Wrapping up The Dawn of Everything, we return to North America to review pre-contact politics, and consider that the state is not, in fact, the "end of history" when it comes to human complexity.
For the last few months, we’ve been exploring the possibilities of a Humanist Book Club through The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. The idea wasn’t simply to move through the text, but to think about the stories that carry us forward. To try to empower ourselves to think differently about human agency.
In this work of anthropology, archaeology, and historiography, the Davids encouraged us to free ourselves from rigid notions of the past, and to imagine our ancestors with more creativity and flexibility in their choices, as human beings not much different from ourselves. This wasn’t done as an experiment in fantasy, but as a corrective for the strong biases that individual philosophers, political scientists, ethnologists, and historians inevitably bring to their assessment of the evidence. We can’t help it, really: we read the past through the lens of the present, as surely as we write science fictions set in the future that are all about our “now”, too.
Which means that even the Davids are writing within a context. And what is that context, exactly? One of these Davids is no longer with us. David Graeber died in 2020. He didn’t get to see the rest of the pandemic, the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, or the staggering acceleration of climate change events. But while he was with us, he did what a lot of us are trying to do: to make the most of the time we have. To try to leave this world a little better than we found it (or at least keep it from getting any worse). To be a good witness to the indifferent cosmos, and contribute well to our communities.
We are living in a desperate present, on war and nationalist and climate change fronts alike. Perhaps we’ve been through difficult times as a species before, but this is our time, and these are our challenges within it. Energy crises, water shortages, food security issues, extreme weather events, tropical-disease spread, environmental refugeeism, civil wars sparked by rising tribalisms, the utter gamification of critical market economies, the depreciation of democracy especially from privately run tech bubbles standing in for proper town squares…
We need work that reminds us of choice: that the systems we have are not the systems we need to accept going forward; that other options exist; and that humans have been resilient enough to take up those options before—and therefore can again.
Today, we’re tying up loose ends with Chapters 11 and 12 of The Dawn of Everything. But we’re going to keep that work going with another book soon after.
I’m currently putting together the next round of Humanist Book Club, which will cover Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (2020). This is a work of near-future science fiction that addresses concrete global policies we might put into action to mitigate climate change disaster. The work is challenging because it also presents a shadow mandate, involving extreme activist measures, as perhaps being necessary to compel more urgent political action.
We’ll be taking a different approach with this book, too: no more deep-dive chapter summaries; instead, a focus on different policy approaches raised by the text. Hopefully, the new format will invite more active conversation. I’m happy to have provided a shorter version of the arguments in The Dawn of Everything, but the work of building a better world has to be collaborative. We have to train ourselves to engage with media differently, even after two decades of pretty challenging social media spaces and the very strange way they’ve guided us to view authority claims.
So please feel free to dive into The Ministry for the Future now. Get a taste of the story arc. Read it as fiction, if you can. Then we’ll hash out different activist strategies in a way that will invite all comers (readers of the work, and otherwise) to share their thoughts on climate change reform.
Because these are the times we have, as an old wizard once said, and this is one way to meet them: maturely, together, and with great openness to transformation. The bubble of our last few years online, our last few decades of neoliberalism, and our last few centuries of a capitalism invested too much in growth for growth’s sake and the preservation of corporate monopoly, are mere blips in human time.
We have been so much more. We may still be so much more again.
The book to date
Chapters 1 & 2: When philosophy is mistaken for field research
Chapters 3 & 4: The seasonal cycle of rigid human societies
Chapters 5 & 6: On culture and farming, and the myths surrounding both
Chapters 7 & 8: The diverse human ecologies that shaped our earliest cities
Chapters 9 & 10: Myths of the state, historical era, and lost democracies
The Dawn of Everything: Chapters 11 & 12
Key terms: Aní-Kutánî • Axial Age • Cahokia • chunkey • culture areas • the dawn of everything • Mircea Eliade • Etowah • evolutionism • Francis La Flesche • Gayanashagowa • heroic cultures • Hopewell Interaction Sphere • Karl Jaspers • Jigonsaseh • Kandiaronk • Baron de Montesquieu • Nohozhinga • the Osage • Father Ragueneau • schismogenesis • James Scott • The Spirit of the Laws • Elizabeth Tooker • ‘Ubaid Interaction Sphere • Wendat • Yuval Noah Harari
As we close out the book, the Davids return us to older North American cultures. We first saw this slice of the world through the eyes of Jesuits and other European outsiders shocked by how differently humans could exist outside Christianity. We learned about the ideological crisis this engendered among Westerners, who through contrast with other societies were left to ask whether they lived in an unequal society, and if so why. Was inequality an inevitable outcome of material advancement, especially into more elaborate human states? After many chapters exploring history across the globe, we return to the Americas prior to Western colonization.
