The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

David Graeber & David Wengrow

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

We’ve been mostly asking the wrong questions: (…) Were our earliest ancestors simple and egalitarian, or complex and stratified? Is human nature innocent or corrupt? Are we, as a species, inherently cooperative or competitive, kind or selfish, good or evil? Perhaps all these questions blind us to what really makes us human in the first place, which is our capacity—as moral and social beings—to negotiate between such alternatives.

            from The Dawn of Everything



The Story of Us, Updated

In 1858, the remains of woolly rhinoceros, cave bear, and other extinct animals were discovered at Brixham Cave in Devon, England. With their remains were found stone axes that could only have been made by humans. This discovery overturned what had been commonly understood about the age of our ancestors, and “the bottom dropped out of human history.”

In The Dawn of Everything, David Wengrow, professor of comparative archaeology at University College London, and the late David Graeber, professor of anthropology at London School of Economics, argue that we are at a Brixham Cave moment, where what we thought we understood about human prehistory is being challenged through new archaeological and anthropological evidence.

This is a book for people fascinated with origin stories: who we are and how we got here. At nearly 700 pages, it’s a big book with big ideas that will update and upset some of our most cherished notions—about private property, work and wealth, freedom and slavery, religion and the sacred, family and community; even the very idea of progress itself.

They argue that what we have accepted as givens are frequently just “so many prejudices dressed up as facts, or even as laws of history.” Indeed, they find “‘exceptions’ are fast beginning to outnumber the rules.” For example, cave art discovered on the islands of Borneo and Sulawesi are many thousands of years older than the famous images of Lascaux and Altamira. Or the assumption that with civilization must come social hierarchies. Or that social evolution happened in clearly defined stages—that we went from hunter-gatherers to agriculture to cities to kings and chiefs—citing numerous examples contrary to this theory.

They show that the human experience has been rich in its diversity and imagination of social forms, less an evolutionary progression culminating in this present moment than a kaleidoscopic array of social possibilities with which humankind over the past 30,000 years has continuously re-invented itself.

Amid this richness, they ask “how did we find ourselves stuck in just one form of social reality, and how did relations based ultimately on violence and domination come to be normalized within it?” More, they warn that we have become “trapped in such tight conceptual shackles that we can no longer even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves.”

Not for the intellectually faint of heart, this book can be exhilarating or upsetting, depending on how comfortable one is with new ideas that challenge what one “knew” to be true. Reading it, I was reminded of the famous axiom of T. H. Huxley, himself no stranger to upsetting new ideas: “It is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions.”

Stay tuned for updates.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (July 15, 2022.) Reprinted with permission.