In response to:
Digging for Utopia from the December 16, 2021 issue
To the Editors:
In The Dawn of Everything David Graeber and I present a new history of humanity, based on the latest findings in our fields of archaeology and anthropology. These findings challenge long-held assumptions about the origins of inequality, the nature of freedom and slavery, the roots of private property, and the relationship between society and the state. They present fresh opportunities for a dialogue between archaeology, anthropology, and philosophy, but Kwame Anthony Appiah in his review of the book prefers to challenge the empirical basis of our work [NYR, December 16, 2021]. He argues that we distort our sources in order to present an artificially rosy picture of our species’ past and its prospects for greater freedom.
For example, Appiah is dissatisfied with our account of the Ukrainian “mega-sites,” huge prehistoric settlements that exhibit no evidence for temples, palaces, central administration, rich burials, or other signs of social inequality. We note that population levels are “estimated in the many thousands per mega-site, and probably well over 10,000 in some cases.” Appiah alleges that these figures are inflated, based on a “discredited maximalist model.” He cites archaeologist John Chapman in support. According to Appiah, Chapman argues that the mega-sites were not cities at all, but seasonally occupied festival grounds.
In fact, Chapman proposes three models of habitation, ranging from seasonal to relatively permanent habitation. He discounts none of them and argues that—whichever one adopts—the mega-sites can indeed be considered “cities,” and strikingly egalitarian ones at that. Far from adopting a “maximalist model,” the population figures we give in The Dawn of Everything are more conservative than those offered by some other archaeologists, which range above 40,000. Appiah has misrepresented our position, and Chapman’s, to create a false impression.
Elsewhere, Appiah alleges that we mischaracterize the work of Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, an expert on the Bronze Age civilization of the Indus Valley. According to Appiah, Kenoyer argues that the ancient site of Mohenjo-daro was “likely governed as a city-state,” something we dispute in The Dawn of Everything. We are hardly the first to do so. Another expert, Gregory Possehl, argued that the Indus cities were organized on more egalitarian lines, and the most recent scholarship comes down firmly on his side. We don’t cite Kenoyer for his views on political organization, but for his work on urban craft specialization. So what is Appiah’s objection? Is he saying we cannot cite Kenoyer’s insights on any one aspect of Indus archaeology without subscribing to all his other views as well? Does Appiah’s own citation of Alvin Goldman on causal theories of knowledge grant us license to assume he agrees with Goldman on social epistemology?
With regard to Mesopotamia, Appiah accuses us of drifting, in the space of a hundred pages, from a negative characterization of Uruk’s early phases—as lacking evidence for monarchy—to their positive characterization as examples of collective self-rule. He forgets the ground we cover in those pages, which review diligent work on the topic by Assyriologists, ancient historians, and archaeologists. What it shows is that, even in later periods of monarchy and empire, Mesopotamian cities exhibited a remarkable degree of self-governance through neighborhood assemblies, local wards, and councils. Where does Appiah think those forms of urban self-government came from? Would he have us believe the inhabitants of the earliest cities had no knowledge of them?
With reference to Teotihuacan, in the Valley of Mexico, Appiah suggests that few archaeologists would countenance the views of art historian Esther Pasztory about the city’s political structure. But the opposite is true. The latest archaeological studies vindicate Pasztory’s view that Teotihuacanos rejected dynastic personality cults and built a society where wealth, resources, and high-quality housing were distributed in a more equal fashion. We could have listed every dissenting opinion, but then—as we say in the book—we are trying to strike a balance:
Had we tried to outline or refute every existing interpretation of the material we covered, this book would have been two or three times the size, and likely would have left the reader with a sense that the authors are engaged in a constant battle with demons who were in fact two inches tall.
Appiah presents as novel our “claim” that the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük, in Turkey, lacks evidence of central authority. In fact, this is the consensus among archaeologists. Ian Hodder, longtime site director, characterizes Çatalhöyük as a fiercely egalitarian community that, despite its large size, held inequality at bay for a thousand years. If our agenda—as Appiah insists—were to find some “primordial utopia” among our Neolithic ancestors, surely we would have embraced this conclusion. In fact, we question it, pointing out the likelihood of seasonal variations in the social organization of the town. According to Appiah, we see in Çatalhöyük a “gynocentric society.” Not so. We draw attention to the importance of women’s knowledge and roles in these early Neolithic societies, but that’s hardly the same thing.
