Exhaustive claims about the history of humanity can be found in a litany of boldly titled bestsellers such as Sapiens, The World Until Yesterday, The Origins of Political Order and so on. What these books offer are versions of origin myths; after some decisive rupture, humanity either fell from a peaceful state of nature or it progressed out of a brutish war of all against all, echoing theorists Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Thomas Hobbes. In each version the story goes that as societies become more complex, self-reflexive, wealthy and “civilised”, they inevitably became less egalitarian.
In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, activist and anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow reject the notion that the shape of past human societies has largely been determined by a series of revolutionary breakthroughs – agricultural revolution, urban revolution, industrial revolution – leading us out of a peaceful life of foraging and into sedentary agriculture, property, cities and the accompanying hierarchies and inequality.
Colonial appropriation of Indigenous lands through legal fallacies such as terra nullius were often underscored by the assertion that foraging peoples were living in a state of nature and therefore had no legal claim to the land. Drawing on new archaeological and anthropological research and revisiting old findings, Graeber and Wengrow explain that this simply isn’t true. Agriculture was by no means the advent of “civilisation”, and it has no single origin. One of their examples is the excavations at Poverty Point in present-day Louisiana that show Native Americans erected monumental earthworks about 1600BC for mass gatherings and ceremonies, attracting visitors from hundreds of kilometres away – evidence contradicting the notion that hunter-gatherers lived simple, nomadic lives.
Graeber, who died last year aged 59, was a well-known anarchist and an intellectual leader of Occupy Wall Street. This playful yet rigorous book is bolstered by an anti-statist anthropological approach. The co-authors demonstrate that if the rise of agriculture isn’t what gave humanity its complexity, richness and asymmetrical power structures, the current dire state of things could have been different – and still might be. They write: “Nowadays, most of us find it increasingly difficult even to picture what an alternative economic or social order would be like.”
By looking closely at human history, the authors pay attention to what Indigenous peoples have always known. We could expand our collective understanding by taking up the call to teach First Nations history in schools around the country, as was recently proposed by Yorta Yorta and Gunditjmara musician Isaiah Firebrace in a petition delivered to parliament with more than 290,000 signatures.
The Dawn of Everything re-examines fundamental assumptions underpinning conventional versions of human history. It is a chronicle of the myriad ways past societies lived, enticing us to reimagine what we might become.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 704pp, $65
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 11, 2021 as "The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, David Graeber and David Wengrow ".
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