Playing with history: a review of The Dawn of Everything

Very many books, and articles for that matter, are guilty of a sin that should seldom be forgiven: just as they begin to gather momentum, to open new doors just as they have closed others, they come to an abrupt end. Of course, it is not the role of writers, or even researchers, to give us all the answers, let alone provide blueprints for societal transformation. But, as many in the critical theory tradition know too well, it is only by showing that there are real, alternative answers to the big questions besides the ones provided to us by dominant narratives, that these questions become meaningful to the reader at all. David Graeber has an oft-cited phrase that pithily captures this spirit:

the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.

The Dawn of Everything—David Graeber and David Wengrow’s ambitious revision of the Standard Narrative regarding so-called ‘pre-history’ and ‘pre-historic’ groups—is full of doors left ajar and rooms gleefully, if tentatively, explored. If it does not provide the reader with marching orders by the end of its 600+ pages, it nonetheless provides countless inspiring examples of the ways that many of our ancestors gradually built alternatives to their own societies, from within and without. The authors’ main mission is to give the reader the curiosity, indignation and tools to challenge the historical narratives produced by what we might call capitalist realism. A journey into our past to break open the future. And yet the book is full of statements like this:

where one sets the dial between freedom and determinism is largely a matter of taste. Since this book is mainly about freedom, it seems appropriate to set the dial a bit further to the left.

Given the stakes of this project, the word ‘taste’ suggests a surprising degree of hedging in the way these stories are told. What the authors are actually doing is reclaiming the right to speculate about periods they admit we know very little about (and some we know more about), which they put forward as an exercise in myth-making. Myth-making is how the book describes the Standard Narrative—that is, the idea that the story of humanity is the story of the inevitable development of inequality and hierarchy out of the unstructured existence of early human societies, to end up at the gilded cage of European civilisation. The book seeks to expose the European Enlightenment proponents of this story—among them Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Anne Robert Jacques Turgot—as well as its modern exponents—particularly Yuval Noah Harari, Steven Pinker, Francis Fukuyama and Jared Diamond—as unscientific, and for the most part anti-humanist, myth-makers.

Where Walter Benjamin claims that, since history is written by the victors, every document of civilisation is a document of barbarism, Graeber and Wengrow seek to re-write certain foundational documents. However, while Benjamin writes against the grain in the name of the oppressed, the proletariat, Graeber and Wengrow appear to do so in the name of ‘freedom’. What exactly freedom comes to mean in The Dawn of Everything is what sets the stakes for their emancipatory project. The authors’ assertion that theirs is not a story of the origins of inequality, as in the myths of the Standard Narrative, lays the groundwork.

For many thinkers of the European Enlightenment who saw themselves as being at the fulcrum of the known world, questions of inequality and hierarchy were ways of understanding contingency, and with it, difference. If abstract Enlightenment ideas were not only conceptually consistent and refined, but accepted by large parts of European society, then why were they not universally shared? Why the need for a colonising project? For European civilisation to become necessary, the divergent fate of the majority of humanity had to be read as a series of failures on the way to (or away from) the Enlightenment, which Europeans either had to overcome by conquering, or else save humanity from. The Standard Narrative is, in other words, a negation of the negation of European supremacy. For Graeber and Wengrow, the only way to reverse this story, and to uphold difference and contingency, is to reassert freedom as a basis for human history.

Much of the book is dedicated to descriptions of ‘play farming’ and ‘play kingdoms’. That is, of how earlier societies undertook these activities as experimental detours from established ways of life, for the sake of gendered rituals and seasonal ceremonies (of Carnival Kings and May Queens who were hunter gatherers the rest of year), or mere leisurely curiosity (of Ancient Greek gardens). In other words, making and unmaking worlds within short time spans, and without the need for revolutions. Considering the importance given to farming and kingdoms in the Standard Narrative as stepping-stones for civilisation (and inequality), this amounts to a powerful argument that there is nothing particularly necessary about these forms of teleology that structure the historical record. Along those same lines, this book, and its attempts to rediscover certain freedoms, can be considered a project of ‘play history’.

Few reviews seem to grasp this. Generally, they either attempt to summarise the arguments of the first few chapters as a kind of reclaiming of the Enlightenment from an Indigenous perspective, or they serve as obituaries for the late David Graeber. If the length of the book explains in part the paucity of critique, the same can be said of the lack of critique towards the modern proponents of the Standard Narrative, who write books of a similar length. Few regular readers will read more than a few such Big Fucking Books (BFBs) per year, let alone spare the energy to question their authority, or that of the professional writers who merely repeat the arguments of each BFB as they race towards deadlines.

