The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

by David Graeber

Hardcover, 2021

Publication

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2021), 704 pages

Description

"A trailblazing account of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution-from the development of agriculture and cities to the emergence of "the state," political violence, and social inequality-and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation"--

User reviews

LibraryThing member dchaikin
Abandoned 1/4 way in on audio. It's manipulative and I don't want to spend my audiobook time dealing with that. If you like authors who poke holes in obviously unsupported arguments that no one still maintains, and then fill those holes in with their own unsupported ideas, and expressed with
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self-confidant gusto, this is your book.
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LibraryThing member Paul_S
A bit infuriating to read. The authors keep saying the same thing over and over trying to convince me through repetition. I also don't go along with their core premise that lack of evidence is evidence of absence. Every time they see a hole in evidence or an unjustified explanation of history they
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rush to demolish it and fill it with their preferred interpretation with no evidence of their own. The amount of words like "probably" and "undoubtedly" is unwarranted.
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LibraryThing member the.ken.petersen
A good book, in my view, is one that, once I have read it and taken its concepts on board; I think them to be so obvious that any other view would be ridiculous but, I also know that I would never have been able to reach this perspective without the author's input.

This is a good book.

I am intrigued
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by tomes, such as this, which take views which are universally accepted and question them. Life is rarely as simple as unquestionable propositions suggest it should be. Graeber and Wengrow ask the age old question, "When did our societies fall from grace into the mess that they now are?*

Under normal circumstances, one of two answers are possible; firstly, one may suggest a time and/or place in history when the fall occurred, or secondly, deny that such a fall took place. What our authors do, is to show that we would be asking the wrong question. Human society is not that linear.

We are taken on a tour of pre-history; i.e. that time before copious written records provide strong clues as to what is occurring. We see that civilisations, or societies have developed through many different routes: that not all, by any means, have developed from free spirited to authoritarian in some essential form of progression and that the way things are now is neither the inexorable result of history or, necessarily, the final destination. We have the ability to live a different lifestyle.
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LibraryThing member quartzite
This book has some interesting new information from recent archeological research that helps build a more complex and interesting picture of prehistoric societies. Unfortunately it is not a history as titled, but a rather tedious and haranguing polemic. Their intriguing premises were badly argued
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mainly with demolished strawmen, shifting definitions suit, frequently citing the absence of evidence as the evidence of absence, and whole suite of logical fallacies.

If they had just presented the evidence and added their interpretations of what some it might mean it would have been great. The constant attack on "silly ideas" supposedly espoused by "very serious people" undermined their own claim to seriousness.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
Sprawling and fascinating, though already subject to challenge on questions like “did whites captured by Native peoples routinely decide that Native ways of living were better?” The core of the book is the argument that there is no natural evolution from farming to autocracy to (hopefully)
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democracy/republican government. Instead, lots of governance formations have been possible and tried over the course of history, and sedentary farming is not correlated with the rise of kings in the way we casually learned in school; matters are far more contingent and complex, though raider-kings are often seen on the periphery of settled cities. “Roughly 6,000 years stand between the appearance of the first farmers in the Middle East and the rise of what we are used to calling the first states; and in many parts of the world, farming never led to the emergence of anything remotely like those states.” Different peoples seem to have rejected authoritarian politics, or allowed them at some times of the year and not at others. Some forager cultures valued leisure over hard work; others did the opposite (e.g., in Northwestern California). The domain of ritual authority, which enables claims of exclusive ownership—of secret knowledge, usually—has regularly contended with egalitarianism in other areas of life. We are not as stuck as we think. Even the use of torture to cement a community can play out in different ways—in Europe torture showed the power of the sovereign over everyone, but in Wendat cultures in what’s now America, torture was applied to non-member warriors to highlight that violence was entirely unacceptable within the community.

They survey lots of different periods and kinds of evidence, finding plenty of cities without kings in the historical record. Part of this is about asymmetrical standards of proof: “Scholars tend to demand clear and irrefutable evidence for the existence of democratic institutions of any sort in the distant past. It’s striking how they never demand comparably rigorous proof for top-down structures of authority.”

