Reflections on Graeber and Wengrow’s ‘Dawn of Everything’

Yves here. Neuburger here has not yet reached the point where he discusses the Graeber and Wengrow ‘Dawn of Everything’ in detail. However, this piece focuses on a central issue: the length of time that human pre-history represents (nearly all of at least 200,000 years) and how little we know about most of it.

Unfortunate, thin knowledge lends itself to projection and romanticization, such as from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, charged a not entirely fairly with promoting the “noble savage”. From Wikipedia:

According to Rousseau, as savages had grown less dependent on nature, they had instead become dependent on each other, with society leading to the loss of freedom through the misapplication of perfectability. When living together, humans would have gone from a nomadic lifestyle to a settled one, leading to the invention of private property. However, the resulting inequality was not a natural outcome, but rather the product of human choice.

It remains an open question as to why there was so little “development” in modern terms, for so long, and then what amounts to technology exploded. My understanding is that human advantages over other species and their environment includes: opposable thumbs, language (which allows for much more complex forms of social interaction, cooperation, and information exchange) and interestingly, endurance. On the latter, recent research argues the reason humans were effective game hunters despite being slow and weak is that they would pursue large prey until they had exhausted it.

By Thomas Neuburger. Originally published at God’s Spies

“What a Chimera is man! What a novelty, a monster, a chaos, a contradiction, a prodigy! Judge of all things, an imbecile worm; depository of truth, and sewer of error and doubt; the glory and refuse of the universe.”
―Blaise Pascal, Pensées

“In the end, climate change is the only story that matters.”
—Charles Pierce, Esquire, September 24, 2022

As I promised here, this is the start of a series, hopefully a long one, though one that I will keep light. That is, I’ll likely have a lot to say — I’m less than halfway through the book and I already have a lot to say — but I’ll keep most of these pieces relatively brief so I can focus, with you, on one observation at a time.

This series will consist of glosses on my reading and thoughts about Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, and it will take the shape of a considerably down-rev version of Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. These thoughts will have a theme, and they will lead, I’m certain, to a number of certainties. After all, it was Pascal who wrote, “It is not certain that everything is uncertain,” and I’m certain he was right. (Whether we’ll find that certainty for our own individual selves, and in time to matter, is a separate issue.)

The Late David Graeber

So let’s begin, first by honoring one of the authors, David Graeber. For a little independent reading, his Wikipedia entry is a good place to start. Note especially the comment on his first major book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, which has been called “the most read public anthropology book of the 21st century.”

Note his activism, and especially his role in the Occupy Wall Street movement, which Graeber himself called “the opening salvo in a wave of negotiations over the dissolution of the American Empire.” Whether you agree or not, the fact is that Graeber himself agreed, which should give you a sense of how far out of the conventional box his thinking went, and how far his thinking reached into past and future. “The dawn of everything” is as far into our past as you can get. The “dissolution of the American Empire,” sans extreme disruption, is hard to imagine happening anytime soon.

By the way, Debt: The First 5000 Years is a hell of a book if you want to know what money and debt really is. Like all of Graeber’s books, it’s a remarkably easy read. Even in audio book form, it’s a delight.

‘The Dawn of Everything’

The Dawn of Everything opens with a short introduction penned by Wengrow. I invite you to read it through:

David Rolfe Graeber died aged fifty-nine on 2 September 2020, just over three weeks after we finished writing this book, which had absorbed us for more than ten years. It began as a diversion from our more ‘serious’ academic duties: an experiment, a game almost, in which an anthropologist and an archaeologist tried to reconstruct the sort of grand dialogue about human history that was once quite common in our fields, but this time with modern evidence. There were no rules or deadlines. We wrote as and when we felt like it, which increasingly became a daily occurrence. In the final years before its completion, as the project gained momentum, it was not uncommon for us to talk two or three times a day. We would often lose track of who came up with what idea or which new set of facts and examples; it all went into ‘the archive’, which quickly outgrew the scope of a single book. The result is not a patchwork but a true synthesis. We could sense our styles of writing and thought converging by increments into what eventually became a single stream. Realizing we didn’t want to end the intellectual journey we’d embarked on, and that many of the concepts introduced in this book would benefit from further development and exemplification, we planned to write sequels: no less than three. But this first book had to finish somewhere, and at 9.18 p.m. on 6 August David Graeber announced, with characteristic Twitter-flair (and loosely citing Jim Morrison), that it was done: ‘My brain feels bruised with numb surprise.’ We got to the end just as we’d started, in dialogue, with drafts passing constantly back and forth between us as we read, shared and discussed the same sources, often into the small hours of the night. David was far more than an anthropologist. He was an activist and public intellectual of international repute who tried to live his ideas about social justice and liberation, giving hope to the oppressed and inspiring countless others to follow suit. The book is dedicated to the fond memory of David Graeber (1961–2020) and, as he wished, to the memory of his parents, Ruth Rubinstein Graeber (1917–2006) and Kenneth Graeber (1914–1996). May they rest together in peace.

If you think about it, about the process by which The Dawn of Everything was written, the work is a kind of secular “Pascal’s Pensées,” but this time not left in fragments, but brought to completion — a series of nuggets, reflections and ideas, that connect its fragments to a whole. If you read it along with me, you’ll understand what I mean. The structure feels seamless, yet the pieces, the nuggets, are interesting on their own.

Nugget 1: The History of Man

That said, the first thought I’d like to bring to your attention is this, from the opening of Chapter 1:

Most of human history is irreparably lost to us. Our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for at least 200,000 years, but for most of that time we have next to no idea what was happening. In northern Spain, for instance, at the cave of Altamira, paintings and engravings were created over a period of at least 10,000 years, between around 25,000 and 15,000 bc. Presumably, a lot of dramatic events occurred during this period. We have no way of knowing what most of them were.

The authors immediately discuss why people don’t think of these things, or what they do think when they do think of them, which leads most people to ask questions about the inherent goodness or wickedness of mankind in general.

