The Dawn of Everything:
A New History of Humanity
by david graeber and david wengrow
farrar, straus and giroux, 730 pages, $35
The Ur-Bororo are the most boring people in the world. Their entire population, which is not large, lives in “dwelling sheds,” rectangular clapboard houses in the depths of the Amazon rainforest. Other jungle tribes tend to decorate their bodies with elaborate tattoos, lip plugs, or ritual scarring; the Ur-Bororo do not. They have a creation story, in which the Sky God creates their people by accident, but they don’t really believe in it—as one shaman explains, their myths are more “examples, metaphors if you will.” Mostly, they like to talk about the weather, which in their corner of the rainforest is uniformly wet all year round. They are aware that deforestation poses a serious threat to their way of life, but they find it hard to care.
Probably their strongest belief about the world is that all the other tribes live a much more exciting life than they do. And while most tribal endonyms tend to mean something along the lines of “the people”—“the speaking people,” or “the upright people”—the Ur-Bororo’s name for themselves literally translates as “the people who you wouldn’t like to be cornered by at a party.”
The Ur-Bororo are, obviously, fictional—sort of. They appear in a short story by the novelist Will Self, in which a brilliant but slightly strange young anthropologist travels to Brazil to do his fieldwork in their tedious little village. When he comes back to the concrete fringes of South London, he’s subtly transformed—he makes great small talk; he seems far more at ease in the world. He also comes back with a wife. Jane, his Ur-Bororo bride, fits in perfectly with English society. Because the Ur-Bororo are the English, the values of Surrey and suburbia transplanted to the equator. The most boring tribe in the world is ourselves.
What I really like about Will Self’s story is how it strips away the technological halo of Western society and leaves only what we really are. It turns out that we’re an extremely miserable bunch. A people without any grand shared cosmology or meaningful public rituals, living in identical houses in a disenchanted world, and devoting most of our time to tedious talk and tedious work. (You can imagine an Ur-Bororo chief describing himself as the tribe’s executive manager, or maybe its head facilitator.) Any self-respecting hunter-gatherer would pity us.
In fact, many of them did. In 1641, the French missionary Chrestien Le Clerq recorded an Algonquian’s impression of the Europeans who had come to his lands:
We believe that you are also incomparably poorer than we, and that you are only simple journeymen, valets, servants, and slaves . . . And, whilst feeling compassion for you in the sweetness of our repose, we wonder at the anxieties and cares which you give yourselves night and day in order to load your ship . . . Now tell me this one little thing, if thou hast any sense: Which of these two is the wisest and happiest—he who labors without ceasing and only obtains, and that with great trouble, enough to live on, or he who rests in comfort and finds all that he needs in the pleasure of hunting and fishing?
The anthropologist Michael Taussig collects some impressions of white men from the hunter-gatherers they encountered. In Tierra del Fuego, the Selk’nam were deliberately exterminated around the end of the nineteenth century; when gold was discovered in their lands, mining firms paid one pound sterling for a pair of Selk’nam ears, more for the ears of a pregnant woman together with those of her unborn child. The Selk’nam compared the people who destroyed them to “clumps of earth,” or “figures of earth with hairy hides.” In Nigeria, white men were represented as mud sculptures, half-mired in the earth. What seems really to strike hunter-gatherers about the modern world isn’t its technology or its violence—but that it’s all incredibly drab.
How did we lose so much of what made us human? How did we turn into the Ur-Bororo? There’s a story that gets told in terrifyingly popular bestsellers such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Once, the tale goes, everyone lived in simple nomadic bands—basically, extended family groups. We hunted animals, fished the rivers, and gathered plants and mushrooms. These bands were perfectly egalitarian, without any social distinctions, and life was surprisingly easy. Hunter-gatherers can get everything they need from nature with maybe fifteen hours of work a week. We were like children. We could not imagine any other life.
But then we fell into a terrible trap: We invented agriculture. Keeping a small patch of wheat seemed like an easy way of getting food without effort, but we were wrong. Populations boomed; soon, unless we spent all our time looking after our crops, the whole tribe would starve. Our leisure time was lost to the tedium of turning over the soil, planting in straight lines, weeding and watering. The camp became a village. We stopped roaming freely over the land. Our diet became a monotony of grain.
