This genre-bending doorstopper is amazing. It shifted my perspective and worldview through which I interpret and understand humanity's past, all the way to its current and future challenges.
Its most important points that will stay with me forever
There are several people and reviews that have already synthesized the main points from this book that subvert the public's idea of humanity's history. For reference, I think that these are the most important ones:
- The history of human societies is infinitely more complex than the fictionalized linear progression from hunter-gatherers, to agricultural settlements, to states.
- The European age of enlightenment is not this special moment where people started thinking about organizing their societies. The ideas are not even uniquely European. At the time, Europe didn't even know anything other than monarchies and the like. Critiques from indigenous Americans on European society disseminated through missionary and travel literature exposed many of the white intellectuals to fresh ideas.
- Historical science has this bias of only looking at periods in time that exhibit clear hierarchical structures, because from the bias of twentieth century scientists these were the signs of sophisticated civilizations. "In-between" periods have been systematically under-studied, while an increasing body of research suggests that those times often show conscious social experimentation with egalitarian forms of organization and society.
- It is more useful to ask how we got stuck in this single idea about human society rather than asking after the "origins of inequality". This book's main message might well be that our ancestors have always been creative in their ideas and experimentation with society, and that we can too.
Furthermore, the book spells out two frameworks that are very helpful in our thinking.
First, there are the three principles of domination.
- Charismatic politics
Second, there are the three basic freedoms.
- Move away
- Disobey arbitrary authority
- Reimagine and reconstruct one's society
On the layout of the book and how refreshingly informal I found it
A good map to understand the book from a bird's eye view is actually laid out by the Davids in the work itself. Most sections carry a very descriptive subtitle that is something in between a summary and an announcement for a talk. These individual sections almost read like independent essays. I've seen them described as overwrought Victorian section titles calligraphed in ALL CAPS. I posit that you'd get a good grasp of the book's contents by just skimming over all these subtitles. Let's see some examples.
- In which we show how new discoveries concerning ancient hunter-gatherers in North America and Japan are turning social evolution on its head
- In which we lay out a theory concerning the three elementary forms of domination, and begin to explore its implications for human history
- In which we go in search of the real origins of bureaucracy, and find them on what apears to be a surprisingly small scale
- How the Osage came to embody the principle of self-constitution, later to be celebrated in Montesquieu's The spirit of the laws
A quick overview of the book's reception in other media
There are lots of people who felt the need to write about this work, giving it a bit of a controversial aftertaste. Though many were of course instantly triggered by the fact that David Graeber was a self-proclaimed anarchist. A good start to research some of the book's critiques and discussions is Wikipedia. And then have a look at some of the following.
- Jacobin: "Ultimately, a society that accepts the story presented here as its official origin story — a story that is taught in its schools, that seeps into its public consciousness — will have to be radically different than the society we are currently living in."
- The New Yorker: "Peter Thiel wonders why we don’t yet live in the future of our dreams. Graeber and Wengrow think the first step forward is a reminder of the past we deserve."
- The Guardian: "Importantly, Graeber and Wengrow do not idealise a particular “golden age”; we are not being urged to embrace a Palaeolithic lifestyle. They stress the sheer variety and hybridity of early human societies – hierarchical and non-hierarchical, equal in some respects and not in others."
- The Atlantic: "The book is something of a glorious mess, full of fascinating digressions, open questions, and missing pieces. It aims to replace the dominant grand narrative of history not with another of its own devising, but with the outline of a picture, only just becoming visible, of a human past replete with political experiment and creativity."
And then there is the piece entered into Scott Alexander's 2022 book review contest on Astral Codex Ten. I'll look more into this later on.
Living through a small obsession with David Graeber
This man is legendarily fascinating. Some of his talks have been recorded and published online.
- Is capitalism the answer?
- The possibility of political pleasure
- On a fair future economy
- On the myth of the stupid savage
- Debt: the first 5,000 years
- On basic income
More substantially, these are some of his books that I would like to read.
- Debt: the first 5,000 years
- Fragments of an anarchist anthropology
First of two main critiques: exploring the book's applicability to cities of tens of millions
How well do the anarcho-communist ideas and direct democracy principles translate from "metropolises" of fifteen thousand humans to the megacities with twenty million citizens?
