In this week's Humanist Book Club, we look at Chapters 5 & 6 of The Dawn of Everything, where we grapple with competing ideas of culture, and the stories that get in the way of studying early human farming.

Reading Time: 13 minutes

We took an unintended hiatus last week for Humanist Book Club, but hopefully for the better. Comments to date on this series suggest that many folks aren’t reading the book directly, but responding to my summaries and analysis of author commentary. This places an added burden to ensure that I’m articulating key points properly, and I do so love taking a beat to reflect and reframe based on new intel. (Don’t you?)

From the comments thus far, a few points of friction seem to warrant a quick review to make sure the context of this book’s arguments are clear.

When I opened this series, I noted that I had selected this text because it was a) still quite recent: out in October 2021 in hard copy and last year in paperback; b) widely acclaimed upon its release (to the point of distraction from its arguments for many reviewers, into a deconstruction of the authors’ popularity); and c) expressly advancing an invitation to imagine our ancestors with more creativity and agency than is often given to us in Western histories of progress.

In short: because it seemed an excellent sandbox for humanist thinking.

But historiography, the study of how history is constructed, can be pretty scary, especially when many in our cultures are dead-set on eradicating confidence in the pursuit of expert knowledge: in medical science, public policy, and climate change discourse. How can we risk questioning earlier scientific and historical givens, without doing the work of anti-science extremists for them?

I’ll answer the question by reframing it:

How can we afford not to risk the work of questioning earlier scientific and historical givens, when anti-science extremists win the moment we defer to their far more rigid idea of what “Science” is, and must be, in order to matter in cultural debate?

Our struggle against scientific illiteracy, and against surrounding media literacy, is not going to be won by allowing ourselves to be put on the defensive by those who hold all-or-nothing views about Truth and its agents. The only way to combat scientific illiteracy is to re-engage everyone with the rich complexity of the scientific method: a process that involves much more than initial experimentation; a process that finds its epistemic resilience in the long, corrective arc of falsification and replication studies. “Science” doesn’t live statically in any one of us; rather, we are part of a conversation around ever-refining data sets, which started in a context come before us, is carried out in a context all around us, and will be remediated in contexts long after us, too.

Which is also why, as I also noted in the Book Club opener, pop-sci books and the way they’re spun by publishing teams have a lot to answer for. This book by David Graeber and David Wengrow might be called The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, but you can bet your bippy that those grandiose titles haven’t helped to dispel many current, gimmicky illusions around the everyday work of improving human knowledge. Does an oversold title undermine the value of the work itself, though? No. It’s just one more element that we have to hold in tension, while trying to push back on a culture that wants us to trade in theatrical absolutes.

Now that we’re reaching the halfway mark, though, it also bears reiterating that the core argument by “the Davids” is not that we “progressed” in different ways than the ones commonly given to us by 20th and early 21st century histories of early human beings. Rather, they want us to imagine that we’ve become “stuck” in certain ways of thinking about being human, because the entire linearity of “progress” given to us by common histories is a narrative trap that keeps us from viewing our species as far more creative from the start.

To this end, they argue that sometimes early humans acquired new technologies, which accumulated over time to give later humans the illusion of being born into more “civilization” than might actually exist. But also, sometimes early humans consciously refused certain structures and advances: even returning to what some might consider more “primitive” ways in the process.

Today’s chapters develop this last theme around two narrative traps: one, involving our struggle to define and chart histories of “culture”, and the other, addressing the complex reasons why researchers and layman alike keep falling back on a simplistic view of the origins of farming.

The Dawn of Everything: Chapters 5 & 6

Key terms: archaeobotany • Franz Boas • capturing societies • Çatalhöyük • A. W. Chase • the Chetco • cultural diffusion • culture areas • cultural traits • environmental determinism • the Fertile Crescent • fisher kings • Matilda Joslyn Gage • Marija Gimbutas • Walter Goldschmidt • the Guaicurú • Alfred Kroeber • the Kurgan • primitive matriarchy • Marcel Mauss • Protestant foragers • optimal foraging theory • schismogenesis • shatter zones • structures of refusal • tributary mode • wampum • the Wogies • the Yurok

Competing theories of culture

There’s a point in Chapter 5: Many Seasons Ago where the Davids seem to suggest that our history of anthropology, as a centuries-old discipline, has recapitulated in miniature what they argue our species has also done for tens of thousands of years: namely, formed identities through schismogenesis, a deepening of ideas through stark contrast with alternatives.

