History matters. As we debate statues and slavery and dispute the role of empire, we have become accustomed to constant sparring over the past. But there is one branch of history that has, so far, remained above the fray: the story of our very early past, the “dawn” of humanity. For the anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow, this consensus is a problem. As they argue in this iconoclastic and irreverent book, much of what we think we know of this distant era is actually a myth – indeed it is our origin myth, a modern equivalent of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. At its core is a story of the rise of civilisation and, with it, the rise of the state. Like all origin myths, this narrative has enormous power, and its reach and resilience are preventing us from thinking clearly about our present crises.
This myth, they argue, can be found on the shelves of every high-street and airport bookshop, in super-sellers such as Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday and Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order. All of these books share a common assumption: as societies become larger, more complex, wealthy and “civilised”, they inevitably become less equal. Early humans, it is said, lived like the foragers of the Kalahari, in small, mobile bands that were casually egalitarian and democratic. But this primitive idyll or Hobbesian hell (views differ) disappeared with settlement and farming, which required the management of labour and land. The emergence of early cities, and ultimately states, demanded even steeper hierarchies, and with them the whole civilisational package – leaders, administrators, the division of labour and social classes. The lesson, then, is clear: human equality and freedom have to be traded for progress.
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Graeber and Wengrow see the origins of this “stagist” narrative in Enlightenment thought, and show that it has been so persistently appealing because it can be used by radicals as well as liberals. For early liberals such as Adam Smith, it was a positive story that could be deployed to justify the rise in inequality brought by commerce and the structure of the modern state. But a variation on the story, put forward by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, proved just as useful to the left: in the “state of nature” man was originally free, but with the coming of agriculture, property and so on, he ended up in chains. And Friedrich Engels fused Rousseau’s “noble savage” fable with Darwinist evolutionary ideas, to produce a more optimistic Marxist narrative of historical progress: primitive communism is superseded by private property and states, and then by a modern, proletarian communism.
It is this tale – in both its liberal and more radical forms – which Graeber and Wengrow seek to dismantle using recent anthropological and archaeological research. Excavations in Louisiana, for example, show that in about 1600BC Native Americans built giant earthworks for mass gatherings, drawing people from hundreds of miles around – evidence that shatters the notion that all foragers lived simple, isolated lives.
Meanwhile, the so-called “agricultural revolution” – the Neolithic Faustian bargain when humanity swapped egalitarian simplicity for wealth, status and hierarchy – simply didn’t happen. The shift from foraging to agriculture was slow and patchy; much of what has been thought of as farming was actually small-scale horticulture, and perfectly compatible with flat social structures. Similarly, the rise of cities did not necessitate kings, priests and bureaucrats. Indus valley settlements such as Harappa (c2600BC) show no signs of palaces or temples and instead suggest dispersed, not concentrated power. While Graeber and Wengrow are open about the very limited evidence and the disputes over its interpretation, they build a compelling case.
Yet they reserve particular scorn for another myth: the assumption that the “savage” was stupid as well as noble. In an age that worships the tech-gods of Silicon Valley, it is tempting to believe that we are more sapiens than our distant ancestors. But 17th-century Jesuit missionaries were exasperated to discover the intellectual agility of the Native American Wendat people in resisting conversion; indeed, they showed themselves more eloquent than the “shrewdest citizens and merchants in France”. This sophistication was attributed to the Wendats’ democratic councils, which were “held almost every day in the Villages, and on almost all matters” and “improve[d] their capacity for talking”. These skills and habits, Graeber and Wengrow suggest, actually made so-called primitive peoples more truly “political animals” than we are now – engaged in the day-to-day business of organising their communities rather than impotently tweeting about it.
Graeber was, until his death last year at the age of 59, among the world’s most famous anarchists and an intellectual leader of the Occupy Wall Street movement (now celebrating its 10th anniversary). The Dawn of Everything certainly follows a long tradition of anti-statist anthropology. An early example was Mutual Aid (1902) by the anarchist geographer Prince Kropotkin, which provided an alternative to the fashionable evolutionary histories of his era, and defended “savage” peoples against the harsh judgments of imperialists and Marxists alike. And in his 1972 essay The Original Affluent Society, the American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wondered whether the Kalahari foragers, with their two- to four-hour working day, were really so much worse off than the nine-to-five office or factory worker.
Importantly, Graeber and Wengrow do not idealise a particular “golden age”; we are not being urged to embrace a Palaeolithic lifestyle. They stress the sheer variety and hybridity of early human societies – hierarchical and non-hierarchical, equal in some respects and not in others. Indeed, peoples like the Cherokee or the Inuit even alternated between authoritarianism and democracy depending on the season. Nevertheless, the authors make their sympathies clear: they admire experimentation, imagination and playfulness, as well as mastery of the art of not being governed, to use historian James C Scott’s term.
The Dawn of Everything is an exhilarating read, but it’s unclear how effectively it makes the case for anarchism. Sceptical readers will be driven to ask: if states in their current form are really so unnecessary, why have they become so dominant across the world? To address this, Graeber and Wengrow would have needed to offer a much fuller account of why modern states emerged, how they could have been avoided and how we might live without them. This is what Kropotkin tried to do, and such questions seem particularly pressing when the sheer complexity and interconnectedness of current global challenges lead many to conclude that we need more state capacity, not less.
Even so, myth-busting is a crucial task in itself. As we seek new, sustainable ways to organise our world, we need to understand the full range of ways our ancestors thought and lived. And we must certainly question conventional versions of our history which we have accepted, unexamined, for far too long.
• The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is published by Allen Lane (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.