The Davids mention that "Even the most autocratic rulers of later city-states were answerable to a panoply of town councils, neighbourhood wards and assemblies – in all of which women often participated alongside men." Such forms of organization can be set up in many different ways. For example, councils can consist of rotating members sampled from a larger populace. Or, there is a very large public assembly space for oratory direct democracy, where anyone who attends can participate. Abstrating over these, it was often the case that a particularly sized council/assembly represented a larger population. Note that the roles of council members were often in the spirit of self-deprecation; a type of shame for positioning oneself in power. This arguably makes for a more egalitarian relationship between people and their representatives.
Do these decentralized assemblies scale?
In Teotihuacan, there were community associations known as three-temple complexes, at least one for every hundred apartment blocks. An apartment block housed around one hundred people, who regularly encountered each other in a central courtyard. Let's assume these associations were the lowest level of bureaucratic community building that is required to smoothly operate large cities. Then we need one community assembly for every 100 * 100 = 10,000 people. Take my current home city of Amsterdam, with roughly 1,000,000 people living in the city proper. Following the same logic, Amsterdam would need 100 community assemblies. Taking it further, Mexico City has 10,000,000 citizens and would require 1,000 community assemblies.
This doesn't sound too bad, actually. Especially when you truly internalize the sheer scale of so many people. Such numbers of humans can undertake a breadth of activities that are hard to imagine within a single human brain. We were not made to get a feel for these numbers.
Amsterdam is governed by a directly elected municipal council, a municipal executive board, and a mayor. The municipality is further divided into eight boroughs, which are governed by directly elected district committees. Nothing close to those 100 "community assemblies". Possibly consequently, many people in the city don't feel involved with the municipal politics and governance. Would this meaningfully change with much broader and more decentralized governing?
I would have loved to read the Davids discuss these questions. For now, I must push further research into this to the future.
Second critique: what about the sapient paradox?
Humans who wouldn't look weird in a metro today have been around for at least 200,000 years (i.e., anatomically modern humans). And yet, the book predominantly presents evidence for civilizations from the last 12,000 years or so, a period called the Neolithic.
This is where the book review on Astral Codex Ten comes in again. The gap between the evolvement of modern humans and the evidence of complex societies is called the sapient paradox, we're reminded. The Davids posit that this gap at least partly originates from the historical lack of field research on the African continent. It's easier to dig in your metaphorical backyard. And because scientists were predominantly white men from Western countries, that is where the research happened. But that's not the whole story, of course.
How did humanity spend those hundreds of thousands of years? The anonymous writer asks whether there exists a hypothesis such that
- there is an initial condition that keeps humanity in a Great Trap, and
- that said condition naturally leads to the cultural experimentation of the Neolithic
I'm not convinced that the second point is actually something the hypothesis needs to accommodate. It smells like a fallacy of determinism to say that the Neolithic must have happend when it happend. Anyway, there sure must have been something going on during all those years.
The writer of the review introduces us to the Gossip Trap. Small groups were not organized in formally stratified structured, but are instead governed by "raw social power". Raw social power almost sounds like an Investiture-based magic system from Brandon Sanderson's imagination, but the writer describes it as constant and ever-shifting reputational management. Kind of like high school. As an imperfect metaphor. A lack of formal power but plenty of attention to popularity. Gossip can act as a leveling mechanism and social power has a bunch of positives, but it's a limiting way of organizing society. It might have been a leveling mechanism for everyone, causing no one to have the time and mental energy to climb out to invent new stuff on much larger scales.
To me, this sounds like exactly the third factor of domination that the Davids proposed in their work; charismatic people and heroic competition. So even though this review reads like it is proposing a hypothesis orthogonal to everything else, it actually falls in line with the framework that the Davids laid out.
The main difference is that the anonymous writer still has no archeological evidence for any of this. And neither had the Davids, but they did not venture into such grandiose claims of trying to spin a narrative. It is a fascinating hypothesis, and I look forward to much further scientific research on the African content to either corroborate it or present us with new stories.
A linear walkthrough of my annotations as an invitation for chapter-specific reflections
Enjoy the annotations for now. I might come back later to write down more thoughts.
1. Farewell to humanity's childhood
When we simply guess as to what humans in other times and places might be up to, we almost invariably make guesses that are far less interesting, far les quirky – in a word, far less human than what was likely going on.
