By Annalee Newitz, November 26, 2021
Anthropologist David Graeber, famous for summing up several millennia of economic history in his best-selling “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” spent the past decade collaborating with the archaeologist David Wengrow on another ambitious project. The two scholars sifted through evidence from 200,000 years of human history in an effort to understand how inequality began. Their exhaustive research has come to fruition in “The Dawn of Everything,” a fascinating argument about why humans today are “stuck” in rigid, hierarchical states that would have appalled our ancestors. “Something has gone terribly wrong with the world,” they write. “A very small percentage of its population do control the fates of almost everyone else, and they are doing it in an increasingly disastrous fashion.”
Sadly, this book is also Graeber’s last work. The famed anarchist philosopher, a major figure in the Occupy movement as well as an influential scholar, died in late 2020. This final work is a fitting capstone to his career, a tome that rivals fantasy epics in heft and imaginative scope. Indeed, Graeber and Wengrow seem aware of this comparison, noting with a wink at one point that early human history, with its Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, was like a world full of “hobbits, giants and elves.” And though the book is packed with explanatory material from early civilizations — Wengrow is an expert in ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern archaeology — it’s also a self-conscious exercise in mythmaking. “Social theory is largely a game of make-believe,” the authors write. “Essentially, we reduce everything to a cartoon so as to be able to detect patterns that would be otherwise invisible.” Put another way, this isn’t a book that attempts to be scientifically accurate, whatever that might mean. It’s a polemic.
The book begins by turning the history of the Enlightenment on its head, contending that the 18th century European quest for rational thought actually begins in the Americas with a Wendat intellectual named Kandiaronk. Back in 1703, their story goes, a French colonial explorer named Lahontan published a book of dialogues with a thinly disguised version of Kandiaronk, in which the two debated the nature of freedom and civil society. (Lahontan spoke Wendat and Algonquin languages, so it’s plausible that these dialogues were basically edited versions of actual conversations.) Lahontan argues that European society was wealthy, liberated and spiritually superior. Kandiaronk counters that the French were enslaved to their king, brutally ruled by money and morally impoverished because they allowed some people to go hungry while others wasted food.