I have only read the first 150 pages of the Graber and Wengrow book, but I am having such fun with it that I thought I would say something about what I have learned of it thus far. First of all, I always enjoy reading anthropologists because they know lots of interesting stuff about people I have never heard of. In addition, this book is sprightly, charming, provocative, and an all-around good read. What I am going to say is based only on that first hundred fifty pages and I would imagine that there will be lots more in the remaining 400 that I am not now anticipating.
The goal of the book, as I understand it, is to rebut the standard story of human development that has been put forward by anthropologists, economists, and others and that is used repeatedly to ridicule the hopes of those, like modern-day anarchists, who believe there are alternative and better ways for human beings to live their lives even now in a world of 7 ½ billion souls dominated by late capitalism (as we used rather optimistically to describe the present state of affairs back in the 50s and 60s).
The standard story, I freely confess, is one that I learned and have been repeating in lectures, blogs, and YouTube videos for quite a long time now, although not with the reactionary implications put forward by the folks the authors want to argue against. For me personally an exciting aspect of the book is that it calls into question something I thought I knew and was quite confident about.
The standard story goes something like this: human beings have been around for 200,000 years, plus or minus, and for the first 190,000 of those years, more or less, they got their living by doing what anthropologists have come to call foraging. They hunted for wild animals, they collected nuts and fruits and berries, and they lived in relatively small groups without, so far as anyone could tell, stable political organizations and arrangements or what today we would call class structure. Then, roughly 10,000 years ago, near the end of the Neolithic era, three big things happened that totally changed human affairs and rather rapidly produced the world in which we live now. Those three things were, first the development of agriculture, second (but not necessarily in this order) the domestication of wild animals, and third the construction of substantial permanent residential settlements – cities.
This triple revolution took place, so far as the archaeologists could tell, first in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now roughly Iraq, but then in many other places around the world.
Anthropologists speculated (they did not have direct evidence for this, of course) that the increase in available food supplies resulting from formal agriculture and the domestication of animals resulted in a surplus which, when seized by certain members of the community, enabled those persons to control the society by using a portion of the surplus to support soldiers, using another portion to support priests, using yet another portion to support judges, and even taking a little bit left over to support philosophers who would explain elegantly that this was all for the best in the best of all possible worlds. After this, there came writing, empires, large-scale wars, and all the other benefits of civilization.
One of the central goals of the book is to pull together large amounts of archaeological and anthropological evidence to show that this story is simply false. The human story turns out to be a great deal more complicated than the standard story suggests. How so?
Well, first of all, all over the world there are the remains of large complex structures – monoliths, amphitheaters, etc. – which were erected by human groups at a time when those groups were not engaging, so far as the evidence shows, in agriculture or the domestication of animals. The structures are so big that they clearly required a coordinated effort for long periods of time of large numbers of people, people who were nevertheless supporting themselves by foraging and hunting. The implication is clear: foraging peoples were able to support themselves for extended periods of time when they were engaged in these construction projects and not simply foraging, and, equally important, there is no reason to believe that the coordination of labor required was enforced by a class of soldiers being supported by the surplus generated by agriculture or the domestication of animals.
Secondly, and this is in its way even more surprising, there are even today (which is to say in the last 500 hundred years) examples of people who spend part of the year organized politically under the sway of rulers who exercise coercive power and the rest of the year hunting and gathering completely independently of these people who during part of the year function as their rulers! This is, when you think about it, truly astonishing.
It turns out there are lots of examples of organized well-functioning societies in which people deliberately choose whether or not to submit to rulers during part of the year and even rotate the functions of rulership. What is more, there are societies in which being a ruler does not bring with it greater wealth and in which greater wealth does not bring with it the opportunity to be a ruler.
So the standard story we tell ourselves about how things are and why they are that way and whether they can be different is simply not supported by the anthropological evidence.
The book starts with an extended riff on a subject that was not new to me and to which I devoted several of my YouTube lectures on ideological critique, namely the fact that so-called “primitive” or “inferior” people are as intellectually active, complex, and self-reflective as the supposedly great minds of Western civilization. The authors extend this not simply to Native Americans or African slaves or supposed foragers of the Kalahari Desert, but backwards in time over the entire 200,000 years of the career of Homo Sapiens. It is initially shocking to hear it claimed but on reflection obvious that men and women 100,000 years ago were as self-aware, intelligent, thoughtful, and deliberative about their living arrangements and social organization as the authors of the American Constitution. After all, Lysenko to the contrary notwithstanding, intelligence is not an acquired characteristic, so Stone Age men and women must have been just as intelligent, or as dimwitted, as 21st century men and women are.
Well so much for an interim report on a lovely book. When I read another 150 pages I will nod in again on the subject.