It’s not often that a book by radical authors gets reviewed–let alone favorably reviewed–in the mainstream press. The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow, is an exception. Published just two months ago, it has already received accolades from many of the world’s most influential English-language newspapers and magazines.
Even reviewers who question the author’s arguments for anarchism have hailed it as “a brilliant new account upends bedrock assumptions about 30,000 years of change,” (Atlantic) and “a dazzling array of stories about civilizations across many continents and thousands of years, all of which are grappling with what it means to be free” (Washington Post). We’ve also seen positive comments–raves in some cases!–from left-wing posters on social media.
It is certainly an enthralling book, but the two reviews published below, both from materialist anthropologists, argue that its account of human history ignores masses of contrary evidence, and that its political argument is idealist and voluntarist. Both reviews are particularly critical of the book’s failure to consider the causes of the oppression of women.
Chris Knight is a senior research fellow in anthropology at University College London, 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 and Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics. His review of The Dawn of Everything was first published in Times Higher Education.
Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale both trained as anthropologists and are finishing a book about human evolution, class society and sexual violence. Nancy’s most recent book, with Richard Tapper, is Afghan Village Voices: Stories from a Tribal Community, 2020. Jonathan’s is Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs. Their review of The Dawn of Everything was published in The Ecologist, and in their blog, Anne Bonny Pirate.
Both reviews are republished with the kind permission of the authors.
IN FUNDAMENTAL WAYS INCOHERENT AND WRONG
by Chris Knight
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 practicing 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, 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 “civilization.” 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 recognize 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 socialize 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 license 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.
ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL
by Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale
Graeber and Wengrow’s new book is energetic, committed and kaleidoscopic, but also flawed. This presents us with a problem.
David Graeber died young, only a year ago. His masterwork, Debt, may be specious in parts, but its ambition was inspiring in its time. David Graeber’s work as an activist and a leader in the Occupy and social justice movement was unusual, and exemplary. The respect and affection for him from his colleagues in the anthropology department at LSE speaks volumes. And his heart was always with the oppressed.
But precisely because Graeber was a good guy and left us only recently, there is a danger that for many people The Dawn of Everything will frame their understanding of the origins of inequality for a long time to come.
The back cover of the book carries praise from Rebecca Solnit, Pankaj Mishra, Noam Chomsky and Robin D. G. Kelley–eminent and admirable thinkers all. Kelley is representative: ‘Graeber and Wengrow have effectively overturned everything I ever thought about the history of the world. The most profound and exciting book I’ve read in thirty years.’
The book has received considerable recent attention in the press, and it would be unfortunate if such praise became the general view.
The question of the origins of inequality in human evolution and history matters a great deal for how we try to change the world. But Graeber and Wengrow want change without attending to equality and class, and they are hostile to environmental and ecological explanations. These flaws have conservative implications.
So here goes. This is a rambunctious, and partial, review of an enormous book. We console ourselves with the knowledge that Graeber loved, and excelled at, the cut and thrust of intellectual debate.
In the final paragraph of their book, on pages 525-526, Graeber and Wengrow set out clearly where they stand. They write,
When, for example, a study that is rigorous in every other respect begins from the unexamined assumption that there is some ‘original’ form of human society; that its nature was fundamentally good or evil’ that a time before inequality and political awareness existed’ that something happened to change all this’ that ‘civilization’ and ‘complexity’ always came at the price of human freedoms’ that participatory democracy is nature in small groups but cannot possibility scale up to anything like a city or a nation state.
We know, now, that we are in the presence of myths.
So here our myth-busters are saying the opposite – that there was no original form of human society; no time before inequality and political awareness; that nothing happened to change things; that civilization and complexity do not limit human freedom; and that participatory democracy can be practiced as part of cities and states.
Such categorical statements, stated so boldly, make their claims to have written a new human history attractive. But there are two stumbling blocks.
First, the very arguments they make are at odds with their own political project. Second, the evidence doesn’t fit what they are trying to say.
Their Political Project and Theory
Two of the key questions of our age are –
- How do we have a social justice revolution in our present world?
- And what can we learn from the history of our species that will help us go beyond this impasse?
These questions have exercised serious thinkers and activists throughout history. And now in the face of global warming, we need compelling answers urgently. These are questions Graeber and Wengrow also ask and this is surely why the book has caught people’s attention. There is, however, a third question most of us ask:
- How did human society become so grossly unequal?
