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Good Reads  Evolutionary Biology  Human Evolution & Anthropology

The Dawn of Everything A New History of Humanity

Popular Science New
By: David Graeber(Author), David Wengrow(Author)
692 pages, 7 b/w illustrations and b/w maps
Publisher: Penguin Books
NHBS
The Dawn of Everything is a fascinating revision of human history that criticizes and challenges historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists to ask different and better questions.
The Dawn of Everything
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  • The Dawn of Everything ISBN: 9780141991061 Paperback Jun 2022 Usually dispatched within 6 days
    £12.99
    #257132
  • The Dawn of Everything ISBN: 9780241402429 Hardback Oct 2021 Out of Print #257131
Selected version: £12.99
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About this book

For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike – either free and equal, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a reaction to indigenous critiques of European society, and why they are wrong. In doing so, they overturn our view of human history, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery and civilization itself.

Drawing on path-breaking research in archaeology and anthropology, the authors show how history becomes a far more interesting place once we begin to see what's really there. If humans did not spend 95 per cent of their evolutionary past in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, what were they doing all that time? If agriculture, and cities, did not mean a plunge into hierarchy and domination, then what kinds of social and economic organization did they lead to? The answers are often unexpected, and suggest that the course of history may be less set in stone, and more full of possibilities than we tend to assume.

The Dawn of Everything fundamentally transforms our understanding of the human past and offers a path toward imagining new forms of freedom, new ways of organizing society. This is a monumental book of formidable intellectual range, animated by curiosity, moral vision and faith in the power of direct action.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A bombshell of a book
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 13 Jul 2022 Written for Paperback


    Every few years, it seems, there is a new bestselling Big History book. And not infrequently, they have rather grandiose titles. Who does not remember Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years or Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind? But equally often, these books rapidly show their age and are criticized for oversimplifying matters. And so I found myself with The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, a 692-page brick with an equally grandiose title. In what follows, I hope to convince you why I think this book will stand the test of time better.

    First, rather than one author's pet theory, The Dawn of Everything is the brainchild of two outspoken writers: anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow. More importantly, rather than yet another history book telling you how humanity got here, they take their respective disciplines to task for dealing in myths. The authors want historians to ask different and better questions, and they critically examine the many assumptions that underlie popular narratives of human history. In this, they succeed spectacularly, and this thought-provoking book is armed to the teeth with fascinating ideas and interpretations that go against mainstream thinking.

    The authors start by tracing the origins of our ideas about human history to the indigenous critique of European civilization. Sorry, the what? European colonisation exposed us to new, shocking ideas, with traders, missionaries, and intellectuals debating with, and being criticized by indigenous people. The authors focus on the French coming into contact with Native Americans in Canada. Historians have downplayed how much these encounters shaped Enlightenment ideas. More importantly, it led to an explicitly racist backlash that saw indigenous people as the lowest rung on the ladder of progress. Its legacy, shaped via several iterations, is the modern textbook narrative: hunter-gathering was replaced by pastoralism and then farming; the agricultural revolution resulted in larger populations producing material surpluses; these allowed for specialist occupations but also needed bureaucracies to share and administer them to everyone; and this top-down control led to today's nation states. Ta-daa! Except, the authors point out, this simplistic tale of progress ignores and downplays that there was nothing linear or inevitable about where we have ended up.

    Take agriculture. Rather than humans enthusiastically entering into what Harari called a Faustian bargain with crops, there were many pathways and responses. Demographic boom-bust cycles of farmers in Neolithic Central Europe, barely recognized jungle gardens in the Amazon, or the labour-light variant of seasonal flood-retreat agriculture in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia. Experiments show that plant domestication could have been achieved in as little as 20–30 years, but cereal domestication here took some 3,000 years questions the notion of an agricultural "revolution". And then there are many areas where agriculture was purposefully rejected.