“Are humans innately good or innately evil?” we ask ourselves when looking at our presumed myth-shrouded past. Graeber’s comment on that question — are humans good? — is worth quoting, as a kind of nugget 2 for this piece:

[I]f you think about it, the question, framed in these terms, makes very little sense. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are purely human concepts. It would never occur to anyone to argue about whether a fish, or a tree, were good or evil, because ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are concepts humans made up in order to compare ourselves with one another. [emphasis added]

As tempting as it may be, however, let’s not linger here, but look again at the initial point about the loss of human history. We’re brought to a surprising conclusion.

One Past or Two? One Being or Two?

We often think of our story, the story of our species, as having two parts — “history” and “prehistory.” This bifurcation allows us to think very vaguely, to cloud our minds almost completely about all that happened to our species prior to the use of writing, some 3400 years ago. It allows us to think of ourselves, not just as having two pasts (which we haven’t), but also as being two beings (which we aren’t).

What if we have just one past instead, part recorded and part not? If so, and if we do the math (3400 divided by our 200,000 years on earth), we reach a striking conclusion: 98% of all human history has been lost.

Again, that doesn’t mean that 98% of our story is prehistory, as though prehistory were some kind of foreign or mythical time, an age of legends and ignorance different from our own. That “different from our own” construct has no basis in fact.

What are your assumptions about this man? How smart is he? How self-aware?

And if our “prehistory” is just history unrecorded, what does it say about us as beings? Is there any reason to think “prehistoric” versions of ourselves are different from modern ones?

The Road Into Our Past Leads to Our Future

What we do know is this — our species has lived for 200,000 years, and today we understand 2% of it. What’s in the rest of the story? Because it’s certainly true that the stories we believe about our past will influence our view of the future our billionaires are relentlessly marching us to, its possibilities, even its benefits. On the day that climate trumps all, who will we be? Perhaps we’ll become what we’ve been.

Billionaire climate denialist David Koch

That’s why I’m taking this lingering book-club journey, and I invite you to take it with me. Put your prejudices and pre-conceived notions aside and look at the data an anthropologist like Graeber can unearth. We might then, with Blaise Pascal, be able to say, “Il n’est pas certain que tout soit incertain” — it’s not certain that everything is uncertain.

Is modern capitalist man the inevitable end of social evolution? Many believe it is. Or is our current culture merely a choice, and a bad one, a choice that somehow went global?

What can we learn by looking with an anthropologist’s eye at all of human history, and not just the part in which hierarchies of power and wealth began to proliferate?

Who, in fact, are we? Who will we become. That’s what this is about.

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  1. MikeSans

    It seems as that “98%” of existence was in the “Hunter-Gatherer-Era”(Constant Survival/Move Mode) where one/many do not have time for all of the dynamics of a “Slower-Agrarian Society” to now a “Techno-Society.” Once we leave the nomadic life…Walls begin to be built leading to where we are today (Walled Gardens of Gated Communities) and that technology piece has exponentially delivered us into a storm of which most do not understand/appreciate…Cooperation is an easy concept to understand but why is it so hard to put into application and more importantly how to sustain it…How do we go forward? Should be a Great Conversation! Thanks…

    1. Joe Well

      >>”(Constant Survival/Move Mode) where one/many do not have time for all of the dynamics of a “Slower-Agrarian Society”

      They specifically, strongly, and repeatedly refute that idea in the book. Non-agricultural societies allowed more freedom and free time to their members. They we’re not always on the brink of starvation, or at least less so than agricultural ones. Those societies could also be quite dynamic with social hierarchies, wars, oral literature, contact with other cultures including learning their languages, trade and diplomacy, and other things that were erroneously considered hallmarks of civilization.

      1. dadaclonefly

        Non-agricultural societies allowed more freedom and free time to their members

        Either you have misread the book or I have, because one of the things that I took away from it was a debunking of the idea that non-agricultural were necessarily more free than agricultural.

        1. cfraenkel

          That’s an odd thing to take away from the book. (Odd as in completely the opposite) As Bart below mentions, a significant portion was spent covering what the Americans thought about the European immigrants – in particular how drastically less free they were stuck in their hierarchical society. To the point where when captured by the other side, Europeans typically chose to stay with the Americans, but almost never the other way around. Perhaps you’re using a different meaning of ‘freedom’?
          That said, what I understood their main point was that as best we can tell, there was a wide variety of types of societies, with many coexisting side by side, and our parochial habit of dividing everything into binary categories – it’s either this or that – traps us into accepting things the way they are instead of imagining that things could be different.

      2. Bart Hansen

        There was one way that several of the native American tribes reacted to the early Europeans they encountered; that when derided about being uncivilized savages, they called BS because of the way their newly arrived guests habitually fought and killed one another.

        In their memoirs of encounters with the natives, various Europeans expressed surprise at the intelligence and debating ability of their guests.

    2. hunkerdown

      Recitation of the self-soothing origin myth of the Holy Bourgeois State, based as it is on incomplete, reductive, and tendentiously ideological archaeology and anthropology, is exactly what the Davids are NOT looking to do here. Put ALL your myths in the bonfire and start again.

      Cooperation is difficult for Westerners to understand because capitalism’s key value is subordination. Martial value systems (such as the Western crusade some celebrate as “civilization”) tend to discourage it, or channel it actively into particular ritual forms like sports or political dénouement (bipartisan agreement) or whatever represents the society’s virtues.

      Graeber wrote five books on value theory, at least one of which is a best-seller. For those who really want to know the answers to these questions, and not merely participate in the useless emotional and aesthetic rehearsals that the PMC call “conversations”, a good side door into his work on value is Manners, Deference, and Private Property.

      1. tiebie66

        Thank you for the recommendation, but, frankly, I don’t think that I can stomach another of his books after having read “Debt: the first 5000 years”.

        My general impression of that work is that it is a showcase full of trinkets to impress and beguile the visitors – an overabundance of anecdotes about this, that, or the other cute custom displaying the author’s vast knowledge. Much of it I thought unnecessary. Besides this superfluity, the material appeared in places contradictory, questionable, or casuistic to align with the general gist of the work.