Among the fascinating claims: Archaeologists now treat mass killings “as one of the more reliable indications that a process of ‘state formation’ was indeed under way.” At a ruler’s death, members of the royal household would be slaughtered in “the first few generations of the founding of a new empire or kingdom,” and then the process would fade to nothing or to symbolism. This assertion of power over the household was a process of “turning violence into kinship,” related to slavery (where people who cared physically for other people were defined as property) and to the way that “all the kings’ subjects are imagined as members of the royal household.” They speculate that monarchy’s appeal
has something to do with its ability to mobilize sentiments of a caring nature and abject terror at the same time. The king is both the ultimate individual, his quirks and fancies always to be indulged like a spoilt baby, and at the same time the ultimate abstraction, since his powers over mass violence, and often (as in Egypt) mass production, can render everyone the same. It is also worth observing that monarchy is probably the only prominent system of government we know of in which children are crucial players … [I]nfants, pure objects of love and nurture, are only politically important in kingdoms and empires.
If you like this kind of thing, you might like the book. There’s also an extended discussion of the development of bureaucracy and accounting, which can be tools against inequality or for it. “[R]educing everything to numbers … provides a language of equity–but simultaneously ensures that there will always be some who fail to meet their quotas.” But that doesn’t mean they have to be expelled from the community—consistent with Graeber’s anarchist leanings, they suggest that, “[a]s anyone knows who has spent time in a rural community, or serving on a municipal or parish council of a large city, resolving such inequities might require many hours, possibly days of tedious discussion, but almost always a solution will be arrived at that no one finds entirely unfair.” Only large-scale sovereign power “and the resulting ability of the local enforcer to say, ‘Rules are rules; I don’t want to hear about it’ … allows bureaucratic mechanisms to become genuinely monstrous.”

There’s also a fascinating discussion of specialization. Although “it is often simply assumed that states begin when certain key functions of government–military, administrative and judicial–pass into the hands of full-time specialists,” they argue that almost no early states were actually staffed by full-time specialists; they didn’t have standing armies. Still, “[i]f ‘the state’ means anything, it refers to precisely the totalitarian impulse that lies behind all such claims, the desire effectively to make the ritual last forever.”

Despite its length, the book could have used more development of its claims about women’s work and women’s power. It argues that the key technologies of early civilizations— “fabrics and basketry, the potter’s wheel, stone industries and beadwork, the sail and maritime navigation, and so on”—were likely women’s technologies, and that the concentration of power in individual hands was “accompanied by the marginalization of women, if not their violent subordination,” but doesn’t give as much attention to whether this, like other aspects of society, was actually flexible. Still, I liked the discussion of Minoan civilization, which seems to have involved a lot of female power, despite scholarly interpretations that downplay it “as clearly different, but ultimately impenetrable (a gendered sentiment if ever there was one).”

I haven’t even gotten into the discussion of whether the freedom of movement—the freedom to leave a situation you don’t like—is the foundation of all other freedoms and the thing that, once gone, often leads to autocracy. Or the question of how Native thinkers in America influenced Enlightenment thinkers in Europe, filtered through their preconceptions but also challenging their claims of moral authority. There’s a lot here, is what I’m saying.
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LibraryThing member waldhaus1
The authors start with a fundamental debating question: why are most human societies hierarchical. While conventional wisdom is that they are the result of social complexity which is necessary to support ever larger populations. The authors argue that neither complexity nor hierarchy is necessary
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for advanced societies or to support large populations. They argue from days provided by relatively recent archeological and anthropological discoveries. As a larger I'm not on a position to judges their data butt thought provoking questions are being raised.
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LibraryThing member willszal
"Debt: The First 5,000 Years" was an influential book for me when it came out. I was heartbroken to hear of David Graeber's death last year; I had always hoped to meet him.

So it is a lovely gift to get to read this book that has so much of Graeber in it. Apparently he and Wengrow have been working
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on it for the past decade.

The aim of this book is to reframe what is possible in societal relationships and power structures. As the book is written by an anthropologist and an archeologist, the epistemology here is that, if people have done it before, they can do it again. I find this actually weakens their argument, by creating a rational framework rather than one that inherently values good human relationships. What if it turns out the archeological interpretations presented in this book are wrong? Well then, I guess inequality is the only thing that is possible! I'm joking, but this is the kind of rhetoric the authors embrace through framing their arguments as they do.

This book is dominated by two themes: feminism and indigenous society. In our current age of identity politics, the fact that there are no female or indigeneous coauthors is a significant liability. Neoliberals and fascists will say the book is too anarchist to take seriously; leftists will say the book should have been coauthored by the communities described to be taken seriously.

The other weakness of the book it that it is overly analytical (rather than illustrative). One of the primary rhetorical arcs takes issue with the question, "what are the original of inequality?" By committing to this bent, the authors imply that inequality is eternal and ubiquitous. In the conclusion, they note that this wasn't what they were trying to say; so why did they lean so heavily on an argument based in saying "this isn't what we're saying?"

These weaknesses aside, there are a number of strengths to the book. Similar to the themes covered in Astra Taylor's "Democracy May Not Exist, But We'll Miss It When It's Gone," this book discusses the Native American influence on the conception of freedom and democracy. It also points out that Europeans during the Enlightenment were committed to inequality in a way that many leftists today would find repulsive (although a significant portion of voters do not).

