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Reviews of The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber

The Dawn of Everything

A New History of Humanity

by David Graeber, David Wengrow

The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber, David Wengrow X
The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber, David Wengrow
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2021, 704 pages

    Paperback:
    Apr 2023, 704 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Grace Graham-Taylor
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About this Book

Book Summary

A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution―from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality―and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.

For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike―either free and equal innocents, 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 conservative reaction to powerful critiques of European society posed by Indigenous observers and intellectuals. Revisiting this encounter has startling implications for how we make sense of human history today, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery, and civilization itself.

Drawing on pathbreaking research in archaeology and anthropology, the authors show how history becomes a far more interesting place once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what's really there. If humans did not spend 95 percent 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 human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful, hopeful 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 a faith in the power of direct action.

1

Farewell to Humanity's Childhood

Or, why this is not a book about the origins of inequality

'This mood makes itself felt everywhere, politically, socially, and philosophically. We are living in what the Greeks called the Kairos – the right time – for a "metamorphosis of the gods," i.e. of the fundamental principles and symbols.'
C. G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self (1958)

Most of human history is irreparably lost to us. Our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for at least 200,000 years, but for most of that time we have next to no idea what was happening. In northern Spain, for instance, at the cave of Altamira, paintings and engravings were created over a period of at least 10,000 years, between around 25,000 and 15,000 BC. Presumably, a lot of dramatic events occurred during this period. We have no way of knowing what most of them were.

This is of little consequence to most people, since most people rarely think about the broad sweep of human history anyway. They don't have ...

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Reviews

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From our earliest origins, it seems, human civilizations have evolved in highly particularized and sometimes counterintuitive ways. Here you will find examples of prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies that lived in grand, architecturally complex temples, and nomad societies such as the Nambikwara, who had kings in winter, but not in summer. Graeber and Wengrow spend time delving into the rich political philosophies of early Native American peoples, expounding on a lacerating critique of colonial settlers by demonstrating how these philosophies influenced European ideas of freedom and equality. The historical evidence presented in this book challenges some of the most basic assumptions about the meaning of civilization. It opens the door to a far richer and more complex understanding of human creativity and political thought...continued

Full Review (812 words)

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(Reviewed by Grace Graham-Taylor).

Media Reviews

Boston Review
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.

Science
With vivid narrative prose and rich detail... [The Dawn of Everything] take[s] readers on a myth-busting journey through the inner workings of prehistoric and historic societies around the world, showcasing the remarkable intelligence and agency of ancient peoples and the diverse societal solutions that they helped shape ... Like Graeber, The Dawn of Everything is a rabble-rouser—a great book that will stimulate discussions, change minds, and drive new lines of research.

The Atlantic
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 ... 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.

The Wall Street Journal
Brainy ... the latest—and most provocative—in a line of Big History: bold, panoptic works that offer to explain the whole sweep of man's story ... [as] passionate as you'd expect from a decade-long labor of love—conceived by two learned and mischievous men.

The Washington Post
A fascinating argument about why humans today are 'stuck' in rigid, hierarchical states that would have appalled our ancestors ... a fitting capstone to [Graeber's] career ... 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.

New York Journal of Books
This sweeping and novel synthesis exploring the arc of the human condition ... may well prove to be the most important book of the decade, for it explodes deeply held myths about the inevitability of our social lives dominated by the state. It is at once a sophisticated analysis packaged in accessible prose that moves briskly in the unfolding tale of humanity's many forms of being and becoming.

The Nation
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.

The Guardian (UK)
A boldly ambitious work that seems intent to attack received wisdoms and myths on almost every one of its nearly 700 absorbing pages.

The Observer (UK)
A boldly ambitious work that seems intent to attack received wisdoms and myths on almost every one of its nearly 700 absorbing pages ... 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.

The Sunday Times (UK)
Pacey and potentially revolutionary ...This is more than an argument about the past, it is about the human condition in the present.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
An ingenious new look at 'the broad sweep of human history' and many of its 'foundational' stories ... A fascinating, intellectually challenging big book about big ideas.

Author Blurb Corey Robin, Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center
Graeber and Wengrow take up a question as old as Rousseau―the origin of social inequality―only to reveal that it predates Rousseau and may in fact be the wrong question, based on rubbish history and reactionary speculation. Scavenging through the most up-to-date archaeological research and most recent anthropological record, the authors give us a world more various and unexpected than we knew, and more open and free than we imagine. This is social theory in the grand, old-fashioned sense, delivered with spell-binding velocity and an exhilarating sense of discovery.

Author Blurb James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology ('Demeritus'), Yale University, author of Seeing Like a State
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.

Author Blurb Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan
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.

Author Blurb Pankaj Mishra, author of The Age of Anger
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.

Author Blurb Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark and Orwell's Roses
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...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.

Author Blurb Robin D.G. Kelley, Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History, UCLA, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
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.

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Beyond the Book

Semiramis, Queen of Assyria

18th-century black and white illustration of Semiramis Among the many fascinating anecdotes presented in David Graeber and David Wengrow's The Dawn of Everything, one stood out to me. This was the myth of Semiramis (also known as Sammu-ramat), a woman of low stature who rose to become queen of the empire of Assyria. Graeber and Wengrow mention her in a chapter discussing role reversals, using her as an example of the flexibility of hierarchies in earlier periods of human history. Behind the mythical Semiramis is a real woman who lived in the ninth century BC and is known for her keen intelligence and military prowess.

Semiramis's approximate five-year rule over the Assyrian Empire has inspired artists for centuries. She waged several successful military campaigns in Persia and North ...

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