log in

The Dawn of Everything seeks a new narrative of prehistory, but for all its interest, the analysis is deeply flawed, argues Dominic Alexander

the-dawn-of-everything-lg.jpg
David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Allen Lane 2021), xii, 692pp.

A vast stretch of human history is poorly known. From the emergence of our species some 200,000 years ago, until multiple inventions of writing, there is only the frequently ambiguous, and always very patchy, archaeological record. At the same time, the modern political ideologies of conservativism and liberalism, born in the late-eighteenth-century Enlightenment, significantly justified themselves by appeal to then current understandings of what humanity’s ‘original’ condition had been. It mattered whether that could be conceived of as a fallen nature, which needed to be controlled by a monarch and laws subject to God, or as a time of freely exercised ‘natural rights’.

For Graeber and Wengrow, this created a dichotomy in the Western interpretation of both contemporary non-state societies and the archaeological past, between equally unfeasible characterisations of such people as either engaged in a Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’, or a notion that was later expressed as the ‘noble savage’ living in a time of ‘childlike innocence’. The first side of this duality certainly remains in operation, with Steven Pinker, to name just one figure, using it to justify his argument that the European Enlightenment and capitalist modernity has reduced violence, and created a better world than ever before. Less unsubtly imperialist, an assumption of hierarchy, based on the putative existence of ‘alpha-male’ leaders (p.3), continues to underpin not a few archaeological interpretations of the distant past.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is made to shoulder the burden of blame for the second ‘optimistic’ view (although see p.70 for a caveat), which, of course, encodes its own version of racism and imperialism, even if at first sight it seems a more congenial take on human nature. Both caricatures therefore need to be rejected if a genuine understanding of deep human history is to be achieved. This dichotomy is not just a framing device for Graeber and Wengrow’s ambitious project, The Dawn of Everything, but a note to which they return repeatedly. The problem is that it frequently doesn’t bear the weight of argument the authors put on it. Laying aside simplistic ideologues like Pinker, serious discussions have long since left behind these caricatures. Many of the interpretations the authors charge as being indebted to Rousseauian naivety are really not so easily dismissed.

Nonetheless, the premise can lead to some useful points. In general terms, a convincing case is made that the political arguments and perspectives of First Nations peoples of the Americas did have a bearing on the development of European ideas in the Enlightenment period. The authors have assembled a good range of evidence that Europeans could be impressed by what indigenous Americans had to say about society and politics, and that surprising numbers preferred the latter’s way of life to their own. Thus, eighteenth-century ideas about equality were given some impetus by the American example. They go further than this, however, claiming that the egalitarian societies of America effectively introduced the idea of equality to the Europeans, which is to make a much more ambitious, and contentious, claim.

The case of Kandiaronk

The centrepiece for this aspect of the argument was a book published in 1703 consisting of conversations between the French author and a fictional interlocutor, who was plausibly based on one Kandiaronk, a leader of the Wendat people (sometimes known as the Huron). There is a good case to be made that such people as Kandiaronk were quite capable of having political and philosophical debates with Europeans, and making arguments for their egalitarian societies against the hierarchical European model.

However, the authors push all this too far, in seeking to claim that the dialogues represented fairly literally the Wendat’s own words. This contention can be criticised sharply on a number of literary grounds. It is also apparent, from passages that the authors themselves quote, how much the fictionalised figure’s words owe precisely to European discourse. One passage is particularly redolent of medieval Christian rhetoric on the sinfulness of money, for example. It is therefore much more likely to be the Frenchman’s formulation than that of the Wendat leader: ‘what you call money is the devil of devils … the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living … the father of luxury, lasciviousness, intrigues, trickery, lies, betrayal, insincerity…’ (pp.54-5).

The background of medieval discourses (not to mention other sources) about wealth in itself undermines the rather wild claim in the book’s first section that pre-Enlightenment European culture lacked a conception of social equality (p.32). They base this argument on one paper which claims that a modern notion of atomised economic equality was lacking, but so was an idea of ‘economics’ as a separate category, so the evidence the authors adduce for their argument is effectively specious. At the least, the very famous statement of a leader of the English Rising of 1381, the preacher John Ball, that ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the Gentleman?’, should have given pause at this point. Medieval Europeans certainly had their own concepts of class and power, and could unquestionably imagine a society without these, as the authors actually admit, without stopping to assess how this affects the plausibility of their overall argument (p.34).