Surprisingly, Graeber and Wengrow are not interested in this question. They say so explicitly: their first chapter is entitled ‘Farewell to Humanity’s Childhood: Or, why this is not a book about the origins of inequality’.
One of the central arguments of the book is that inequality, hierarchy and violence have always been possible ways of organizing any human society. There was no time, they say, before inequality. And although they use the words ‘equality’ and ‘egalitarian’ a good deal, they claim that equality is an empty concern, a fairy story, and to speak of an ‘egalitarian society’ is to say nothing.
An Odd Spin
There is an odd spin to all this. Graeber and Wengrow ignore the new remarkable scholarship that describes the adaptation, or ecological niche, our primate ancestors and early humans found for themselves by becoming equal. This means they also eschew the classic anarchist and Marxist view that because humans had once been equal, there was hope we could be so again.
The conservative argument is that once inequality appeared as a result of farming, urban life and economic complexity, there was no hope of changing the world. Graeber and Wengrow resist this argument about farming, and clearly hope change is possible. And it becomes clear, their enemy is not inequality, it is the state.
The question they ask is how did we come to be dominated by authoritarian, bureaucratic, centralized states? And though inequalities of colonialism, slavery, classism, racism and sexism crop up throughout the book, these are not their central concern.
The political argument Graeber and Wengrow make is that people–from the beginning of time–have always been able to choose between domination and freedom. For them, people can choose to escape what they call the ‘small-scale’ stuckness of state control, and become ‘free people.’
They reject arguments that there are environmental and technical limits to the choices people can and do make. For them, in short, people make history in circumstances of their own choosing.
The payoff of this position is that it allows them to argue that with political will, we can have a revolution and a society run by popular assemblies working through consensus. All of which sounds excellent, and liberatory, but there are problems with the evidence.
Their Argument–Step By Step
Graeber and Wengrow begin the book with the aim of debunking the idea that there was an ‘original’ human society, whether good, or evil. To do so they resurrect long standing debates between Rousseau and Hobbes.
More important, they set out at the beginning their perfectly proper loathing of the Social Darwinism of the 19th century and more recent Stalinist theories of ‘stages of history.’ And here too they express their deep contempt for the modern Hobbesians of evolutionary psychology like Jared Diamond, Napoleon Chagnon and Steven Pinker. Both stages theories of history, and evolutionary psychology are serious and important targets, both of which we share.
Social Darwinism and Stages theories of History. In the 19th century social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and Lewis Henry Morgan and in later versions, the first humans are primitives, then savages, followed by barbarian horticulturalists and pastoralists, after which came the advent of farming, the development of ancient civilizations, through the middle-ages until the dawn of modern capitalist society. Each step is understood to signal moral and intellectual progress.
Explicit and outspoken prejudices of this kind are no longer acceptable in many circles, yet social Darwinism lurks everywhere and remains the ugly cornerstone of most mainstream political thought. And it continues to underwrite the racisms and neocolonialism of our present era.
For many people, including many on the left, Graeber and Wengrow’s demolition of the stages theories of history will be new, and experienced as both revelation and relief. And it is easy to see why.
And there is an extra kick in Graeber and Wengrow’s attack. Though they say next to nothing about the work of Marx and Engels in their book, by rejecting stages theories of history, they also implicitly reject the traditional Marxists accounts of evolution.
This is most glaring in Friedrich Engels’ book, The Origin of the Family Private Property and the State. There Engels argued that humans had evolved in equality, but with the invention of farming came inequality in all its forms. So far so good.
However, Engels took his framework directly from Spencer and Morgan, whose work was saturated with white racism. Consider, for example, why Engels thought pastoralists with herds of animals became racially superior to other savage peoples.
“The plentiful supply of milk and meat and especially the beneficial effect of these foods on the growth of children account perhaps for the superior development of the Aryan and Semitic races. It is a fact that the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, who are reduced to an almost entirely vegetarian diet have a smaller brain than the Indians at the lower stage of barbarism who eat more meat and fish.”1
Engels’ book is full of such passages, and he was by no means alone in writing thus.
Franz Boas. Graeber and Wengrow are absolutely right to want to destroy such repellant arguments. However, they present themselves as if they are among the first to do so, and this is emphatically not the case. Franz Boas, whose early ethnography of the Kwakiutl people of the Pacific north-west coast Graeber and Wengrow draw on extensively, did this long before.
