David Graeber Knew Ordinary People Could Remake the World

A new book by David Wengrow and the late David Graeber is a brilliant rejection of the fatalistic myths of human history — and a defense of our power to shape our own world.

David Graeber, who died in September 2020, was a professor of anthropology at London School of Economics. (Andree / ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Origin myths the world over have a basic psychological effect: regardless of their scientific validity, they have the sly power of justifying existing states of affairs, while simultaneously contouring one’s sense of what the world might look like in the future. Modern capitalist society has built itself upon two variants of one such myth.

As one story goes, life as primitive hunter-gatherers was “nasty, brutish and short” until the invention of the state allowed us to flourish. The other story says that in a childlike state of nature, humans were happy and free, and that it was only with the advent of civilization that “they all ran headlong to their chains.”

These are two variants of the same myth because they both assume an unilinear historical trajectory, one that begins from simple egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands and ends with increasing social complexity and hierarchy. They also nurture a similar fatalistic perspective on the future: whether we go with Hobbes (the first) or Rousseau (the second), we are left with the idea that the most we can do to change our current predicament is, at best, a bit of modest political tinkering. Hierarchy and inequality are the inevitable price to pay for having truly come of age.

Both versions of the myth picture the human past as a primordial soup of small bands of hunter-gatherers, lacking in vision and critical thought, and where nothing much happened until we embarked on the process that, with the advent of agriculture and the birth of cities, culminated in the modern Enlightenment.

What makes David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything an instant classic is its comprehensive scientific demolition of this myth — what they call “the Myth of the Stupid Savage.” Not a shred of archaeological evidence tells us that the picture of the human past is remotely close to what the foundational myth suggests.

Instead, what the available evidence shows is that the trajectory of human history has been a good deal more diverse and exciting and less boring than we tend to assume because, in an important sense, it has never been a trajectory. We never permanently lived in tiny hunter-gatherer bands. We also were never permanently egalitarian. If there is a defining trait of our prehistorical condition it is its bewildering capacity of shifting, almost constantly, across a diverse array of social systems of all kinds of political, economic, and religious nature.

Graeber and Wengrow’s suggestion is that the only way to explain this kaleidoscopic variety of social forms is to posit that our ancestors were not actually that stupid, but were instead self-conscious political actors, capable of fashioning their own social arrangements depending on circumstances. More often than not, people would choose to switch seasonally between sociopolitical identities as to avoid the perils of lasting authoritarian power.

And so, rather than asking “Why did inequality arise?”, the most interesting question to pose about human history becomes “Why did we get stuck with it?” This is only one of many kindred claims advanced in this astounding new book.

Upending the Narrative

The book draws much of its value from its eclectic approach. Wengrow is a professor of comparative archaeology at University College London. He is well-known for his work on early cultural and political transformations in Africa and Eurasia. Graeber, who died suddenly in September 2020, was a professor of anthropology at London School of Economics, widely regarded as the most brilliant of his generation.

Together, they explore a suite of recent archaeological findings that prove anomalous to the standard narrative (for instance, the existence of ancient large-scale egalitarian cities), but that, until now, had only been privy to a handful of experts who never quite unravelled the implications. Archaeological discoveries are therein appraised from anthropological eyes. The result is a sweeping tour into the past that hops from continent to continent, and from one social sphere to another to tell stories that, depending on the reader’s familiarity with the archaeological record, might come as revelations.

We learn, for instance, that the uniformity in material culture across Eurasia in the Upper Palaeolithic meant that people lived in a large-scale imagined community spanning continents, putting to rest the idea that “primitives” only spent their time in isolated bands. Counterintuitively, the scale of single societies decreased over the course of human history as populations grew larger.

From monumental sites such as Göbekli Tepe in Turkey or Hopewell in Ohio, we learn that people would seasonally come together from distant lands in what appear to have been large centers of cultural interactions for recreation and the exchange of knowledge. Journeying great distances while expecting to be welcomed into an extended community was a typical feature of our ancestors’ lives.

The book then pivots to agriculture. The received view has it that the birth of agriculture meant the more or less automatic emergence of stratified societies. Yet, this assumption runs into problems once we consider a phenomenon like “play farming” across Amazonia, where acephalous societies like the Nambikwara, though familiar with techniques of plant domestication, consciously decided not to make agriculture the basis for their economy and to opt for a more relaxed approach that switched flexibly between foraging and cultivation. (Agriculture generally emerged in the absence of easier alternatives.)

Further, we learn that some of the first agricultural societies of the Middle East formed themselves as egalitarian and peaceful responses to the predatory foragers of the surrounding hills. It was mostly women, here, that propelled the growth of agricultural science. We also learn that complex works of irrigation in some such places were executed communally without chiefs, and even where structures of hierarchy existed, these works were accomplished despite authority, not because of it. The gradual spread of agriculture across the globe was far less unilinear than anyone had previously guessed.

In what’s perhaps the best chapter of the book, the authors move on to examine cities. Nowadays, large-scale egalitarian cities, the mere idea of it, smacks of utopianism; but Graeber and Wengrow argue that it shouldn’t when we start thinking of cities as the coalescence, in a single physical space, of already existing extended imagined communities with their own egalitarian ethos and norms — first happening seasonally, then more stationarily, as conscious experiments in urban form.

Sites like Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia and many others offer incontrovertible evidence of the past existence of such cities, where no sign of authoritarian rule can be found. (Generally, when these are found, they stand out in the form of palaces, temples, fortification, etc.) Other ancient cities like Cahokia in Mississippi or Shimao in China exhibit evidence of a temporal succession of different political orders, sometimes moving from authoritarian to egalitarian, which leaves the possibility of urban revolutions as a likely explanation for the change.