        For example, we get treated on p.79 to a story demonstrating the refusal of hunter-gatherers to calculate debts, but a contrary admission on p. 192 that “overly demanding neighbors were a notorious irritant.” If debts are not calculated, explicitly or implicitly, overly demanding neighbors cannot be a problem in my view. On p. 47 we read that “… a gold coin is not actually useful in itself. One only accepts it because one assumes other people will…” which is contradicted on p. 145 with “Money almost always arises first from objects that are used primarily as adornment of the person.” On p. 82 we are treated to a dodgy exegesis of the parable of the Unforgiving Servant – first we are informed of the consequences of debt such as the enslavement of oneself or one’s children. Then we are told that the servant’s pleading for more time and his promise to pay his vast debt back is a joke. But when faced with enslavement, imprisonment, or torture, upon not paying back such a sum, would one not beg for time in the hopes that some stroke of luck might occur in one’s favor? The story of Nasruddin’s promise to make the king’s horse sing, given a year to work on it, would have been apt here. As an aside, I found the Index incomplete as there was no entry for “Christ”, but, fortunately, several for “Nasruddin”. On p. 268 we are told that “…coins were probably most often used in dealing with strangers. As elsewhere, local shopkeepers and merchants extended credit.” But, without further explanation, this begs the question – not using coins often, how would the debts have been repaid? By using payment in kind? And would this not bring us back to barter? On p. 167 we are told “…honor is, by definition, something that exists in the eyes of others.” “To be made a slave, is to be stripped of any possible honor.” This seemed to suit the point being made. However, honor is dependent on “the state of being morally upright, honest, noble, virtuous, and magnanimous; excellence of character; the perception of such a state;..” (Wiktionary entry) and the “recognition of importance or value; respect; veneration (of someone … usually [depends on] being morally upright and/or competent).” Clearly slaves can have integrity and competence (as he actually describes) and honor is equally much, if not more so, a function of one’s own excellence of character. In fact, it is the latter that shapes the perception of others.

        Furthermore, money and markets are considered not to emerge spontaneously but are creations of the state. But then we get informed that much commerce in the Muslim world functioned without state involvement – that checks, widely used, did not function as a de facto money because its use and acceptance was based on trust and reputation. This is circular. When money and markets arise completely independent of the state (p. 276), they are thought not to be real money and real markets. When they arise by virtue of the state, they are considered real money and real markets and therefore the conclusion is drawn that real money and real markets only arise in the context of states. We get further contradictions with the Tiv, that were egalitarian, without formal political organization – thus no state, and whose women filled the markets (p. 146). Furthermore, on p. 270 we read that “…Chinese governments were rarely completely willing to accept their own paper money for tax purposes.” Graeber thus provides evidence that money depends on trust and utility, not necessarily on the state as claimed. (It also brings into question aspects of MMT.)

        Unfortunately, the work is replete with questionable statements, sophistry, and ambiguity. I’ll conclude with this one on p. 77 where he discusses Nietzsche’s views on debt. “At first, to be in debt was simply to be guilty… Nietzsche went so far as to insist that original barbarian law codes that tabulated so much for an eye, so much for a finger…was meant to establish how much of the debtor’s body creditors were allowed to take!” But this is not one of Nietzsche’s “fantasies”, on the contrary, it is well-known that the ancient Hebrews practiced these barbarian law codes (e.g. Exodus 21:23-25) and the purpose was precisely to specify how much of the guilty party’s body could be taken (lex talionis – the law of retaliation).

        More troubling is sweeping statements that seemed contrary to more realistic interpretations. In the following two claims, for example, the causes seem to be questionably attributed. On p. 191 it is stated that “…the moment when commercial markets developed [around 600 BC], Greek cities quickly developed all the social problems that had been plaguing Middle Eastern countries for millennia: debt crises, debt resistance, political unrest.” And on p.212, regarding wide-spread events of much unrest and confusion around 600 AD, he states that “What all this suggests is that moments of historical opportunity … follow a distinctive, even cyclical pattern…coordinated across geographical space…”. The apparent implication that commercial markets are to blame for debt crises and political unrest seems highly questionable. The implication that the distinctive, cyclical, and coordinated historical patterns are inherent to societies is also questionable. Both are more readily attributed to extreme weather events. “The extreme weather events of 535–536 [AD] were the most severe and protracted short-term episodes of cooling in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 2000 years.” (Wikipedia – see also the Iron Age neoglaciation from around 900 – 250 BC). Extreme weather events, such as widespread droughts, are far more likely than the emergence of commercial markets to have been the cause of debt crises (due to poor harvests), political unrest (due to famine), and coordination across geographical space (due to being semi-global).

        Dealing now with the more serious issues raised with this work. There are two. First, there is the debunking of barter as a “myth” – barter didn’t happen (Chapter 2). This does not seem likely to me for several reasons. The most primeval form of exchange is indeed barter as practiced by chimpanzees when they trade meat for sex (Alexander and Noonan, 1979; de Waal 1987; Kuroda, 1984, Standford, 1999). I’d think that to be bedrock. Furthermore, I’d think that bands of hunter-gatherers roving through different regions came across different things in their travels that would have been of interest to other bands when encountered. Barter was the likely result. I would not expect debt of any sort to have arisen within a small band as everybody is likely to have had access to the same shells or bones or stones. Debt is also not likely to have occurred between agriculturalists and pastoralists as their lifestyles were quite different. But for the very same reason, they would have had ‘products’ of mutual interest. Barter is more likely to have been the result. Debt would have been risky or pointless when the pastoralists moved on with the season to better grazing for their animals. Within agricultural societies, different products would have become available at different times, for example, depending on when harvested. Here, even though barter‘s double coincidence of wants would not be a problem, there would be a temporal constraint due to availability. Debt is likely to have arisen in this context as it allowed for the temporal constraint to be relaxed. As an appreciation grew of the convenience of debt under these circumstances, it might have become more prevalent – so much so that its widespread use created problems of administration. At this point the need to record debts lead to the emergence of writing. Barter is unlikely to have generated this need as the process is completed at the moment of exchange. No surprise then that our earliest records are of debt. This is my first major criticism: the chosen timeline seems to support his thesis, but the existence of barter prior to the emergence of writing cannot be ruled out. Indeed, the author states that “The origins of interest will forever remain obscure, since they preceded the invention of writing.” (p. 215) but has failed to consider that this might also be true for barter. One can prove virtually any economic theory with a judicious selection of a time sequence; upon changing the period of analysis, the theory might well prove to be untenable. Here I have the same concern.

