

2. Why are we satisfied with living in a society in which the interests of some people are considered sacrosanct, while the interests of some other people are not entitled to any consideration whatsoever?

3. Why do we claim to be free, when almost all of us are forced to work for and be bossed around by someone who has vast material wealth, or face starvation?

4. Why should economic power be convertible into political power?

5. Why don’t we ask any of these questions?

That last one is mine, of course. We’ll see if there are answers in this book.

Background. I’ve written about several of these questions in other posts. My series on Pierre Bourdieu, index here, explains how the dominant class preserves its status. I describe Elizabeth Anderson’s work on freedom in another series, index here. We’ll see how Graeber and Wengrow compare; they don’t mention either.

Most of the books I’ve discussed at Emptywheel were written by mainstream Western thinkers. They generally work from a common history, and a common understanding of how we should think about our history. This means that the factual, evidentiary, basis of these books is more or less common knowledge. When new information is added to that store, we understand how to approach it, how to evaluate it, and we can usually integrate it into our existing picture.

For example, I have a general grasp of the history of Imperialism in the 19th Century, so when I read that extended chapter in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism, there was information new to me, but it fit nicely into my general picture. Consequently I was able to follow along with Arendt’s thinking on the issue, and how it connected with her theory of the rise of Nazism.

This book isn’t like that at all. I don’t know much at all about the data I’ve encountered so far (I’m on Chapter 3). I knew about Rousseau’s essay generally, but knew nothing of the context. This makes it impossible for me to evaluate any of the data. I don’t know if things are being taken out of context, or how pervasive knowledge of Native American politicians was among French thinker of the Enlightenment. I can’t read all the original works myself, and don’t want to. I don’t know any anthropology, and my knowledge of archaeology is at the Discovery Channel level.

As a result, I can’t really do much more than repeat the evidence given by the authors, which doesn’t seem useful or even sensible. Instead, I’m going to state certain points from Graeber and Wengrow for discussion and give a flavor of the evidence. I’ll let everyone see the detailed backgrounds for themselves. That seems like the best way to spell out their ideas. For myself, I can say that the evidence is fascinating, and totally new to me.

Graeber identified as an anarchist. The book makes room for anarchy as a possible form of social organization, but that’s not the subject matter. The theories laid out here will support many different forms of social organization. The authors just want us to throw off the depressing idea that the only way to structure a society is in terms of property, with protection of property rights by hierarchies and bureaucracies as the only organizing principle. Our ancestors seem to have tried numerous forms of social organization. So can we.
Featured Image by Ed Dunens via Flickr.

38 replies
  1. rip says:

    Thank you so much for introducing this book to the blog.

    I have started it (heavy tome, hard to hold upright on my chest for reading before sleep.) Got interrupted by “Noise” (Kahneman, Sibony, Sunstein) and “Surfing Uncertainty” (Andy Clark). I like having several books going at the same time.

    One thing I noticed about “The Dawn of Everything” is how much push-back the authors have received. I’m not an anthropologist but have done research in the field and I think a lot of toes are being very bruised by this book.

    Looking forward to a good discussion!

    • EchoDelta says:

      During his life Graeber had the kind of reputation that others in the profession harrumphed over. For me he started to get to the core of unquestioned priors that are buried in the stratigraphic columns of the social sciences.
      The intersection of military intelligence is one aspect that is controversial, from ethnographies of the Goths and Gauls for Rome to the ethnographies of WWII, the Chrysanthemum and the Sword, through the close contact humint teams in Iraq and Afghanistan until recently.
      Economics is another, and where political economy intersects with social relations. Where I am the conception of the relationship between human hunters of animals and the animals themselves was based on the notion of the animals as disguised human like persons who allowed themselves to be killed and eaten in return for appropriate respect and treatment of their remains so they could be recycled. Then the Russians came and hunted animals for peltry only, to support their trade with China. This practice completely changed the relationship between the people and the animals. /thesis proposal

    • Artemesia says:

      While books are wonderful — you can’t beat a kindle for reading in bed — you don’t wake up your partner with the light and it is light. I am reading The Dawn of Everything now and could never do it in bed with the giant hardback.

  2. Obansgirl says:

    I’ve been terrified to enter these hallowed halls of intellectual beings and legal experts.

