A review of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, David Graeber and David Wengrow (Allen Lane, 2021), £11.99
Since its publication in 2021, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity has been greeted with extravagant praise. Writer Rebecca Solnit, for example, is quoted on the bo0k’s cover as calling it “the radical revision of everything, liberating us from the familiar stories about humanity’s past that are too often deployed to impose limitations on how we see humanity’s future”. Indeed, this has much resonance as a reminder of those evolutionary psychologists who assert the inescapability of aggression, war, hierarchy and women’s oppression.
However, The Dawn of Everything has also met sharp criticisms due to its approach to prehistory. This includes its explicit, highly problematic decision not to explore the lives of early modern humans before about 30,000 years ago, as well as its failure to account for the rise of the state, class society and women’s oppression. This can be linked to the authors’ politics. David Graeber, who sadly died in 2020, was a key figure in the Occupy movement and a supporter of Extinction Rebellion and Jeremy Corbyn. Yet, his politics were rooted in anarchism and an underlying, though generally inexplicit, rejection of Marxist understandings of early human history. As a result, the book is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure.
Graeber and David Wengrow argue rightly that the richness of archaeological evidence from Europe, such as the cave art of Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain, reflects the continent’s contemporary economic dominance and ability to fund such research. Nonetheless, they argue, “early behavioural complexity” is to be found across the world, with evidence of this including a cave site in Kenya and cave art in Borneo and on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.1 Consequently, the authors move across a huge range of early human societies, settlements and sites, from indigenous American cultures, such as the pre-European city of Cahokia in Illinois and the ancient settlement at Poverty Point in Louisiana, to early Mesopotamia and Stonehenge. In addition, they also refer to some contemporary societies, such as the pastoralist Nuer people of Sudan and the hunter-gatherer Hadza of Tanzania.
There is much of interest in these accounts, and they show the achievements of early human societies as well as how people have lived in very different environments and in very different ways. Two such examples are from what is now Turkey. One is the monumental temples of Göbekli Tepe and their sculptures, constructed about 9,000 BCE. This site may have been for rituals or astronomical observation.2 Another is what is arguably the first town in history, Catalhöyük, which was settled in about 7,400 BCE and inhabited for some 1,500 years. The book points to evidence that there was neither a ruling class nor much differentiation in wealth in Catalhöyük when the houses are examined.3
There are, however, significant problems with Graeber and Wengrow’s arguments and how they use their wide-ranging knowledge. In the first place, as Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale point out, “Their use of evidence is often not reliable. It is also something of an ethnographic midden—so good luck to the uninitiated who have never met the Hadza, the Montagnais-Naskapi, the Shilluk or the Nuer”.4 It is also difficult to get any sense of chronology or history, as (the also sadly recently deceased) John Molyneux has suggested. Indeed, it is a challenge to get any ideas about how different cultures may have learned from each other and been linked through migration.5 For the non-specialist reader these are issues that become increasingly obvious throughout the book.
The authors ask—though fail to answer—how we “got stuck” in the authoritarian, class-based societies that still exist today. However, they use the evidence this investigation generates to advance an implicit critique of Marxist arguments about the emergence of class society and to attack the idea that early humans lived in egalitarian, hunter-gatherer societies. They characterise this as a myth that reaches back to an idyllic, Garden of Eden-like “original” human social form, linking this to the writings of Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the origins of inequality. In fact, their criticism of Rousseau acts as a surrogate for an attack on the intellectual lineages developing from Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Graeber and Wengrow assert that we lack even the “slightest idea” what early human societies were like, and therefore they only look at the past 30,000 years.6 Yet, over the past 50 years, a vast body of research has conclusively demonstrated that early modern humans evolved in Africa, coexisting and probably mixing with other human species before expanding outwards and meeting other human populations such as Denisovans and Neanderthals.7 There is extensive evidence that gives a good picture of how early humans evolved and lived in broadly egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies for most of history, but Graeber and Wengrow consciously fail to engage with this.8 The need to cooperate and work together in groups through the development of tools and the sharing of meat and vegetables was paramount for early humans. This led to the development of language and social networks. The brain grew and there were other changes in anatomy; human beings lived past female menopause (enabling the old to contribute both expertise and childcare), male-female body dimorphism diminished and women were able to have sex all year round. This also changed relations between genders and patterns of child-rearing; primatologist Sara Hrdy, for example, describes how mothers came to trust other women and men to look after their children.9
None of this means life was idyllic or that there was not the potential for other, more oppressive behaviour. Early humans contended with a huge number of different and often changing environments. As Christopher Boehm has argued, they, like us, retained an “ape heritage, which encourages us to submit, to compete and to dominate”. As a vulnerable species facing far stronger predators, humans “had to agree consciously together to repress the jealously, aggression and selfishness that welled up in us, and we had to repress selfishness in others”, developing social intelligence in order to survive and prosper.10 Boehm explores in detail how hunter-gatherer societies developed strategies to counter individuals who are prone to boasting, self-glorification and selfish behaviour, for example, retaining the meat from the hunt rather than sharing it. He also argues they consciously acted against “free riders”, who sought to bully others or take advantage.11 Graeber and Wengrow acknowledge Boehm’s argument, but claim that he fails to take it to what they see as its logical conclusion: that such exercise of free choice also extends to the way that the later societies they study chose different ways of living—and that such choices could occur in hierarchical and differentiated societies as well as in more equal or open ones.12 In doing so they reveal their commitment to philosophical idealism. In contrast, Marxist accounts of how class society and women’s oppression developed, as people moved from hunting and gathering towards horticulture and then agriculture, are rooted in an understanding of material conditions, focusing on the environments people lived in and the choices actually available to them.
