'Are we city dwellers or hunter-gatherers?' - Graeber/Wengrow article

Interested to hear reponses to this article by David Graeber and David Wengrow:

Opening paragraphs:

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilisation properly speaking. Civilisation meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilisation, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to “primitive communism”, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative: it isn’t true. Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the “big questions” of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris and others – still take Rousseau’s question (“what is the origin of social inequality?”) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

Noble savage dismissals aside (a strawman for genuine rewilders), I found it interesting albeit speculative especially when they start talking about ‘inequality’ in the meso/paleolithic based on examples of elaborate grave goods and the raising of monuments like Gobleki Tepe. They at least don’t present it as an open-and-shut case, noting that ‘most of the “princely” burials consist of individuals with striking physical anomalies, who today would be considered giants, hunchbacks or dwarfs’.

At one point they describe Inuit summer hunting parties as ‘patriarchal’ which is … problematic to say the least, inviting the reader to consider them in the same category as the worst civilised sexual inequalities because of a claim that ‘each [band was] under the authority of a single male elder. Property was possessively marked and patriarchs exercised coercive, sometimes even tyrannical power over their kin.’ Frustratingly there aren’t any sources provided for this or many other of the contentious claims made in the article. The long history of misinterpretation of indigenous social dynamics by anthropologists involving inappropriate projections of western concepts of hierarchies and (in this case) ‘property’, ‘coercion’, ‘tyranny’ and ‘patriarchy’ makes me doubt that this is an accurate description. An example that springs to mind is Martin Prechtel’s account (in ‘Secrets of the Talking Jaguar’, I think) of how Maya shamans were described by outsiders as an ‘elite priesthood’, kept in their position of power by onerous taxation of the people they healed. This totally missed the Maya concept of universal indebtedness (‘kas-limaal’) whereby extravagant gifts and large payments were a means of keeping healers in debt to the wider society so they would always remain in a position of service to the community, as well as it being considered as a way to ensure the efficacy of the medicine.

On the other hand I found the broader idea of societies going back and forth between egalitarian and more authoritarian organisations persuasive and a worthwhile point to make. I liked this question too: 'having lived so much of our history moving back and forth between different political systems, “how did we get so stuck?” ’ though I don’t think they’re right that modern civilisation can be made more ‘egalitarian’, even by revolutionary means. They use the example of Teotihuacan to disprove the notion that ‘there is absolutely no evidence that top-down structures of rule are the necessary consequence of large-scale organisation [and] it is simply not true that ruling classes, once established, cannot be gotten rid of except by general catastrophe’ but this ignores the droughts and subsequent famines that played a central part in the upheavals there, which does support the narrative of collapse-led change:

The decline of Teotihuacan has been correlated to lengthy droughts related to the climate changes of 535–536. This theory of ecological decline is supported by archaeological remains that show a rise in the percentage of juvenile skeletons with evidence of malnutrition during the 6th century. Which is why there is different evidence that helps indicate that famine is most likely one of the more possible reasons for the decline of Teotihuacan. The majority of their food came from agriculture, they grew things such as maize, bean, amaranth, green tomatoes(tomatillos?), and pumpkin. But their harvest was not nearly sufficient to feed a population as big as it is believed lived in Teotihuacan. - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teotihuacan#Collapse

I think the same will be true of the global civilisation - revolutionary uprisings might play a part and eventually pave the way for more egalitarian social systems, but it will be the failures of the oil economy, finance, medicine, agriculture etc that fatally undermine the current system and make that shift possible (or inevitable even).

Thoughts welcome!


Thanks for sharing this thought-provoking read.

I’ve been researching recently indigenous histories from around eastern North America for a piece I am writing. One of the things that sticks with me from this research, is what happened after the decline of the Late Woodland mound building cultures around 800-1000 AD (this is right around the same time of the Mayan collapse around 900 AD, btw, and almost certainly related). After the decline of the mound building culture (or at least the main portion of it – mound building may have continued in some places, e.g. Georgia, into the 1600s…), language groups like the Siouan dispersed primarily west and east from their Ohio River Valley homeland, apparently taking up nomadic hunting-gathering and following migratory herds of grazers in whatever directions. In the western Plains these Siouan groups became the Osage, Ponca, Omaha, as well as the Ocheti Shakowin – Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota. In the eastern Piedmont they became the Tutelo, Saponi, Monacan, Manahoac, Lumbee, Saura, Catawba, and arguably the Occaneechi.

Curiously, although these eastern Siouan bands lived in fluid, nomadic, non-hierarchical societies practicing hunting-and-gathering, they continued to hold onto some aspects of their civilized past. For example, they kept growing annuals like corn (which was stored at trading settlements), beans, squash, and tobacco, alongside the perennial, wild foods which they gathered and tended.

