If we are to know where we are going, it is vital that we know from which we have come. The Dawn of Everything is the posthumously-released text from one of the great anarchists of our time, David Graeber. Graeber was one of the masterminds behind the Occupy Wall Street Movement in 2011 and an extraordinarily talented professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. Here, working closely with David Wengrow, himself a professor of comparative archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, they present a view of history that borders on controversial in an attempt to present a history of the initial palaeolithic tribes from which modern humans have developed from.
Challenging indoctrinated ideas of the simplistic and primitive presentation of our early human ancestors, the two Davids provide their deeply researched evidence of communities within this palaeolithic peoples from around their world and suggest that the variations in their cultures was much more extreme than originally suggested by some of the celebrated thinkers of our time. Rousseau, for example, is strongly cited in this text but the context in which his famous essay was written is put under investigation. Certainly the demystifying of Darwinian ideas of the savagery that went on for many of these early civilisations is a fundamental proponent of the argument.
Graeber and Wengrow openly admit that the limited evidence available does generate some possible answers that are little more than a hunch rather than the solid argument they would hope for. But their assertions are multifaceted and carry weight, given the meticulous nature of their research.
In reading The Dawn of Everything one cannot help but be moved by the very nature of those early humans and their society stratification. It is a wonder to learn about some of these peoples who shift their hierarchy to match the seasons, where, in summer and the celebration of the harvest, a royal, autocratic style of government takes over from a more democratic, egalitarian one - and then the whole thing shifts again for the winter season.
Other suggestions made in the book cover elements of the agricultural revolution and the reframing of inequity that has been a highly argued by-product with the treatment of surplus leading to frustrations over ownership rights. Many argue that the concept of ownership rights and the surplus-filled world that dominates our current materialistic society stem from this origin. In addition, the issues of urbanisation and the gathering of larger groups of people have put strain on the organisation of our populations. The rise of the bureaucratic class is a phenomenon that has been widely examined, but it is the origin of this that is central to the argument of Graeber and Wengrow.
The levels of cultural bias that permeate this area of research are many and varied. Challenging the thinking of some of the great scholars in this discipline (people like Pinker, Diamond, and Rousseau) is a daunting and difficult task. Yet, by painstakingly piecing their argument together in straightforward and accessible ways, the two Davids are able to present an idol-topping report on the history of these peoples. They present them as much more civilised, advanced and learned than any of these acclaimed writers would have us believe.
In fact, much of the Enlightenment catalyst was drawn from the ways of indigenous tribes in North America. Their views on the world around them kicked off one of the largest shifts in culture in Europe, yet these same tribes were lamented over by some writers for their backward, childlike approach to certain elements of modern society.
It is the power structures, according to Graeber and Wengrow, that have caused the seismic inequalities in our societies, not the natural progression of people or human nature itself. The more that we can recognise that there are restrictions that come from hierarchy, the better.
Overall, The Dawn of Everything is superbly researched, written and presented. There are any number of insights to be gleaned and digested from the pages of this fascinating book rekindling the historical perspectives and imaginative elements. In learning more about the past, we are able to better comprehend the present, and are able to be forewarned about the future.
Reviewer: Chris Reed