The authors’ position also involves a certain amount of caricature. For example, they state, “According to Boehm, for about 200,000 years, political animals all chose to live just one way; then, of course, they began to rush headlong into their chains, and ape-like dominance patterns re-emerged”.13 No serious historian or scientist argues this. Boehm suggests that the advantages of an “egalitarian order” may have developed in one band and spread.14 In fact, broadly egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies continue to survive, albeit under increasing pressure to adapt to global capitalism. Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus’s The Creation of Inequality draws evidence from the earliest accounts available of such societies, when these pressures were less pronounced.15 Importantly, there is much evidence pointing to the gradual, independent emergence of sedentary societies over thousands of years, with societies moving back and forth between hunter-gathering of various kinds and slash and burn agriculture, as well as responding to environmental changes, but also perhaps engaging in struggles over such shifts. Indeed, though agriculture was a necessary condition for the emergence of class society, it did not necessarily lead to this; Flannery and Marcus, for instance, describe resistance to attempts to increase inequality in agricultural societies in North America and in Asia.16 Sheila McGregor similarly points out that Tell Abu Hureyra (now in Syria) and Catalhöyük were fully agricultural settlements where there is little or no evidence of increasing inequality and the oppression of women. She also explores evidence that Çayönü Tepesi, a neolithic settlement in south eastern Turkey, reverted to egalitarianism after “big houses were smashed and the whole settlement was burned down”. She questions the mechanisms by which such a society was established and then overthrown.17
Ultimately, however, changes over thousands of years led to a form of farming that supported the growth of a surplus of goods and the emergence of societies based on class, where organised violence was needed to control the surplus, and where women were increasingly oppressed. This highlights the major flaw at the heart of Graeber and Wengrow’s arguments. They focus on the idea of choice without acknowledging the environmental and material factors that shape that choice; as Marx put it, “People make history but not in conditions of their own choosing’.18 This leads to some bizarre conclusions. It is unclear why people should “choose” to live, for example, along what the authors describe as “egalitarian caste lines” at the Mohenjo-Daro settlement on the Indus River and in Natchez on the Mississippi which, as Lindisfarne and Neale point out, became “a major regional force in the slave trade servicing white planters”.19
Crucially, the authors ignore how sedentary, agricultural societies developed. Marxist theorist Chris Harman described this process very clearly, drawing on Engels’s account in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, while he also acknowledged the issues in that account in light of modern research (for example, the ethnocentrism of Engels’s thinking at times and his acceptance of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan’s theory of stages in human history).20 Harman argued the move to class societies took place over thousands of years in different places and was contested. Moreover, it was conditioned by local and environmental changes; Harman mentions the Natufian peoples, living in the Middle East in around 11,000 BCE, who found “they could no longer rely on wild herds and grain to feed themselves”. Hence, some Natufians seem to have reverted to nomadism, others to intensifying animal domestication and the planting of seeds.21 The move to “slash and burn” agriculture and planting seeds allowed for less movement as well as population growth. This growth, and the beginnings of a social surplus of products, stimulated patterns of social control and the emergence of “big men” who acquired prestige, often by distributing the surplus. In addition, the existence of a surplus means warfare became logical, stimulating the establishment of military forces. Finally, early societies based on agriculture found themselves in crisis when land was overfarmed and new technology, such as the use of metal, was introduced. Ultimately, this leads to what the Marxist prehistorian Vere Gordon Childe described as the “urban revolution”: the growth of towns, cities and organised labour (for example, in “the creation of drainage and irrigation works”) and the emergence of a ruling, often priestly, class and a bureaucracy.22 It is precisely this detailed account that is missing in The Dawn of Everything.
