Out of the Mists

The common assumption put forward by several decades of anthropology and associated fields concerning that vast fog known as Prehistory runs as follows: humans, after emerging from the crapshoot of evolution, roved the savannah in small bands, gathering and hunting and painfully inching their way toward a point where they began to make tools (other than spear points and such). Then came a long period of migration, scattered attempts at settlement, until, a critical population mass achieved, agriculture was developed, and very quickly came the abandonment of hunter-gatherer society, regular towns, art, and gradually more impressive engineering feats to serve the expanding agro-economy. At some further point, all this became the foundation of nascent states, after which the whole thing rolled into the “historic” era (marked by the advent of record-keeping) and kings and empires and slavery, and so forth.

This is more or less the way it was presented to me back in school, and, I suspect, still pretty much the popular conception of prehistory.

The problem with this is that we are talking about roughly 200,000 years of that undifferentiated, featureless, unchanging landscape. Taken at face value, it says that human beings conducted themselves as essentially immutably “innocent” creatures, either incapable or uninterested in doing anything more with themselves or their environment until they learned to plow a field and write things down. If, as the evidence suggests, modern homo sapiens had been roaming around the planet for two hundred millennia, with all that “modern” implies, this begs the question of what “we” were doing all that time and why, all of a sudden, about 10,000 years ago, we started living entirely differently.

Put that way, there is no reasonable answer. It is on its face an absurd assumption.

One that is not supported by any of the evidence we actually have.

So why cling to the narrative?

In The Dawn Of Everything: A New History Of Humanity, authors David Graeber and David Wengrow explore exactly that question and in so doing turn over multiple apple carts, debunk many myths, and shake up the common assumptions about that vast and murky period. They begin with a look at Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the question of equality.

When we first embarked on this book, our intention was to seek new answers to questions about the origins of social inequality. It didn’t take long before we realized this simply wasn’t a very good approach. Framing human history in this way—which necessarily means assuming humanity once existed in an idyllic state, and that a specific point can be identified at which everything started to go wrong—made it almost impossible to ask any of the questions we felt were were genuinely interesting.

They proceed then to reexamine as many assumptions as possible with the space of reasonably-sized book to show that Rousseau’s apparent point in his Discourse On The Origins Of Inequality is a bit of a cheat—unless Rousseau was being absurd to a purpose. For instance, Graeber and Wengrow remind us (assuming we ever knew) that the so-called “indigenous critique” of European civilization that informed much of Enlightenment thinking was not an invention of the philosophes but a genuine critique delivered by Native Americans after they had witnessed firsthand European civilization (often as captives/slaves, sometimes a diplomats). The sources were credited by the philosophes themselves as being from Native Americans, but later historians chose to ignore this to the point where it was forgotten and the natives were relegated to that pool of prehistoric humanity too “simple” to understand complex culture and socio-political structures.

From that point on, Graeber and Wengrow take nothing at face value and conduct a thorough reevaluation. If human beings have been phsyiologically “modern” for 200,000 years, it is ridiculous to assume they did not conduct themselves with as much sophistication and complexity as we do. Often, as it turns out, with strikingly different results.

The scope of the book is global. Between them, they cover archaeological finds from Central America to Turkey to Japan and points in between and carefully examine what is thee to be seen and what it means in relation to our understanding of how communities function. It is an eye-opening tour.

Much here is speculative. What makes prehistory difficult is the lack of, well, history. Written history. All we have are the remnants. But with a clear eye, those remnants are quite expressive. One thing that emerges consistently is that our previous assumptions are wrong.

From the end of the last ice age till now, we have enough to trace humanity’s presence and draw conclusions about its progress. But for the most part we still cling to the simplistic story of “primitive” societies living subsistence existences until the point where it become possible to form what subsequently became great states—Egypt, Babylon, Rome, the Indus Cultures. The implication being that once we reached that level we never looked back and marched forward into the present building roughly the same kinds of civilizations. And that at some point we collectively began to realize that we had become in thrall to despotisms and began what we know as the battle for equality. We seldom question the progression.

But, Graeber and Wengrow ask, why don’t we question it? Because even within historic times, it just isn’t the case, at least not universally.

If anything is clear by now it’s this. Where we once assumed ‘civilization’ and ‘state’ to be conjoined entities that came down to us as a historical package (take it or leave it forever), what history now demonstrates is that these terms actually refer to complex amalgams of elements which have entirely different origins and which are currently in the process of drifting apart. Seen this way, to rethink the basic premises of social evolution is to rethink the very idea of politics itself.

What is revealed by their analysis is that the smooth trajectory of assumed historical progress is an oversimplified, biased gloss from too few perspectives. The reality—that which can be demonstrated with evidence and that which can then be surmised by constructive deduction—is far more complicated, complex, and frankly compelling. Part of the telos of those simplistic constructions is that all that has gone before inevitably led to now—to us. We are as we must be by decree of historic processes which are inevitable.

The truth is, what we are now is only one possibility of what we might have become.

And this is the meat and bone of Graeber and Wengrow’s argument—that to justify ourselves as we are it is better to paint the ancient past as a homogenous, almost featureless whole. Had people twenty, thirty, or fifty thousand years ago not been the pastoral simpletons we’ve presented them to be, then where are the great kingdoms and empires, the technologies, the earthworks, the cities that would mark them as complex thinkers? While to a certain extent that is a not unimportant question, it overlooks examples that have left traces, even up to the present period, that fail to fit the expectations engendered by such a view. The decay of time certainly has something to do with the paucity of physical evidence, but what we do have is not so insignificant that the standard narrative has any claim to remain unchallenged.