        My second major criticism is that, whenever barter was encountered, it was not noticed, it was de-emphasized, or worse – ignored. Though the existence of barter is acknowledged (p. 29), it is confined to trade with strangers and not villagers and not considered as the conduction of economic life in real communities and marketplaces (p.22). Yet long-distance trade occurred already in the early and mid-Bronze Ages ( (This seems to me an organic development of the above-mentioned earlier trade between hunter-gatherers mutually and trade between agriculturalists and pastoralists.) On p. 64 he states that “Temple administrators developed the habit of advancing goods to local merchants … who would then go off and sell it overseas.” Presumably at markets where the goods were bartered? Indeed, middle Bronze Age accounts indicate that “Most of these contracts foresee the purchase of typical western products, which can only be found in Syria and in the Levant in exchange for copper, but also wool, cloths and garments of various kinds…” (Zaccagnini, 2018 – Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 108: 43–62). Further (p. 137), “…the Lele considered themselves the clothiers of the region, and it [raffia-palm cloth] was traded with surrounding people to acquire luxuries…”. It would be hard to claim that long-distance trade and trade with strangers are not important, and thus that barter is of little importance in the conduction of economic life in “real communities and marketplaces”. Thus, it appears to me, that barter was excised from consideration and then found to be a “myth”.

        Did anything positive come from this book? Yes, but by virtue of thought provoked by the contradictions and general lack of coherence. It made me suspect that debt and money served to overcome the constraints of barter. Thus debt allowed barter to continue by meeting the double coincidence of wants through relaxing the constraints of time and place on exchange. Money, in contrast, allowed the constraints of time and place on exchange to be met. It allowed barter to continue by functioning as an intermediary ‘good’, thus relaxing the double coincidence of wants.
        Debt and money would have had different utilities depending on whether constraints on time and place were hampering exchange or whether the double coincidence of wants did so. Thus, their use would have depended on these attributes and the initial prevalence of debt in local commerce and that of money in distal commerce ought to be expected. “A debt, then, is just an exchange that has not been brought to completion.” (p. 121). “The decline of the great armies [thus not on the march to distant regions] eventually led to the near-disappearance of coinage….” (p. 235).

        By the end of the book, Graeber advances the idea of a debt jubilee. He laments the fact that most Americans are in debt, but should have considered the effects of health care, education, wages, pensions and unnecessary and destructive defense spending. Attending to these forcefully and effectively might avoid the necessity of debt jubilees. And would not debt jubilees have consequences? People are in debt, unable to live meaningful lives because greedy corporations and predatory banks extract so much from them. Surely, jubilees will be exploited by powerful actors. The consequences will then again fall on the ‘taxpayer’ and on ‘sophisticated investors’. I worry that a debt jubilee will simply allow the extraction process to start over. Finally, we do have bankruptcy which is a form of debt forgiveness. Do we really need debt jubilees? Without a careful analysis, glaringly absent, the proposal seems unwise and the precautionary principle prudent.

        Again, this is my personal opinion of this work. I have never read a book with so much hand waving. Having said that, I do not want to discourage anyone from reading this book, neither do I want to pretend that my assessment of the book is canonical. You might well be enthralled by the little vignettes of Tiv women traipsing with a few debt-redeeming potatoes to the far side of the village, or by another humorous riposte from Nasruddin. But, by reading the work you might well come to erroneous conclusions about debt and barter.

        1. hunkerdown

          One, that was a 40-page paper I recommended, not a book. That’s one disingenuity point. Then you follow your snooty performative abstinence up with 2000 words of Puritan-esque neoliberal sermonizing and mythology. Where’s your blog? Where did you cut and paste that from?

          1. tiebie66

            My apologies, I did not mean to offend you, but rather to substantiate my contention about the poor quality of Graeber’s one work that I had the misfortune to read.

            1. Nan

              If it makes you feel any better, I had similar problems with Debt. I assumed it was my reading/understanding that was at fault. Thanks for the work that went into your post.

  2. Stephen Morrell

    Modern capitalism is neither the inevitable ‘end’ of social evolution nor a choice, ‘bad’ or otherwise. It’s but a short but necessary stage in human social evolution that’s been around for 0.25% of our nominal 200,000 year existence. As in all past social-productive arrangements, capitalism will meet a relatively sudden end that’s preceded by a more-or-less protracted period of decay, dissolution and disruption. So yes Virginia, the US empire certainly is, and has been, in dissolution for the last half century or so. Inevitably this brings, and has brought, with it all manner of disruption. But now it’s an extremely dangerous period for our species with ever growing and more frequent disruptions that are far more lethal. In short, thrashing about in its death throes the US ruling class has the technological means, and avid preparedness and inclination to destroy all of humanity to maintain its global primacy and rule.

    1. digi_owl

      The modern world seems to hinge on one thing, the mechanization of farming.

      This has freed up a labor force not seen since perhaps the ancient Egyptians, where the seasonal Nile allowed them to build the pyramids.

      Question is if said mechanization is sustainable, given that it so relies on petrochemicals (both to fuel the tractors etc, and for fertilizer production).

      Because the other component, debt, has been around for as long as written history. Yet it has not produced the kind of “boom” as we are currently seeing.