Problems with the interpretations in The Dawn of Everything are therefore evident right from the start. Despite the undoubted wealth of fascinating and important material, the authors tend to push their arguments to an unsustainable extreme, and often the evidence on which they are based is questionable and fragile. In many ways, the criticism of existing standard narratives of deep human history is worthwhile, but it is also not always clear who precisely the authors’ opponents actually are at any given point. Glancing blows directed at the likes of Steven Pinker or Jared Diamond are all very well, but dealing with more sophisticated positions needs an argument that doesn’t descend into caricaturing the opposing view with the frequency that it does in this book.

Economic or ideological causation?

This all matters very much, since the theses advanced in The Dawn of Everything aim to challenge a great range of existing perspectives on early social development, from right to left. If there is a unifying theme, it is that humans are essentially free to choose to develop any kind of social, religious, or political system at any point. They thus reject ‘the idea that human societies could be arranged according to stages of development, each with their own characteristic technologies and forms of organisation’ (p.5). Ultimately, this means that the emergence of elites, oppression, exploitation, and the state are all the result of ideological decision by particular cultures.

Evidence for economic causation in regard to political structures is therefore consistently challenged across continents and periods, even as it is admitted that there ‘are, certainly, tendencies in history. Some are powerful …’ (p.5). It is certainly important to be sceptical of linear and rigid schemes, but to unmoor social tendencies from economic organisation and production entirely is another matter. Marx's observation, that humans ‘make their own history, but they do not make it as they please … but under circumstances existing already …’, is glancingly alluded to with approval twice (p.206, p.498), but its implications are not at all factored into the argument. Similarly, they note that ‘the intersection of the environment and technology does make a difference’ (p.205), but as with many such caveats in The Dawn of Everything, the acknowledgement does not seem to have any bearing on the analysis.

In fact, all the very different models of social development are consistently subjected to withering scepticism in the face of the variation of cultures that can be found. No doubt some of this is partly deserved, but equally, the broad-brush style raises doubts, and since no one thinker is discussed in any sustained way, the wholesale dismissal becomes more polemical than scholarly.

Some tendencies in the interpretation of archaeological evidence do, however, richly deserve a critical look, and valuable points are made along the way. The authors question, for example, the validity of the notion of ‘princely burials’ for the few lavish graves that have been found from the European Palaeolithic. Elaborate burials with rich grave goods do tend to be interpreted as signs of status and wealth hierarchies as a matter of course, in an assumption that stratification of that kind is natural and inevitable for human societies of all kinds. Isolated from corroborating evidence of social rank, however, it is highly questionable whether such practices should be interpreted in this light.

Graeber and Wengrow point out that, for the Palaeolithic burials, a majority of the skeletons ‘bear evidence of striking physical anomalies’ including congenital deformities, dwarfism, or extreme height (pp.102-3). They point out that many other characteristics that would set individuals apart as anomalous would not appear in their skeletons. Whatever belief systems lay behind the decision to bury unusual individuals in a lavish way, it does not imply the existence of a hereditary nobility.

Equality and foraging societies

While this is a convincing example of the debunking of the ‘Hobbesian’ style of interpretation, the authors are at least as keen on disabusing any notions that hunter-gatherer societies were necessarily any less oppressive or exploitative than other societies. That there is an enormous variation in belief systems and social structures among non-agricultural peoples is certain, and that such societies had their conflicts and pressures is not in question. However, the authors go so far as to claim that ‘there is simply no reason to believe that small-scale groups are especially likely to be egalitarian’ (p.11).

In so far as the authors are arguing against the assumption that hierarchical states are inevitable for large-scale populations (p.277), there is a point. However, the plausibility of the reversed position depends on further conceptual elisions, since the great majority of known small-scale societies do lack structural economic stratification, or ‘class’. In fact, the term ‘class’ barely appears across the whole of The Dawn of Everything.