These arguments also point to how we account for what Engels described as “the world-historical defeat of the female sex”, which Graeber and Wengrow fail to discuss, even though they refer to female oppression many times.23 There has been some discussion about the status of women in some hunter-gatherer societies. For instance, Flannery and Marcus cite the infanticide of female babies among the Inuit. Harman discussed debates among Marxists and feminists such as the one between Ernestine Friedl, who argued men were more highly ranked in early human society than women, and Eleanor Leacock, who believed the evidence for this is tainted by the prejudices of Western observers.24 However, there is general agreement that relations between men and women were far more egalitarian in hunter-gatherer societies. Even where there may have been some differences in rank, they were much less important than they would later become. Moreover, the absence of isolated nuclear families and the importance of lineages mitigated against systematic oppression.
The issue of the division of labour is also important here; hunter-gatherer men tended to be hunters of big game (and later became warriors), while women, who might be pregnant or nursing children, did most of the gathering. However, women and children could be involved in collective hunts, and women often hunted small game.25 Furthermore, depending on the local environment, gathering could be far more central to diet than the occasional hunt. Indeed, Childe argues that women should be credited with detailed knowledge of plants and of tilling, as well as of “the chemistry of making pots, the physics of spinning, the mechanics of the loom, and the botany of flax and cotton”.26 However, as people settled and become farmers, metal working and the use of the heavy plough developed in Eurasia, while other heavy agriculture, such as irrigation works, was introduced in the Americas. These were primarily under the control of men, and it is here that women’s childbearing worked against them. In addition, women may have been encouraged to bear more children because doing so benefits settled agricultural communities, whereas hunter-gatherer societies have good reasons to restrict births. This means women may have continued to breastfeed for longer, limiting their involvement in heavy labour. Once towns and cities began to expand, as discussed above, the existence of a surplus and competition over resources led to the emergence of a ruling elite, which protected its interests through the state and the use of armed bodies of men. This also led to class struggle. A further result was the establishment of male dominance, with the need to establish paternity over children in order to determine control over property and resources.27
Finally, Harman noted that regression to “primitive communism” would be neither desirable nor possible.28 We need to look to new forms of classless society—a message that is ever more urgent in the face of climate chaos and the impact of rampant neoliberalism on our lives. As Chris Knight says in his review of The Dawn of Everything, we “need to get planet Earth turning once more, not just physically but socially and politically too”:
This will not be done by telling people to stop confusing care with dominance and control. It will be done by supporting the school strikes, singing on their picket lines, extending the action to workplaces, dancing in the streets, blocking traffic, bringing capitalism to a complete halt.29
Such a new society would have the resources needed to build a sustainable and fulfilling life for all. Women would have the ability to control their bodies and their lives. Childcare and domestic labour could be integrated into society rather than being born by individual women in the privatised family. It is a socialist vision that offers this possibility, not Graeber and Wengrow’s perspective, notwithstanding the fascinating detail given by The Dawn of Everything and the debates it inspires.
Jane Bassett is a retired teacher and National Education Union activist. She is a member of Hackney Socialist Workers Party and Hackney Stand Up To Racism.
1 Graeber and Wengrow, 2021, p84.
2 Graeber and Wengrow, 2021, pp89-91.
3 Graeber and Wengrow, 2021, pp212-213.
4 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2021.
5 Molyneux, 2022.
6 Graeber and Wengrow, 2021, pp81-82.
7 See, for example, work by Chris Stringer and others at the Natural History Museum—Stringer, 2011, and Humphrey and Stringer, 2018. On Neanderthals, see Wragg-Sykes, 2020.
8 Lindisfarne and Neale give many examples—see footnotes in Lindisfarne and Neale, 2021.
9 See Hrdy’s Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (2009, Harvard University Press), especially chapters 3, 8 and 9.
10 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2021.
11 Boehm, 2012, chapter 3 and throughout.
12 Graeber and Wengrow, 2021, pp86-87.
13 Graeber and Wengrow, 2021, p87.
14 Boehm, 1999, p195.
15 Flannery and Marcus, 2012, pp19-20.
16 Flannery and Marcus, 2012, pp153, 156-159 and 191-197.
17 McGregor, 2021.
18 Marx, 1937, p1.
19 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2021.
20 Harman gives a detailed account—see Harman, 1994. Of course, Harman himself could not be aware of what has come to light over the past 30 years, but the basic thrust of his argument remains clear.
21 Harman, 1994, p119.
22 Childe, 1942, pp80-81.
23 Engels, 1972, p120-121.
24 Harman, 1994; Flannery and Marcus, 2012, pp22-23; Leacock, 1981.
25 Turnbull, 1965.
26 Childe, 1942, pp52-53.
27 For a detailed account of these points, see Harman, 1994.
28 Harman, 1994, p129.
29 Knight, 2021.