Most of the archaeological ground covered in The Dawn of Everything lies beyond the scope of Appiah’s review, as does nearly all of the anthropology. His criticisms of our intellectual history rest on a surprisingly naive and unfounded expectation that what academics write will necessarily mirror their personal politics. “Learn to respect, and love, and be intimate with, a man of a far distant stage of life, and you see then how very deep down is the wide platform of elemental feeling and thought which you have together in common,” wrote the archaeologist Flinders Petrie in 1898. Petrie was also a fervent eugenicist.
Appiah claims we have a thesis, that Europeans, before the Enlightenment, lacked the concept of social (in)equality. In fact, we give a whole series of examples to the contrary. The question we ask is more specific: How did a consensus form among European intellectuals that human beings—innocent of civilization—lived in “societies of equals,” such that it made sense to inquire as to “the origins of inequality”? Appiah’s evocations of Gregory the Great, Thomas Müntzer, Montaigne, and the rest are beside the point, because—while all express powerful sentiments of equality and inequality—none root those ideas in a search for its origins.
The notion of a primordial society of equals may have pre-Enlightenment roots in Europe, notably in the constitutional antiquarianism of the seventeenth century (brilliantly discussed by J.G.A. Pocock in The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law). Jurists appealed to the customary freedoms of a preliterate past as a legal foil to royal absolutism. But Appiah makes no mention of that, or whether he thinks such juridical concepts were already extended beyond specific “peoples” and “nations” to humankind in general. Perhaps because he knows the answer. They were not, or at least, not yet.
Rousseau’s answer, in 1754, to the novel question “What is the origin of inequality?” was, we argue, a synthesis between ideals of human freedom—shaped by Native American critiques of European society—and the concept of history as stages of technological progress, which was then gaining ground through the writings of A.R.J. Turgot. The just-so story told by Rousseau gave us our modern concept of civilization, whereby each step toward cultural advancement—the invention of agriculture, metallurgy, writing, cities, and the arts, even philosophy itself—came with a loss of freedoms. It’s a familiar and deeply ambivalent story. As we show in The Dawn of Everything, it is also at odds with the facts of modern archaeology and anthropology.
Appiah finds our reading of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality “perplexing.” How, he asks, could Rousseau promulgate the indigenous critique of European society—with its passionate advocacy of freedom—and smother it at the same time? But surely this is precisely why myths endure. As Claude Lévi-Strauss observed, myths take root in the human imagination by evoking profound oppositions (“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”) and then work to mediate those contradictions. “We will not find our future in our past,” writes Appiah. But myths are not just about our past. They work in the present to circumscribe our understanding of human possibilities. In The Dawn of Everything, we show that conventional tellings of the broad sweep of human history are one such myth, inculcating a profound sense of pessimism about the prospects for change in our societies.
Archaeology, like all historical reconstruction, is partly a work of imagination. But it is constrained by evidence, and underpinned by scientific principles of discovery, interpretation, and refutation. Occasionally, it has the power to challenge myths and overthrow dogma. The strength of the past lies precisely there, in its unpredictability, its capacity to surprise and upset conventional wisdom. Today the information available to us, even for remote periods of the human past, reveals a kaleidoscope of social possibilities undreamed of in the philosophies of Hobbes and Rousseau, and also, it seems, in the philosophy of Appiah.
