Book Review:
'Best' book on origin or civilization 

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021)

by David Graeber and David Wengrow, 2021

I recently finished The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Graeber, an English anthropologist, died soon after completing the book. Wengrow is an English archaeologist. The Dawn of Everything is the best single book I've ever read regarding the origins and development of civilization; it contains extraordinary intellectual riches that cannot be reduced to a single theme or one big idea.  My initial comments focused on the authors' discussion of "schismogenesis," i.e., a process in which "societies in contact with each other end up joined within a common system of differences, even as they attempt to distinguish themselves from one another, " e.g., Athens vs. Sparta in ancient Greece. Schismatic tendencies commonly occur in all societies, cultures and movements, e.g., the Protestant Reformation, and in most organizations as well. It is a powerful dynamic in every type of social group. 


Pages 362-398 contain a fascinating discussion that begins with the heading: "In Which We Lay Out A Theory Concerning the Three Elementary Forms of Domination, And Begin To Explore Its Implications For Human History."  Graeber and Wengrow argue that the three bases of social power are a) control of violence, b) control of information/ sacred knowledge and c) individual charisma. They offer concrete examples of societies  in which power and influence flowed from one of the three sources to a far greater extent than the other two. 


Knowledge of the sacred

The authors discuss Chavin de Huantar in the Peruvian Andes, a city named Tiwanaku in Bolivia and in Norther Peru, a third culture called the Moche, major power centers in South America from about 1000 BC to 200 BC. These were not empires on the order of Rome with elaborate administrative structures and art that celebrated great emperors. Regarding Chavin art, the authors comment: 


"We are in another kind of visual universe altogether. It is the realm of the shape- shifter, where no body is quite stable or complete, and diligent mental training is tease out the structure from what at first seems visual mayhem." And "Up until recent times, a great many indigenous societies were still using systems of broadly similar kinds to transmit esoteric knowledge of ritual formulae, genealogies of shamanic journeys to the worlds of chtonic spirits and ancient familiars ... in the case of Chavin, we actually can be on fairly safe ground in assuming that these images were records of shamanic journeys, not just because of the peculiar nature of the images themselves, but also because of a wealth of circumstantial evidence relating to altered states of consciousness."


Chavin carved images include "sculpted male figures with fangs and snake headdresses holding aloft the stalk of the San Pedro cactus. This plant is the basis of Huachuma, a mescaline based infusion still made in the region today which induces psychoactive visions. ... In fact, nothing in Chavin's monumental landscape really seems concerned with secular government at all. There are no obvious military fortifications or administrative quarters. Almost everything .. seems to have something to do with ritual performance and the revelation or concealment of esoteric knowledge." Indigenous informants told Spanish soldiers and chronicles for centuries that "For as long as anyone could remember, .. Chavin had been a place of pilgrimage but also one of supernatural danger on which the heads of important families converged to seek visions and oracles: the 'speech of the stones.' " (p. 388-89). In some ancient societies political power derived from esoteric knowledge of the sacred. In the most extreme cases direct personal and collective contact with the sacred, as conceived and experienced in that society, was valued above all else, including the power of military and political elites.


Roberto Calasso made similar observations regarding the Vedas in Ardor, i;e., they had no interest in history, conquest or other great deeds (as our civilization conceives them) except as means to an end. Calasso says of Vedic societies: "They left no objects or images. They left only words. Verses and formulas that marked out rituals. ... At the center of which appeared the soma, an intoxicating plant that has not been identified with any certainty, even today. Even then they spoke of it as a thing of the past. They could, it seems, no longer find it. ...They had no concern with leaving a record of their conquests. And those events about which we do have information deal not so much with exploits - military or administrative - but with knowledge."  (pp. 3-4)  


