Many years ago, when I was a junior professor at Yale, I cold-called a colleague in the anthropology department for assistance with a project I was working on. I didn’t know anything about the guy; I just selected him because he was young, and therefore, I figured, more likely to agree to talk.
Five minutes into our lunch, I realized that I was in the presence of a genius. Not an extremely intelligent person—a genius. There’s a qualitative difference. The individual across the table seemed to belong to a different order of being from me, like a visitor from a higher dimension. I had never experienced anything like it before. I quickly went from trying to keep up with him, to hanging on for dear life, to simply sitting there in wonder.
That person was David Graeber. In the 20 years after our lunch, he published two books; was let go by Yale despite a stellar record (a move universally attributed to his radical politics); published two more books; got a job at Goldsmiths, University of London; published four more books, including Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a magisterial revisionary history of human society from Sumer to the present; got a job at the London School of Economics; published two more books and co-wrote a third; and established himself not only as among the foremost social thinkers of our time—blazingly original, stunningly wide-ranging, impossibly well read—but also as an organizer and intellectual leader of the activist left on both sides of the Atlantic, credited, among other things, with helping launch the Occupy movement and coin its slogan, “We are the 99 percent.”
On September 2, 2020, at the age of 59, David Graeber died of necrotizing pancreatitis while on vacation in Venice. The news hit me like a blow. How many books have we lost, I thought, that will never get written now? How many insights, how much wisdom, will remain forever unexpressed? The appearance of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is thus bittersweet, at once a final, unexpected gift and a reminder of what might have been. In his foreword, Graeber’s co-author, David Wengrow, an archaeologist at University College London, mentions that the two had planned no fewer than three sequels.
And what a gift it is, no less ambitious a project than its subtitle claims. The Dawn of Everything is written against the conventional account of human social history as first developed by Hobbes and Rousseau; elaborated by subsequent thinkers; popularized today by the likes of Jared Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari, and Steven Pinker; and accepted more or less universally. The story goes like this. Once upon a time, human beings lived in small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers (the so-called state of nature). Then came the invention of agriculture, which led to surplus production and thus to population growth as well as private property. Bands swelled to tribes, and increasing scale required increasing organization: stratification, specialization; chiefs, warriors, holy men.
Eventually, cities emerged, and with them, civilization—literacy, philosophy, astronomy; hierarchies of wealth, status, and power; the first kingdoms and empires. Flash forward a few thousand years, and with science, capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution, we witness the creation of the modern bureaucratic state. The story is linear (the stages are followed in order, with no going back), uniform (they are followed the same way everywhere), progressive (the stages are “stages” in the first place, leading from lower to higher, more primitive to more sophisticated), deterministic (development is driven by technology, not human choice), and teleological (the process culminates in us).
It is also, according to Graeber and Wengrow, completely wrong. Drawing on a wealth of recent archaeological discoveries that span the globe, as well as deep reading in often neglected historical sources (their bibliography runs to 63 pages), the two dismantle not only every element of the received account but also the assumptions that it rests on. Yes, we’ve had bands, tribes, cities, and states; agriculture, inequality, and bureaucracy, but what each of these were, how they developed, and how we got from one to the next—all this and more, the authors comprehensively rewrite. More important, they demolish the idea that human beings are passive objects of material forces, moving helplessly along a technological conveyor belt that takes us from the Serengeti to the DMV. We’ve had choices, they show, and we’ve made them. Graeber and Wengrow offer a history of the past 30,000 years that is not only wildly different from anything we’re used to, but also far more interesting: textured, surprising, paradoxical, inspiring.
The bulk of the book (which weighs in at more than 500 pages) takes us from the Ice Age to the early states (Egypt, China, Mexico, Peru). In fact, it starts by glancing back before the Ice Age to the dawn of the species. Homo sapiens developed in Africa, but it did so across the continent, from Morocco to the Cape, not just in the eastern savannas, and in a great variety of regional forms that only later coalesced into modern humans. There was no anthropological Garden of Eden, in other words—no Tanzanian plain inhabited by “mitochondrial Eve” and her offspring. As for the apparent delay between our biological emergence, and therefore the emergence of our cognitive capacity for culture, and the actual development of culture—a gap of many tens of thousands of years—that, the authors tell us, is an illusion. The more we look, especially in Africa (rather than mainly in Europe, where humans showed up relatively late), the older the evidence we find of complex symbolic behavior.
That evidence and more—from the Ice Age, from later Eurasian and Native North American groups—demonstrate, according to Graeber and Wengrow, that hunter-gatherer societies were far more complex, and more varied, than we have imagined. The authors introduce us to sumptuous Ice Age burials (the beadwork at one site alone is thought to have required 10,000 hours of work), as well as to monumental architectural sites like Göbekli Tepe, in modern Turkey, which dates from about 9000 B.C. (at least 6,000 years before Stonehenge) and features intricate carvings of wild beasts. They tell us of Poverty Point, a set of massive, symmetrical earthworks erected in Louisiana around 1600 B.C., a “hunter-gatherer metropolis the size of a Mesopotamian city-state.” They describe an indigenous Amazonian society that shifted seasonally between two entirely different forms of social organization (small, authoritarian nomadic bands during the dry months; large, consensual horticultural settlements during the rainy season). They speak of the kingdom of Calusa, a monarchy of hunter-gatherers the Spanish found when they arrived in Florida. All of these scenarios are unthinkable within the conventional narrative.
The overriding point is that hunter-gatherers made choices—conscious, deliberate, collective—about the ways that they wanted to organize their societies: to apportion work, dispose of wealth, distribute power. In other words, they practiced politics. Some of them experimented with agriculture and decided that it wasn’t worth the cost. Others looked at their neighbors and determined to live as differently as possible—a process that Graeber and Wengrow describe in detail with respect to the Indigenous peoples of Northern California, “puritans” who idealized thrift, simplicity, money, and work, in contrast to the ostentatious slaveholding chieftains of the Pacific Northwest. None of these groups, as far as we have reason to believe, resembled the simple savages of popular imagination, unselfconscious innocents who dwelt within a kind of eternal present or cyclical dreamtime, waiting for the Western hand to wake them up and fling them into history.
The authors carry this perspective forward to the ages that saw the emergence of farming, of cities, and of kings. In the locations where it first developed, about 10,000 years ago, agriculture did not take over all at once, uniformly and inexorably. (It also didn’t start in only a handful of centers—Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Mesoamerica, Peru, the same places where empires would first appear—but more like 15 or 20.) Early farming was typically flood-retreat farming, conducted seasonally in river valleys and wetlands, a process that is much less labor-intensive than the more familiar kind and does not conduce to the development of private property. It was also what the authors call “play…