Ten years ago, anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow had a conversation about the origins of human inequality. They ended up writing THE DAWN OF EVERYTHING, challenging everything we thought we knew about human history.
About 200,000 years ago Homo sapiens replaced Neanderthals as the dominant human species. Working in small bands, our early ancestors were efficient enough at hunting and gathering to thrive for some 188,000 years. Then, supposedly, just 12,000 years ago they discovered farming.
Known as ‘The Agricultural Revolution,’ early farming led to larger and larger populations in one area, which eventually led to towns and cities. This also introduced the idea of property and, of course, defense of property, laws, social systems and what we think of as civilization. Social systems led to hierarchies and inequalities.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
First of all, we now have clear evidence that there was no agricultural revolution. We know that people in Northern Syria started cultivating wild cereals around 10,000 BC. But crop cultivation took until 7,000 BC to really catch on. As Graeber & Wengrow say, “that’s 3,000 years of human history, far too long to constitute an agricultural revolution.”
What we were really seeing, they explain, was the advancement of trial-and-error scientific thinking. How about if we save some of the seeds we harvested and put them back in the ground? Hmm, seems to work best if the ground is cleared first. There is clear evidence that over the next few thousand years – all the way up to 16th Century AD – various populations across Eurasia and the Americas – experimented with farming. But, it’s also clear that many did not fully commit to it. Some went completely back to being hunter/gatherers, and some alternated between hunting and farming. They experimented.
As for the notion that farming automatically led to male-led authoritarian governments, men cast as the defenders of the land and their families – not so fast. It turns out that the issue itself is a product of male hierarchy. Until recently, the fields of history and archeology were largely dominated by men. In the 1960s, a woman named Marija Gimbutas invaded the boys club of archeology and turned it on its ear.
An expert on Old Europe, she showed clear archeological evidence that farming communities along the Mediterranean and around the Balkans were civilizations where “men and women were equally valued, and differences of wealth and status were sharply circumscribed.” Gimbutas estimated that such communities endured from roughly 7000 to 3500 BC.
Our old history texts also led us to believe that, with few exceptions, early human civilizations were rather brutal for the majority of people. Even the highly accomplished Greek and Roman empires had slaves and their patriarchal practices afforded women little or no power over their own lives. Then, supposedly, all that changed during ‘The Age of Enlightenment.’ In the 17th and 18th Century when philosophers like René Descartes, John Locke, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes and David Hume started asking the right questions, we began to realize that we capable of social, cultural and political self-determination.
Not only have people been asking the right questions for several millennia, it now seems likely that the idea of social self-awareness expressed by the European ‘age of enlightenment’ philosophers was imported from another continent. Their ideas may well have come from Native American philosophers who had spoken persuasively about such ideas with Jesuit missionaries way back in the 16th Century.
French Jesuits spent a lot time trying to convert people who lived on the northeastern part of North America. They learned the languages of the Mohawks and other tribes of the five nations of the Haudenosaunee and met frequently with tribal leaders. While the Jesuits were scandalized by the sexual and social freedom that Native women enjoyed and shook their heads at the lack of discipline Native children received, they were impressed by how smart everyone was.
Many of the Jesuits — who had the reputation of being the best educated priests in Europe – kept detailed journals. From 1632 to 1673 they published their collective writings in Europe in 71 volumes called The Jesuit Relations. In one, Father Le Jeune, Superior of the Jesuits in Canada, wrote of the Wendats (a Haudenosaunee tribe), “There are none of them incapable of conversing or reasoning very well, and in good terms, on matters within their knowledge.”
Graeber & Wengrow continue: “Some Jesuits went further, remarking – not without a trace of a frustration – that New World savages seemed rather cleverer overall than the people they were used to dealing with at home. One wrote, ‘they nearly all show more intelligence in their business, speeches, courtesies, intercourse, tricks, and subtleties, than do the shrewdest citizens and merchants of France.’”
While the Jesuits would not have known to call it that, what they were experiencing were people who had, for centuries, cultivated individual and social self-awareness. Wendats, Hurons, Mohawks and others of the Northeast Woodland tribes thrived on debate, reasoning and knowledge. Discussions on tribal matters could last for days and weeks, not ending until a decision was reached, not by a majority vote, but by group consensus. One of the many goals of such debates was how to achieve social equity — fairness and respect for every tribal member, especially for those that were ‘different.’
In 1703, the ideas and legendary oratory skills of a Huron leader and philosopher named Kandiaronk was also published in Europe. His chronicler, a French soldier named Lahontan, published three widely-read books about his conversations with Kandiaronk. In the third, titled Curious Dialogues with a Savage of Good Sense Who Has Travelled, he expounds on the Huron chief’s view of European’s religion, politics, health and sexual lives.
Kandiaronk is credited with quotes such as, “a man motivated by money cannot be a man of wisdom, reason and equity.”
In another discourse with the Jesuits, he calmly picked apart the “logical contradictions and incoherence of the Christian doctrines of original sin and redemption.” And he presents twenty reasons why “the son of the Great Spirit would lower his standards sufficiently to come down to earth.”
No doubt, thousands of wise men and women from thousands of cultures going back tens of thousands of years have articulated ideas like those of Kandiaronk – most without even a footnote in history. Besides highlighting the fact that many enlightened cultures of the original Americans have been largely overlooked by mainstream history, the main point here is that the so-called Age of Enlightenment in Europe was inspired, in whole or in part, by native wisdom from the Americas.