2. Wicked liberty
persuasiveness need not take the form of logical argumentation; it can just as easily involve appeal to sentiment, whipping up passions, deploying poetic metaphors, appealing to myth or proverbial wisdom, employing irony and indirection, humour, insult, or appeals to prophecy or revelation; and the degree to which one privileges any of these has everything to do with the rhetorical tradition to which the speaker belongs, and the presumed dispositions of
But, as Rousseau is careful to emphasize, the entire parable is a way to understand what made it possible for human beings to accept the notion of private property in the first place:
In translating the indigenous critique into terms that French philosophers could understand, this sense of possibility is precisely what was lost.
Everyone agrees that equality is a value; no one seems to agree on what the term actually refers to. Equality of opportunity? Equality of condition? Formal equality before the law?
3. Unfreezing the ice cage
In the 1990s, German archaeologists, working on the plain’s northern frontier, began uncovering extremely ancient remains at a place known locally as Göbekli Tepe.
Humans were only fully self-conscious when arguing with one another, trying to sway each other’s views, or working out a common problem.
Yet these aristocratic courts broke apart for the summer work of the fishing season, reverting to smaller clan formations – still ranked, but with entirely different and much less formal structures. In this case, people actually adopted different names in summer and winter – literally becoming someone else, depending on the time of year.45
that is, the actual functions of chiefly office are to (1) mediate quarrels, (2) provide for the needy, and (3) to entertain with beautiful speeches
4. Free people, the origin of cultures, and the advent of private property
This is already quite complex, and the moment we try to define egalitarianism in positive terms everything becomes much more
as a first approximation, we can speak of an egalitarian society if (1) most people in a given society feel they really ought to be the same in some specific way, or ways, that are agreed to be particularly important; and (2) that ideal can be said to be largely achieved in practice.
For sure, only cereal-farming and grain storage made possible bureaucratic regimes like those of Pharaonic Egypt, the Maurya Empire or Han China. But to say that cereal-farming was responsible for the rise of such states is a little like saying that the development of calculus in medieval Persia is responsible for the invention of the atom bomb.
Roughly 6,000 years stand between the appearance of the first farmers in the Middle East and the rise of what we are used to calling the first states; and in many parts of the world, farming never led to the emergence of anything remotely like those states.
Or to put the matter more technically: what the Hadza, Wendat or ‘egalitarian’ people such as the Nuer seem to have been concerned with were not so much formal freedoms as substantive ones.12 They were less interested in the right to travel than in the possibility of actually doing
Putting aside the (by now irrelevant) notion that there ever was such a thing as ‘simple, ordinary foragers’,
Foragers are populations which don’t rely on biologically domesticated plants and animals as their primary sources of food. Therefore, if it becomes apparent that a good number of them have in fact possessed complex systems of land tenure, or worshipped kings, or practised slavery, this altered picture of their activities doesn’t somehow magically turn them into ‘proto-farmers’.
Those who today describe people like the Calusa as ‘atypical’ because they had such a prosperous resource base want us to believe, instead, that ancient foragers chose to avoid locations of this kind, shunning the rivers and coasts (which also offered natural arteries for movement and communication), because they were so keen to oblige later researchers by resembling twentieth-century hunter-gatherers (the sort for which detailed scientific data is available today).
5. Many seasons ago
The systematic rejection of all domesticated foodstuffs is even more striking when one realizes that many Californians and Northwest Coast peoples did plant and grow tobacco, as well as other plants – such as springbank clover and Pacific silverweed – which they used for ritual purposes, or as luxuries consumed only at special feasts.3 In other words, they were perfectly familiar with the techniques for planting and tending to cultigens. Yet they comprehensively rejected the idea of planting everyday foodstuffs or treating crops as staples.
Arguably, the very idea that the world is divided into such homogeneous units, each with its own history, is largely a product of the modern nation state, and the desire of each to claim for itself a deep territorial lineage.
in neither the Northwest Coast nor the Californian culture area were there overarching political, economic or religious organizations of any kind. But within the tiny communities that did exist, entirely different principles of social life applied.
All this begins to make the anthropologists’ habit of lumping Yurok notables and Kwakiutl artists together as ‘affluent foragers’ or ‘complex hunter-gatherers’ seem rather silly: the equivalent of saying a Texas oil executive and a medieval Egyptian poet were both ‘complex agriculturalists’ because they ate a lot of wheat.
