No, Large-Scale Societies Don’t Need Massive Inequalities

David Wengrow

Serious consideration of the archaeological record puts to bed the myth that human history follows an evolutionary arc from simple and egalitarian to complex and hierarchical, challenging the assumption that democracy can work in small groups while scaling up requires domination.

In the multiethnic urban settlement of Teotihuacán, the inhabitants stopped building pyramids and embarked on an extraordinary project of social housing. (Jonathan Kirn / Getty Images)

Interview by
Astra Taylor

The popular narrative goes that history is governed by evolutionary forces. While there are exceptions to every rule, its broad sweep pushes in a general direction that is predictable and obvious. Before the rise of agriculture, humans lived in small egalitarian bands. It’s been downhill ever since, as our species trends increasingly toward domination and arbitrary hierarchy.

Belief in this story about humanity isn’t confined to either side of the political spectrum. But is the narrative true? World-renowned archaeologist David Wengrow of University College London says no. Wengrow makes this case in his new book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, which he coauthored with the late anthropologist David Graeber.

Earlier this month, Wengrow joined Astra Taylor to discuss the book on Jacobin’s The Dig podcast. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Astra Taylor

Let’s start with our mutual friend David Graeber, because he’s going to be present throughout this interview. Can you talk about your collaboration with him and how it led to The Dawn of Everything?

David Wengrow

Sure. I first bumped into David in New York while I was a visiting professor at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. I was going there about three times per year.

David wasn’t between jobs anymore. He started at Goldsmiths in London, but he still had his parents in Manhattan. So he was commuting.

It’s interesting, looking back, that no academic department in America could find a home for David Graeber. Then there was me: some guy from London who already had a job at a well-known British university, getting flown over to hang out at NYU. The obscenity of it is rather striking.

But there David was, happy in his home surroundings. This was around the time that Occupy Wall Street was taking off. It only occurred to me later that David never mentioned Occupy. Not even once. We were too wrapped up in talking about things that happened thousands of years ago!

Then David’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years came out. We were sitting in one of his favorite Korean restaurants and he gave me a copy of it with a very sweet inscription inside. It read something like: “To David Wengrow, who’s gotten me more excited about the past than anyone.”

I gave him a copy of a much less famous book — mine! — which came out around the same time. Called What Makes Civilization?, it’s about ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

David sent me a very long email detailing his thoughts on my book. I got down to point twelve or thirteen before it trailed off and said, “Really, we ought to sit down,” which we did.

Our friendship took off from there. We didn’t do any of the things that academics now typically do. Nowadays, if you have a big idea or project in mind, the first thing you’re supposed to do is apply for a grant. David and I didn’t do any of that. We just worked for pleasure.

But we had two hooks around which we wanted to build The Dawn of Everything. One of them was hunter-gatherers. It occurred to us that all of the big history books contained a completely artificial and out-of-date portrayal of what most of human history was like and what it means to live in a nonagricultural society.

We wanted to give people a flavor of the incredible discoveries that have been made in recent decades about the sheer diversity of human life pre-agriculture. We sought to put a nail in the crazy myth that, once upon a time, we all lived in egalitarian bands of ten people or fewer.

The other hook was about scale. That might be the only time I can remember David talking about Occupy, actually. He often mentioned that even people sympathetic to the movement’s aims would always raise this issue. They were fond of participatory democracy but wondered how it could stretch beyond an intimate, face-to-face context.

That’s a very ingrained idea. It’s not, however, based on any scientific evidence. There are theories from psychology and other fields that make those claims. But they’ve either been refuted or heavily questioned. When you actually bring the history of archaeology to bear, it gives you a very different picture.

So these were the two main points that we wanted to get across. Our original idea was to write a short pamphlet — something like the Prickly Paradigms, which are basically position pieces. They don’t include references; they’re just interventions. That’s roughly what we had in mind.

What we ended up with, though, was a seven-hundred-page thing with a fifty-page bibliography. When we really got into it, we realized that the work of bringing together and synthesizing the information related to these questions wasn’t being done elsewhere.