Now, fair warning: the Davids break a common rule about conclusions in Chapter 12, by introducing new case studies there, but I’m going to group the Indigenous argumentation from both chapters before recapping the book’s overarching thrust.
In these last two chapters, we consider Amerindian history in light of groups that existed before Western colonization; we learn that elaborate city-states weren’t the endpoint of many Indigenous histories of political process; and we reflect on how differently kinship manifests in Wendat and European societies.
Two ways of thinking about society underpin our exploration of specific case studies. “Evolutionism” (which differs from evolutionary theory) is the belief that everything moves through discrete stages from simple to complex forms. This idea once permeated how we talked about human progress, as a move from living in a more primitive construct (such as a band or a tribe) to a less-primitive grouping (like a chiefdom or state). That way of thinking about human history blocked us from seeing the role of schismogenesis in cultural formation. Far from growing in a linear fashion from small to large groups, many human collectives would define themselves in direct contrast with those around them.
One key example of cultural schismogenesis comes from the complementary rise of agrarian societies and barbarians at their fringes. As James Scott notes, grain production was a rough gig from around 3,000 B.C. to 1,600 A.D., but only for the settlers. It was, at the same time, a golden age for outlier bands, who benefited from the farming trap that many settled humans gradually found themselves in. In simple histories of human progress, it’s the agriculture-driven administrative state we configure as an inevitable endpoint of social history. Meanwhile, these anarchic fringe groups, and all that they represented as a challenge to massive urban projects, were often treated as an aberration or afterthought.
Which isn’t to say that stages in history haven’t been contested. When one school of thought held that we moved from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to states, counterexamples emerged. We just didn’t have a better vocabulary for variation, except by fine-tuning linear terms with adjectives like “simple” or “complex”. Today, anthropologists have mostly abandoned evolutionism, and contrast specific cultural histories instead, but even that analytic approach has its limits. When one political system has dominated the globe for so long, how does one isolate a feature within it, and meaningfully compare that feature with alternatives?
This is why the work of archaeology and anthropology is so important: we need to find comparative examples as bereft of ideological contamination as possible, before we can go around claiming that certain paths of progress are inevitable and necessary. Even within sprawling but connected regions, we sometimes find too much cultural overlap to differentiate fully between societies. In the Axial Age, for instance, Karl Jaspers noted that Greece, India, and China all acquire schools of speculative philosophy during the same epochs of metal coinage and chattel slavery. Between 800 B.C. and 600 A.D., all the world’s prominent religions also emerged: across territories, but not across fully separate systems of money and bondage.
So if we’re really going to ask the big questions about what is and isn’t inevitable in human progress, we need to review world regions at a complete remove from our complexly interwoven sites in Africa, Europe, and Asia.
Enter Cahokia, the name given to a city that flourished from around 1050 to 1350 A.D. in the East St. Louis area (Illinois) of North America.
Turtle Island civilizations, and their discontents
Turtle Island is an Indigenous name for North America, based on the creation myth of a turtle who dove deep into the world’s waters to find earth, that other animals might then live and flourish upon its back.
Cahokia was a classic grain state, with around 15,000 at its peak, but when it fell apart it was lost even to Indigenous storytelling: its region considered a vacant quarter for generations despite the fertility of its surroundings. By the time colonizers arrived from overseas, this centralized authority had been replaced by a scattered set of tribal republics, each living in better ecological balance with the natural world. Only archaeology and ethnology could bring back evidence of Cahokia’s robust existence before political dissent and dissolution into other ways of being.
What had happened to this possible first “modern” state in the Americas? Why had it vanished to such an extent that even its “bird-man” symbolism also fell away?
To understand this journey, the Davids situate Cahokia in a much richer historical and philosophical context. They highlight the clear presence of nuanced discourse about human nature among the Wendat, as recorded by Father Ragueneau in 1649. They emphasize how much written information there is about Haudenosaunee and Wendat cultures, from which to rebuild this pre-colonial world in conjunction with material findings. And then they take us through Eastern Woodlands politics, as evidenced in archaeological sites between 200 and 1600 A.D.
