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The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber & David Wengrow

Review: 5 / 5

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is an incredibly ambitious book, taking on the task of synthesizing the latest in archaeology and anthropology to argue that the history of humanity is not one of a slow, inevitable path from small bands of egalitarian hunter gatherers eventually leading to the poison pill of farming, cities, hierarchy, and violence. By examining the past, the authors hope to make the argument that in the future humans can organize themselves in different ways than we do today — the spread of agriculture and the rise of male-dominated, violent empires was not predestined, and there are examples in history of other large scale societies organized in different ways (Minoan Crete, as an example). Why didn’t we take those alternative paths? And why can’t we choose an alternative path in the future?

The authors argue that the evolutionary path of history, which they trace back to Rousseau and brought into the present by popular authors like Yuval Noah Harari, is used to tell us that we are stuck with the “institutional cages” we created for ourselves. As Harari writes, “When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison”.

The book is long (526 pages), dense, and comes with a hundred pages of notes, many of which are longer commentaries on the main point. In the process of making their argument that the world we have today is built on myths and chance, rather than a predetermined path that all large societies must follow, the authors tell the stories of early populations around the globe in compelling detail. Many of the stories are incredibly interesting and I would have happily read the book just for the stories of groups like the Hopewell culture, the Natchez, and the (apparently) violent and brutal Cahokia — parts of North American history that I had only a vague awareness of despite living within a days-drive of where these groups lived. The authors covered thousands of years of history in a compelling and very readable way, and I built up a long list of places that I would like to learn more about as I read the book.

I found the broader argument that the authors make about the alternative paths that existed and could have been (and could be again) compelling. At times the arguments felt a bit forced — does the Enlightenment’s view of the path of human history really have much of an impact on the world today? Are there that many people in power who care much about the philosophical underpinnings of their world?


Title: The Dawn of Everything
Author: David Graeber & David Wengrow
Published: 2021
ISBN: 9780771001031
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