What do we have in common? We are living beings, with a measure of self awareness (most of us). We have a head, trunk, four limbs (most of us). We have language (most of us), though the languages are so diverse that they are generally mutually incomprehensible. Does any of that make us alike? Politically, culturally, socially, we are individuals; our tastes and interests and inclinations may overlap with other individuals, but rarely align exactly. We do not agree. On anything.
And we know this. It is built in to the way we operate. Politically, democracies are built on the idea that we disagree; if we agreed we wouldn’t need to vote on things. Politically, autocracies are built on the idea that we disagree; if we agreed one strong leader wouldn’t need to impose his will on the masses. Hell, the fact that we have politics at all is built on the idea that we disagree; if we agreed, we wouldn’t need politics.
And everything else that goes to make us social animals, everything that shapes the world we have made, we ways we choose to live our lives, is built upon a foundation of disagreement, difference, strangeness. Laws, fashion, architecture, advertising, religion, art, language, cuisine – all are marks of difference. Where there is unity, it is imposed, it is artificial, or it is temporary.
This is what Thomas Hobbes meant when he insisted that, before the advent of government, people lived lives that were nasty, brutish and short. He was wrong, of course. He was looking at the past through too narrow a focus, imagining that without the imposed artificial unity of “government” other kinds of unity, of social cohesion, were not possible. And as for the kind of top-down, autocratic government he favoured, the less said the better. But for now let us just consider that nasty, brutish and short remark: because this remark still tends to shape the way we consider the distant (and sometimes not-so-distant) past.
We are civilized. Our immediate ancestors were slightly less civilized, or at least enjoyed the fruits of a slightly less civilized political, social and cultural landscape. Our more distant ancestors were quite a bit less civilized. And the earliest ancestors we might choose to contemplate were little better than brutes. Civilization is evolutionary, everything is getting better and better. Everything was always and inevitably building towards the top of the heap where we now find ourselves. Think of it the way Victorians saw Britain as the crowning glory, the natural and indisputable end point of our evolution from Darwin’s apes.
And civilization is technological. The waymarkers on our social and cultural ascent are the inventions we made along the way: fire and agriculture and writing and gunpowder and the printing press and the internet. Look how much stuff we have now; we must be so much better than those who don’t have all this stuff. We forget that the ancient Greeks had steam power, they just didn’t see any use for it other than magically opening and closing temple doors; the Incas had the wheel, there are any number of them on exquisitely made children’s toys throughout the Andes, they just didn’t use them for transport. Stuff doesn’t really measure much, it’s just more and more things we can use or not as we see fit.
We are different. We do things differently, we think differently, we have different goals and different ways for reaching those goals. So why do we assume that human society has followed exactly the same evolutionary path wherever it has developed? It’s the story you get time and time again, there are nuances, variations, depending on which historians you read, but it’s a pretty simple story: first there were hunter-gatherers, then we invented agriculture, then cities developed, and from these grew states, and voila, here we all are today. And as a corollary, those societies that we encounter, in Amazonia or Central Africa, that are still basically hunter-gatherers, are clearly more primitive. It’s why Europeans felt justified in displacing Native Americans: they didn’t have cities, so they are clearly not as civilized as us. It’s why Israelis feel confident in displacing Arabs from their lands, because Arab agriculture is less developed. Its why logging companies feel confident in displacing nomadic societies in the Amazon, because the company is feeding the ever-hungry maw of a far more advanced society. And in Africa, Australia, across Asia the evolutionary tale is just a slightly more sophisticated version of might is right.
And yet … If our civilization has reached an evolutionary peak, why are we so dissatisfied? Why do we feel we have lost something: freedom, perhaps? Why do we feel inequality is growing?
This last question is the starting point for what I feel may be one of the most important books I’ve read in an awful long time: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow.
(One qualification: when I say “important” I emphatically do not mean that I think it is always right, that I agree with it. Indeed the whole point of the book is to make us question, to say, in the words of the old song, “It ain’t necessarily so”. And that applies to the book itself. When it raises questions, I applaud wholeheartedly; when it, very occasionally, makes dogmatic statements, I hesitate, I think “hold on, maybe not”. To give one, relatively minor, example: when discussing the so-called agricultural revolution, they mention an idea that one researcher has proposed, that wheat domesticated humankind. This they dismiss, quite airily, on the grounds that it takes human intentionality to domesticate anything. Yet I read this passage soon after watching a David Attenborough documentary in which he showed leafcutter ants in the jungle removing a particular type of leaf and carrying them to an underground fungus. The fungus rewarded the ants by secreting a liquor which the ants relished. When the fungus wants a different type of leaf, it changes the liquor, which cues the ants to seek out a different tree. Now it is not clear whether the fungus has domesticated the ants to fetch the leaves it craves, or the ants have domesticated the fungus to give off the liquor they crave, but it is clear that some sort of cross-species domestication has happened here without the necessity for any human intentionality. So, on reading that passage in the book my immediate reaction was to cry: “No!” But that is the beauty and the importance of the book: it is about questioning, about not accepting received ideas, and that includes questioning the book itself.)