The most obvious example of this practice in anthropology comes from their description of Franz Boas, a “staunch anti-racist” who as a German Jew “was particularly troubled by the way the American obsession with race and eugenics was being taken up in his own mother country” in the early 20th century. As such, when his student and successor at the American Museum of Natural History “began to embrace certain eugenicist ideas, the pair had a bitter falling out.”

It’s a tiny moment in The Dawn of Everything, but one that speaks more broadly to the scientific history the Davids want us to revisit all throughout this text: a history in which historians and scientists are shaped by the paradigms in which they were educated, and reacting to the ones in which they moved. A story, in other words, that tells us as much, if not more, about the people seeking to understand our early human ancestors than about our ancestors themselves.

In earlier chapters, we looked at the State of Nature as a Platonic ideal or vision of barbarism; and either way, as a speculative baseline against which Renaissance and early Enlightenment philosophers were able to hash out competing rationales for why Western society was as it was, couldn’t be otherwise, and remained superior to any other system⁠—irrespective of the challenges posed by other ways of living in the world. As the Davids argue, this Western philosophizing locked us into the wrong overarching question: compelling us to ask “why is there inequality?” instead of “when did we stop seeing our world more fluidly?”

Then we moved into historical data suggesting far more cultural fluidity in early human communities, many of which might have changed social arrangements with the seasons, much as many Indigenous groups have done in more recent periods. In the process, we also reviewed a wide range of anthropologists who noticed seasonal and other forms of cultural fluidity in their field research, but who struggled to accommodate this data within anthropological mores in the 19th and 20th centuries. In short, despite having some of this data for decades, more rigid theoretical frameworks, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, established a classification paradigm that scientists then spent much of the last few decades overcoming.

In Chapter 5, we see that struggle around the idea of the “culture area”, and the desire to classify early human cultures through various “cultural traits” (e.g. ceramics-making, burial rituals, hunting practices). The hope here, by anthropologists like Boas, was to figure out how cultural knowledge diffused over a given region. There was certainly evidence of such groupings: often, speakers of very different languages would share more cultural traits with others in close proximity than with groups that spoke similar languages, but lived elsewhere. Boas drew environmental determinism to explain this phenomenon: the idea that certain cultural traits necessarily emerged in regions based on local resources and geography.

Marcel Mauss disagreed with this notion of cultural diffusion, because he thought it absurd to think of the migration of ideas, tools, and people as somehow extra to a basic theory of culture. For him fluidity wasn’t exceptional at all; it was baked into the idea of culture itself.

Later anthropologists, including the Davids, disagree with cultural diffusion for a different reason: because of the implicit passivity it sets upon early humans, as if they could only receive or “borrow” knowledge, and would automatically incorporate whatever new tech and customs their proximate neighbors were already using. As the Davids note, this depiction of early humans as passive receivers of environmentally determined traits does not fit all the evidence. Instead, they argue that a better understanding of culture comes through the role of schismogenesis, and how many groups might just as easily choose to refuse to do what their neighbors are doing, as a means of differentiating themselves from those around them.

This idea better accords with Alfred Kroeber’s research into a “shatter zone” of distinct tribal groupings operating in more or less the same fertile landscape along the Californian coast. There, the Davids focus on two clusters in particular. One was observed by Walter Goldschmidt to seem uncannily Puritanical, for which reason the Davids refer to them as “Protestant foragers”. In contrast, the other cluster is called “fisher kings”, for their more hierarchical arrangements. The Davids highlight cultural contrasts to make their point: one community might fatten itself to enhance status, while another held in rites of passage that burned calories to achieve greater acclaim. Some might consider public ritual sacrosanct; others might call it a “fraud” or “illusion” and fixate instead on disciplining the inner self through training and hard work. Some might consider manual labor a mark of inferiority, while others, like the Yurok, saw it as a mark of being among “real people”.

For the Davids, there is no mystery here. Groups develop cultural traits in significant part to distinguish themselves from their neighbours. The real problem only arises from environmental determinists and people otherwise quick to leap to strict categories when grappling with human culture.

Foraging, for instance, has been treated rather simplistically in many depictions of early human life. There is no room in such narratives to imagine foragers as also people who might raid a neighbor’s holdings, demand tribute from them, or tyrannize them unto slavery, forcing them to work for a people that otherwise contents itself with making do with nuts, berries, and the “fruits” of hunting. After referencing the Guaicurú people of Paraguay as just such a mixed category, the Davids ask,

How, for instance, would we propose to classify foragers who consume quantities of domestic crops, exacted as tribute from nearby farming populations? Marxists, who refer to ‘modes of production’, do sometimes allow for a ‘Tributary Mode,’ but this has always been linked to the growth of agrarian states and empires, back to Book III of Marx’s Capital. What really needs to be theorized here is not just the mode of production practised by victims of predation, but also that of the non-producers who prey on them. Now wait. A non-productive mode of production? This sounds like a contradiction of terms. But it’s only so if we limit the meaning of ‘production’ strictly to the creation of food or goods. And maybe we shouldn’t.

