cover image The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

David Graeber and David Wengrow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (704p) ISBN 978-0-374-15735-7

The transition from hunter-gatherer life to agriculture, urbanism, and civilization saw a blossoming of egalitarian politics and social order, according to this sweeping manifesto. Surveying 26,000-year-old European graves, Stone Age Turkish towns, the musings of 17th-century Iroquois philosophers, and more, archaeologist Wengrow (What Makes Civilization?) and anthropologist Graeber (Debt), who died last year, critique conventional theories of historical development. Far from simplistic savages living in a state of “childlike innocence,” they argue, hunter-gatherers could be sophisticated thinkers with diverse economies and sizable towns; moreover, agriculture and urbanism did not necessarily birth private property, class hierarchies, and authoritarian government, they contend, since many early farming societies and cities were egalitarian and democratic. Vast in scope and dazzling in erudite detail, the book seethes with intriguing ideas; unfortunately, though, the authors’ habitual overgeneralizations—“one cannot even say that medieval [European] thinkers rejected the notion of social equality: the idea that it might exist seems never to have occurred to them”—undermine confidence in their method of grand speculation from tenuous evidence. (For example, they see “evidence for the world’s first documented social revolution” in the damaged condition of elite habitations in the 4,000-year-old ruins of the Chinese city of Taosi.) Readers will find this stimulating and provocative, but not entirely convincing. (Nov.)