David Graeber and David Wengrow’s book “Beginnings”

Dmankind’s fear of itself has found expression not only in the designation of the present geological era as the Anthropocene, but also in the popular genre of global human history. Long gone are the days when, like Francis Fukuyama, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one predicted an end to history and a future empire of peace and general prosperity. In his more recent writings on the origins of the political order, as well as in the international bestselling treatises of Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, dystopian elements far predominate. And even if the basic tenor of the joint work by the archaeologist David Wengrow and the ethnologist David Graeber, who died shortly after the manuscript was completed, is not quite so pessimistic: They too are certain that something in world history has “gone terribly wrong”.

The reason for her ambitious undertaking to rewrite this history is the sensational archaeological finds of the last three decades. In their view, they refute the classical pattern of development, according to which the egalitarian hordes of hunters and gatherers of primeval times were replaced by tribal chiefdoms structured by kinship, from which the first cities emerged after the invention of agriculture. Among them is the settlement of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, which was laid out around nine thousand years ago. The houses of its approximately ten thousand inhabitants have been found, but a royal seat and an administrative center have been searched for in vain. Unlike the heavily walled cities of Mesopotamia, the residents of Çatalhöyük apparently did not need a ruler or administrative apparatus to manage their affairs themselves.

A single social experimental field

Even more fruitful for the authors’ critique of conventional evolutionary theories is what has come to light in excavations in the Amazon region. They showed that by the time of Christ’s birth it was criss-crossed with a network of cities, monuments and roads, the spurs of which reached into present-day Peru. The spread of this impressive rainforest civilization had evidently been favored by the domestication of tropical wild plants that had taken place thousands of years earlier. However, according to Graeber and Wengrow, their cultivation was only practiced in a playful way. Later people would have given it up again and lived from hunting and gathering as before. One of the reasons was that this activity requires far less working time. The nomadic way of life also offered the possibility of retreating to areas that were difficult to access, which was also used more intensively when the colonization of Brazil by Europeans began.

David Graeber and David Wengrow: “Beginnings”. A new history of mankind.

Image: Klett-Cotta Verlag

These and many other examples prove to Graeber and Wengrow that the economic, social and political forms of organization of early humanity were more diverse than previously assumed. This applies not only to the early cities, but also to the image of the egalitarianism of the Stone Age hunter-gatherer hordes that still prevails today. Grave finds show that there were already tyrannical leaders in some of these groups, and when they died dozens of people were killed and buried with them.

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