Franz Boas was the son of Sophie Mayer, a Jewish feminist and one of the leaders of the German revolution of 1848 in the town of Minden in Westphalia. By 1851, her book group was reading Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto.
Boas became an anthropologist. He did field research in Canada with Innuit people on Baffin Island and Kwakiutl people on Vancouver Island, and eventually became a professor at Columbia in New York.2
In 1913 he founded modern anthropology by demolishing the racism of stages theory. In The Mind of Primitive Man, Boas argued that ‘primitive’ people were as smart as anyone, as wise and as creative. In 1913 Boas was not rejecting his mother’s politics, but as a Jew and a partisan of indigenous America, he hated racism.
Boas was a lifelong socialist. His mother’s influence was also evident in his nurturing of a generation of women anthropologists like Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston and many more. Boas and his students solved the problem of racist stages by simply deciding to stop talking about the evolution of human cultures, the topic was so polluted.
But we are no longer in 1913. In 1982 Eric Wolf’s ironically titled Europe and the People Without History launched a wave of anthropology that was anti-imperialist, anti-racist and took history seriously.
Anthropologists have long been acutely sensitive to the racism dripping from the binaries–simple and complex, savage and civilized, backward and advanced, progressive and retrograde, developed and underdeveloped, higher and lower, secular and religious, traditional and modern. Yet tragically these binaries continue to be deployed to justify the genocide of indigenous America, the African slave trade, colonialism by white empires, and today the war on Islam.
New Evolutionary Theory and the Human Adaptation
Anthropologists and archaeologists since have now constructed an entirely serviceable account of the origins of human inequality. Key figures here are Kent Flannery, Joyce Marcus and James C. Scott whose work we discuss below.
Unfortunately, Graeber and Wengrow fail to engage with the enormous body of new scholarship on human evolution. In ignoring these new studies, Graeber and Wengrow have set themselves against a careful, and now extremely well-documented, arguments about comparative primate evolution and the human adaptation. Their problem is that this material would upend their assertion that there was no ‘original’ human society, and make their arguments about choice seem rather silly.
Graeber and Wengrow do not deny that humans once lived by hunting and gathering. But they are deeply uninterested in the environment and the material bases of human existence. And they do deny that these societies were necessarily equal.
The first step in their argument is to say that human evolution is all in the past, and we cannot know what happened then. Everything is speculation. But this is simply not true.
Over the past forty years, the scientific revolution has been remarkable, and there has been an enormous flowering of research in the field of human evolution. There are now many amazing new studies of non-human primates and primate behavior, new archaeology of early humans and new ethnographies of near contemporary hunter-gatherers.
Thanks to chemical microanalyses, DNA sampling, radiocarbon dating and patient archaeology in humble homes, we have learned a great deal about the people who lived in pre-class and then early class societies. Among our heroes are the extensive publications of the readable Christopher Boehm, Frans de Waal, R. Brian Ferguson, Sarah Hrdy, Martin Jones and Laura Rival.
This work is transforming the study of human evolution and human history. And the starting point may come as a surprise. It now seems that we became human by becoming equal. This is a remarkable and precious insight. But it is an insight that strikes at the very foundation of Graeber and Wengrow’s account.
A Brief Summary of the Human Adaption
Dozens of long-term field research projects with different apes and monkeys now show, for each species, how a particular complex adaptation allows them to survive in a particular environment. That adaptation includes the details of how their staple diets, their alternative diets in bad times, their brains, hands, feet, stomachs, teeth, genitals, grunts, songs, dominance relationships, sharing relationships, child rearing, aggression, loving, grooming and group structure fit together.3 That is the baseline, and it is our method for understanding human evolution as well.
Over time, several parts of a new adaptation came together to produce modern humans. The short story is that early humans were puny primates. To survive, they had to learn to share meat and vegetables, to share childcare and to share sexual joy. To do this, they had to discipline would-be bullies and transcend the dominance hierarchies of their primate ancestors. And for at least 200,000 years, they lived in egalitarian societies where men and women were equal too.
In a bit more detail, the picture goes like this. The line who would be human invented digging sticks to get at tubers buried underground. Some men became ambush hunters of big animals where kills depended on speed, endurance and weapons. We know this from the changes in teeth, arms and legs, but also from the pattern of fossil injuries and the diet and bones found in caves, and from how surviving contemporary hunters hunted big game.