To put the matter more technically, we might ask what ultimately determines the shape a society takes: economic factors, organizational imperatives or cultural meanings and ideas?
It’s certainly an elegant theory, quite clever and satisfying in its own way.54 The problem is it just doesn’t seem to match up to historical reality.
Environmental determinists have an unfortunate tendency to treat humans as little more than automata, living out some economist’s fantasy of rational calculation.
It seems part of the human condition that while we cannot predict future events, as soon as those events do happen we find it hard to see them as anything but inevitable.
Slavery, we’ve argued, became commonplace on the Northwest Coast largely because an ambitious aristocracy found itself unable to reduce its free subjects to a dependable workforce.
6. Gardens of adonis
Today, most archaeologists consider it deeply unsound to interpret prehistoric images of corpulent women as ‘fertility goddesses’. The very idea that they should be is the result of long-outmoded Victorian fantasies about ‘primitive matriarchy’.
There’s something ineluctable about all this. But only if we accept the premise that it does in fact make sense to look at the whole process ‘from the viewpoint of wheat’. On reflection, why should we?
Now here’s the key point: if crops, rather than humans, had been setting the pace, these two processes would have gone hand in hand, leading to the domestication of large-seeded grasses within a few decades.
Instead of fixed fields, they exploited alluvial soils on the margins of lakes and springs, which shifted location from year to year. Instead of hewing wood, tilling fields and carrying water, they found ways of ‘persuading’ nature to do much of this labour for them. Theirs was not a science of domination and classification, but one of bending and coaxing, nurturing and cajoling, or even tricking the forces of nature, to increase the likelihood of securing a favourable outcome.50 Their ‘laboratory’ was the real world of plants and animals, whose innate tendencies they exploited through close observation and experimentation. This Neolithic mode of cultivation was, moreover, highly successful.
But from its earliest beginnings, farming was much more than a new economy. It also saw the creation of patterns of life and ritual that remain doggedly with us millennia later, and have since become fixtures of social existence among a broad sector of humanity: everything from harvest festivals to habits of sitting on benches, putting cheese on bread, entering and exiting via doorways, or looking at the world through windows.
we could put these cultural oppositions down to coincidence, or perhaps even environmental factors. But considering the close proximity of the two cultural patterns, and how the groups responsible for them exchanged goods and were keenly aware of each other’s existence, it is equally possible, and perhaps more plausible, to see what happened as the result of mutual and self-conscious differentiation, or schismogenesis,
7. The ecology of freedom
Such fluid ecological arrangements – combining garden cultivation, flood-retreat farming on the margins of lakes or springs, small-scale landscape management (e.g. by burning, pruning and terracing) and the corralling or keeping of animals in semi-wild states, combined with a spectrum of hunting, fishing and collecting activities – were once typical of human societies in many parts of the world.
clearing gardens and orchards to grow a panoply of crops including sweet and bitter manioc, maize, tobacco, beans, cotton, groundnuts, gourds and more besides.
Cultivation was a relaxed affair, with little effort spent on keeping different species apart. And as the dry season commenced, these tangled house gardens were abandoned altogether. The entire group dispersed into small nomadic bands to hunt and forage, only to begin the whole process again the following year, often in a different location.
the deeper history of the American tropics shows that similarly loose and flexible patterns of food production sustained civilizational growth on a continent-wide scale, long before Europeans arrived.
China follows a similar pattern. Millet-farming began on a small scale around 8000 bc, on the northern plains, as a seasonal complement to foraging and dog-assisted hunting. It remained so for 3,000 years, until the introduction of cultivated millets into the basin of the Yellow River.
8. Imaginary cities
there is always a fundamental distinction between the way one relates to friends, family, neighbourhood, people and places that we actually know directly, and the way one relates to empires, nations and metropolises, phenomena that exist largely, or at least most of the time, in our heads. Much of social theory can be seen as an attempt to square these two dimensions of our experience.
In many early cities, there is simply no evidence of either a class of administrators or any other sort of ruling stratum. In others, centralized power seems to appear and then disappear. It would seem that the mere fact of urban life does not, necessarily, imply any particular form of political organization, and never did.
