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When history needs to be rewritten: Teotihuacán, Mesopotomia, Tlaxcala

The Dawn of Everything. A New History of Humanity
"BULLSHIT THEORIES": We have been wrong: Advanced societies did not come with agriculture. Rather, people have lived freely and egalitarianly both before and after some became farmers, Graeber and Wengrow show in The Dawn of Everything. While Nikole Hannah-Jones provides a whole new understanding of American history with her 1619 book.


I was in the rainforest in the interior of Sumatra, the northernmost island of Indonesia, in the late 90's. We were a small study group that was to be among the first foreigners, apart from a Norwegian social anthropologist, who got to visit the legendary talent of the Mamak people – an indigenous people who lived deep inside Bukit Tigapuluh ("The Thirty Hills").

A few miles away lived "ordinary" Indonesians. In the small town of Rengat (which literally means "mosquito"), the teenagers ran up to us. They started telling how much they liked Martin Dahlin and Tomas Brolin (Swedish football players). I was then invited home to a family where my father played Elvis songs on his saxophone.

But the jungle was another world. First we were driven in jeeps as far as the logging truck roads could take us. And so, after trudging along narrow paths and wading across seething streams with furious leeches, we finally discovered a talang mamak village on the other side of a wide river. The first thing I saw was a woman carrying a baby in a piece of cloth on her back. But when we reached the bank on the other side of the river, after being guided over into a hollowed log, I discovered that the baby carrier was not a woman after all. It was rather a man carrying the child on his back.

For me, coming from "the modern world", their egalitarian gender roles were completely foreign. And when we were later invited up to the largest dwelling, placed on stilts three or four meters above the ground, and were asked questions by our anthropologist-interpreter, we were time and again challenged about how things were or should be. Another world turned out to be possible after all.

Misleading and prejudiced

Only now do I understand what I really experienced there in the depths of the Sumatra rainforest. Because I have read through David Graeber and David Wengrow's great works The Dawn of Everything. A New History of Humanity. And thanks to them, I now see more clearly that the narratives we generally have about the world, developed through the last couple of hundred years of colonial representations, have largely been misleading, prejudiced and anti-scientific.

For example, there has not been one linear development of man from primitive tribal societies via agriculture to today's more urban-capitalist society. So not such grandiose best-selling books by evolutionary biologist and physiologist Jared Diamond, psychologist Steven pinker, political scientist Francis Fukuyama and historian Yuval Harari have claimed over the past couple of decades. Neither of these have any academic background for what they are making big theories about. So then it often becomes guesswork based on their own political preferences.

What these bestsellers have in common is that they present it as if hierarchical societies of inequality are the only solution.

What these bestsellers have in common is that they present it as if hierarchical societies of inequality are the only solution. As if today we live "in the best of all worlds", as the philosopher Leibniz claimed in 1710. But as it emerges in The Dawn of Everything, by anthropologist Graeber and archaeologist Wengrow, research shows that before modern times people did not work more to survive than we do now.

Modern technology has not actually created less work, but rather more – for poorer pay.

Modern technology has not actually created less work, but rather more – for poorer pay. Just ask the women in Bangladesh who work almost for free to make Hennes & Mauritz clothes for shopaholic Europeans. Or look at the slave-like conditions under which African coffee farmers and cobalt miners have to work. At the same time, newly rich Europe, and settler colonies such as the USA and Australia, close the borders. And build walls. At the same time as we earn large sums of money selling weapons to brutal regimes – which we help to fight. Before we refuse to let women, men and children escape from the hell we have helped to create. We rather let them languish in refugee camps in Asia and Africa, with millions of others. The biggest problem with so many Syrian, Libyan and African refugees drowning in the Mediterranean every week seems to be that they are ruining our bathing water.

Most Norwegians benefit from this global and immoral system. But the ones who really make the money are the super capitalists. The biggest billionaires who have secured "monopolies" on the internet and increase their fortunes to more than they will ever be able to use up. While others are suffering.

Graeber Wengrow

Brutal or noble?

How did we end up here? Why do many today uncritically take for granted that today's unjust and inhumane social system is the only, and best, solution? How did we get caught up in a liberation project? ("How did we get stuck?") This is a recurring theme in Graeber and Wengrow's monumental work of 750 pages. The book is both well-documented, thorough and engagingly written.

Here, most central reviewers and academics get their passports signed, if necessary. Graeber published the bestseller in 2018 Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. And an alternate title on The Dawn of Everything could perhaps have been "Bullshit Theories".

Here, the errors in both today's are documented Hobbes-schools (right-wing perspective: The original societies were brutal, "we" are better) and Rousseau-schools (left-side perspective: The original societies were noble, wild and simple).

School books, textbooks and popular books still portray the past in a colonial and tendentious manner.

But both main directions are wrong. Because there were both complex, rational and egalitarian societies before the first cities on the Tigris, the Nile and the Indus River. And not least, the role of women, and female researchers as such, comes out far better in Graber and Wengrow's new magnum opus than is usual.

