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‘The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity’ review: Exploding myths of prehistory

Literary Review

Grand narratives may no longer be in fashion in the social sciences. That doesn’t mean that they are out of circulation. Epic forays into the past have continued to flourish, yielding an influential harvest of bestsellers, ranging from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature (2011) to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (2014). The diverse backgrounds of the authors notwithstanding, all these books share a common paradigm: an evolutionary approach to history.

No holding back

This approach presents the social history of humanity as a linear progression through different stages, starting from the simplest (primitive) to the most complex (advanced). In this schema, after Homo sapiens emerged 200,000 years ago, they spent the bulk of this period as small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. About 10,000 years ago, they discovered agriculture, which ushered in settled communities, a surplus, and a hierarchy to protect the surplus. As agriculture expanded, cities developed, and so did a non-farming class that specialised in arts, crafts and trade, leading eventually to state formation, because you needed state-like structures — including an administrative and warrior elite — to manage the scale and complexity of humans living together in large numbers. This story has the ring of common sense. It not only explains the past, it also makes the present, and all its ills — inequality, violence, endless toil — look inevitable, if not palatable. But this seemingly rational explanation, argue David Graeber and David Wengrow in The Dawn of Everything , is only a myth, and a rather uninteresting one that holds us back from exploring our full potential as political beings.

Over 700 pages of expository prose spanning six continents and 30,000 years, Graeber, an anthropologist, and Wengrow, an archaeologist, obliterate the patchwork of untested assumptions that undergird the evolutionary paradigm of human history. Drawing on recent archaeological findings and obscure historical texts in different languages, they amass evidence that human beings were making conscious political and cultural choices way before conventional markers of civilisation — such as kings, money, agriculture, social stratification — became common.

Farming as gardening

For instance, the notion that cities can’t be run without top-down governance is busted via numerous examples to the contrary, with the most spectacular one being the Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan, which had extensive social housing but shows no evidence of having had a king or a governing elite. The myth that the discovery of cereal cultivation sparked the ‘Agriculture Revolution’ is exploded by Neolithic settlements such as Catalhoyuk (dated 7,400 BC), which conceived of farming as playful gardening rather than cultivation of food staples. That so many Neolithic communities stayed committed to foraging even after the acquisition of agricultural knowhow demonstrates, write Graeber and Wengrow, that there was nothing inevitable or automatic about humanity’s drift toward agriculture, inequality, or state-formation.

Two thematic strands run through the book: the consolidation of a corpus of archaeological evidence, and a history of ideas. While the archaeological expeditions — be it to Minoan Crete, ruled by a collegium of priestesses, or Tlaxcala, an indigenous republic governed by a democratic council — are fascinating, readers will find the voyage of ideas a bracing joyride.

For instance, what we call the Enlightenment, argue the authors, is not a legacy of Europe’s rediscovery of its ancient intellectual glory but a reaction to the searing critique of European civilisation made by Native American intellectuals. Foremost among them was the 17th century Wendat statesman Kandiaronk, a sceptical rationalist who held a mirror to European society, depicting it as a hell hole of greed, misery, and despotism, in contrast to indigenous cultures where mutual aid was the highest value.

European intellectual response to the indigenous critique found expression along the Hobbes-Rousseau spectrum which held, at the Hobbesian end, that primitive life was “nasty, brutish and short” or that it was a ‘Garden of Eden’ populated by ‘noble savages’ from which humanity ‘fell’ to the ‘chains’ of civilisation (Rousseau). Regardless of their different starting points and political effects, both perspectives, argue Graeber and Wengrow, served to erase Native American intellectual traditions, setting the stage for the propaganda that modernity and all its ideals — democracy, rationality, reasoned debate, equality — are a bequest of the West (the white race). The erasure and the claim together also supplied the ideological ballast for the ‘civilising’ genocides of European colonialism.

Three freedoms

Graeber and Wengrow identify three freedoms as fundamental to the cultural universe of pre-agricultural, forager communities: freedom to move, freedom to disobey, and freedom to transform social relationships. They also lay down three criteria for a political formation to be deemed a ‘state’: control over violence, (standing army, police), control over information (bureaucracy), and competition for leadership based on charisma (a political class). The dominant consensus is that a dilution of our freedoms is the price we pay for the goodies of modern civilisation, such as tap water, democracy, and paracetamol. But then, ask Graeber and Wengrow, is a market society where inequality is a given, and a democracy where the majority are onlookers, the end point of humanity’s ‘social evolution’? Or, inspired by the rediscovery of an unknown past, can humanity imagine a future that’s more worthy of itself? Read this extraordinary book and make up your own mind.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity ; David Graeber, David Wengrow, Penguin Random House, ₹2,515.

sampath.g@thehindu.co.in


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