Breaking Dawn

David Graeber and David Wengrow’s new history of humanity

View of Argentina’s Cueva de las Manos, which dates back to 13,000 years ago. Photo: Pablo Gimenez/Wikipedia Commons.

THE DAWN OF EVERYTHING, BY DAVID GRAEBER AND DAVID WENGROW. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. 704 pages.

ONE OF THE MAIN PROPOSITIONS that David Graeber and David Wengrow put forth in The Dawn of Everything, their bracing rewrite of human history, is that the ancestors of our prehistory were not simple, unthinking clods, but rather self-conscious, idiosyncratic social organizers, living through a “carnival parade of political forms.” Today we might use words like “anarchist,” “communist,” “authoritarian,” or “egalitarian” to describe their activity, but that language fails to represent the sheer quirkiness of the actual case studies: large cities without central authorities or farming (Göbekli Tepe), tribal nations spanning continents (Cahokia), social housing projects (Teotihuacan), and populations that toggle between horizontalism and tyranny from season to season (Nambikwara, Winnebago, Nuer). For 40,000 years, people have been moving between various forms of equal and unequal social structures, building up hierarchies then dismantling them, propose Wengrow, an archaeologist, and Graeber, the late anthropologist/anarchic activist. The authors make the case that, rather than being less politically self-conscious than people nowadays, people in stateless societies were considerably more so. How did we get stuck?

To embrace a “paleolithic politics,” for Graeber and Wengrow, is to draw strength from the fact that humans have experimented with how to organize themselves for a long time, and that the path of social change is anything but linear. Indeed, one of the boldest arguments of the book is its stance against a teleological view of our current circumstances: its insistence that the first 300,000 years of humankind offer a past that is both more varied, violent, hopeful—and altogether more interesting—than what we have flattened it to be, and that the same might be true of our future. The premise is exhilarating, and its implications are only beginning to be considered. The sweeping conclusions Graeber and Wengrow draw from their sources have come under scrutiny from scholars like Kwame Anthony Appiah, but I don’t think it will really matter. The book’s optimism, in the face of impending climate doom political polarization, and social breakdown, is itself a provocation.

A diorama of the mounds at Cahokia at the Cahokia Mounds Museum Society in Collinsville, Illinois.

What might such a tome have to offer the art world, which has in recent decades seen a proliferation of work that blurs the line between art and community activism? Art history is filled with utopian thinking, but The Dawn of Everything recontextualizes this impulse within a longue durée of social reorganization, millennia before the coinage of terms like “relational aesthetics” and “social practice.” Of course, we can’t directly compare artists’ training-wheels, small-scale provisional projects—a Thomas Hirschorn in the Bronx, a Tania Bruguera in Queens, a Tino Sehgal at the Palais de Tokyo––to our remote ancestors of the last Ice Age. For all the radical claims found in press releases, wall texts, and reviews, there’s a growing consensus that today’s most ambitious social experimentation happens at a far remove from traditional artistic activity. 2011’s Occupy demonstrations, recent mutual aid initiatives, and the wave of strikes and union drives across the country have more in common with the worldmaking of Wengrow and Graeber’s prehistoric ancestors than the institutionally sanctioned art displayed by nonprofits, museums, and biennials. But perhaps we should think of a history of relational art with a much larger temporal, geographic, and disciplinary footprint. That we don’t call these ancestors artists says more about the limitations of contemporary frames for interpreting human imagination than it does about their creative capabilities. Social practice, the authors suggest, is not a rarefied subgenre of contemporary art as it has recently been packaged, but the lifeblood of human political activity.

Reading The Dawn of Everything, you get the sense that a political consciousness is an artistic consciousness.

Today, it’s easy to see the realm of art as a sort of R&D department for capitalist production, or as an anemic, “experience economy” simulacrum of actual revolution. Reading The Dawn of Everything, however, you get the sense that a political consciousness is an artistic consciousness. This view enables us to look at works of art with renewed optimism, as little windows into alternative ways of living rather than “artificial hells.” Graeber and Wengrow date the first evidence of “complex symbolic human behavior”—or what we might call “culture”— to 100,000 ago. They frequently cite sculptures, cave paintings, and earthworks as evidence not only of creative expression, but also of the shifting social formations their production required: large scale mobilizations of skilled and unskilled labor to create Göbekli Tepe’s two hundred unique animal pillars, for example, or traces of matriarchy in the art of Minoan Crete, in which all visual representations of authority figures were depictions of women. However, the book’s deeper implications for art are philosophical. “We are dealing, again, with powerful modern myths,” the authors state in relation to dominant accounts of history that want to present our current circumstances as inevitable. “Such myths don’t merely inform what people say: to an even greater extent, they ensure certain things go unnoticed.” Like artists, Graeber and Wengrow are in the business of making countermyths, based on new material evidence.