As prominent historian of the Iroquois Elizabeth Tooker notes, the rich array of clans in North America, bearing hundreds of languages and a wide range of spiritual and totemic figures, is more indicative of ritual societies than strict kinship groups. Personal identity was subordinate to role configuration within many tribes, which allowed outsiders to fill gaps and significantly aided in the construction of diplomatic protocols for peace and war alike. In other words, this sprawling clan network, far from being “primitive”, reflects a complex political discourse.
Evidence for this complexity emerges in the Hopewell Interaction Sphere, centered in Ohio river valleys. Between 100 B.C. and 500 A.D., treasures indicative of elaborate cultural coding were built around burial mounds, but the real feat is massive circular, square, or hexagonal earthworks across the continent: all of mud, yet made stable enough for posterity through concerted feats of engineering, with considerable attention paid to measurement, and serving as the base for a wide arrange of public buildings, including burial grounds. Though Ohio is the epicenter, these bases can be found as far south as the Mississippi Valley, but they weren’t long term residences. They were expressly built for seasonal and ceremonial use, the likes of which allowed for the convergence of many peoples for a spell.
And the users of these spaces? For all that they could have leveraged collaborative labor to build sustainable full-time city-states, they didn’t. They also didn’t cultivate crops except for a few ceremonial uses. In much smaller groups, these ancient Indigenous communities continued to move with the seasons and pursue more foraging-based lifestyles. As the Davids note,
Monumental architecture on the scale of the Hopewell earthworks is generally assumed to imply a significant agricultural surplus, governed by chiefs or a stratum of religious leaders. Yet this isn’t what was going on. Rather we find just the sort of ‘play farming’ familiar from our discussions in Chapter Six, as well as shamans and engineers who spent the overwhelming majority of their time with the same five or six companions, but who periodically walked out on to the stage of an extended society that encompassed much of the North American continent. It is all so strikingly different from anything we know of later Woodlands societies that it’s difficult to reconstruct exactly what these settlement patterns meant in practice. If nothing else, however, this overall situation illustrates the profound irrelevance of a conventional evolutionist terminology, based on a progression from ‘bands’ to ‘tribes’ to ‘chiefdoms’.
Archaeological findings suggest that these were spaces for heroic contests and myth-making: theatrical arenas for games, material exchanges, and burials that also mitigated against disproportionate wealth-accumulation and any more serious competition through war-mongering in other seasons.
Whatever their actual function, though, the Hopewell era eventually gave way to the Tripartite Alliance. This division involved shamanic rituals with strong funerary elements and male-dominated signs of office in the north; earth shrines, masked figures, and female-dominated signs of office in the south; and a middle group that included a blend of northern and southern traditions. All clusters remained in communication with each other throughout.
The Davids compare Hopewell with the ‘Ubaid village societies found in fifth millennium B.C. Mesopotamia. Both are massive “culture areas” that encompass whole river systems, and show strong signs of routine interaction between groups at every point along the network. But while in ‘Ubaid these interactions yielded cultural standardization, and a kind of social egalitarianism that preceded the growth of the world’s first famed cities, Hopewell retained a level of individual distinction atypical even in contrast with later North American Indigenous societies.
Yes, earthworks were consistent across the Hopewell culture area (especially with respect to geometric patterns that differentiated these groups from their ancestors). And yes, the Hopewell groups were generally divided between “white” and “red” clans: the former associated with “summer, circular houses, and peacemaking; the second with winter, square houses, and warfare”. But on an individual level, there didn’t seem to be much interest in group conformity. Rather, hair styles, clothing, and accessories varied even in small groupings all up and down the rivers. These Hopewell peoples were united by broader ideas of the world, ceremony, and community, but these ideas did not compel physical uniformity within one’s clan.
This behaviour ended with the rise of the Tripartite Alliance, which entrenched certain forms of ritual art, dress, and conduct within distinct clans (the likes of which Tooker would later document), and assisted in the rise of the city-state we now call Cahokia. Between 400 and 800 A.D., archaeological record gives us the development of maize as a staple crop, more prolonged settlement around earthworks projects, and more elaborate sports like chunkey. And this transition was no mean feat: Cahokia, which lies on a floodplain, was excellent for maize crops, but a challenge for long term residence. Nevertheless, what started as seasonal pilgrimage in part for valley and riverside farming eventually became the dedicated site of stratified social activities and a population boom.