So Graeber and Wengrow begin with a question about inequality. They trace this back to the Enlightenment, that curious moment in European history when ideas about the relationship between the individual and the state, about liberty, and about the relationship between the wellbeing of the individual and the growth of technology, all changed. It is a period whose origins can be traced back to the new philosophy of people like Descartes and Hobbes in the middle of the 17th century, but which really came into its own during the 18th century leading up to the French and American revolutions, both of which owe their impetus and their guiding spirit to Enlightenment thinking. The ideas about liberty and inequality that emerged in this period seem to be connected to ideas that came into Europe through contact with certain Native American peoples. Graeber and Wengrow specifically concentrate on Kandiaronk, a Huron-Wendat leader whose ideas were disseminated through Europe at this time. But the Enlightenment response to these ideas, particularly as they were expressed by people like Rousseau, tended to suggest the superiority of the European over the “noble savage”; and these ideas informed, and continue to inform, the standard archaeological and anthropological response to the past. The record of the past is of interest in how it grew into modern European civilization; and to the extent that it doesn’t do that, then either the interpretation is wrong or the facts are of no interest. It is quite disturbing how many eminent scholars right up to the present day are quoted expressing exactly that notion.
The problem is that more and more archaeological and anthropological discoveries seem to contradict the standard narratives. But these are two fields that tend to be very focussed on their particular areas. An archaeologist working in Mesopotamia is unlikely to be very aware of anthropological findings from Meso-America. So discoveries that reinforce each other, or that contradict each other, aren’t always noticed. And when they are noticed, the author is likely to be dismissed as a crank. Graeber and Wengrow therefore began this enterprise simply as a way of drawing together theories and discoveries from across the board to satisfy their own curiosity; it only gradually turned from that into the book I have just read.
And it does represent a radical revision of everything I thought I knew about the past. For instance, there is an idea they call “schismogenesis” which suggests that social structures are deliberately set in place as the opposite of what a neighbouring society has adopted. Thus on the west coast of North America there were slave-holding societies bordering societies that emphasised the freedom of every individual member; it isn’t clear which came first, but it seems that one society was deliberately set up because of distaste for the way the other society operated. This is something that contradicts the standard anthropological narrative that societies emerge in response to circumstances rather than as a result of deliberate intent by its members.
Another standard narrative has it that the move to agriculture leads to hierarchies as people are in a position to accumulate wealth and hence power, which in turn leads to the growth of cities. But there are a host of discoveries that contradict each and every one of the assumptions in this narrative. Including evidence of societies that tried agriculture and abandoned it to return to hunter-gathering, and cities that seem unconnected with either hierarchies or agriculture. Patriarchy comes off particularly badly in this book (and they don’t even mention recent discoveries of warrior burials where the warrior in question is a woman). Minoan Crete, for example, has no signs of defensive walls around its cities, unlike the near-contemporary Mycenaean society in mainland Greece. The murals in places like Knossos show bare-breasted women, but naked men, and the women are invariably shown larger than the men. In any other society of a similar vintage, murals that show large male figures are universally considered to be showing kings or other important leaders; so there is no reason to assume the same is not the case in Knossos. And the so-called throne room at Knossos is arranged not for kingly display but as a council chamber where everyone can see everyone else. Meanwhile analysis of the goods Crete is known to have traded with Egypt and the Near East tend to heavily feature things like cosmetics. All the evidence seems to point to Minoan Crete being a peaceful, female led society. But its not the only one, there are similar findings in North America and Mesopotamia among others.
And there is so much more. Too much, almost; there were moments when I was losing track of all that was going on. Cities that seem to be structured on egalitarian lines, with all homes the same and with no palaces or temples. The notion of play-kings, which I found enchanting but I’m not sure I understood it fully. Societies that moved between settled and nomadic depending on the season, and had different leaders and different laws for each situation. Societies in which the king had absolutely no authority. Societies in which captives were either adopted into the tribe or killed gruesomely depending on whim. And more and more and more.
The book is rich, wonderful, questioning, unsettling. Apparently, before David Graeber’s death, it was intended that this would be the first part of a trilogy. We can only hope that David Wengrow has enough material to continue with the project.