Monday, December 20, 2021

THE DAWN OF EVERYTHING by David Graeber and David Wengrow

 One of the few aspects which differentiate humans from other animals is our unending desire to know why things are the way they are. Where any knowledge, let alone scientific knowledge, is missing, we construct narratives to fill that void. These stories we tell ourselves to fill these voids are myths and they come not only in the familiar religious form, but also have secular manifestations. One such was the Hobbsian view of early humanity having a short brutal existence as it wandered around like bears and cougars looking for food. This myth still influences us as shown in our until very recent depiction of Neanderthals as knuckle-dragging, inarticulate brutes and of the wandering, grazing Indigenous people.

With the beginnings of paleontology in the 19th Century, came a linear and narrowly compartmentalized view of human development, based on the underlying capitalist ideology of Progress. First the Paleolithic Age, made up of foragers who stumbled about knocking over wooly mammoths and such. Then a transition period called the Mesolithic, and finally the Neolithic. With the Neolithic came the “invention” of agriculture, sedentary life, the processing of food, pottery, elaborate rituals and massive ceremonial sites like New Grange in Ireland.

Sadly, with agriculture comes the Fall of Man, as the surplus so generated – a surplus that could not exist in the Hobbsian world of the Paleolithic – is seized by a minority and so the state and class division are invented, and everything sort of goes to the dogs from there on.

This has been the story up until now. Recent discoveries have been quickly relegating this narrative to the realm of worn-out myth, even some years before the appearance of THE DAWN OF EVERYTHING.

The reality is that paleolithic peoples, and foragers in general, had plenty of food and worked way less than later cultures did to acquire it. They did not wander around grazing like cattle, archaeological evidence points to the formation of villages some 30,000 years ago. Nor did they lack forms of “wealth” that could be accumulated. They were gathering and parching grains 28,000 BCE (parching allows grains to be kept for years) and there is evidence of wine residue, the drying and smoking of meat. Valuable shells (for their beaded leather clothing) obsidian and flint were also kept. Pottery was made but only for figurines and no practical purpose.

Recent studies of existing foragers shows there is no clear cut line between foraging and cultivation. Indigenous peoples used controlled burning, replanting, pruning, wapato and camas gardens in a kind of permaculture. Neolithic peoples engaged in a certain amount of crop growing, but would then abandon it for foraging again, in what the authors called “play farming.” All free peasant societies mixed farming with foraging. It took about 5000 years to go from the first development of maize to the condition where it became the principle food source. Same was true with other grains.

Papuans have been growing yams for 8000 years, but never developed a state. Indeed, no root crop based societies ever autonomously developed a state. At the same, time the ONLY societies to develop the state and class division have been those where grains are the primary crop. Agriculture, at least grain growing, is a necessary precondition for state formation, but is not the only cause.

Archaeological evidence is now so complex that the authors insist that we should cease asking, “How was the state and inequality invented?” But before we examine that question further, let's take one last look at the breakdown of the paleolithic-neolithic dichotomy.

Supposedly Neolithic society was the first to develop massive monumental structures and then Gobleki-Tepi was discovered a few years ago and smashed that idea to bits. This massive structure – and others like it, since found, were built 12,000 years ago. At least 2000 years before the first major attempts at agriculture.

Urban environments were long seen as part of our move from simple peasant villages to “civilization” and of course our old enemies the state and class division. Something as complex as a city needed hierarchy, bureaucracy and inequality to function. Hence the archeological record ought to show a gross inequality of dwelling size, vast palaces, huge tombs for the kings. They should also be warlike with evidence of periodic destruction of buildings, art works glorifying war, and massive fortifications. Problem is, the early cities like those in the Ukraine, Chatal-Hukuk in Turkey, Mohejo-Daro in India, and the beginnings of urban life in Sumeria do not show any of this.

Even more astounding were Tiahuanaco in Bolivia and the massive Teotihuacan in Mexico. The former shows no palaces and no evidence of the use of warfare to spread the Tiahuanacan culture. Teotihuacan grew from a simple village into a ceremonial center with the vast Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, which show evidence of human sacrifice, but none of any rulers dominating the populace. It seems there was, however, a growing tendency toward authoritarianism and about 300 AD the temples were burned and largely abandoned. Housing then became the prominent goal of the city. About 100,000 people lived in houses of equal size and there was no evidence of hierarchy. The people of Teotihuacan had a revolution in 300 AD, it seems.

The authors point out that while foraging bands had small population, foraging societies were not. Once a year foragers would gather by the thousands at various sites for social interaction, ritual and gift giving. Certain temple sites were “seasonal cities” replicating seasonal variation of foragers.