To be fair, it may be difficult to write meaningful books about anthropology and archaeology that don’t end up being BFBs. But in many ways, the drawn-out, expository nature of such books means that both writers and readers mostly default to the ‘serious history’ of the Standard Narrative.

This is why an analysis of the style and structure of a contrarian book like The Dawn of Everything is so important. Graeber and Wengrow’s strategy is to fire enough arrows at the Standard Narrative and its Enlightenment origins to open doors for certain freedoms, although they do not offer any one narrative with enough scope and escape velocity to suggest how humanity should use its freedoms. Rather, the book is full of dedicated storytelling about societies spread out over every continent and time period, told with detail, humour and guile, and without falling (for the most part) into dry academic language on one hand or polemic on the other. When reading about the disdain and eloquence with which Native Americans critiqued Western civilisation, and how the dramatisation of this critique in European theatres came at the expense of the legitimacy of propertied classes, I could not but laugh.

The style of writing is what in fiction may be considered pastiche, or more accurately, a detournement in which historical flashpoints are turned about-face from their conventional understandings. For a book that is heavily signposted, it can be difficult at times to follow where the argument is headed, or what larger point is being made. This is because the authors appear to intervene right at the moments when other writers might jump to a conclusion in the service of some underlying Idea, either showing us alternative pathways or slowly returning to the original trajectory. The effect of these motions is to demystify both the complexity and the simplicity of human actions and decisions. At one point, following a description into Wendat dream interpretation practices as a kind of communal psychoanalysis, the authors respond to a theory that Iriquois tribes’ famed inter-tribal ritual and diplomacy came from some long-forgotten trading empire by suggesting that such strategies might have simply emerged from earlier ritual and diplomacy.

The titles of mini-chapters such as ‘IN WHICH WE CONSIDER WHAT LIFE IN THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS NEOLITHIC TOWN MIGHT HAVE ACTUALLY BEEN LIKE’ and ‘ON SEMANTIC SNARES AND METAPHYSICAL MIRAGES’ are informative, but more so they seem to poke fun at the tone of eighteenth-century treatises. Rather than telling a Big Story, the authors are inviting us to dignify many small stories through a historical imagination that gives human agency its place. For instance, Chapter 4 outlines how, amongst the Nuer of East Africa, women and men had comparable levels of independence and standing until it came to marriage, which was patriarchal in a rather familiar way. However, women would regularly be ‘married’ to ghosts or to other women who could be socially declared ‘men’, and so reclaim their status. Likewise, the authors describe certain cases where the creation and destruction of visual symbols might be less evidence of ecological changes than a statement representing a particular group’s belief about whether control over symbols and information should be the foundation of social power. Conversely, many of these stories are of violence, betrayal, and cruelty. Of human, all too human.

Where the ‘play history’ mode of storytelling most clearly reveals to us the kinds of freedom and agency that our ancestors exercised is in the insistent application of the concept of schismogenesis. If certain ecological and demographic conditions provide a basis for the emergence of certain cultural and political systems, then schismogenesis describes how they also create the conditions for the emergence of groups that define themselves in opposition to such systems, so that completely different societies systems can exist side by side. Graeber and Wengrow read into this process a powerful retort to linear notions of progress, which generally presume that different political systems follow each other as stages, rather than as counterparts in a diverse cultural universe. For instance, they describe the unique Yurok foragers, with their observance of private property relations, their avoidance of debt and their celebration of exertion, as against the more prominent Northwest Coast societies that organised indulgent potlatch ceremonies and followed strict hierarchies and patronage relations, as a historical analogue to the ‘Protestant ethic’ developing in reaction to the ‘Catholic ethic’. Like Protestants and Puritans, their beliefs and practices became more radical and pronounced the more they were marginalised by dominant groups, and the result is a surprisingly coherent social system emerging out of a conscious exercise of freedom. The Yurok example provides an interesting foil for Graeber and Wengrow, for it represents a kind of freedom at odds with modern anarchist values. Yet, as we will see, the exception is the point.