Eventually, the village grew into a city. With thousands of people working in the fields all day, there was enough of a surplus to support people who didn’t work at all. As Jared Diamond puts it, “large populations can’t function without leaders who make the decisions, and bureaucrats to administer the decisions and laws.” The state organized populations to build grand monuments and big irrigation projects, but its leaders were not gentle. Millions of people were destroyed in wars, or starved in famines, or condemned to live in poverty. But as agricultural surpluses kept piling up, things slowly began to change. Urban civilization brought us technological progress and new ways of thinking. We learned to think politically—to start debating what sort of society we wanted to live in. A space had opened up, at last, for a new kind of freedom.
It’s an appealing story. There’s a lot that’s gone wrong—but the injustices of history were, in a sense, necessary. We couldn’t have had agriculture, or the city, or the hope of a better future, without going through these trials. And if we’ve become the Ur-Bororo, it’s because that was always the only way. The only problem is that, according to David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, absolutely nothing in this story is true.
David Graeber, who died suddenly in Venice in September 2020, was possibly the most fascinating thinker of our century. An anthropologist, he first gained widespread attention in 2011, when he championed a new percentage-based metric for population analysis. That same year, he published an influential book on credit instruments, which clocked in at slightly under six hundred pages. In 2015 came a book on management and bureaucracy, and in 2018 a slim volume on workforce trends.
If all that material sounds a little boring, that’s precisely the point. Common to all of Graeber’s writing was a firm refusal to accept that anything is as boring as it seems. So, for instance, the book on credit instruments. That was Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a blistering ride through world history, which I read in a single fascinated weekend. Debt, as Graeber saw it, was really about the ways humans naturally depend on and support each other. He cites the example of the Tiv, a West African people who spend their lives endlessly delivering small gifts. Tiv women will walk for miles to hand over some pocket change, or a handful of peanuts, or an egg. Every gift will eventually be reciprocated—but never precisely. You always come back with something slightly more or less valuable than what you were given. That way, everyone is always in everyone else’s debt, and the mutual indebtedness allows friendly relationships to continue.
Something happens when debt gets precisely quantified, when it escapes the community and turns into naked power; you end up with tyrants and peons. The Tiv have some unique beliefs about flesh-eating witches that help ward off this kind of thing. We do not. Today, millions of people are trapped in enormous debts that they have little hope of ever paying off. There are entire countries that can’t feed their populations because they need to service their creditors first. Graeber’s book is a vast history of almost everything, from Sumerian dress codes to Buddhist idol desecration to the weird secret history of the phrases “please” and “thank you.” But at its core, it’s the story of how the sense that we ought to care for and nurture each other took on a life of its own, and became a monster.
Graeber liked big thinking: grand theories of everything, imaginative inferential leaps. He was often praised for his writing style, which was friendly and quodlibetical. But I think what really made his enormous books so readable was a political commitment against ever being boring. Graeber was an anarchist: He wanted to replace our present society with one governed by peaceful, non-hierarchical consensus. (You might have heard about that “percentage-based metric for population analysis” he came up with in 2011—it was “We are the 99%.”) As it happens, I strongly disagree with some of his politics—more on that later—but they meant that he could never simply accept things as they are given to us: Well, that’s just how things are. And because he was an anthropologist, he knew for a fact that they always can be otherwise. Whenever he encountered some cruel fact about the world, he could point to a hundred societies that had behaved very, very differently. The space of human possibility is vast; the basic questions of work, play, family, and friendship have been handled in ways stranger than you can imagine. His death was an incredible loss.
There’s always something ghostly about posthumous publication. In August 2020, David Graeber announced on Twitter that he’d finished work on The Dawn of Everything, the first in a planned four-part series; he died less than a month later. Not being on Twitter, I missed the first announcement. For some time after he died, I found myself thinking about all the books we’d never get to read. Graeber endlessly produced new ways of thinking about our world; without him, it felt a little staler and a little less understood. The Dawn of Everything was released a year later. It’s a collaboration with the archaeologist David Wengrow, who’s a fascinating thinker in his own right—but I think Wengrow would agree that though the content of the book might have come from both of them, Graeber’s unique voice is stamped on every page. It’s very nice to hear that voice one last time. Like a final gift, with no one to thank for it.