There are a number of beautiful stories. One I especially enjoyed was about the importance of dreams to some Native American nations; if you dreamt something, you had the right and obligation to enact the dream, even if it meant taking possession of someone else's property, etc.

Overall, this book could turn out to be every bit as influential as "Debt: The First 5,000 Years." I hope it will be!
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LibraryThing member deusvitae
As advertised: a reconsideration of the presuppositions of Western thought regarding the socio-cultural/political development of humanity.

You know the story: people started out in family groups, then started living in clans and tribes. Then we found agriculture and started living in cities. As
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complexity developed, so did the hierarchical structures deemed necessary to manage and maintain that complexity.

If nothing else, Graeber and Wengrow do well at showing how entirely mythological this story proves to be.

They start by wondering how it could be that the French all of a sudden begin wondering what was lost with agriculture and settled life, and their answer involves engagement with Indigenous Americans who lived in very different kinds of social arrangements than the French did. So why did Rousseau suggest what he suggested about humanity and the state of nature and the social contract? And Turgot, Burke, et al reacted and responded in light of the French Revolution in their attempts to uphold the integrity of the system which was developed.

We've shrugged off a good chunk of what those gentlemen believed about humanity and reality for many reasons. And now Graeber and Wengrow do well at showing that their stories, as understandable as they might be at that age and time, cannot be sustained by the evidence of what we can know from archaeological explorations.

The majority of the book explores what we currently know about ancient societies and cultures from the Palaeolithic until the development of what we call "states," and powerfully shows how previous humans were not dumb, and were continually experimenting with different types of social structures. Some were patriarchal and enslaving; others more matriarchal and "egalitarian" (and the authors discuss the problem of that word and what gets assumed with it); and all sorts of things in-between. Many times cultures go through "schismogenesis," in which they take on certain customs in order to differentiate themselves from another culture nearby. The authors show that humans didn't just automatically take to farming but seemed to have gone through a few thousand years of "play farming," growing some crops where convenient while also foraging and moving around in order to take advantage of natural food sources. And plenty lived in fully fledged cities at the time...cities existed before pervasive agriculture.

And there is evidence of cities in the 'Ubaid period, in Ukraine, Mesopotamia, and India, that do not show evidence of centralized bureaucracy or control; in the New World as well. Societies have lived in cities without writing, without extremely centralized control, etc.

If anything, most of the "big man" story of history is shown to be what happens when you have significant inequality and people trying to propagandize for themselves and justify their oppressive tendencies. The times of "weakness" and "chaos" might contain within them times when people had a bit more equality and a little less oppression. Why do we always think the centralized state with its oppressive locus of control is the way things should be?

The authors conclude by returning to the New World and suggesting that the cultures which the Europeans encountered had recently gone through a major transition away from the centralized "Mississippian" culture to more localized and "democratized" understanding of magical things and political deliberations. Not universally, of course; but such are reflected from the Osage in the Midwest to the Iroquois confederation in the Great Lakes. And these are the men who were brought to France and likely conversed with many of the philosophes of the age.

This book should be read by anyone who has any interest in history. Even if you don't like their answers, their questions should at least set the tone of the conversation from here on out.
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LibraryThing member snash
Not only an examination of the latest discoveries in archeology and anthropology, but an attempt to synthesize those findings. With the realization that present information does not fit beliefs as to the inevitability of our present social systems, the authors suggest that numerous options have
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existed for ages and any of them or something new should be possible now.
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LibraryThing member Shrike58
Oh is this work a sprawling, roundabout, hash, and it strikes me that there had to be a more efficient way to teach the lessons being imparted; I still like it quite a lot though. To put it another way, the authors could also have titled this book "Neither Hobbes, Nor Rousseau," as the bones they
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have to pick with the foundational roots of political science and sociology (and their pop successors) are quite on target. This is in terms how the social capabilities of small-scale societies have been underestimated, and how "civility" can exist without an administrative, extractive, police state to back up "order." I also enjoyed many of the case studies for their own sake.

Still, there are ways that Graeber & Wengrow, as an anthropologist and an archaeologist, didn't help themselves. While they have issues with a simple-minded application of evolutionary theory, they deny themselves certain other perspectives in playing with such a perspective. One is that a well-trained historian would look at the concepts being criticized and observe that they recognize "whiggery" when they see it; that is, the execution of the misconception that everything that has come before only existed to create our current exalted social peak. Two, true evolutionary thought recognizes that it is possible to become so well adapted to a given environment, that, when conditions change further adaptation is not possible in the given time horizon; leading to extinction, or at least collapse. Finally, speaking as a student of military history, anyone who has gotten through an undergrad class dealing with some modern war recognizes the concept of a culmination point, wherein a given operation has reached its practical end, and to push forward is to risk overreach. I certainly have no problem in accepting that a lot of our current social and administrative strategies have reach a culmination point, and I would so prefer not to live with the results when they crash!