The breakthrough that separated the human line from all competing predators was a combined diet, and food cooked with fire. This meant they needed to use far less calories for digestion. As Richard Wrangham argues, those extra calories were able to serve growing brains.
Ambush hunting was unreliable, and a hunter might only make one big kill in a month. The human line changed their social organization to cope. The food was shared among the whole group at the home base. This change meant that everyone has regular meat, but on meatless days hunters can fall back on tubers and other fruits and vegetables.
Our primate ancestors and early humans seem to have managed these changes is two ways. First, to ensure that everyone got a share of the good food, they found ways to limit competition among the hunters and to discipline potential bullies.
Second, they invented new styles of child rearing. The feminist primatologist Sarah Hrdy has written extensively about patterns of primate infanticide, and, in a key change in gender relations, how mothers came to trust other women, and men, to look after their young children. Another change is that, alone among primates, human beings of both sexes typically live past the age of female menopause. The evolutionary advantage appears to be partly that the expertise of the old is valuable, but also that they provide child-care.
These and an array of other differences meant that humans can multiply faster than other apes. And at certain periods, they were able to spread quickly across the world.
This early history squares with the kinds of societies anthropologists have reported from groups of near contemporary hunter gatherers all over the world.4 In these societies no one has power over anyone else. Key to this is the absence of wealth or surplus.
People move regularly. No one owns more than they can carry, with a child on the other hip. Bands are not bounded. People change groups all the time, and everyone has real or fictive kin in several other bands. When tension builds over food, sex or anything else, someone moves. This means neither women nor men are trapped, and in these societies, there is no regular patterns of gendered inequality. And the ability to restrain bullies is an another important pattern among recent hunter-gatherers.
We see this from the anthropologists’ accounts. But there is also the evidence from the anatomical changes from our ape ancestors. The large male canines used for fighting other males have disappeared, as have great differences in size. Human males are about 15% larger than females. Comparison with other primates suggests that this means some male domination, but not much.
Male genitals have changed in many ways. Among primates, and many other species, the size of testicles indicates how exclusive sexual partnerships are. Human testicle size falls in the middle range, suggesting customary forms of monogamy modified by affairs.
The changes in the human penis are many, and wondrous. Cormier and Jones argue in their aptly titled book The Domesticated Penis, that all these changes are the result of mate selection by female choice.
The changes in female sexuality are even more marked. In other primates, females have sex only when ovulating. Female humans have sex year-round. This means they can have more sex, but it means that the ratio between sexually active males and females is one to one. In other apes and primates, it varies from 2 to 1 to 40 to 1. That suggests it was easier to create pair bonding and gender equality.
The primatologist and anthropologist Christopher Boehm has presented the last piece of the puzzle, in a key article and two influential books. Boehm argues that the equality and sharing among hunter and gatherer bands was culturally and consciously achieved.
He says that we retain our ape heritage which encourages us to submit, to compete and to dominate. But for humans to survive we had to agree consciously together to repress the jealousy, aggression and selfishness which welled up in us, and we had to repress selfishness in others.
Boehm’s ideas are now widely accepted. All of this is not because people are naturally egalitarian or nonviolent. It is because we have that potential within us, and its opposite. But we understood that we had to share and be egalitarian to survive.
Boehm’s theory also fits with our big brains. Scientists long assumed they had to do with hands, hunting, weapons and tools. But with all other primates the best predictor of brain size is the size of the group.
Among most primates standing in a dominance hierarchy depends on the ability to build alliances in a complex and constantly shifting political world. And the chance for males to reproduce depends on their standing in that hierarchy. Social intelligence is critical. In a group of ten, there are 45 different relationships to keep track of. In a group of 20 there are 190 different relationships. In a village of 200–you do the math.
And perhaps, with people, the ability to restrain bullies, to live in equality and to share was the crucial achievement of our social intelligence. The brains that can be used to compete can be used to cooperate.
In sum, the work of scholars in many fields makes it possible to put forward a coherent picture of a human adaption to a particular ecological niche evolved over two million years and led to the emergence of humans some 200,000 years ago. Yet apart from brief disagreements with Sarah Hrdy and Christopher Boehm, Graeber and Wengrow deal with this impressive range of new material by ignoring it.
Indeed, had they taken it on board, they would then they would then have to accept both the egalitarian character of this adaptation and the extent to which it is intimately tied to the material conditions of specific environments, and these would throw their arguments about humans choosing freedom out the window.