Around 1050 A.D., Cahokia became a city of over six square miles: spacious plazas with wooden features for astronomical purposes, pyramids topped with palaces, temples, charnel houses, or sweat lodges, and over 100 earthen mounds, with fresher thatch houses ethnically detailed to accommodate foreign arrivals. Within a region of some 40,000 people, this city grew to house 15,000.
That juxtaposition of populations is key, though, because Cahokia was built in clear conjunction with a disbanding of nearby villages. It seems as though neighbors were invited to join the main event, or find themselves scattered into small homesteads of a family or two. The political implications of these complementary actions are striking, especially when one considers what happened in the city sphere itself. As the Davids write,
Along with games and feasts, in the early decades of Cahokia’s expansion there were mass executions and burials, carried out in public. As with fledgling kingdoms in other parts of the world, these large-scale killings were directly associated with the funerary rites of nobility; in this case, a mortuary facility centred on the paired burials of high-status males and females, whose shrouded bodies were placed around a surface built up from some thousands of shell beads. Around them an earthen mound was formed, precisely oriented to an azimuth derived from the sourthernmost rising point of the moon. Its contents included four mass graves holding stacked bodies of mainly young women (though one was over fifty), who were killed specifically for the occasion.
As much as I’ve enjoyed re-reading The Dawn of Everything, the second read-through has highlighted places where the Davids have been a bit selective about when and where to choose their contrasts, and this is no exception. In Chapter 12: Conclusion, they will reflect on competing freedoms between the Western European world and the Wendat world of Kandiaronk, who dazzled and baffled Jesuits with his eloquent criticisms of their society.
In that closing chapter, the Davids configure dominance displays as operating differently within European states and among the Wendat. Whereas the Wendat would either brutally torture a war captive or bring them into the loving care of a new family, and in so doing create rigid spheres between in-group care and out-group violence, European societies would manifest a king’s love for his extended “family” through acts of care and violence that both could be visited upon any of his citizens.
But as we see in the above example of Cahokia (as in others, including our recent foray into the Aztec Empire), Kandiaronk might have been just as critical of his own regional histories, had he known about all of them. In Cahokia, after all, we see similar performances of authority through rituals of state-wide “familial” care that invited rulers to enact violence against their own.
Either way, though, the main point remains: Cahokia, like many European kingdoms, was a domineering enterprise with a class system, administration of labor, and heroic politics through sport and warrior living. But in Cahokia’s deepening entrenchment as a grain state were also the seeds of its downfall; when a mighty wall went up in 1150 A.D., it was because the society was already experiencing instability, war, and depopulation. Cults of noble lineage likely begat feuding and division. By 1400 A.D., the whole region became the “Vacant Quarter” in Indigenous lore: abandoned, in ruin, returning to swamp.
And why, when we get right down to it?
Because the city is not the end of political history, or the height of complex human activity. The Osage people even use “moving to a new country” to suggest a conscious choice to walk away from a social order that isn’t working, and to start over. In the 1200s, the Etowah went through similar transitions to and from larger living spaces: like Cahokia, breaking up smaller villages as they converged in a central kingdom, before undergoing periods of attack, collapse, and abandonment in turn.
Many of these break-ups also had strong social justice elements, because in smaller societies there were often more roles for female members, whereas shaman-driven urban centers often yielded stories of abuse—at least, until an angry people rose up and slaughtered the priestly caste, as in stories told of the Aní-Kutánî.
The Davids close Chapter 11: Full Circle with a deep dive into how the Osage carry forward a rich and conscious conversation about politics, spirituality, and living arrangements into forms then studied by the likes of Francis La Flesche, who would marvel at Osage clan structures (including the Nohozhinga, the body of officials responsible for day-to-day political discourse), their maintenance of esoteric knowledge, and their use of spiritual storytelling to frame inter-clan diplomacy.
The Davids hold this rich body of discourse up against Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron of Montesquieu and author of The Spirit of the Laws (1748), to illustrate how impoverished our conversation about modern politics is when we adhere solely to European dates and texts for an understanding of underlying theories of the state.
This ideological gap should be obvious, especially when reminded of complex North American arrangements like the League of Five Nations, whose founding is given to us in an epic known as Gayanashagowa, and which involved intricate titular roles like that of the Jigonsaseh, Mother of Nations. So why aren’t we more aware of these challenging histories of human progress? Why do such intricate stories of North American diplomacy and state-craft show up only on the margins of Western discourse about political science and its histories?