All that said, the authors do seem to have their audience, and I can regret David Graeber's passing; I think that I would enjoy the further books that had been planned.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
For a few hundred years now, we have accepted a story about how civilizations advance. Human civilization started as small bands or tribes of warriors and hunter/gatherers, loosely organized in family groups. These societies may have been more egalitarian than our own, but that's largely because
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there was less power and wealth to be distributed unequally. All societies necessarily advance through Stone, Bronze, Iron, and Industrial Ages. One always leads to the other. All societies develop agriculture, and agriculture brings about a major change in the entire structure of society: taming the land requires land ownership, planning for the future, storing seeds and surpluses, and distributing the fruits of agricultural labor. That necessarily brings about the ownership of property, a top-down government to organize the labor and distribute the surplus, and increased inequality. Once you have agriculture, you can have urbanization, and you can't have cities without more government, authority, and bureaucracy. Once the cat is out of the bag, you can't put it back: once you have had your agricultural and urban revolutions, your civilization must continue to move in the direction that we perceive as forward, which goes through increasingly authoritarian states but ultimately reaches democracy, the pinnacle of human society. Inequality might suck, but it is the inevitable price we must pay for the luxury of agriculture and urbanization.

This book systematically tears down every single piece of that story.

Graeber and Wengrow build their argument very carefully, leading the reader every step of the way. They show that early human civilizations were far more varied and creative in their political structures than we give them credit for, and that they made deliberate decisions about how to structure their societies. Pre-agricultural societies could and did create cities, some of which thrived for hundreds of years. Societies worldwide experimented with various political structures, and there is nothing inevitable about any political system: political systems were deliberately chosen based on experimentation, a desire to be different from neighboring peoples, and careful deliberation about the results of a political system.

They also clearly show that societies do not inevitably go in a linear fashion from one age to another, but can go back and forth and skip around. Even more interestingly, they show that agriculture was not a revolution, and that lots of societies experimented with agriculture but didn't adopt it. They call this "play farming" - people might toss some seeds into the soils left by a receding river and come collect the plants the next season, but it took thousands of years, even in the Fertile Crescent, for people to really commit to the agricultural way of life. They also show that agriculture and the large-scale organization of labor does not necessarily require land ownership or a centralized government. People are perfectly capable of organizing labor in a communal fashion.

The accepted narrative is extremely Euro-centric: anyone who has studied (or, you know, talked to) Native Americans can tell you that agriculture does not have to require land ownership, monocrops, and authoritative governments. Graeber and Wengrow demonstrate that that entire narrative was built by Rousseau, who was engaged in a debate about the nature of governments which would not have taken place if Native American thinkers hadn't criticized European governments. In other words, the Native Americans that engaged with Enlightenment thinkers were sophisticated, intelligent, and participated in political discourse with Europeans.

Wengrow and Graeber also emphasize the importance of women in the history of humanity. They show that there have been societies where women wielded more political power than men, even if archaeologists have been hesitant to acknowledge it. They emphasize that in the history of technology, we have always primarily discussed the importance of weapons and tools associated with masculine labor, but have failed to acknowledge that women's crafts such as making textiles have had a far bigger impact on history. I genuinely appreciate this discussion of the importance of women's work to the creation of civilization, and I would like to see more discussion of it. However, they never explained what they define as women's work, or how they know it was done by women instead of men: given how they are throwing all of our other assumptions out the window, it doesn't seem safe to assume that textiles were always made by women everywhere.

Anthropology often makes me squeamish for several reasons, and one of the biggest is that anthropologists often make comparisons or generalizations across vast expanses of time and space, and often include times and places in which they have no expertise. With a lot of anthropological works, just getting one part of the source material wrong will invalidate the entire argument. Graeber and Wengrow are covering the entire expanse of human history, so naturally they can't be experts in everything they are discussing. However, they present such a giant heap of evidence that even if some of the details of their argument turn out to be wrong, or misinterpreted, the big-picture view of their argument will still stand, or enough of their argument will still stand to be a totally revolutionary view of human history.

This book has already generated quite a bit of controversy, and will continue to do so. I am sure that scholars will pick apart parts of their argument. It's even possible that a lot of it will be debunked. But in the meantime, this book brings up some very important questions that scholars need to answer, and opens up entire new realms of possibility not only for studying our past, but for understanding our present and our future. Ultimately, the reason Graeber and Wengrow even began asking these questions is because they're trying to understand how humanity ended up in its current place of vast inequality and authoritarianism, and ultimately, how we can get out of it. In other words, studying the political structure of societies ten thousand years ago isn't just an academic exercise, but one that could solve existential problems for people who are suffering today.