And they also seem to have maintained trading settlements of some degree of permanence. These trading settlements were maintained by a rotating cast of inhabitants, who seem to have departed and arrived according to their own whims. These trading settlements also seem to have been multi-ethnic, and for the purposes of trade and cross-cultural communication a lingua franca was used, for instance, the Occaneechi language.

There were also seasonal hunting camps, which archaeologists have found may have been continuously used for 10,000 years, although probably not by the same linguistic/cultural groups during all those stretch of time. What was it that kept these camps in use year after year, even through shifts in culture, civilization, demographics, ecology?

What I take away from these examples, is that it is our relationships, and the stories we tell, which weave us together, or tear us apart. Civilization and empire stays together because of a collective vision or Dreaming, shared through stories, song, trade, and other interactions. And it falls apart when the Dream loses its power. Maybe it isn’t material causes, so much as immaterial causes, which are the real,shapers of our world.

Thanks for an interesting read, which in short seems to compare with someone shouting for silence.

Graeber/Wengrow’s approach to seek support for the values of the untangible by looking at all the ways the tangible paints an incomplete picture. They forget to give an equal amount of attention to the intangible itself.

As an example, about halfway in the first chapter, Graeber/Wengrow write quite a bit on “inequality”.
That paragraph starts off with:

“Simply framing the question this way means making a series of assumptions.”

Yet then they basically do the same in some ways that I’d like to question.
Firstly, they make no distinction between the concepts of “equality” (which they seem to understand solely in an economic sense) and “equally valued” (which addresses the emotional and spiritual realms). As long as people receive enough appreciation, attention, recognition, freedom, and much more that one cannot translate into money, they may well accept a lower economic reward and not feel treated unfairly.
This seems to lie outside their scope, as they write:

“Unlike terms such as “capital” or “class power”, the word “equality” is practically designed to lead to half-measures and compromise. One can imagine overthrowing capitalism or breaking the power of the state, but it’s very difficult to imagine eliminating “inequality”. In fact, it’s not obvious what doing so would even mean, since people are not all the same and nobody would particularly want them to be.”

The assumption in the last sentence seems a contradiction with what happens in the world; in many respects, people get forced into rules and regulations, and robots seem the preferred type of workers, whether literally or figuratively. More and more, people get lured into robot-like behavior. In that sense, I see more of an appreciation of people becoming one of the gray masses rather than a colorful individual.

Only at the very end of their essay they leave room for the unmeasurable qualities of life to enter:

“Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.”

To me it seems that the story tells itself this way: people have long measured the success of those before them only by the leftovers: the structures they built, the stones they worked, pottery, writings and records. Records most of all, because records tell you who has set the record. Who had the most cows, gold or whatever.
The writers do the same, looking at all the records of economic success. I hope next time they talk about, or better, use all the other, untangible aspects that make life worthwhile. Love, music, mourning rituals, peacemaking, …
Topics of unquantifiable nature, that do not lend themselves to recording.

“… if opulent burial, predatory warfare and monumental buildings are anything to go by.”

That’s a big IF. For all of their complaints, the authors “support” their position with almost nothing other than conjecture and assumptions, not science.

“…there is absolutely no evidence that top-down structures of rule are the necessary consequence of large-scale organization (sic).”

Yet the authors give numerous examples of “egalitarian” societies who somehow magically ended up with top-down structures of rule. And lest we forget, prehistoric “large-scale organization” was still several orders of magnitude smaller than modern cities.

Those critiques aside, the (obvious) notion that prehistoric peoples didn’t live in isolation from each other (in “bands”) was interesting from the viewpoint that our politics, too, have been corrupted by our disregard for the seasonal cycles of our environment (which, BTW, cereal agriculture enables).

Thanks all, appreciate the thoughtful responses.

@heyzach - that sounds very interesting about the mound-builders (and ex-mound-builders), I’d be interested to read the piece when you’re done. There’s a sense of freedom and self-direction about the way they chose which aspects of their former civilisation to hold onto (while mostly reverting to hunter/forager/horticulturalist patterns) which I’m very jealous of! Possibly that’s another thing which is only possible after the collapse or severe erosion of the civilised project. Life in the imperial centers today offers no such possibilities that I’m aware of, with no choice for the average citizen but to follow the established pattern of education, work, rent/mortgate, healthcare, pension (where available!) if they want to raise kids and lead a ‘normal’ life with reasonable social expectations (ie: not having to live under a bridge or in other totally insecure, marginal existences).