The cover of The Dawn of Everything (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).

The book also situates art within a more expansive field of human activity: play. Not all Neolithic creativity was put toward productive ends: Ceramics were invented long before the Neolithic era to make art and figurines, only later becoming cooking and storage vessels; the Greeks came up with the steam engine, but only to make temple doors open in an evocation of divine powers; Chinese scientists first made gunpowder for fireworks. “For most of history then, the zone of ritual play constituted both a scientific laboratory and, for any given society, a repertory of knowledge and techniques which might or might not be applied to pragmatic problems.”

The heuristic of play extends to the book’s analysis of social forms, including “play kings” and “play police.” Within the Natchez society in present-day Louisiana, for example, the Great Sun (as the divine monarch was known) wielded unlimited power in the royal village—a cabin situated on an enormous earthen plaza adjacent to the temple. But the ruler’s power was limited to his immediate vicinity. Outside of the royal village, if subjects weren’t inclined to obey hisrepresentatives’ orders, they could ignore them or move into the wealthier districts nearby with independent commercial ventures, military outfits, and contradictory foreign policies. An element of play was also carried into a kind of ritualized hostility practiced by the Natchez, whose common people would every year pretend to ambush, capture, and prepare to kill the king until a second mock war party intervened to rescue him. This tension between the sovereignty of the monarch and the make-believe revolutions of its subjects grew into real hostilities during the European invasion, when some districts chose to ally with the French and others did not. Within the Mandan-Hidatsa and Crow people of what is now Montana and Wyoming, a police force with full coercive powers would be instituted during the sensitive summer months around the Buffalo hunt. In the cooler winter months, these entities would be dissolved entirely, those temporary “chiefs” and “police” stripped of all powers. While this sovereignty was no less real for its temporary nature, a collective predisposition to societal experimentation, for “play” perhaps, allowed for a near-constant flow of self-conscious political transformation.

A 1758 drawing by Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz depicting the Natchez leader known as the Great Sun.

The Dawn of Everything’s rewrite of human history parallels more recent efforts by art institutions to rethink the canon and its narratives of linear progress. The early chapter on the “Indigenous critique” is integral in that regard, retrieving the impact of Native American thought on the Enlightenment tradition. It focuses on the appraisal of European society made by the Huron-Wendat statesman Kandiaronk, pseudonymously known as Adario, in an influential 1703 text by a French aristocrat stationed in Canada. “I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that’s not inhuman,” the Baron de Lahontan quotes his interlocutor in a passage critiquing the sadness and bitterness of the European composition, its competitive nature, and obsession with property. (Wengrow and Graeber posit that if “the West” has any real meaning, it resides in the legal and intellectual tradition that views property rights as the sole foundation of social power.) Adario continues, “To imagine one can live in the country of money and preserve one’s soul is like imagining one could preserve one’s life at the bottom of a lake.” Adario was long considered a prop or a rhetorical character rather than an actual person, even though, the authors argue, we have hard evidence to believe that he was almost entirely based on Kandiaronk. To even call Kandiaronk an “American intellectual,” as Wengrow and Graeber do, is a revolution at the level of the word, making clear that there was rigorous intellectual debate occurring at the very beginning of contact between European and American civilizations.

And what ultimately, to make of the book’s insistence on “humanness”? At a moment when so many artists, curators, and academics are eager to “decenter the human” in their work, The Dawn of Everything invites us to do the (much harder) job of reframing the braided questions of what humankind was, is, and could be. In the conclusion of the book, Graeber and Wengrow amend their initial question—how did we get stuck?—with another: How did relations based on domination and violence come to be normalized? The authors’ generous rehabilitation of humanity suggests that we might not need to transcend the idea of the human, but rather remember older ones.