Thus, the authors question the utility of the terms ‘equality’ and ‘egalitarian’ altogether, on the grounds that they could mean any number of different things: ‘it remains entirely unclear what “egalitarian” even means’ except for lacking ‘all the trappings of civilisation’, where ‘all the most obvious tokens of inequality are missing’ (pp.74-5). Yet, lacking obvious tokens of inequality would seem to be a significant characteristic. At other points they dismiss all kinds of conceptual distinctions between different types of society, and political forms, such as between ‘tribes’ and ‘chiefdoms’.

The authors may well have a point that classifications can be used in rather arbitrary and rigid ways. On the other hand, maintaining conceptual distinctions is essential for explaining how human society has developed. Again, however, the authors claim that ‘searching for “the origins of inequality” really is asking the wrong question’, and similarly for the origins of the state (p.115, p.369, and passim). The thesis comes down to the idea that humans have always had the potential to choose either co-operative political forms, or hierarchical ones, without significant variance according to conditions. Dismissing conceptual distinctions, and the whole question of development, is essential to sideline possible objections or contradictory evidence to the authors’ preferred perspective.

They correctly point out that certain narrow forms of economic determinism, such as ‘optimal foraging theory’ can be falsified by single examples, such as the one they give of indigenous Californians who preferred to rely on nuts as their staple food, rather than fish, which would have been a more ‘economic’ resource on which to depend (p.195). They go on to describe this decision in terms of these peoples’ rejection of the model to be found further north.

There, a fishing based economy (which is actually more comparable to a Neolithic than other forager economies) led to more war-like and hierarchical social conditions, including abduction-slavery as a common institution. As they suggest, the Californians’ strategy probably relates to the fact that stores of raw nuts are a less attractive target for raiding than stored and dried fish. This does not, however, reflect a purely ideological ‘freedom’ to choose one type of political system over another, but a social strategy in constrained circumstances.

The societies which did practice slavery further north on the Pacific coast also reflect the limits of the development of ‘aristocratic’ strata in the conditions of well-populated, but essentially Mesolithic fishing economies. Such societies, with more elaborate equipment, and the need for claims to fishing grounds and convenient watersides, are more territorial than foraging economies, and more vulnerable to labour shortages. There are therefore material reasons for fishers to be more prone to hierarchy and conflict, but the authors do not take this into account in their analysis.

In any case, warfare for slaves was apparently endemic in places on the north Pacific coast, precisely because the high-status men could not make the ‘commoners’ labour for them (p.198). In fact these ‘aristocrats’ had to compete to gain ‘commoners’ as followers. The furthest developed in the direction of a genuine class society was that of the Kwakiutl (now Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw), living in a region within today’s Washington State and British Columbia.

However, estimates of the importance of slavery between different settlements actually vary enormously. The figure of a quarter of the population being slaves given in The Dawn of Everything (p.185), is a high one, with others as low as one in twenty.i Comparisons made with ancient Greek and Roman slavery are certainly wide of the mark. There also seems to be a distinct probability that the extent and severity of slavery as an institution increased dramatically in the early nineteenth century under the impact of European traders and devastating epidemics of European diseases. Different nineteenth-century sources also disagreed about whether slaves, commoners, and chiefs did the same work or not.ii As a clear example of how a ‘small-scale’ society could develop a genuine aristocracy, that is an exploiting class, the history of the Kwakiutl shows at least the significant limits to which this was possible under even Mesolithic economic conditions, never mind in foraging economies in general.

Dialectics of structure

Most of the ‘small-scale’ societies discussed in The Dawn of Everything would usually be regarded as ‘egalitarian’ in the sense that they lacked a significant elite group which was able to separate itself from normal productive labour, by living from the surplus created by the rest of their society. In ‘egalitarian’ cultures there are often differences between households in relative wealth, but these tend to be the result of accidents, such as family size, rather than structurally different places within the society’s economic structures. There are also very generally obligations on richer households to help out less fortunate ones.

The authors would object to this that there is no line to be drawn between a society which supports a few individuals, or households, to perform ritual functions, and an exploitative ruling class. At one point, they object to the Marxist view, saying it just creates more problems, such as ‘how to define exploitation’ (p.360). This does not seem to be an insurmountable task. However, Graeber and Wengrow argue that it is just a matter of unclassifiable degrees, or even a teleological error, if such situations are to be taken as stepping-stones to the formation of a genuine elite. This is to refuse to recognise that quantity turns into qualitative difference as one system-state becomes something quite different. Conceptual distinctions do matter, and can be made.