Forager societies cannot be reduced to one type. One example being the Calusa culture of Florida that practiced “extreme forms of inequality.” Hunting culture may have moved from feeding the group to dominating other humans. It seems that some foragers who lived near urban areas may have created cultures that were hierarchical and violent and through a process called “shismogenesis” both cultures became less and less like each other. This would lead to a kind of proto-state developing on the margins of the non-statist cities, a proto-state that eventually conquers the cities and imposes kings and class rule. But even then for a very long time kings had limited power – limited to annual tax gathering (the rest of the year the peasants were left alone to live as they always had.) or as in the case of the Sumerian cities constrained by urban and neighborhood councils.

The real question according to the authors is not the origin of inequality and the state, but how this fluidity of social relations cease or “How did we get stuck” with authoritarian relations. The puzzle being, not the appearance of kings, but “why we didn't laugh them out of court?”

There are three elementary forms of domination, 1. control of violence 2. control of knowledge 3. charismatic power. The early proto-states had one or at most two of these. Only a full-blown state has both. The state was not the long evolution from some earlier mode of living but a “confluence of the three political forms” previously mentioned. These elementary aspects existed well prior to state formation, though they are not some kind of eternal Platonic form, but had their own specific origins.

Another aspect explored by the authors is Indigenous political analysis and political choice as exercised by these people. We have already seen how there must have been a kind of revolution in Teotihuacan, which established an egalitarian society. There was a similar situation (and most likely situationS) in North America with the city of Cahokia near the Missouri River circa 1300 AD. A highly inegalitarian society was overthrown and for centuries after its ruins and surrounding area became a “forbidden zone.” The ex-Cahokians returned to village life many miles from the remains of the city. “Whatever happened at Cahokia, the backlash against it was so severe that it set forth repercussions we are still feeling today.”

The result was a return to the communal, consensus-based councils. Since Indigenous peoples traveled widely, most likely a critique of centralized, top-down authority spread among the Atlantic Coast population. One possible result may have been the Haudenosaunee Federal Council, which developed roughly about the time of Cahokia's demise.

As a result, by the time the Europeans arrived, if not a long time before, Indigenous peoples had a well developed political theory that involved democracy and federalism. Later claims that such ideas stemmed from the Europeans and that Indigenous leaders were merely repeating what they learned from the white man or that European critics of authoritarianism were guilty of romanticism or reading European ideas into the Indigenous are simply untrue. European intellectuals of the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries – especially the Jesuits from whom we get most of the reporting – saw democracy and equality as an anathema. The European critique of authoritarianism owed a great deal to the Indigenous critique of authority, and especially, its European manifestations. Liberal and socialist thinking is thus rooted in a good measure, in an earlier Indigenous political critique.

I have little disagreement with DAWN, most of it is congruent with the readings in anthropology, paleontology and archeology, that I have done over the past forty years. These minor disagreements are two in number.

For one, I am surprised that the question of climate change and its relation to state formation was not raised, other than very briefly. Back in the late 1990s I noticed that Europe and the Mediterranean areas went through a periods of severe drought circa 3000-4000 BCE leading to population migration. This coincided remarkably with the formation of proto-states and the destruction of the Ukrainian cities aforementioned.

The other aspect is their characterization of the Pacific North West cultures. While there are a lot of similarities among these cultures, they are not the same. The Salish are not like the Haida, Nuu cha nulth, or Kwakwakawak. Nor can the potlach be reduced to its most extravagant form as was found in a culture already devastated by disease and overwhelmed by capitalist consumer goods. Indeed, Indigenous people see the potlach as their most important ceremony, one that involves sharing and ceremonies of name-giving, “coming of age”, and marriage. Nor for all of the immense and complex status hierarchies, did the chiefs possess much coercive power. Any petty colonial official had more ability to coerce.

While DAWN has been welcomed by most of the left, those of a sectarian or vulgar Marxist bent, feel they must trash it using their quiver full of logical fallacies. “I mean, really, we can't say anything good about a book written by ANARCHISTS, can we?” It just cracks me up to read that the book is “anti-materialist”, “conservative”, “opposes historical materialism” ect. Sorry folks, but there is something called the dialectic, which means that theories have to be changed as limitations appear as new evidence arises. To cling to an old theory that clashes with empirical reality is to indulge in philosophical idealism, turning an ever-moving theory into a religious dogma that must be defended at all cost.

When Marx wrote briefly about the prehistoric in the 1840s there was no anthropology, no paleontology and archeology was in its tomb-plundering infancy. Marx's narrative of a communism of poverty and a later development of an agricultural surplus allowing a class and thus a state to form, was simply guess work. Science has shown the limitations of such a schema, and while all societies must have an economic base, which in the last instance limits the abilities of that society, the actual situation is vastly more complex and contradictory. (For the simple-minded, complexity and nuance are an anathema.) Marx would be the first to change his opinions, as indeed he began to in his later writings. Those of a secular religious bent, however, do not follow in their masters footsteps. Far from the absurd charge that this is anti-materialist, I see DAWN as a fine example of materialist dialectics at work.


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