The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Chris Knight wishes that the authors of this hugely ambitious study had gone back further and taken greater account of Africa

December 9, 2021
Hadza bow-and-arrow hunters of Tanzania
Source: Alamy
Hadza bow-and-arrow hunters of Tanzania

This book is enjoyable, informative and, at times, exhilarating. It is also in fundamental ways incoherent and wrong. If you hope to learn about relatively recent prehistory, from the time when cave paintings began appearing in Europe, it is a must-read. But if you are wondering how or why humans first began laughing, singing, speaking and creating art, ritual and politics – you’ll be disappointed.

The book’s title is seriously misleading. The Dawn of Everything? “Tea-time” would be more accurate. The story begins far too late, systematically side-stepping the cultural flowering that began in Africa tens of thousands of years before Homo sapiens arrived in Europe.

Despite its flaws, the book is a public relations triumph. Not since Friedrich Engels published his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State have left-wing intellectuals and activists been so excited to learn about humanity’s social origins and prehistoric past.

In a short review, I cannot hope to convey the range and erudition of this book. Its core political message is blunt. Engels’ story about egalitarian hunter-gatherers practising communism in living is a myth. The Dawn of Everything neatly turns Engels upside-down: in the beginning was private property, religion and the state. To quote the concluding words of Chapter 4, “If private property has an ‘origin’, it is as old as the idea of the sacred, which is likely as old as humanity itself.” In an earlier book with Marshall Sahlins, On Kings (2017), David Graeber claimed that since imagined supernatural agents such as divine kings and forest spirits have always exercised authority over people, the principle of state power is an immovable feature of the human condition.

It may seem paradoxical for an anarchist – of all people – to accept the inevitability of the state. But this book adds weight to that message. Yes, say the authors, anarchist freedom can be implemented, but only in precious moments or enclaves. So much for the revolutionary slogan that “another world is possible”. Instead, Graeber and David Wengrow contend that “hierarchy and equality tend to emerge together, as complements to one another”. They seem to be saying that we cannot have freedom in one place without accepting oppression somewhere else.

The authors are uncomfortable with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, conflating modern evolutionary theory with “social evolutionism” – the narrative of a ladder of stages progressing from “savagery” through “barbarism” to “civilisation”. Modern evolutionary theory claims to be scientific, we are told, but in reality is pure myth. Quixotically, Graeber and Wengrow expect readers to give serious consideration to a perspective on human origins that doesn’t acknowledge evolutionary theory at all.

The only science they do recognise is applied science – in this case, “archaeological science”, and then only if the archaeology doesn’t go too far back. They justify dating “the Dawn of Everything” to a mere 40,000 years ago by arguing that nothing about politics or social life can be gleaned from archaic human “cranial remains and the occasional piece of knapped flint”. This excuse looks weak in the light of compelling recent evidence that our species’ most unique trait – art and symbolic culture – emerged in Africa three or four times earlier than was previously thought. By no means limited to bones and stones, the evidence consists of beads, geometric engravings, burials with grave goods and artefacts such as grindstones and paint pots, all invariably found in association with red ochre.

Someone whom they term a “feminist” (actually the leading evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Hrdy), Graeber and Wengrow concede, has said interesting things about the critical role of collective childcare in shaping our modern human instincts and psychology. But they comment that “such insights can only ever be partial because there was no garden of Eden, and a single Eve never existed”. Tricks of this kind – in this case ignoring the fact that Hrdy’s work is focused on the emergence of the genus Homo 2 million years before the dating of “African Eve” – are clearly aimed at undermining the very idea that human origins research is worth pursuing.

While rejecting the concept of early egalitarianism as a “damaging myth”, Graeber and Wengrow do agree that many hunter-gatherers display “a whole panoply of tactics collectively employed to bring would-be braggarts and bullies down to earth – ridicule, shame, shunning…none of which have any parallel among other primates”. Why then are they so hostile to the idea that the instincts and capacities that define our humanity were shaped by an egalitarian way of life?

We all feel happiest when able to laugh, sing, play or socialise with our social and political equals. But instead of building on this fact, Graeber and Wengrow seem to be saying that our hunter-gatherer ancestors might equally have chosen harassment, abuse and domination by aggressive males. Summing up their objection to evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm’s picture of a morally conscious society forged in anti-authoritarian resistance, they describe his idea that our hunter-gatherer ancestors consistently preferred egalitarianism as “casually tossing early humans back into the Garden of Eden”.

Graeber and Wengrow’s fundamental point concerns freedom of political choice. To illustrate their thinking, they remind us of anthropology’s classic account of traditional life among the Eskimo. These seal-hunters established patriarchal family arrangements during the summer, only to revert to communal living – sharing everything, including husbands and wives – through the winter months. By our very nature, the authors conclude, we humans are driven to make bold social experiments. Sometimes the results have been catastrophic, with extreme forms of hierarchy culminating in slavery, human sacrifice and mass killings. The good thing about the distant past, however, was that at least we weren’t stuck in just one system as we seem to be today.