There does need to be an alternative to two theoretical extremes. On the one hand crude environmental or technological determinisms can be found. On the other, a notion that ideas (or culture) themselves drive the development of human societies, either away from, or towards stratification and oppression, exploitation, militarism, and states. It is true that human beings do have ‘choices’, in given social circumstances, but to leave this at the level of an imponderable ability to exercise ‘freedom’, fails to illuminate why different peoples did or did not develop ruling classes. The fact is that those that did tended to create expansionist polities that drove militarisation, and therefore elite formation, in their peripheries. Thus, class societies expanded, in both the old and new worlds.

Others did fail, such as the only ‘city’ in pre-European North America north of the Rio Grande River, Cahokia, which was based on intensive maize farming, and supported a priestly aristocracy and monarchy of apparently considerable nastiness. However, Graeber and Wengrow’s analysis, which eschews economic and ecological explanations for its rapid rise and fall, does not engage with other detailed accounts. These can provide a convincing rationale for why a farming population would be attracted to supporting a large centre, but eventually rise up and overthrow the tyranny which developed.iii Cahokia, and other anomalies from The Dawn of Everything, don’t provide the paradigm shattering cases the authors claim they do, firstly because their interpretations are very much open to challenge, and secondly because their theoretical opponents, usually unspecified, amount to no more than straw-men.

This is not, therefore, to argue that it was inevitable that large-scale societies would have to develop elites, or authoritarian administrative classes, but some did, and they tended to spread. The authors usefully bring together examples of large-scale urban settlements that lacked ruling classes, or many signs of social stratification (as opposed to the ordinary differences in household possessions and size). These range across the world, with examples from China (Taosi, c.2000BCE, pp.325-6), Anatolia (Çatalhöyük, approx.7500-6400 BCE, pp.212-4), Ukraine (fourth millennium BCE, pp.290-3), and pre-Aztec Mexico (Teotihuacan, 100-600CE, pp.329-32), for example.

Some of these are also examples of early, and clearly quite vicious, states that collapsed to be replaced by more egalitarian ones. The authors themselves provide much evidence that egalitarian societies find various ways of consciously limiting the possibility of authority turning into power, as for example the expectation of some Amazonian peoples that chiefs should actually worker harder than anyone else (p.112). Social struggles are thus part of pre-history, as they are of historical class societies, and the outcome of struggle can go in different ways.

Such a recognition actually strengthens a view of the past based on an understanding of modes of production as a dialectical complex of social forces of production and relations of production. The authors reduce the concept to a mechanistic reading off from the productive strategies of single groups to their social forms (p.188). That does render the concept absurd, but in fact all modes of production contain at least a range of different kinds of social production, and the ‘mode of production’ of smaller-scale groups needs to be conceived as encompassing larger regional scales.

The types of interactions between different groups following different combinations of production strategies are part of the wider social relations of production. Development is always uneven, and results in contradictory combinations. Hence, the decision of Californian peoples to eschew dependence of fishing in order to protect themselves from potentially predatory neighbours. This is precisely the kind of dilemma that helps define the limits of possibility of such societies.iv

The ancient Middle East

Developments in technology, like bronze and iron, did eventually enable stable and powerful ruling classes to appear in some regions, like Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China, which had more permanence than earlier Neolithic attempts to create exploiting elites. It is not that technology, or productive forces, result in any one-to-one equivalence in social and political structure, but they do determine the field of possibility, and the likelihood of one or another trajectory of development.

The class civilisations of the Neolithic and Bronze Age in the Middle East, although less aggressively expansionist as the succeeding Iron Age polities would be, nevertheless had considerable impact on peripheral societies, fuelling the rise of elites dependent upon trade in far-flung regions of the Mediterranean, and even further into Europe. The dynamic of the creation of an exploiting elite in one area cannot be captured by a narrow focus on its immediate area.

