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“The dawn of everything” aims to rewrite the history of our common past


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One August night in 2020, David Graeber – the anthropologist and anarchist activist who rose to fame as one of the early organizers of Occupy Wall Street – took to Twitter to make a modest announcement.

My brain feels bruised with numb surprise”, He wrote, riffing on a word of Doors. “It’s finish?”

He was referring to the book he had been working on for nearly a decade with archaeologist David Wengrow, which had the shameless aim of nothing less than disrupting everything we think we know about the origins and evolution of human societies.

Even before the Occupy movement made him famous, Graeber had been hailed as one of the brightest minds in his field. But his most ambitious book also turned out to be his last. A month after his Twitter announcement, Graeber, 59, suddenly died of necrotizing pancreatitis, sparking a wave of shocked tributes from academics, activists and friends around the world.

“Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity,” released Nov. 9 by Farrar Straus and Giroux, may or may not dislodge the standard narrative popularized in mega-sellers like Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens” and “Guns” , Germs ”by Jared Diamond and Steel. But he’s already gathered a slew of superlative (if not entirely uncritical) reviews. Three weeks before publication, after suddenly reaching second place on Amazon, the publisher ordered an additional 75,000 copies in addition to the first 50,000 prints.

In a video interview last month, Wengrow, a professor at University College London, slipped in deceptively grandiose tone to recite one of Graeber’s favorite slogans: “We’re going to change the course of human history. , starting with the past.

More seriously, said Wengrow, “The Dawn of Everything” – which weighs 704 pages, including a 63-page bibliography – aims to synthesize new archaeological discoveries of recent decades that have not been published in trade journals and in public consciousness.

“There is a whole new picture of the human past and the human possibility that seems to be emerging,” he said. “And it really doesn’t sound like those very deep-rooted stories that go around on a loop at all.”

The Big History bestsellers of Harari, Diamond and others have their differences. But they rest, according to Graeber and Wengrow, on a similar narrative of linear progress (or, depending on your perspective, decline).

According to this story, for the first 300,000 years or so after the appearance of Homo sapiens, virtually nothing happened. People everywhere lived in small, egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups, until the sudden invention of agriculture around 9000 BC.

But all of this, according to Graeber and Wengrow, is wrong. Recent archaeological findings, they write, show that early humans, far from being automatons moving blindly in the evolutionary step of lockdown in response to material pressures, consciously experienced “a carnival parade of political forms.”

It is a more precise story, they say, but also “more promising and more interesting”.

“We are all collective self-creation projects,” they write. “What if, instead of recounting how our society fell from an idyllic state of equality, we wondered how we came to be trapped in conceptual chains so tight that we can’t even imagine the possibility of ourselves. reinvent? “

The book’s origins date back to around 2011, when Wengrow, whose archaeological fieldwork focused on Africa and the Middle East, was working at New York University. The two had met several years earlier, when Graeber was in Britain looking for work after Yale refused to renew his contract, for unspecified reasons that he and others believed to be related to its anarchist policy.

In New York, the two sometimes met for a long conversation over dinner. After Wengrow returned to London, Graeber “started sending me notes on things I had written,” Wengrow recalls. “The conversation exploded, until we realized we were almost writing a book by email.”

At first, they thought it might be a little book on the origins of social inequalities. But soon, they started to think that this question – a chestnut dating back to the Enlightenment – was completely wrong.

“The more we thought about it, we wondered why should you define human history based on this question?” said Wengrow. “It presupposes that there was once something else.”

Wengrow, 49, an Oxford-trained scholar whose manner is more academic than Graeber’s generally crumpled, said the relationship was a true partnership. Like many, he spoke with admiration of Graeber’s brilliance (as a teenager tells a much repeated story, his hobby of deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics caught the attention of professional archaeologists), as well as what ‘he described as his extraordinary generosity.

“David was like one of those Amazonian village chiefs who have always been the poorest guy in the village because their whole job was to give things away,” Wengrow said. “He just had this ability to look at your work and sprinkle magical dust all over it.”

The most recent great stories have been written by geographers, economists, psychologists and political scientists, many of whom have written under the guiding framework of biological evolution. (In a cheeky footnote assessing the expertise of great rival historians, they describe Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, as having a “doctorate in gallbladder physiology. “)

Graeber and Wengrow, on the contrary, write in the great tradition of social theory derived from Weber, Durkheim and Lévi-Strauss. In a 2011 blog post, Graeber recalled how a friend, after reading his “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” said he was not sure anyone wrote a book like this. this in 100 years. “I’m still not sure that’s a compliment,” Graeber joked.

‘Dawn of Everything’ includes discussions of princely burials in Europe during the Ice Age, the contrasting attitudes towards slavery among the indigenous societies of northern California and the Pacific Northwest, the political implications of the agriculture in drylands versus riverine agriculture, and the complexity of pre-agricultural agriculture. settlements in Japan, among many, many other subjects.

But the dazzling array of references begs the question: who is qualified to judge whether this is true?

Reviewing the book in The Nation, historian Daniel Immerwahr called Graeber an “extremely creative thinker” who was “known more for being interesting than fair” and asked if the book’s confident leaps and assumptions “were worthy of confidence “.

And Immerwahr felt that at least one claim – that American settlers captured by Indigenous peoples “almost invariably” chose to stay with them – “ballistically false,” claiming that the only source cited by the authors (a 1977 thesis ) “Actually argues the opposite. “

Wengrow replied that it was Immerwahr who was misreading the source. And he noted that he and Graeber had been careful to publish the book’s main arguments in leading peer-reviewed scientific journals or to present them as some of the most prestigious guest lectures in the field.

“I remember thinking back then, why do we have to go through this? Wengrow said of the process. “We are reasonably established in our fields. But it was David who insisted that it was terribly important.

James C. Scott, a prominent political scientist at Yale whose 2017 book “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States” also extended to several areas to challenge the standard narrative, said some of Graeber’s arguments and Wengrow, like his, would inevitably be “rejected” like other scholars engaged with them.

But he said the pair dealt a “fatal blow” to the already weakened idea that moving to agricultural states was what humans “have been waiting to do from the start.”

But the most striking part of “Dawn of Everything,” Scott said, is a first chapter of what the writers call “Native Criticism.” The European Enlightenment, they argue, rather than being a gift of wisdom bestowed on the rest of the world, was born out of a dialogue with the indigenous peoples of the New World, whose sharp assessments of the shortcomings of European society influenced the emerging ideas of freedom.

“I bet this has huge significance in our understanding of the relationship between the West and the rest,” Scott said.

“The Dawn of Everything” sees pervasive evidence of large, complex societies that have thrived without the existence of the state, and defines freedom primarily as “the freedom to disobey.” It’s easy to see how such arguments dovetail with Graeber’s anarchist beliefs, but Wengrow brushed aside a question about the book’s politics.

“I’m not particularly interested in debates that start with slapping a label on a piece of research,” he said. “It hardly ever happens with academics leaning to the right.”

But if the book helps convince people, in the words of the Occupy slogan, that “another world is possible”, it is not unintentional.

“We have reached the point in history where we have scientists and activists who agree that our dominant system is putting us and our planet on the path to real disaster,” Wengrow said. “Finding yourself paralyzed, with your horizons closed by false perspectives on human possibilities, based on a mythological conception of history, is not a great place.”

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