In Chapters 7 and 8, we look at the selective ways that researchers have categorized early human ecologies, especially in large group settings. If we broaden our historical lens, can we change how we think about large-group human relationships today?
Welcome back to Humanist Book Club. I’m a huge fan of deep-diving into history to grapple better with the present, whether in fiction or humanist essays, but last week we were dealing with a lot of living history, especially in the US, so this series on The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity seemed a poor choice to rival the clickbait sensationalism of a certain indictment and its fallout.
And yet, there was something about the tumult of those proceedings that I suspect matters a great deal to how we grapple with the arguments of David Graeber and David Wengrow (the “Davids”) in this work of anthropological historiography. The authors argue that our paleolithic and neolithic ancestors were far more creative and proactive than we often acknowledge in our histories. They also argue, as in Chapters 5 & 6, that how we define ideas like culture and the rise of agriculture tells us more about contemporary priorities than the lives of early humans.
But I find myself challenging a key premise of the text, the further we deep-dive into it: namely, the very pop-sci driven idea that revisiting human history is only relevant if it can answer a crisis in the present. And the present-day crisis the Davids chose? The idea that we are now “stuck”, while our ancestors were not.
One immediate methodological flaw leaps out: the uneven time scales under consideration when we talk about millennia of so-called “prehistory”, and contrast its dynamic range with life in the last few centuries under industrial capitalism.
But another makes itself apparent most every time we look at the news. Climate change is accelerating. Online technologies allow us to see the buffoonery of the most affluent and wealthy much faster, too. Government mobilization in pandemic to help major corporations make record-breaking profits while the rest of us struggled showed us that massive system changes were possible: just, very rarely in favor of individual citizens. A whole war opened up in Eastern Europe, around which Western fortunes and financial power centers are shifting.
So have we not seen significant upheavals? Are we truly stuck? Or do we simply lack sufficient personal agency to combat some of our era’s greatest problems, like the petroleum industry, the war machines, and economic policies concentrating wealth?
Today, we’re taking these questions into Chapter 7: The Ecology of Freedom and Chapter 8: Imaginary Cities. These ancient deep-dives have a great deal to teach us about the fluidity of human history and contemporary research biases. But can they also reveal anything about the ideological landscape that contributes to the real human-agency crisis we face today?
The Dawn of Everything: Chapters 7 & 8
Key terms: Amorite Dynasty of the Lims • Murray Bookchin • Elias Canetti • cities • Henry Munro Chadwick • Alfred W. Crosby • domestication • Robin Dunbar • early urban world • ecological imperialism • ecology of freedom • economy of deprivation • Claude Fischer • Green Sahara • the Hadza • heroic societies • Thorkild Jacobsen • the Kurgan • Lapita Horizon • Ursula Le Guin • linear pottery • Henry Sumner Maine • the Martu • mega-sites • Mesopotamia • Mohenjo-daro • overgrown villages • play farming • primitive democracy • Rig Veda • Sainte Engrâce • sanghas • the seka system • Shang civilization • social revolution • Taljanky • Taosi • Teotihuacan • Uruk • the Uruk expansion
One of the first myths the Davids dispel in Chapter 7 is the assumption that agriculture inherently yields the creation of private property. This doesn’t accord with a great many agrarian societies past and present, but at first there were clear correlations found between sites with animal and plant domestication and those with other markers of “modern” civilization, including propertied economic systems, centralized administration, and writing. As archaeological research expanded, though, the discovery of concurrent sites of domestication revealed a far greater diversity of cultural arrangements around the practice.
This ties into an argument the Davids made in Chapter 5, when noting that treating culture as something that spreads among passive recipients doesn’t reflect the role of rejection (as in, refusing to do what one’s neighbors do) in the work of cultural identity formation. Early agrarian practices were also often taken on reluctantly, out of economies of deprivation that compelled early humans to give up lives less tethered to the long term investment of animal and plant farming. These challenges were exacerbated by the Ice Age, in which peoples dedicated to farming practices were hit hardest by changing environmental conditions.
