In recent decades, the genre of “Big History” has gained considerable attention, both commercially and academically. Social scientists such as Steven Pinker, Francis Fukuyama, Jared Diamond, and Yuval Noah Harari have all published treatises with big ideas about the long arch of history, each to much commercial success. The late David Gaeber, an anthropologist, and David Wengrow, an archeologist, believe recent works of ‘Big History’ get it wrong. In particularly, the authors take issue with the idea of a teleology toward the social, social, political, and economic development toward what we call modernity. In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition (November 9, 2021)), Graeber and Wengrow survey recent archaeological evidence and caution against a teleological approach to human progress, arguing instead that early human history was varied and filled with possibilities we have often struggled to imagine.
The authors survey a number of societies from around the world in different time periods. In the process, they elucidate many human achievements lost to history. Recent major archaeological discoveries, including those of Cahokia in present-day Illinois, Shang Dynasty China, Minoan Crete, and Central Mexico all receive considerable attention. Graeber and Wengrow focus primarily on socio-political organisation, but also survey factors such as language and agronomy. In the process, the authors look into the evolution of ideas and survey the ideas of thinkers whose ideas have often fallen out of favour.
The authors focus their efforts on a few big questions. First, how did societies become unequal? They spend a good deal of time throughout the book looking at how stratification develops within societies, looking at the rise of agriculture and related administrative needs, as well as the concentration of power. Second, they ask the related question of how human freedom became constrained. This involves a detailed look at state formation and its effects on three different types of human freedoms: (1) the freedom to move away/relocate; (2) the freedom to ignore/disobey commands; and (3) the freedom to shape possibilities. The authors argue that, using these criteria, we are now much less free than many indigenous, or non-state societies.
The lengthiest chapter focuses on state formation, or in the authors’ reading, a lack thereof (See Ch. 10, “Why the State Has No Origin”). Graeber and Wengrow focus on three phenomena which are tied to what we now call the state: sovereignty, bureaucracy, and a competitive political field. The authors note that the concept of sovereignty is closely tied to the existence of a monarch, a role which was originally priestly or divine in nature. Societies could have sovereignty without necessarily having bureaucrats or political competition and, hence, the development of a state was no sure thing.
While the authors are quite thorough, a few critiques could be levelled at the book:
- The Dawn of Everything seems to overplay the significance of the indigenous critique. The authors focus heavily on Wendat-Huron chief, Kandiaronk, whose views on European civilisation were published by French aristocrat Baron de la Hontan and paralleled those set out in Rousseau’s Discourse on Social Inequality. While Kandiaronk’s critiques of French society had validity, there is not much evidence that these critiques were based on a detailed understanding of France, nor that these critiques inspired Rousseau or other French writers. Without concrete evidence, Graeber and Wengrow assert that French intellectuals would have been generally aware of Kandiaronk’s ideas. The authors do a great job of highlighting a forgotten intellectual force in Kandiaronk, but present insufficient evidence for the influence they ascribe to his ideas.
- The authors focus excessively on North America. There may be valid, practical reasons for doing so: the Americas’ relative isolation, newly-discovered archaeological evidence, and the relative lack of state development. Nonetheless, this focus seemed a bit puzzling, given that (a) North America accounted for a small percentage of the world’s population; (b) its archaeological evidence is far more recent; and (c) North America lacked the competitive dynamics which ostensibly gave rise to the teleology authors seek to refute.
- Graeber and Wengrow seem to jump around chronologically, making odd comparisons in the process. For example, Shang China (c. 1600-1046 BCE) is compared to the North American city of Cahokia (c. 1050–1350 CE). Allowing for the unevenness of development across the planet, these comparisons seem misplaced, particularly in a book that in its title claims to chronicle the dawn of things. The time-jumps seem forced and go against a central tenet of the oeuvre: that societies choose how to organise based on their own values, rather than a teleology based on factor conditions.
- The authors seem to repeatedly take liberty in interpreting their sources. For example, the authors look at the settlements of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa in present-day Pakistan. In finding no evidence of kingly burials, the authors assert – based on absence of evidence, not evidence of absence – that these cities were examples of egalitarian urbanism. They do the same with Teotihuacan. One is left with the sense that the authors are either cherry-picking the data or filling in the gaps, both in service of a particular viewpoint.
- The implicit goal of the book appears to be a critique of the values of ‘Western’ society and valorisation of ‘indigenous’ societies. While there is merit to each of these goals, the authors’ editorialising often gets in the way of data interpretation. For example, in the conclusion, the authors’ unfavourably compare French torture of criminals to the Wendat torture of enemy combatants. They don’t stop to question whether torture, by its nature, is a bad thing. The authors also seem to both orientalise indigenous societies and imbue them with the author’s own values, assuming that they are not materialistic and paragons of freedom. This critique assumes that these societies (a) differ fundamentally in character from Western societies; and (b) share the authors’ politics. This is of course entirely possible, but – with a lack of written records – involves a large amount of speculation.
Notwithstanding the above critiques, this book is very much worth reading. It chronicles the achievements of societies which have been tragically lost to history. It also opens our eyes to the possibilities of human organisation and helps readers question the world around them. For those not well-versed on the latest archaeological discoveries, the book provides a great overview of some of important recent findings. Finally, The Dawn of Everything allows us to stop and question flaws in our current society, including our lack of imagination and the persistence of in inequality. Anyone wanting to expand his or her horizons would be well advised to pick up a copy.