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Key insights from

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

By David Wengrow, David Graeber

What you’ll learn

For a decade, an anthropologist (Graeber) and an archeologist (Wengrow) committed to collaborating on a modest “side project:” to rewrite human history. They begin by examining the conventional version of history that most are familiar with: Isolated clans of hunter-gatherers eventually settle down, leading to the growth of civilization and all its attendant blessings and curses. According to this understanding, that’s when population booms, technology, rule of law, war, and disease begin to play major roles in human history.

After scouring and gathering findings from across numerous isolated disciplines for the first time, the pair give us a story that is utterly different from the standard rendition. They ultimately conclude that the way history is told is too linear, more influenced by a myth of progress and evolutionary theory than historical evidence. What the evidence does point to is large, complex, diverse societies that flourished without kings, police, bureaucrats, or a formal state hierarchy.


Read on for key insights from The Dawn of Everything.

1. Hobbes and Rousseau were both wrong, but our political imagination is still stuck between the poles they constructed.

One of the most popular understandings of human history is a move from the state of innocence and simplicity to complexity and violence. The Christian rendition begins the story in the Garden of Eden, a realm of innocence and bliss from which the first people were cut off for trying to become like God. According to the story, we have been cut off from that original state of childlike innocence and live in a fallen world full of violence and hate until a future day of redemption.

In 1754, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau introduced a secular version of the Christian origin story in his essay “Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind.” He argued that people began as relatively peaceful, childlike hunter-gatherer nomads, but once they settled during the Agricultural Revolution, cities and civilizations and “the State” emerged, bringing wonders like literature and technology and miseries like disease and war. 

Thomas Hobbes offers the only real alternative to this view of original innocence. In his work Leviathan, Hobbes paints a dimmer, grimmer view of humanity’s State of Nature: “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” Unlike Rosseau, he saw no innocence at all in our humanity—then or now. We’ve been bludgeoning each other since there were humans to bludgeon. Without a heavy-handed state to restrain us, we would continue to bludgeon each other.

The main problems with the Christian origin story, its secular version à la Rousseau, and its foil account from Hobbes, is simply this: They are either not true, hold dangerous political ramifications, make history unnecessarily linear and boring—or some combination of all three.

“The State of Nature” was a rhetorical device that became popular in European political philosophy leading up to the so-called Age of Enlightenment. Hobbes and Rousseau both used it to forward their political philosophies. The State of Nature was a hypothetical that allowed philosophers like Hobbes and Rousseau to surmise how people would behave if society and its institutions were suddenly stripped away.

In their own time, Rousseau’s and Hobbes’ speculations about our original State of Nature and how the State emerged were innovative. Their ideas opened new political panoramas and ways of thinking about how people organize themselves. Centuries later, their ideas are just worn-out platitudes. To continue building around these insights is to restate what feels obvious. The old debates are stagnating and now stunt our political imagination. We struggle to think beyond questions of “Are people good or bad?” We have inherited a way of seeing politics and people that is depressingly limited.

Part of the reason our political imagination is stunted is because our view of history is, too. Thanks to evidence emerging over the past several decades in anthropology, archeology, and related disciplines, a new story is emerging that is very different from the untrue, dangerous, and boring narratives we’ve been stuck with. You can catch glimmers of this different story in scientific publications and among scholarly circles, but they’ve never been gathered and made accessible to the public.

2. Indigneous groups in North America sound more like Westerners today than Westerners from a few centuries ago.

The so-called “noble savage” is often linked to Rousseau’s romantic vision of innocent early humans, but the term’s true origin had nothing to do with Rousseau. The phrase had less to do with indigenous virtue than the habits of indigenous Americans. French explorers observing native Americans saw that they hunted and fought—just like the aristocrats back home in France.   

Records of interactions between indigenous Americans and the French in the 1600s show us something unexpected: The indigenous Americans held views much more aligned with modern Western views than European values at the time were. In other words, Westerners today more closely mirror that era’s native Americans than that era’s Europeans.

For example, in early field reports from French missionaries, the few mentions of “equality” didn’t come from the Europeans but from indigenous Americans. The Wendat (indigenous Iroquois group near the Great Lakes) mentioned it occasionally to describe the equality of the sexes—something the French Jesuits found distasteful. Conversely, the Wendat saw the French as greedy, competitive, and uninterested in freedom.

