This volume by anthropology professor David Graeber, who died in 2020, and archaeology professor David Wengrow upends conventional notions of ancient humans as uncivilized, primitive and childlike. Understanding that our human ancestors lived in much more sophisticated social arrangements than standard history allows, the authors argue, opens new paths to make sense of human history today, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery and civilization itself.
... 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.
... 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 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.