Dawn of Everything. Topic for Anvil Martock 24-5-24

As a help to preparing for our next meeting I have taken the Amazon summaries of the three books The Dawn of Everything, Sapiens and The World Until Yesterday you may find useful. Also I have copied in the full summary from wikipedia. You can also hear the authors talk on Youtube.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

“An all-encompassing treatise on modern civilization, offering bold revisions to canonical understandings in sociology, anthropology, archaeology and political philosophy that led to where we are today.”—The New York Times

A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution—from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality—and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.

For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike—either free and equal innocents, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction to powerful critiques of European society posed by Indigenous observers and intellectuals. Revisiting this encounter has startling implications for how we make sense of human history today, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery, and civilization itself.

Drawing on pathbreaking research in archaeology and anthropology, the authors show how history becomes a far more interesting place once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there. If humans did not spend 95 percent of their evolutionary past in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, what were they doing all that time? If agriculture, and cities, did not mean a plunge into hierarchy and domination, then what kinds of social and economic organization did they lead to? The answers are often unexpected, and suggest that the course of human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful, hopeful possibilities, than we tend to assume.

The Dawn of Everything fundamentally transforms our understanding of the human past and offers a path toward imagining new forms of freedom, new ways of organizing society. This is a monumental book of formidable intellectual range, animated by curiosity, moral vision, and a faith in the power of direct action.

A Macmillan Audio production from Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Dawn of Everything

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is a 2021 book by anthropologist and activist David Graeber, and archaeologist David Wengrow. It was first published in the United Kingdom on 19 October 2021 by Allen Lane (an imprint of Penguin Books).[1]

Graeber and Wengrow finished the book around August 2020.[2] Its American edition is 704 pages long, including a 63-page bibliography.[2] It was a finalist for the Orwell Prize for Political Writing (2022).[3]

Describing the diversity of early human societies, the book critiques traditional narratives of history’s linear development from primitivism to civilization.[4] Instead, The Dawn of Everything posits that humans lived in large, complex, but decentralized polities for millennia.[5]

The Dawn of Everything became an international bestseller, translated into more than thirty languages.[6] It was widely reviewed in the popular press and in leading academic journals, as well as in activist circles, with divided opinions being expressed across the board. Both favorable and critical reviewers noted its challenge to existing paradigms in the study of human history.

Summary of THE DAWN OF EVERYTHING from the Wikipedia

The authors open the book by suggesting that current popular views on the progress of western civilization, as presented by Francis FukuyamaJared DiamondYuval Noah HarariCharles C. MannSteven Pinker, and Ian Morris, are not supported by anthropological or archaeological evidence, but owe more to philosophical dogmas inherited unthinkingly from the Age of Enlightenment. The authors refute the Hobbesian and Rousseauian view on the origin of the social contract, stating that there is no single original form of human society. Moreover, they argue that the transition from foraging to agriculture was not a civilization trap that laid the ground for social inequality, and that throughout history, large-scale societies have often developed in the absence of ruling elites and top-down systems of management.

Rejecting the “origins of inequality” as a framework for understanding human history, the authors consider where this question originated, and find the answers in a series of encounters between European settlers and the Indigenous populations of North America. They argue that the latter provided a powerful counter-model to European civilisation and a sustained critique of its hierarchy, patriarchy, punitive law, and profit-motivated behaviour, which entered European thinking in the 18th century through travellers accounts and missionary relations, to be widely imitated by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. They illustrate this process through the historical example of the Wendat leader Kondiaronk, and his depiction in the best-selling works of the Baron Lahontan, who had spent ten years in the colonies of New France. The authors further argue that the standard narrative of social evolution, including the framing of history as modes of production and a progression from hunter-gatherer to farmer to commercial civilisation, originated partly as a way of silencing this Indigenous critique, and recasting human freedoms as naive or primitive features of social development.

Subsequent chapters develop these initial claims with archaeological and anthropological evidence. The authors describe ancient and modern communities that self-consciously abandoned agricultural living, employed seasonal political regimes (switching back and forth between authoritarian and communal systems), and constructed urban infrastructure with egalitarian social programs. The authors then present extensive evidence for the diversity and complexity of political life among non-agricultural societies on different continents, from Japan to the Americas, including cases of monumental architecture, slavery, and the self-conscious rejection of slavery through a process of cultural schismogenesis. They then examine archaeological evidence for processes that eventually led to the adoption and spread of agriculture, concluding that there was no Agricultural Revolution, but a process of slow change, taking thousands of years to unfold on each of the world’s continents, and sometimes ending in demographic collapse (e.g. in prehistoric Europe). They conclude that ecological flexibility and sustained biodiversity were key to the successful establishment and spread of early agriculture.

