In Chapters 3 & 4, we explore how early human societies adopted seasonally fluid roles, but still somehow got stuck in rigid histories, thanks to some scholars' greater interest in the development of theories around private property.

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Welcome back to Humanist Book Club! For the next few weeks, we’re tackling The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. It’s a huge text, but in our series opener I highlighted why I’d selected it: because this ambitious exercise in speculative anthropology, which asks us to imagine other ways to read human history based on the fullness of archaeological evidence, is a useful site for humanist thinking. Its overarching question is “How did we get stuck?”, and the authors ask us to give humanity more credit for creativity and agency within paleolithic and neolithic histories.

Last week, in “When philosophy is mistaken for field research”, we explored Chapters 1 & 2, in which “the Davids” (David Graeber and David Wengrow) deconstruct the story we commonly tell about early humans. We looked at two major schools of thought about the state of nature—the brutal version tamed by civilization, and the innocent version corrupted by it—and considered why Europeans were so fixated on explaining inequality in the first place. (Answer: Out of anxiety caused by exposure to cultures with different approaches to freedom, property, and equality.)

At the core of those chapters was a reminder to focus on the subject-positions of people speculating about history. Nothing comes to us in academic research without a context.

A material analysis of early human history continues in Chapters 3 & 4, which delve more into archaeological research, but also ask us to pay attention to the conditions in which specific arguments about early humans arose. We’re moving from the mid-1800s, when people were first shocked by archaeological discoveries; to the early 1900s, when research around recent Indigenous groups offered ideas about our ancient past; to a period in the 1960s that the Davids configure as a return to rigid academic categorization. And all the while, we’re also going to keep in mind archaeological advances from the 1980s and 1990s that frame “Out of Africa” hypotheses for human migration, and more recent discoveries from lesser known but important digs.

Does this sound like a lot? Oh my yes. But these two chapters still summarize well together, because in them are two complementary ideas:

  1. that even when offered plenty of evidence of cultural fluidity, our stories of early humans often treat them as primitive to serve a bigger narrative of “civilization as progress”; and
  2. the aim of this bigger narrative is to uphold modern ideas of property as both essential and inevitable in advanced human life.

In other words, this “New History of Humanity” isn’t just about re-configuring the ancient past. It’s also about remembering that the conclusions we draw about early humans tell us more about ourselves than they do about the people who actually lived thousands of years prior to us: people we are often trying to recreate from bone, clay, and knapped flint alone.

Here, the Davids only lightly touch on evolutionary psychology, as a site of such rigid thinking about the past, but the field’s approach to evolutionary research is one I’ve discussed before, as dangerously predisposed to teleological thinking. The idea that if a trait exists among humans today it must have been beneficial to preceding generations overlooks a much messier history of behavioral expression under evolutionary pressures.

Which isn’t to say that evolutionary psychology doesn’t have its uses: but like most everything else the Davids discuss here, the lion’s share of the field’s utility might lie with what those stories we craft about the past tell us about ourselves.

Who actually were the humans who came before?

And why is it so difficult to see them through the research lenses we lean on now?

The Dawn of Everything: Chapters 3 & 4

Key terms: actuarial intelligence • the agricultural argument • Thomas Beidelman • Christopher Boehm • the Calusa • carnival kings • John E. Clark • Pierre Clastres • commercial society • Émile Durkheim • egalitarianism • freedom • foragers • Göbekli Tepe • hunter-gatherers • the Inuit • Eleanor Leacock • Marshall Sahlins • Claude Lévi-Strauss • Marcel Mauss • monumentality • the Nambikwara • the Nuer • Poverty Point • prehistory • property • the sapient paradox • seasonal dualism • social stratification • surplus • A.R.J. Turgot • James Woodburn

Schismogenesis returns

As the Davids note in Chapter 3: Unfreezing the Ice Age, philosophers and neuroscientists have different levels of confidence in our ability to exist as self-conscious political actors. While philosophy often relies on the presumption of self-awareness, neuroscience delights in reminding us that most of our time is spent “effectively on autopilot, working out habitual forms of behaviour without any sort of conscious reflection.” But philosophy is not entirely naive on this accord, either. Rather, the Davids argue that classic philosophy often takes on a dialogic form because “[h]umans were only fully self-conscious when arguing with one another, trying to sway each other’s views, or working out a common problem.”