When farming did take hold, though, there were opportunities for some communities to engage in what Alfred W. Crosby called “ecological imperialism”, in which their cultivated plants and animals overran other ecosystems. This greatly disrupted other ways of being, and reshaped landscapes until the new ecologies practically compelled other groups’ participation in agrarian practices. But even that only happened in the last 10,000 years or so. What about the rest of humanity’s 200,000?
It’s easy to latch on to an exceptional event that serves our preconceptions, which is precisely what the Davids argue that we’ve done. In their story of early human life, we only needed to fall deeply into ecological imperialism once to be trapped in it. But first, for the other 190,000 or so years, we remained in a highly competitive and diverse ecosystem, and early humans successfully toed the line of modern agriculture without over-investing themselves in it. Murray Bookchin describes this as part of the “ecology of freedom” that our ancestors enjoyed.
One cautionary tale about the alternative, rigid arrangements that emerge from over-investing in agrarian lifestyles arises from people in the “Linear Pottery” tradition, around 5,500BC. The Davids describe how they developed serious farming practices, and saw their populations grow—then collapse, in part from brutal acts of warfare. Cereal farming died out in the region for millennia, while established foraging communities pressed on. Coastal foragers also thrived even as early farmers expanded in other lands, which counters the assumption that agrarian economies automatically and inevitably replaced other ways of living.
Where domestication saw early success, such as along the Nile in Africa, it tended to follow the “economy of deprivation” formula. Not conducive to foraging lifestyles, or even much in the way of cereal crops, Neolithic Africa became a thriving site for herders, who could move their animals in keeping with the fickle nature of the Green Sahara. Likewise, in the Lapita Horizon in Austronesia, the tropical climate wasn’t favorable to grains, so tuber and fruit crops became the strategy of choice. Joined with a wealth of seafood, humans there accumulated enough abundance to expand across whole island chains, leaving pottery and other craft relics that identify their wide reach. These groups were all “serious” farmers.
In South America, though, something closer to “play farming” emerged. Abundance made it easy to switch between food-cultivation styles, and animal domestication retained a fluid quality, too. Cultural craft exchanges were common, but there was no obvious power center in a world where few had any greater lock on more fertile land. More recently, researchers have suggested that many of the oldest, lengthy roads linking ancient South Americans across the mountains and jungles had something to do with a local Agricultural Revolution, but this hypothesis lacks sufficient evidence of travelers carrying agrarian wares to foreign markets.
Agriculture eventually flourished in these Americas, too, but the point the Davids are making is that linear narratives can easily give the impression of a teleological inevitability. The archaeological record disagrees. Sometimes Neolithic farming failed because agriculture was too inflexible. Other times, farming arose out of regional necessity. Still other times, it came to communities of abundance gradually, in competition with other thriving human ecologies. And it certainly didn’t automatically compel anyone to think in more propertied terms.
So what changed?
Chapter 8 opens with a nod to one of my favorite writers of the 20th century, Elias Canetti, who wrestled with how humans configure themselves in relation to abstract notions of a broader community (for better and for worse: Crowds and Power is quite thought-provoking). Here, the Davids make their argument plain:
Very large social units are always, in a sense, imaginary. Or, to put it in a slightly different way: there is always a fundamental distinction between the way one relates to friends, family, neighbourhood, people, and places that we actually know directly, and the way one relates to empires, nations, and metropolises, phenomena that exist largely, or at least most of the time, in our heads. Much of social theory can be seen as an attempt to square these two dimensions of our existence.
In conventional histories, “common sense” holds that wherever you find large numbers of people living in the same place, certain systems and technologies will be present, too: including writing, administrators, overseers, class strata, poverty, and the ability to produce great philosophy, art, and scientific knowledge. This is a myth the Davids seek to dispel. So too is the idea, raised by Robin Dunbar, that humans have an evolutionary reason for tribal adherence first to their family, then to residential groups capped at around 150 people.