To hang on to their commitment to free choice, and keep their political project intact, their argument ducks and dives.
The writing is dense, yet full of flourish and apparent authority. The book roars on at a great pace. The apt illustration is wearying and it is hard to unpick the non-sequiturs and slights of mind. The reader should be warned that their use of evidence is often not reliable. It is also something of an ethnographic midden–so good luck to the uninitiated who have never met the Hadza, the Montagnais-Naskapi, the Shilluk or the Nuer for there is madness in the detail.
The Advent of Agriculture
The transformation from equality to hierarchy, and from gender equality to marked gender inequality, is generally associated with farming, and this presents Graeber and Wengrow with considerable problems. Because of their interest in choice, they seem determined to avoid materialist arguments or consider the ways the environment conditions and limits the choices people have.
Agriculture was invented independently in many places in the world, beginning about 12,000 years ago. Hunter-gatherers shared their food, and no one could own more than they could carry. But farmers settled and became invested in their fields and crops. This created a potential for some people to seize more than their share of the food.
Over time, groups of thugs and bullies could come together and become lords. They did this in many ways: theft and pillage, rent, sharecropping, hiring labour, tax, tribute and tithes. Whatever form this took, such class inequality was always dependent on organized violence. And this is what the class struggle has been about until very recently: who worked the land and who got the food.
Farmers were vulnerable as hunters were not. They were tied to their land, to the work they had put in to clear and irrigate the fields, and to the stores of crops. Hunter-gatherers could leave. Farmers could not.
However, Graeber and Wengrow set their faces against this narrative–that farmers were able to produce and store a surplus and that made possible class society, exploitation, the state and, as it happens, gendered inequality as well–and they do so again in the face of remarkable new archaeological and other material.
Flannery and Marcus. In 2012, the archaeologists Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus published a brilliant book on The Creation of Inequality. They trace the ways that agriculture has led to inequality in many different parts of the world.
But they insist the association was not automatic. Agriculture made class possible, but many farmers lived in egalitarian societies. In some places the gap between the invention of farming and the invention of class was measured in centuries and in some places in thousands of years.
Flannery and Marcus also show, through careful examples, that where local thugs or lords did seize power, like as not they were later overthrown. In many towns and cities, elites appear in the archaeological record, then disappear for decades, the appear again. In effect, the class struggle never stops.5
James C. Scott. Flannery and Marcus’s magnificent comparative study, was anticipated in the work of Edmund Leach in his 1954 book, Political Systems of Highland Burma which radically changed anthropology, and latterly, in the work of the anarchist political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott.6 In 2009, Scott published The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. It covered centuries across the whole region.
Scott is concerned with the multitudes of rice farmers in the kingdoms of the plains who did run away to the hills. There they reinvented themselves as new ethnic groups of ‘slash and burn’ shifting cultivators. Some of them created smaller class societies, and some lived without class. All of them had to resist continuous slaving and military raids from the kingdoms and states below.
Technology. In some ways Graeber and Wengrow build on the work of Leach, Scott, Flannery and Marcus. Wengrow, after all, has been part of the changes in archaeology which Flannery and Marcus are summarizing. And the influence of Scott is everywhere in The Dawn of Everything.
But Graeber and Wengrow do not like the links the other authors make between technology and environment, on the one hand, and economic and political change.
Flannery, Marcus and Scott are very careful to say that technology and environment do not determine change. They make change possible. Equally, the invention of grain agriculture did not automatically lead to class inequality or the state. But it made those changes possible.
Class Relations and the Class Struggle. The change in technology and environment set the stage for a class struggle. And the result of that class struggle determined whether equality and inequality triumphed. Graeber and Wengrow ignore this crucial point. Instead, they constantly take issue with the crude form of stages theory that makes such changes immediate and inevitable.
This allergy to ecological thinking is probably one of the things behind their refusal to deal with the new literature on human evolution.
All of that literature tries to understand how the animals who became humanity built a social adaptation to the environment they inhabited, the bodies they had, the competing predators, the technology they could invent, and the ways they made their livelihood. As it happens, they built egalitarian societies in order to cope with that ecology and those circumstances. That was not an inevitable result. But it was an adaptation.
Graeber and Wengrow, on the other hand, are not materialists. For them, thinking about ecology and technology threatens to make the choices and revolution they want impossible. This is why, for example, they are not happy with Scott’s book on ancient Mesopotamia, because it emphasizes the material reasons why grain agriculture in particular led to inequality.