I want to end the review by quoting a passage that I found fascinating:
"‘Gardens of Adonis’ are a fitting symbol here. Knowledge about the nutritious properties and growth cycles of what would later become staple crops, feeding vast populations – wheat, rice, corn – was initially maintained through ritual play farming of exactly this sort. Nor was this pattern of discovery limited to crops. Ceramics were first invented, long before the Neolithic, to make figurines, miniature models of animals and other subjects, and only later cooking and storage vessels. Mining is first attested as a way of obtaining minerals to be used as pigments, with the extraction of metals for industrial use coming only much later. Mesoamerican societies never employed wheeled transport; but we know they were familiar with spokes, wheels and axles since they made toy versions of them for children. Greek scientists famously came up with the principle of the steam engine, but only employed it to make temple doors that appeared to open of their own accord, or similar theatrical illusions. Chinese scientists, equally famously, first employed gunpowder for fireworks."

Agriculture, ceramics, mining, steam power, and fireworks only seem like revolutionary inventions with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, they were just silly little fun things that people do because people like doing silly little fun things. Just think how different the world would be if everything were a playful experiment instead of part of a struggle to survive.
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LibraryThing member sashame
there r a handful of ideas here worth pursuing

the "3 freedoms" and "3 kinds of domination" r interesting (tho they r neither original nor r they analyzed at any depth)

there r some potent suggestions, e.g. sacrality as the origin of property, or abt the distinction/confusion bw care and violence as
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underpinning sovereign human kingship

theres several cases which u could pull out at a dinner table debate to amaze and surprise

the book pulls together and points towards a synthesis of a diverse number of different arguments and bodies of evidence, but stops short of doing any serious creative theorizing or drawing any concrete conclusions

its far longer than it needs to b, and plays w/manipulates facts far more than it needs to
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LibraryThing member mykl-s
Another big book of information, ideas, and conjectures, well organized, with a readable first chapter that clearly tells what it is about, and a final chapter, "Conclusion," that a gives the gist of its thought.
We humans have developed multiple kinds of cultures and societies. Our history and
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pre-history is complex. There is no simple explanation as to how we got where we are today, but it is all fascinating.
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LibraryThing member neurodrew
New archeology indicates there were multiple types of societal organization in prehistory.
The authors of this long and heavily referenced book argue that the usual summary of prehistory as a progression from hunter-gatherer, to agriculture, to tyranny and statehood is wrong, and that Hobbes
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characterization of life in pre-civilized society as "poor, nasty, brutish and short" is also incorrect. The most interesting suggestion is early in the book, with evidence that the European Enlightenment ideas of individual freedom may have been derived from contact with the native peoples of eastern North America. The French Jesuits who made initial contact with the Hurons, Wendats, and the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee in the early 17th century were impressed by the natives rhetorical and verbal powers, practiced in constant counsels. Freedom among the natives was the freedom to obey or disobey any order, and leaders had to persuade them to do anything. Kandiaronk (the muskrat) lead a coalition of four Iroquoian speaking tribes, the Wendats, and tried to prevent a fight with the Haudenosaunee, and later to oppose the French. In these societies, no man or woman was subordinated to another. Kandiaronk's words against Christianity were reported in the writings of Lahontan. Kandiaronk was sceptical that God would become man, and if he did, he would do so with pomp, in full view of everyone, giving everyone in the world the same laws and religion, not creating warring sects.

Quotes:

-"Why, after millennia of constructing and disassembling forms of hierachy, did homo sapiens - supposedly the wisest of apes - allow permanent and intractable systems of inequality to take root" (119)
-"...animals produce only exactly what they need; humans invariably produce more" (128)
"As St Augustine put it, we rebelled against God, and God's judgement was to cause our own desires to rebel against our rational good sense; our punishment for original sin is the infinity of our new desires" (139)
-Poverty Point, Louisiana, earthworks built in 1600 BC by native Americas, covering 200 hectares, more area than early cities in Eurasia (141)
-Jomon - a monolithic cultural destination in Japan, built by foragers from 14,000 BC (144)
"... indigenous critics of European civilization were already arguing that hunter-gatherers were really better off than other people because they could obtain the things they wanted and needed so easily." (148)
-"In Roman law there are three basic rights relating to possession: usus, the right of use; fructus, the right to use the products of the possession; and abusus, the right to damage or destroy" (161)
- Schismogenesis - how societies become deliberately different in many areas as they interact (180)
-"What makes a slave different from a serf, a peon, a captive or inmate is their lack of social ties. In legal terms, at least, a slave has no family, no kin, no community; they can make no promises and forge no ongoing connections with others" (187)
-On potlatch and art: "The result, among others, is that Northwest Coast artisitic traditions are still widely considered among the most dazzling the world has ever seen; immediately recognizable for their strong focus on the theme of exteriority - a world of masks, illusions and facades" (202)
-"The Gardens of Adonis ... were a sort of festive speed farming which produced no food ... In the dog days of summer, when nothing can grow, the worman of ancient Athens fashioned these little gardens in baskets and pots. Each held a mix of quick sprouting grain and herbs ... left to wilt in the sun: a botanical re-enactment of the premature death of Adonis, the fallen hunter ..."