We had to do a lot of that research and groundwork ourselves. The project grew incrementally and took quite an unexpected turn toward the Americas, on which David had done some work. His book Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value is an example.

But both of us specialized in Africanism. David’s fieldwork is Madagascar. I’ve done a lot of work on Northeast Africa — Egypt and Sudan in particular.

If you’d told me fifteen years ago that I’d write a large book that was significantly devoted to the history and archaeology of the pre-Columbian Americas, I’d have said you were crazy. It was a steep learning curve, but for reasons to do with the questions we asked. We really had to get drawn in. One of the nice things about getting to a certain level in a university is that you have all of these wonderful colleagues who are experts and can help point you toward sources and stop you from going up blind alleys.

We got so drawn into the Americas because we realized there was something wrong with the way human history was being framed — specifically around the issue of inequality. We’d obviously noticed that there’s an explosion of literature and research on inequality, including very long-term histories of inequality — some of which are unintentionally quite funny because they try to apply Gini coefficients to the Stone Age. What was the average income of an Ice Age mammoth hunter? It’s pretty bizarre.

We wanted to make a contribution to that literature. We wanted to write something on the origins of social inequality using the latest evidence from our fields — in my case, archaeology and, in David’s case, anthropology.

Astra Taylor

What ideas about inequality were you trying to challenge?

David Wengrow

We had to go right back to the source of a mythological view of history. You know it’s a myth because you can actually summarize it in about three sentences. What realistic version of the history of our entire species would you be able to summarize like that?

I will now perform it for you. Here we go . . .

Our species originated in egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers and then, somehow, fell from grace into a state of inequality. 

There you go. That was only one sentence.

We can debate the catalyst. Was it agriculture? Was it moving into cities? Notice we’re already locked into a certain style of interrogating the evidence.

Underlying this is the assumption that there was a time before social inequality. You can trace that assumption back to an essay competition hosted by France’s Académie de Dijon in 1754. They posed this question: What is the origin of inequality in mankind and is it a natural state?

Realize that this is ancien régime France. It’s about the most ranked and hierarchical society imaginable. So how is that a sensible question?

Astra Taylor

I think it’s really important to underline that point. Equality was not a virtue or topic of discussion in the Middle Ages.

David Wengrow

David found this PhD thesis by two Italian scholars where they had done word searches in Latin and every other language that might’ve been used in the Middle Ages. Obviously, terms for “equality” existed. But they weren’t used how we use them today. They weren’t, for example, used to discuss relationships between whole groups of people. And, certainly, there was no conception of an original state of humanity in which we were all equals.

Yes, you can find references to that conception in classical literature and some medieval sources. But it was never taken for granted. It was just one way, among many, of imagining what we were like in the Garden of Eden. In fact, the Garden of Eden was hierarchical because Adam outranked Eve.

Something clearly changed in European systems of thought where, by the middle of the eighteenth century, it’s no longer even controversial to pose such questions like the one asked by the Académie de Dijon. So what changed? That’s how we found ourselves drawn to the Americas. We were really just following what Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, and others told us: We got our ideas from there.

Astra Taylor

The standard assumption is that transatlantic trade dealt only in products and bodies. But ideas were being exchanged too.

David Wengrow

That’s right. There’s quite a large literature on the movement of soft drugs — tobacco, caffeinated beverages, etc. Nobody questions that those came from the Americas to Europe.

And nobody questions that those drugs helped give rise to Enlightenment salons and a certain culture of debate. People sat around smoking pipes and having profound discussions about constitutional systems, gender, and whatever else. But it’s never considered that the people who were culturally absorbing all of these substances and habits from the Americas might also have absorbed some of the region’s intellectual content.

Astra Taylor

And an encounter took place that literally helped catalyze the Enlightenment.

David Wengrow

Correct. The key figure here was a statesman from the Wyandotte Nation who went by various names — usually “Kondiaronk” — and lived in the seventeenth century. He was a major figure at the time and was one of the signatories of the Great Peace of Montreal.

