The Dawn of Everything (2021) is a reimagining of the history of humanity, based on new discoveries in the worlds of anthropology and archeology. According to the authors, new findings challenge what we thought we knew about hierarchies, inequality, property, and the state.
Who is it for?
- Anyone who’s ever shaken their fist at bureaucracy
- History lovers of all stripes
- Those who want to be Indiana Jones when they grow up
Introduction: A deep dive into the origins of political hierarchies.
We like to think that prehistoric humans were simpler than we are. We might even think they were stupid – think cavemen and -women dragging clubs around and gnawing raw meat. Of course, these depictions are far from accurate. The Flintstones is not a documentary. But these ideas point to a deep-rooted idea, an idea long espoused by philosophers and intellectuals – that people in the past weren’t capable of abstract political thought or social organization.
We now know that this isn’t true.
New findings show that prehistoric peoples were certainly political. They not only fought about political arrangements; they discussed and debated those arrangements. The archeological and anthropological record paints a clear picture: prehistoric societies were more complex, and more interesting, than we’ve long believed.
In these summaries, you’ll learn the real story of how modern ideas about property, human rights, and the state came into existence – and why history is still being written.
Society didn’t develop in a linear fashion.
When it comes to how human society developed, there are two opposing stories.
The first one comes from the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and it goes like this: Once upon a time, we were all hunter-gatherers. We lived in small bands, and everyone was more or less equal. Then came the advent of agriculture. We figured out how to cultivate plants and animals, and we stopped hunting and gathering. This agricultural revolution led to more complex political structures, not to mention advancements in cultural phenomena such as the arts, philosophy, and literature. It also spawned hierarchical phenomena like patriarchy, mass execution, and interminable bureaucracy.
The other story was developed by a decidedly grumpier thinker, the English writer Thomas Hobbes. His story goes like this: Humans are, at their core, selfish creatures. In the past, life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hierarchy and domination, he believed, have always been an aspect of human society.
So which story is true? Most social scientists would anwer: a bit of both. But when you look at the evidence, including an ever-increasing archeological archive, it becomes clear that the bit-of-both answer is also unsatisfactory. You see, both stories posit linearity. That is, they both argue that, from a pre-civilized condition – be it Rousseau’s condition of equality or Hobbes’s condition of hierarchy – we evolved into our current “civilized” state. But when you examine the evidence and think carefully about it, the truth is that human society did not develop linearly. Civilization did not march forward. It marched sideways, it went backward, it stood still. And, anyway, the “marching forward” metaphor is silly and misleading, since it’s not necessarily accurate to think that our society is better than those that preceded it.
So why is it so hard for us to imagine alternatives to the stories of Rousseau and Hobbes?
Early societies were a lot more complex – and interesting – than we’re taught to believe. These summaries seek to restore our ancestors to their full humanity, showing that many more possibilities for political organization and social interaction exist.
The “indigenous critique” sparked a wave of Enlightenment theories that are still with us today.
In the 1690s, a leader from the Huron-Wendat people in North America sat down with French colonists in Montréal to debate a variety of socio-political topics. His name was Kandiaronk, and his French interlocutors loved him. They described him as both witty and singularly brilliant. A book of his ideas sold like hotcakes throughout Europe, and inspired a response from nearly every Enlightenment thinker.
To put his views very simply, Kandiaronk was curious to understand why people in Europe were so obsessed with money and private property. And – come to think of it – why did their kings have so much power, whereas everyone else had practically none. What’s all this poverty about? Why do people put up with it? He didn’t hold back: “I have spent six years reflecting on the start of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that’s not inhuman . . .”
His criticisms were brutal, and they both shocked and excited Europe’s philosophers. But Kandiaronk’s views weren’t unique. They were shared by many indigenous people after coming into contact with European colonists. They became known at the time as the indigenous critique.
For conservatives in Europe, the indegenoius critique just wouldn’t do. To undermine North American indigenous critiques of European culture, right-wing thinkers began dismissing indigenous people, and their ideas of individual freedoms and social checks on authoritarianism, as “savage.”
European society was simply more advanced, further along the inevitable path toward “civilization.” Indigenous peoples hadn’t even begun marching. Sure, in Europe, there was poverty, domination, and religious persecution. But these losses of freedom represented a much larger gain: the achievement of a true civilization.
The term “egalitarian” became a default to describe societies without the trappings of what these Europeans called “civilization,” a kind of imaginary utopia left over when one strips away things like judges, kings, and overseers. Conservatives even blamed the links of Kandiaronk for the violence of the French Revolution, asserting that they’d introduced new, liberal ideas into a stable social hierarchy.