There are clear affinities between the concept of schismogenesis and Freud’s notion of ‘the narcissism of small differences’, as well as Slavoj Zizek’s Hegelian notion of processes appearing as their opposites. It is frustrating that the book does not engage with the tradition of critical theory, given that Hegel—who was nothing if not an Enlightenment thinker—was already articulating a form of historical progression perfectly compatible with the way different groups in society negate each other. To a certain extent, the book sidesteps the modernist approach of reading such processes in the context of a totality—a Marxist might claim that schismogenesis represents a one-sided ‘superstructural’ or ‘idealist’ analysis that doesn’t take into account each society’s ‘base’ modes of production. Graeber and Wengrow attempt to make ground for an analysis prior to the totality of modern capitalist relations, a sphere of primitive negation and differentiation that certain strands of Marxism themselves recognise.

In making ground for contingency, Graeber and Wengrow at times overstate their case. The true conceit of the Standard Narrative is not, as they claim, the idea that everything that happened could have been predicted beforehand, which they rightly dismiss as disproven by our current attempt to make predictions about the future. Its true conceit is its claim to overdetermination—that is, that historical shifts ‘forward’ are brought about by forces that transcend any one event, so that, even if things happened other than the way they did, that counterfactual reality would nonetheless arrive at a similar point to ours. The truth is that without some claim to overdetermination it would be impossible to construct a historical theory, as such a theory could be subject to the whims of a butterfly’s wings.

Clearly, the Standard Narrative relies excessively on the idea that the development of (European) civilisation is itself overdetermined as a kind of force that transcends space and time. Graeber and Wengrow put forward their own account of the development of civilisations through a typology of three different forms of power: sovereign power (control of violence), administrative power (control of information), and charismatic power. States today represent what the authors would call ‘third-order’ societies—where control over violence, control over information, and charismatic power are exercised together in a top-down structure. Yet this conceptualisation is used to show that the more these modes of control accumulate, the more fragile, violent and contradictory societies become, particularly in the shift between first-order societies (where only one form of power predominates) and second-order societies (where two forms of power predominate).

Given this fragility, Graeber and Wengrow put their faith in the abilities of humans to set in motion unique chains of historical causality against the pull of such structures. The book’s various stories converge around three primary freedoms that people have used to determine their destiny throughout history: the freedom to disobey orders, the freedom to walk away, and the freedom to remake social forms. No determinate relation between the three forms of power and the three freedoms is ever laid out. The authors cite Marx’s idea that we make history, but not in circumstances of our own choosing. Conversely, it appears that the notion of freedom would be meaningless if freedom could not guarantee an exception to overdetermining forces.

The cumulative effect of outlining these exceptions—where humans resisted and avoided undesirably rigid structures—is to reveal the degree to which the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology distort the historical record by conflating distinct social processes. City-formation, hierarchy, violent wars, bureaucratisation, agriculture, shifts in production and extraction, religion—in other words, the typical building blocks for historical narratives in the modern age—were more likely adopted, rejected, assembled, decoupled and reconfigured than developed as a package. But, as the authors show, what makes these disciplines blind is that, for instance, cities that aren’t structured around hierarchies and bureaucracies are not even considered cities. Rather, they produce contorted terms such as ‘Formative Peru’, ‘Post-Classic Maya’ and ‘Predynastic Egypt’ to back up these narratives, all of which presume a teleological movement of history, a march towards European Enlightenment and capitalism.

This circular logic is bound up in effectively anti-humanist understandings that have survived from the Enlightenment to this day. Graeber and Wengrow take Harari to task for comparing ‘pre-historic’ tribes to apes, rather than hippies and motorcycle gangs—a tendency that one could just as easily observe in the writings of Hobbes and Turgot. If ‘early’ humans were tied to the whims of nature and to their own ‘evolutionary’ tendencies, then modern society is an exception, the result of complex structures and ideas piggy-backing on these forces to produce European civilisation after thousands of years, in the same way that, in Harari’s words, wheat ‘domesticated’ humans so as to spread around the world. Then it is only by accepting the Faustian pact of civilisation in which wealth, peace and inequality are inseparable, that we can see present society as a fulcrum on which the fate of humanity may be reshaped.

Against this overdetermination, Graeber and Wengrow draw a landscape of human history (including ‘pre-history’) where the movement of people and ideas, as well as its self-conscious use to transform societies, have been not the exception but the rule. The Dawn of Everything is most powerful in its myth-making when it asserts this continuity. The Zapatistas are recast as the descendants of the Mayan rebel groups that fought the ‘Caste wars’. Women’s work in weaving and small-plot gardening may be the true progenitor of what we know today as agriculture—not despite, but because of its largely domestic scope, in which it continues today. Native American societies came closer to embodying modern notions of mutual aid, egalitarianism and liberal discourse than any other societies known to Europe at the time of the Enlightenment. Not to mention the endless instances of rejection of technologies that the authors borrow from the work of Marcel Mauss, to which we can add the nineteenth-century Luddites. If myth here is understood as the revival of a primordial drives, it is not because we were once uncivilised, but because colonisation and modern capitalism have erected barriers to our freedom that these myths seek to overcome.