There are many corroborating and independent accounts that, in addition to being a famous warrior and diplomat, Kondiaronk was a brilliant thinker and debater who was invited on a regular basis to the table of the governor of New France.

The governor at the time was a rather unsavory character named [Louis de Baude de] Frontenac. He also fancied himself as something of a debater. Frontenac would invite Kondiaronk as his guest of honor. This was all decades before the Enlightenment.

They seem to have been having what are effectively proto-Enlightenment salons around Montreal. And they were debating all of the things that would go on to become central themes of the Enlightenment.

These dialogues were recorded. They were written down by a minor French nobleman who had risen through the ranks of the colonial government at the time — a character named Baron Lahontan. He seems to have been an unfortunate character. He actually had to leave New France because he fell out of favor with Frontenac. But, at some stage, Lahontan was Frontenac’s deputy.

So Lahontan was certainly part of the circle that was witness to these debates. When he got kicked out of the Americas and ended up as a penniless vagrant on the streets of Amsterdam, he couldn’t return to France. Lahontan, as a minor noble, didn’t like where things were headed in his home country with absolutist monarchy, too much bureaucracy, and so on.

But Lahontan turned his life around by writing the Curious Dialogues with the Savage of Great Wisdom Who Has Traveled. It came out in 1703 and took off. The book is a dialogue between the author, Lahontan, and a character named Adario.

Adario is Kondiaronk. We have corroborating evidence for this. Adario makes these extraordinary speeches that are scathing critiques of French and European society. There are quite good reasons to believe — though we don’t know for sure — that Kondiaronk actually went to Paris. Quite a few representatives of indigenous nations went to Europe on delegations at the time. And Kondiaronk was the official spokesperson of his nation.

So there are good reasons to believe he went to Paris, too. Even if he didn’t, Kondiaronk was certainly experienced at dealing with Europeans in European settings.

There’s also an interesting process by which European writers and thinkers begin producing imitations of Lahontan’s Curious Dialogues. They would change the identity of the indigenous interlocutor. Voltaire had a half Huron. Somebody else had a Tahitian. Sometimes the interlocutor was Persian.

But the substance still comes from those dialogues with Kondiaronk. And one of the most important, influential imitations is Letters from a Peruvian Woman, which was written by the French saloniste Madame Graffigny.

Every time we’d go to a talk or seminar about this, David would call her “Madame Givenchy.” To his eternal annoyance, I’d correct him and say, “David, it’s Graffigny.”

Graffigny is very famous. She was probably the best-selling writer in Europe at the time. And she’s famous in feminist studies, among other things, for these letters.

Graffigny’s indigenous critique is put into the mouth of an Incan princess named Zilia . . .

Astra Taylor

. . . who is not a real person.

David Wengrow

Not remotely! And the Incan Empire was a kind of utopian, socialist experiment where everything got redistributed. It’s interesting because Graffigny sent a draft of Letters from a Peruvian Woman to her inner circle, which included the then budding economist and physiocrat Anne Robert Jacques Turgot. Today Turgot is credited — alongside Adam Smith — with inventing the “linear modes of production” version of human history.

This is not a coincidence. And we know it’s not because we actually have the letters. We have the correspondence between them where Turgot says to Graffigny, “You know, all this stuff you’re talking about — these ‘free peoples’ that can have these quite large and sophisticated societies without hierarchy — it’s very interesting.”

Remember, this was just a few decades before the French Revolution. So it’s incendiary stuff.

Turgot tried to get Graffigny to change the ending of the book so that Princess Zilia sees the error of her ways and realizes that, to live in a technologically sophisticated society, you need division of labor and money — both of which imply class differences. Graffigny said no, published her book as intended, and Turgot spent the next few years getting his intellectual revenge.

Let’s admit it: he kind of won. Turgot writes a whole series of essays concerning theories of universal history. He was so effective that we’re still living with his ideas.