    The idea that agriculture led to large states similarly needs revision. Early archaeology focused on places where plant and animal domestication was followed by large, centralized societies. But correlation is not causation, and some 15–20 additional centres of domestication have since been identified that followed different paths. And cities did not automatically imply social stratification. The Dawn of Everything fascinates with its numerous examples of large settlements without ruling classes that relied on collective decision-making through assemblies or councils, which questions some of the assumptions of evolutionary psychology about scale: that larger human groups require complex (i.e. hierarchical) systems to organize them.

    One of the most important messages of this book that unifies these and other topics is that scholars seem to wilfully ignore what is staring them in the face: humans have always been very capable of consciously experimenting with different social arrangements. And—this is rarely acknowledged—they did so on a seasonal basis. The archaeological record is understandably biased to stuff that is easily preserved, but more careful excavation methodology and new technology reveal a past that is far more varied than we have allowed for. There is more to history than the rise and fall of empires. Throughout, Graeber & Wengrow convincingly argue that the only thing we can say about our ancestors is that "there is no single pattern [...] If human beings, through most of our history, have moved back and forth fluidly between different social arrangements [...] maybe the real question should be 'how did we get stuck?'" (p. 115).

    Next to criticism, the authors put out some interesting ideas of their own, of which I want to quickly highlight two. The first is that some of the observed variations in social arrangements resulted from schismogenesis. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson coined this term in the 1930s to describe how people define themselves against or in opposition to others, adopting behaviours and attitudes that are different. Graeber & Wengrow here extend this from individuals to whole societies, giving numerous examples. The second idea is that states can be described in terms of three elementary forms of domination: control of violence, control of information, and individual charisma, which today express themselves as sovereignty, administration, and competitive politics. But looking at history, there is no reason why this should be and the authors provide examples of societies that showed only one or two such forms of control. Asking which past society most resembles today's is the wrong question to ask. It risks slipping into an exercise in retrofitting, "which makes us scour the ancient world for embryonic versions of our modern nation states" (p. 382).

    The Dawn of Everything is a huge and sprawling bombshell of a book and I have left unmentioned several other topics: the overlooked role of women, the legacy of Rousseau's and Hobbes's ideas, the origins of inequality and the flawed assumptions hiding behind that question... the book is admittedly a tad long in places and yet the writing is clear and accessible. There are so many historical details and delights hiding between these covers that I was thoroughly enthralled. It is tragic that Graeber passed away before the book was published. As Wengrow writes in his foreword, they had plans for three sequels, covering parts of the world they decided to omit here. If you have any interest in big history, archaeology, or anthropology, this book is indispensable. I am confident that the questions and critiques raised here will remain relevant for a long time to come.
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Biography

David Graeber was a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. He is the author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, and was a contributor to Harper's Magazine, The Guardian, and The Baffler. An iconic thinker and renowned activist, his early efforts helped to make Occupy Wall Street an era-defining movement. He died on 2 September 2020.

David Wengrow is a professor of comparative archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, and has been a visiting professor at New York University. He is the author of three books, including What Makes Civilization?. Wengrow conducts archaeological fieldwork in various parts of Africa and the Middle East.

Popular Science New
By: David Graeber(Author), David Wengrow(Author)
692 pages, 7 b/w illustrations and b/w maps
Publisher: Penguin Books
NHBS
The Dawn of Everything is a fascinating revision of human history that criticizes and challenges historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists to ask different and better questions.
Media reviews

"A boldly ambitious work [...] entertaining and thought-provoking [...] an impressively large undertaking that succeeds in making us reconsider not just the remote past but also the too-close-to-see present, as well as the common thread that is our shifting and elusive nature."
– Andrew Anthony, Observer

"What a gift [...] Graeber and Wengrow offer a history of the past 30,000 years that is not only wildly different from anything we're used to, but also far more interesting: textured, surprising, paradoxical, inspiring."
– William Deresiewicz, The Atlantic

"Iconoclastic and irreverent [...] an exhilarating read [...] As we seek new, sustainable ways to organise our world, we need to understand the full range of ways our ancestors thought and lived. And we must certainly question conventional versions of our history which we have accepted, unexamined, for far too long."
– David Priestland, The Guardian

"Pacey and potentially revolutionary [...] This is more than an argument about the past, it is about the human condition in the present."
– Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times