This idea builds on a prior discussion about “schismogenesis”, the act of defining a concept through contrast with another, and its role in the development of Western ideas about equality, freedom, property, anarchy, and the state of nature. The Wendat vs. the Jesuits. Kandiaronk vs. Lahontan. Hobbes vs. Rousseau. In Chapter 3, they present another shock to the Western system: the introduction of the term “prehistory”, after the discovery in 1858 of stone axes sealed under a casing of rock with remnants of extinct species.

What was “prehistory”?

Why, everything before what people had always thought of as the history, of course.

Now, the Davids don’t get too much into 19th century cosmology, but from my background in the era’s sciences I’ll flesh out the context a little: In 1859, Darwin would publish On the Origin of Species, but twenty years prior he would first travel the world with Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33), which supported the view of “uniformitarianism”: the idea that the world moves from one coherent, causally related geological age to another. Before this proposition, which offered an explanation for fossils from species no longer in living evidence, many believed in catastrophism: the idea that the world went through violent upheavals that disrupted our ability to say anything meaningful about prior eras.

But even under uniformitarianism, everything was in its place: one set of species, and then the next. So when evidence emerged that tied humans to eras before Biblical record, commingling with creatures no longer a part of the world today?

That complicated matters immensely.

How was one supposed to learn about human cultures from before written history?

Back to the Davids

As the Davids note, our more recent ancestors did the best they could, but with deep cultural biases built into their research. For instance, since affluent Western countries had more time to dedicate to searching for ruins, it was no surprise that they would find and prioritize local discoveries (and especially in light of contemporaneous ideas about racial superiority). Nor is it surprising that a culture raised on a cosmology of Adam and Eve would go into their research presuming the existence of a single origin for all recent human activity.

As we now know, though, modern human beings are strikingly similar, but our ancestors lived among a wide range of others: Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo naledi. Along with major anatomical and physiological differences, these populations also lived with different environmental pressures. How could they not manifest different cultures, too?

Lacking a time machine, researchers drew on archaeology and studies of more recent tribes, with all the limits both data sets contained. Some of our ancestors’ living environments, for example, were more ideal for later study than others. As the Davids write,

Where exactly on the African continent this evidence for culture crops up is determined largely by conditions of preservation, and by the countries that have so far been most accessible for archaeological investigation. Rock shelters around the coastlands of South Africa are a key source, trapping prehistoric sediments that yield evidence of hafted tools and the expressive use of shell and ochre around 80,000 BC. Comparably ancient finds are also known from other parts of Africa, but it’s not until later, around 45,000 years ago—by which time our species was busily colonizing Eurasia–that similar evidence starts appearing much more widely, and in greater quantities.

The Davids have written their history this way to explain why researchers once struggled with “the sapient paradox”: the question of why a species with more or less the same intellectual capacities for 200,000 years would show such huge gaps between periods of cultural flourishing. As the Davids argue, this was a paradox built on a false assumption. We had defined our eras of prehistory based solely on the places where we had looked. Since then, as we’ve broadened our scope of inquiry around the world, sure enough we keep fleshing out more of the rich interim in our species’ global past.

But this is the crux of the Davids’ concern, when they keep rapping researcher and philosopher knuckles for intellectual incuriosity:

Even in the absence of material data about those interim years, why did we simply assume that humans between dig sites—despite sharing very similar physical capabilities to humans today—had just lain culturally dormant for thousands of years? What underpinned our assumption that early humans were simplistic animals on autopilot except under rare circumstances, and that they had only really gained richness with the advent of the modern world?

The persistence of rigid histories

The Davids discuss a range of theorists who made this error, including ones who were fairly sympathetic to better readings of the past. Christopher Boehm, for instance, was openly critical of “Hobbes vs. Rousseau” views of history, and used the term “actuarial intelligence” to describe the self-awareness of different ways to build society that human beings enact and other primates do not. But even as he offered that term to forager societies, he seemed reluctant to imagine our ancestors ever actually applying it. Somehow, it was easier to imagine thousands of years in which all that self-awareness was put to no good use.

He was not alone in this failure of the imagination, either. For a time, a common view of hunter-gatherer societies was that they had no capacity for monumentality: investment in structures and public works indicative of a complex social hierarchy. Under the agricultural argument for human progress, such things were features of a propertied society, one capable of producing enough surplus from labor to dedicate time to other tasks.

