Reviews for The Dawn Of Everything

by David Graeber with David Wengrow

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

An ingenious new look at “the broad sweep of human history” and many of its “foundational” stories. Graeber, a former professor of anthropology at London School of Economics who died in 2020, and Wengrow, professor of comparative archaeology at University College London, take a dim view of conventional accounts of the rise of civilizations, emphasize contributions from Indigenous cultures and the missteps of the great Enlightenment thinkers, and draw countless thought-provoking conclusions. In 1651, British philosopher Thomas Hobbes proclaimed that humans require laws and government authority because life in primitive cultures was “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” A few decades later, French thinker Rousseau wrote that humans in a state of nature were free until they acquired property that required legal protection. Graeber and Wengrow point out that these conceptions of historical progression dominate the opinions of many experts, who assume that society passed through stages of development: hunter-gatherers, farmers, urban-industrial society, and so on. Graeber and Wengrow maintain that no scientific evidence supports this view, adding that traditional scholarship says little about “prehistory,” during which supposedly egalitarian hunter-gatherers roamed and foraged until about 10,000 years ago, when they purportedly took up agriculture and things became interesting. This orthodox view dismisses countless peoples who had royal courts and standing armies, built palaces, and accumulated wealth. As the authors write, “there is simply no reason to assume that the adoption of agriculture in more remote periods also meant the inception of private land ownership, territoriality, or an irreversible departure from forager egalitarianism.” Many early cities thrived for centuries with no sign of hierarchy, contradicting scholars who assume that authoritarian rule appears naturally whenever large populations gather. The quest for the “origin of the state,” given scattered and contradictory evidence, may be a fool’s errand. Graeber and Wengrow, while providing no definitive answers, cast grave doubts on those theories that have been advanced to date. A fascinating, intellectually challenging big book about big ideas. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Publishers Weekly
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The transition from hunter-gatherer life to agriculture, urbanism, and civilization saw a blossoming of egalitarian politics and social order, according to this sweeping manifesto. Surveying 26,000-year-old European graves, Stone Age Turkish towns, the musings of 17th-century Iroquois philosophers, and more, archaeologist Wengrow (What Makes Civilization?) and anthropologist Graeber (Debt), who died last year, critique conventional theories of historical development. Far from simplistic savages living in a state of “childlike innocence,” they argue, hunter-gatherers could be sophisticated thinkers with diverse economies and sizable towns; moreover, agriculture and urbanism did not necessarily birth private property, class hierarchies, and authoritarian government, they contend, since many early farming societies and cities were egalitarian and democratic. Vast in scope and dazzling in erudite detail, the book seethes with intriguing ideas; unfortunately, though, the authors’ habitual overgeneralizations—“one cannot even say that medieval thinkers rejected the notion of social equality: the idea that it might exist seems never to have occurred to them”—undermine confidence in their method of grand speculation from tenuous evidence. (For example, they see “evidence for the world’s first documented social revolution” in the damaged condition of elite habitations in the 4,000-year-old ruins of the Chinese city of Taosi.) Readers will find this stimulating and provocative, but not entirely convincing. (Nov.)

Library Journal
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Wengrow (archaeology, Univ. Coll. London) and the late Graeber (anthropology, London Sch. of Economics) successfully disrupt the story popularly believed about the rise of civilization: starting from small bands of peaceful hunter-gatherers, an agricultural revolution led to cities, which led to hierarchy and eventually the modern nation-state, where technological progress is bought at the cost of liberty and equality. Instead, they decentralize these founding mythologies of Western culture by examining Indigenous counterexamples from around the globe, spanning the Neolithic period to today. By synthesizing modern evidence from their two disciplines, they demonstrate that societies have been much more flexible, diverse, and creative in their social structures, adapting and reacting to their physical environs, their values, and their neighbors, and not merely constrained by technological or economic efficiencies. Asking questions about the origins of inequality or of the state requires defining those terms, and it quickly becomes obvious that there is no all-encompassing definition of either, and no inevitable social or political arrangement that history is guiding us toward. VERDICT This well-reasoned survey of anthropological history should intrigue historians, social activists, and fans of Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens or Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel.— Wade Lee-Smith, Univ. of Toledo Lib.

Library Journal
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

For centuries, history—at least as told by the West—has portrayed humanity's early ancestors as either wide-eyed innocents or nasty brutes, with both needing correction if society were to flourish. But with current challenges to Eurocentrism, that view is getting a makeover. Here, the recently deceased Graeber (anthropology, London School of Economics) and Wengrow (comparative archaeology, University College London) argue that in the 18th century, Europeans took exception to criticism directed at them by non-Europeans and concocted a self-serving story. So what really happened? The authors have some ideas. With a 75,000-copy first printing; note that Graeber, who was a caustic critic of economic and social inequality, is credited with coining the slogan "We are the 99 Percent."