      1. SufferinSuccotash

        The term “mechanization” can be expanded to include exploiting gravity and animal muscle power (as irrigation and draft animals) to supplement human muscle power. So we might call the Fourth Millennium BCE in the Fertile Crescent the age of “first phase” mechanization, or “mechanization 1.0”.
        Evitable or Inevitable, cities, territorial states and markets were the consequence.

    2. Joe Well

      The whole point of the book under discussion is there are no “necessary stages” in history. There have been many different social models. Everything comes down to choice and chance.

      If capitalism seems inevitable, that is because a handful of imperial regimes have been so ruthless in imposing it.

      1. Stephen Morrell

        To not acknowledge or purposely obliterate the qualitative differences between hunter-gathering societies (in all their variants) versus slavery (in all its variants) versus feudalism (‘hydraulic’, ‘dry’ or otherwise) versus capitalism versus post-capitalism, and most importantly the productive forces driving their development and evolution, is part and parcel of the ‘end of history’ ideological nihilism whose sole aim has been to abolish all notions of ‘progress’. If ‘social models’ were simply the result of ‘choice’ and/or ‘chance’, then why are there no historical examples of societies, of their own accord without outside ‘help’, jumping straight from hunter gathering to capitalism? Or, aside from natural disasters, war or famine, why are there no examples of capitalist societies ‘choosing’ to revert to hunter gathering or to feudalism with its kings and queens, lords and gentry, a peasantry and serfdom?

        And if one cares to examine’ imperial regimes’ a little more closely, under feudalism when their death knell was sounding, they either did everything to stop the rise of capitalism until, finally, they were destroyed (eg, France), or were forced to make peace with the rising capitalist class to survive (eg, England). In contrast, the imperial regimes of modern capitalism have done all in their power to prevent capitalism being overthrown in their satrapies, but at the same time have been most careful to prevent capitalism’s independent and full development in the neo-colonies, which potentially could pose a threat to their own dominance.

        Otherwise, all this talk of society being a simple matter ‘choice’ and ‘chance’, or a continuum devoid of ‘stages’, is liberalism run amok.

        1. Joe Well

          You need to read the book, and read it with an open mind. The most interesting thing I’ve read in the past year, and with a wealth of evidence.

          P.S. the idea that royal regimes all tried to stop capitalism…umm…. Capitalism and the centralized royal state grew hand in hand. This is pretty much non-controversial in historiography because it’s so obvious. Monarchs loved being able to tax commerce and used the money to overawe the nobility and engage in expansive wars. Monarchs and nobles were usually in conflict.

          1. Stephen Morrell

            Of course monarchies and petty capitalism and mercantilism grew hand in hand — and very smoothly as long as the merchants, etc, kept the royal households in their luxuries and offered lines of credit to wage wars, build new palaces, etc. But as the economic power and needs of industrial capital, particularly in it’s early phase of primitive accumulation, elbowed mercantilism aside, so too did capital become an independent power that the feudal order, especially with its restrictions on land and labour, could no longer bear (ie, its ‘death knell’ was sounding). The strictures became evermore suffocating and had to be destroyed. And they were in different ways, from the English revolution(s) to the French revolution to the imposition of the Code Napoleon across Europe, and finally to the 1848 revolutions that cemented the rule of capital de jure.

            I’ll probably read the book if something more interesting arises in subsequent instalments of the ‘Reflections on Graeber…’.

          2. Stephen Morrell

            Of course monarchies and petty capitalism and mercantilism grew hand in hand — and very smoothly as long as the merchants, etc, kept the royal households in their luxuries and offered lines of credit to wage wars, build new palaces, etc. But as the economic power and needs of industrial capital, particularly in it’s early phase of primitive accumulation, elbowed mercantilism aside, so too did capital become an independent power that the feudal order, especially with its restrictions on land and labour, could no longer bear (ie, its ‘death knell’ was sounding). The strictures became evermore suffocating and had to be destroyed. And they were in different ways, from the English revolution(s) to the French revolution to the imposition of the Code Napoleon across Europe, and finally to the 1848 revolutions that cemented the rule of capital de jure.

            I’ll probably read the book if something more interesting arises in subsequent instalments of the ‘Reflections on…’.

        2. eg

          This is adjacent to my understanding of how we got here — relative isolation provides the opportunity and scope for more variety in human organization. Competitive pressure between groups strikes me as its own form of constraint on that variety.

          The folly of our civilization’s disregard for the environment may ironically reintroduce relative isolation, and therefore a return to more variety in human organization. Whether or not anything will be learned from what is remembered of us is another question.

          1. Stephen Morrell

            Of course isolation, along with geographical and climatic variation, give variety to ‘human organization’ without changing the essence of the productive relations. Feudalism had quite a number of variants, yet the relations of production essentially were the same: land owning classes exploiting land labourers as peasant smallholders with some property rights or as serfs ‘owned’ by the aristocracy, with numerous variants in between. Under capitalism, there are family-owned companies, shareholder-owned companies, and worker co-operatives. Yet no-one claims that socialism has arrived due to the presence of the latter (which must still operate at a profit in a capitalist market environment to survive).

        3. hunkerdown

          Progress is a mystification of history and a childish myth. Why does a demystification project need infantile religious narratives?

          1. Stephen Morrell

            ‘Progress’ has become such a dirty word with our post-modernist liberals who can only smear it as a ‘mystification of history’, as if that’s some kind of ‘radical’ rebuttal. No, ‘progress’ is a very real and material reality: fast trains vs. snail rail; email vs. snail mail; 64-bit CPU PC’s vs. 16-bit CPU PC’s; electric cars vs. internal combustion clunkers; labour productivity generally doubling every 30-50 years; and so on and so forth. In short, it’s the productive forces that ‘progress’, while the social relations of production, hindered as they are by the dictates of private property and profits, remain the chief barrier to unleashing material progress to serve the population as a whole.

    3. Soredemos

      Statements like this read like Engels at his worst, predicting ‘historical inevitabilities’ that completely failed to come to pass. Maybe capitalism isn’t an endgame, maybe it will collapse at some point. In fact it probably will. But everyone else who confidently predicted such, well, the revolutions all failed, utterly. Capitalism remains dominant.

