A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution—from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality—and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.
For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike—either free and equal innocents, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction to powerful critiques of European society posed by Indigenous observers and intellectuals. Revisiting this encounter has startling implications for how we make sense of human history today, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery, and civilization itself.
Drawing on pathbreaking research in archaeology and anthropology, the authors show how history becomes a far more interesting place once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there. If humans did not spend 95 percent of their evolutionary past in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, what were they doing all that time? If agriculture, and cities, did not mean a plunge into hierarchy and domination, then what kinds of social and economic organization did they lead to? The answers are often unexpected, and suggest that the course of human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful, hopeful possibilities, than we tend to assume.
The Dawn of Everything fundamentally transforms our understanding of the human past and offers a path toward imagining new forms of freedom, new ways of organizing society. This is a monumental book of formidable intellectual range, animated by curiosity, moral vision, and a faith in the power of direct action.
Includes Black-and-White Illustrations
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
What if everything we believed about the development of human civilization was wrong? That’s the provocative case made by anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow in this groundbreaking book. The established thinking on the history of human societies goes something like this: Agriculture gave rise to cities, and cities necessitated government. Everything after that was inevitable. The two Davids call BS on this entire narrative, using the examples of societies that followed other paths, including ones that played with different forms of organization, agriculture, and technology. The co-authors also upend other popular concepts, like the idea that communism is intrinsically opposed to personal freedom or the notion that societies move forward on the established path and never backward. Graeber, renowned for his anti-capitalism views, died suddenly just after The Dawn of Everything was completed. He and Wengrow have given us a thought-provoking, revolutionary—and sure to be controversial—survey that could create a seismic shift in our view of human history.
The transition from hunter-gatherer life to agriculture, urbanism, and civilization saw a blossoming of egalitarian politics and social order, according to this sweeping manifesto. Surveying 26,000-year-old European graves, Stone Age Turkish towns, the musings of 17th-century Iroquois philosophers, and more, archaeologist Wengrow (What Makes Civilization?) and anthropologist Graeber (Debt), who died last year, critique conventional theories of historical development. Far from simplistic savages living in a state of "childlike innocence," they argue, hunter-gatherers could be sophisticated thinkers with diverse economies and sizable towns; moreover, agriculture and urbanism did not necessarily birth private property, class hierarchies, and authoritarian government, they contend, since many early farming societies and cities were egalitarian and democratic. Vast in scope and dazzling in erudite detail, the book seethes with intriguing ideas; unfortunately, though, the authors' habitual overgeneralizations "one cannot even say that medieval thinkers rejected the notion of social equality: the idea that it might exist seems never to have occurred to them" undermine confidence in their method of grand speculation from tenuous evidence. (For example, they see "evidence for the world's first documented social revolution" in the damaged condition of elite habitations in the 4,000-year-old ruins of the Chinese city of Taosi.) Readers will find this stimulating and provocative, but not entirely convincing.