    Here I am. Hoping not to get hanged out to dry by bmaz or hazed verbally but also hoping to add something to the conversation.

    I have learned so much from following ew for more than 5 years. I’m old. Re-reading don delillo. Hoping for miracles.

    Thank you for this blog.

  3. Terry Salad says:

    Thank you for this. The book is on my desk right now. Cannot wait to crack it. A close friend of mine is a cultural anthropologist and we have much to discuss with this.

    • vertalio says:

      Thanks for shining a light on this one Ed…it sits awaiting my cracking it, and now you gave a push. I hope this generates a lot of discussion.

      Afa the shift from hunter-gatherer to sedentary…I’m fascinated by the new evidence at Gobekli Tepe and that region. It begins to appear H-G’s assembled into temporary large gatherings for ceremonial reasons, including treatment of the recently dead. It’s also clear that grain was in use well before domestication, perhaps even for fermented products like alcohol. This made me wonder: did ceremonial use of alcohol stimulate grain agriculture, rather than the other way around? It does not seem out of the realm.
      Anyway, it’s always fun to question paradigms. Thanks again.

      • Peter says:

        Thats what Brian G Muraresku in the Immorrtality Key, The Secret History of the Religions with no Name, seems to argue. Civilization started because people stopped to drink beer…and wanted more. Religion he suspects grew out of a contamination of their beer with fungus that produced LSD like effects.

        [Welcome to emptywheel. Please use a more differentiated username when you comment next as we have several community members named “Peter” including one of our contributors. Thanks. /~Rayne]

  4. morganism says:

    I would venture that non hunter/gatherers actually settled and developed laws to protect the “Commons”. Then common defense against hunters (poachers) stripping the commons makes for militias. Valleys with entrances protected by rivers would be especially attractive.

    A valley with springs, correct solar angles, on ungulate game trails, a diverse plant biome that would support bee colonies, orchards, flint or volcanic glass, building stone, etc.

    Adding ag as planting grains would come later, once other defensive and baseline habitability issues were checked off.

    A great site would be worth protecting, and building up the commons. Protect the commons, get the benefits of the commons might be all it took to start to build a city state.

    • skua says:

      I’m reading “Why Warriors lie down and die” by R Trugden with and about the Australian Aboriginals of Arnhem Land. The commons were protected there but no cities built. Though there was a sizable international pearling and trepang industries and transcontinental trade routes. The pearls and tepang were traded for multiple goods from Macassar (yes antimacassars on the chair backs relate) , of which rice and tobacco were taxed around 1900 to roughly £300 annually. Taxes on US imports at that time amounted to around £45. This contrasts with my schooling which had that subsistence hunter-gathering, song and dance as being all that was going on.
      It may be that a mytho-poetically based nation is (or was, pre-Colonialization) a sustainable alternative to a city-state.

      • skua says:

        Reading further into Why Warriors: AIUI: Each areas of land/water is owned by a clan and forms an estate. Payment is due for resources taken from the estate. As there is diversity between estates there was a lot of trading to get both the near-essential and discretionary goods which made living easier and better. The management of estates was culturally based, structured, regulated, learned, adaptable within wide limits and sustainable over milllenia.
        tldr: sustainable estates of interdependent clans formed into non-contiguous, at times competitive, nations, strong work ethic, economic acitivity clan foccused. “commons” absent?

    • gmoke says:

      If you want to know about the commons, one very good place to start is with Elinor Ostrom’s work. She studied working commons that had existed, without degradation, for decades or centuries if not millennia and got Garrett Hardin to give up his simplistic idea of all commons as an inevitable tragedy and instead rephrase it as an “unregulated commons” devolves into tragedy. Unfortunately, almost all the people who comment on Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” don’t know or decide not to make that important distinction.

      Ostrom’s work on the actual regulation and governance of the working commons is extremely important and too little understood or known. As are the last words I ever heard from her as we all exited the lecture, “No panaceas! No panaceas!” An important thinker more people should study.

      I wonder if Graeber ever got into her work as deeply as he should have. (I met Graeber once upon a time and, although I admire his work from a distance, it was not a happy encounter.)

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        A standard, accessible work that also deals with working the commons, from an English perspective, is E.P. Thompson’s, The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson was an early advocate for labor and social history, rather than the then traditional political history that focused almost exclusively on kings and “great” men.

