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In this age of intellectual sub-sub-sub-specialization, it would be unfair to say that people have completely abandoned grand narratives in their discipline. There are still brave souls who are willing to take on the big picture and try to synthesize what is known in their field as well as allied areas into a cohesive all-encompassing story. Stephen Pinker is a prominent example of someone who has leveraged his expertise in psychology and linguistics to fashion upbeat histories of humanity. But it would be fair to say that it is unusual to encounter a book that takes on the world and confidently asserts, “I think you have it all wrong.” To possibly be correct in the claim would be rarer still. This book by Graeber and Wengrow falls squarely into that small category.

The book has a bittersweet back story that only adds to its appeal. It represents the result of a decade long collaboration between Graebner, an anthropologist, and Wengrow, an archeologist. It originally started as pure academic fun between two colleagues but quickly escalated into a serious dialogue that culminated in a book with 83 pages of notes and a 63-page bibliography. Sadly, Graeber died unexpectedly at age 59 of necrotizing pancreatitis shortly after completing the work and did not live to see its publication.

The book has attracted a great deal of attention because it takes on the accepted grand narrative of human development, namely, a linear evolution from a primordial state of innocence and equality to a society in which hierarchy and inequality are hard wired into existence. The key step in this transition is the move from small groups of hunter-gatherers to agriculture-based groups that gradually grew in size and became more centralized in structure. This resulted in the prioritization of private property and the consolidation of the population into cities that mandated top-down control. Regardless of whether you invoke Rousseau as your intellectual guide or Hobbes as your rationalization for a powerful sovereign state, the traditional view is that you will reach the same endpoint, the loss of equality. Graebner and Wengrow challenge this “myth.” Their operational method is to examine the scientifically sophisticated data that have been gathered by archeologists from prehistoric sites around the world. They conclude that the prevailing view shortchanges human inventiveness in framing how people have chosen to live and undermines our freedom to reconsider the way society is organized. As an example of the scope and originality of the book, in the second chapter, they argue that this Enlightenment notion of “noble savages” and steady linear progress may have arisen among the French intelligentsia in the 18th century in response to the interaction of North American Indians with the French in the New World. Heady stuff that you thought you would not have to think about after college.

The book is loaded with facts and details about burial grounds, temples, houses, and playing fields that archeologists and anthropologists use as the ground truth in their work. They document how there was great variability and fluidity in social structure over course of the year in prehistoric times, demonstrating that though men and women could not control their environment they could do their best to adapt by alternating between planting and food gathering before there were “farms.”  In contrast to the view that agricultural groups, with their need for defined plots of land, created the notion of private ownership, they cite real world evidence from places as far flung as Poverty Point in Louisiana to the Australian Western Desert that the sacred realm was the origin of individual possession. They contrast in great detail the lifestyles of communities living along the west coast of North America, in the region from Washington State to northern California. The evidence is clear that while the northern communities were hunter gatherers, patriarchal, more warlike, and more ostentatious, those in the south were characterized by a less showy land-based public sphere and a more peaceful demeanor that was reflected in a greater role of women in defining the activities of daily living and social structure. The communities were not isolated and had contact with one another, underscoring the fact that the ways of life were active choices and not passive default modes. The start of farming was gradual over thousands of years and was not a revolutionary change, and prehistoric communities could switch their mode of sustenance in the face of changing circumstances.

I will not have to take a final examination on the book so I cannot say that I can repeat the names of all the Amerindian communities living in middle America along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers or recount the details of all the artifacts of and rites performed by the Mesoamerican civilizations. Graebner and Wengrow discuss an incredible number and variety of archeological sites throughout Eurasia and Africa, in addition to those in the New World, so I have to take the authors’ recitation of the facts on faith. I am sure that some of their interpretation is open to question by experts in the fields. But Graebner and Wengrow will certainly get you thinking.

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