-"Or consider one of Sigmund Freud's two favorite students: Otto Gross, an anarchist who in the years before the First World War developed a theory that the superego was in fact patriarchy, and needed to be destroyed so as to unleash the benevolent, matriarchal collective unconsciousness, which he saw as the hidden but still-living residue of the Neolithic" (215)

- The ecology of freedom describes the proclivity of human societies to move (freely) in and out of farming; to farm without fully becoming farmers; raise crops and animals without surrendering too much of one's existence to the logistical rigors of farming; and retain a food web sufficiently broad as to prevent cultivation from becoming a matter of life and death." (260)

- "What if everyone who ever died were all in one place? ... These 'invisible crowds', [Elias] Canetti proposed, were in a sense the first human cities, even if they existed only in the imagination." (276)

- The upper limit of close relationships that humans can form with each other is 150 persons. (279)

- [Basque villages and pre-historic Nebelivka in Ukraine] "... they provide an excellent illustration of how such circular arrangements can form a part of self-conscious egalitarian projects, in which 'everyone has neighbors to the right and neighbors to the left. No one is first and no one is the last' " (295)

- Aristocracies and monarchies may have arisen in raiding societies on the edges of egalitarian Mesopotamian towns (313)

- "If the visual arts of Teotihuacan celebrated anything, Pasztory insisted, then it was the community as a whole, and its collective values ..." (332)

- "... early Greek writers were well aware of the tendency for elections to throw up charismatic leaders with tyrannical pretensions. That is why they considered elections an aristocratic mode of political appointment, quite at odds with democratic principles; and why for much of European history, the truly democratic way of filling offices was assumed to be by lottery." (356)

- "We would like to suggest that these three principles - call them control of violence, control of information, and individual charisma - are also the three possible bases of social power." (365)

- "In his Configurations of Cultural Growth (1944) [Alfred] Kroeber examined the relation of the arts, philosophy, science and population across human history and found no evidence for any consistent pattern..." (379)

- [on divine kings] "The king's sovereignty extends about as far as the king himself can walk, reach, see, or be carried." (394)

- [Ayllu - Andean village associations that were self governing] [Inca bureaucrats] "By ignoring the unique history of every household, each individual, by reducing everything to numbers one provides an language of equity - but simultaneously ensures there will always be some who fail to meet their quotas, and therefore there will always be a supply of peons, pawns or slaves." (425)
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LibraryThing member Tytania
Where to begin reviewing a book weighing in at nearly 700 pages from title page to end of index?

We open and close with a lot about freedom. Our first section is totally arresting, as we delve into how the Americans who preceded Europeans on this continent viewed European culture: with disbelief and
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disdain at our lack of freedom. While we Eurocentric people have always tended to view ourselves as being quite free, our "formal" freedoms were as nothing compared to the "substantive" freedoms found in America.

More on that in a moment, but notice my avoidance of terms like "indigenous people" or "Native Americans". They were Americans. They lived here. I love the radical respect that the authors give to those people who lived in this place before us. And those Americans who engaged in thoughtful substantive debate with their European interlocuters, they rightfully refer to as philosophers, even "philosopher-statesmen".

So about those freedoms: we theoretically have the right to travel, but if we haven't got moolah, we effectively must stay put. Many of the earlier American societies had kinship networks far and wide, and people really could travel whenever and almost wherever they wanted, knowing they would have kin that would have their backs. We formally have the freedom to do whatever we like, but we have authorities we must obey. North Americans the Europeans first contacted often did not. Their chiefs had no real authority to make anyone do anything. In a great turn of phrase, the authors say "the Wendat [Huron tribe of native Quebec] had play chiefs and real freedoms, while most of us today have to make do with real chiefs and play freedoms."

And so the book continue with more of its radical upendings of our typical outlook on things. Pre-historical societies experimented with vast, vastly different ways of self-organizing. We weren't just "bands" (they always put that word in quotes) of ape-like hunter-gatherers, living in one particular default way, until bam, finally agriculture changed everything. We weren't always all the same and agriculture didn't all of a sudden change everything everywhere.