Turgot’s argument, in brief, is that indigenous peoples had all of these freedoms not because they’re superior to us but because they’re inferior. What he meant by “inferior” is inferior in material terms of productivity. Here you get the first real currents of European thought articulating a stage-like ladder based on modes of food production and the use of energy resources. Turgot effectively relegated indigenous people to a completely imaginary evolutionary stage. The existence of someone like Kondiaronk — let alone the idea that he might have had anything valuable to say about European nations — was discounted.

At best, indigenous people can tell us about some remote epoch of the human past. Now I’m afraid to say it, but modern anthropology carries the weight of this tradition even today. The whole idea that you can cherry-pick modern hunter-gatherer societies and say, “Oh, look. I’ve found one that’s very egalitarian. That must be representative of the original human condition” — this is where it began.

Astra Taylor

There’s a common belief that democracy can work in small groups, but scaling it upward causes problems that only hierarchy and domination can solve. Talk about what the archaeological record shows and how it completely confounds those assumptions.

David Wengrow

It’s interesting what’s coming out of fields, not just archaeology but fields like sociobiology, which have been very attached to this idea that small means egalitarian and big means complex and, therefore, hierarchical. There was an important paper published last year in the Journal of Human Evolution that went back and looked at the demographic realities of modern hunter-gatherer societies in Australia, Africa, and elsewhere. It found that their families were a bit like our families, where your blood relatives are often people you cannot get along with at all. And you’ll go to extraordinary lengths to move away and distance yourself from them.

But hunter-gatherers had sophisticated ways of doing this. They set up hospitality systems spanning continents so that, far from living in small-scale societies, they had a social world where you could potentially interact with many thousands of people. In reality, you wouldn’t do that. But those relationships existed in the same way that you’ll never meet most Americans but all of you still call yourselves American. They’re what Ben Anderson termed “imaginary communities.”

Astra Taylor

Tell us some tales of these ancient egalitarian cities that defy expectations, because there’s the assumption that with concentration of people comes concentration of resources in the hands of the few and disempowerment for the many.

David Wengrow

Well, that’s another case of David just posing the question to me. He asked me very early on in our research, “Is there anything like an egalitarian city? Is there evidence for anything like that?”

I started telling him about the sites north of the Black Sea — settlements in what are now Ukraine and Moldova. They were first investigated by Ukrainian and Russian archaeologists back in the 1970s, using what were then very sophisticated techniques.

Remember, this is the Cold War. Western researchers either weren’t aware of these discoveries or were skeptical of them. In more recent times, there have been a lot of international projects in that region. There are British, German, American archaeologists who — until the recent conflict in Ukraine — were actually doing a lot of good scientific work there.

The results have been astonishing. They found huge settlements of tens of thousands of people, which began about six thousand years ago. So they’re as old as the first Mesopotamian cities, and they’re as large in spatial extent. But they didn’t have a writing system. What we can reconstruct about them comes from their material culture.

It’s extraordinary because they had no temples, palaces, or civic centers. There was also no obvious evidence of wealth inequalities. The settlements were planned on the image of a circle, like some Basque urban traditions in more recent times. Housing was arranged in concentric circles, so nobody was first and nobody was last.

They looked a bit like tree rings. They were vast. Thousands of people lived in these circular arrangements of housing. Careful fieldwork and research have shown that these circles were divided into neighborhoods. Each neighborhood had an assembly house of some kind. It’s pretty mind-blowing.

It’s important to note that, upon discovery, no one was calling these settlements “cities.” There were all sorts of euphemisms that scientists and archaeologists would use instead. The most popular was “megasites.” Some people would call them “overgrown villages.” In the book, we just call them “cities.”

But the settlements don’t show up in The Cambridge Encyclopedia section on ancient cities. The definition of a city, as it’s come down to us, is “some kind of megalopolis with a big commercial, political, or administrative district in the middle.” And it has to be hierarchical, centralized, and everything Gordon Childe talked about generations ago when he defined the urban revolution.

