Nov 13, 2021 - Science

A new history of humanity offers hope for a new future

Illustration of an old leather book with a large keyhole with light spilling out in the front cover.

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

A new book aims to rewrite the standard version of early human history that inequality was the inevitable result of the rise of agriculture and urban civilization.

Why it matters: If some of our early ancestors were able to farm and build cities without adopting a highly stratified social organization, then it's possible we too could chart a fairer and more egalitarian future.

The big picture: The standard history of humanity's transition from hunter-gatherers to settled farmers is straightforward.

  • Farming — unlike hunting and gathering — created surplus value that could support larger populations and bigger settlements, but it led to the rise of the rent-seeking elites and social stratification that now seems to be an inevitable fact of human life.
  • "Civilization seemed to come as a package," "The Dawn of Everything" authors David Wengrow and David Graeber wrote in a recent essay. "It meant misery and suffering for those who would inevitably be reduced to serfs, slaves or debtors, but it also allowed for the possibility of art, technology, and science."
  • But in their new book, Wengrow and Graeber explore recent discoveries in archaeology to argue some of our early ancestors were far more experimental and skeptical of urbanization and centralization than we thought, and far less willing to surrender their freedom for the benefits of civilization.

Between the lines: The town of Çatalhöyük in present-day Turkey was settled around 7400 BC, grew to as large as 5,000 inhabitants, and showed clear signs of agriculture, but Wengrow and Graeber argue that "there is no evidence for central authority" in the city.

  • The city of Teotihuacan in present-day Mexico was founded in 100 BC and initially featured the kind of grand palaces and temples that indicate social hierarchy. But the authors argue its citizens deliberately turned away from central control, channeling their resources into providing egalitarian, high-quality housing for almost the entire population.
  • Even as some of the earliest known cities in Mesopotamia were developing along what were assumed to be standard lines, with kings, priests and social classes, settlements in present-day Ukraine and Moldova were organizing without centralization — evidence Wengrow and Graeber marshal to argue other paths of human development were being actively explored.
  • "If something did go terribly wrong in human history — and given the current state of the world, it’s hard to deny something did — then perhaps it began to go wrong precisely when people started losing that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence," Wengrow and Graeber write.

Context: Though "Dawn" trawls thousands of years of human history, it is a work very much concerned with the politics of today, and of its authors.

  • Graeber — who died suddenly last year at the age of 59, just after "Dawn" was completed — was a committed anarchist and a guiding intellectual figure for the Occupy movement that began 10 years ago this fall.
  • Anarchism holds that human beings can organize themselves without the heavy hand of the state, and in "Dawn," Graeber and Wengrow essentially argue humans are natural anarchists, but over the last few thousand years "came to be trapped in such tight conceptual shackles that we can no longer even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves."

The other side: "Dawn" has been widely praised by academics and reviewers, but its conclusions are far from bulletproof.

  • That so much of human prehistory remains unknown to us means that Wengrow and Graeber take broad and contestable readings from relatively slender pieces of physical evidence, and it's often unclear how much of what they say is fact and how much is wish.
  • Historian Daniel Immerwahr writes that Graeber was "better known for being interesting than right," and he notes an unignorable fact: "if states aren’t inevitable, why are they everywhere?"
  • Philosopher John Gray cites the general failure of the Occupy movement, and he finds little evidence a truly anarchist social organization could thrive in a world as crowded and complex as ours. Far from becoming more decentralized, Gray writes, "history is running in the opposite direction" as states reassert their authority amid a pandemic and climate change.

The bottom line: It's difficult to dispute Wengrow and Graeber's argument that humanity has gotten "stuck" in some ways, but the very possibility that our ancestors imagined radically different ways of living offers the hope, however faint, that we could get unstuck.

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