While a good portion of The Dawn Of Everything is speculative, enough evidence and solid analysis is presented to more than justify such speculations, at the very least insofar as a challenge to our assumptions and a reconsideration of modern expectations. Quite a bit of non-Western critique was suppressed or ignored to help in building a picture of the past that supported the hegemony of the West’s self-importance. (Quite a lot of what became the political revolution of United States came from indigenous sources, accepted wholesale by the philosophes and then subsequently forgotten. The thinking was sophisticated, philosophically trenchant, and necessary to challenge what had become a standard view of the West’s view of itself.)

David Graeber passed away in 2020, at the age of 59. More volumes were to follow this one, according to his collaborator David Wengrow. One assumes many of the critiques that will inevitably emerge regarding this first book would be addressed in those books that follow—for instance, this—because clearly there was insufficient room in one volume to cover all the material avbailable. We may see more, but what they produced here is one of those books designed to upset apple carts. There is no inevitability in history, tempting though such narratives are. In order to free ourselves of the chains of a presumed inevitable present, we must go back and reexamine the past and find those “missing” parts that demonstrate the possibilities and the promises of other roads. This is what we have in this book.

Why Read

In light of the last few years, the question bites. Indulge me in a venting plea.

In my experience, limited though it is, I have found that the better read a person is, the more likely they will be to cope with reality, to defend against the twisting delights of both conspiracy theory and pseudoscience, and to be less vulnerable to charlatanry.

Not always. Some deceptions come wrapped in marvelous packages that can appeal to the puzzle-solver in us all and present as aesthetically compelling. In my own life I have followed white rabbits in tweed down a number of holes, some part of me convinced that truth lay in some hidden recess along the way.

I have been relegated to many sidelines since childhood because of reading, sidelines which at the time seemed harsh and unfair, but in retrospect were actually relatively safe places. Time and space are necessary for a mind to develop. Exposure to stimulating material does not work its magic immediately, sometimes not even soon, but eventually all those books and stories and articles result in a set of pathways and memories and organizing concepts that allow for the skills to deal with what may otherwise be just confusion.

No, let me be more definite—“may” has little to do with it. People who read, in my experience, are generally more present, more conscious, more adaptable than people who only watch and subsequently go through life skimming a surface which too often becomes a mirror and allows them to ignore what is beneath. In fact, those surface presentations often depend on not knowing what underlies them, may actively resist analysis, and with few exceptions deceive by suggesting there is nothing more.

Not all. But it is also true that those not intended to deceive largely depend on an audience that reads to reveal their full meaning.

There are many studies about the physiological and cognitive benefits of reading, especially fiction. Here’s one. There is an increases in synaptic structure associated with regular reading. Memory improves. Your brain responds by providing better tools.

Then, of course, you have to apply the tools. For me, this makes fiction and, in a similar way, history indispensable. Reading other kinds of books, while important in many ways, can leave you unaware of irony, of conflict, or paradox, all of which are fundamental to the so-called Human Condition. We read novels to grapple with the contradictions of being human. We read fiction because in doing so we learn the value of Other Minds attempting to do this thing we all own as a birthright—-living.

Occasionally we see a nod to this in popular entertainment. In the tv series Castle, Detective Becket is presented as an exceptional and gifted detective. In the first episode we hear from one of her colleagues that he likes “a simple Jack killed Jill over Bill” rather than the “freaky” ones. Becket responds, “Oh, but the freaky ones require more.” And then she challenges them: “Don’t you guys read?” As the series progresses we can see that she just brings more to the game and in that first episode the difference is made explicit.

We undervalue reading, often while making a big deal about it. Writers become celebrities, usually once one or more of their books is made into a film. And their fans may well read everything they publish, but that’s not beneficial reading. Like anything else, if you do not expand your horizons, complicate your diet, move out of your comfort zone, you end up trapped in a self-referential, reaffirming loop that grows nothing.

We must read so our apprehension of the world is less frightening, amenable to recognition, and manageable. So that people are not so alien and culture not so forbidding. Certainly someone can read a great deal and still be unable to decipher the world, but I believe such people to be a minority, and most of us benefit from the increased clarity that comes from an ongoing encounter with Other Minds.

The greatest benefit comes from a catholic indulgence: read widely, daily—fiction, science, history, philosophy, memoir—because at some point you will find it all reinforcing, that insights gained in one place can be enriched and enlivened by another source. And somewhere along the way, we may find that we are no longer easily fooled.

The most valuable ability of late would seem to be this, the awareness to not be fooled.

I make no prediction that a sudden upsurge of deep reading would solve our problems. Humans can be contradictory, perverse creatures. But it seems obvious that an illiterate populace is an easily-tricked, easily swayed populace. Given that those who are invested in people watching their shallow offerings rather than go off somewhere to read are generally those who would sell us shiny bits that delight and fail, it would be a good strategy to take up books and stop being led like myopic sheep.

But I have a rather more personal reason for urging people to set aside whatever prejudices they acquired in primary and secondary schools that turned them against reading-for-pleasure. When I set a book aside, as one must, and go out into the world, I would like to have meaningful contact with other people, and ignorance is a depressing barrier to that.

Why read? To be more. To hopefully be yourself. And possibly to be free.