The French and Wendat agreed, however, that native American societies were free and European societies were not. With that settled, the debates centered around whether individual liberty was preferable. Indigenous Americans argued for individual liberty, while the French argued against it.

The Jesuit missionaries who authored many of these field reports saw liberty as primal and unrefined. Look at what one priest wrote: “They imagine that they ought by right of birth, to enjoy the liberty of wild ass colts, rendering no homage to any one whomsoever, except when they like. They have reproached me a hundred times because we fear our Captains, while they laugh at and make sport of theirs.”

Don’t miss how the priest disdained the indigneous Wendat for their freedom of expression, and their willingness to ridicule their captains and mock Europeans’ sense of hierarchy and practice of groveling at their superiors’ feet in fear. It sounds like a kind of slavery.

Another Jesuit missionary to North America made similar observations:

“I do not believe that there is any people on earth freer than they, and less able to allow the subjection of their wills to any power whatever—so much so that Fathers here have no control over their children, or Captains over their subjects, or the Laws of the country over any of them, except in so far as each is pleased to submit to them.”

No freer people on earth. Top-down coercion frowned upon. Autonomy honored. Changing minds through persuasion and reason instead of brute force. The Europeans derided this, but the indigenous championed it.

First-hand accounts like these upset our assumptions that the French from a few centuries ago would bear a likeness to today’s Westerners. Furthermore, we would expect the indigenous Americans, the exotic inscrutable “Other,” to hold views staunchly opposed to Western values or at least unrecognizable to Western ears. But stories like these reveal indigenous Americans insisting on the centrality of individual freedom, equality of the sexes, sexual freedom, and rule by the people—notions that sound familiar to modern Westerners but sounded utterly alien to Europeans from four centuries ago.

This all raises questions of whether some Western ideas actually originated in Europe or among the so-called savages they dismissed.

3. Indigenous voices catalyzed the European Enlightenment.

Meet Kandiaronk: an indigenous American warrior and orator from the Iroquois nation who lived in the 1600s. Kandiaronk earned the admiration of allies and adversaries alike through his physical strength and skills of persuasion. French colonists reveled in their debates with him, and priests and captains marveled at his wit and charisma. He was among the most eloquent opponents of European values, and his critiques and debates with French explorers would eventually become fodder for revolutionary discussions in European salons and cafes.

Kandiaronk’s critiques hit the European mainstream thanks to a French explorer named Louis-Arman d’Arce, Baron de la Hontan (or Lahontan for short). The third volume of Lahontan’s memoirs, titled “Curious Dialogues with a Savage of Good Sense who Has Traveled,” drew extensively from conversations he had with Kandiaronk—though he calls his Wendat character by another name. Still, Kandiaronk becomes the rational skeptic critiquing church and political authorities, Europe’s lack of freedom, and its stringent sexual codes.

Before and during the Enlightenment, dialogues like these became a popular literary convention. They allowed thinkers to pen critiques of European society and religion without the risks that come with denunciating Cross or Crown too explicitly. By using characters as a mouthpiece, they could gripe more safely about European culture and religion. Lahontan added a twist to the literary form by using Kandiaronk’s indigenous voice to criticize Europe—a tradition that spread quickly during the course of the 1700s.

The memoir was read widely across Europe and inspired a trend: Countless European intellectuals imitated the style and themes of Lahontan’s original 1703 dialogue with Kandiaronk, including Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot. Each created a dialogue with some imaginary exotic outsider casting a judgmental eye on Europe. This tradition of self-criticism grew out of an indigenous voice that the most influential Europeans built upon.

Enlightenment thinkers became increasingly dismissive of indigenous voices as unsophisticated, childlike, irrelevant, and unprogressive. Many European intellectuals overlooked the fact that these so-called savages modeled many Enlightenment ideals well before Enlightenment thinkers did. This matters because cases like these throw the cultural evolution narrative into confusion. Indigenous thinkers like Kandiaronk call into question the ongoing progress narrative that views modern Westerners as “ahead,” bringing the light while indigenous people are “behind” and ignorant.

4. Archeologists are discovering the ruins of kingdoms without kings, more ancient than cities long considered the oldest urban centers.

The conventional belief about cities is that they’re far too complex to function without rulers and administrators of some kind. The thought of a kingdom without a king or ruling class is inconceivable to us. Part of the reason for this dissonance lies in the deeply ingrained idea that small is manageable and bigger means more factors to control—thus requiring administrators and a hierarchy of some kind to scale up. Discoveries in China, Peru, Ukraine, and elsewhere, however, are telling us a different story.

