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  • Victor C. Bolles

Postmodern Prehistory



An alternative viewpoint on human prehistory, The Dawn of Everything, A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow, posits that the adoption of farming and agriculture by our ancient ancestors did not lead inevitably to surplus, private property and domination by a hierarchy of elites. The general idea of academics and also most of the rest of us has been that our prehistoric ancestors for most of the 200 to 300 hundred thousand years of human history were simple hunter/gatherers wandering around the savannahs in small bands of relatively closely related persons. These foraging hunter/gatherers were, by necessity, egalitarian because the nomadic nature of their lives prohibited the accumulation of wealth and property.


While progress over the millennia was slow, these supposedly simple ancestors made some earth-shattering advancements that changed the course of human history, especially the development of language to communicate with other humans. Language was probably originally developed to alert other humans about the various dangers that confronted prehistoric life and to support hunting bands in getting meat from animals larger, stronger and faster than puny humans. Language allowed humans to think, really think. We are now so accustomed to using language that it is almost impossible to think without using words.


Language accelerated the advancements our ancestors were making in developing tools and artifacts that assisted them in coping with their daily struggles. Language also helped in developing larger social structures better able to adapt to the environment. A lot of these changes seemed to have occurred at the end of the last Ice Age about 10 to 12 thousand years ago. Many people converted from nomadic foragers to living in permanent or semi-permanent camps and villages. Most archeologists believed that the development of agriculture was the key to allowing people to give up hunting and gathering. But land for farming needed protection. The surplus food generated by farming allowed certain villagers to specialize in providing protection along with other forms of specialization such as blacksmiths and millers to provide tools and services for the farmers. And all this specialization required a bureaucracy to administer the distribution of goods and services and that bureaucracy further required someone to tell it what to do. Thus, farming , according to the conventional wisdom, led inexorably to the creation of hierarchy as well as income and social inequality.


Authors Wengrow and Graeber dispute this inexorable course of history in their book. They assert that many of these camps and villages grew into towns and even small cities long before the foragers turned to large scale farming. They also assert that these towns and cities showed little evidence of bureaucracy, hierarchy or elitism. Much of the 500+ pages of their book details ad nauseum examples that they say exhibit these characteristics.


But the principal basis for their theory are narratives of the indigenous tribes of the northeastern sector of the North American continent about how they lived before the arrival of Europeans as well as what they thought about European culture and society. These native Americans lived in small villages or towns where clans lived in communal lodges and most decisions were made by a council of elders. These councils were often led by women they pointed out, leaving the men free to go hunting or on the warpath. These communities often had small gardens or native areas favorable to certain fruits and vegetables but had supposedly given up large scale farming of grains. Lands were not held in common because there was no sense of ownership in the land. The land was just the land. There was no bureaucracy to manage the lands or village affairs and, although there may have been chiefs, the authors insisted that the villagers were free to ignore orders from these chiefs or to walk away and join their clan in a different village, these being two essential freedoms that all people seek.


As the native Americans had no written language, the narratives of these indigenous people were recorded by French explorers and colonizers. Some of the indigenous leaders were transported to Europe where they were very popular in academia and the salons of Paris elites. One such native American was Kandiaronk who was supposedly the inspiration for Rousseau’s “noble savage” who personified the “state of nature” which the authors felt was the basis for the Enlightenment thought and philosophy of Rousseau.


But Rousseau, as we learned in our study of Postmodernism (A Postmodern Future, April 27, 2023), was not an Enlightenment philosopher but a counter-Enlightenment philosopher who recommended the creation of a powerful state to eliminate private property and force equality of outcomes on everybody (hardly the ability to ignore orders or simply walk away that the authors define as the essence of freedom).


And while left-leaning publications like the Washington Post (“a paean to freedoms”), The Guardian (“an exhilarating read”) and the Atlantic (‘brilliant”) praised the work of Wengrow and Graeber, dedicated left progressives panned it. The ideal prehistoric past that the authors describe is not a natural socialist paradise or primitive communism, but an anarchy of hunter/gatherers who periodically got together for religious festivals or trade fairs at semi-permanent camps at certain times of the year and afterwards went their separate ways. David Graeber was, himself, a dedicated anarchist and a founder of Occupy Wallstreet. He didn’t want an all-powerful state, he wanted no state and that is what this book describes. No wonder the progressives were pissed.


 

One of the most popular series on Netflix right now is Ancient Apocalypse. The premise of this series presented by Graham Hancock is that there are a number of prehistoric monumental structures that are far older than previously believed, dating back to the end of the Ice Age. Mr. Hancock, who is a journalist and not an archeologist, believed that these structures and other technological advances that occurred during the same period, were created by primitive peoples with the help of the survivors of an advanced civilization that perished due to cataclysmic events at the end of the Ice Age.


The left-wing newspaper the Guardian has called the series “the most dangerous show on Netflix.” Although why this series is more dangerous than the longer-running Ancient Aliens series on the History channel is not clear. Perhaps it is because many of the sites featured on Mr. Hancock’s show are the same sites used by Graeber and Wengrow to assert their beliefs about human prehistory.


Stories about ancient civilizations and alien visitors go all the way back to Plato’s description of Atlantis, and perhaps even further. Myths about ancient floods are common in many cultures and may represent the rising sea waters that rose dramatically at the end of the period known as the Younger Dryas which was the last gasp of the Ice Age where the Mediterranean Sea breached the Bosporus and flowed into what is now the Black Sea. Many books (and comic books) as well as TV series and movies have been made about these events. The producers use evidence that supports their theories and ignore the wide body of knowledge that dispute their conclusions.


Professors Graeber and Wengrow did not set out to make a popular TV series. Rather, they wanted to create a theory that supported their ideological beliefs. And like Mr. Hancock, they selected evidence that they could use to support those beliefs, even if other archeologists believe that the evidence points elsewhere. Like many theories derivative of postmodern philosophy, much of this so-called evidence is based on narratives and feelings.


The authors close their book by defining what they called the third basic freedom that complements the freedoms to disobey orders and to walk away. That is the freedom to “create new and different forms of social reality.” What this new social reality might be is not made clear by the authors but based on their previous discussions it would likely include social and income equality but not be reliant on the use of force by a powerful state to insure those conditions, force that many counter-Enlightenment philosophers from Rousseau to Marx thought would be necessary.


The Dawn of Everything was thought to be the first in a series of books that would outline the theories of Professors Graeber and Wengrow in more detail. However, the untimely death of David Graeber may delay indefinitely such additional volumes. As such, the Dawn of Everything seems unfinished and incomplete. The authors seem to be trying to redefine what it is to be human, but they did not get there in this book. Even if Professor Wengrow succeeds in completing the task alone or with a new collaborator, it will be a challenge for him to describe how we get from where we are now to the new ideal he envisions. I am not optimistic.

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