In their search for the origins of inequality, Graeber & Wengrow show us examples from every corner of the earth, and from every age of the Holocene Period — which began 12,000 years ago — that we humans have always had the capacity for not just self-awareness, but social awareness. We weren’t just asking ‘who am I’, but ‘who are we.’
There were, undeniably, many wrong turns in human history. The Maya Empire, an authoritarian, male dominated culture that thrived in South American between 500 BC and 900 AD, engaged in ritual human sacrifice with thousands slaughtered in a single ceremony. But we also know that many of our ancient human ancestors were quite capable of complex, egalitarian societies.
The Minoans of Crete are a great example. A seafaring people with a complex urban society, they seemed to have lived quite peacefully from 2000 to 1100 BC. They built elaborate homes with indoor water systems and baths, excelled in art and tool making and, though their ancient sites show no signs of authoritarian, top-down government, it seems clear that women held more prominent political roles than men.
Graeber & Wengrow postulate that ‘schismogenesis’ is only one of the keys to understanding how early societies developed. It’s also clear evidence of social awareness and self-determination among our ancestors. In simple terms, when I define myself in opposition to someone else, I’m engaging in schismogenesis. If you wear white, I declare that I’m the guy who wears black. When I see something I don’t like about your society, I’m prompted to encourage the exact opposite principals with my own people.
Teotihuancan, for example, was a large city (8 sq. miles) that existed in Mexico from 100 BC to 600 AD. With a population of 125,000, the city equaled Rome in sophistication and wealth. But, instead of being dominated by palaces for the rich, Teotihuancan was comprised mostly of roomy mutli-family housing complexes. The archeological evidence points to an egalitarian form of government. Many believe that this remarkable community was developed in reaction to the horrible human oppression that its founders witnessed in the Maya Kingdoms south of them.
Anthropologists cite other schismogenesis examples among the multitude of different tribal cultures along the Pacific coastline. California tribes witnessed the brutal slave-based cultures like the Kwakiutl who lived north of them and, in response, adopted values of hard work, humility and equality. Even utilitarian practices helped societies define themselves in contrast to one another. One pre-Columbian northwest tribe was found to have rejected the use of kayaks even though their neighboring tribes all used them. They defined themselves as ‘the people who don’t use kayaks.’
These are all examples of humans consciously defining who they are and how they want to live. For at least the past 10,000 years, we have made and unmade good societies as well as bad. Social awareness was not a product of 18th Century enlightenment.
The reason we didn’t see this earlier is that theories of social evolution got locked in place with Darwin’s theories of biological evolution. Darwin was right, of course, but archeologists and anthropologists were a bit too quick to apply evolution to human social development.
For one thing, the timescale is off. We became who we are — homo sapiens — 200,000 years ago. The idea that it’s taken all that time for us to evolve toward social equality is refuted by the scientific data we now have in front of us. As one anthropologist put it, “if you took a newborn baby from 10,000 years ago and raised it today, it would be the same as us.”
Since we humans have demonstrated our ability over and over again to form egalitarian societies, the big question now is ‘how did we get stuck’? At this point in human history, why is most of humanity either struggling with dysfunctional democracy or fighting for autonomy under authoritarian socialism?
Graeber & Wengrow list two questions that define the tenets of Social Science:
- What went wrong (with the human process of enlightenment).
- Why do attempts to fix what’s wrong in society often make things worse?
The authors underscore the fact that our 21st Century world was not inevitable; plenty of alternatives were explored but not pursued and plenty of roads were simply not taken. In order to get unstuck, to pursue new possibilities, we have to abandon the myths of linear human development that has led inevitably to now. We need to find new ways of thinking about human potential. I would add that, especially now in this technological age, we need to seriously examine the consequences of hoarding knowledge. If every new idea is patented or copyrighted, we will never achieve any degree of egalitarian world.
Freedom is at the heart of this discussion, without it we cannot be self-determined. So, consider the key forms of social liberty:
- Freedom to move away, relocate if you don’t like where you are.
- Freedom to disobey or ignore commands.
- Freedom to shape entirely new social realities, or to shift back and forth between different types of social order.
And ask yourself, how free am I?
Since much of the reform in my own way of thinking has come from my study of Native American cultures, I know my answer. A 16th Century Mohawk or an 18th Century Lakota enjoyed all three of these social liberties. We do not. They were free in ways we can no longer fully imagine. And they believed everyone around them had the right to the same level of freedom. An individual need not worry that their behavior was unproductive, as long as it was not counter-productive to the tribe’s welfare, they knew they would not be cast aside.
We have poisoned our sense of freedom by indulging our desire for ownership and security. We have adopted a schismogenesis that says, ‘I am better than you because I own more than you.’ We no longer dream about what’s possible.
The ancient Greeks spoke of a condition called kairos – a metamorphosis in a society in which the lines between myth and history, science and magic become blurred – and, therefore, real change is possible.
Post Script: It’s impossible to condense 700 page of historical, archeological and anthropological research into one essay. What I’ve tried to do here is speak to the lessons I learned the first time around. Please, share what you’ve learned after reading THE DAWN OF EVERYTHING.