The Dawn of Everything promises to rewrite the human story from the ground up. Start with those wandering prehistoric bands, the raw clay for all later human society. These groups were more nature than culture; they had more in common with a troop of apes than with, say, Belgium. Except—did they actually exist?
Recent archaeology has unearthed some very unusual Ice Age burials, lavish graves from a time when everyone was supposed to be basically equal. In one site in Italy, researchers found the 23,500-year-old body of a young man, maybe fifteen, nicknamed Il Principe. The Prince was buried with what looks like regalia: “a flint scepter, elk antler batons and an ornate headdress lovingly fashioned from perforated shells and deer teeth.” Other sites, some of them even older, feature thousands of mammoth-ivory beads or decorations made from fox teeth. Exceptional individuals, sent lovingly into the ground. So were there always aristocrats, rulers and the ruled? Probably not. These bodies are different: physically different. Some are very short or very tall, some had congenital disfigurements, others might have been albinos or epileptics. As Graeber and Wengrow comment, “it seems very unlikely that Paleolithic Europe produced a stratified elite that just happened to consist largely of hunchbacks, giants and dwarves.”
It’s hard to reconstruct the prehistoric world from things alone. Graeber and Wengrow solve this problem by looking at some more recent hunter-gatherer societies. Take the Inuit. They lived in small nomadic bands of around twenty people. They also lived communally, evenly sharing out all their wealth. But they did not do these things at the same time.
In the summer, wandering Inuit bands were under the rule of a patriarch, whose word was law. There was a strict demarcation of private property, and everyone guarded his own little store of food. But when winter came, “Inuit gathered together to build great meeting houses of wood, whale rib and stone; within these houses, virtues of equality, altruism and collective life prevailed.” In the winter, the patriarchs were basically powerless; they could make suggestions, but not issue orders.
Such seasonal variations seem to crop up everywhere. Some hunter-gatherers cluster together in the lean months and fan out when there’s plenty of food; some do the opposite. Some switch between hierarchy and equality, others between different kinds of hierarchy, or different kinds of equality. Hunter-gatherers have experimented with titled aristocracy, chattel slavery, and even formations that look suspiciously like capitalism. In some societies, people even take on different names with the changing seasons. “There is no single pattern. The only consistent phenomenon is the very fact of alteration.”
For Graeber and Wengrow, this suggests that our Stone Age ancestors might have been more politically sophisticated than we are today. We are stuck under a single permanent system, which we often don’t really question. Everything about it seems inevitable; it’s hard even to imagine an alternative. But our ancestors would have had to question their political forms, because for half the year those forms simply vanished, to be replaced by something else. They would have understood that these structures are things that people invent for themselves. And if we don’t like the structures we have, we can invent others.
All this should pose an interesting challenge for conservatives, especially those who consider themselves traditionalists. As far as I can tell, traditionalists argue that our modern way of life is uniquely damaging, and we can find models for a better kind of society if we look to our past. And I entirely agree on both points. But traditionalists also invoke the idea of a “natural” social order, and that order often looks a little, well, Ur-Bororo-ish. Nuclear families, a few looming neighbors, and maybe a church group on weekends—all watched over by a secure and stable state. Hobbit country: somewhere small. Actually existing traditional societies, meanwhile, are grander and weirder than most traditionalists would like to admit.
In Tristes Tropiques, the pioneering anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss describes two Amazonian peoples, the Nambikwara and the Tupi. The problem both societies face is that they allow powerful chiefs to take multiple wives—which means that plenty of young men have no hope of getting married at all, or not until they’re much older. For obvious reasons, this fact threatens the peace of their society. The Nambikwara solution is to encourage their young men to engage in public homosexuality: “The partners do not go off into the bush, as they would with a partner of the opposite sex, but get down to it beside the camp-fire, much to the amusement of their neighbors.” The Tupi, meanwhile, regard this practice as utterly disgusting. Their solution is more elegant: “The chief’s privileged position, where polygamy is concerned, is to some extent counterbalanced by the loan of his wives to his companions, and also to strangers.” Pride parades and polycules are, it turns out, deeply trad.
