Book Review: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber & David Wengrow

The late David Graeber and David Wengrow are the foremost anthropologist and left-wing thinkers of our times. Their decade-long research culminates in an epic retelling of the human history. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is an attempt to upend the premise of modern day understanding oh political and social history. The book challenges the notion that private property has shaped our current social landscape. It tries to explore the origins of social inequality and define concepts of personal freedom.

Besides criticizing the works of Rousseau and Hobbes, the book challenges works by popular intellectuals like Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, Francis Fukuyama and Yuval Noah Harari in a provocative way. These authors regurgitate the same old myths in spite of the new archeological and anthropological research results.

The authors disagree that property rights caused humankind to descend into unkind and selfish beings from an original state of egalitarian innocence. They note that hierarchy and domination, and cynical self-interest, have always been the basis of human society.

The book dispels the myths that prior to becoming capitalists, humans (hunter-gatherers) were savage, politically immature, and egalitarian. Per the authors, human societies before the advent of farming were not confined to small, egalitarian bands. In fact, hunter-gatherers traveled farther distances and mingled with other groups more than we do today.

A first step towards a more accurate, and hopeful, picture of world history might be to abandon the Garden of Eden once and for all, and simply do away with the notion that for hundreds of thousands of years, everyone on earth shared the same idyllic form of social organization.

The core argument of the book is extremely political and challenges the status quo. The book uses anthropological researches about Native Americans, Native Andeans, Egyptians, early Mesopotamians, Eastern Europeans to posit that:

  1. The 17th century Amerindian society was socially equal much before Europeans started questioning equality in the French society that was intrinsically hierarchical. They impressed Europeans with their eloquence and powers of reasoned argument. “When it came to questions of personal freedom, the equality of men and women, sexual mores or popular sovereignty – or even, for that matter, theories of depth psychology18 – indigenous American attitudes are likely to be far closer to the reader’s own than seventeenth-century European ones.”
  2. People across Americas, Europe, and Africa changed social structures as seasons changed. Banding together one season and venturing in smaller groups during another. The social and political structure in these societies was more fluid than the contemporary political arrangement.
  3. Groups across the world chose not to farm. Farming is hard work and humans opted for easier sources of food. The first humans farmed on flood retreat lands, which doesn't require plowing. “Farming, as we can now see, often started out as an economy of deprivation: you only invented it when there was nothing else to be done, which is why it tended to happen first in areas where wild resources were thinnest on the ground.” It took 3000 years for farming to become a standard practice.
  4. Instead of tilling, threshing, irrigating, and breaking their backs, humans spend their time feasting, dancing, maintaining gardens, practicing botany, playing sports, weaving, hunting, fishing, and gathering nuts. Farming ties farmers to their lands. Non-farmers had the freedom to move as they pleased.
  5. Unlike in current times, when capitalism and authoritarianism are standard, hunter-gatherers had a diverse social and political setups. Throughout pre-history, there were masses that achieved egalitarianism and self-governance.
  6. Many early cities, some with up to 25,000 citizens, had no centralized administration. Early societies had the freedom to choose the society they lived in, which is lost in today’s age. “An origin for ‘the state’ has long been sought in such diverse places as ancient Egypt, Inca Peru and Shang China, but what we now regard as states turn out not to be a constant of history at all; not the result of a long evolutionary process that began in the Bronze Age, but rather a confluence of three political forms – sovereignty, administration and charismatic competition – that have different origins.”

The main takeaway for me was the human history hasn’t progressed in a linear fashion. Capitalism and the modern pseudo-democracy might very well not be the pinnacle of human evolution.

This is a very interesting book even though it is plagued by digressions and sometimes excessive polemic. 3.5/5 ⭐️.