The History of Humankind Just Got a Major Rewrite
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The History of Humankind Just Got a Major Rewrite

Arts & Culture Politics & Economics
The History of Humankind Just Got a Major Rewrite

What if everything we think we know about the history of our species is wrong? That’s the provocative question at the heart of a new book by archaeologist David Wengrow. Hailed as “fascinating, brilliant, and potentially revolutionary,” The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity debuted at no. 2 on the New York Times Bestseller List. Drawing on the latest research in archaeology and anthropology, it suggests that the lives of our ancient ancestors were not nasty, brutish, and short. On the contrary, they were playful, collaborative, and improvisational.

Today, David joins Rufus Griscom on the Next Big Idea podcast. Listen to the full episode below, or read a few key highlights.

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On the prevailing myth of human development.

Rufus Griscom: So you see our current understanding of the history of humankind as a myth, and we know it’s a myth because it can be summed up in just a few sentences. Can you share it with us?

David Wengrow: Here we go: We started out in tiny bands of egalitarian hunter-gatherers, and then something went terribly wrong, and look where we are today. We can debate that something—was it the agricultural revolution? Was it the invention of cities? But that’s basically it. It’s what Claude Lévi-Strauss called a “mytheme,” a little bundle of things that sit in your head and you repeat them so often that you never really question them.

Hunter-gatherers lived and died in surprising ways.

Rufus: You write, “The world of hunter-gatherers, as it existed before the coming of agriculture, was one of bold social experiments, resembling a carnival parade of political forums far more than it does the drab abstractions of evolutionary theory.” So it was much more colorful than we’ve been led to believe?

David: Look at the archaeological evidence of what human beings were up to before the coming of, say, rice farming in East Asia, or maize growing in the Americas, or wheat and barley in Eurasia. Wherever you look, you see an incredible range of experiments. If there wasn’t direct archaeological evidence for these things, we’d have never imagined that pre-agricultural peoples were getting together in the thousands to build enormous earthworks and great monumental centers, like Poverty Point in Louisiana or the great stone monuments of Göbekli Tepe in the Middle East. These are just things that wouldn’t really occur to us, but they’re there in the archaeological evidence. In Ice Age Europe, you have these phenomenal burials of individuals, going back tens of thousands of years before the invention of agriculture. People’s bodies are placed in these funerary dioramas with huge amounts of wealth and ornamentation and sophisticated, highly-crafted objects and trade goods.

All of this exuberance just gets flattened out in the conventional story where we’re told, time and again, that before the coming of agriculture, nothing much happened. In fact, what archaeology shows us today is that a huge number of different things happened, and many of those experiments will have involved institutions and beliefs that we generally think of as much more recent in time, including forms of private property, hierarchy, and probably even slavery.

“The world of hunter-gatherers, as it existed before the coming of agriculture, was one of bold social experiments, resembling a carnival parade of political forums far more than it does the drab abstractions of evolutionary theory.”

The “agricultural revolution” wasn’t really a revolution.

David: This book was originally conceived as being really about the roots of social inequality. This was the decade directly after the financial crisis of 2008, and there were a lot of books coming out about inequality—each of them was very rigorous, and each of them had its own take. But they all had a structure, a kind of narrative underpinning them, and the narrative doesn’t really change. It’s that same story: once upon a time everything was different. Then something happened technologically to change all of that, and nothing could ever work the same way again. So we get this picture of humanity going through these very rare and wrenching transitions, and then essentially nothing much happens for thousands of years.

If you take that seriously as an account of human history—particularly in the present day, when by general consent, we do need to make some changes to our cultural system just to remain on the planet—it’s a fairly disheartening message. That, in itself, is not a reason to reject it. But when you begin to see that, actually, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, then you have a case to say, “Well, hold on. Why do we keep repeating this stuff?”

Rufus: And so you write, “The transition from living mainly on wild resources to a life based on food production took something in the order of 3,000 years. And while agriculture allowed for the possibility of more unequal concentrations of wealth, in most cases this only began to happen millennia after its inception.”

David: This is not controversial in my field. I’m sitting right now on the sixth floor of the largest archaeology Institute in Western Europe, and if you go three flights down, you’ll be in our archaeobotany labs, where there’s a brilliant group of people who study the flora—the ancient seed remains and other plant remains—excavated from archaeological sites all over the world. And we now have a pretty good handle on the biology and the genetics of early plant domestication and early animal domestication, and it just doesn’t at all fit this idea of, once upon a time we were Paleolithic foragers, and then everything changed. It’s a much more interesting but also more complex story with a lot of regional variability.

And it’s a much slower story. What you say about thousands of years is exactly right. People are clearly taking the measure of farming and agriculture for very long periods of time and, for various reasons, deciding not to go the full way with it. There’s a technical term in the anthropological literature: “low-level food production.” In the book, we talk about “play farming.” It’s basically the same idea of people adopting elements of farming, but perhaps combining it with hunting, fishing, and foraging; or taking up agriculture and then deciding to drop it again. What we certainly don’t have any more is that simple picture of a mostly linear progression with one set of social consequences.

“People are clearly taking the measure of farming and agriculture for very long periods of time and, for various reasons, deciding not to go the full way with it.”

As for this idea that agriculture inexorably gives rise to higher rates of inequality, or makes it harder to return to a preexisting egalitarian condition—there’s really no reason to think that. Aside from the archaeology, there are many examples in history of agrarian societies that were highly egalitarian and didn’t have systems of private property. If you look at South Asia or the Middle East before the British showed up, who imposed systems of private property and land enclosure in order to tax them, what you usually find in rural areas is something much more fluid and collective.