As superficially obvious as that tribal logic might appear, even today’s hunter-gatherers routinely include members who can’t stand family, and will travel far to avoid them. The broader residential groups formed by the Hadza in Tanzania and the Martu in Australia belie any notion of an inherent evolutionary bond establishing the limits of our ability to imagine shared communities. Similarly, many forager societies and their descendants, as in Indigenous communities in North America, share an internationalism that allows them to see as brothers Indigenous people visiting from far off lands. In other words, whether large or small scale, there is no evolutionary inevitability to our communal arrangements. They exist on too abstract a level not to be informed only by the limits of our imaginative landscapes.
Cities, too, are both imagined and tangible. Claude Fischer noted that even when we inhabit a larger urban space, and perhaps claim it as part of our identity, most still cleave to much smaller sections of that expansive world. Our ancient city-dwelling ancestors were also often regionalists, to the extent that word of a major battle’s outcome might take days to reach the whole city.
And yet, for all the variability of human behavior in large-group settings, academic histories tend to prioritize urban arrangements that match today’s expectations about the past, including the presence of authoritarian rule, class strata, and centralized planning. Researchers would often gloss over large urban spaces where people lived in decentralized ways, absent the tell-tale signs of a domineering class.
Though our “early urban world” was diverse, many scholars would treat outliers as “overgrown villages”. Whole mega-sites, like those on which the Kurgans left intricate burial grounds, or the settlement of Taljanky (which has no evidence of centralized administration or a public square amid its over 1,000 residential dwellings), were treated as too simple to count as a “real” mass residences. Here, the Davids also cite Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” to highlight how quick we are to treat many human constructs as simplistic just because they haven’t achieved the technological threshold we associate with “proper” civilization.
And yet, despite reluctance to include such complicating data into our ideas about early cities, ancient peoples still often migrated from great distances to be part of, say, Teotihuacan, or Mesoamerican mega-sites where populations surged despite an absence of technologies often presumed necessary for “real” city-state thriving. These sites had no evidence of wheeled vehicles, animal-powered transport, metallurgy, or literate bureaucracy. But if there were no technological or structural perks to living together, why would people flock to these places?
Changing ecologies is the answer the Davids offer. Environmental upheaval, transformed riverways, shifting soil systems: people moved then much as they do now, to whatever terrain offers a better chance of growth and stability. What these massive groupings created next also varied widely: sometimes textile industries, or cuisine cultures, or perhaps even (after the fact) intensive agrarian lifestyles. But the act of coming together preceded most anything else; it was not the case that the Agricultural Revolution bound us together first.
Moreover, coming together in “simple” arrangements didn’t have to mean a lack of ritual or nuance. In the commune of Sainte-Engrâce, a circular village structure reflects a circular ritual of neighborly care practiced by all residents. Evidence out of Mesopotamia similarly highlights that, far from being a land of eternal kings, the earliest cities weren’t significantly monarchical, partook in a system of reciprocal labor that required service from everyone, and gave citizen councils significant power to self-rule and hold leaders to account.
In the 1940s, Thorkild Jacobsen first proposed “primitive democracy” to describe this state of affairs, and research ever since has been uncovering the extent to which participatory government informed early Mesopotamia. Conversely, when monarchs like the Amorite Dynasty of the Lims tried to take over an empowered city-state, citizens simply walked away, leaving the Lims to rule little more than themselves.
Is our knowledge of early Mesopotamian government complete? Hardly. Most of what we know comes from studies of Uruk, from its bookkeeping, its literature, its shrines, and its public buildings (since time has eroded most of its residential surroundings). But Uruk’s public assembly spaces were far larger than those of Athens, the site we more commonly align with the start of democracy. This isn’t because Uruk was larger, though, which invites a striking possibility: Uruk might have accommodated a greater percentage of its citizenry in public politics than the 20 percent of Athenians permitted any political standing.