      1. Stephen Morrell

        Sorry, no ‘predictions’ were made in the above. Anti-capitalist revolutions have ‘failed’ in no small part due to them occurring exclusively in backward countries (Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, Laos, etc), plus the strenuous efforts of the advanced capitalist powers to strangle them. Can’t have an example of socialism breaking out, now can we.

        1. Soredemos

          All I see here is cope. It’s conspicuous how the revolution keeps never happening in precisely the places where Marx was confident they would happen.

  3. Greg

    In answer to the question posed in the introduction about lack of “development” prior to the last ten thousand years, my favourite theory for previous cycles of human advancement is decomposable technology. Biology, in other words.

    Of course its unlikely (but possible) there was an advanced civilisation with liquid computing or some such, but we do have (some, fragmentary) evidence of intentional plant breeding going back fifty thousand years. The distribution of Brazil nut trees is an example. In some ways the Amazon is not the last wild jungle, but an overgrown low maintenance Eden.

    ETA: I’m also fond of the idea that myth captures nuggets of pre history passed down by oral traditions. The elves and orcs and goblins were cousin hominids we shared the earth with and interbred with for 165ky until 35kya. Maybe the aversion to iron in many stories of ancient master races has some basis in fact ;)

  4. CanCyn

    Thank you for posting this. I had the book out of the library to do some initial skimming and decided indeed that it is worth purchasing and reading in depth. But knew that it would be a slow process. Neuberger’s ‘book club series’ is exactly the guide that will get me started.

  5. Carolinian

    Perhaps the correct question is why would anyone think they were not like us since the human history we do know about is so rhyming. And even in our industrial period we have had examples of hunter gatherer societies for anthropologists to look at. One of my recent books was about Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and the Lakota culture of the High Plains.It was a warrior culture where the males were from an early age taught to put a premium on physical courage and fighting. As the above says this was not “evil” but the circumstances producing the behavior.

    So an interesting discussion coming up but contra Graeber I’m not sure how much the distant past has to tell us about the way forward for the 8 billion. It could be the past is something we will have to step away from.

  6. fjallstrom

    Regarding the preface, I suppose you know that the de-construction of the ideas of Rousseau and Hobbes runs as a thread through the first parts of the book. Mainly the arrow of time from state of nature to agriculture to kingships to modern states.

    Graeber and Wengrow shows with many examples that there is no arrow as such, agriculture and cities existed for thousands of years without visible signs of kingships or elite, kingships often started in heroic cultures adjacent to agriculture and cities, kingships has been abolished in numerous places and times. And many cultures has shifted between more and less hierarchial structures during different times, and even different seasons. The arrow obscures more than it enlightens (and besides in the case of Rousseau it was just a thought experiment), and it justifies the modern state as a God (or history) given end results.

    What I found most fascinating is the authors rather rough but very interesting model of how modern states actually rose. They identifiy three components: holy violence (mostly in the form of a king), bureacracy, and public elite competition (today in the form of elections). These parts appear to have risen independently, with different roots. They have combined differently, and have been abolished at times. The modern state as a fusion of all three is an odd duck in that it seems so stuck. Or maybe they all seemed stuck when looking at them from the inside?

    1. hunkerdown

      That combination of all three elementary forms of domination subverts the entire decision loop, from observation to action. Decision is almost helpless except as a feedback to orientation, which contributes to the charismatic politics. In that sense the state is a virtual machine that enforces artificial laws of motion. There’s a simulation hypothesis for you…

  7. skippy

    Loss of Freedom[that word again] though misapplication …. ugh …. natural forces with a side of equalizer thingy …. groan ….

  8. Joe Well

    The book is well worth reading (the audiobook is also excellent). It overturns many of the foundational assumptions about history that are already appearing in the comments above.

    One nugget: did you know that an indigenous man from what is now Canada played an important role in sparking Enlightenment social theory? I didn’t.

    1. Carolinian

      Care to be more specific? History is just history. Assumptions are assumptions.

      And guess it’s just me but I found his constant digressions to be a bit annoying. But then I eat my meals one item at a time.

  9. Robin Kash

    “What we do know is this — our species has lived for 200,000 years, and today we understand 2% of it.”

    This is utterly and romanticly overstated and optimistic. We have some access to around 2% of human existence. I dispute completely that we “understand” much of it. The 200,000 years is a tentative surmise. Just when we least expect it, we, um, “learn” something of our beclouded past we did not know at all and will struggle to interpret in hopes of gaining some shred of understanding.
    I’ve been married to my wife for a long time. I know her better than I know anyone else. Some of our interactions are predictably well-known. D*mned if I understand her!

  10. Lee

    I’m about finished with Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and I have the Graeber and Wentworth book next up on my reading list. Someone here described Harari as the World Economic Forum’s in house philosopher, so I expect it will be interesting to compare and contrast their respective outlooks.

    Just how we got from where were were for so long to where we are in a tiny fraction of our species’ tenure is indeed a fascinating subject. Just the presumptive use of the putatively all inclusive “we” is a rather recent development.

    1. Sean

      Yes, Harari also argues humans traded quality of life for worse but consistent food access when we settled down to agriculture. That concept was an awakening for me.

  11. Alex

    I ordered the book as soon as it was published and then enjoyed reading it but I look forward to the series as I’m sure I missed a lot of stuff there and one can get to many a different place starting from this book’s ideas.

    One small quibble: you surely meant that the writing has been around for 5,400 years

    1. Thomas Neuburger

      Alex, you’re right. A typo on my part. I looked at 3500 BCE and wrote “ago” instead. I’m making the correction at Substack. Thanks.