There’s a closed hermeneutic about what a city is, which we try to break apart in the book. In particular, we argue against this constant shifting of the goalposts. When you have a society scaling up that doesn’t produce class stratification and rigid hierarchies, you can’t suddenly go blind.

Astra Taylor

What if we defined a city — or, at least, a good city — as abundant, equitable housing? It’s something you see in the site you just mentioned. But it’s also visible in other cities, if you want to talk about those examples.

David Wengrow

The best example is the city that we know as Teotihuacán in Mexico. That’s the name given by the Aztecs to a much more ancient city, which began to attract people around the year zero. At that time, there seem to have been a lot of seismic activity and population movement in the region. People began to congregate by the thousands in the ancient city.

Their efforts to create a civic infrastructure initially focused on the construction of monuments, which are still up today. We know them, again, by their Aztec names — the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, the Way of the Dead, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, etc. Everything looked like it was going in a predictable way toward something like a classic Mayan city-state.

But then something changed around 250–300 AD. They completely closed down the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. They also stopped building pyramids. Instead, they embarked on an extraordinary project of social housing.

The whole settlement was put on a grid plan. By this stage, the city’s estimated population was around one hundred thousand. They were multiethnic. We have evidence of people moving into the valley from as far away as Yucatán. There was a Maya district and a Chiapas Town, too. There were also people coming from the Gulf Coast to the north. It was a complex, multiethnic city organized on a grid plan where everybody lived in multifamily apartment compounds.

When archaeologists first discovered these and started describing them, they thought they were palaces because they were so beautiful. The apartment compounds all had fabulous plastered walls, frescos on the walls, and communal areas.

Astra Taylor

Your book is very humble, constantly reminding the reader of how much we don’t know. That humility is a crucial ingredient.

David Wengrow

The book is trying to reframe certain questions and ask better ones. I’m reminded of various points in the book where we try to define exactly what’s going on when people do manage to defeat structural hierarchies.

This is the problem with the Rousseauian tradition. He didn’t have a bloody clue what a free society would look like. His state of nature is a weird fantasy where we don’t even live in groups. We’re just individuals stomping through the forest blissfully happy, trying to avoid each other because interaction would mean we have to form social classes or something. It’s just weird.

Rousseau might’ve agreed with Kondiaronk, had they ever met, about the virtues of freedom. But only Kondiaronk would’ve had any clue about what that actually looks like in practice.

We eventually realized that you can reduce resistance to hierarchy to three basic freedoms. Again, we’re not dogmatic. We’re not saying we’ve discovered all of them or anything like that.

The first is something we already talked about today, which is simply the freedom to escape your surroundings and move away, predicated on the expectation that somebody will receive you at your point of destination.

The second freedom is the freedom to disobey arbitrary authority, which is the root of healthy democracy. Not simply disobeying but disobeying with the assurance that you won’t then be ostracized from society. Even the Jesuits, who completely opposed indigenous people’s culture and wanted to convert them, had to concede that they had highly developed cultures of debate.

The reason for that was that while chiefs existed, and they could give orders, nobody had to listen. Nobody had to obey their orders. If you wanted to engage people in a collective project, the only real way to do it was to persuade them. That’s the intellectual tradition that produces Kondiaronk. He emerged from an incredibly rich culture of debate, persuasion, and oratory.

The third freedom, which is really built on the first two, is simply the freedom to imagine a new society. In other words, the freedom to tear a little hole in the fabric of your society, reconfigure it in another form, and then actually make that happen. That seems to be what our ancestors were doing for most of history.

But it also seems to be what we’ve forgotten how to do. We haven’t lost equality. Rather, we’ve lost the freedom to imagine and reinvent the ways we live together and take part in that collectively.

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David Wengrow is a professor of comparative archaeology at University College London. He coauthored The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity with the late David Graeber.

Astra Taylor is a writer, documentary filmmaker, and organizer. Her latest film is What Is Democracy? and her new book Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss it When It’s Gone will be published May 7.

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