But of course, lumping together so many communities and societies as idyllically, unrealistically egalitarian tells us less about those communities, and more about the culture that needed to define itself against them.
In the end, if we are to understand how modern systems of domination came about, we need to set aside the question of equality or inequality. Instead, we need to work out why kings, princes, and overseers emerged. So let’s work it out . . .
Pre-agricultural life was much more variable than we are led to believe.
Humans were around for more than three million years before they started writing things down. As there’s no written record, we know very little about what happened during that time.
One thing we can glean from the archeological record, though, is that humans were far more physically, and culturally, diverse than any of us are today. Human-like species coexisted alongside each other, much as giants, hobbits, and elves coexist in fantasy narratives.
Another thing we know is that people roamed around a lot. They only came together at certain times of year, such as the summer harvest. During these times, archeological evidence indicates that they didn’t adopt the dominant-submissive behavior of our ape cousins. This is borne out in the social checks we find in ethnographic accounts of forager bands in South America and Asia. Whereas gorillas beat their chests to signal dominance (and are taken seriously by other gorillas), humans tend to make fun of braggarts and showoffs.
The anthropological record can help fill in the gaps in other areas too. For example, for centuries, many post-Enlightenment philosophers argued that pre-agricultural humans weren’t capable of rational thought. But of course this is nonsense.
The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss spent time living with and studying the Nambikwara, a community of part-time farmers, part-time foragers living in western Brazil.
Nambikwara chiefs play a dual role, brokering between two different social systems – farming during the rainy season and foraging during the dry season. When foraging, chiefs make or lose their reputations based on their exploits, behaving largely as authoritarians. When farming, life is much more sedentary, and people congregate around chiefs based on their dry-season antics. In these times, chiefs act more like statesmen, resolving conflicts and leading by example. These chiefs, Lévi-Strauss reasoned, were self-conscious political actors.
The example of the Nambikwara shows that in many societies, fixed social order was not immutable. Socio-political orders varied seasonally, and they varied according to whether farming or herding was something people were trying out at the time.
From this, we can reason that the first kings may have been temporary, rising up theatrically but relatively briefly. But when did kings and queens – and the permanent systems of inequality they ushered in – become mainstays of society? How, in other words, did we get “stuck” in the system we’re in today?
Well, let’s find out.
Freedoms once taken for granted began eroding when ideas of the sacred and ideas of ownership emerged.
In earlier centuries, shared cultural norms and practices spanned thousands of miles, even continents. Aboriginal Australians and North Americans could travel halfway across the continent and still be among people with the same totemic designations that they had at home.
Our distant ancestors assumed three central freedoms, which are largely forgotten today.
First, the freedom to leave home, knowing one will be welcomed in faraway lands.
Next, the freedom to shift back and forth between social structures.
And, finally, the freedom to disobey authorities without consequence.
Why can’t we? Or to return to that question from the last chapter: When did kings and queens and systemic inequality come into the picture? Well, it might be better to not ask when kings and queens emerged but instead ask when it was no longer possible to laugh them out of court.
The erosion of this freedom, the freedom to disobey authority, as well as of the other two freedoms, may have begun with the development of the idea of property. For European colonists, indigenous people didn’t own the land because they didn’t work on it, according to European convention. But this isn’t quite accurate – some foraging societies’ use of land was enough to support a wide variety of social structures, from royal courts to priestly castes to standing armies.
Communities like the Nambikwara haven’t developed the same idea of property as cultures who call themselves “Western.” But there is a similarity that we can point to that may give insight into how the idea of property developed. Both the idea of private property and the idea of the sacred are structures of exclusion. The Polynesian word tabu means “not to be touched” – it relates to the sacred, and is similar to the British legal theory of property as meaning rights held “against the whole world.” For example, if you own a car, you have the right not to let anyone in the whole world into it, according to British legal theory.
Ritual theaters were developed as places where exclusive claims over property – and demands for unquestioning obedience – are likely to be made, in communities all over the world.
How did these ideas of the sacred, and of property, come to order so many other aspects of human life? In the next chapter, we’ll explore how ideas of property and humanity intersected on the west coast of North America, and further ensnared freedoms that earlier humans took for granted.
Neighboring cultures frequently developed social institutions in reaction to each other.
Scholars often see indigenous and pre-agricultural communities not as what they were in their own right but, they saw them as what they were on their way to becoming: a proper kingdom, whose subjects paid tribute to a ruler. But some peoples, including indigenous peoples of the California region, weren’t pre-agricultural. They were actually anti-agricultural.