  12. Polar Socialist

    I must tell that I was still looking for where to get this book when my blessed wife dropped it on my desk hoping it was the book I had been talking about. She also hoped I wouldn’t mind that the copy is signed by Wengrow…

  13. jailbraker

    “…because ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are concepts humans made up in order to compare ourselves with one another. [emphasis added]”
    I think you lost me there. How does that make any sense even to a 10 year old?
    There is nothing wrong with trying to be original but things must make sense first I think.
    David was a great guy, god bless his soul , and an original thinker but not a serious one, his book on debt was more a gathering of anecdotes rather than serious research and I am not sure to invest the time on the second one as it seems full of maybe entertaining but senseless speculation.

    1. hunkerdown

      It’s called non-cognitivist meta-ethics. In particular, emotivism is the meta-ethical view which claims that ethical statements express emotional attitudes rather than propositions. It is the predominant meta-ethics of the Western professional-managerial class, but they tend to deny it to the hilt. It is also known as hurrah/boo theory, which should be easy to explain to a cognitively healthy 10yo who hasn’t been indoctrinated into their society’s ruling myths and isn’t invested in cheering along with their cohort.

      But, any 10yo raised on superhero spectacles, and occupied with preparing and positioning themselves in a huge web of social relations they will soon be entering, likely lacks the perspective to argue against the tendencies in the curated subset of “reality” they have been permitted to witness. If they weren’t taught New Math, they may not even have a basic grasp of philosophy or logic.

      1. jailbraker

        Boswell, in The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) says that he and Johnson were discussing George Berkeley’s view that matter was nonexistent and that everything in the universe is merely ideal, when ‘Johnson answered, striking his foot with force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute him thus’ .’
        You will have instant insight into the reality of evil when it hits you.
        That will also refute the non-cognitive-whatever theory as total humbug.
        But I prey to God that you do not have to experience such abominations to realize such a simple concept.

        1. begob

          Johnson’s argumentum ad lapidem is a fallacy. Sensing the rock is not to confirm its materiality, since sensation is just interpretation suited to fit the brain’s adaptation to reality. The rock may or may not be material, but the pain advises you not to kick what you sense to be a rock. Evil is just another interpretation, and one that necessarily raises the issue of god, which god may or may not be material. Interpretation provides your universe, from god to rock.

          1. jailbraker

            Interpretation provides your universe, from god to rock.
            So back to Descartes then, I think therefore I am?

    2. Basil Pesto

      “…because ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are concepts humans made up in order to compare ourselves with one another. [emphasis added]”
      I think you lost me there. How does that make any sense even to a 10 year old?

      In what way does it not?

  14. Boomheist

    A bit of a contrary view, here: I bought this book and found it a wonderfully written tome, and by that, I mean, the writing was excellent, the sentences seamless, the flow of the text a delight, but in the end I feel the authors somehow took a thirty page paper and expanded it to a long book. Lots and lots of speculation about everything, weaving theories from bits of data, and, like many other such books on the subject of ancient humans, falling into a romanticized vision of what might have been. In the end I had trouble finishing the thing. Sorry. What the authors miss, as so many such authors miss, is the understanding that until very recently, say the last 8,000 years, humans were not the apex predator on the earth. We humans evolved exactly coincident with the ice ages, surviving repeated huge swings of climate, ice, floods, drought with short interspersed periods of benign warmth between, and until very recently we lived in a world with great animals and nasty predators that all too often wiped out small bands entirely. Yes, maybe there were biologically-based great civilizations in the deep past, all evidence of which has gone to the soil, but if so, it would have been along the coast, with abundant marine life for the collection and taking. And, because of the ice advances, most if not all of those coastal sites are now buried beneath the ocean, hundreds of feet below the current sea level. I don’t think any author yet has appreciated or understood that humanity, as a non apex predator, had to survive in out of the way, hidden, safe places, islands, glacial refuges, deep caves, hunted by short face bears, hyenas, lions, wolves. Only when the balance shifted in favor of humans destroying the great animals, which apparently happened about when the last ice melted, did our species explode in numbers.

    1. hunkerdown

      They didn’t miss anything; they simply reject myths, including the pseudo-scientific Darwinian hunting cosmology popularized against his advice by 19th-century reactionaries, as just one more instance of a genre known the world over, one which you appear to find personally significant. The “apex predator” badge is cope. The tiger doesn’t care how any humans decide to value predation, nor do any fleas carrying Yersinia pestis he might have with him.

      1. Boomheist

        You entirely miss the point, I think. Irrespective of Darwin and ideology, biological behavior of predators – meat eating animals and some omnivores like bears (and humans) – is that they stalk and kill other living animals for their food. Hoiminids – humans – would have been seen as prey by such predators as would have been deer, rabbits, etc. I would contend that when the great predatory animals roamed the earth – which they did until the last 10,000 years or so – they through their predation kept human bands small, isolated, and frequently wiped them out. A short face fear stands 15 feet high with its forepaws raised, weighs a ton, and could run at 40 miles an hour. They only ate meat. My only point here is that for 190,000 of our 200,000 years of existence as modern humans we were scattered, isolated, small bands and worldwide population was in the hundreds of thousands, maybe even thousands. Then, with this last warming, we developed agriculture and the population exploded. This did not happen 120,000 years ago in the previous warm period, the Eemian, even though that period was warmer than today and sea levels higher than today. The great animals lived through that Interglacial, but this time they vanished, maybe from disease, maybe from over hunting as humans finally were able to overpower them. I just find it interesting that for some reason it seems nobody wants to even consider that the reason humans were “light” on the landscape for most of their existence might have been because during that period there were other predators roaming the earth, bigger, faster, and feeding on humans.

  15. Anthony G Stegman

    I recall reading that settlers in Texas described the lives of Kiowa Indians as nasty, brutish, and short. Colonialists often described the people they met in the conquered lands similarly. Yet, these “savages” populated an entire planet, overcoming many obstacles in doing so. These same “savages” also built lasting civilizations. To me it seems that the current crop of humans are the real savages as they are well on their way to destroying civilizations, rather than building and sustaining them. The 98% of human history that we don’t know may be just the history we need to know if we are to last another 200,000 years. Or even another 200 years.