  5. Eureka says:

    I already gave a few tips from the POV of familiarity with the evidence in the form of a reply to a troll on you last post, Ed. More:

    Knowing your ideals via your writing, the concept of “heterarchy”/ heterarchical social organization is probably a more useful idea-word both for what might be more appealing/possible and what some other (pre-) historical records suggest (indeed, according to the original researchers) than “anarchy” (and whatever messes that creates or connotes).

    Further (wrt your stated unfamiliarity with the evidence) I have more than once shared here, with recommended reading*, some of the differences in social and economic structure based on kinship relations, such that (tl;dr) patriarchy correlates with misery even for most men, along all of the economic-to-spiritual axes. Broadly speaking, societies who trace kinship matrilineally and follow matrilocal post-marital residence rules (as opposed to our patrilineal and patri-cum-neolocal residence rules) seem like better places to live.

    I don’t have those old links handy but have taken general note that gender-based understandings of our troubles seem to come last, like an after-thought if entertained at all (or indeed not recapitulated), unless certain of the women present them and they still get short shrift (less/no discussion and certainly no centrality). I applaud Rayne here for repeatedly doing goddess work particularly in comments. However, everyone who means well is just as responsible for attempting to understand the gendered aspects of power relations — and not recreating them out of lazy habit — as they are the variables along the more frequently emphasized axes. [Those lazy, cruel habits, btw, most often occur in quiet, unmarked, never-recorded ways like stealing others’ (markedly, differentially “females'”) words rather than crediting or otherwise acknowledging them with discussion, which leaves many reluctant to comment at all.]

    [Note, too, that it’s no coincidence that Putin’s active measures and Trumpist follow-ons focus on race and economics to leave significant real issues buried in the deluge. Why would they not want to (at least initially) discuss or bring attention through troll fights to American problems as gendered…while leaving the sexism implicit to do its job like so many memes of “old” “ugly” HRC the non-reproductively available witch. Or in twitter profiles declaring one a “feminist” where said tweeter is just so unacceptably “mean” or “unhinged” as to be completely repulsive-aversive. Same thing with some obviously fake LGBTQ+-labeled accounts. Yep, let’s not unpack all that — yet.] [FFS a credibly-accused serial sexual predator just exited our highest office.]

    I explicitly raise this now because I feel a Bernie-Bro-type fest coming on as a new way to own human history(-ies) and that’s no less lacking or dangerously warped than are the popularized lineal social evolution models we have (emphasis on “popularized”, because, again, human variability is not a secret to those who study it, so the question is more why certain models prevail in our discourse).

    Focus on class (and race-ethnicity) to the exclusion or diminution of sex-gender issues is a huge blind spot in resolving what begets, reifies, and ensures the very hierarchical power dynamics that folks hope to reconstruct differently.

    If things are bad for women and girls they are bad for everyone but for an ever-winnowing group of select powerful men (_that_ is an escalating linearity, indeed). If you control the women you control who educates the populace you control the world. Expand what you think is important in exploring the possible.

    *Linda Stone’s _Kinship and Gender_ is one classic, accessible reference.

    I omitted here permutations wrt gender- and sexuality-based identities and social roles for simplicity (namely because the hammer of patriarchy is reductive in its own right).

    • Eureka says:

      Bumping out an aside above (moins brackets) towards a larger point:

      Note, too, that it’s no coincidence that Putin’s active measures and Trumpist follow-ons focus on race and economics to leave significant real issues buried in the deluge. Why would they not want to (at least initially) discuss or bring attention through troll fights to American problems as gendered…while leaving the sexism implicit to do its job like so many memes of “old” “ugly” HRC the non-reproductively available witch. Or twitter profiles declaring one a “feminist” where said tweeter is just so unacceptably “mean” or “unhinged” as to be completely repulsive-aversive. Same thing with some obviously fake LGBTQ+-labeled accounts. Yep, let’s not unpack all that — yet.

      FFS a credibly-accused serial sexual predator just exited our highest office.