Take the indigenous peoples of California. The evidence suggests that they developed their society in opposition to the society of their northerly neighbors of the Northwest Pacific coast.
Chattel slavery is one example. In the Northwest Pacific communities, as of the late eighteenth century, up to a quarter of the population was enslaved. These communities enjoyed ecstatic celebrations of excess known as the potlatch. These were occasions of gluttony and sacrifice, including human sacrifice.
By contrast, indigenous Californians were ascetics, consuming staple instead of luxury foods at ceremonies, and avoiding any kind of self-aggrandizement. They also rejected the idea of slavery.
The rejection of slave-taking in California communities has strong political dimensions. Enslaving people didn’t fit into the order of society for indigenous Californians. We know that people traveled widely back then, so they must have been aware of slavery as a possible social order. But we believe that they actively rejected it, or at least upheld social values like industry and self-reliance that would have clashed with the enslavement of others.
On the contrary, Slavery became commonplace in the Northwest coastal communities because the aristocracy found itself unable to support itself without a dependable workforce. In northern California, the communities most exposed to their northern neighbors developed social institutions to insulate themselves against slavery. More and more, coastal peoples began to define themselves against each other.
This suggests that hierarchy and equality begin to emerge together, as complements. And domination emerges first on a very intimate level, at home.
This cultural division is important for understanding how human freedoms came to be lost. It also shows that decisions about whether to adopt entrenched hierarchies reflected a community’s values and ideas about human relationships.
As communities settled into an agricultural lifestyle, their highland neighbors went in the opposite direction.
The ancient Athenians had a strange ritual. On a certain sweltering midsummer day, women would carry little gardens in baskets, planted with quick-sprouting grains and herbs, onto rooftops. There, they would be left in the sun to wilt. It was a botanical reenactment of the death of Adonis, slain in his prime.
This ritual, which had been going on from way before the ascent of agriculture, can be understood as a type of play farming. It was a game representing a foray into the world of agriculture – a game that eventually became the serious business of producing food to feed large populations.
Farming is back-breaking work: you have to clear fields, pull weeds, lug water. As a result, the advent of agriculture meant that humans had to put a lot more effort into feeding themselves than they’d had to previously. It’s not beyond the realm of imagination that some communities tried it and quit, or only farmed for part of the year.
It may be because of this that it took such a long time to domesticate cereals such as wheat – it took us up to 3,000 years, ten times as long as necessary, according to scientists. Human communities flirted with farming, cultivating plots while also foraging and hunting as they’d always done, before finally settling into agriculture. The transition was slow, progressing in fits and starts. Also, interesting fact, this work was most likely done primarily by women.
It was also dangerous to become too reliant on farming. Neolithic societies in modern-day Austria and Germany suffered terrible consequences for relying on a single food source: not only did they starve when crops failed, but the crisis sparked horrific violence. Learning from catastrophes such as these, populations that dabbled in farming seemed to maintain a careful balance between foraging and farming.
And what’s more, there’s no evidence that the shift to farming also meant the advent of land ownership or private property. Communal tenure of fields, redistribution of plots, and communal management was – and is – very common among agricultural communities from Highland Scotland to the Balkans.
When people began to coalesce in urban centers, hierarchies didn’t immediately form.
Given the perils of farming, and the work involved, it seems strange that humans did ultimately decide to settle together in urban environments?
Well, what’s clear is that early cities – which could have millions of inhabitants – weren’t hierarchical.
For example, early Mesopotamian cities show no evidence of monarchy at all. Chores were done collectively, on a system similar to the French corvée, where labor is obligatory on certain seasonal civic projects. Other institutions were established to ensure that citizens played a role in government. Popular assemblies were commonplace in Hittite, Phoenician, Philistine, and Israelite mega settlements. And, finally, archeological surveys of Mesopotamian mega settlements reveal a strikingly even distribution of wealth, craft production, and administrative tools across the main districts, which were ethnically diverse. Different small groups within a city might have different theories about how to run it, and they would clash in the public assembly. Sometimes this would lead to violence, and sometimes it would be resolved peaceably.
Twelfth-century Teotihuacan, in today’s central Mexico, was formed later, but the setup was similar. Home to at least a million people, it was an ethnically diverse place of grandeur and sophistication, as well as subtly complex social organization – without overlords. The visual arts of the city depict Teotihuacanos as all roughly the same size, and clearly celebrates the community as a whole and its collective values.