There is an obvious objection to evolutionary models which assume that our strongest social ties are based on close biological kinship: many humans just don’t like their families very much. And this appears to be just as true of present-day hunter-gatherers as anybody else.
Humans tend to live simultaneously with the 150-odd people they know personally, and inside imaginary structures shared by perhaps millions or even billions of other humans.
We all have the capacity to feel bound to people we will probably never meet; to take part in a macro-society which exists most of the time as ‘virtual reality’, a world of possible relationships with its own rules, roles and structures that are held in the mind and recalled through the cognitive work of image-making and ritual.
We now know, for instance, that in China’s Shandong province, on the lower reaches of the Yellow River, settlements of 300 hectares or more – such as Liangchengzhen and Yaowangcheng – were present by no later than 2500 bc, which is over 1,000 years before the earliest royal dynasties developed on the Central Chinese plains.
Similar revelations are emerging from the Maya lowlands, where ceremonial centres of truly enormous size – and, so far, presenting no evidence of monarchy or stratification – can now be dated back as far as 1000 bc: more than 1,000 years before the rise of Classic Maya kings, whose royal cities were notably smaller in scale.
It’s hard here not to recall Ursula Le Guin’s famous short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, about the imaginary city of Omelas, a city which also made do without kings, wars, slaves or secret police. We have a tendency, Le Guin notes, to write off such a community as ‘simple’, but in fact these citizens of Omelas were ‘not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians. They were not less complex than us.’ The trouble is just that ‘we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid.’
Greek city-states established colonies in the region and enslaved or made serfs of the local populations to begin with: ancient Athens was largely fed by Black Sea grain
The diversity is actually remarkable, as is its sustainability. As well as wheat, barley and pulses, the citizens’ plant diet included apples, pears, cherries, sloes, acorns, hazelnuts and apricots. Mega-site dwellers were hunters of red deer, roe deer and wild boar as well as farmers and foresters. It was ‘play farming’ on a grand scale: an urban populus supporting itself through small-scale cultivation and herding, combined with an extraordinary array of wild foods.
We should also consider if the inhabitants of the mega-sites consciously managed their ecosystem to avoid large-scale deforestation. This is consistent with archaeological studies of their economy, which suggest a pattern of small-scale gardening, often taking place within the bounds of the settlement, combined with the keeping of livestock, cultivation of orchards, and a wide spectrum of hunting and foraging activities.
Sumerian officials counted all sorts of things – including days, months and years – using a sexagesimal (base-60) system from which ultimately derives (via many and varied pathways of transmission) our own system of time-reckoning.
In fact, it seems very difficult for most of us even to imagine how self-conscious egalitarianism on a large scale would work. But this again simply serves to demonstrate how automatically we have come to accept an evolutionary narrative in which authoritarian rule is somehow the natural outcome whenever a large enough group of people are brought together
For most of its history Bali was divided into a series of kingdoms, endlessly squabbling over this or that. It is also famous as a rather small volcanic island which manages to support one of the densest populations on earth by a complex system of irrigated wet-rice agriculture. Yet the kingdoms seem to have had no role whatsoever in the management of the irrigation system. This was governed by a series of ‘water-temples’, through which the distribution of water was managed by an even more complex system of consensual decision-making, according to egalitarian principles, by the farmers themselves.
9. Hiding in plain sight
It is worth emphasizing again that we are dealing here with what is, by most estimations, one of the pivotal episodes of modern world history: the events leading directly up to the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, and a blueprint for subsequent European conquests throughout the Americas.
They were required to subordinate themselves to the people of the city. To ensure that this subordination was no mere show, each was subject to trials, starting with mandatory exposure to public abuse, regarded as the proper reward of ambition, and then – with one’s ego in tatters – a long period of seclusion, in which the aspiring politician suffered ordeals of fasting, sleep deprivation, bloodletting and a strict regime of moral instruction. The initiation ended with a ‘coming out’ of the newly constituted public servant, amid feasting and celebration. Clearly, taking up office in this indigenous democracy required personality traits very different to those we take for granted in modern electoral politics. On this latter point, it is worth recalling that ancient Greek writers were well aware of the tendency for elections to throw up charismatic leaders with tyrannical pretensions. This is why they considered elections an aristocratic mode of political appointment, quite at odds with democratic principles; and why for much of European history the truly democratic way of filling offices was assumed to be by lottery.
