The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I stumbled on this book while on a bookstore raid in Winnipeg. I'd been keeping an eye out for a book like this because I've been assigned World History to teach this coming semester, so I was really needing a book which would cover pre-history and which would connect the Americas in more clear way. What I got was a book which did that and more.
It is, however, difficult to explain what this book really is. It talks about the origin of inequality, but it isn't really just that. It takes on the false dichotomy between Rousseau's Noble Savage and Hobbes "nasty, brutish and short' as the primal condition of humanity by suggesting that the picture is really more complex than either extreme conceives. It offers a comprehensive view of what anthropology and archaeology can tell us about prehistory, but with a twist.
That twist is that the authors look at the rise of civilization (already a problematic definition) with the critique of North American indigenous groups in the 18th century in mind. Their contention is that this critique, mediated through Enlightenment political debate, both indicates a complexity to the prehistory and may have influenced the anti-authoritarian spin of the last three centuries. From this critique, the authors suggest that the contemporary model which presumes that complex social structures demand a hierarchical form of governance isn't a given and, for much of human history, wasn't necessary. They consider where we got stuck into this opinion.
The key to this discussion, of course, is the indigenous critique, which is drawn from their appearance in European commentators. There are, of course, problems with that. Many critics dismiss these discussions as Graeco-Roman tropes in indigenous dress, but the authors insist that these are authentic political critiques. My own take is that it is possible that both are going on. I think there may well be a historical core, but that the writers, immersed in Graeco-Roman literature, may have used those images in the accounts. That makes them hard to interpret, but not necessarily impossible.
What you get with this book is an incredible erudite, but quite diffuse discussion about how we understand human societies in pre-history. I'm still trying to assimilate what I've learned and, of course, distill it for classroom work, but this is a fascinating book for those interested in the questions of what constitutes civilization and how humanity came to adopt it.
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