The final chapters focus on the “state” — or better, on how misleading it is to define societies like the Inka or the Aztecs as “incipient states” because these were far more diverse than what this straitjacket term would make us think. From the Olmec and the Chavin societies in Mesoamerica to the Shilluk of South Sudan, The Dawn of Everything gives us a taste of the variety of authoritarian structures throughout history. By the end of the book, we encounter the archaeological gem that is Minoan Crete — a “beautiful irritant for archaeology” — where all evidence points to the existence of an ancient system of female political rule, most likely a theocracy run by a college of priestesses.

There is much more. The leitmotif running through the chapters is that if we want to make sense of all these phenomena, we are obliged to put human collective intentionality back into the picture of human history, as a genuine explanatory variable — to assume, that is, that our ancestors were imaginative beings who were eminently capable of self-consciously creating their social arrangements.

The authors by no means discount the importance of ecological determinants. Rather, they see their effort as moving the dial to a more sensible position within the agency — determinism continuum, which usually only takes one extreme. The key upshot is that this newfound view of our past equips us with an expanded sense of possibilities as to what we might do with ourselves in the future. Fatalistic sentiments about human nature melt away upon turning the pages.

A More Free Future

Staying true to Ostrom’s Law — “whatever works in practice must work in theory” — Graeber and Wengrow set out a new framework for interpreting the social reality brought to light by empirical findings.

First, they urge us to abandon terms like “simple” or “complex” societies, let alone the “origin of the state” or “origin of social complexity.” These terms already presuppose the kind of teleological thinking challenged in the book. The same goes for “modes of production”: whether a society relies on farming or fishing is a poor criterion for classification because it tells us almost nothing about its social dynamics.

Second, they lay out some new descriptive categories of their own. They show, for instance, that social domination can be broken down into three elements — control of violence, control of knowledge, and charismatic power — and that permutations of these elements yield consistent patterns throughout history. While the modern nation state embodies all three, most hierarchical societies of the past had only one or two, and this allowed for the people who lived under them degrees of freedom that are barely imaginable for us today.

Graeber and Wengrow reflect at length on this last point. More than a work on the history of inequality, The Dawn of Everything is a treatise on human freedom. In parsing the anthropological record, they identify three types of freedom — freedom to abandon one’s community (knowing one will be welcomed in faraway lands), freedom to reshuffle the political system (often seasonally), and freedom to disobey authorities without consequences — that appear to have been simply assumed among our ancestors but are now largely lost (obviously, their conclusion is a far cry from Rousseau’s: there is nothing inevitable about this loss!

This analysis flips the question one should really be asking about the historical development of hierarchy: “The real puzzle is not when chiefs first appeared,” they suggest, “but rather when it was no longer possible to simply laugh them out of court.”

So much of what makes this book fascinating is the alien nature of the phenomena we encounter within, at least to contemporary eyes. Potlaches, headhunting and skull portraits, stranger kings, revolutions, shamanic art, vision quests… The Dawn of Everything reads like a work of sci-fi, except that what turns out to be fictional is our received view of human history. The writing is often funny, sometimes hilarious. At the same time, because hardly a paragraph goes by without bequeathing insight, this is a book that requires to be patiently taken in. It sits in a different class to all the other volumes on world history we are accustomed to reading.

The Dawn of Everything intellectually dwarfs the likes of Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, or Francis Fukuyama (and Yuval Noah Harari too). Whenever nonspecialists try their hands at human history, they inevitably end up reproducing the same old myths we have grown up with. Take Pinker: for all his talk about scientific progress, his books might as well have been written at the times of Hobbes, in the seventeenth century, when none of the evidence unearthed recently was available.

Graeber and Wengrow casually expose these popular authors’ startling incompetence at handling the anthropological record. Only a solid command of the latter — namely, of the full documented range of human possibilities — affords a credible interpretative lens over the distant past. For it supplies the researcher with a refined sense of the rhythms of human history.

One of the experiences of delving into this book, at least in my case, was a gradual recognition of being in the presence of an intellectual oddity, something difficult to situate within the current landscape of social theory. By embracing once again the “grand narrative,” the book makes a clean break with post-structuralist and post-humanist trends widespread in contemporary academia. We know that Graeber, at least, liked to think himself as a “pre-humanist,” actively expecting to see humanity realize its full potential.

One can certainly see this work as a contribution in that direction. One can also see The Dawn of Everything as belonging to the tradition of the Enlightenment (except that one of the other major claims in the book is that Enlightenment thought developed largely in response to indigenous intellectuals’ critiques of European society of the time). As for how it squares with current archaeological and anthropological theory, the book is of such a real sweep that I don’t think it admits easy comparisons.

If comparisons must be made, they should be made with works of similar calibre in other fields, most credibly, I venture, with the works of Galileo or Darwin. Graeber and Wengrow do to human history what the first two did to astronomy and biology respectively. The book produces a similar decentering effect: in dethroning our self-appointed position at the pinnacle of social evolution, it deals a blow to the teleological thinking that so insidiously shape our understanding of history.

With the exception that while works such as Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems and On the Origin of Species hinted at the relative insignificance of humans in the face of the cosmos, The Dawn of Everything explores all the possibilities we have to act within it. And if Galileo and Darwin stirred turmoil of their own, this will do even more so for precisely this reason. Ultimately, a society that accepts the story presented here as its official origin story — a story that is taught in its schools, that seeps into its public consciousness — will have to be radically different than the society we are currently living in.