Review of “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity” by David Graeber and David Wengrow

I have written six previous commentaries on the book [see below]. And, though I have further commentaries to make, here I want to focus on their claim of being a “new” history.

In which respect is it new?
1. It is new in the sense that it is the most recently published.
2. It is new in the sense that it takes into account the archeological discoveries of the past 50 years or so.
3. It is also new in that it tries to take into account all the anthropological findings.
4. But it also claims to be new in discarding the so-called “dominant view” and the “received wisdom.”

It is this last claim which appears to me to be something like a “straw man.”

Let me explain. A straw man argument is one which targets a fictitious position — a position invented simply for the purpose of refutation. And if one alleges to attribute such a position to a real person, then one is in reality attributing it to a fictitious person — a straw man.

In claiming that some position is the “dominant position” or the “received wisdom”, one is making a sociological claim, a claim which can be supported by a survey or a poll. [I did such a survey in 1998, trying to find out which philosopher was most influential. See: Philosophical Influence — Statistically Determined]

But the authors have not conducted any kind of survey, or named any book or authors; so their claim is simply a dogmatic assertion.

Let us now turn to the formulation of this so-called “dominant view,” “conventiona narrative,” and “received wisdom.”

As far as I can formulate it, it is the the claim that historically there was a series of linear discrete changes from foraging to farming to cities and states. If we use a time line, this historical situation is to be represented by several non-overlapping progressive historical lines. And the authors’ allegedly new position is that the situation should be represented by several overlapping historical lines. Let us call the former the Discrete View; the latter the Overlapping View.

And one of the overlapping lines, according to the authors, should be called by the neologism “play farming.” This is the claim that there was an experimental part-time farming before full-time farming. The claim was made in Chapter 6: Gardents of Adonis.

To be fair to the authors, perhaps they think that although parts of the Overlapping View were widely believed, it was the Discrete View which had to be expressed in a caricaturish manner because of the absence of evidence. [Or, perhaps such a view represents a historical bird’s eye view!] If their view about the lack of evidence is true, then, according to them, the discovery of Catalhoyuk, gives us the first evidence for part of the Overlapping View, i.e., the view that cities and farming existed simultaneously with foraging.

Let me comment on this particular claim. The claim that Catalhoyuk is the first evidence for part of the Overlapping View is not true. Yuval Harari in Sapience (p.85) writes:

The Natufians were hunter-gatherers who subsisted on dozens of wild species, but they lived in permanent villages and devoted much of their time to the intensive gathering and processing of wild cereals. They built stone houses and granaries. They stored grain for times of need. They invented new tools such as stone scythes for harvesting wild wheat, and stone pestles and mortars to grind them.

Being only a bystander in anthropology, I went to Wikipedia to find something more about the Natufian culture. The Natufian culture was named and discovered by Dorothy Garrod in the 1930s. [Incidentally, the only reference to Natufians by Graeber and Wengrow is on p. 246 where they attribute to them only the practice of “curating human crania.”]

Below is a video about the Natufian culture:

Catalhoyuk is dated to c. 9,000 BC; whereas Natufian culture is dated to c. 13,000 BC.

My conclusion is that the dominant belief was and is the Overlapping View, and that the evidence for the Overlapping View preceded the discovery of Catalhoyuk. So, it is puzzling as to what else is “new” in their “new history.”

Previous commentaries:

First Commentary

Second Commentary

Third Commentary

Fourth Commentary

Fifth Commentary

Sixth Commentary

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