10. Why the state has no origin
However, with no consensus among social theorists about what a state actually is, the problem is how to come up with a definition that includes all these cases but isn’t so broad as to be absolutely meaningless. This has proved surprisingly hard to do.
When revolutionaries win, it’s usually because the bulk of those sent to crush them refuse to shoot, or just go home.
If humans were incapable of hurting each other, no one would be able to declare something absolutely sacred to themselves or to defend it against ‘all the world’. They could only exclude those who agreed to be excluded.
We would like to suggest that these three principles – call them control of violence, control of information, and individual charisma – are also the three possible bases of social power.
The combination of sovereignty with sophisticated administrative techniques for storing and tabulating information introduces all sorts of threats to individual freedom
Yet democracy, in modern states, is conceived very differently to, say, the workings of an assembly in an ancient city, which collectively deliberated on common problems. Rather, democracy as we have come to know it is effectively a game of winners and losers played out among larger-than-life individuals, with the rest of us reduced largely to onlookers.
Moctezuma, despite his grandeur (his palace contained everything from an aviary to quarters for troupes of comic dwarfs), was officially just the tlatoani or ‘first speaker’ in a council of aristocrats, and his empire officially a Triple Alliance of three cities. For all the bloodthirsty spectacle, the Aztec Empire was really a confederation of noble families.
The Inca, in contrast, insisted their sovereign was himself the incarnate Sun. All authority derived from a single point of radiance – the person of Sapa Inca (Unique Inca) himself – cascading downwards through ranks of royal siblings. The Inca court was an incubator, a hothouse for sovereignty.
In each newly conquered territory, the Inca immediately built a temple and forced a quota of local virgins to become ‘Brides of the Sun’: women cut off from their families, kept either as permanent virgins or dedicated to the Sapa Inca, for him to exploit and dispose of as he pleased. In consequence, the king’s subjects could be referred to collectively as ‘conquered women’, and local nobles jockeyed for position by trying to place their daughters in prominent roles at court.
Undoubtedly, the Classic Maya artistic tradition is magnificent, one of the greatest the world has ever seen. By comparison, artistic products from the ‘Post-Classic’ – as the period from roughly ad 900 to 1520 is known – often seem clumsy and less worthy of appreciation. On the other hand, how many of us would really prefer to live under the arbitrary power of a petty warlord who, for all his patronage of fine arts, counts tearing the hearts out of living human bodies among his most significant accomplishments?
To have a situation in which women not only command power on such a scale, but in which this power is linked to an office reserved explicitly for single women, is historically unusual. Yet this political innovation is little discussed, partly because it is already framed within an ‘intermediate’ or ‘late’ period that signals its transitory (or even decadent) nature.
However much future Egyptologists would come to appreciate them, the elegance of Middle Kingdom literature like The Story of Sinuhe and the proliferation of Osiris cults likely offered little solace to the thousands of military conscripts, forced labourers and persecuted minorities of the time, many of whose grandparents were living quite peaceful lives in the preceding ‘dark ages
the teleological habit of thought, which makes us scour the ancient world for embryonic versions of our modern nation states.
Even the ‘absolutist’ monarchs of the Renaissance, like Henry VIII or Louis XIV, had a great deal of trouble delegating their authority – that is, convincing their subjects to treat royal representatives as deserving anything like the same deference and obedience due to the king himself. Even if one does develop an administrative apparatus (as they of course did), there is the additional problem of how to get the administrators actually to do what they’re told – and, by the same token, how to get anyone to tell you if they aren’t.
Burials of kings surrounded by dozens, hundreds, on some occasions even thousands of human victims killed specially for the occasion can be found in almost every part of the world where monarchies did eventually establish themselves, from the early dynastic city-state of Ur in Mesopotamia to the Kerma polity in Nubia to Shang China. There are also credible literary descriptions from Korea, Tibet, Japan and the Russian steppes. Something similar seems to have occurred as well in the Moche and Wari societies of South America, and the Mississippian city of Cahokia.
with the extension of Inca sovereignty in Peru. Here, too, we find a contrast between the traditional, varied and flexible regime of everyday foodstuffs – in this case centring on cuisine made from freeze-dried potatoes (chuño) – and the introduction of a completely different sort of food, in this case, maize beer (chicha), which was considered fit for the gods and also gradually became, as it were, the food of empire.