      Worldwide (growing) fascist-autocratic kleptocracies all push the same notions of “traditional” sex roles, marriage, and family with strong anti-women (as but vessels) and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and laws. I summarized here not long ago how the American and Putinist-Russia religious rights have worked together on this project for years (and how same dovetails with their active measures around elections and indeed 1/6 in the form of one of its agents Charles Bausman and his projects and oligarch). IOW everything that’s going wrong is all tightly bound.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        As Tevye pointed out, tradition has had a strong pull on human societies for a very long time. I suspect we may be hardwired to desire it, in a way analogous to homoeostasis, given that behavioral traits are also filtered through differential survival rates. The medieval cult of the Virgin Mary and, in part, the Crusades – both heavily advocated by Bernard of Clairvaux – were ways elites distracted through emotional appeals in their effort to maintain fixed elite and sex roles.

        Elevating Mary to a god-like status, for example, responded to an intense desire for a more emotional connection to a revived clergy and church. It spiritualized her, cleansing her of her role as human model, woman, and mother, by narrowing her range of behavior.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Spiritualizing her put Mary – and, by extension, earthly women – in a cultural straitjacket.

    • skua says:

      That is a great post Eureka. Thank you very much for bringing gender clearly and understandably into the context of this thread.

  6. feministhomemaker says:

    I have only commented once before, long ago, and cannot recall the handle I used but I think this is it. If not, I am sure Rayne will correct me! And like some of those above, I comment here with trepidation I don’t earn swift contempt from Bmaz for my ignorance. But I must comment because this thread is absolutely thrilling to me. I am in chapter eight now of the book. And unlike Ed, I am very familiar with the various pieces of evidence brought to bear generally in this book, having followed anthropological/archaeology discoveries over the past thirty years and women’s history/feminist theory touching on those areas functioning to rethink their assumptions in specific ways. So I was primed to be excited about this book as soon as I heard of it. But what thrilled and delighted me so much was his inclusion in the index, which I search before ever reading any book, of two authors that were so influential on my own growth and who are rarely discussed in mainstream circles, both held in disrepute at times: Matilda Joslyn Gage and Marija Gimbutas! When I encountered how he addressed their work in the text it was satisfying beyond measure. And yes, he provides so much more detail and evidence than I ever knew and he integrates the evidence I did know about in ways that illuminate so much more than I ever knew or considered. I also find it delightful to encounter his references to other pop writers such as Jared Diamond whom I have also read. This book makes me so curious what other anthropologists I have read think of this book, people like Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, whose career and specifically her book Mother Nature, busted many foundational assumptions in this field as well. I cannot wait to read what others think of this book.

    [Welcome back to emptywheel. Your last two comments here at the site were as “Feminist homemaker” — two words, first capitalized. Which ever you’d prefer, pick format and use it consistently, thanks. /~Rayne]

  7. PabloakaPablo says:

    Thanks for doing this Ed. 80 pages in and so far swept away by their historical take on the ideological origins of the degradation of indigenous humanity. And the fluid subtext that things can be- and have been all the way back to the beginnings of the animal homo- so radically different.

    Also really taken with the beautifully colored book cover.

  8. YinzerInExile says:

    Ed, I’m so delighted that you’ll be posting on this book! It was one of the two best books I read in 2021. (The other was “Trade Wars are Class Wars”, by Matthew C. Klein and Michael Pettis, which I recommend wholeheartedly.)

    Graeber’s prior work, “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”, was as revelatory as it was revolutionary in its impact on my thinking. This latest work landed with a similar impact, although the effect is somewhat diluted by the scale of the inquiry.

    I’m really looking forward to hearing what you pull out of this. Thanks once more!

  9. civil says:

    Thanks for bringing this book to my attention, as it sounds quite interesting. FWIW, I was a Peace Corps vol years ago in central Africa, and Pygmies still live there in small hunter-gatherer communities. I didn’t get to know any Pygmies well, as I wasn’t living/working close to the where they lived, but I did meet some, and what I recall is that there was some age- and knowledge-based hierarchy, but there was no significant bureaucracy. They’re not the only hunter-gatherer communities that exist in the world. I’m wondering whether these communities are considered a “minor variation” or are addressed in a different way.

