A History That Looks Forward: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow

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We are in the midst of a paradigm shift. This is true of race relations, gender relations, economics, and politics; structural narratives are wilting like potted plants in a house fire. Our old stories are coming up bunk. It can often feel like we need an entirely new history of humanity, and now we have one. The Dawn of Everything, released last fall by anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow, brings fresh eyes and new archaeological evidence to bear on the long-pondered questions of where human society came from, how it got from there to here, and whether or not we ever had a choice in the matter. Ten years in the making, the book’s subtitle is, in fact, A New History of Humanity; like a pair of anarchist titans, the Davids have set out to quake the earth, to shake the very foundations of the ways that we understand and conceive of human society—its origins, its tendencies, its possibilities. And they succeed.

Of equal importance to the non-academic reader, they’ve also created a work that is at once dense, funny, thorough, joyful, unabashedly intelligent, and infinitely readable. Like much of Graeber’s work, Dawn of Everything is delivered with an accessibility that reflects a deep internal clarity: While a book this big undoubtedly required numerous drafts, one gets the sense that it’s easy for the authors to talk about humans’ most complicated aspects in a way that’s not only comprehensible, but often pretty damn fun.

Numerous reviewers have called the book irreverent, but that description misses something—there’s actually great reverence here, just not for the things that we’re used to revering. In fact, reading Dawn of Everything often feels almost like reading certain Irish poets or Buddhist teachers or James Baldwin: There has been suffering here, perhaps rising from—perhaps what gave rise to—that clarity of vision. But the result of that suffering is not despair, nor even bitterness. Instead, there is a hard-won lightness at work in Graeber’s and Wengrow’s writing. That lightness, when combined with a core-deep understanding of their subject matter, results in a work that is definitely prose, yet leaves the reader with that poetic sensation: revelation.

Graeber, for whom this tome was published posthumously, was a thought-leader among those who are dedicated to reimagining the ways that humans interact with each other and the world around them. Before taking on history itself, he was busy transforming our understandings of debt, work, and even Batman, as well as with articulating the philosophies behind the Occupy movement, coining such phrases as “We are the ninety-nine percent.”

Though perhaps lesser-known in the popular sphere, archaeologist Wengrow has left his own considerable cultural footprint: He’s a professor at University College London; has received boatloads of prizes; has given distinguished lectures in numerous spacious, well-hallowed halls; has published three other books; and is generally considered an expert in Egyptian and Near-Eastern archaeology. In 2021, ArtReview named him the tenth most influential person in art. (Number one was the NFT-related “Non-Human Entity” ERC-721. Yikes.)

So what’s in The Dawn of Everything, besides 692 pages, eighty-three of which are notes, another sixty-three a bibliography?

For a taste, we can look to the middle of the book, to a section rooted in Mesoamerica. About thirty miles northeast of what is now Mexico City, a thousand years before Spaniards first spied the Western continents, there was a place called Teotihuacan. In this place we can find evidence of hierarchy—there are still the remains of two grand pyramids and a temple, the kinds of monuments that typically result when some people don’t have to work, and others become stuck, for at least part of the year, in positions of servitude. We know that human lives were sacrificed during the consecration of these monuments: infants at one site, foreign captives in another, and male warriors in the third. Trophies and trinkets were buried along with them. The next thing one typically sees, at this point in an archaeological record, is the construction of palaces—places where wealth and power concentrate.

These are familiar enough images—the temples, sacrifices, treasures, and palaces. We recognize them; we have been told of these things. But, for some reason, no one told us how the people of Teotihuacan, after constructing their pyramids and temple, then looked at their society and decided that they’d made a mistake. And so, no palaces were built. Or, if they were, they didn’t last long. Instead, rather suddenly—and, importantly, without evidence of major bloodshed—these people rearranged their society. Human sacrifice came to an end. The large temple was desecrated, then walled off. And then the people of Teotihuacan collectively set out on a new construction project: not of a bigger, better pyramid, but of public housing. By the end of this project, nearly every member of their society, regardless of wealth or privilege, was housed comfortably, safely, and with relative equity—an ancient achievement somehow unimaginable to modern humans.

Another taste: When the Spaniards did arrive in what is now Central America, they couldn’t have defeated the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan (constructed in imitation of early Teotihuacan) without the assistance of a different Mesoamerican culture—the people of the city-state Tlaxcala. Longtime enemies of the Aztecs, the Tlaxcaltecas made a calculated decision to join the Spaniards in arms against the devils they knew. Though their decision turned out to be disastrous, the way they came to it is—or should be—the stuff of legend.