To be a Classic Maya ruler (ajaw) was to be a hunter and god-impersonator of the first rank, a warrior whose body, on entering battle or during dance rituals, became host to the spirit of an ancestral hero, deity or dreamlike monsters.
Shang diviners appealed to gods through the medium of burnt offerings. The process was as follows: when hosting gods or ancestors at a ritual meal, kings or their diviners put turtle shells and ox scapulae on the fire, then ‘read’ the cracks
The proceedings were quite bureaucratic. Once an answer had been obtained, the diviner or an appointed scribe would then authorize the reading by etching an inscription on to bone or shell, and the resulting oracle would be stored for later consultation.
In terms of the specific theory we’ve been developing here, where the three elementary forms of domination – control of violence, control of knowledge, and charismatic power – can each crystallize into its own institutional form (sovereignty, administration and heroic politics), almost all these ‘early states’ could be more accurately described as ‘second-order’ regimes of domination.
Indeed, if we are trying to understand the appeal of monarchy as a form of government – and it cannot be denied that for much of recorded human history it was a very popular one – then likely it has something to do with its ability to mobilize sentiments of a caring nature and abject terror at the same time.
Both money and administration are based on similar principles of impersonal equivalence.
the fact that this equality could be viewed as making people (as well as things) interchangeable, which in turn allowed rulers, or their henchmen, to make impersonal demands that took no consideration of their subjects’ unique situations. This is of course what gives the word ‘bureaucracy’ such distasteful associations almost everywhere today. The very term evokes mechanical stupidity.
It’s the addition of sovereign power, and the resulting ability of the local enforcer to say, ‘Rules are rules; I don’t want to hear about it’ that allows bureaucratic mechanisms to become genuinely monstrous.
We also noted how the English word ‘free’ ultimately derives from a Germanic term meaning ‘friend’ – since, unlike free people, slaves cannot have friends because they cannot make commitments or promises.
For example, it is often simply assumed that states begin when certain key functions of government – military, administrative and judicial – pass into the hands of full-time specialists. This makes sense if you accept the narrative that an agricultural surplus ‘freed up’ a significant portion of the population from the onerous responsibility of securing adequate amounts of food: a story that suggests the beginning of a process that would lead to our current global division of labour.
However, almost none of the regimes we’ve been considering in this chapter were actually staffed by full-time specialists. Most obviously, none seem to have had a standing army.
Priests and judges rarely worked full-time either; in fact, most government institutions in Old Kingdom Egypt, Shang China, Early Dynastic Mesopotamia or for that matter classical Athens were staffed by a rotating workforce whose members had other lives as managers of rural estates, traders, builders or any number of different occupations.
If ‘the state’ means anything, it refers to precisely the totalitarian impulse that lies behind all such claims, the desire effectively to make the ritual last forever.
When people talk about ‘early civilizations’ they are mostly referring to those very same societies we’ve been describing in this chapter and their direct successors: Pharaonic Egypt, Inca Peru, Aztec Mexico, Han China, Imperial Rome, ancient Greece, or others of a certain scale and monumentality. All these were deeply stratified societies, held together mostly by authoritarian government, violence and the radical subordination of women. Sacrifice, as we’ve seen, is the shadow lurking behind this concept of civilization:
As we’ve been showing throughout this book, in all parts of the world small communities formed civilizations in that true sense of extended moral communities. Without permanent kings, bureaucrats or standing armies they fostered the growth of mathematical and calendrical knowledge. In some regions they pioneered metallurgy, the cultivation of olives, vines and date palms, or the invention of leavened bread and wheat beer; in others they domesticated maize and learned to extract poisons, medicines and mind-altering substances from plants.
What until now has passed for ‘civilization’ might in fact be nothing more than a gendered appropriation – by men, etching their claims in stone – of some earlier system of knowledge that had women at its centre.
11. Full circle
Hopewell Interaction Sphere
from the Archaic phase onwards, geometric earthworks across large parts of the Americas appear to have been using the same system of measurement: one apparently based on the arrangement of cords into equilateral triangles.
