Every once in awhile a book comes along that makes me totally rethink my received or assumed knowledge by shaking up the usual perceptions. The most recent book to have wrought such a rethinking on my part is The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. The effusive blurbs–and there are many–on the MacMillan page the preceding link takes you to strike me as accurate; on every page or two I find myself saying, “I have to look that up! I never heard about that! I need to read that book/author/article!”
Beyond the illuminating information, though, what excites me most about this book is how revelatory it is concerning human possibilities. These authors (unfortunately Graeber died in 2020) are drily funny and unrepentantly anarchists among the scholars of so-called pre-history. The research they gather and present, and their theories based upon what we now know about ancient peoples, upend the evolution of human society that I was taught and that seemed so logical I never thought to question–the foragers/hunter-gatherers/agriculturalists/city-makers “development” of human societies and cultures that Rousseau’s philosophical state-of-nature idea essentially founded. I was aware that archeological discoveries have been found that challenge the narrative, but I wasn’t aware of how many of these are being examined and the amazing data they reveal. I was aware that views of indigenous peoples, past and present, are most often through a lens of “Western civilization” and tainted by the assumptions of researchers but was not alert to my own blind spots and received assumptions.
Which makes me pretty much a human being, right? We do tend to short-cut to our beliefs and accept the “logical information” we learn from parents, teachers, and other authorities. Then, we use that framework to test out the logic of other assumptions. Sometimes that framework is not as strong, correct, or universal as we thought. And it feels marvelously disruptive, sometimes, to buck the system, make art, behave differently–illogically–and find that new ways of thinking about the world can be fun.
This is a very long book, and you really want to stop and read the footnotes, which are excellent and super-informative. I am a fast reader but am taking my time with this one, savoring each surprise and thrilled at the ingenuity of human beings. From a political and from an earth-stewardship perspective, Graeber and Wegrow say the societies of the past teach that the current structure of most cultures (greed- and power-based hierarchies that require property rights and that leave vast numbers of people starving) is not the only and inevitable outcome of human communities. We are not inherently in Hobbes’ world, but neither are we in Locke’s. Mills’, or Rousseau’s.
I love the commonsense approach that says human beings are adaptable, curious, inventive, and complicated–so it is unlikely that we spent most of 30,000 years “doing nothing” until suddenly: agriculture, writing, cities, technology, beer! (Not necessarily in that order.) Graeber and Wengrow find human beings endlessly fascinating, and their enthusiasm is contagious.
During cold days and long nights, when the world seems not entirely right and I wonder whether we have the motivation to make things better, this book has shown me many ways people can find solutions, get along together, find time to sing and play and maybe even live without money, boss men, and kings most of the time. We can be free to do what we want and still help others out, free to hang out and enjoy each other’s company, or get together and build a monument…it’s what people have been doing for thousands of years. Right now we’re kind of stuck in capitalism and oligarchies and warfare and pollution and climate change, and that won’t change in my lifetime. But it is good to know that this sort of thinking is not the peak of human development in a real sense. That gives me an odd sense of hope.
Also, books like this one provide so many stories and ideas and new concepts and terrific words that I am sure it’ll filter into my creative writing endeavors one way or another. Poems on the Jōmon sites or Mesolithic kelp-belt people? One never knows what will creep into my subconscious mind.