The people of Tlaxcala had a complex, communal system of arriving at consensus. After vigorous debate within that framework, they hit an impasse: one group was pro-Spaniard, one was intractably anti. There seemed to be no way forward. But a creative compromise was struck: Cortez would be invited into Tlaxcala, ostensibly for a peaceful meeting. When he was within the city, however, a small band of assassins would attack and try to kill him. If they succeeded, Tlaxcala would turn against the Spaniards. If Cortez managed to survive, the attack party would be denounced as rebels, and Tlaxcala would join the Spaniards.

In the face of this clever, let-the-fates-decide tactic, one might pass quickly over the fact that the Spaniards had come across a democracy—one not influenced by Greek examples or European ideas (especially since most of Europe was ruled by monarchies at the time). Instead, the people of Tlaxcala had seen, and probably even experienced, the Aztec system of kings and slaves and human sacrifice. They had compared this with other societies that they’d either heard of or seen or simply imagined. And then these people sat down and deliberately, creatively, and successfully envisioned a new way to be together. Some of their practices—like mandatory political training designed to curb the ego of anyone hoping to run for office—might’ve served the forefathers of our own so-called democracy, had anyone’s attention alighted on their society as something other than a footnote to a conquest.

This is the stuff that Dawn of Everything is about at its heart: possibilities, options. We are being invited, and perhaps even challenged, to look at the entire history of human creatures and to understand that we, too, are Homo sapiens: Our technology and our context are different, but the people who came hundreds or thousands of years before us were no less complex. In seeing these people as fellow humans, fellow society-builders, we can then look at the examples they offer as not only interesting, but as relevant to our own discussions of how we are, and also of how we might be. In a grand survey of cultures and ideas—spanning Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, and about 200,000 years—the Davids are leading us to the conclusion that we are not solely the inheritors of a racist, misogynist, global capitalist oligarchy, but also of a vast and varied tradition of playfulness, curiosity, care, and often of eventually overcoming our mistakes. As Ursula Le Guin once said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. But so did the divine right of kings.”

Here, then, is where the book levels its most honed and deliberate charge: at the accepted narrative that human society was always, because of human nature and the nature of technology, leading us to our current state of affairs. If Dawn of Everything is occasionally tedious—or perhaps just very thorough—it’s because the Davids are going out of their way to dismantle, through counterexample, every aspect of this false narrative: the notion that humans began in a “state of nature,” either idyllic or brutish; that hierarchy was a necessary result of population growth, or of population density in the form of cities, or of agriculture; that there are uniform, progressive stages of human society, which only move one direction. The book comes at every lie, every assumption, every not-quite-shared definition in our story of ourselves—Wengrow and Graeber leave very few conceivable stones unturned. They also delve into where these fallacious ideas came from, how they rose to popularity, who espoused them (many are living and lauded authors), and then into how they are all manifestly, and harmfully, inaccurate.

But the Davids don’t just use their hammer for smashing; they also propose a new framework for looking at the ways we all interact. They outline three essential freedoms—to disobey, to move away, and to socially rearrange—as well as three basic forms of domination: violence, information, and charisma. (For a full elaboration of these touchstones, you’ll have to read the book, but for a taste we can consider Trump: What gives him, still, such power? Well, to start, he’s a gleeful proponent of violence; he’s helped to shatter our entire relationship with information; and, for those who follow him, he has an awful but undeniable charisma.) Graeber and Wengrow redefine “the state” in reference to these criteria. They draw out the fact that the term “egalitarian” means different things to different people, to the degree that its use can often serve as a stumbling block. They describe the process of schismogenesis, which has helped clarify at least my own blurry understanding of our current political shit­-uation. (“Schismogenesis” = genesis through schism, or behavioral evolution based on divisive reaction. For example, “That group over there is getting vaccines in order to keep themselves and their loved ones from dying? Well, who cares? If they’re pro-vaccine, then we’re ANTI!”) And they also examine the complicated relationship between violence and care, within both households and societies.

Though Dawn of Everything keeps you continuously learning and engaged, long before the end you feel the point: We have been egregiously misled. We have been fed a history of humanity which leads us inevitably, invariably, to where we are now, and then apparently stops. No wonder all speculative fiction these days is apocalypse fiction. No wonder our headlines are crowded with calculations about the little time remaining before we destroy ourselves. But if you’re looking for a source of hope, for a way to keep believing, to keep fighting, to keep seeing a future, then one thing I’d recommend is this new history of humanity, which lays out for us the fact that there are still, and always have been, other ways.

Beau Lee Gambold has an MFA from Columbia, and his writing has appeared in Permafrost, Eclectica, Passengers Journal, and others. He also served in the Peace Corps, worked for Obama's '08 campaign, and has bicycled across America, raising money to get out the vote. He’s currently in Richmond, Virginia, working at an abortion clinic and writing a novel about anarchism. More from this author →