The dawn of everything A new history of humanity

David Graeber

Book - 2021

"A trailblazing account of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution-from the development of agriculture and cities to the emergence of "the state," political violence, and social inequality-and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation. For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike--either free and equal innocents, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction to powerful critiques of European society posed... by Indigenous observers and intellectuals. Revisiting this encounter has startling implications for how we make sense of human history today, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery, and civilization itself. Drawing on pathbreaking research in archaeology and anthropology, the authors show how history becomes a far more interesting place once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what's really there. If humans did not spend 95 percent of their evolutionary past in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, what were they doing all that time? If agriculture, and cities, did not mean a plunge into hierarchy and domination, then what kinds of social and economic organization did they lead to? The answers are often unexpected, and suggest that the course of human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful, hopeful possibilities, than we tend to assume. The Dawn of Everything fundamentally transforms our understanding of the human past and offers a path toward imagining new forms of freedom, new ways of organizing society."--

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Subjects
Published
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2021.
Language
English
Main Author
David Graeber (author)
Other Authors
D. Wengrow (author)
Edition
First American edition
Item Description
"Originally published in 2021 by Allen Lane, Great Britain"--Title page verso.
Physical Description
xii, 692 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references (pages 611-673) and index.
ISBN
9780374157357
  • List of Maps and Figures
  • Foreword and Dedication
  • Acknowledgements
  • 1. Farewell to Humanity's Childhood Or, why this is not a hook about the origins of inequality
  • 2. Wicked Liberty The indigenous critique and the myth of progress
  • 3. Unfreezing the Ice Age In and out of chains: the protean possibilities of human politics
  • 4. Free People, the Origin of Cultures, and the Advent of Private Property (Not necessarily in that order)
  • 5. Many Seasons Ago Why Canadian foragers kept slaves and their Californian neighbours didn't; or, the problem with 'modes of production'
  • 6. Gardens of Adonis The revolution that never happened: how Neolithic peoples avoided agriculture
  • 7. The Ecology of Freedom How farming first hopped, stumbled and bluffed its way around the world
  • 8. Imaginary Cities Eurasia's first urbanites - in Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, Ukraine and China - and how they built cities without kings
  • 9. Hiding in Plain Sight The indigenous origins of social bousing and democracy in the Americas
  • 10. Why the State Has No Origin The humble beginnings of sovereignty, bureaucracy and politics
  • 11. Full Circle On the historical foundations of the indigenous critique
  • 12. Conclusion The dawn of everything
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
Review by Choice Review

Coauthored by an anthropologist (Graeber, formerly, London School of Economics) and an archaeologist (Wengrow, University College London), this synthesis of recent research on prehistory raises--and clearly addresses--such fundamental issues that both general readers and specialists (especially in the social sciences) will thoroughly enjoy it. The authors challenge past evolutionist narratives about societal development that posited small mobile bands of hunter-gatherers living in egalitarian communities (without private property), followed by--with the advent of agriculture, sedentism, complexity, state-formation, and a general societal "scaling up"--exchanging of past freedoms for political and economic security. Graeber and Wengrow base their critique on detailed scholarly examinations of a plethora of prehistoric societies, looking at elementary forms of domination (based on violence, the control of knowledge, and charismatic political competition) to show that these features--concatenated in the modern state--could (and did) exist separately (or not at all) in many earlier societies. Brought to light in the course of discussion are cities without rulers, agriculture sometimes adopted and later dropped, and large concentrations of people who devised ways to eschew warfare and bypass hierarchy. The book concludes with stimulating explanations as to why moderns seem to have lost one of their most precious original freedoms: the ability to imagine alternative methods of societal formation. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. --Robert T. Ingoglia, St.Thomas Aquinas College

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The transition from hunter-gatherer life to agriculture, urbanism, and civilization saw a blossoming of egalitarian politics and social order, according to this sweeping manifesto. Surveying 26,000-year-old European graves, Stone Age Turkish towns, the musings of 17th-century Iroquois philosophers, and more, archaeologist Wengrow (What Makes Civilization?) and anthropologist Graeber (Debt), who died last year, critique conventional theories of historical development. Far from simplistic savages living in a state of "childlike innocence," they argue, hunter-gatherers could be sophisticated thinkers with diverse economies and sizable towns; moreover, agriculture and urbanism did not necessarily birth private property, class hierarchies, and authoritarian government, they contend, since many early farming societies and cities were egalitarian and democratic. Vast in scope and dazzling in erudite detail, the book seethes with intriguing ideas; unfortunately, though, the authors' habitual overgeneralizations--"one cannot even say that medieval thinkers rejected the notion of social equality: the idea that it might exist seems never to have occurred to them"--undermine confidence in their method of grand speculation from tenuous evidence. (For example, they see "evidence for the world's first documented social revolution" in the damaged condition of elite habitations in the 4,000-year-old ruins of the Chinese city of Taosi.) Readers will find this stimulating and provocative, but not entirely convincing. (Nov.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

Wengrow (archaeology, Univ. Coll. London) and the late Graeber (anthropology, London Sch. of Economics) successfully disrupt the story popularly believed about the rise of civilization: starting from small bands of peaceful hunter-gatherers, an agricultural revolution led to cities, which led to hierarchy and eventually the modern nation-state, where technological progress is bought at the cost of liberty and equality. Instead, they decentralize these founding mythologies of Western culture by examining Indigenous counterexamples from around the globe, spanning the Neolithic period to today. By synthesizing modern evidence from their two disciplines, they demonstrate that societies have been much more flexible, diverse, and creative in their social structures, adapting and reacting to their physical environs, their values, and their neighbors, and not merely constrained by technological or economic efficiencies. Asking questions about the origins of inequality or of the state requires defining those terms, and it quickly becomes obvious that there is no all-encompassing definition of either, and no inevitable social or political arrangement that history is guiding us toward. VERDICT This well-reasoned survey of anthropological history should intrigue historians, social activists, and fans of Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens or Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel.-- Wade Lee-Smith, Univ. of Toledo Lib.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

An ingenious new look at "the broad sweep of human history" and many of its "foundational" stories. Graeber, a former professor of anthropology at London School of Economics who died in 2020, and Wengrow, professor of comparative archaeology at University College London, take a dim view of conventional accounts of the rise of civilizations, emphasize contributions from Indigenous cultures and the missteps of the great Enlightenment thinkers, and draw countless thought-provoking conclusions. In 1651, British philosopher Thomas Hobbes proclaimed that humans require laws and government authority because life in primitive cultures was "poor, nasty, brutish, and short." A few decades later, French thinker Rousseau wrote that humans in a state of nature were free until they acquired property that required legal protection. Graeber and Wengrow point out that these conceptions of historical progression dominate the opinions of many experts, who assume that society passed through stages of development: hunter-gatherers, farmers, urban-industrial society, and so on. Graeber and Wengrow maintain that no scientific evidence supports this view, adding that traditional scholarship says little about "prehistory," during which supposedly egalitarian hunter-gatherers roamed and foraged until about 10,000 years ago, when they purportedly took up agriculture and things became interesting. This orthodox view dismisses countless peoples who had royal courts and standing armies, built palaces, and accumulated wealth. As the authors write, "there is simply no reason to assume that the adoption of agriculture in more remote periods also meant the inception of private land ownership, territoriality, or an irreversible departure from forager egalitarianism." Many early cities thrived for centuries with no sign of hierarchy, contradicting scholars who assume that authoritarian rule appears naturally whenever large populations gather. The quest for the "origin of the state," given scattered and contradictory evidence, may be a fool's errand. Graeber and Wengrow, while providing no definitive answers, cast grave doubts on those theories that have been advanced to date. A fascinating, intellectually challenging big book about big ideas. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Foreword and Dedication (by David Wengrow) David Rolfe Graeber died aged fifty-nine on 2 September 2020, just over three weeks after we finished writing this book, which had absorbed us for more than ten years. It began as a diversion from our more 'serious' academic duties: an experiment, a game almost, in which an anthropologist and an archaeologist tried to reconstruct the sort of grand dialogue about human history that was once quite common in our fields, but this time with modern evidence. There were no rules or deadlines. We wrote as and when we felt like it, which increasingly became a daily occurrence. In the final years before its completion, as the project gained momentum, it was not uncommon for us to talk two or three times a day. We would often lose track of who came up with what idea or which new set of facts and examples; it all went into 'the archive', which quickly outgrew the scope of a single book. The result is not a patchwork but a true synthesis. We could sense our styles of writing and thought converging by increments into what eventually became a single stream. Realizing we didn't want to end the intellectual journey we'd embarked on, and that many of the concepts introduced in this book would benefit from further development and exemplification, we planned to write sequels: no less than three. But this first book had to finish somewhere, and at 9.18 p.m. on 6 August David Graeber announced, with characteristic Twitter-flair (and loosely citing Jim Morrison), that it was done: 'My brain feels bruised with numb surprise.' We got to the end just as we'd started, in dialogue, with drafts passing constantly back and forth between us as we read, shared and discussed the same sources, often into the small hours of the night. David was far more than an anthropologist. He was an activist and public intellectual of international repute who tried to live his ideas about social justice and liberation, giving hope to the oppressed and inspiring countless others to follow suit. The book is dedicated to the fond memory of David Graeber (1961-2020) and, as he wished, to the memory of his parents, Ruth Rubinstein Graeber (1917-2006) and Kenneth Graeber (1914-1996). May they rest together in peace. Excerpted from The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber, David Wengrow All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.