"A fascinating, radical, and playful entry into a seemingly exhaustively well-trodden genre, the grand evolutionary history of humanity. It seeks nothing less than to completely upend the terms on which the Standard Narrative rests [...] erudite, compelling, generative, and frequently remarkably funny [...] once you start thinking like Graeber and Wengrow, it's difficult to stop."
– Emily M. Kern, Boston Review

"A spectacular, flashy and ground-breaking retelling of human history, blazing with iconoclastic rebuttals to conventional wisdom. Full of fresh thinking, it's a pleasure to read and offers a bracing challenge on every page."
– Simon Sebag Montefiore, BBC History

"A timely, intriguing, original and provocative take on the most recent thirty thousand years of human history [...] consistently thought-provoking [...] In forcing us to re-examine some of the cosy assumptions about our deep past, Graeber and Wengrow remind us very clearly of the perils of holding ourselves captive to a deterministic vision of human history as we try to shape our future."
– James Suzman, Literary Review

"An engrossing series of insights [...] They re-inject humanity into our distant forebears, suggesting that our prevailing story about human history – that not much innovation occurred in human societies until the invention of agriculture – is utterly wrong."
– Anthony Doerr, Observer

"Fascinating, thought-provoking, groundbreaking. A book that will generate debate for years to come."
– Rutger Bregman

"The Dawn of Everything is also the radical revision of everything, liberating us from the familiar stories about humanity's past that are too often deployed to impose limitations on how we imagine humanity's future. Instead they tell us that what human beings are most of all is creative, from the beginning, so that there is no one way we were or should or could be. Another of the powerful currents running through this book is a reclaiming of Indigenous perspectives as a colossal influence on European thought, a valuable contribution to decolonizing global histories."
– Rebecca Solnit

"Synthesizing much recent scholarship, The Dawn of Everything briskly overthrows old and obsolete assumptions about the past, renews our intellectual and spiritual resources, and reveals, miraculously, the future as open-ended. It is the most bracing book I have read in recent years."
– Pankaj Mishra

"This is not a book. This is an intellectual feast. There is not a single chapter that does not (playfully) disrupt well seated intellectual beliefs. It is deep, effortlessly iconoclastic, factually rigorous, and pleasurable to read."
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb

"A fascinating inquiry, which leads us to rethink the nature of human capacities, as well as the proudest moments of our own history, and our interactions with and indebtedness to the cultures and forgotten intellectuals of indigenous societies. Challenging and illuminating."
– Noam Chomsky

"Graeber and Wengrow have effectively overturned everything I ever thought about the history of the world [...] The authors don't just debunk the myths, they give a thrilling intellectual history of how they came about, why they persist, and what it all means for the just future we hope to create. The most profound and exciting book I've read in thirty years."
– Robin D.G. Kelley, Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History, UCLA, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

"Scholarly, irreverent, radical and genuinely ground-breaking – my kind of non-fiction."
– Emma Dabiri

"A fascinating, intellectually challenging big book about big ideas."
Kirkus

"A work of dizzying ambition, one that seeks to rescue stateless societies from the condescension with which they're usually treated [...] Our forebears crafted their societies intentionally and intelligently: This is the fundamental, electrifying insight of The Dawn of Everything. It's a book that refuses to dismiss long-ago peoples as corks floating on the waves of prehistory. Instead, it treats them as reflective political thinkers from whom we might learn something."
– Daniel Immerwahr, The Nation

"Not content with different answers to the great questions of human history, Graeber and Wengrow insist on revolutionizing the very questions we ask. The result: a dazzling, original, and convincing account of the rich, playful, reflective, and experimental symposia that 'pre-modern' indigenous life represents; and a challenging re-writing of the intellectual history of anthropology and archaeology. The Dawn of Everything deserves to become the port of embarkation for virtually all subsequent work on these massive themes. Those who do embark will have, in the two Davids, incomparable navigators."
– James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology, Yale University, author of Seeing Like a State

"Graeber and Wengrow debug cliches about humanity's deep history to open up our thinking about what's possible in the future. There is no more vital or timely project."
– Jaron Lanier

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