Making Room for Happenstance

‘The Dawn of Everything’
Ancient carving of a standing figure from Göbekli Tepe (Robert Landau/Alamy Stock Photo)

If you learned the same story about the origins of civilization that I did, what you learned went something like this. Once upon a time, we hunted and gathered in small, egalitarian, insular bands, probably family groups. (Not quite! Hunter-gatherers traveled great distances, and contemporary hunter-gatherer bands, at least, are not that closely related.) These groups couldn’t undertake large-scale wars, but raiding and feuding were constant, and members who couldn’t hunt were out of luck. (Never mind the archeological evidence that some disabled people in prehistory led long lives.) They traveled light and kept their social organization flat and simple. (Well, except for the complex burial sites that we’re finding more and more of, and that massive complex at Göbekli Tepe.) At some undisclosed point in time—perhaps in response to environmental pressures during the Younger Dryas—a few of these groups switched to sedentary farming and domestication. (Actually, the birth of farming happened in a number of times and places, and the practice was often a seasonal sideline that didn’t involve permanent settlement.) This process led to the creation of agricultural surplus, and the need to decide who controlled this surplus led in turn to patriarchy, priestcraft, cities, and kings; to class division; to states with their eternal wars. But it also led to art, thought, writing, penicillin: to the possibility of social complexity. Pick your poison. 

David Wengrow, an archeologist, and his co-writer, the late David Graeber, an anthropologist, do not tell this story in The Dawn of Everything, their sweeping survey of human prehistory. They are dissatisfied with the idea that we have either fallen from a Rousseauian paradise or fought our way up from a Hobbesian nightmare. They discern in this idea a secularized version of the myth of the Fall, and, more to the point, it doesn’t fit the archaeological evidence. They do not begin with, say, the birth of agriculture or the story of Gilgamesh. They begin with the Enlightenment, with Hobbes and Rousseau and—perhaps more interesting than either—the Huron-Wendat diplomat and intellectual Kondiaronk. It’s a canny move, one that acknowledges that, with prehistory, our ideas are rooted more in modern speculation than in the ancient evidence, some of which is only now coming to light, and most of which never will.

What if Enlightenment philosophes were themselves, in part, the creation of indigenous American intellectuals?

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. 

 

Graeber and Wengrow’s main argument may seem to disappear amid side quests, but every idea ultimately matters.

Over many teeming chapters, Graeber and Wengrow converge on an argument that they helpfully “recap” late in the book as follows:

Neolithic farming began in Southwest Asia as a series of local specializations in crop-raising and animal herding, scattered across various parts of the region, with no epicentre. These local strategies were pursued, it seems, in order to sustain access to trade partnerships and optimal locations for hunting and gathering, which continued unabated alongside cultivation.... This trade might well have had more to do with sociability, romance or adventure than material advantage as we’d normally conceive it. Still, whatever the reasons, over thousands of years such local innovations—everything from non-shattering wheat to docile sheep—were exchanged between villages, producing a degree of uniformity among a coalition of societies across the Middle East. A standard “package” of mixed farming emerged, from the Iranian Zagros to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and then spread beyond it...with very mixed success.... Much of this Neolithic lifestyle developed alongside an alternative cultural pattern in the steppe and upland zones of the Fertile Crescent, most clearly distinguished by the building of grand monuments in stone, and by a symbolism of male virility and predation that largely excluded female concerns. 

If that last bit sounds faintly essentialist, it’s not the only such case. One of the minor themes in this symphony of an argument is the idea that the concept of “prehistoric matriarchy” deserves reappraisal. A late, vividly written passage, for example, eulogizes the apparently woman-centered Minoan Cretan civilization, which “unfolds to the undulating rhythms of the sea.” I am all for the idea that misogyny is not some human default, or an automatic outgrowth of civilizational complexity, but the very human changeability that this book argues so powerfully for also suggests that our gender binary, with its associated symbolism, might also be too provincial and particular to impose on ancient peoples. (Might not one imagine some ancient Cretan who thinks that undulating is rather boyish? Or some lost Denisovan tribe who think that the sea is beyond the genders—all six of them?) This isn’t some major flaw in their argument. It’s just a moment of glibness in a book so long and ambitious that the occasional stumble would be hard for the authors to avoid, and so generally excellent that it’s hard for the reader not to notice. 

There are a few other moments like this, and the most irritating ones are frontloaded within the book. Right on the first page, where the authors do the reader the favor of spelling out the moral conclusion that they want us to draw from prehistory—that the world has been many ways, and neither history nor the future are set in stone (true!)—they make the same claim about morality. They say that it is something humans “made up.” “Moral claims are all made up, so we should come up with some new ones” is, of course, an argument that unsays itself even as it is being said. The authors obviously don’t want us to take this idea too much to heart, because it would undermine the book’s considerable moral force. Similarly, the writers’ irritation with the narrative of the Fall, and apparently with the entire book of Genesis—at one point they call it a “charter for the hatred of women,” which will come as news to at least some of the feminist exegetes working in the traditions it inspired—means that they fail to take seriously one of its most important implications: Eden is irrecoverable. It’s an unfindable, unmappable world separated from us by a metaphysical barrier, a sword that turneth every which way. We’re not supposed to think of our loss of it as a historical moment that we could undo. There is no direction to go from it but outward.

These are ultimately quibbles about a great book. The authors have organized a profusion of ideas, details, and explanatory paradigms into a vast but comprehensible design, while never ceasing to delight and instruct. Most of all, the book’s moral argument—which, again, the authors make quite openly, even if they feint at the kind of relativism that would invalidate the whole enterprise—could hardly be more pertinent. So many people feel caught up in some inevitable, terminal historical logic or other: decline, decadence, the surveillance state, the capitalist death drive. We all feel the ecological screws tightening upon us—tightened, in a roundabout way, by us, or by some of us. But humanity has lived more lives than anyone has written down. We need to end the burning of carbon for profit, and we need to prepare for a hotter, more crowded planet. But we also need to remember that we can and will surprise ourselves. 

The Dawn of Everything
A New History of Humanity

David Graeber and David Wengrow
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$35 | 704 pp.

Published in the December 2021 issue: 

Phil Christman is a lecturer at the University of Michigan and the author of Midwest Futures.

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