Impressive about the 10,000 year old hunting camps - there must’ve been compelling reasons like you say - reliable animal migrations, convergence of trails, availability of flint or other resources are some that spring to mind. Although maybe, as Anneke suggests, we should look for other reasons - important spiritual sites, places of worship, songlines etc (though among different peoples too? hmm…)

‘Civilization and empire stays together because of a collective vision or Dreaming, shared through stories, song, trade, and other interactions. And it falls apart when the Dream loses its power. Maybe it isn’t material causes, so much as immaterial causes, which are the real shapers of our world.’ - not sure if I fully agree. Personally the ‘dream’ of civ fell apart for me decades ago and it’s only the aforementioned material obligations (plus a sense that I have to help others get free) that keep me locked into the system. I’m sure it’s the same for a large proportion of other citizens who are only going through the motions because they’ve been denied any other choices. Wouldn’t say that material factors are the only shapers, but my feeling is that they take the lead and philosophies adjust to the possibilities of the day (with collapse eventually opening up new paths).

@anneke re: inequality, yes I’m not entirely sure where they were going with that quote. To me it is fairly ‘obvious’ what ‘eliminating equality’ would mean - prevent the theft of resources and appropriation of labour by the 0.01% from the rest of us. Yes, ‘people are not all the same’ but that’s beside the point - the world’s super-wealthy didn’t amass their wealth because they were different or better than the rest of us, but because they had less inhibitions about exploiting & enabling the systems that facilitate the concentration of wealth. I don’t understand that from Graeber, as he was a leading figure in the Occupy movement so all this should be obvious to him…

You write: ‘As long as people receive enough appreciation, attention, recognition, freedom, and much more that one cannot translate into money, they may well accept a lower economic reward and not feel treated unfairly.’ - yes, those mitigating factors are important and not often taken into account in explaining why people continue to participate in systems that oppress them. Material wealth isn’t the only thing that matters, as long as there’s a basic respect and decency there. However I think that gets harder and harder to maintain the wider the wage gap gets - past a certain point the bosses inevitably come to view workers as replaceable, basically subhuman machine components (the robotic ‘gray masses’ you describe) and the ‘race to the bottom’ in globalised economics ensures that only the most degrading and exploitive workplaces remain competitive.

‘people have long measured the success of those before them only by the leftovers’ - agreed, that’s a problem in archaeology because for the most part it’s only these hard, physical artefacts that survive. That combines with the bias of the civilised culture towards material wealth (obsession with records too as you note) which can mean that all those other ‘intangibles’ get ignored.

@sharprock - ‘That’s a big IF. For all of their complaints, the authors “support” their position with almost nothing other than conjecture and assumptions, not science.’ - yes that part seemed weak, and in need of sources to back up the claim that ‘there was no Eden-like state, from which the first farmers could take their first steps on the road to inequality […] These Neolithic societies look strikingly egalitarian when compared to their hunter-gatherer neighbours’. The difference between male-centered art at Gobekli Tepe vs female figurines at Catalhuyuk & Jericho could have any number of different significances and not necessarily point to a lower status of women in the former (allegedly) h/ger society than in the latter farming ones. Not science as you say.

‘Yet the authors give numerous examples of “egalitarian” societies who somehow magically ended up with top-down structures of rule.’ - indeed, they make much of the point that farming societies often took thousands of years to establish authoritarian hierarchies and signs of major inequality. Maybe, and an interesting point perhaps showing the persistent need for egalitarianism in human beings, but the fact remains that, as they themselves admit, it was still ‘agriculture [which] allowed for the possibility of more unequal concentrations of wealth’. Certainly a situation like today where ‘Eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity’ could never exist in a h/ger or horticulturalist society where people would be free to abandon such an insanely unbalanced social system and live in a different way. The trouble is that the civilised upper classes have claimed ownership over the entire globe, disallowing any defection from the system that keeps them rewarded, on pain of extermination by the armed forces they control.

cheers all, good to get those different perspectives!

Actually, I tried to put up for consideration the notion that because we started to record all kinds of information, and that this information long survived its writers (and thus made noting and breaking ‘records’ possible), people began to focus on and became biased towards material wealth as well as recorded information from the past, rather than appreciative of the richness of life “in the now”.

Ah okay, sorry I missed that distinction, thanks for clarifying. It reminds me that writing down land titles and formalising inheritance was a big part of the colonisation of Scotland (and I would guess Wales and Ireland too). They had their own way of keeping track of that via bardic traditions but these were all orally transmitted so it wasn’t possible to incorporate it straight into a tax system for the benefit of the English colonisers. I don’t know how perceptions (or obsessions) with material wealth would have changed as a result, but I can imagine everything getting much more rigid and insecure - at the expense of ‘the now’ like you say.