The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

Graeber, David, and David Wengrow


The Enlightenment and its ideals of liberty, equality, freedom, etc. may never have come about were it not for the civilisational encounter between the "West" and the native Americans—especially the latter's critique of European society and its deficits.

The "noble savage" was never actually used by Rousseau, and originally referred to the noblemen's activities that the native Americans were seen to be all undertaking: hunting, warring, sporting, etc.

The authors started out trying to find out "when did it all go wrong": when did we start descending into inequality? They came out realising that that question belonged too in the trap of assuming that the world as we know it evolved into its present state as a single linear progression (for better or worse). The story, they show, is much more complex, reveals the confluences of multiple cultural streams, and offers up more possibility than the standard narrative offers.

The better question to ask could be, "how did we get stuck?" Their hypothesis (via Steiner) - loss of (1) freedom of movement => loss of (2) freedom to disobey => loss of (3) freedom to shape and move between new social realities.

Their myth-making (as they openly acknowledge) offers up the current world system as the confluence of these three strains of society-building: Sovereignty (power over force) - Bureaucracy (power over information) - Heroism (charismatic politics).

Challenges to the "standard narrative"

  1. Cities = large and hierarchical, Nomadic tribes = small and egalitarian aka complexity/scale => hierarchy (due to logistical challenges) Archeological evidence has been found of large, settled sites with little evidence of inequalities in dwellings. The appearance of some of these sites (with uniformly palatial dwellings) appear to have followed the overthrow or abandonment of older settlements that did show evidence of such inequalities.
  2. Agriculturalists = patriarchal, foragers = egalitarian Some of the earliest agricultural sites appear to have been pretty egalitarian, while their foraging neighbours seemed to have been "heroic societies" dominated by hierarchical politics.
  3. The resource curse Comparing the neighbouring societies on the west coast of North America, the PNW was dominated by fishing societies that practised slavery and had stratified ranks. Those to their south, in abundant California, seemed to have rejected slavery, and upheld cultural practices that prevented generational inheritance and accumulation.
  4. Globalization as a modern phenomenon Human relations actually used to span entire continents (e.g. North
    America, Australia) during the Upper Palaeolithic, before starting to get more and more constricted with the development of "culture areas" that defined themselves in opposition to their neighbours. People used to be able to travel long distances and be able to find kinsmen who were considered family and would host them.
  5. There was an "agricultural revolution" Farming is hard work, and the earliest agriculturalists were more often than not "play-farming" (why farm when you can forage for free?). Land ownership with early agriculture was likely improbable given the shifting nature of flood-retreat agriculture. It actually took a long time (~ 3000 years) for plant domestication to "complete", much longer than the lower bound of required time shown in (modern) field experiments—i.e. it wasn't a revolutionary step forward so much as perhaps unintentional evolutionary meandering.

Some human societies, especially early ones, shift seasonally between different modes of political organisation—some with "police states" that rotated power between tribes in large seasonal gatherings, others with more egalitarian proclivities at other times, making the calendar year essentially an encyclopedia of social possibility. Others have festivals e.g. carnivals that invert the existing social order, holidays where there is a designated pretend sovereign to be overthrown by the end, that keep the possibility of things being other than what they are alive in the social imagination.

Schismogenesis - the making of societies by defining themselves as the opposite of the other. Mauss (?) positing that societies are what they are not by what they accept into their fold, but by what they reject as Other.

The intimate link between care and violence is a recurring theme in the book. Slaves that were taken in war or debt were put to work in the home—to bring up children, keep the house, care for the animals, work the fields—i.e. to run the things that keep the home economy going. A great illustration lies in the common etymology of words like "domesticate", "dominate", "dormitory". In western civilisation, there is the tendency to portray violence as care (spare the rod, spoil the child; Foucault; etc.), while in e.g. some native American groups, pains are taken to keep violence and care in completely separate realms: violence for the enemy outsiders, care only for the familial insiders.