But elaborate burial practices, the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, and massive public works as old as 23,000 BC between Kraków and Kiev have challenged that story–though some researchers then pushed back in turn. Now, instead of suggesting that hunter-gatherers were incapable of elaborate hierarchies, some have gone to the other extreme, and conjectured strict class stratification on the basis of these finds.

(And certainly, as the Davids later explore in Chapter 4: Free People, The Origin of Cultures, and the Advent of Private Property, there were societies of that type: like the Calusa, an island chain marine tribe with a brutal king, despite none of the agricultural economies that theorists once regarded as an essential precondition. And although rising sea levels historically made it difficult to access similar sites, underwater archaeology is finally allowing us greater insight into shore-dwelling peoples such as these.)

Yet in the middle, as the Davids argue—not just of these ideas but also of the century of research that housed them—was a body of anthropologists who reported another societal possibility from their studies of the Inuit, the Kwakiutl, the Nambikwara, and the Nuer: cultural fluidity in lockstep with environmental change. Seasonal dualism, in other words.

The Inuit, according to Marcel Mauss at the turn of the 20th century, had two social structures: a collaborative model for winter months, and a propertied and territorial society for summer. This accorded with findings around the Kwakiutl, hunter-gatherers whose seasons of collaboration and stratification were merely flipped: scattering in winter and building grand, shared homes in summer.

Studies such as these would also offer a rejoinder to later critics of Pierre Clastres, an anthropologist who amid the rigid configuration of early human history in the 1960s proposed that groups treated as “primitive” by fellow researchers were actually more imaginative than many in industrialized cultures. For this, he was accused of fetishization, and challenged for proposing that early human cultures had actively chosen not to be ensnared in rigid societies. How could they choose what they had never known?

But plenty of late-19th and early-20th-century studies of seasonal dualism, and other forms of tribal play such as festival-driven “carnival kings”, showed that many such groups did have experience with rigid authority. The very fact that they weren’t stuck with it year round simply suggested the enactment of that “actuarial intelligence” Boehm had first proposed.

This would all come later, though, because the Davids note that, at first, ethnography revealing such cultural fluidity just didn’t find traction in the field. In the 1940s, Claude Lévi-Strauss studied the Nambikwara, whose seasonal dualism was shaped by rainy and dry seasons. In the rainy season, a chief might be appointed to manage crisis conditions, but his ability to sustain a village in the dry season depended on how well he performed under the aforementioned pressure, and also how well he code-switched after. His role, his utility, and his control over others shifted with the seasons.

But Lévi-Strauss’s research didn’t fit the contemporaneous academic shift from old ideas of barbarism versus civilization, to a new spectrum of progress from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to states. Neither did Thomas Beidelman’s work with the Nuer in South Sudan, whose village leaders were an assemblage of outsider-priests, prophets-made-out-of-neurodivergence, and even some women declared men by their parents to fill the role.

As for research among recent Plains nations and neolithic societies that reveals examples of farming abandoned for hunter-gatherer lifestyles? Despite the classic story of human progress that has us forever stuck in agrarian society once we start down that path? Well, that too has been been tough to integrate into histories of our species.

Egalitarianism and property

And yet, this resistance to seeing ancient and tribal groups as capable of immense cultural variation has a clear source. As the Davids argue in Chapter 4, the issue lies with the construction of private property, and attendant presumptions about the inevitability of human progress toward our current, industrial-capitalist end.

A.R.J. Turgot (our early economist from Chapters 1&2) was a huge proponent of viewing “commercial society” as the peak of human economic achievement: a situation that, emerging from agricultural prowess into broader systems of extraction and industrialization, compels the loss of “primitive” liberties in exchange for the promise of greater wealth for all under elaborate labor systems driving higher productivity.

However, private property on the scale required for such enterprises is not a concept that many of our ancestors or tribal kin took up. Private sacred objects, perhaps, but little more. So for Turgot’s system to be self-evidently superior, there had to be some deficiency built into all these less-propertied cultures. Maybe not a flaw, per se, but certainly a reason to explain why we’re not all still living another way. After all:

To recognize the close parallels between private property and notions of the sacred is also to recognize what is so historically odd about European social thought. Which is that—quite unlike free societies—we take this absolute, sacred quality in private property as a paradigm for all human rights and freedoms.