One item I couldn't help but bookmark: "There is an obvious objection to evolutionary models which assume that our strongest social ties are based on close biological kinship: many humans just don't like their families very much." I'm sorry, why isn't this called out more often? Most of us, given the slimmest of chances, will get as far away from our families as the train tracks will take us. Not that I have an axe to grind on this particular topic.

I'm sorry I can't do justice to more of the book, because there is much, much more. But these were my takeaways.
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LibraryThing member ritaer
It is impossible to summarize an almost 700 page book in a sentence or two. The authors observe that many recent discussions of human history attempt to explain the origins of inequality. There is also a strong belief that original human societies, bands of foragers, did not display inequality. The
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growth of inequality is usually seen as the result of the development of agriculture which was believed necessary for the development of specialists, rise of armies and autocratic leaders, either political, religious or both. The authors postulate three basic freedoms: freedom to move (I.e. relocate), freedom to disobey, and freedom to create or transform social relationships. They describe recent archaeological evidence that suggests that peoples in the past have deliberately retreated from and rebelled against oppressive societies such as the slave owning tribes of the Pacific Northwest, and the urban center of Cahokia, among others. They emphasize the idea that humans are active participants in the formation of culture, not helpless pawns of technological change. I really recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member annbury
This book challenges the standard narrative of how human civilization developed, which means that it also challenges the standard view of where we are now, and where we may go. It does this by looking at evidence -- the mass of new archeological and anthropological discoveries over the past forty
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years . It also (and simultaneously) shifts points of view, from Euro-centrism to a worldwide view with emphasis on the Western Hemisphere. And it proposes alternative views of what happened. This is an awful lot for one book, and can seem too much in the "could have been, was probably, was" vein, or too harshly critical of other scholars. But even so it really changed my views of the past. In the language of my youth, I would describe it as "mind blowing". In the language of today, I'll use the tamer "mind opening".
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LibraryThing member stellarexplorer
What if we ask ourselves how we come to be trapped in such tight conceptual shackles that we can no longer even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves? This is my paraphrasing of the authors’ simple yet provocative question, the one that motivates David Graeber and David Wengrow’s
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synthesis of decades of accumulating knowledge in anthropology and archeology. The sheer efficiency of that question pleases me, as I labored in deep concentration over a richly documented synthesis of a body of work. Surely no one person could possibly be expert in the fullness of this material. The back matter - endnotes, index and bibliography - of this encyclopedic work are fully 30% of that of the text. And as I read, rapt and consumed by topics that have driven me for much of my life, I wrestled with doubt that I could convey the essence of a book of such scale in short form like this.

If there is one essential thing to glean from the authors’ ten year effort, it is this: without knowing it, we have all been subject to a basic story about the last some 30,000 years of human history. Roughly this is a story about original small bands of human beings; the advent of sedentism and agriculture in the Neolithic Revolution; the rise of cities and empires; and the growth and complexification that bring about the political structures and social control requisite for large scale human societies. It is Graeber and Wengrow’s project to demonstrate that this conventional account - to use their schema - is wrong, is boring and comes with dire political implications. It is a myth that dates largely to the Enlightenment. In abandoning it we can begin to consider other narratives of human history. Not only are alternative social arrangements abundant historically, but the accumulating evidence offered by new scientific tools and the research of recent decades allow us to see an ossified false narrative. Actual human societies are far more varied and quirky, and far less limited than we need or should believe. Given that unchained history, future human societies may achieve far more freedom and variety than we tend to assume.

Any attempt to convey the evidence and even the full arguments presented would occupy a substantial fraction of the 526 pages the authors took. So I will offer a few ideas and examples from the book. I highly recommend exploring the entire synthesis.

The only possibility in this account is to oversimplify. The authors see the Enlightenment narrative stemming from the work of Jean-Jaques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes, whose nearly opposite accounts of history have been elaborated and reified over four centuries. In brief, for Rousseau, we began in freedom and only in settling into organized societies did we arrive at the current state of restriction and inequality, as humans “ran headlong to meet their chains”. For Hobbes, the original “state of nature” was notoriously “nasty, brutish and short”, and only by voluntarily surrendering to a central authority did people establish a “social contract” that protected them from the predations and misery of human life in its “uncivilized” state. Graeber and Wengrow argue that both narratives are wrong, and contributed to the emergence of views of human social arrangements that limit us intellectually, politically and socially.