Things were different in the smaller hill towns adjacent to these cities. In these places on the edge of urban civilization, we see the beginnings of an aristorical elite. A warrior aristocracy developed in sites like Arslantepe in eastern Turkey, heavily armed with swords and spears, living in palaces or forts. These warriors competed fiercely with each other for retainers and slaves, and rejected certain features of nearby urban civilizations, like writing.
Early kings relied on spectacular displays of violence to prove their cosmic power – and necessity.
Some of the societies we’ve considered begin to resemble what we might think of as a state. A state, according to conventional definition, claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercive force within a given territory.
Three principles form the basis of social power: control of violence, control of information, and individual charisma. Each of these has become the basis for institutions the modern state depends on, such as bureaucracy. Many assume that these three modes of domination were destined to come together at a certain time. But how did domination at scale first emerge?
The Olmec civilization, known as the “mother culture” for later Mesoamerican societies, centered around charismatic leaders who derived power from excelling at ball games. In the pre-Inca city of Chavín de Huántar, in the highlands of Peru, leaders derived power based on control of esoteric knowledge.
But despite their power, these cultures weren’t states. For something akin to a state to form, two of the three principles of domination had to be brought together in some spectacular display of violence. This happened in ancient Egypt. In Egypt and other early states, kings were buried with their followers – sometimes thousands of them, especially killed for the occasion. Archeologists now regard ritual killing as a sure sign that state formation was underway. Violence, in a way, makes kings.
But it’s really important to remember that political organization wasn’t only found in violent proto-states. Actually, archeological evidence suggests that the first systems of specialized administrative control emerged in small Neolithic villages, like Tell Sabi Abyad in today’s Syria, to keep track of resource allocation. These emerged as a corrective to bureaucrats taking more than their share. Neolithic people seemed to know that things could always be adjusted if they weren’t working out. So we’re still left with the question, Why did kings and ruling classes develop?
Remember how large scale agricultural production started out with play farming? What if political systems like kingdoms started out with temporary play kings? It makes sense for newly raised royals to be concerned with building monumental architecture like pyramids – huge structures like these were meant to project eternal power, just as massive human sacrifices were.
In other words, it seems clear that the state was never an inevitability, but a relatively recent confluence of the three forms of domination. And if the state was never inevitable, maybe it’s not permanent, either.
The “indigenous critique,” which is still with us today in a number of forms, developed as a result of experimentation and reaction.
Remember the indigenous critique of European colonist political systems we mentioned back in the second chapter? The critique itself didn’t just come out of nowhere. It was an amalgamation of centuries of political conflict and debate among indigenous North Americans.
From 400 to 800 CE, people began cultivating maize as a staple crop along the Mississippi River floodplain. Soon after, there was an intensification of armed conflict, finally culminating in an urban explosion at the site of Cahokia in modern-day Illinois. Cahokia soon became the greatest city in the Americas north of Mexico. Around 1050 CE, Cahokia exploded in size, ultimately totalling somewhere around 40,000 inhabitants.
Within a century, an event triggered a long, slow, violent period of destruction and depopulation in Cahokia, similar to the demise of cities like Teotihuacan, and those in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. We don’t know what that event was. But we do know that dissatisfied residents of Cahokia simply walked away.
This proves something important: state formation is not the inevitable end point of societal evolution. Once a society has begun moving toward state formation, there’s nothing stopping it from not forming a state – from simply going in a different direction. In subsequent communities across North America, the backlash against Cahokia spawned values like political debate, diversity of opinion, and a decidedly anti-authoritarian sentiment. In communities around the Great Lakes, social orders were developed as a barrier against what had happened in Cahokia.
These ideas are with us today in a number of forms. Not only did indigenous North Americans sidestep the trap we assume exists for communities on the path to state formation; they developed independent, anti-authoritarian political sensibilities that dazzled the European colonists who learned from them. What’s more, the ideas that became the indigenous critique profoundly influenced the Enlightenment thinkers whose ideas form the foundation of modern political thought.
Neither social nor political development is linear. As we’ve seen, both happen in fits and starts, trials and errors. History isn’t over, and neither is political evolution and experimentation.
The key message in these summaries:
Early human societies were much more complex than previously imagined. There was no linear journey to get from band society to the modern state – rather, there were prolonged periods of experimentation. This shows us that history isn’t over; it’s still possible for things to change.
About the author
David Graeber was an American anthropologist and anarchist. He authored several books including Bullshit Jobs and Debt: The First 5,000 Years.
David Wengrow is a British archeologist who has written extensively about Neolithic societies and the emergence of the first states in Egypt and Mesopotamia.