Professor of Comparative Archaeology
University College London
Kwame Anthony Appiah replies:
The Dawn of Everything is a mammoth undertaking and, inevitably, it characterizes archaeological research its authors know only through the scholarly literature they have consulted—through the authorities they enlist. They’re entitled to sift through the evidence and present their own conclusions; I agree with Wengrow on this. The difficulty arises when what they present as a summary of the archaeology is at variance with the scholarship they cite. “Experts have largely come to agree that there’s no evidence for…anything like what we would recognize as a ‘state’ in the urban civilization of the Indus Valley,” they say. Then we turn to the source material and find that experts are quite divided on the topic. My point was not that The Dawn of Everything mischaracterizes Kenoyer’s judgments about Mohenjo-daro’s political structure but that it doesn’t characterize them at all. I was observing, that is, a pattern about which views get a hearing. Wengrow says that “the most recent scholarship” supports Possehl, but the paper he has in mind—a fascinating theoretical overview by Adam S. Green, which indeed stresses the evidence for egalitarianism—gingerly dissents both from Kenoyer’s “managerial elite” model and from Possehl’s “stateless paradigm.” Green’s paper, exquisitely provisional, makes clear that the nature of Indus politics is a topic of contention, not consensus.
The Dawn of Everything likewise suggests that archaeological research has converged on the view that Teotihuacan, starting around 300 AD, embraced egalitarianism and collective governance and rejected overlords, even “strong leaders.” It’s what “all the evidence suggests.” We hear that “other scholars, eliminating virtually every other possibility, arrived at similar conclusions”; we hear that its self-conscious egalitarianism is affirmed by a “general consensus among those who know the site best.” But only a strategy of bifurcation would force us to say that the place was either purely autocratic or purely collective. What I observed was not that few archaeologists would countenance Pasztory’s view but that we get no sense that many have reached different conclusions.
Those archaeologists include the authorities The Dawn of Everything cites in support of Pasztory, such as René Millon, who cataloged evidence of hierarchy and militarism in Teotihuacan, and thought its governance might have become oligarchical; and George Cowgill, who explicitly demurs from Pasztory’s “utopian” account and proposes Renaissance Venice, a republic under a doge, as a model. The epigrapher David Stuart says that, in the late fourth and early fifth century, someone represented by an owlish glyph was the king of Teotihuacan, while other archaeologists conjecture that there might have been an elite assembly or aristocracy rather than a monarch; this glyph might have designated an office rather than an officeholder. Recent discoveries have rekindled such debates. Again, Graeber and Wengrow are free to reach their own conclusion as to whether Teotihuacan was “a utopian experiment in urban life,” but it cannot be said to represent a professional consensus.
As for the “at least seven centuries of collective self-rule” that Uruk enjoyed, per Graeber and Wengrow, is the proof really to be found in the wards and councils of the monarchical era? Or does the very coexistence of monarchs and councils suggest that we may be building castles, or communes, in the air? I don’t say that Uruk did or didn’t enjoy those seven centuries of “collective self-rule,” but unless the term is being used in a very permissive way, I struggle to see how this possibility qualifies as a settled fact.
With respect to Çatalhöyük, my discussion didn’t take up The Dawn of Everything’s broad political characterization of the place. It took up what inferences we should draw from the existence of female figurines, and the putative absence of equivalent male ones. Did such representations demonstrate “a new awareness of women’s status”? Graeber and Wengrow never use the term “gynocentric” with respect to Çatalhöyük; they use, in this context, the term “matriarchal” and devote a few helpful paragraphs to defining this term in a special way that sidesteps the “-archy,” the connection with rulership. (I avoided the term “matriarchal” because, without their careful definition, it risks implying a form of rulership The Dawn of Everything disputes.) Graeber and Wengrow, following Hodder, find it obvious that the female figurines, with their pendulous breasts and avoirdupois, could have nothing to do with eros or fertility but are “quite possibly matriarchs of some sort, their forms revealing an interest in female elders.” Here, questions arise. One is whether we’d weigh the evidence differently had The Dawn of Everything mentioned that most Çatalhöyük figurines that archaeologists have cataloged are of quadrupeds (or their horns).
