... a fascinating, radical, and playful entry into a seemingly exhaustively well-trodden genre, the grand evolutionary history of humanity ... It has to be admitted: The Dawn of Everything is not a particularly light or easy read ... It is erudite, compelling, generative, and frequently remarkably funny, but despite the comparisons to the popular works of grand human history, it’s playing games in a very different genre. Frequently, Graeber and Wengrow’s arguments made me think more about recent works in science fiction ... They choose...to synthesize first and critique second, and only when it is necessary to directly point out the flaws in the dominant narrative. This reasoning is understandable, but also a source of occasional frustration. As a reader, I found myself wanting Graeber and Wengrow to name some names, to tell us exactly who came up with these tidbits of civilizational thinking and evolutionary theory that have so permeated contemporary thought and brought us so many restrictive conclusions ... But Graeber and Wengrow aren’t trying to out-compete or defeat the Standard Narrative—they’re experimenting and playing around with a different way of looking at the evidence and the history of humans and seeing what new configurations of social power and political ideals might result.
... what a gift it is, no less ambitious a project than its subtitle claims ... 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 ... is not a brief for anarchism, though anarchist values—antiauthoritarianism, participatory democracy, small-c communism—are everywhere implicit in it. Above all, it is a brief for possibility, which was, for Graeber, perhaps the highest value of all. The book is something of a glorious mess, full of fascinating digressions, open questions, and missing pieces. It aims to replace the dominant grand narrative of history not with another of its own devising, but with the outline of a picture, only just becoming visible, of a human past replete with political experiment and creativity.
... a profuse and antic account of how we came to take that old narrative for granted and why we might be better off if we let it go ... a lively, and often very funny, anarchist project that aspires to enlarge our political imagination by revitalizing the possibilities of the distant past. Superficially, it resembles other exhaustive, synoptic histories—it’s encyclopedic in scope, with sections introduced by comically baroque intertitles—but it disavows the intellectual trappings of a knowable arc, a linear structure, and internal necessity. As a stab at grandeur stripped of grandiosity, the book rejects the logic of technological or ecological determinism, structuring its narrative around our ancestors’ improvisatory responses to the challenges of happenstance. The result is an almost hallucinatory vision of the human epic as a series of idiosyncratic digressions. It is the story of how we made it up as we went along—of how things could have been different and, perhaps, still might be.
What makes David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything an instant classic is its comprehensive scientific demolition of this myth—what they call 'the Myth of the Stupid Savage' ... The book draws much of its value from its eclectic approach ... a sweeping tour into the past that hops from continent to continent, and from one social sphere to another to tell stories that, depending on the reader’s familiarity with the archaeological record, might come as revelations ... The key upshot is that this newfound view of our past equips us with an expanded sense of possibilities as to what we might do with ourselves in the future. Fatalistic sentiments about human nature melt away upon turning the pages ... So much of what makes this book fascinating is the alien nature of the phenomena we encounter within, at least to contemporary eyes ... The Dawn of Everything reads like a work of sci-fi, except that what turns out to be fictional is our received view of human history. The writing is often funny, sometimes hilarious. At the same time, because hardly a paragraph goes by without bequeathing insight, this is a book that requires to be patiently taken in. It sits in a different class to all the other volumes on world history we are accustomed to reading.
... a work of dizzying ambition, one that seeks to rescue stateless societies from the condescension with which they’re usually treated. Yet it succeeds better in uprooting conventional wisdom than in laying down a narrative of its own. The result is a book that is both thrilling and exasperating, showcasing the promise and the perils of the anarchist approach to history ... Our forebears crafted their societies intentionally and intelligently: This is the fundamental, electrifying insight of The Dawn of Everything ... Graeber and Wengrow cede no ground and fight at every corner ... This relentless revisionism can be exhilarating, but it’s also exhausting ... It’s hard not to wonder whether this book, which zips merrily across time and space and hypothesizes confidently in the face of scant or confusing evidence, can be trusted. Certainly, the part closest to my area of expertise raises questions ... Graeber and Wengrow can indulge in outsize claims and pet theories because they don’t need to always be right. The Dawn of Everything aims to shoot holes in the myth of the inevitable state, to deflate the notion that advanced societies can’t function without leaders, police, or bureaucrats. The 700-page book is a hail of bullets; if only some hit the target, that’s enough.
... a glorious mess of a book that nonetheless upends platitudes about early human communities and power disparities that have persisted through the ages. While Graeber and Wengrow challenge our parochial views of prehistory, their true target is history of a modern, Eurocentric flavor. The book posits a sweeping new paradigm as the authors pore over a massive body of anthropological and archaeological data ... Graeber and Wengrow offer a menu of delicious set pieces ... At its best The Dawn of Everything transports us around the globe, aweing with its encyclopedic scope. What's missing is more crucial: Graeber and Wengrow ignore paleogenomics, for instance, a glaring omission given the revelations of technological advances in analyzing DNA ... For a book determined to blow up confirmational biases, it suffers from a few of its own, such as the false binary of women versus men ... The Dawn of Everything is having numerous debates with itself, not all of them coherent ... And yet the book's an enthralling read, crackling with energy and arguments that rarely push into mainstream discourse. The Dawn of Everything may be less than the sum of its parts, but it's nonetheless a searching, vibrant work that will inspire future researchers to dig deeper into the past.