In other words, not only did indigenous North Americans manage almost entirely to sidestep the evolutionary trap that we assume must always lead, eventually, from agriculture to the rise of some all-powerful state or empire; but in doing so they developed political sensibilities that were ultimately to have a deep influence on Enlightenment thinkers and, through them, are still with us today.
Yet most modern thinkers have clearly found it bizarre to attribute self-conscious social projects or historical designs to people of earlier epochs. Generally, such ‘non-modern’ folk were considered too simple-minded (not having achieved ‘social complexity’); or to be living in a kind of mystical dreamworld; or, at best, were thought to be simply adapting themselves to their environment at an appropriate level of technology.
In traditional societies, according to Eliade, everything important has already happened. All the great founding gestures go back to mythic times, the illo tempore,1 the dawn of everything, when animals could talk or turn into humans, sky and earth were not yet separated, and it was possible to create genuinely new things (marriage, or cooking, or war).
Instead of some male genius realizing his solitary vision, innovation in Neolithic societies was based on a collective body of knowledge accumulated over centuries, largely by women, in an endless series of apparently humble but in fact enormously significant discoveries.
Who was the first person to figure out that you could make bread rise by the addition of those microorganisms we call yeasts? We have no idea, but we can be almost certain she was a woman and would most likely not be considered ‘white’ if she tried to immigrate to a European country today; and we definitely know her achievement continues to enrich the lives of billions of people.
Mesoamerican societies never employed wheeled transport; but we know they were familiar with spokes, wheels and axles since they made toy versions of them for children. Greek scientists famously came up with the principle of the steam engine, but only employed it to make temple doors that appeared to open of their own accord, or similar theatrical illusions. Chinese scientists, equally famously, first employed gunpowder for fireworks.
While Amerindian cannibal rituals showed the desire to take over the strength and courage of the alien so as to combat him better, the European ritual revealed the existence of a dissymmetry, an irrevocable imbalance of power.
correspondence exists between social and spatial hierarchies. Time and again we found ourselves confronted with writing which simply assumes that the larger and more densely populated the social group, the more ‘complex’ the system needed to keep it organized. Complexity, in turn, is still often used as a synonym for hierarchy. Hierarchy, in turn, is used as a euphemism for chains of command (the ‘origins of the state’),
how cities actually began in many parts of the world: as civic experiments on a grand scale, which frequently lacked the expected features of administrative hierarchy and authoritarian rule.
To call them ‘egalitarian’, as we’ve seen, could mean quite a number of different things. It might imply an urban parliament and co-ordinated projects of social housing, as with some pre-Columbian centres in the Americas; or the self-organizing of autonomous households into neighbourhoods and citizens’ assemblies, as with prehistoric mega-sites north of the Black Sea; or, perhaps, the introduction of some explicit notion of equality based on principles of uniformity and sameness, as in Uruk-period Mesopotamia.
Of course, monarchy, warrior aristocracies or other forms of stratification could also take hold in urban contexts, and often did. When this happened the consequences were dramatic. Still, the mere existence of large human settlements in no way caused these phenomena, and certainly didn’t make them inevitable. For the origins of these structures of domination we must look elsewhere.
Hereditary aristocracies were just as likely to exist among demographically small or modest-sized groups, such as the ‘heroic societies’ of the Anatolian highlands, which took form on the margins of the first Mesopotamian cities and traded extensively with them. Insofar as we have evidence for the inception of monarchy as a permanent institution it seems to lie precisely there, and not in cities.
it’s hard to resist the temptation to write and think as if the current state of the world, in the early twenty-first century, is the inevitable outcome of the last 10,000 years of history, while in reality, of course, we have little or no idea what the world will be like even in 2075, let alone 2150.
Perhaps if our species does endure, and we one day look backwards from this as yet unknowable future, aspects of the remote past that now seem like anomalies – say, bureaucracies that work on a community scale; cities governed by neighbourhood councils; systems of government where women hold a preponderance of formal positions; or forms of land management based on care-taking rather than ownership and extraction – will seem like the really significant breakthroughs, and great stone pyramids or statues more like historical curiosities. What if we were to take that approach now and look at, say, Minoan Crete or Hopewell not as random bumps on a road that leads inexorably to states and empires, but as alternative possibilities: roads not taken?
In developing the scientific means to know our own past, we have exposed the mythical substructure of our ‘social science’