To the extent that the book aligns itself with an agenda of Indigenous emancipation, it is in this attempt to chart these alternative continuities in order to give readers of all backgrounds a sense of their own heritage and power. Though Wengrow and Graeber don’t address critiques of colonialist myths regarding so-called ‘Australia’, The Dawn of Everything has clear implications here. Bruce Pascoe’s project in writing Dark Emu and Little Dark Emu is an explicit attempt to use the history of indigenous land management to call for a new ‘Agricultural Revolution’. But does the subtitle of Dark Emu, ‘Agriculture or accident’, not accept at face value the terms of the coloniser’s jurisprudence with regard to terra nullius? The obvious tension in the book emerges from the fact that this binary is used as a substitute for historicising Pascoe’s account. In fact, land management techniques from the periods Pascoe describes were never designed to be used in a system of private property. This would not be an issue if Pascoe he had not gone to such great lengths to describe these techniques as the development of complex structures and technologies in response to ecological problems, but had also entertained a third option—that these techniques involved a kind of experimentation with the land, the construction of knowledges and relationships for their own sake. The problem, as Graeber and Wengrow point out, is in the concept itself, for there was no one determinate ‘Agricultural Revolution’ anywhere—rather a series of minor revolutions pointing in different directions, over thousands of years.

In his Overland response to the debate over Dark Emu, Stephen Muecke makes a similar point, describing Pascoe’s form of myth-making as ‘another play of whitefella magic’, and accepting the critique of the book by Sutton and Walshe that Dark Emu merely reproduces the coloniser view of civilisational advancement through a predetermined series of steps. Muecke nonetheless legitimises this form of myth-making as a way of pursuing historical continuity for indigenous people. But what precise form should this continuity take? Should it be, as Muecke proposes, an affinity with non-human life, a turn away from anthropocentrism towards an inter-species congress? On the face of it, this seems opposed to the positions taken by Graeber and Wengrow, who explicitly decry the ‘ontological turn’ in favour of an idiosyncratic humanism. Yet both positions share at their core a rejection of the reification of nature, or the ‘State of Nature’ as a ground of which civilisation, or culture, emerge and then free themselves. There is no freedom from nature, only freedom in nature, and with it, an imagination that recreates worlds for every new age.

Even if certain the factual claims of The Dawn of Everything are wrong, as Kwame Anthony Appiah claims in the New York Review, having followed several of its citations, the easy response is that undoubtedly some of its numerous arrows will hit true. Having gone no further than an undergraduate major in anthropology, I am not one to arbitrate such claims. But there is a more complex conceptual layer to the book that renders this project indispensable: its turn away from a historicism that takes any discoveries about our past to be derivative of the structures we observe in the present, and towards one that sees the archaeological record as evidence of speculative worlds that may still be with us and the radically different worldviews that accompany them, even if those worlds are not utopias. Perhaps the most significant impact of this book for anthropology and archaeology is that it puts the burden of proof back onto the Standard Narrative to show in fact the world wasn’t defined by the multiplicities that this book seeks to uncover.

In its conclusion, The Dawn of Everything highlights how, across many societies, zones of ritual play constituted scientific laboratories and storehouses of knowledge that might be applied to non-traditional challenges, perhaps in times of crisis or social transformation. If we consider this book a form of ‘play history’, then we get a sense for how the authors might have wanted us to approach it, in 2021. More to the point, David Wengrow recently penned a Guardian piece on how these stories may provide inspiration to decarbonise society. It is tragic that he has now to take on the responsibility of furthering this agenda in the absence of his late collaborator.

Graeber and Wengrow write near the end of the book:

What if we were to take that approach now and look at, say, Minoan Crete or Hopewell not as random bumps on a road that leads inexorably to states and empires, but as alternative possibilities: roads not taken?

Much like Walter Benjamin and Alain Badiou, they link such a perspective to a messianic view of time where such roads are not done with us, but may once again intersect with our history, at moments of particular tension. In effect, the work of Graeber and Wengrow is by no means a revolution of the social sciences, and in the project of critical myth-making they are not alone. This was never their intention. They describe how Neolithic tribes, rather than seeking to dominate, went about ‘bending and coaxing, nurturing and cajoling, or even tricking the forces of nature’. For those seeking to try their hand at rewriting, or even guiding, our living history, The Dawn of Everything is not a bad place to look.