The book is also a challenge for the left. In certain left-wing circles, the concept of “indigeneity” has gained a lot of currency—you’ll see people arguing that, say, the gender binary is a colonial invention. Hierarchy and exploitation and the ravaging of the earth were all entirely unknown among indigenous peoples, until they were introduced by wandering Europeans. Ditto fatphobia, queerphobia, and heteronormativity.
It’s true that colonial missionaries were often quite insistent on imposing a certain vision of gender on the peoples they encountered. But—and this shouldn’t need saying—indigenous people didn’t know they were indigenous until somebody came along to colonize them. There’s no reason they would all have had the same cultural values, and there’s definitely no reason those values would be the same as a young progressive person’s in the twenty-first century. Some indigenous societies had a strict gender binary; others did not. Some were non-hierarchical; others lived in terror of the police. (Although as Graeber points out in his 2017 book On Kings, a lot of the time these police were also clowns.) If there’s a particular arrangement you like, you have to argue its virtues. You can’t fall back on a flattened primitive stereotype.
But for some, arguing your case has become deeply suspect. In 2020, no less an institution than the Smithsonian announced that “objective, rational linear thinking” was part of “whiteness,” the toxic legacy of the Enlightenment. The Dawn of Everything turns this notion very neatly on its head. What’s so white about reason? Graeber and Wengrow point out that among the indigenous peoples of the “Eastern Woodland”—roughly, New England, Atlantic Canada, and Quebec—all group decisions had to be made by consensus, which meant a lot of hashing-out of different viewpoints in a free and open debate. Their leaders were all deft rhetoricians. They had to construct rational arguments. The Europeans they encountered, meanwhile, lived in a society where some people gave orders, and others were expected to obey unthinkingly.
This is not because the peoples of the Eastern Woodland were intrinsically better than the Europeans, or lived closer to nature. In their final chapter, Graeber and Wengrow argue that the Eastern Woodland peoples had once lived in despotic conditions themselves; for a while, the region was under the influence of a highly stratified kingdom centered on the ancient site of Cahokia in present-day Illinois. That society practiced mass ritual killings, built huge monuments, and pursued wars of expansion; around 1350, it collapsed. If those who came afterward were ruled by consensus, it may have been a political rejection of Cahokia and everything it stood for.
Eventually, Europeans started hearing some of this democratic rhetoric. There’s the Algonquian argument I quoted at the start of this essay; Graeber and Wengrow spend some time with Kondiaronk, a Huron diplomat whose impressions of French society were published in Europe, and once graced the bookshelves of every well-read intellectual on the continent—people like, for instance, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Enlightenment itself, they argue, was kick-started by this critique. I think they slightly overstate the case (at one point, they write that medieval Europe simply did not conceive of the idea of human equality—before grudgingly mentioning carnivals, peasant revolts, Christian doctrine, and all the other things that show this to be absolutely untrue), but it’s a very enjoyable provocation.
Still, it’s easy to list all the ways this book challenges other people’s preconceptions. It’s also pointed squarely at me. The Dawn of Everything is a seven-hundred-page poke in the eye for Marxists—those of us who believe that, as the big guy put it in The Poverty of Philosophy, “the handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the stream mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” Marxists argue that to change society, you first need to change the way we order economic life. You have to start at the base. But for Graeber and Wengrow, very different societies can emerge from the exact same modes of production. We are not the prisoners of history. Whether you live in a vast concrete city or a huddle of huts made from whale ribs, you can transform your social order simply by deciding that’s what you want.
What’s strange is that few Marxists seem to have picked up on this distinction. When Graeber’s Debt was published, it was the subject of a thorough critique in Jacobin—the unofficial house organ of the American socialist left. “We need the right kind of history, which seeks to explain the evolution of a material system. Stringing together 5,000 years of anecdotes is not enough.” But Jacobin’s review of The Dawn of Everything is unadulterated praise. Obviously, it’s unkind to give Graeber the sharp end of the stick when he’s no longer around to reply. Still, he mounted a challenge, and a strong one. It deserves a response.