This is not a trivial matter. The climate crisis we face now brings into sharp relief the question of how humanity might change society to adapt to a new technology and a new environment. Any politics of equality or human survival must now be profoundly materialist.
The Absence of Gender. We have seen that Graeber and Wengrow have little interest in the environment and the material bases of human existence.
In the same way, they observe an almost religious avoidance of the concept of class, discussions of class relations and class struggle. Graeber certainly, and presumably Wengrow, have an understanding of class relationships and class struggle. They know what class does, and, indeed, which class they are from, but cannot, or will not, treat class relations as a motor of social change.
Just as striking is Graeber and Wengrow’s lack of interest in the social construction of gender. In passing they reproduce a near-Bachofen of matriarchy in Minoan Crete, on the one hand, and on the other, they include a scattering of patriarchal stereotypes in which women are nurturing and men are bullies.
Because they hold that inequality has always been with us, Graeber and Wengrow have next to nothing to say about the origins of gendered inequality among humans.
There are basically three schools of thought about the evolution of gendered relations. First there are the evolutionary psychologists whose arguments are deeply conservative. Jared Diamond, Napoleon Chagnon and Steven Pinker argue that inequality, violence and competition are fundamental to human nature. They say this is because men are programmed by evolution to compete with other men so the strongest can dominate women and father more children. This is regrettable, Pinker says, and luckily Western Civilization has partly tamed such primitive feelings.
The great biologist, and trans activist, Joan Roughgarden, has rightly described these ideas as ‘thinly disguised rape narratives’. These arguments are indeed repellant, and surely were rejected by Graeber and Wengrow for this reason alone.
For a very long time, a second school of thought held sway among feminist anthropologists. This too essentialized differences between women and men, and accepted some form of inequality between women and men as a given in every society.
The third option is the one to which we subscribe. There is a striking feature of the historical, anthropological and archaeological record. In almost every case, where people lived in economically and politically equal societies, women and men too were equal. And wherever there have been class societies with economic inequality, there too men have dominated women.
The question that has obsessed us is: Why?
Graeber and Wengrow do not address this question. They have no explanation for sexism, nor are they interested in how or why gender relations change. But they are not sexists. They mention instances of the oppression of women many times, but in passing. It is just not central to their concerns. So what seems to us a striking congruence, is for them a mirage.
In their determination to downplay the connections between farming, class inequality and the emergence of states, a key part of Graeber and Wengrow’s account focuses on groups of hunter-gatherers who did have class inequality, warfare and even slavery. Archaeologists call them ‘complex hunters and gatherers’ or ‘complex foragers.’
Graeber and Wengrow take these people as evidence that prehistoric people could be either stateless and egalitarian, or violent and unequal. That is not what the evidence shows. 7
The classic examples are the Kwakiutl, studied by Franz Boas, and their neighbors on the west coast of Canada and on the Columbia and Frazer Rivers. The rivers and the coast saw enormous salmon runs. Whoever controlled a limited number of choke points and fishing sites could amass an enormous surplus. The Galles on the Columbia River is an example. There were days when a small group of people could catch 100,000 pounds of salmon.
That was exceptional. There was variation from site to site. But across the coast and the rivers, the better the stocks of salmon, the more class inequality is revealed in the archaeology and written accounts. Inequalities of wealth were often extreme. These people also had complex military technology, with great war canoes that carried large numbers of warriors and required many months for several men to make.
In effect, these people were trapped by fishing places, just as farmers were trapped by their fields. And like farmers, storage was essential to these salmon fishers. For a long way back in the archaeological record, examination of their bones and teeth shows that between 40% and 60% of their annual diet came from salmon. The fish ran for only a few weeks, so that most of that diet must have come from dried salmon.
Just as with farmers, environmental constraints and new technologies were opening the possibility of class society. None of this process is visible in The Dawn of Everything. Instead, we get the standard account of the Kwakiutl for undergraduates fifty years ago, as the people of the wasteful, greedy potlatch feasts. This account ignores the great amount of scholarship since.