What makes the Roman Law conception of property—the basis of almost all legal systems today—unique is that the responsibility to care and share is reduced to a minimum, or even eliminated entirely. In Roman Law there are three basic rights relating to possession: usus (the right to use), fructus (the right to enjoy the products of a property, for instance the fruit of a tree), and abusus (the right to damage or destroy). If one has only the first two rights this is referred to as usufruct, and is not considered true possession under the law. The defining feature of true legal property, then, is that one has the option of not taking care of it, or even destroying it at will.

For researchers like James Woodburn, the justification for this weird state of affairs, so atypical for most of human history, comes from the difference between immediate and delayed return societies. Sure, a living tribe might be egalitarian—and not just economically but also in the sharing of social responsibilities, praise, and knowledge—but only if that group immediately uses up whatever they acquire, rather than stockpiling resources.

Categorical convictions like this help to explain, again, why contradictory evidence struggles to find a foothold in the field. Even in 2004, when John E. Clark published on Poverty Point in Lower Mississippi, he was met with a lukewarm response, because the site belongs to a post-neolithic period defined by archaeologists as “archaic” (i.e. historically uninteresting, a lull between more interesting eras in early human history). Nevertheless, the sprawling site indicates a huge gathering place of hunter-gatherers, with elaborate geometries suggesting an exchange of knowledge as much as goods, and as such raises two serious questions:

Is “commercial society” solely the provenance of propertied cultures?

And are the freedoms that must be sacrificed in Turgot’s vision of higher productivity via industrialization really so primitive after all?

Marshall Sahlins’ 1968 essay, “The Original Affluent Society”, suggests not. It was a provoking work of “speculative prehistory” that argued hunter-gatherers actually had surplus time—perhaps more so than Westerners—and lived with abundance. Similarly, Eleanor Leacock viewed freedom as autonomy, especially for women in a given society, and by this metric found many Indigenous communities to be freer than Western models.

The Davids do not disagree with such conclusions, either. Rather, around this body of argumentation they return to their own, central theme, for:

The freedom to abandon one’s community, knowing one will be welcomed in faraway lands; the freedom to shift back and forth between social structures, depending on the time of year; the freedom to disobey authorities without consequence—all appear to have been simply assumed among our distant ancestors, even if most people find them barely conceivable today. Humans may not have begun their history in a state of primordial innocence, but they do appear to have begun it with a self-conscious aversion to being told what to do. If this is so, we can at least refine our initial question: the real puzzle is not when chiefs, or even kings and queens, first appeared, but rather when it was no longer possible simply to laugh them out of court.

And that’s where we leave off for now. Next week, Chapters 5 & 6 offer even deeper dives into some of this seasonal dualism and flip-flopping around agriculture touched upon here. May your reading keep you well.

Key questions

  • Reviewing this book’s argument, I can’t help but wonder if the Davids have oversold how much we are stuck today, in contrast with the more flexible pasts they ascribe to early human societies and also to modern Indigenous groups. Did the pandemic not count as a season in which we put aside old rules and (sometimes dangerously) laughed old authorities out of court? Do border relationships, and ideas of rigid fealty to states and cultural traditions, not routinely find themselves in flux? Is it only around this question of property under capitalism that we still find ourselves in an ideological bind?
  • The role of anthropological debate in this book’s depiction of history is slippery, especially because the Davids don’t always cleave to a strict chronological report of how we discovered key data. This creates a scattering effect that I tried to amend in my summary, especially around the Calusa. In the book, they’re mentioned at such a time when their presence can counter the assumption that agriculture is necessary for kings, but they could also just as easily have been used to show that researchers weren’t always in the wrong for suggesting strict hierarchies among early hunter-gatherer tribes. So what other cases lurk in these pages, of tribal examples used more selectively than they could be?
  • Although the Davids explain the emergence of the “prehistory”, as a term that arose in a context when history was considered more or less settled, I’m not so keen on how much they continue to use the term themselves. Many problems of categorization are mentioned throughout the text, though, and most could probably do with refinement. Whether it’s talk of bands to tribes to chiefdoms to states, or Paleolithic to Neolithic to Archaic to New Archaic periods, what are some better ways we can talk about gradients of simple and complex societies, and the eras in which they emerge?
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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.