Charisma as the source of power and cultural influence 

Graeber and Wengrow contrast the Chavin and their art to the Olmec, a civilization in Central America and Southern Mexico from about 1500 BC to 1000 BC, the "mother culture" it seems of later Mesoamerican civilizations, "having invented the region's characteristic calendar systems, glyph writing and even ball games." According to the authors, the Olmec were not a unified ethnic or political group. Olmec cities were not egalitarian, "they had clearly marked elites." And "Any further assessment of Olmec political structure has to reckon with ... its signature achievement; a series of absolutely colossal sculpted heads," carved from tons of basalt "and of a quality comparable with the finest ancient Egyptian stonework. These sculptures appear to be representations of Olmec leaders, but, intriguingly, they are depicted wearing the leather helmets of ball players." The authors believe there was a "direct relationship between competitive games and the rise of an Olmec aristocracy." In later centuries, "Stone ball courts were common features of classic Maya cities. .. The chief Maya gods were themselves ball players." In Maya epics, "mortal heroes and underworld gods collide" in a ball game "leading to the birth of the hero Twins Hunahpu and Xhalanque, who go on to beat the gods at their own deadly game, and ascend to take their own place among the stars." (pp. 384-85) The authors maintain that "The fact that the greatest known Maya epic centers on a ball game gives us a sense of how central the sport was to Maya notions of charisma and authority." ( p. 385) And "It is easy to see why the Olmec, with their intense fusion of political competition and organized spectacle are nowadays seen as cultural progenitors of later Mesoamerican kingdoms and empires; but there is no evidence the Olmec themselves ever created an infrastructure for dominating a large population. Nevertheless, "they presided over a remarkable spread of cultural influence radiating from ceremonial centers ... if these were 'states' in any sense at all they are probably best defined as what Clifford Gertz once called 'theatre states', where organized power was realized only periodically, in grand but fleeting spectacles." (p.386) 


Sovereignty without the 'State'


The authors discuss the Natchez, a tribe in southern Louisiana during the 18th century as an example royal power based on the control of violence but lacking the administrative infrastructure to develop or maintain an empire. French sources describe the Natchez as a royal dynasty in which the ruler and his family were virtually worshipped. "Anyone who came into their presence was expected to bow and wail, and to retreat backwards. No one, not even the king's wives, was allowed to share a meal with him; only the most privileged could even see him eat."  The Natchez king could and did order arbitrary executions and confiscate the property of his subjects at will, nevertheless, "court retainers would - often ..quite willingly, offer themselves up to be strangled to accompany the Great Sun ( the title of the king) and his closest family members to death. ... Many went to their deaths voluntarily, even joyfully." However, apart from the Great Village where the king and his family lived and which contained huge earthen platforms used for ceremonial occasions "ordinary Natchez appear to have led very different lives, often showing blissful disregard for the wishes of their ostensible rulers. They conducted their own independent commercial and military ventures, and sometimes flatly refused royal commands ..." ( p. 393) In addition, most tribal members stayed as far way from the Great Village as possible for most of the year. 


The authors ask: "How exactly are we to understand this situation? .. historically, such arrangements are not particularly unusual. .. the great Sun embodied a principle that was seen as higher than law. Therefore no law applied to him. ..Yet, at the same time, they ( kings) are expected to be the creators and enforcers of systems of justice. .. the Great Sun ostentatiously violated those laws ( against theft and murder) on a regular basis, as if to prove his identification with a principle prior to law, and therefore able to create it." The authors maintain that "Sovereignty always represent itself as a symbolic break with the moral order, " which is "why kings so often commit some kind of outrage," including killing brothers, marrying their sister or killing their subjects on a whim. "Yet that very act establishes the king as a potential lawmaker and high tribunal," when like gods, they can create laws and violate them at will. There is an application in this discussion to modern autocrats or 'would be' kings: these persons will always flaunt their contempt for law as a way of establishing their absolute authority. To respect law would be to function as a mere mortal.        


Graber and Wengrow comment: 

"For most of history, this was the internal dynamic of sovereignty. Rulers would try to establish their absolute power, while their subjects "would try to surround the godlike personages of these rulers with an endless maze of ritual restrictions, " virtually imprisoning the king in his palace, or as described by James Frazier in The Golden Bough, putting the king to death at regular intervals. 


 The authors argue that any or all of the three sources of political power and influence they discuss "could, in first order regimes become the basis .. for what we think of as a 'state,' but in others clearly don't."  They assert that there is no standard pathway from small egalitarian bands in early social evolution to "states" as exemplified by vast empires with huge armies, bureaucracies and near constant war with societies at their boundaries. Human societies, they insist, have for 100,000 years been remarkably diverse, with vastly different imaginative visions of the world, and of human possibilities. Nevertheless, some ways of attaining and maintaining power are constant in every era of human development.       

-- Dee Wilson