Kondiaronk was, in his own way, a man of the Enlightenment. Born in 1649, the same year an attack by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) forced his people to move to the place now known as Mackinac Island, he spent his adult life working to keep the French at war with the Haudenosaunee, and then, having headed them off, to pursue a larger settlement. These efforts bore fruit in 1701 with the Great Peace of Montreal, which, in a bit of neat historical symmetry, was also the year of his death. Two years after that, the Baron de Lahontan, a French soldier and diplomat, used Kondiaronk as the basis for a character in a book of dialogues—a Native intellectual who challenges the political ideas of his French interlocutor. Until recently, scholars tended to treat this character as a mere mouthpiece for the Enlightenment philosophe Lahontan, but Graeber and Wengrow propose something much more interesting: What if Enlightenment philosophes were themselves, in part, the creation of indigenous American intellectuals? The eighteenth century’s preoccupation with the origins of inequality, the process by which we came to be divided into castes and ruled by kings, doesn’t seem to grow naturally out of the political thought of the period immediately before it. (The giants of the Renaissance and Reformation were generally fine with social stratification, even if they challenged particular cases of it.) “In fact,” our authors write, “the terms ‘equality’ and ‘inequality’ only began to enter common currency in the early seventeenth century, under the influence of natural law theory. And natural law theory, in turn, arose largely in the course of debates about the moral and legal implications of Europe’s discoveries in the New World.” During the European ravaging of America, the subaltern did speak, and what he said was that European social arrangements were stupid. He said so in the hearing of Frenchmen and Spaniards who went on to write books. Wengrow and Graeber quote Lahontan, speaking through his supposed Huron mouthpiece:
I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that’s not inhuman, and I genuinely think this can only be the case, as long as you stick to your distinctions of “mine” and “thine.” I affirm that what you call money is the devil of devils; the tyrant of the French, the source of all evils; the bane of souls and the slaughterhouse of the living. To imagine one can live in the country of money and preserve one’s soul is like imagining one could preserve one’s life at the bottom of a lake.
This is, indeed, a funny thing for a French baron to argue without at least a bit of prodding from outside. It’s giving Lahontan too much credit to think that this passage speaks strictly for him, and not for Kondiaronk. Native Americans thus “opened a conceptual door” that European thinkers went through, in Graeber and Wengrow’s telling. Lahontan’s fictionalization of Kondiaronk is only one example of this process, but it’s an example that was read by Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot. It indirectly inspired the conservative Turgot’s argument that egalitarianism was a stage that belonged to the earliest phases in humanity’s development. When Rousseau wrote his Discourse on Inequality, which Graeber and Wengrow call “the founding document of the left as an intellectual project,” he combined ideas of egalitarianism originally traceable to Native intellectuals like Kondiaronk with the conservative idea of a series of inevitable civilizational stages.
Are you dizzy yet? I hope not, because I have summarized here just the book’s opening chapters, ignoring as I go several important strands. The authors respond to Steven Pinker, Yuval Noah Harari, Francis Fukuyama; they question whether it’s worthwhile to debate the “origins of inequality” at all (the term “inequality” means too many things); they drop a number of funny and thought-provoking aphorisms. (“All real progress in social science has been rooted in the courage to say things that are, in the final analysis, slightly ridiculous.”) They give you a quick history of the concept of the “noble savage,” which doesn’t mean quite what you think it means. The pace and scope of The Dawn of Everything will be familiar to those who have read, for example, Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011), a book that served as a sort of intellectual charter for Occupy Wall Street. The main argument may seem to disappear amid side quests, but every idea ultimately matters. You’ll want to keep good notes, but to the extent that the book is difficult, it is the difficulty that is inseparable from richness. Sentence by sentence, it is clear and forceful and funny, memorable in the manner of a lecture by the kind of professor whose students know they are lucky. From one end to the other, The Dawn of Everything entertains even more than it challenges. The writers know more than I ever will about everything, but they speak to the reader as Kondiaronk might have spoken to Lahontan: one rational creature to another, asking Why must things be this way?
Such intercourse between equals may have been a much more prominent feature of the deep human past than a person reared on fantasies of club-wielding cavemen and Conan-like warriors might assume. Thus far, Graeber and Wengrow agree with the now-familiar idea of hunter-gatherers as “the original affluent society,” to quote an influential essay by Graeber’s old dissertation advisor Marshall Sahlins. But archeological discoveries in the two generations since Sahlins complicate his vision of Spartan simplicity yielding to Athenian complexity. The authors’ main claim, anyway, is not that early human beings were simply “more equal” or, as in the opposing myth, “more stupid and violent.” It’s that they were more everything. For starters, our species was not even the only “human” species kicking around for most of our history—we interbred with the Neanderthals and Denisovans, moving through “a world inhabited by hobbits, giants and elves,” a world that dwindled down to Homo sapiens over tens of thousands of years. We have no real reason to think that this dwindling was inevitable. And anthropological, historical, and archeological evidence alike suggest the possibility that many other seemingly inevitable parts of human history originated, too, from happenstance: as play, as ritual, as simple human dinking around. (Ancient Mesoamericans figured out how wheels worked, then gave them to their children as toys, rather than using them to conquer the world.) As ancient peoples experimented with a variety of social arrangements we can only begin to guess at, often varying their lifeways with the season, they were encouraged in various directions by “schismogenesis,” the anthropologist’s term for the tendency of human groups to define themselves against each other. (This concept, of which Graeber and Wengrow give many examples, was a useful one to encounter at a moment when many adults in this country have suddenly decided that getting your shots is a practice best left to citified decadents.) It isn’t a story of civilization created by grain surplus resulting from the scaling up of small, newly settled groups. It’s a story in which seasonal hobby farming led to settled farming and “play kingdoms”—ritual experiments in hierarchy, such as you may see during seasonal festivals (“the May queen,” etc.)—led to real kingdoms.