The term “capturing societies” emerges as a gap-filler. When European settlers arrived, some marveled at the uncanny similarity of Guaicurú relationships to their slaves, and what one might find between German “rustics” and their lords. The critical difference, from an ethnological perspective? The Guaicurú were still foragers unto themselves, who benefited from the domestic-crop tributes paid to them by subordinates. Later theorists would claim that rigid class strata could only emerge from propertied, post-agrarian societies like the ones in Europe at the time.

(Another anecdote in this chapter involves the Chetco people, whom A. W. Chase recounts as having a story of migration in which they encountered two very different nations. One was another war-like people, which they slaughtered, and the other was a pale-skinned people with a skill for crafts. Since the Wogies wouldn’t fight, the Chetco enslaved them, getting fat off their labors until the Wogies packed up and disappeared in the night. This is another illustration of cultures that did not assimilate or “diffuse” from mere proximity.)

But the key point in contrasting communities, especially along the Pacific coast, is that if passive notions of cultural diffusion were in fact the guiding principles of our ancestors, then surely the more elaborate technologies of crop formation, animal domestication, fish harvesting, and institutional living would have spread readily across, say, the Californian shatter zone. This logic follows modern ideas of “optimal foraging theory”: if there is a more efficient way to accumulate abundance, why wouldn’t our ancestors have taken it?

This is an important myth to dispel, too, because it has legs in our world today: ideas of technological inevitability lie at the heart of, say, hype around machine learning. Venture capitalists would like nothing more than for us to believe that the moment a technology exists, it’s “only a matter of time” before everyone uses it⁠—so why not get in on the ground floor, and be the first to exploit it now?

This is also why many economist-anthropologists fail to recognize earlier aesthetic objects, like wampum (stylized bead belts), as anything but a form of currency, which it eventually became between settlers and Indigenous people. The emergence of today’s moneyed systems seems so inevitable that earlier forms of trade are relentlessly read as “proto” versions of the world we have today. While some groups, like the Yurok, did use shell strings as currency, others did not, so the mere presence of such artifacts, under a simplistic view of “cultural traits”, can easily skew our assessment of earlier human diversity.

As the Davids conclude, if we treat our species as “doomed to endlessly enact patterns of behaviour not of our own creation; not of anyone’s creation, really”, then “we are already … stuck. This is why we ourselves place so much emphasis on the notion of self-determination.” They offer the important caveat that this concept can be taken too far, though, by over-determining national and individual fates from a vague overconfidence that individuals can upend whole systems on their own.

Other recent biases: the “primitive matriarchy” in farming

However, it’s not just technological inevitability that the Davids are pushing back on, when they depict “structures of refusal”. In the matter of farming, there has long been an assumption that crop cultivation started as a serious business, tethered from its outset to the attempt to optimize yield. In other chapters, they alluded to the distinct cultivation of plants solely for ritual purposes. Here, in Chapter 6: Gardens of Adonis, they look at the messy way that early cultivation cultures have been leveraged to serve different 20th century stories about ourselves.

Some of our first missteps came from interpretations of Çatalhöyük, a city first settled around 7,400 BC and continuously occupied for some 1,500 years by around 5,000 people, but “with no apparent center or communal facilities, or even streets: just a dense agglomeration of one household after another, all of similar sizes and layout”.

This is not so extraordinary when we think of the immense number of people who live in sprawling slums and refugee cities today, but the interiors of these homes were elaborate, and many thought the cattle craft and clay figurines of women revealed a culture of ritual built around farming. Not so, as it turns out: the cattle craft didn’t come from domestic species, and notions of “fertility goddesses” have been consigned to “long-outmoded Victorian fantasies about ‘primitive matriarchy'”, because the figurines were hardly treated as objects of religious veneration from their settings.

