Moments of sociopolitical tumult have a way of generating all-encompassing explanatory histories. These chronicles either indulge a sense of decline or applaud our advances. The appetite for such stories seems indiscriminate—tales of deterioration and tales of improvement are frequently consumed by the same people. Two of Bill Gates’s favorite soup-to-nuts books of the past decade, for example, are Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens.” The first asserts that everything has been on the upswing since the Enlightenment, when we learned that rational argument was preferable to religious superstition and wanton cudgelling. The second concludes that everything was more or less O.K. until about twelve thousand years ago, when we first beat our swords into plowshares; this innocent decision, which must have seemed a good idea at the time, heralded an era of administrative hierarchy, state-sanctioned violence, and the unchecked proliferation of carbohydrates. Perhaps what readers like Gates find valuable in these books has less to do with the purported shape and direction of history than with the broad assurance that history has a shape and a direction.

Both stories, after all, adhere to a model of history that’s at once teleological (driven by specific forces to arrive at the foreordained present) and discontinuous (such magical things as farming and rationality emerged from the woodwork, unlocking successive stages of developmental maturity). They generally agree that the crucial rupture divided some original state of nature from the grand accession of civilization. Their arcs of irrevocable decline or compulsory progress are variations on themes that were given their most recognizable modern elaborations by Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Pinker takes up the Hobbesian notion that early human existence was a brutish war of all against all. Harari takes rather literally Rousseau’s thought experiment that we were born free and rushed headlong into our chains. (“There is no way out of the imagined order,” Harari writes. “When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.”) In both accounts, guilelessness and egalitarianism are exchanged for knowledge and subordination; the only real difference lies in the cost-benefit assessments of that trade.

About a decade ago, the anthropologist and activist David Graeber, who died suddenly last year, at the age of fifty-nine, and the archeologist David Wengrow began to consider, in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, how they might contribute to the burgeoning literature on inequality. Not inequality of income or wealth but inequality of power: why so many people obey the orders of so few. The two scholars came to see, however, that to inquire after the “origins” of inequality was to defer to one of two myths—roughly, Hobbes’s or Rousseau’s—based on a deeply ingrained and deeply misleading fantasy of the human career. The product of their extended collaboration, “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), is a profuse and antic account of how we came to take that old narrative for granted and why we might be better off if we let it go.

The consensus version of the story begins with the appearance of the first anatomically modern humans, about two hundred thousand years ago. For approximately a hundred and ninety thousand years, or about ninety-five per cent of our existence as a species, we lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers, following migratory herds and foraging for wild nuts and berries. These cohorts were small enough, and the demands of resource procurement and allocation were sufficiently minor, that decisions were face-to-face affairs among intimates. Despite the lurking menace of large cats, these early hunter-gatherers didn’t have to work particularly hard to fulfill their caloric needs, and they passed their ample leisure hours cavorting like primates. The order of the day was an easy egalitarianism, mostly for want of other options.

Twelve thousand years ago, give or take, the static pleasures of this long, undifferentiated epoch gave way to history proper. The hunter-gatherer bands lucky enough to find themselves on the flanks of the Zagros Mountains, or the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, began herding and farming. The rise of agriculture allowed for permanent settlements, which, growing dense, became cities. Urban commerce demanded division of labor, professional specialization, and bureaucratic oversight. Because wheat, unlike wild berries or the hindquarters of an aurochs, was a storable, countable good that appeared on a routine schedule, the selfish administrators of inchoate kingdoms could easily collect taxes, or tributes. Writing, which first emerged in the service of accounting, abetted the sort of control and surveillance upon which primitive racketeers came to depend. Where hunter-gatherers had hunted and gathered only enough to meet the demands of the day, agricultural communities created history’s first surpluses, and the extraction of tributes propped up rent-seeking élites and the managerial pyramids—not to mention standing armies—necessary to maintain their privilege. The rise of the arts, technology, and monumental architecture was the upside of the creation and immiseration of a peasant class.

From roughly the Enlightenment through the middle of the twentieth century, these developments—which came to be known as the Neolithic Revolution—were seen as generally good things. Societies were categorized by evolutionary stage on the basis of their mode of food production and economic organization, with full-fledged states taken to be the pinnacle of progress.

But it was also possible to think that the Neolithic Revolution was, all in all, a bad thing. In the late nineteen-sixties, ethnographers studying present-day hunter-gatherers in southern Africa argued that their “primitive” ways were not only freer and more egalitarian than the “later” stages of human development but also healthier and more fun. Agriculture required much longer and duller working hours; dense settlements and the proximity of livestock, as well as monotonous diets of cereal staples, encouraged malnutrition and disease. The poisoned fruit of grain cultivation had, in this telling, led to a cycle of population growth and more grain cultivation. Agriculture was a trap. Rousseau’s thought experiment, long written off by conservative critics as romantic nostalgia for the “noble savage,” was resuscitated, in modern, scientific form. It might have taken three or four decades for these insights to make their way to TED stages, but the paleo diet became a fundamental requirement of any self-respecting Silicon Valley founder.