Simply put, because the political tradition in fuller Amerindian history fundamentally clashes with Enlightenment-driven notions of human progress. Too many Western philosophers needed to believe that, for all its faults, the West at least brought more nuanced ideas about civilization to the lands it overran.
And we’ve all been diminished by this oversight, because the most commonly understood view of human “progress” in the West, so often linear and fatalist, has only left us struggling to make sense of many national crises in the world today.
Summing up: A history of pervasive myths
So here’s a sneaky fact about the title: if you thought “the dawn of everything” seemed a bit lofty and ridiculous, the Davids agree with you. The term comes from an outmoded way of viewing history as being divisible into cyclical and linear time. In the view of Mircea Eliade, pre-modern societies lived in cyclical time: a philosophical outlook in which the only event of importance was, well, the dawn of everything: their creation myths. Linear time was the purview of later, more enlightened peoples: humans who understood the concept of progress and could wear themselves intoanxiety over the possibility of a terrible coming end to things.
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is therefore a bit of a misnomer, because the Davids emphatically believe that humanity is capable of experiencing many dawns, and many progressions through social history. For them, our species has never thought or acted in purely cyclical or linear patterns.
However, they also believe that we’ve fallen into a bit of a contemporary trap: that today we are all grain-farmers, with very few barbarians, as it were. Why? Because we’ve lost our connection to the freedoms that truly matter. As they put it,
Over the course of these chapters we have … talked about basic forms of social liberty which one might actually put into practice: (1) the freedom to move away or reloate from one’s surroundings; (2) the freedom to ignore or disobey commands issued by others; and (3) the freedom to shape entirely new social realities, or shift back and forth between different ones.
For the Davids, these first two freedoms offer “a kind of scaffolding for the third, more creative one”, and so long as humans could take the first two for granted, they never had more than “play kings”: rulers who could be abandoned if they broke rules that they were also subject to in the broader social performance.
Conversely, the Davids believe that something about human societies has now changed. We’re all much more beholden to our police and tax collectors, such that, as Yuval Noah Harari wrote in Sapiens, “There is no way out of the imagined order. 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.”
Is this Harari quote, and the Davids’ use of it, a bit hyperbolic? Absolutely. I’ll be generous, though, and note that this kind of declarative thinking helps when trying to pitch books to our industry. There’s a constant push for a dramatic “so what?” that leads academics and pop-science journalists to make bigger claims than most know they really should.
However, I think the claim, in this case, does readers a grave disservice.
Some of the world might feel as though it’s without agency, and some of the world might be trapped in rigid systems absent the ability to walk away. Likewise, some of the world might be consumed by state-based representations of human culture, such that they cannot imagine life outside their current paradigm.
But not all of us. (Obviously, for a book that relies to a great extent on existing Indigenous peoples!) And paying attention to the places where different experiences persist are of vital importance to “unsticking” the rest of us.
In early August, for instance, there will be a great Amazonian summit of Latin American leaders in Brazil, to address issues key to climate change and including critical intergovernmental work against violent actors in the Amazon. It’s a complex challenge that involves thinking about power dynamics in a very different way than we’re used to in large swaths of the West.
This event follows closely on the heels of a massive, late-July celebration of the nominal 91st birthday of Raoni Metuktire, a famed environmental activist who might soon be stepping down from his advocacy. Representatives of 11 Indigenous tribes came in person to honor this defender of the forest, along with environmental activists and representatives of other governments. Even King Charles III extended a message, and leftist Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was only absent due to a medical procedure. (He has otherwise been a huge proponent of Indigenous representation, uplifting Indigenous politicians to key government posts and following through on efforts to protect the Amazon and its peoples.)
So yes, perhaps to some extent we in the West needed a wake-up call like The Dawn of Everything—but mostly to remind us that, as Shakespeare once wrote, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The debates given to us by Western political science and history are rich indeed, but they are not the sum total of human discourse, and it’s very easy to miss the “question behind the question” in some of our most famous philosophical quandaries, if we don’t better study the eras in which key figures and works emerged.
In general, too, we limit ourselves whenever we let pride in our own tradition blinker our ability to see that everything we write, read, think, and debate emerges within a context. Works of historiography like this one don’t make empirical data irrelevant; they reinvigorate our interest in reviewing all the data as it grows.
Next time for Humanist Book Club, let’s see if we can’t take that reinvigorated interest one step forward. With the help of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, we’ll try to imagine how to improve human agency in the over-heating world of our near future, and our now. Hope to see you there.