Image: Fragmentary Colossal Head of a Youth Greek Hellenistic period.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Daniel Zola is a writer, activist and lawyer based in Sydney.

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  1. A BIG subject for one book.
    Do the Davids cover the spiritual (as opposed to religious) aspect of humanity’s history?
    I’m sure that many societies had a sense of the numinous as manifested in art and music.
    In the end, our story can only be considered complete when we have all realised that Love is the reason we are here.

  2. “Very many books, and articles for that matter, are guilty of a sin that should seldom be forgiven: just as they begin to gather momentum, to open new doors just as they have closed others, they come to an abrupt end.”

    Went up the local dam this morning with Pablo the dog, as usual, and after our walk and swim, decided to go to the onsite café for a coffee. When I got there a girl I taught to swim some years before this was working there, as she does most summers. This was her first day this time round.

    I ordered a coffee and as she was making it she asked if I had lost my RAC card? I said yes, and inquired how she knew? She told me she was looking online at lost cards and on the local Puma Service Station list she spotted my card.

    Well, I lost the card about two months before this incident, and went to Puma and asked if they had it? I looked on as a woman checked a big plastic container containing hundreds of cards, literally, and mine was not there.

    I told the girl this and she said: Well I saw it, so go check.

    I did, and sure enough it was there, in a very small container this time, holding about a dozen cards.

    Moral? Your guess is as good, if not better, than mine…

  3. I have just finished reading “The Dawn of Everything” and have read eight or nine reviews (some laudatory, some not). This is the first review I’ve read whose author demonstrably GETS the book. I cannot think of another time I’ve read a tome of academic intent that so frequently put me in mind of “Tristram Shandy” and Joyce’s “Ulysses”.

  4. This review misses, obscures, or omits vital facts, and so isn’t unlike the Dawn’s authors themselves.

    “The Dawn of Everything” is biased disingenuous account of human history (https://www.persuasion.community/p/a-flawed-history-of-humanity ) that spreads fake hope (the authors of “The Dawn” claim human history has not “progressed” in stages and must not end in inequality and hierachy as are features of our the current system… so there’s hope for us now that it could get different/better again). As a result of this fake hope porn it has been widely praised. It conveniently serves the profoundly sick industrialized world of fakes and criminals. The book’s dishonest fake grandiose title shows already that this work is a FOR-PROFIT, instead a FOR-TRUTH, endeavor geared at the (ignorant gullible) masses.

    Fact is human history has “progressed” by and large in linear stages, especially since the dawn of agriculture (www.focaalblog.com/2021/12/22/chris-knight-wrong-about-almost-everything ). This “progress” has been fundamentally destructive and is driven and dominated by “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room” (www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html ) which the fake hope-giving authors of “The Dawn” entirely ignore, naturally (no one can you write a legitimate human history without understanding the nature of humans). And these two married pink elephants are the reason why we’ve been “stuck” in a destructive hierarchy, and will be into the foreseeable future.

    A good example that one of the authors, Graeber, has no real idea what world we’ve been living in and about the nature of humans is his last brief article on Covid where his ignorance shines bright already at the title of his article, “After the Pandemic, We Can’t Go Back to Sleep.” Apparently he doesn’t know that most people WANT to be asleep, and that they’ve been wanting that for thousands of years (and that’s not the only ignorant notion in the title). Yet he (and his partner) is the sort of person who thinks he can teach you something authentically truthful about human history and whom you should be trusting along those terms. Ridiculous!

    “The Dawn” is just another fantasy, or ideology, cloaked in a hue of cherry-picked “science,” served lucratively to the gullible ignorant underclasses.

    • No, Lee. Get off the fool’s soapbox. Graeber’s argument is not that things were necessarily better in every way (say, life expectancy) in pre-capitalist societies but rather that their mode of production left people largely happier such that they didn’t want to return to developed (and also Imperialist) societies. Your comment is literal minded as is the book review by Christopher Knight that you cite (btw—word to the wise, you can’t say “fact is” and cite a different book review…book reviews aren’t facts, not this one, not the one you put the link to, not none of them). Peace, m

  5. a bit harsh, eh what?
    playing with history
    the title tells you
    everything is a reading
    (including yours & mine)
    that’s what makes the world
    go round (or not)

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