Why does this matter? Because when it comes to a certain class of cases—prehistoric cities that they think lacked a ruling or managerial elite—Graeber and Wengrow appear to cherish their thesis a little too much and, like overprotective parents, tend to keep it away from the chilly drafts of adverse evidence. Which brings us to those Ukrainian mega-sites. In a 2017 article, John Chapman methodically challenges the view of them as “permanent, long-term settlements comprising many thousands of people,” a view he divides into a maximalist and a standard model. Drawing on evidence from his work in Nebelivka and calculations based on available evidence about the other sites, he concludes that
the only logical response is to replace the standard model (not to mention the maximalist model) with a version of the minimalist model that envisions a less permanent, more seasonal settlement mode, or a smaller permanent settlement involving coeval dwelling of far fewer people.
Perhaps there was a small year-round population; perhaps these were sites where “hundreds of pilgrims or festival-goers” showed up in a seasonal way; perhaps both occurred.
In this account, what we’d find on the mega-sites, even one as expansive as Taljanky, aren’t cities—that is, these settlements are remote from the dictionary definition of a city, from what we readers understand by the word, and, as best as I can judge, from what Graeber and Wengrow mean by it. They say most archaeologists will call “any densely inhabited settlement” of 150 or 200 hectares a city; yet one thing Chapman is confident about is that the “mega-sites were low-density settlements.”
Now, archaeologists sometimes use the word “city” differently; the idea is that if a settlement, including one that looks like a hamlet, is the biggest thing around, it might function as a city. A hundred people living in face-to-face autarky, a seasonal festival site like Burning Man: even these could, in the right circumstances, count as cities. The paper Wengrow cites, though it pointedly declines to define “city,” sets aside absolute scale as a prerequisite. For Graeber and Wengrow, however, a central question is whether lots of people can live in a dense settlement without rules and rulers. That’s why they say cities often emerged as “civic experiments on a grand scale.” In their concept of a city, absolute scale can’t be set aside.
Nor should we set aside the vigorous medieval arguments about the nature and origins of social inequality, as when The Dawn of Everything states that in the Middle Ages “‘social equality’—and therefore, its opposite, inequality—simply did not exist as a concept.” Many thought, as Pope Gregory did, that people, in their primordial, Edenic state, were equal in their liberty. Then some act of human sinfulness left us with masters and serfs. For Gregory, Christ’s redemptive sacrifice was meant to bring back our original freedom. Such arguments had real-world reverberations. “When Adam delved and Eve span/Who was then the gentleman?” was an English saying that the priest John Ball declaimed amid the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, calling for a primordial classless society to be restored by force.
Wengrow’s cautions about “personal” politics are well taken; Lévi-Strauss’s emerging conservatism is no key to his thought. By contrast, the political tenets Lewis Henry Morgan espoused within the book that entrenched social evolutionism were integral to his intellectual vision. Thorstein Veblen’s theory of predatory and productive activities seamlessly connected his prehistory to his politics. And so it goes; we would do the great James C. Scott, whose studies have been invaluable to people from a range of ideological positions, a disservice to suppose that his political vision and his political science belonged in separate bins.
Yet this procession of caveats, I fear, risks obscuring The Dawn of Everything’s real triumphs. It is the work of two remarkable scholars, and almost every page is energized by their intelligence, imagination, and surly sense of mischief. When it comes to confident claims about dense large-scale settlements free of rulers or rules (or, for that matter, the Haudenosaunee attitude toward commands), readers might well adopt Gertrude Stein’s mot “Interesting if true.” But as I hope I made plain, there’s much more to the book than that. Graeber and Wengrow’s argument against historical determinism—against the alluring notion that what happened had to have happened—is itself immensely valuable. Readers who imagine foragers on the Sahlinesque model of the San will encounter foraging societies with aristocrats and slavery, while the book’s account of the Poverty Point earthworks is a riveting study of collective action. We get an intriguing proposal about the nature of the state. And this is just to begin a long list of fascinations. That “kaleidoscope of social possibilities” emerges vibrantly from these pages.
If readers should be a little cautious—possibilities may not be probabilities—they should be much more than a little grateful, as I am. “This book is mainly about freedom,” Graeber and Wengrow tell us, but it’s also for freedom. I’m glad of that; oddly enough, freedom needs advocates these days, and few have been as eloquent.
The print version of this reply referred to the Ukrainian mega-sites as the Trypillia mega-sites, using the name of the Neolithic people who built them.