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'A truly crucial book': Baroness Bennett reviews 'The Dawn of Everything'

UNESCO World Heritage site, Teotihuacan, Mexico | Alamy

4 min read

David Graeber and David Wengrow’s engrossing and revelatory re-examination of the human past challenges us to reject outdated ideas and consider new directions for our future

Seeing a cask of Lindeman’s (Australian) wine in a hard currency shop in Pyongyang back in 1998 led me to quote Milan Kundera: “Unity of mankind means: No escape for anyone anywhere.” In the two decades since, the world has only become more uniform and unified. Astonishingly, despite the record number of humans on this planet, there’s less diversity of life and organisation than for at least tens of millennia.

There’s one economic system – late neoliberal capitalism – that rules pretty well everywhere and one pervasive – terribly dull – global culture found everywhere.

That makes The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by the late great anthropologist David Graeber and leading archaeologist David Wengrow a truly crucial book. It demonstrates the wonderful, sometimes weird, amazingly creative history of our species, giving proper weight to the great length and – we increasingly understand – variety of how beings every bit as smart and innovative as humans today lived for 200,000 years-plus. 

Most of this human thinking and exploration has inevitably been lost – short of the invention of a time machine – but Graeber and Wengrow find a real treasure in Kandiaronk, the 17th-century Wendat (American First Nation) philosopher-statesman who, they argue, greatly influenced debate about liberty and society in Europe. And overlooked hints can be found in the texts of the early European destroyers, such as Cortes finding in Tlaxcala, population around 150,000, “the order of government so far observed among the people resembles very much the republics of Venice, Genoa and Pisa for there is no supreme overlord”.

It gives a genuinely global picture

In the archaeological evidence from the Palaeolithic onwards, there are wonderful clues. That some of the richest burials are of people we would now call disabled is hugely suggestive of a social structure unlike any of today. The cities of Ukraine and Moldova such as Taljanky, Maidanetske and Nebelivka in the fourth century BC were huge, sophisticated and – according to these authors – show no sign of centralised government, administration, or a ruling class. The city of Teotihuacan, which might have followed a classic Meso-American pattern of warrior aristocracy, around 300AD decided after a period of upheaval instead to build what looks like a mass social housing programme, supplying high quality, quite uniform apartments for almost all the city’s population.

The Dawn of Everything also puts paid to any idea of plodding, inevitable advance through hunting and gathering, to settled farming, on to cities, to globalisation, with accompanying rise in hierarchy and inequality and a shift from bartering to finance. And it gives – as few such books do – genuinely a global picture, not prioritising those parts of the world, the west, so heavily recorded and theorised, when we know little of other whole continents. 

There will be, undoubtedly, quibbles with the details. Interpretations of archaeological evidence is prone – more even than other areas of academia – to revision after revision. But that’s not really the point. It is instead to throw out deeply embedded, outdated thinking that’s had a deadening hold on our ideas of the past but – more importantly – about our potential directions of the future.

We’ve clearly headed down a narrow dead end of an economic system accepting massive inequality and smashing through the limits of this fragile planet. But we can imagine, and create, something very different and better. Over hundreds of thousands of years that’s what our species has done, again and again.

All this and a wonderfully entertaining read, easy to disappear into for hours.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle is a Green peer

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity
Written by: David Graeber & David Wengrow
Publisher: Penguin / Allen Lane

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