For Graeber and Wengrow, this basic story, whether relayed in a triumphal or a defeatist register, is itself a trap. If we accept that the rise of agriculture meant the rise of the state—of political élites and intricate structures of power—then all we can do is tinker around the edges. Even if we regard the Paleolithic era as a garden paradise, we know that our reëntry is forever barred. For one thing, the requirements of hunting and gathering could support only some trivial fraction of the earth’s current population. A life under government control now seems inescapable.

“I’m sorry, that’s incorrect. Release the bees.”
Cartoon by Jimmy Craig

“The Dawn of Everything” is a lively, and often very funny, anarchist project that aspires to enlarge our political imagination by revitalizing the possibilities of the distant past. Superficially, it resembles other exhaustive, synoptic histories—it’s encyclopedic in scope, with sections introduced by comically baroque intertitles—but it disavows the intellectual trappings of a knowable arc, a linear structure, and internal necessity. As a stab at grandeur stripped of grandiosity, the book rejects the logic of technological or ecological determinism, structuring its narrative around our ancestors’ improvisatory responses to the challenges of happenstance. The result is an almost hallucinatory vision of the human epic as a series of idiosyncratic digressions. It is the story of how we made it up as we went along—of how things could have been different and, perhaps, still might be.

Drawing on new archeological findings, and revisiting old ones, Graeber and Wengrow argue that the granaries-to-overlords tale simply isn’t true. Rather, it’s a function of an extremely low-resolution approach to time. Viewed closely, the course of human history resists our favored schemata. Hunter-gatherer communities seem to have experimented with various forms of farming as side projects thousands of years before we have any evidence of cities. Even after urban centers developed, there was nothing like an ineluctable relationship between cities, technology, and domination.

The large town of Çatalhöyük, for example, on the Konya Plain in present-day Turkey, was settled around 7400 B.C. and seems to have been occupied for approximately fifteen hundred years—which, the authors note, is “roughly the same period of time that separates us from Amalafrida, Queen of the Vandals, who reached the height of her influence around AD 523.” The settlement was home to about five thousand people, but it had neither an obvious center nor any communal facilities. There weren’t even streets: households were densely packed together and accessed via roof ladders. The residents’ living areas were marked by a “distinctly macabre sense of interior design,” with narrow rooms outfitted with aurochs skulls and horns, along with raised platforms that encased the remains of up to sixty of the households’ dead ancestors. It was, as far as we know, one of the first large settlements to have practiced agriculture: the citizens derived most of their nutrition from cereals and beans they grew, as well as from domesticated sheep and goats. For a long time, all of this was taken together as a key example of the “agricultural revolution” in action, and the material remnants were interpreted to support the old story. Corpulent female figurines, assumed to be part of fertility rituals, were found in what were understood to be proto-religious shrines of some sort—the first indications of organized cultural systems.

In the past three decades, however, new archeological methods have disturbed many of these long-standing assumptions. The “shrines” were, Graeber and Wengrow tell us, just regular houses; the female figurines could be the discarded Barbie dolls of the Anatolian Neolithic, but they could also be a way of honoring female elders. The community seems to have supported itself for a thousand years with various forms of agriculture—floodplain farming and animal husbandry—without ever having committed itself to new forms of social or cultural organization. From what we can derive from wall murals and other expressive residues, Graeber and Wengrow say, “the cultural life of the community remained stubbornly oriented around the worlds of hunting and foraging.”

So what was actually going on in Çatalhöyük? Graeber and Wengrow interpret the evidence to propose that the town’s inhabitants managed their affairs perfectly well without the sort of administrative structures, royal or priestly, that were supposedly part of the agricultural package. “Despite the considerable size and density of the built-up area, there is no evidence for central authority,” the authors maintain. “Each household appears more or less a world unto itself—a discrete locus of storage, production and consumption. Each also seems to have held a significant degree of control over its own rituals.” Some houses appear to have been more lavishly furnished with aurochs horns or prized obsidian (which was brought in from Cappadocia, more than a hundred miles away), but there is no sign of élite neighborhoods or marks of caste consolidation. Different forms of social organization likely prevailed at different times of year, with greater division of labor necessary for cultivation and hunting in the summer and fall, followed by something more equitable—and, perhaps, matriarchal—during the winter.

Çatalhöyük isn’t the only site that calls into question the presumption that the Neolithic era was patterned on a single civilizational kit. Graeber and Wengrow report that some cities thrived long before they showed signs of hierarchical systems—such as temples and palaces—and some never developed them at all. “In others, centralized power seems to appear and then disappear,” they write. “It would seem that the mere fact of urban life does not, necessarily, imply any form of political organization.”

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