In this context, the authors’ treatment of early Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilisation appear to be notably tendentious. Evidence that these were highly stratified class societies is mostly ignored; one archaeologist concerned with the impact of Mesopotamian cities upon the Caucasus has noted that the early city of Uruk had ‘a manifestly vertical social hierarchy’.v Much is made by Graeber and Wengrow of the provision of beer to the labourers working on the Egyptian pyramids, which were apparently built in a spirit of ‘mass conviviality’ (p.408). This is meant to support the theme that states and oppressive behaviour emerge accidentally from ritual and ‘play’, rather than for other reasons. Whatever merit this conception holds, it doesn’t fit ancient Egypt, where beer was very clearly seen simply as part of a staple ration.vi Similar objections can easily be made to their presentation of corvée labour in early Mesopotamia (pp.298-300). Neither does the existence of the ‘jubilee’, periodic debt forgiveness, support an argument that labour corvées were times of ritual equality in any meaningful way (p.300, footnote 48).

For Mesopotamia, the authors argue that Sumerian and Babylonian cities were governed by popular councils (pp.304-5). Such evidence as there is for this is certainly better read as showing that urban aristocracies were allowed a role in government alongside monarchs; few pre-modern states had the capacity to do otherwise. That relatively ordinary people might have played roles in localised decision making no more qualifies such councils as popular government than the existence of juries of freemen does in twelfth-century England. Rather, all this points to the existence of class struggle in ancient society. A reasonably wide sector of the population needed to be kept loyal to the ruling regime, and monarchs were required to moderate the rapaciousness of class rule from time to time.

It is, however, the evidence from the Americas that the authors consider to be most telling in sweeping away all other conceptions of social and political development. Certainly, there exists much more evidence of agriculture, and urban development, than was once thought, from the Amazon to North America. There is certainly considerable variation from Old World patterns in the halting development of American class civilisations, but there are different viable ways of looking at this material elsewhere.

Indeed, much of the same fascinating material is covered in Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2006), which is a very readable alternative view on all this. Too many of Graeber and Wengrow’s conclusions rest on reports by European observers, who, they admit, ‘not only brought their own biases but tended to describe societies already enmeshed in the chaotic destruction that Europeans themselves … brought in their wake’ (p.391). Yet, as in the case of the Kwakiutl discussed above, this caveat does not seem to have been fully considered in assessing the evidence.

The story Graeber and Wengrow want to tell is one that is shorn of ‘the teleological habit of thought’ (p.382). This means that the present state of society was not inevitable, but moreover, that there are no coherent stories to tell about trajectories of development (p.449). Moreover, all such frameworks have had to be abandoned as ‘basically unworkable’ (p.446). Yet, in accusing all questions of the origins of inequality, of the contradictory and uneven nature of development, or of the origins of the state, as no more than expressions of ‘teleology’, the authors are effectively ruling history as such out of court.

It follows from that perspective that there is little sense of how any of the societies they discuss may have changed over time, or for what reasons. Change appears to happen largely due to the ‘freedom’ people have to do things differently, or to be inadvertent results of various forms of ‘play’. Far from being a hopeful message that the world could be different, this is a profoundly debilitating approach. Refusing to seek to understand the contradictory nature of development, and the structure of conflicts, rules out clarifying how the elite-dominated world that we have got, came to be. In order to change the world, you do have to understand it too.

Endnotes

i Eugene E. Ruyle, ‘Slavery, Surplus, and Stratification on the Northwest Coast: The Ethnoenergetics of an Incipient Stratification System,’ Current Anthropology, Vol.14, No.5 (Dec. 1973), pp.603-63; see pp.613-14.

ii See comments on ibid. at p.618 and p.619. Further, see scepticism on the subject in Christian I. Archer, ‘Review: Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America, Leland Donald Berkely’ in BC Studies, pp.104-8.

iii Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage 2005), pp.291-300.

iv This way of looking at modes of production in ancient societies is argued in more depth in my Trotsky in the Bronze Age: Why Technology Alone Does Not Change Society (Counterfire 2020).

v Christophe Baumer, History of the Caucasus: At the Crossroads of Empire (I.B. Taurus 2021), p.42.

vi See John Romer, A History of Ancient Egypt (Allen Lane 2016), particularly p.490.

Before you go...

Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!

Tagged under: History Book reviews

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

Help boost radical media and socialist organisation

Join Counterfire today

Join Now