This history is bursting with oppositions and alternations, but its periodicities – modelled on those of the Eskimo – are one-sidedly seasonal. Don’t Graeber and Wengrow know that most hunter-gatherers follow not just the annual seasons but the monthly cycles of the moon? Women’s rituals, bound up with menstrual ebbs and flows, are scheduled essentially by the moon.

The crucial question the authors ask is not “How did we become unequal?” but “How did we get stuck?” Since they come within striking distance of answering their own question, it’s deeply frustrating that they never get there. One self-imposed handicap is their tendency to overlook hunter-gatherer research by female anthropologists. Without proper referencing, for example, they touch on Morna Finnegan’s concept of communism in motion. She records how women in the Congo rainforest deliberately encourage men to display their potential for muscular courage and dominance – only to mock and defy them in an all-female ritual known as Ngoku before surrendering gracefully in a “pendulum of power” between the sexes. But instead of acknowledging this expression of political intelligence, Graeber and Wengrow mention it without seeing any accomplishment here, any pattern.

Asking why we got stuck is a good question. A good answer would refer to humanity’s increasing dependence on farming, with an ever more one-sided solar calendar relentlessly taking precedence over moon-scheduled ceremonial life. The indigenous people I know best – the Hadza bow-and-arrow hunters of Tanzania – still hold their most important religious ceremony, Epeme, monthly during the darkest nights around New Moon.

A halfway house between sun and moon, one of countless compromise solutions arrived at around the world, was medieval Europe’s tradition of annual carnivals. The one tradition the common people still treasured was this licence to reverse the prevailing patriarchal order – but now just annually and for a short period instead of once a moon.

Unfortunately, because it starts far too late and so cuts Africa out of the story, this “new history of humanity” cannot explain the causal connection between women’s oppression and our current predicament of being stuck in a rut.

Chris Knight is a senior research fellow in anthropology at UCL, where he forms part of a team researching the origins of our species in Africa. His books include Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture (1991) and Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics (2016).

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity
By David Graeber and David Wengrow
Allen Lane, 704pp, £30.00
ISBN 9780241402429
Published 19 October 2021

The authors

The late David Graeber “grew up in a cooperative in New York”, he once told an interviewer, among the kind of book-loving skilled labourers sometimes described as the “working-class aristocracy”. He would later find this background “a great impediment, especially in grad school, because it meant while I usually knew far more about, say, the Oresteia than the bourgeois students, I was completely lacking in professional manners”.

After a first degree from the State University of New York at Purchase College, Graeber went on to a master’s and a PhD at the University of Chicago, the latter involving 20 months’ fieldwork in Madagascar. He served as an assistant and associate professor at Yale University, but in 1999 became active in the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference. It was because of this, he believed, that Yale failed to renew his contract in 2005, and he therefore continued his career at Goldsmiths, University of London and then as a professor at the London School of Economics.

Deeply committed to the anarchist ideal of “direct action” (“a matter of acting as if you were already free”), Graeber was the author of books including Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009), Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) and Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018). He died unexpectedly in 2020 shortly after the completion of The Dawn of Everything.

David Wengrow, professor of comparative archaeology at UCL, studied archaeology and anthropology at the University of Oxford before going on to a master’s, a PhD and a junior fellowship. His research interests include “early state formation”, “cognitive and evolutionary approaches to culture” and “prehistoric art and aesthetics”.

At a time when “our current cultural system” presents us with overwhelming challenges around inequality, sustainability and climate change, Wengrow once said, it was “very logical” to look for alternatives in the past, such as the “really large-scale, densely populated societies which lived in cities that were essentially decentralized in terms of their decision-making processes”.

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Hunting down our ancestors

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Reader's comments (3)

Very interesting review. I will read it again properly later as it clearly merits such.
I haven't read the book, I expect to sometime soon. If this is an accurate representation, that they discount what evolutionary theory might reveal: "...The only science they do recognise is applied science – in this case, “archaeological science”, and then only if the archaeology doesn’t go too far back. They justify dating “the Dawn of Everything” to a mere 40,000 years ago by arguing that nothing about politics or social life can be gleaned from archaic human “cranial remains and the occasional piece of knapped flint”. ....then this is troubling. All of science is about piecing together fragmentary evidence so this seems rather uncharitable and unsatisfactory to reject evolution. Do they find evolutionary theory guilty by association with unsavoury misrepresentaitons of the science? I certainly agree with you about the omission of the key importance of evolution of 'modern human behaviour in Africa during the MSA. The ref below is 2000, so it's hardly a new idea. McBrearty, S., & Brooks, A. (2000). The revolution that wasn’t: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior. Journal of Human Evolution, 39(5), 453–563. And last but not least, our view of why and how farming came to supersede hunter gathering or nomadic pastoralism is incomplete of course. Interesting are your ideas of the primacy of moon based ritual, but more of the details of the shift to annual seasonal model in view of agricultural patterns are necessary to understand the change in ritual and the interaction between ritual and material practices??/
Here are some other critiques of Graeber and Wengrow's anthropology: ‘What is Politics’ reviews of ‘The Dawn of Everything’: ­James Suzman, ‘On the Origin of Our Species’: Chris Knight, ‘Did communism make us human? On the anthropology of David Graeber’: Camilla Power, ‘A response to David Graeber & David Wengrow’s “How to change the course of human history”’: