Reading The Dawn of Everything is an ambitious undertaking, especially for those of us who are not scholars of ancient civilizations. The writing is often academic, with scholarly cliches and insider quips. But stick with it!! The overall quality of the work will transform the way you think about history. Instead of reading entire chapters in a single sitting, try tackling small sections within each chapter that are clearly marked by large sub-headers. Often the sub-headers pose questions and are a clever way of prompting the book’s readers to re-imagine human history. Is the narrative that we have been led to believe about human history true or accurate? Yes and No.
What we have been taught about history according to the conventional line of thinking contains false narrative. Plenty of credence has been given to the transformation humanity made when it transitioned from being a hunter-gatherer society to becoming an agricultural, food-producing society. This assumption is both right and wrong. In many instances, there is no clear demarcation as to when this transformation took place. Furthermore, there were many ancient societies who adopted agriculture as a fledgling practice, only to later reject it and revert back to the immediacy and efficiency of a hunter-gatherer way of life.
Consider the following: Whole parts or entire centuries of human history have never been recorded. And when human history has been recorded, the task was often done by the victors of war, not the vanquished. Winners and losers notwithstanding, it is time for us to find out what is true and what is not. Here is one bonafide truism: from the beginning of human history, there has always been an ongoing tension between communities who wanted to be self-governing (egalitarian) and those who wanted to rule top-down (authoritarian) by exerting their control over communities in order to amass power, wealth, or perhaps even to court the favors of the gods. Interestingly, these two divergent forms of cultures coexisted concurrently during the same period in time, and in some cases lived not far apart geographically.
For example, the indigenous people of California had markedly different values than the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. The California indigenous people—Yurok—had values similar to the early Puritans, with a cultural emphasis on stoicism and simplicity, decrying wastefulness or excess. The Northwest indigenous peoples enjoyed loud, large-scale grand celebrations, replete with gluttonous feasting and messianic dancing that went on for days, and were fond of acquiring slaves, a practice that was an anathema to the Yurok. The two societies, who were in contact with one another, defined themselves by their differences in the same way the Greek societies of Athens and Sparta defined their identities by one being the polar opposite of the other.
Schismogenesis is the term coined by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson to define how two very different cultures are able to form a solid identity because of the existence of the other. Think of how the alt-right and GOP define their beliefs that are precisely so unlike what liberals and progressives believe. Consider how the authoritarian state of Russia is driven to conquer and subsume the democratic nation of Ukraine. Here is another bonafide truism: from the beginning of history, the self-governing (egalitarian) and top-down rulers (authoritarian) have been able to successfully manage the dynamic tension between them to live in a guarded but peaceful coexistence. On the other hand, the two cultures have erupted into warfare, destruction, and the immolation of one culture at the expense of another. Aside from having better weapons or more advanced technology, the chief factor in predicting which type of community ultimately flourished—either the self-governing or the top-down—is by examining who left behind the better narrative. Who recorded history? The victors or the vanquished?
There has always been a commonly held belief among historians and teachers of history that the origins of self-governing societies came about due to the influence of men like Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, John Locke, (Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de l'Aulne conspicuously known as Turgot), Charles Montesquieu, and half a dozen other political philosophers whose brilliant thinking shaped the democracy that we know and enjoy today. Conventional notions about the history of humanity have been derived from western thinkers and are the backbone, or backstory, of what we learn in school; it’s what our high school history teachers taught us to believe.
So, it might come to a surprise to those of us who were taught by staid history teachers to learn that many indigenous cultures were indeed the first egalitarian cultures who supported individual freedom. It might come as a further surprise to learn that some of the fundamental tenets of our American democracy originated with indigenous peoples and not with the litany of great western thinkers. The western thinkers who wrote a trove of essays and treatises about democracy did not give credit where credit was due—to indigenous peoples, but they did indeed leave behind the better narrative.
Take Charles Montesquieu; there is no question that Montesquieu had a profound influence on the formation of democracy. Montesquieu’s theories were put into practice by founding fathers of the United States when they framed the U.S. Constitution. His theory of creating a system of checks and balances, and the separation of powers among the executive, judicial and legislature branches of government, was intended to ensure a balance of power that would preserve the spirit of individual liberty. What is not commonly known is that Montesquieu’s thinking was profoundly influenced by the Osage, a Native American tribe of the Great Plains. Montesquieu’s learning derived from the Osage gave him the impetus to build an explicit theory of institutional reform in his book “The Spirit of the Laws,” which is widely hailed as a blueprint to create a government that is based on laws, not men—and that is precisely what the early framers of the U.S Constitution created.
It has been further proposed that Haudenosaunee federal structures (the six nations of the Iroquois) might have also served as a model for the U.S. Constitution. According to the book’s authors, it is interesting that “any suggestion that European thinkers learned anything of moral or social value from indigenous people is met with derision to condemnation.” The Jesuits, who have traditionally been deemed as the arbiters of cogent thinking about democracy, proclaimed the abhorrence of freedom that they witnessed among indigenous peoples, calling it the “wicked liberty of the savages.” In their observation of the Wendat they fail to see how their freedom had anything to do with the Eurasian notion of “equality before the law.”
Along comes Wendat philosopher statesman Kandiaronk, an elegant, erudite thinker who is as comfortable among his own indigenous people as he is interacting with the European newcomers who have made their way to North America. The Wendat and other indigenous people are astonished in their observation of the earliest European missionaries for their squabbling and backbiting over their possessions and property. These newcomers fail to offer support to one another and their submission to authority amounts to little more than blind obedience. Worse of all, the new settlers used their power over possessions and property as a way to exert control and power over other human beings. It was only a matter of time when Kandiaronk, who is cast with the slur “noble savage,” is eventually heralded by European thinkers as one of the by the great thinkers of the day. In Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s essay “The discourse on the origins of social inequality,” he asks, “How is it that Europeans are able to turn a mere unequal distribution of material goods into the ability to tell others what to do, to employ them as servants…or to feel that it was no concern of theirs if they were left dying in a feverish bundle on the street?”
The actualization of the self-governing (egalitarian) versus top-down rulers (authoritarian) becomes more than a dynamic tension between two different types of cultures, but it is at the crux of how power and wealth came to shape the world we live in today. A very small percentage of the world’s population do control the fates of everyone else and are doing so in an increasingly disastrous fashion. A quick recap of some of the most pressing problems in the 21st Century, ranging from climate change, and grossly unfair economic practices governing energy and food production to nuclear proliferation and imperialist acts of aggression that cause great human harm and suffering, all of these issues and more provide a clear bellwether of the predicament that we find ourselves in.
How did we get here? This is the proposition often asserted by authors David Graeber and David Wengrow. The answer is more complex than viewing humans as either innately self-governing (egalitarian) or innately top-down (authoritarian). The authors address seasonality among ancient communities, that is when the same society alternated, switching back and forth between self-governing and top-down modalities depending on the time of year—harvest required a stricter division of labor, but the summer might bring about days of creative play. “If human beings, through most of our history, have moved back and forth fluidly between different social arrangements, assembling and dismantling hierarchies on a regular basis, then maybe the real question should be ‘how did we get stuck?’”
Maybe a more precise question arises: Why can’t we move back and forth between self-governing (egalitarian) or innately top-down (authoritarian) based on what our society needs at a given moment? On the other hand, isn’t that what we do in post-modern democracy when we vote for new leadership during an election? The Dawn of Everything inevitably inspires readers to ask these questions. Despite the regularity of modern-day elections and the continuing dynamic tension between self-governing (egalitarian) or top-down (authoritarian) modalities, the pendulum never swings too far toward freedom. Humans have lost the flexibility and freedom to manage their own lives and are stuck being subordinate to the overwhelming domination of possessions and property, where money rules and where money makes the laws and the moral code we are required to abide by.
To examine why humans get stuck, we take a journey through numerous archeological sites, many of them obscure to those of us who are not scholars of ancient civilizations: Gobekli Tepe (southeastern Turkey), Poverty Point (northeastern Louisiana), Sannai Maruyama (northern Japan), Stonehenge (southern England).We learn it is impossible to know what forms of property or ownership existed. If private property has an origin, a pattern of belief and practice as old as the idea of the sacred or divine, the question remains: how did incessant squabbling and backbiting over possessions and property take hold in so many aspects of human affairs?
Going back to the dawn of everything takes us to Catalhoyuk, an ancient city in Turkey circa 7400 BC where evidence of successful Matriarchate or mother rule is deemed to be more than a way to run a society but is the foundation for the collective unconscious. Minangkabau, a Muslim people of Sumatra, also describe themselves as matriarchal. Other indigenous peoples, the Wendat, Hopi and Zuni, also qualify as matriarchies. It is no wonder that Kandiaronk, the great democratic thinker, lived among the Wendat. Matriarchal cultures are self-governing (egalitarian), and emphasize social cooperation, civic activism, hospitality and simply caring for others.
Archeologist Marija Gimbutas preferred to define these societies as matric instead of as matriarchy, citing the latter as a mirror image of patriarchy. The political rule of women is further defined as Gynarchy or Gynaecocracy. For example, Minoan Crete, from 1,700 to 1450 BC offers no clear archeological evidence of a monarchy. In its art, artifacts and bones, women are found to weigh in on a larger scale than are men. Most of the available evidence from Minoan Crete suggests it was self-governing (egalitarian), a theocracy governed by a college of priestesses. After exhaustive research of the matric societies in ancient history, archeologist Marija Gimbutas revealed her findings. She was shunned and dismissed by her colleagues—the male academic and scientific community.
Historically, (the history we learn in school), greater emphasis is placed on Pharaonic Egypt, Han China, Inca Peru, Aztec Mexico, Imperial Rome and Ancient Greece, all rigid rank and file societies held together by top-down (authoritarian) government, where violence was rampant, and the radical subordination of women was the norm. Why top-down authoritarian governments dominate the narrative as being the official rendering of history is, in and of itself, a topic worthy of exploration. Now here is the good news: eventually human history does tell its own story, one that is greater than the narrative spouted by the victors. The real story of human history is told through its art, artifacts and the bones it has left behind.
Conventional patriarchal thinking about the dominance of a winner take all, top-down (authoritarian) modality points to our fall from the garden of Eden—the Faustian pact humans made with wheat, the domestication of large seeded grasses, marking the transition from the hunter-gather society to becoming an agricultural food-producing society. This assumption is dim and narrow, especially when there are so many other factors to consider, weighing in on everything from the personalities of would-be kings to understanding how Mesopotamian urbanites were organized into autonomous self-governing units. The story of Gilgamesh and Agga, about the war between Uruk and Kish, describing a city council divided into two chambers, will keep you up at night because it is too reminiscent of the schisms between the right and the left in the U.S. Congress in our post-modern world.
The Dawn of Everything was never intended to be a good read in the same vein as a pop-nonfiction page-turner. The many ancient civilizations that are explored will force you to read and reread passages to commit names, dates and circumstances to memory, and there are more footnotes than a non-academic can bear! If it’s hard to read, then why bother? The Dawn of Everything is complex and brilliant as much as it is simple and brilliant, and that puts human history into perspective. For example, the invention of the light bulb had huge ramifications for the modern world. Yet many Neolithic discoveries had the cumulative effect of shaping everyday life as profoundly as the lightbulb: bread rising, cultivation of crops and growth cycles, ceramics, mining, all of which are still with us today.
In the parade of ancient communities that are explored in The Dawn of Everything, we are able to consider the epoch transitions in history: Agriculture, Industrialization, Transportation, Energy, Technology, and how each transition impacted the ongoing dynamic tension between the self-governing (egalitarian) and top-down (authoritarian) modalities. We might find that there are no sure answers, but we can embrace the following truth: Freedom is a constant struggle. We are also left with the burning desire to ask the right question: How did our post-modern world arrive at this point and place time? This is especially important to ask in our current age, which is steeped in Kairos—an opportune moment in history, when real change is not only possible but inevitable. You can’t come to a fork in the road to make a decision unless you have taken the journey to get there, and reading the Dawn of Everything is that journey.
We are hereinafter called to ask the right questions about the true origins of history and to use our imagination instead of accepting false narrative by glossing over the parts of human history that were never recorded or intentionally omitted.There is much still to be learned and we don’t know all of the answers. The version of history that is accepted by the governing few can dictate how historians and teachers of history decide what is true. However, at the end of the day, mass graves and archeological sites do distinguish self-governing (egalitarian) societies from those that were top-down(authoritarian). One final truism: If we know where the art, the artifacts and the bodies are buried, the bones do not lie.