One August night in 2020, anthropologist and anarchist activist David Graeber, famed as one of the first organizers of Occupy Wall Street, took to Twitter to make the humble announcement.
“My brain feels bruised in numbing confusion” he wrote, riffing on a Doors lyric. “Finished?”
He was talking about a book he’s been working on for nearly a decade with archaeologist David Wengrow, which he considered the most arrogant goal to turn upside down everything we thought we knew about the origins and evolution of human societies.
Even before the Occupy movement made him famous, Graeber was hailed as one of the brightest minds in his field. However, his most ambitious book was also his last. A month after the Twitter announcement, 59-year-old Graeber said: died suddenly necrotizing pancreatitis, causing shock spilling of tribute from scientists, activists and friends around the world.
“The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity” from Farrar Straus and Giroux, released November 9, follows the standard narrative that has become popular with mega-sellers like Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens” and Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs.” may or may not change. and Steel.” But he has already collected a series superior-spiked (if not completely critical) comments. Three weeks before its release, after suddenly hitting #2 on Amazon, the publisher ordered 75,000 more copies on top of 50,000 first editions.
In a video interview last month, Wengrow, a professor at University College London, took on a tone of fake glory to utter one of Graeber’s favorite slogans: “Starting with the past, we will change the course of human history.”
More seriously, Wengrow said that “Dawn of Everything,” which weighs 704 pages, including a 63-page bibliography, aims to synthesize new archaeological discoveries that have not been removed from the specialist journals of the past decades. public consciousness.
“A whole new picture of human past and human possibility seems to be emerging,” he said. “And it really doesn’t look like these very rooted stories going around.”
There are differences between the bestsellers of Big History by Harari, Diamond, and others. But Graeber and Wengrow argue that they are based on a similar narrative of linear progression (or decline, depending on your perspective).
According to this story, almost nothing happened during the first 300,000 years after Homo sapiens arose. People everywhere lived in small, egalitarian groups of hunter-gatherers until the sudden invention of agriculture, around 9,000 BC, led to settled societies and states based on inequality, hierarchy, and bureaucracy.
But all this is wrong, according to Graeber and Wengrow. The recent archaeological discoveries they wrote show that early humans consciously experienced “a carnival parade of political forms,” far from being automatons blindly moving through evolutionary key steps in response to material pressures.
It’s a more accurate story, but it’s also a “more hopeful and more interesting” story.
“We are all projects of collective self-creation,” they write. “Instead of telling the story of how our society fell from a state of idyllic equality, asking how we are trapped in conceptual shackles so tight that we cannot even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves?”
The book’s origins date back to 2011, when Wengrow was working at New York University, whose archaeological fieldwork focused on Africa and the Middle East. The two had met a few years ago when Graeber was looking for a job after Yale in England. refused to renew his contract, for unexplained reasons that he and others see in relation to his anarchist politics.
In New York, the two men sometimes met over dinner for a broad conversation. After Wengrow returned to London, Graeber “started sending me notes about what I had written,” Wengrow recalls. “Exchanges exploded until we realized we were almost writing a book over email.”
At first they thought this might be a short book on the origins of social inequality. But they soon started to feel like the question was – A chestnut returning to the Enlightenment – it was all wrong.
“The more I think about it, why frame human history around this question?” we thought. said Wengrow. “Assuming there was once something else.”
Wengrow, a 49-year-old Oxford-educated academic, generally a professor in more standard subjects than the wrinkled Graeber, said the relationship was a true partnership. Like many, he spoke with admiration of Graeber’s genius (as a teenager, a much-repeated story goes, his hobby of deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs caught the attention of professional archaeologists) and what he described as his extraordinary generosity.
“David was one of the Amazon village chiefs who was always the poorest man in the village as his whole function was to distribute things,” Wengrow said. “He just had the ability to mind his own business and sprinkle magic dust on everything.”
The most recent major histories are geographers, economists, psychologists and political scientists, many write under the guiding framework of biological evolution. (In a brazen footnote assessing the expertise of competing Grand Historians, they describe Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, as a “doctor in gallbladder physiology.”)
By contrast, Graeber and Wengrow write in the great tradition of social theory from Weber, Durkheim, and Levi-Strauss. in 2011 blog postGraeber remembered how it happened after reading a friend’s similarly sweeping post. “Debt: The First 5000 Years” He said he wasn’t sure anyone had written a book like this in 100 years. “I’m still not sure that’s a compliment,” Graeber joked.
“Dawn of All Things” features debates over the burials of princes in ice-age Europe, attitudes to slavery among Indigenous communities in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, the political implications of riverbed farming versus arid land, and the complexity of pre-farming agriculture. Settlements in Japan, among many other topics.
But the dazzling range of references raises a question: Who will decide whether this is true?
Reviewing the book on The Nation, historian Daniel Immerwahr described Graeber as a “wildly creative thinker” “better known for being interesting than being right” and asking whether the book’s confident leaps and hypotheses can be “trusted”.
And Immerwahr acknowledged at least one claim—that colonial American settlers captured “almost invariably” by Native Americans chose to stay with them—that “ballistically incorrect” was the authors’ only source of citations (a 1977). thesis) “actually argues the opposite.”
Wengrow said it was Immerwahr who misread the source. And he noted that he and Graeber took care to publish the book’s main arguments in itself. leading peer-reviewed scientific journals or deliver as some of the most prestigious invited lectures within the field.
“I remember thinking then, why do we have to get ourselves into this?” Wengrow talked about the process. “We are reasonably entrenched in our fields. But it was David who was adamant that it was very important.”
James C Scott, a distinguished political scientist At Yale, the 2017 book “Against the Grains: A Deep History of the Most Ancient States” He said that some of Graeber and Wengrow’s arguments, like his own, will inevitably be “thrown out” as other scientists grapple with them.
But he said the two men dealt a “deadly blow” to the already weakened idea that settling in agricultural states was what people had been “expecting to do all along.”
But the most striking part of “Dawn of Everything,” Scott, is an early part of what the writers call “Domestic criticism.” Rather than being a gift of wisdom bestowed on the rest of the world, the European Enlightenment, they argue, arose out of dialogue with the Indigenous peoples of the New World whose keen assessments of the shortcomings of European society influenced ideas of freedom.
“I bet it has a huge impact on our understanding of the relationship between the West and the rest,” Scott said.
“Dawn of All Things” sees widespread evidence for large complex societies that thrive without the presence of the state, and defines freedom essentially as “freedom to disobey.” It’s easy to see how such arguments fit in with Graeber’s anarchist beliefs, but Wengrow came back to a question about the politics of the book.
“I’m not particularly interested in discussions that start with sticking a label on a piece of research,” he said. “It almost never happens with scholars leaning to the right.”
But if the book helps convince people that “another world is possible,” in the words of the Occupy slogan, it’s not unintentional.
“We’ve reached the stage of history where there are scientists and activists who agree that our dominance system is leading us and our planet into real catastrophe,” Wengrow said. “Finding yourself paralyzed when your horizons are closed by false visions of human possibilities based on a mythological understanding of history is not a great place to be.”