What the Hell Were Humans Doing in Prehistory?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/8/22

I’m still reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I’m a member of an online book club that will be discussing the book all during the month of March, so I’ll be discussing it here piece by piece, whenever a particular topic intrigues me.

Here’s the setup for the book. Humans have been around in their present form for about 200,000 years, but recorded history only covers around the last three thousand years — what were we doing for those other 197,000 years? Anthropology and archeology help answer that question to a degree. The Dawn of Everything works to say to what degree is possible. However, most of what anyone can say about those 197,000 years is speculation, and that can cause controversy.

For most people, prehistory is a mixture of the Garden of Eden imagery and fantasies about cave people. Anthropologists study the evidence provided by archaeologists then speculate about that evidence by comparing it to what we learned from ethnographic research on various indigenous societies from the last few hundred years. Unfortunately, what most Americans know about the pre-20th century indigenous people of North America comes from watching westerns. In other words, unless you read a lot of books on anthropology it’s doubtful you think about prehistory at all, and what you do think you know is pop culture deceptions.

David Graeber and David Wengrow, an anthropologist and an archeologist, have caused some political shit storms by angering some of their readers with their discussion of freedom and inequality while analyzing what we know about prehistory. These brouhahas are caused partly because Graeber was an anarchist and was a leader in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and, partly because they challenge the established Western views that speculate on humans in prehistory, and tie ideas about various forms of inequality and freedom to their speculation. They seem to imply humanity made a wrong turn, but I’m not so sure we did, but don’t care to argue it. Graeber and Wengrow do review a lot of speculation that claimed we made a wrong turn when we switched from hunting and gathering to farming, but I’m not sure they believe that idea either, but merely review it too.

First off, there is no introduction, so the first chapter works as an introduction, but I don’t think it’s a good one. So far, I’ve felt every chapter has been self-contained, so it’s hard to assess the book as a whole. They title their first chapter, “Farewell to Humanity’s Childhood: Or why this is not a book about the origins of inequality.” I don’t think some readers took that to heart and feel The Dawn of Everything is harping about inequality. I wonder if conservatives dislike the book for the same reason they don’t like Critical Race Theory, that it smells of liberal thinking, and it asks them to relearn a history they’ve already embraced and memorized.

Here’s the thing about speculating about prehistory — speculation is only speculation. We’ve found some human bones, lots of animal bones, we have some pots and graves, some old cave paintings, remnants of housing, stone monuments, figurines, lots of rock tools, but not much of anything else. Most speculation about prehistory rests on ethnographic studies of primitive cultures that have survived into historical times. What Graeber and Wengrow challenge are generalized ideas we’ve developed about those cultures over the last couple of centuries.

Most of The Dawn of Everything is about the limits of speculation. What we really want to know is what were the people like? What did they think? How did they relate to each other? What kind of societies did they form? How much did they know about nature and reality? It’s one thing to look at old bones and relics and guess what people did, it’s entirely another thing to extrapolate what they thought and believed.

Here’s what I want to ask: Can ideal concepts exist before they are defined? Take inequality? That’s a concept that’s been emerging for a few centuries and a concept that modern society is working on. Even something like freedom is a concept been around for a long time, but has it always existed? What about science? Graeber and Wengrow have a whole chapter dealing with the origin of scientific thinking. Our ancestors might have observed nature and put two and two together but was that really science? I believe a concept like fairness might be very ancient, but I don’t know about inequality. I believe inequality is an emerging concept. There might have been societies in history and prehistory that had more equality but I don’t think they thought about it as a concept.

I think it’s completely insane to suggest humanity took a wrong turn because we don’t like aspects of our present society. The old saying, “the only constant is change” applies here. The variety of ways humans can organize their societies is infinite, and that comes across in this book. I think Graeber and Wengrow are right to say we can’t generalize about the past like Rousseau or Hobbes.

The best we can do is study all the ethnographic studies, examine all the archeological evidence and review all the speculation, and then create our own inner map of what prehistory was like with the jigsaw pieces we have. We also must be willing to constantly update that map as we gather new puzzle pieces.

We must resist philosophers and psychologists who try to characterize humans now or in the past in broad general terms. I believe what Graeber and Wengrow are telling us is not to lump together various stages of human development or societies into convenient pigeonholes. For example, there was no one shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Nor was there one type of nomads or hunting and gatherers. For example, North America had hundreds of different types of Native American cultures, so there is no way to generalize about what they thought about gender or money, or politics.

The trouble is there are places in the first chapter of this book (and I’m only on chapter six) that seem to imply that Graeber and Wengrow are advocating that we should be working towards all the various forms of equality. We can judge modern societies on inequality and even ethnographic studies of primitive societies we have studied, but I believe speculation on inequality in prehistory societies will be based only on our biases, and I think Graeber and Wengrow make that clear even though they keep trying.

Personally, I wonder if Graeber and Wengrow haven’t spoiled the rest of their book with chapter one. Most of the reviews I’ve seen focus on that first chapter. That might be due to the reviewers only reading that chapter, or it might be because it’s the one that pushes buttons. The other chapters I’ve read deal more with what we know, and I’m finding them quite fascinating. It makes me want to read more ethnographic studies — although, as Graeber and Wengrow show, those studies are often colored by their observer’s speculations. If anything, this book shows us time and again how we distort the evidence.

For me, the key to enjoying learning about prehistory is to avoid speculation and focus just on the evidence. The trouble is a certain amount of speculation is good. Nowadays generalizations are considered evil. But we make useful generalizations all the time — it’s called pattern recognition. We just can’t go overboard. Every archeological dig is like a crime scene. You only find so much evidence. Science never knows anything for sure, but works with statistics, looking for a preponderance of convincing evidence.

Most people don’t spend time studying history, much less prehistory. And it’s hard to make a case to get people to care about history and prehistory. For most people, it’s about as useful as studying geometry, cosmology, or particle physics. But consider this. All of us are deluded. We constantly fool ourselves in countless ways that make us see reality distorted by our cultural upbringing. Studying other societies that adapted to our shared external reality in different ways can break us out of the brainwashing of that upbringing. If the book is doing its job it should be stirring things up.

It’s not about whether or not we made a wrong turn, but knowing about all the possible turns we took and could have taken. I think this is scary for some people. If you want to believe the Bible is literally true, then learning about all the societies that existed at the same time as the Bible was being written could be disturbing. If you’re a scholar of Western culture that backed a particular view of history and prehistory, considering what Graeber and Wengrow are saying could also be disturbing. But aren’t all paradigm shifts uncomfortable?

Humans think we’re the crown of creation. And people raised in western culture believe we’re the pinnacle of human intellectual development. Maybe Graeber and Wengrow believe we took a wrong turn because our global society is sailing into an iceberg and they want us to change course. Personally, I don’t think our species has any control over its evolution. It’s not a matter of choice, but playing out all the anti-entropic possibilities. I believe studying history and prehistory shows us some of the many things we’ve already tried.

Knowing where we’ve been might help us know how we can adapt to climate change. Here’s one example. Graeber and Wengrow consider that prehistory societies made the choice between being hunting and gatherers and settling down and that they often chose to stay on the move because it offered more advantages. This video, it shows one modern reason why nomadic people choose to settle down and pursue year-round agriculture. It allows them to build wealth and stability in their lives. This is a very inspiring video.

JWH

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