There’s a slight tension running through The Dawn of Everything. The first half of the book argues that “primitive” societies were profoundly variegated, more different from each other than we can imagine. The second half is an account of how we got from there to here: how our society “got stuck.” But it’s also, I think, where their argument gets a little stuck itself.
Graeber and Wengrow simply don’t buy the idea that agriculture necessarily led to private property and the state. They point out that early agriculture was confined to floodlands on the edges of rivers and lakes. Places where you can grow wheat without much effort, but where it’s pointless to mark off private tracts of land, since the landscape is always different when the waters retreat. What’s more, you really don’t need an all-powerful state to coordinate large irrigation projects: In places like Bali, councils of farmers can manage fine by themselves. Most early agriculturalists weren’t in any kind of trap; for thousands of years they were “play-farmers,” growing a little wheat when they wanted to, and spending the rest of their time on something else.
So how did intensive cereal farming get going? Graeber and Wengrow’s version of the story is just weird enough to be true. In the Nile Valley, around 3500 b.c., there was a “debate about the responsibility of the living to the dead. . . . Do ancestors get hungry? And if so, what exactly do they eat?” For whatever reason, these Neolithic farmers decided that the dead do indeed need gifts of food, and that they eat bread and drink beer. These were hardly staples at the time, but soon more and more land was given over to growing wheat for these offerings. When we first see bakeries and breweries in the archaeological record, they’re attached to graveyards. And if you couldn’t procure enough beer and bread to honor your ancestors, you’d have to borrow somebody else’s, “creating networks of obligation and debt.” Class society emerged—not from agriculture itself, but from our love for the dead.
Similarly, Graeber and Wengrow reject the argument that urbanization made coercive societies inevitable. They note that the earliest cities, including Uruk in Mesopotamia and Mohenjo-Daro on the Indus, seem not to have had any buildings resembling a royal palace. Often, you find little stores of jewels and beads inside the houses—but they’re evenly distributed; it’s hard to identify any neighborhoods of the rich or the poor. In Mohenjo-Daro, in precisely the spot where you’d expect to find a citadel, there’s a municipal bath. Uruk was dotted with meeting-houses, along with a Great Court for popular assemblies. “Urban populations seem to have a remarkable capacity for self-governance.” The kings came much later, once these cities were already built—and in some very early cities, like Taosi in China or Teotihuacan in Mexico, there appear to have been revolutions in which the people simply sloughed them off.
But while the first half of The Dawn of Everything tries to expand our sense of the possible, in the second half, our focus tightens on just one kind of social arrangement: systems of mutual aid, consensus-based decision-making, non-coercion, non-hierarchy—in a word, horizontalism. Graeber and Wengrow see this system in evidence throughout the beginnings of urban civilization. It also just so happens to be the system they advocate for our present. I wonder if, despite themselves, they might have fallen into the same trap as the traditionalists and the woke progressives: trying to justify their own preferences by anchoring them in the past.
I don’t doubt that throughout history, people have been able to live without hierarchy or control. I just know that when groups of people in our society decide to start living that way—in Graeber’s phrase, “as if they were already free”—one of three things tends to happen. Either the group starts systematically bullying its own members, or it turns into a personality cult centered around one charismatic individual, or it simply tears itself apart.
David Graeber did not like to be credited as the founder of Occupy Wall Street. He was just one of a collective. But he was very proud of what that collective had achieved. When the movement kicked off in late 2011, I was twenty-one years old, living in Los Angeles and reading slightly too much Deleuze. At first, I thought the Occupy protests were fantastic. No structure, no demands, just a vast surge of revolutionary desire. Then I actually visited the protest camp in downtown LA, just as the group was busy destroying itself.