... fascinating ... This final work is a fitting capstone to [Graeber's] career, a tome that rivals fantasy epics in heft and imaginative scope ... this isn’t a book that attempts to be scientifically accurate, whatever that might mean. It’s a polemic ... Graeber and Wengrow tell a dazzling array of stories about civilizations across many continents and thousands of years, all of which are grappling with what it means to be free ... Occasionally, Graeber and Wengrow fall into the same kind of biased thinking as the Enlightenment-obsessed men they criticize ... the authors admit openly that their examples are cherry-picked, and in some cases interpreted extremely speculatively, because they aren’t writing a science textbook. They’re writing a manifesto, suggesting another way for humanity to live, inspired by ideas our ancestors left to us ... The more we learn about the many paths our ancestors have taken, the more possible futures open up. The Dawn of Everything begins as a sharp rejoinder to sloppy cultural analysis and ends as a paean to freedoms that most of us never realized were available. Knowing that there were other ways to live, Graeber and Wengrow conclude, allows us to rethink what we might yet become.
Though combative, The Dawn of Everything is an upbeat book. Its debunking energies mainly go to refuting the conventional wisdom at its most discouraging ... For all its historical and theoretical brilliance, The Dawn of Everything does not wholly vindicate the anarchist philosophical framework in which the argument is set. Graeber and Wengrow do not exactly preach anarchism, but the moral of their long and immensely rich study is clear: Relations of authority are the most important and revealing things about any society, small or large, and no one should ever be subject to any authority she hasn’t chosen to be subject to ... Native American political thought is certainly impressive, and Graeber and Wengrow expound it superlatively well ... Graeber and Wengrow’s second foray into socialist-/social democrat–baiting is more surprising ... Equality, the cherished ideal of most leftists past and present, seems to them a theoretical and strategic dead end, a mere 'technocratic' reform. They dismiss, even mock, equality as a goal ... Surely it is not necessary to choose between freedom and equality, much less to disparage those who make the opposite choice.
The Dawn of Everything, chockablock with archaeological and ethnographic minutiae, is an oddly gripping read. Graeber, who did his fieldwork in Madagascar, was well known for his caustic wit and energetic prose, and Wengrow, too, has established himself not only as an accomplished archaeologist working in the Middle East but as a gifted and lively writer. A volume of macrohistory—even of anti-macrohistory—needs to land its points with some regularity, and Graeber and Wengrow aren’t averse to repeating themselves. But for the most part they convey a sense of stakes and even suspense. This is prose it’s easy to surrender to ... But should we surrender to its arguments? One question is how persuasive we find the book’s intellectual history, which mainly unspools from the early Enlightenment to the macrohistorians of today and tells of how consequential truths about alternate social arrangements got hidden from view. Another is how persuasive we find the book’s prehistory, in particular its parade of large-scale Neolithic communities that, Graeber and Wengrow suspect, were self-governing and nondominating. On both time scales, The Dawn of Everything is gleefully provocative ... Whatever its empirical shortcomings, the book must be counted an imaginative success.
The problem with the Graeber/Wengrow thesis is that the assumption that things were better then than they are now is as much a statement of faith as the conventional view. The authors are right to question the prevailing mythology in the light of new evidence, but are they right to think that the human condition in which we are, as they keep insisting, 'stuck'—with our banks, wars and political squabbles—is inferior to anything that has gone before? Is it not more likely that all humans are stuck in the condition of being too self-aware to find peace?
... richly provocative ... The histories they weave are fascinating, bringing to light extraordinary illustrative characters such as Kandiaronk, the brilliant Native American Huron-Wendat chief who confounded French Jesuits with his powerful debating skills. Yet there is a distinct sense of cherrypicking, of stringing together examples that fit the broad sweep of their argument, and dismissing the rest ... All the same, the strength of the book is the manner in which it asks us to rethink our assumptions ... It is, in the end, 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.
... the irony of Graeber and Wengrow’s 'new history' becomes evident. Though the authors argue convincingly that Rousseau’s sequential account of early societies is mistaken, they retain—and even accentuate—his story of civilisation as a fall from a condition of primordial grace. Having rejected Rousseau’s account, they need an explanation of their own for what they regard as humanity’s descent into servility, but it never appears. A few pages before the end of this bold and thought-stirring book, they are still asking ... At times Graeber and Wengrow come close to the neoliberal view of recent history ... Graeber and Wengrow share with neoliberals a marked hostility to the welfare state, which they dismiss as undermining working-class self-help ... They are persuasive in arguing that early human societies were much more varied, and at times more experimental, than has been commonly supposed. Yet what Graeber and Wengrow have done is to re-embellish a familiar myth propagated by Rousseau and his many unwitting disciples: the belief that humankind has been 'stuck' throughout much of its history. There is no reason to believe an original condition of freedom and grace ever existed. We are where we have always been, making the best of our difficulties and somehow getting by.
... ingenious ... 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.
Vast in scope and dazzling in erudite detail, the book seethes with intriguing ideas; unfortunately, though, the authors’ habitual overgeneralizations...undermine confidence in their method of grand speculation from tenuous evidence ... Readers will find this stimulating and provocative, but not entirely convincing.