We now know that those chaotic feasts were a celebration of traditional life managed by a ruling class who were desperately trying to hang onto their power, among people who had lost five-sixths of their population to smallpox and syphilis, who had been conquered and then overrun by gold prospectors, and whose potlatch feasts were eventually forbidden by the Canadian government. A deeply material tragedy is recounted as irrational farce.8
The fisherfolk of the west coast were not the only ‘complex foragers.’ There are other examples around the world. But it is notable how few there were. Moreover, archaeologists have found none older than 7,000 years before present, and no evidence of warfare before 14,000 years ago.
The small number and recent origin of complex foragers may be a matter of technology. Certainly, the Chumash along the coast of California did not develop inequality and warfare before 600 CE when they learned to build large ocean-going plank canoes, which enabled them to hunt large marine mammals and dominate the coastal villages militarily.9 Graeber and Wengrow ignore the Chumash, taking instead the example of the less well understood Yurok further inland.
They do choose a third example of ‘complex foragers’, the Calusa of southern Florida. In one sense, these too were fisherfolk with ruling chiefs, warriors, class inequality, slavery, expensive war canoes and a reliance on fishing for sea mammals, alligators and large fish.
Graeber and Wengrow describe the Calusa as ‘a non-agricultural people’. But as they acknowledge, the Calusa fisherfolk were the dominant group in a much larger polity. All the other groups were farmers, and they paid tribute to the Calusa rulers of large amounts of food, gold and enslaved European and African captives. That food enabled the Calusa elite, and 300 full-time warriors, to live without working.10
Being Against the State
Following Flannery and Marcus, Scott, et al., for us, the central political struggle in all class societies until recently was over who worked the land and who got the food. Graeber and Wengrow see things differently. For them the central issue is power, and the central enemy is the state. This leads them to ignore class in several ways. This is not because they are anarchists. Most anarchists have always been able to hold class and power in focus simultaneously.
But the omissions in The Dawn are important. Graeber and Wengrow seem so keen to push an argument in favor of consensual, participatory assemblies that they leave us with a series of puzzles. Four brief examples can illustrate the problem.
The authors are not interested in the rise of class inequality in villages that so often precedes states in cities, and they dismiss the literature. Nor are they interested in small kingdoms, lordships and baronies. As long as there are no large, centralized states, it’s OK. We have seen some the twists and turns this created in their account of the complex foragers. These reappear in a number of other examples.
The Indus. They point, quite rightly, to the astonishing and important example on the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro on the Indus, where about 40,000 people lived without class inequality or a state.
They then suggest, as do the Hindutva historians, that Mohenjo-Daro was in fact organized along South Asian caste lines. But, Graeber and Wengrow say, these were egalitarian caste lines. Initially the mind boggles, but what they mean is that caste inequality without kings is acceptable.11
Natchez. They consistently minimize the power of traditional kingships. The native kingdom of Natchez on the Mississippi is a good example. Graeber and Wengrow say that the power and vicious cruelty of the sun king did not extend beyond his village. Yet, in fact Natchez was a major regional force in the slave trade servicing white planters.12
Human Sacrifice. Graeber and Wengrow rightly emphasize the important fact that cruel public festivals of human sacrifice are found in early states around the world. Dozens or hundreds were sacrificed, often war captives, young women or the poor.
They are rightly outraged. But they also feel that the aim of these sacrifices was to terrify their enemies, the people of other states. We think, by contrast, that the main aim was to terrify the actual audience for the bloodshed, the subjects of the cruel local state.
Indeed, this is probably why such cruelty is characteristic of the early history of each state. That was the time when the legitimacy of the state was still weak, and terror most needed. That’s also probably why the spectacular public sacrifices disappear as state power is consolidated, though warfare and enemies continue.
Assemblies. The assemblies themselves are an important final example. Graeber and Wengrow point quite rightly to the power of city assemblies in kingdoms and states in ancient Mesopotamia. They say that this is evidence that kings were not all powerful. In this they are right. You would have to be very naïve to believe that the class struggle stopped in those kingdoms.
But then Graeber and Wengrow make a leap. They suggest that those city assemblies resembled the assemblies of Occupy and other social justice movements, with participatory democracy.
There is no evidence for this one way or another for any form of participatory democracy in ancient Mesopotamia. But we do have enormous evidence for city-wide and national assemblies in other class societies. All of them were dominated by the richer men and by powerful families. In ancient Sparta, landowners dominated. The same was true in the Roman senate. And with King John and the Barons. And until very recently the voters for every parliament in Europe were limited to the rich.
This myopia is important. Like many others, we understand kingdoms and states as the way that dominant classes in unequal societies come together to consolidate and enforce the rules. In The Dawn, that process is invisible.