For a practical illustration, consider the tendency toward explanations of human arrangements that suit our preexisting beliefs. For example, for centuries there have been people arguing for the existence of some kind of proto-economy or “primitive trade” very early in human history, based on the discovery of materials, precious stones, shells, etc. found hundreds or even thousands of miles from their original sources. However there are many other explanations for this distant dispersal. To share only one example, it is now understood that in many indigenous North American societies, women would play gambling games. Often they bet shells or other objects of personal adornment. One well known ethnographer estimates that many of the shells and other exotic materials found far across the continent arrived by the nonintuitive means of repeated wagering over a long period of time. This example not only indicates something of the explanatory limitations of motivated or biased conjecture, but shows the failure to account for the sheer wackiness - the authors use the word “quirky” - of human behavior, and how hard it is to anticipate its myriad forms.

One of the strengths of The Dawn of Everything is its ability to present familiar accounts of history whose faulty logic, upon exposure, can readily be seen. For example (and others have delved deeply into this area), they suggest that the role of foragers in the construct of the “Agricultural Revolution” is to stand for everything that farming is not, in order to help explain what farming and the agricultural life is. “If farmers are sedentary, foragers must be mobile; if farmers actively produce food, foragers must merely collect it; if farmers have private property, foragers must renounce it; and if farming societies are unequal, this is by contrast with the ‘innate’ egalitarianism of foragers. Finally, if any particular group of foragers should happen to possess any features in common with farmers, the dominant narrative demands that these can only be ‘incipient’, ‘emergent’ or deviant in nature, so that the destiny of foragers is either to ‘evolve’ into farmers, or eventual to wither and die.” We see how the prevailing concepts have defined our viewpoint, regardless of their reality.

Graeber and Wengrow review the evidence refuting that agriculture was adopted once humans learned its methods. Rather, many groups were uninterested, seeing it as unnecessary, even while understanding both the techniques involved and the attendant labor costs. It was adopted and rejected many times in many places, and there was apparently nothing inevitable about groups choosing to farm. Many other societies found ways to cultivate with minimal human involvement. And there is Richard Lee’s famous account of his discussion with an anonymous Bushman, who when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?”

Such is the flavor of the book. In miniature and abbreviation.

This is a provocative and important book. One of its brilliancies is that any particular claim or example can be questioned without altering the fundamental point. Some have objected to the characterization of Rousseau’s thinking. Others have challenged the notion of a Native American “Indigenous Critique” that influenced Enlightenment thinking. And so on. Such critiques, however regarded, alter little if at all the fundamental claim here. It is hard to imagine marshaling any evidence or material of this breadth and volume without eliciting objections among some. And even harder to reject the fundamental insight that, despite one’s doubts about certain particulars, humans have lived within an exceptional range of social choices and arrangements over a vast period of time. In this, the authors are incisive and persuasive. I find this point of view truthful and exhilarating!

So what if we ask ourselves how we come to be trapped in such tight conceptual shackles that we can no longer even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves? Graeber and Wengrow have rendered a liberating service: the invitation to regard ourselves and our history more clearly, with less bias. We see more clearly who we have been and who we are. Optimistically, with such awareness we envision future human life with greater freedom. And who couldn’t use an extra dollop of optimism right now?
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LibraryThing member CasSprout
This is important and should be taught to everyone.
LibraryThing member ffortsa
Graeber and his late partner reevaluated our standard picture of ancient civilizations based on recent evidence, and found old certainties seriously lacking in support, and sometimes even logic.. What characteristics of a society, if any, are inevitable, and which just seem that way because of
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where we are now? Especially interesting are their views of hierarchy, the contributions of women, the variability of definitions of freedom, and the pursuit of material wealth. They are also really good at snark. A little repetitious, not surprising in such a long book, but the listening was easy. I learned a lot and might listen again next year.
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LibraryThing member RickGeissal
The title is no joke. The breadth and depth of this non-fiction work is stunning in its range and detail, about the origins, dietary decisions and political systems of societies as far back as 15,000 years. I never felt glad to put it down. I had read other books by David Graeber, which were
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gripping. This one exceeded my expectations, which had been high. It is one of those creations where I frequently wondered, "How did he learn this vast area and amount history, archeology & anthropology in one lifetime?"
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LibraryThing member Elizabeth80
How do you wrap your mind around the different options presented by these two authors? They cover the world from Ukraine to the Americas, to China, to India, to the Middle East. Their premise sounds plausible but how do I develop questions to critically analyze it?
LibraryThing member Treebeard_404
This sprawling book is hard to describe because it is a sprawling book covering spans of time from pre-Ice Ages to the 20th century, and cultures found all over the world. I found it fascinating to read/listen to. But I also found it a little frustrating that, by the end of it, I could not easily
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summarize their conclusions. And I think the authors are okay with this because they knew they were tackling a big, big intellectual puzzle.
So if you have the time to invest, I would suggest you give it a go.
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Original publication date

2021-11-09

Pages

704

ISBN

0374157359 / 9780374157357
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