The authors then go on to explore the issue of scale in human history, with archaeological case studies from early China, Mesoamerica, Europe (Ukraine), the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa (Egypt). They conclude that contrary to standard accounts, the concentration of people in urban settlements did not lead mechanistically to the loss of social freedoms or the rise of ruling elites. While acknowledging that in some cases, social stratification was a defining feature of urban life from the beginning, they also document cases of early cities that present little or no evidence of social hierarchies, lacking such elements as temples, palaces, central storage facilities, or written administration, as well as examples of cities like Teotihuacan, that began as hierarchical settlements, but reversed course to follow more egalitarian trajectories, providing high quality housing for the majority of citizens. They also discuss at some length the case of Tlaxcala as an example of Indigenous urban democracy in the Americas, before the arrival of Europeans, and the existence of democratic institutions such as municipal councils and popular assemblies in ancient Mesopotamia.

Synthesizing these findings, the authors move to discovering underlying factors for the rigid, hierarchical, and highly bureaucratized political system of contemporary civilization. Rejecting the category of “the State” as a trans-historical reality, they instead define three basic sources of domination in human societies: control over violence (sovereignty), control over information (bureaucracy), and charismatic competition (politics). They explore the utility of this new approach by comparing examples of early centralised societies that elude definition as states, such as the Olmec and Chavín de Huántar, as well as the Inca, China in the Shang dynasty, the Maya Civilization, and Ancient Egypt. From this they go on to argue that these civilisations were not direct precursors to our modern states, but operated on very different principles. The origins of modern states, they conclude, are shallow rather than deep, and owe more to colonial violence than to social evolution. Returning to North America, the authors then bring the story of the Indigenous critique and Kondiaronk full circle, showing how the values of freedom and democracy encountered by Europeans among the Wendat and neighbouring peoples had historical roots in the rejection of an earlier system of hierarchy, with its focus at the urban center of Cahokia on the Mississippi.

Based on their accumulated discussions, the authors conclude by proposing a reframing of the central questions of human history. Instead of the origins of inequality, they suggest that our central dilemma is the question of how modern societies have lost the qualities of flexibility and political creativity that were once more common. They ask how we have apparently “got stuck” on a single trajectory of development, and how violence and domination became normalised within this dominant system. Without offering definitive answers, the authors end the book by suggesting lines of further investigation. These focus on the loss of three basic forms of social freedom, which they argue were once common: the freedom to escape one’s surroundings and move away, the freedom to disobey arbitrary authority, and the freedom to reimagine and reconstruct one’s society in a different form. They emphasize the loss of women’s autonomy, and the insertion of principles of violence into basic notions of social care at the level of domestic and family relations, as crucial factors in establishing more rigid political systems.

The book ends by suggesting that narratives of social development in which western civilization is self-appointed to be the highest point of achievement to date in a linear progression are largely myths, and that possibilities for social emancipation can be found in a more accurate understanding of human history, based on scientific evidence that has come to light only in the last few decades, with the assistance of the field of anthropology and archaeology


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari 2011

From a historian comes a groundbreaking narrative of humanity’s creation and evolution –  that explores the ways in which biology and history have defined us and enhanced our understanding of what it means to be “human”.

One hundred thousand years ago, at least six different species of humans inhabited Earth. Yet today there is only one – Homo sapiens. What happened to the others? And what may happen to us?

Most books about the history of humanity pursue either a historical or a biological approach, but Dr. Harari breaks the mold with this original book that begins about 70,000 years ago, with the appearance of modern cognition. From examining the role evolving humans have played in the global ecosystem to charting the rise of empires, Sapiens integrates history and science to reconsider accepted narratives, connect past developments with contemporary concerns, and examine specific events within the context of larger ideas.

Dr. Harari also compels us to look ahead, because, over the last few decades, humans have begun to bend laws of natural selection that have governed life for the past four billion years. We are acquiring the ability to design not only the world around us but also ourselves. Where is this leading us, and what do we want to become?

This provocative and insightful work is sure to spark debate and is essential for aficionados of Jared Diamond, James Gleick, Matt Ridley, Robert Wright, and Sharon Moalem.


©2015 Yuval Noah Harari (P)2017 HarperCollins Publishers


The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Jared Diamond

Most of us take for granted the features of our modern society, from air travel and telecommunications to literacy and obesity. Yet for nearly all of its six million years of existence, human society had none of these things. While the gulf that divides us from our primitive ancestors may seem unbridgeably wide, we can glimpse much of our former lifestyle in those largely traditional societies still or recently in existence. Societies like those of the New Guinea Highlanders remind us that it was only yesterday – in evolutionary time – when everything changed and that we moderns still possess bodies and social practices often better adapted to traditional than to modern conditions.

The World Until Yesterday provides a mesmerizing firsthand picture of the human past as it had been for millions of years – a past that has mostly vanished – and considers what the differences between that past and our present mean for our lives today.

This is Jared Diamond’s most personal book to date, as he draws extensively from his decades of field work in the Pacific islands, as well as evidence from Inuit, Amazonian Indians, Kalahari San people, and others. Diamond doesn’t romanticize traditional societies – after all, we are shocked by some of their practices – but he finds that their solutions to universal human problems such as child rearing, elder care, dispute resolution, risk, and physical fitness have much to teach us. A characteristically provocative, enlightening, and entertaining book, The World Until Yesterday will be essential and delightful listening.

Read less

©2012 Jared Diamond (P)2012 Penguin Audio





Comments are closed.