We’ve long believed that hunter-gatherer bands could afford to be more egalitarian and democratic because they numbered just a few dozen on average. For a long time, archeological evidence suggested a ruling class and hierarchy in ancient civilizations like Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica. It seemed inevitable that written languages and philosophy popped up along with social classes, that some would dominate and the rest would become peasants, serfs, and slaves.

But in the past half century or so, additional evidence has turned up that overturns this narrative: the discovery of even older megasites. We have to take seriously the uncovering of ancient cities that had no palaces or temples until much later, or never at all. In modern societies teeming with city planners and form-fillers, we assume anything big needs to be controlled. But in the ancient cities scientists are now uncovering, signs point to urban centers where power was only briefly centralized—if it was centralized at all. It usually wasn’t. This means that for most of our history, the form of political organization we take for granted to manage complexity was mostly absent.  

Ancient megasites in the Ukraine are currently revolutionizing our understanding of prehistory and where cities come from. These prehistoric settlements date back to the middle of the 4th millennium BCE, making them older than our earliest known settlements in Mesopotamia, which has often been called "the heartland of cities.” Mesopotamia was thought to be the oldest until recently, but these megasites in the Ukraine are older and far bigger. It doesn’t appear they had an army, but the inhabitants managed to thrive for 800 years. We have believed that kind of longevity was unheard of in the ancient world, yet lately we keep hearing more stories like it.

In China, there are remains of cities that disappeared by 2,500 BCE at the latest. Along Peru’s Rio Supe, archeologists have found the remains of a civilization at least 4,000 years older than the Incan Empire. These newly discovered sites often dwarf the better-known ancient sites like Egypt and Mesopotamia, and yet they so far show no signs of rulership, an educated class of administrators, or a hierarchy. 

The discovery of ancient megasites upends so much of what we thought we knew about the origins of cities and the regulations needed (or not needed) to govern complexity.

5. The conventional histories we grew up with overlook too much critical evidence.

Thanks to the legacy of Hobbes and Rousseau, we have been led to believe that we had a fall from grace and now live like thieves and thugs or that thieving and thugging is our nature and always has been. These views predispose us to see the State as a necessary intervention and part of an evolution out of ignorance and violence. They encourage us to see civilization—complete with rulers and police and laws and written language–as the pinnacle of our march toward progress.

The discovery of new societies that survived and prospered before the most ancient cities we were aware of forces us to rethink things. So does giving a serious listen to indigenous voices.

A common storyline that emerges from the march-toward-progress myth goes something like this: The last 500 years evoked marvelous growth and unprecedented prosperity, and the better angels of our nature have finally won out against the demons of incivility and irrationality. This is Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s view, and he attributes global improvements to the European Enlightenment. He constructs history along very Hobbesian lines. Recent history is a reprieve from the nasty, brutish, short existence humanity has always known, and the improvements would not have been possible without Enlightenment tools like rationality and science.

Pinker’s version of history does raise the question of why, if the progress is so grand, did it not naturally spread on its own? Why didn’t indigenous groups from across the world embrace it with open arms? Why did it take so much military and financial power to import so-called Western ideals like freedom, equality, and human rights to the rest of the world?

Even more remarkably, why are there so many records of Europeans leaving this progress and embracing indigenous communities in North and South America? During the era of European colonialism, settlers adopted or kidnapped by indigenous groups almost always stayed with their new indigenous families. Some of those returned to European society only to return to their adoptive families for reasons of loneliness and hunger.

Benjamin Franklin noted this pattern in a letter to a friend, that those English captured by “Indians” and restored to their families would become “disgusted with our manner of life” and “take the first opportunity of escaping again into the Woods.” He also observed the converse, that few indigenous individuals offered “the white man’s education” stayed in European society for long. They either left as soon as they could, or returned after a lifetime of failing to integrate into European society. 

The point is not to overly romanticize one group or another, but to point out how some of the common understandings of history exclude a growing body of evidence that can no longer be ignored. Much remains to be discovered and teased out, but mounting evidence is making our common views of an evolutionary, linear history look more and more mythological.

Endnotes

These insights are just an introduction. If you're ready to dive deeper, pick up a copy of The Dawn of Everything here. And since we get a commission on every sale, your purchase will help keep this newsletter free.

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