"To inquire after the origins of inequality necessarily means creating a myth, a fall from grace," write anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow in their bestselling "The Dawn of Everything," 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. In the millennia leading up to the explosion of agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago, our species comprised far more than hunters-and-gatherers: There were already hierarchies and forms of government at work, rich in their range and nuance. (Agriculture may be the book's greatest villain, as it introduced the concept of land ownership.)
Graeber and Wengrow offer a menu of delicious set pieces: close readings of Rousseau's texts; a survey of the baffling differences between indigenous peoples of California and their neighbors farther up the Pacific coast; investigations of Neolithic architecture in Turkey; pre-Columbian cities along the Mississippi River. 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. And their endless conjectures — the use of conditionals like "Perhaps" and "might have been" and "It's possible that" — pull the magic carpet from under readers. 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; in the Fertile Crescent, they opine, "the more that uplanders came to organize their artistic and ceremonial lives around the theme of predatory violence, the more lowlanders tended to organize theirs around female knowledge and symbolism."
(As Harvard evolutionary anthropologist Richard Wrangham has shown, male violence — and the advent of capital punishment — likely gave Homo Sapiens a leg up in the survival sweepstakes.)
"The Dawn of Everything" is having numerous debates with itself, not all of them coherent. Graeber, who died last year, remains a hero to the anti-institutionalist Left; as an architect of Occupy Wall Street he squatted among fellow anarchists and drum circles in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park in 2011, vowing to overthrow the American empire. These aggressive stances infuse the book with passion but also undermine its intellectual integrity, leaning toward opinion journalism rather than scholarship. It's ultimately a political document; one can't help but think the authors were trying to justify — for hundreds of pages — their own anti-authoritarian (and contradictory) views.
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.
Hamilton Cain reviews fiction and nonfiction for a range of venues, including the Star Tribune, Oprah Daily, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. He lives in Brooklyn.
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity
By: David Graeber and David Wengrow.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 704 pages, $35.