There were two factions: One thought people should be able to smoke weed in the camp, and the other wanted them to stop. This seems like a minor issue, but it revealed some deep fissures. The pro-weed faction believed that the point of the protest camp was to prefigure a better society, one without arbitrary rules, and that anyone who tried to tell people what to do was pretty much a fascist. Their opponents believed that this was a political movement: They should be trying to do something rather than just getting high—and besides, there were children present. Compromises—“what if you went across the street to smoke?”—were rejected. Members of the first group had begun protesting the General Assembly itself, standing on the fringes and yelling things like “F**k your procedure!” They were, basically, morons. Bored and frustrated, people started to abandon the camp. When the police came with their truncheons to finish off the protest, the last stragglers folded without a fight.
The Marxist philosopher Jodi Dean was at the main Occupy camp in New York. In her book Crowds and Party, she describes a meeting in which the General Assembly discussed moving from Zuccotti Park to Washington Square, which had better facilities and might have allowed the camp to survive a little longer. During these assemblies, protesters used the “people’s microphone”: One person would speak, and the whole crowd would chant the words in response; that way, everyone could follow the proceedings without a speaker system. The mood was enthusiastic. But then, a young man “with curly dark hair and a revolutionary look” spoke up:
We can take this park!
We can take this park!
We can take this park tonight!
We can take this park tonight!
We can also take this park another night.
We can also take this park another night.
Not everyone may be ready tonight.
Not everyone may be ready tonight.
Each person has to make their own autonomous decision.
Each person has to make their own autonomous decision.
No one can decide for you. You have to decide for yourself.
No one can decide for you. You have to decide for yourself.
Everyone is an autonomous individual.
Everyone is an autonomous individual.
A surreal scene: hundreds of people ritually chanting their uniqueness; the forms of collective life transformed into a vehicle for hollow individualism. “The mood,” Dean writes, “was broken.” The park was not taken. But worse things have happened. In 2013, a protest movement erupted in Brazil over fare hikes in public transport. This movement was likewise leaderless, horizontal, and consensus-based. (In a later essay, Graeber celebrated how the Occupy model had, despite the failure of Occupy itself, become “the default mode for democratic organizing everywhere.”) But protesters on the ground started encountering something strange. Gangs of young men within the protests were physically attacking trade unionists and shouting, “The people united don’t need a party.” As they did so, they flashed Nazi salutes.
Occupy taught me that horizontalism is simply not to be trusted—but it seems that every generation has to end up learning the same thing. In the 1970s, the feminist activist Jo Freeman wrote two influential essays, The Tyranny of Structurelessness and Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood, about her experiences in the women’s movement, which left her “psychologically mangled.” Something worse than her upbringing in a “very conservative, conformist, sexist suburb.” The movement promised women a nurturing community; instead, it dropped them into a seething mess of cliques and petty feuds. No structure meant no transparency; no formal power meant nobody who could make the viciousness stop. And Freeman noticed that the groups most prone to “trashing”—what we’d now call cancellation, the sadistic ostracism of their own members—were the ones that “stress personal changes” over institutional ones. In other words, the groups that thought you could summon a better society just by thinking the right sort of ideas.
What is structurelessness, exactly? It might look a little like ancient forms of self-government—but it looks a lot like ordinary capitalism. Not a collective, but a mass of what Dean calls “disempowered singularities,” processing their atomization through the group. It also looks a lot like social media: a shapeless swarm of human beings, disorganized, but bunching together in affinity and spite; a neoliberal economy in miniature, and just as subject to eruptions of the ugly and the authoritarian.
You cannot simply will yourself into a new reality—and when you try, you risk replicating the old structures in an even more disastrous form. This is something Marx understood (even if his followers have their own ugly histories to reckon with): “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please. . . . The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” The things a person creates are not so easy to unmake. In society, as in the production process, they become “an alien, hostile, powerful object independent of him.”
That doesn’t mean change is impossible. You just need to dig deeper; go to the root. Graeber and Wengrow’s work is still enormously valuable, because it shows that people have managed to do this before, and they’ve made it work. But we deserve something better than blank horizontalism, the slop left at the end of all society. With so many shapes out there, why settle for the amoeba? Is that not, in the end, a little dull?
Sam Kriss writes from London.
Image by Guido van Nispen via Creative Commons. Image cropped.