* * *
Graeber and Wengrow are angry. There is an energy in this anger which will please readers, like ourselves, who despair at global inequality, hate the politics of the global elite and are fearful of climate chaos.
In many ways their book is a howling wind of fresh air. And we share their hostility to all existing states. But going forward, in order to halt climate change, we need an understanding of the human condition that includes the central importance of class and the environment.
- ↩ Fredrich Engels, 1884, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. The book was revived as a key text by socialist and Marxist feminists in debates about women’s liberation. Pace the 19th century social Darwinism which clearly took a lead from the Old Testament, it is now quite clear that both pastoralism and slash and burn agriculture appeared after, and not before, the advent of settled agriculture.
- ↩ Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man, 1911; Claudia Ruth Pierpoint, ‘The Measure of America’, 2004; Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Lorado Wilner, Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas, 2018; Rosemary Lévy, Franz Boas: The Emergence of the Anthropologist, 2019.
- ↩ Very good examples of this work include Sara Hdry, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, 2005; Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Old Way, 2001; two articles by Steven Kuhn and Mary Stiner: ‘What’s a Mother To Do’, 2006 and ‘How Hearth and Home Made us Human’, 2019; Loretta Cormier and Sharon Jones, The Domesticated Penis: How Womanhood has Shaped Manhood, 2015; a key paper by Joanna Overing, ‘Men Control Women? The “Catch-22” in the Analysis of Gender’, 1987; two books by Christopher Boehm: Hierarchy in the Forest and the Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, 1999, and Moral Origins, 2012; every book by the primatologist Frans de Waal; the two chapters by Brian Ferguson in Douglas Fry, ed., War, Peace and Human Nature, 2013; Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, 2010; and two books by the trans biologist Joan Roughgarden: Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People, 2004, and The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness, 2009.
- ↩ Our favourites among the ethnographies of our near contemporary hunter-gatherers are Marjorie Shostack, Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, 1981; Jean Briggs, Inuit Morality Play: The Emotional Education of a Three-Year-Old, 1998; Phyllis Kaberry, Aboriginal Women: Sacred and Profane, 1938, Karen Endicott and Kirk Endicott: The Headman was a Woman: The Gender Egalitarian Batek of Malaysia, 2008; Richard Lee, The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society, 1978; and Colin Turnbull, Wayward Servants: The Two Worlds of the African Pygmies, 1978.
- ↩ Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistorical Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery and Empire, 2012; and James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland South-East Asia, 2009; Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, 2017. Martin Jones, Feast: Why Humans Share Food, 2007, is also very useful.
- ↩ Edmund Leach had made a similar argument in 1954 in Political Systems of Highland Burma, and radically changed anthropology. For a brilliant ethnography of one group of anti-class hill rebels at the end of the twentieth century, see Shanshan Du, Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs: Gender Unity and Gender Equality Among the Lahu of Southeastern China, 2003. For Scott’s recent extension of his argument to ancient Mesopotamia, see Against the Grain.
- ↩ This is all succinctly described in Brian Hayden, ‘Transegalitarian Societies on the American Northwest Plateau: Social Dynamics and Cultural/Technological Changes,’ in Orlando Cerasuolo, ed., The Archaeology of Inequality, 2021.
- ↩ Start with Philip Drucker and Robert Heizer, 1967, To Make My Name Good: A Reexamination of the Southern Kwakiutl Potlatch; and Eric Wolf, Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Crisis, 1999, 69-132.
- ↩ Jeanne Arnold, ‘Credit where Credit is Due: The History of the Chumash Oceangoing Plank Canoe’, 2007; and Lynn Gamble, The Chumash World at European Contact: Power, Trade and Fighting among Complex Hunter-Gatherers, 2011.
- ↩ On the Calusa, see The Dawn, 150-2; Fernando Santos-Cranero, 2010, Vital Enemies: Slavery, Predation and the Amerindian Political Economy of Life, 2010; and John Hann, Missions to the Calusa, 1991.
- ↩ Rita Wright, The Ancient Indus: Urbanism, Economy and Society, 2010; and Andrew Robinson, The Indus: Lost Civilizations, 2015.
- ↩ Robbie Ethridge and Sheri M. Shuck-Hall, Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone, 2009; and George Edward Milne, Natchez Country: Indians, Colonists and the Landscape of Race in French Louisiana, 2015.