This gives us a hint as to the origins of subjugation: those bereft, widowed, orphaned, would have been taken in by the chiefs of tribes, or by the temples of cities, where over time compassion for the unfortunate soured into enslavement through the accumulated labours of people with no other choice.

Another link D&D point at is that between the sacred & private property. Both are "structures of exclusion". Sacra are often individually owned and guarded, inherited, bought and sold, even within societies that otherwise share everything else. When it comes to land and "natural resources", non-human supernatural beings are often said to own them. In other cases where humans or groups are said to own them, there is the concomitant responsibility of care that comes along with ownership (in the violence <> care package). Roman law is unique in this sense, of excluding responsibility entirely: true legal property rights include the right not to take care of something. "If private property has an ‘origin’, it is as old as the idea of the sacred, which is likely as old as humanity itself."

There was this observation that the Native Americans made of the French that my mind just keeps coming back to—that they generally made weak arguments in discussions, kept talking over one another and depriving others of the chance to speak, and just in general didn't seem very bright at all, in comparison to the eloquent, reasoned debate they were used to having with one another—pointing to the inverse relationship between arbitrary power and the ability to hold a reasoned debate. Once one party holds all power in their hands, all meaning, all rationale goes out the window. Today, we call this power capital.

The point on the relationship between care and violence in our society is so, so salient and alive, especially in the way that we consider things like "development aid", "the developing world", and "feeding the growing world population". Each is a violent, colonising project that dispossesses the indigenous to incorporate them into the lower echelons of the world order, all under the aegis of "caring" for the entire world. (Illich)

I have to say, reading the closing paragraphs of the book was bitter-sweet déja vu: its refrains about the failure of our societal myths would have been right at home in the pages of Dark Mountain. Especially this sentence: "But the larger mythic structures of history we’ve been deploying for the last several centuries simply don’t work any more; they are impossible to reconcile with the evidence now before our eyes, and the structures and meanings they encourage are tawdry, shop-worn and politically disastrous." (A quick web search revealed that Graeber did indeed contribute to Issue 8 - Technê)

"Pre-print" chapters

  • 1change-human-history - How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened)
  • 2sagesse-kandiaronk - La sagesse de Kandiaronk : la critique indigène, le mythe du progrès et la naissance de la Gauche
  • 3farewell-childhood-man - Farewell to the ‘childhood of man’: ritual, seasonality, and the origins of inequality
  • 4many-seasons-ago - “Many seasons ago”: slavery and its rejection among foragers on the Pacific coast of North America
  • 8cities-before-state-eurasia - Cities before the State in Early Eurasia
  • 9hiding-plain-sight - Hiding in Plain Sight: Democracy’s indigenous origins in the Americas


change-human-history Graeber, David, and David Wengrow. 2018. “How to Change the Course of Human History: (at Least, the Part That’s Already Happened)”. Eurozine. ↩︎ 1

sagesse-kandiaronk Graeber, David, and David Wengrow. 2019. “La Sagesse De Kandiaronk: La Critique Indigène, Le Mythe Du Progrès Et La Naissance De La Gauche”. Revue Du MAUSS Permanente. ↩︎ 1

farewell-childhood-man Wengrow, David, and David Graeber. 2015. “Farewell to the 'childhood of Man': Ritual, Seasonality, and the Origins of Inequality”. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Wiley. doi:10.1111/1467-9655.12247. ↩︎ 1

many-seasons-ago Wengrow, David, and David Graeber. 2018. ““many Seasons Ago”: Slavery and Its Rejection Among Foragers on the Pacific Coast of North America”. American Anthropologist. doi:10.1111/aman.12969. ↩︎ 1

cities-before-state-eurasia Wengrow, David. 2015. “Cities Before the State in Early Eurasia”. Goody Lecture 2015. ↩︎ 1

hiding-plain-sight Graeber, David, and David Wengrow. “Hiding in Plain Sight: Democracy’s Indigenous Origins in the Americas”. Lapham’s Quarterly. ↩︎ 1