  10. Lex says:

    The book is on my list. I will say that the “standard” story of Hunter-gatherer to agriculture and civilization is insufficient. For example, our conception of nomad HGs is usually small bands always on the move, on the brink of starvation. It was seasonal migration and it included cultivation of plants (not domesticated). Why people mostly shifted from the old ways to agriculture isn’t (and can’t really be) known. We should consider climate changes in that analysis since the LGM and subsequent melt occurred in a contextual time frame with this transition. And climate may well have caused mass migration of people and animals during the LGM, and certainly after it as the climate warmed broadly and a whole lot of ice melted. The standard story is a very euro-centric imaging of the past that conveniently places European civilization at the pinnacle of social evolution. It doesn’t match the limited archeological facts we have much less (IMO) probabilities we can extrapolate from evidence. And it does a great disservice to the intelligence of most of our ancestors. As if we were essentially animalistic brutes until agriculture in the near East developed.

  11. elcajon64 says:

    Just echoing what most are saying here. I really enjoyed “Debt” (I re-listen to a chapter or two whenever I’m out of podcasts and ) and am looking forward to this quite a lot. Thanks Ed!

  12. Ed Walker says:

    The comments of Eureka and Feministhomemaker are important reminders of the missing history of women. In the first two chapters, Graeber and Wengrow show that standard Euro-centric stories sanctify, demonize, or ignore the people from other lands, such as the Wendat. In the same way, those stories sanctify (as Mary, or the Chivalric stories), demonize, or ignore women. LGBT and not-white people are just ignored or despised.

    There’s a lot to fix. Even thought The Dawn Of Everything is a big book, it won’t address all the problems with our pre-history. I hope people will add this missing data as we go along through the book.

    • @pwrchip says:

      Thanks, Ed, for the book, just bought it from Amazon.
      I’ll get Debt next when I’m finished with this one, just finished with a book I got after listening to a lecture by Adam Rutherford, ‘A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived.’ It’s about The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes.

      • earthworm says:

        i attempt the point respectfully because you did after all purchase the book — yea!
        an independent bookstore in Concord has this sign on its door. “If you see it here, buy it here.”
        may i emphasize that supporting your local bookstore is increasingly critical. This is an era of source consolidation of all things pertaining to information, independent thought, and local economies (especially in the face of powerful behemoths such as Amazon).
        ~ earthworm

  13. Yarghelsnogger says:

    What a great choice of topic. I’m just about done with the book. Just a couple chapters to go, and it is groundbreaking. As an old history major who’s focus was the Ancient Near East (and really that boundary between anthropology and the earliest “history”) this was an eye opener. It pulls together many threads of history (proto-cities like Catal Huyuk) that don’t fit into the standard narrative of the evolution/progression of human societies from “simple” to “complex”, and tries to show that political awareness and experimentation has been going on for tens of thousands of years.

    In my opinion it is a heartening perspective to show that for much of human history (not just the written parts) we have NOT been locked into these hierarchical, stratified societies. Societies that, until recently, were uniformly authoritarian and built around coercion. While this is a time of peril for democracy here and abroad, it’s nice to know that we are maybe not an aberration, and that complex societies that try to organize themselves on more egalitarian grounds have been successful throughout much of human history, and the only hope for stable, fair societies is not a reversion to simple bands of hunter-gatherers.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      If you studied the ancient Near East and liked David Graeber, you will love Michael Hudson’s, “…and Forgive Them Their Debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year,” (2018).

  14. DAT says:

    You might want to check out blog Crooked Timber. They have a two part discussion of tDoE, 2021-12-17, ten comments, and and 2021-12-14, 42 comments. Some commenters I bet you would like, Ed.

  15. Sancho Quixote says:

    Thanks for opening up a discussion on this wonderful book. I’m a few chapters into it and what I find to be mind-blowingly inspiring are the damning native american intellectual critiques IN THE 18TH C(!) of western civilization – which actually seem to be the basis of our notions of democracy and freedom. These native american thinkers found it appalling and insane that their European visitors allowed anyone to hold power over them – something that was unheard of and unacceptable in their societies.

      • Sancho Quixote says:

        Thank you! I would also add that it’s revelatory that the debate over inequality in 18th C France seems to have arisen because of the interaction with and critiques by Native Americans, whereas previously inequality seems to have been simply accepted as the natural order of things.

  16. JW3 says:

    Hi; a friend started a book club (after talking about it for years) and this is the first book. I am glad ’cause it is exactly the kind of book I would pick up and then not read. I was resisting picking it up because I have read and liked Against The Grain by James Scott. Anyway now I have a reason to both get this and to keep up with others in reading it.

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