It’s easy to see why the idea would be so popular, though. Anti-Christian Matilda Joslyn Gage was a strong advocate of matriarchate societies, like the Haudenosaunee, when writing Woman, Church, and State in 1893. Otto Gross, an anarchist student of Sigmund Freud, configured the superego as “patriarchy”, which “needed to be destroyed so as to unleas the benevolent, matriarchal collective unconscious”. Marija Gimbutas, in the 1960s and 1970s, dared “to craft a grand narrative for the origins of Eurasion civilization” that imagined a world of egalitarian communitarianism until the “Kurgan” (a warrior people) arrived and imposed aristocratic and “androcratic” ideas on the region. By the 1990s, Gimbutas had become a signifier for a group of ecofeminist and New Age writers; and in the same breath, a signifier of nonsense for working anthropologists.

Gimbutas was later vindicated on one accord: her observation of a significant cultural shift around the third millennium BC, which forensic linguists now mark as critical to the formation of the Proto-Indo-European, with the arrival of a people out of the Eurasian Steppe. But mostly her story serves here to illustrate the Davids’ larger point: that the histories we tell about our early human ancestors are often deeply interwoven with the arguments and ideas we hold about ourselves today.

So where does farming actually emerge, amid this chaos?

Well, we now know that animal domestication long preceded the city of Çatalhöyük, and that our fixation on what 19th-century scholars first called the “Fertile Crescent” is not as seamless a home to early farming as our prehistorians once believed. Just as with the “shatter zone” discussed in Chapter 5, around Californian coastal communities, so too did the cultures in this Mediterranean region, up to the foothills of the Zagros Mountains and traversing modern Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, exist within a rich, schismogenic range of cultural choices.

Between 10- and 8,000 BC, some foragers in the uplands turned toward hierarchy, as illustrated in their megalithic monuments, while lowlanders became dedicated craft specialists. Critically, both groups clearly traded with one another, and otherwise kept in routine contact, and populations grew immensely. Nevertheless, despite expanding settlements, farming did not take a linear path toward optimizing yield.

The study of archaeobotany instead gives us a long period of diverse fields of study: cultivation for medicines, drugs, cosmetics, and attendant advances in local knowledge of clay and other soil materials. Experiments in the 1980s suggest that crop domestication could have been achieved in a few decades, if such an outcome were truly a core priority for our ancestors. What we have instead, in ancient history, is not 3,000 years of fumbling about, so much as 3,000 years where other priorities (in crop selection, and also in avoiding harder labors, such as through the less taxing practice of flood-retreat farming) ruled the day.

And yes, there is a huge and critical role for women’s labor in this history, but one still often abused by recent scholarship to play up notions of “masculine” domestication of wild, unruly “feminine” forces. As such, it must be approached with caution. The key is to quibble less over whether early female workers in the Fertile Crescent were “goddesses” or “scientists”, and more to reclaim the curiosity, inventiveness, and diversity of Early Neolithic societies writ large.

Which brings us back to the role of schismogenesis in modern anthropology: the crafting of new ideas in stark contrast to others. It’s this mentality that has trapped us into thinking about a fixed “Agricultural Revolution” in our history, with everything come before it merely seen as “prelude” to that grand event. As the Davids note,

The job of foragers in this conventional narrative is to be all that farming is not (and thus also to explain, by implication, what farming is). If farmers are sedentary, foragers must be mobile; if farmers actively produce food, foragers must merely collect it; if farmers have private property, foragers must renounce it; and if farming societies are unequal, this is in contrast with the ‘innate’ egalitarianism of foragers.

A more comprehensive review of archaeological and ethnological evidence belies all these false dichotomies. And it will continue to do so, in Chapters 7 & 8.

Key questions

  • There was so much in these chapters that I couldn’t quite get to. Can you believe I passed up an opportunity to talk about a House of Skulls? But I do wonder about the sheer heft of examples thrown about, pulling from a wide range of topical concerns. In Chapter 5, there is a great deal said about money systems and property that could certainly serve to illustrate differences between proximate groups, but at times the discourse wandered to serve the inclusion of so many disparate anecdotes. Was anyone else finding themselves imagining a different, more controlled order to this text while reading? Or did you enjoy the sprawl?
  • The problem of theorists getting in the way of their subject matter is not unique to archaeologists and anthropologists. We always come to our work as researchers and as scientists informed by the cultures we inhabit, and the debates of our day. I’m still strongly of the opinion that this book works best as historiography, navigating the question of how we’ve told the stories of ourselves to date, and what those stories might overlook. However, I’m left wondering what it is we can possible do to “get out of our own way”. Is there any better way to temper cultural bias in our work? Or is recognition of the waves of history come before us the best we can manage? Do we just have to consign ourselves to being corrected by other researchers, writers, and theorists down the line?

Series 1: The Dawn of Everything

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

Chapters 11 & 12: A different history of end states in human progress

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.

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