How the “indigenous critique” fueled the Enlightenment.

Rufus: The extraordinary suggestion here is that it was this feedback, this dialogue with Native Americans that helped plant a seed that contributed to Enlightenment thinking. To refresh our memories, in the Enlightenment, Kant said the motto was “have courage to use your own understanding.” The thinking was, let’s use reason and logic and rationality to understand how the world works and propose ways of improving it. The extraordinary suggestion is that this idea was in dialogue with these new cultures of people who had more liberty, more freedom, and more open dialogue about ways of organizing themselves, which resulted in this Enlightenment thinking that, in turn, resulted in the French and American revolutions.

David: Europeans were highly mobile. There were Europeans going everywhere, marrying, trading, interacting with people everywhere, from China to the Americas. So the idea that they wouldn’t have absorbed anything of intellectual or moral value from those encounters seems pretty extraordinary. And yet when you make the apparently modest suggestion that actually encountering people for whom liberty and individual autonomy were not just abstract concepts but were actually the basis of their social and cultural systems—the idea that that wouldn’t have had some impact upon European people, including intellectuals at the time, seems like a pretty extraordinary claim. We know that Europeans adopted a tobacco pipe and the habit of sitting around having conversations while drinking caffeinated beverages. Nobody questions that Europeans adopted these cultural habits. But the idea that there might’ve been some intellectual influence, or that we might’ve learned something of social value, can still provoke almost hysterical backlash in the academy. I’ve seen a bit of it myself over the last few weeks.

You have to ask, why is it still so difficult for so many historians to accept the idea? Just as you said before, these people that Europeans were encountering were people! And among them were some brilliant people.

“These people that Europeans were encountering were people! And among them were some brilliant people.”

Nibbling around the edges of the world’s problems won’t do much good.

Rufus: You’ve said, David, that you did not write this book as an act of advocacy, but it’s clearly a provocation—a well-timed provocation. A surprising number of my friends are taking very seriously right now the question of how we can better design our society, or even our individual families.

It feels to me like there are a few factors at play. One is that there’s an epidemic of loneliness, and this may be partly to do with the erosion of religion, and may be because of the building of edge cities and the automobile and the way that’s impacted how we live. We now know that humans live an extra decade longer if they’re more connected with other humans—this is a really core need that we have. We then have the issue of the increasingly preposterous concentration of wealth. Because of artificial intelligence and robotization, we have the looming prospect of mass loss of jobs in a cultural environment within which we’re all, in Western society, very much defined by the work we do. Meanwhile, we have China defying what we thought about the inevitability of capitalism begetting democracy. People are talking about using blockchain to create new systems of governance. Elon Musk is talking about the benefits of direct democracy on Mars—

David: You make it all sound quite exciting! I think the prevailing sense that I get from a lot of people is the opposite. It’s this sense of being stuck.

You made the point about these rates of inequality. We hear a lot about the rates, we hear a lot of figures. But it’s almost as if the more we’re able to measure these things, the less we’re able to actually do anything about them—or think about doing anything more dramatic than maybe bringing them down a little bit, but not actually questioning the underlying logic, the underlying system that produces those inequalities in the first place. The quality of political discourse seems to have eroded to the point that even when you’re confronted with these really stark figures, there’s just this sense that it was all inevitable.

We started seeing colleagues of ours, in our fields of ancient history and archaeology, getting on board with this idea that not only is it all inevitable, but it’s somehow rooted in human evolution and human social evolution, and it’s all a natural consequence of processes going back thousands and thousands of years. But when you scrape the surface, what’s underpinning that idea? Well, it’s the same old stories and fables that were being told hundreds of years ago, back in the days of the Enlightenment, by people who didn’t want to listen to what we’ve called the indigenous critique.

“It’s almost as if the more we’re able to measure these things, the less we’re able to actually do anything about them.”

It’s time to reconnect with our three basic freedoms.

David: In pandemic times, we hear a lot about freedoms, but they’re often personal, individual freedoms. They’re not really social freedoms. The idea that you can exert your personal freedoms without taking any account of other people—that’s a kind of freedom, but it quickly shades into domination.

In the book, we look at examples of societies that had real freedoms, the kind you could actually put into practice, societies where people were not trained into obedience. And three particular things come into focus.

The first is to do with mobility, the freedom to decide that you don’t like where you are and to move away and escape your surroundings. This is not a purely individual freedom because it’s always in the expectation that, at your point of destination, somebody will take you in. In the book, we talk about these clan systems that existed in different parts of the world—there are examples in Oceania and in North America—where people could leave their homes and their families and move over very long distances, hundreds of miles, in the full knowledge that a co-member of their clan would take them in, adopt them, make them part of their family. This is born out in the archaeological evidence, too. Before the appearance of cities are not these isolated little bands of human beings; you get these great networks of small societies, and people seem to have been very free to move between them.

The second basic freedom is simply the freedom to disobey arbitrary commands with an expectation that you won’t be excluded, ostracized, killed, or imprisoned.

And the third basic freedom we identify is the freedom to reimagine and remake one’s society. That kind of freedom is epitomized in those people who construct one kind of society at one time of year and then, on a routine basis, take it apart and put it back together in some different form. It’s an extreme example, but the basic principle, we feel, is that if human civilizations have lost something, if there is something to be nostalgic about, it’s not equality, it’s not living in a society of equals, because there’s no particular reason to think that that ever happened. It’s precisely that ability to reconceptualize society itself and collectively decide to do things differently—that’s what we seem to have lost.


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