  16. Gulag

    Eric Hoel in a brilliant review of the two David’s book (unfortunately behind a paywall) states the following:

    “They argue the standard model of prehistory isn’t supported at all by modern archeological and anthropological evidence, in it they offer a complexified account wherein prehistorical humans lived in a panoply of different political arrangements, from extreme egalitarianism to chattel slavery

    “They argue that Native American intellectuals were the true originators of many of the criticisms of the Western World that would go on to define the political
    Left, and European intellectuals in turn co-opted their criticisms, using fictional Native Americans as mouthpieces, while the originals were forgotten to mainstream history.”

    “I think the Davids are correct, there is a good case that there were real and serious intellectual contributions from Native Americans in critiquing the inequalities of European civilization particularly from the articulate and debate-based Iroquoian speaking nations.”

    But Hoel also argues that he believes the Davids overplay this pattern–and that their own version of prehistory is corrupted by politics, the same corruption they accuse Rousseau and Hobbes of falling prey to before them.

    1. vao

      If you read French, there is another review of the book here. The reviewer praises the book, but highlights a few weaknesses:

      1) Graeber and Wengrow present some findings as new (e.g. the sedentarization of gatherers-hunters before agriculture takes off) that have been known for 30-40 years — but the authors do not even refer to the works that first settled those results.

      2) Their interpretation of the social developments is deemed incorrect, because of a lack of perspective (e.g. Knossos was the center of an economy based on woolen products); or because they try to impose a political view on evolutions that are driven by other factors (e.g. Uruk is not the demise of a democratic urban polity in favour of a warrior society, but the rejection of centralized commercial farming in favour of small, distributed and more resilient agro-pastoral units).

      3) They do not realize that freedom (or lack thereof), and the hardening of hierarchies is caused by the increasing specialization of the economies within cities. In hunter-gatherer, agro-pastoral, and early agricultural societies, freedom was at hand — just leave and move somewhere else; people had all the basic skills to start a new life elsewhere, independently from the society they came from. In urban settings, specialized skills make one entirely dependent on a web of other specialized workers — and leaving is simply no longer an option. Liberty becomes now a question of shaping institutions — not switching between communities, territories or modes of organization (sedentary and nomadic).

  17. Wukchumni

    The Wukchumni and 50 or so other associated Yokuts tribes in what is now Godzone in the Central Valley were classic hunter gatherers and 2/3rds of their diet was acorns to give you an idea.

    They managed to live here for 3,000 years, never knowing how a root beer float tasted or what a ride on a jet @ 30,000 feet felt like.

    Wars were practically unheard of and they lived in harmony with the land and other tribes. Their lasting memory is mortars (grinding holes) sunk into granite to process the acorns with a pestle. The thousands around these parts should be here for time immemorial…

    We’re closing in on 250 years as a people, and its doubtful we’ll make it 300.

    The especially sad part is that aside from our dumps-which are protected from the elements if you go deep enough, there will be precious little evidence we were here, say 500 years from now.

  18. Mikel

    “My understanding is that human advantages over other species and their environment includes: opposable thumbs, language (which allows for much more complex forms of social interaction, cooperation, and information exchange) and interestingly, endurance. On the latter, recent research argues the reason humans were effective game hunters despite being slow and weak is that they would pursue large prey until they had exhausted it.”

    Let’s not forget learning to control fire.
    Fire lit a fuse under progress as we understand it.
    Humans had a way to see better at night.
    And cooking food made a big difference in the development of humans.

  19. Seer

    Lewis Mumford’s Myth of the Machine is a two-book set that I recommend highly: I’m not the only one; look up reviews. Highly informative/educational (first book delves in to human development extensively) as well as making you really think about how we got here and where we are going: and some notions that you might have are likely going to be jolted. In general, Mumford greatly hoped for humanity to stay human, not give itself up to the “machine.” He described the history of the machine: note that “machine” is not what is commonly thought of as a modern invention (goes WAY back).

  20. hazelbrew

    Fascinating subject and great post thank you.

    I did Geology and Biology at university many years ago (in the 90s). One of my professors had worked with the Leakeys back in the 60s. By far one of my favourite topics was the study of human evolution. I remember the epiphany when I understood how important our thumbs are compared to other animals (different grips – power and precision).

    Additional food for thought and questions:
    when does anthropology end and geology or palaeontology begin?
    Why 200000 years?

    There is a fossil record leading to homo sapiens stretching back over 6 million years (and further back of course, like lots in geology you need to decide where to stop and why ). the record is good in some places, patchy in others.

    from the australopithecenes, – Australopithicus afarensis, 3+ million years ago, with evidence of tool usage at that point, bipedal, losing body hair, smaller brain
    through to the first Homo species between 2-2.5million years ago – Homo habilis – bipedal, brain enlarging, tool using.
    then to homo erectus – from 2- 1 million years ago – bipedal, brain really starts to enlarge. Evidence of control of fire from 1.5 million years ago.
    homo sapiens…
    neanderthals appear around 500k years ago.
    anatomically modern homo sapiens – 300k years ago is the earliest evidence from a site in Morocco. brain expansion stops at around 200k years.

    dates are based on what is found in the fossil record, and our ability to date what we find. the dates get revised as new discoveries are made.

    so 200,000 years ago to me is somewhat arbitrary – given the bones at the site in Morocco you could make a case for 300,000 years ago. that distinction between history and prehistory is very blurry.

    What were they all talking about around the fire? on the hunt?
    What culture did Homo erectus have a million years before even the earliest homo sapiens?

    Given that speciation is not a sudden event (as in one generation) but multigenerational – then just how far back conceptually can one push the idea of hominim history and culture?

  21. Laudyms

    1) some of those ‘other’ hominid species weren’t really- or many of us wouldn’t be carrying their genes around today.
    2) perhaps earlier members of homo sap actually had common sense instead of our modern version of intelligence? They lived sustainable lives for the most part, and when they didn’t they managed to disappear without taking down the entire planet. .

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