Writings from early Uruk also show that citizens had a different notion of the economy, pouring all their labors into the construction of goods to deliver unto the city’s many temples, rather than consolidation into the hands of just one ruler. And as for early Uruk expansion into the region? That seemed to be achieved more by trade than warfare: a passive and religiously informed colonialism that saw sites of worship (and decadent offerings for each temple) spread over time.
This leads the Davids to another curious observation that uproots modern ideas about the inevitability of cities forming centralized, hierarchical rule. When Hector Munro Chadwick wrote about “heroic societies”, of the sort we align with early aristocratic tendencies, he was referring to the cultures that lived on the outskirts of bureaucratic spaces. These weren’t people living in urbanity, but on its margins.
Fast forward a millennium, and we encounter city sites like Mohenjo-daro, of the Indus civilization, which offer signs of much more elaborate public works, including sanitation systems and barracks. Mohenjo-daro is an impressive site, but also one that was too hastily uncovered by early archaeologists, losing key details about the city’s development over time.
More recent studies address the full sprawl of residential spaces beyond the public works, and immense material wealth found in average citizens’ quarters. Indus is also considered a “faceless civilization”, because its most elevated and public spaces aren’t structured around monuments or palaces, but places for bodily purification. The earliest recorded references to a caste system in this region come a millennium later, in the Rig Veda, but archaeology doesn’t suggest the same fabled strata for earlier occupants of Mohenjo-daro.
If this runs counter to our “common sense” thinking about early history, the Davids have anticipated such resistance:
Now, you might at this point be objecting: ‘well, yes, technically that may be true, but honestly, what’s the chance that they weren’t hierarchical, or that the pure or the wealthy did not have greater say in running the city’s affairs?’ In fact, it seems very difficult for most of us even to imagine how self-conscious egalitarianism on a large scale would work. But this again simply serves to demonstrate how automatically we have come to accept an evolutionary narrative in which authoritarian rule is somehow the natural outcome whenever a large enough people are brought together (and, by implication, that something called ‘democracy’ emerges only much later, as a conceptual breakthrough—and most likely just once, in ancient Greece.
Scholars tend to demand clear and irrefutable proof for the existence of democratic institutions of any sort in the distant past. It’s striking how they never demand comparably rigorous proof for top-down structures of authority.
Meanwhile, early Buddhist sanghas involved “full and frequent public assemblies” where all monks gathered to reach unanimous decisions. And the seka system in Bali is extremely caste-driven, but the culture still calls for full participation in decision-making by consensus in circles where all are seated together.
Likewise, although Chinese history for a long time maintained a schism between rural life and the rise of the Shang civilization, recent archaeology has found sprawling urban settlements in the northern frontier, including city sites a millennium pre-Shang. Some of these sites speak to periods of extreme class stratification, but not uniformly: Taosi was once rigidly segregated, until its city wall was razed, and commoners’ residential areas came to cover most of the territory.
Was this the first social revolution? There’s so much still to learn, but what the evidence illustrates is that neither linear technological progress nor the emergence of top-down social hierarchies necessarily follows from investment in either agrarian or urban life.
Which is where the Davids leave us, before a chapter on revolutionary movements in central Mexico, to bind more recent histories to our ancient past.
- Are we stuck? Or are we just living with cognitive dissonance: watching constant upheavals in the world today, and maybe even engaging in alternative power dynamics with family or local communities, while still falling back on reductive approaches to evolutionary history and “common sense” assumptions about how early civilizations were organized?
- If the latter, what function is this cognitive dissonance serving? Does it comfort us to think of our early human ancestors as consigned to rigid cultural orders, when we’re facing so many issues today that feel hopelessly out of our hands?
- If we were to accept greater creativity, fluidity, and agency as part of humanity’s nature all throughout these Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, what else would we have to change about the way we see the world, and ourselves? Would we have to risk doing more to refuse a status quo that do not serve us well? Would we have to “walk away from Omelas”?
- And if we’re not stuck—if we are in fact engaged in a more dynamic struggle, just as our ancestors were—then what lessons can we take from our ancient history into the next phase of that struggle now?
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