As the two non-fiction authors emphasize: The main problem is not that we do not have access to facts or new and good research. Rather, the challenge is that the research of recent decades, which refutes ideological myths created during the colonial era in the 1800th and 1900th centuries, has not yet been made available to most people. School books, textbooks and popular books still portray the past in a colonial and tendentious way, argue Graber and Wengrow. Hence The Dawn of Everything. Since the end of 2021, the book has become a bestseller both internationally and in Norway. But in the Norwegian press there has been almost only one mention, written by Thomas Hylland Eriksen. Which says something about the intellectual level in this country.


Graeber and Wengrow summarize hundreds of studies. And this recent research shows that there has always been a diversity of different social organisations. In, for example, classical Mexico (as in the city of Teotihuacán, a little north of present-day Mexico City) and in the Indus civilization Harappa near Punjab (as the city of Mohenjo-daro in present-day Pakistan, approx. 3000-2000 years before our era) it was built large cities. But without cultivating kings and hierarchies for that reason.

While the contemporary Roman Empire was hierarchical and authoritarian, Teotihuacán was egalitarian and had elected leaders.

In the Mexican metropolis Teotihuacán, with a heyday of approx. AD 100–500, approximately 100 people lived on 000 square kilometers. And while the contemporary Roman Empire was hierarchical and authoritarian, Teotihuacán was egalitarian and had elected leaders. More than 20 per cent of the population lived in what Norwegians in the 90s would call villas: the average household in the city had a house measuring 1970 square metres.

Studies have shown that the Gini coefficient on inequality in the multilingual metropolis of Teotihuacán is 0,12 (where 0 implies a completely equal distribution of resources, while 1 gives a totally skewed distribution). This is in contrast to Rome, which has a calculated Gini index of 0,6, and today's USA of 0,8. Teotihuacán, where about a third of the inhabitants were immigrants, is thus calculated to be more egalitarian than today's Norway (calculated Gini of 0,3). And therefore a significantly more equality-oriented distribution than today's Oslo. Graeber and Wenrow do not refer to the Gini calculations, which could have strengthened their arguments.



In example after example, Graeber and Wengrow show how a wide range of older societies were egalitarian. That people were treated humanely, that there was an equal distribution of food and resources. In several cases, the social structure has clearly been compatible with what we can call a society of equality. For these societies had neither kings nor patriarchs, rather equality between citizens – or "an absence of rule" from above. In other words, what the French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon understood as "anarchy" – which is something other than "chaos", as "anarchy" is often used in today's Norwegian debate.

These societies had neither kings nor patriarchs, rather equality between citizens – or "an absence of rule" from above.

As we have seen with the last world wars and all the wars of the 2000s, it has rather been hierarchical systems that have created both war, chaos and totalitarian regimes. So the "answer" from human history is that there are a number of different solutions. Or as Proudhon wrote in 1840: "As man seeks justice in equality, so society seeks order in anarchy." That means order without a statutory hierarchy.

Now it must be said that one of the authors, Graeber, distinguished himself for many years as a supporter of the philosophical direction of anarchism (Graeber passed away in autumn 2020, right after the book was finished). And at the beginning of the book, it is pointed out how this freedom-seeking direction differs from both Marxism and capitalism – the two extremes that otherwise characterize many European debates.

New worldviews

The 1619 Project Author Nikole Hannah-Jones Penguin Random House, UK

Despite claims from several critics who dislike Graeber and Wengrow's project with The Dawn of Everything, there are weaker ideological guidelines in their book than in most other similar masterpieces. Today's Euro-American historiography is still characterized by colonial narratives, perhaps most visible in William H. McNeill's influential The Rise of The West (1963): This book sets out to explain historically why Europeans and white Americans are the richest and best in the world. McNeill thus joins a long tradition, from Max Weber onwards, of claiming that it is Europeans' "culture", "spirit" or "religion" that made them rich after 1492 – after these regions had found themselves in a technological, economic and cultural backwater for the previous 5000 years. It has been common to fail to take into account what happens when fundamentalists (priests, conquistadors) and privatized pirates (such as the British East India Company) use genocide and slavery to subjugate large parts of the world (America, Asia, Africa and Oceania). In a new foreword in 1991, McNeill distanced himself from his previous presentation – he was now going to include China (the powerful empires in Africa were also not so carefully considered then). And even Samuel P. Huntington admitted in his The Clash of Civilizations (1996) that it was imperialism, colonialism and weapons that from the 1500th century gave the Europeans economic domination. So not Shakespeare texts and Michelangelo paintings.

But it will take a long time to create new worldviews based on the actual conditions. However, Graeber and Wengrow make a very good effort by bringing out a wealth of examples from both Asia, Africa, Oceania and America. Strangely enough, they do not have more examples from the African continent. This despite the fact that Wengrow is one of the leading Europeans in North African archaeology, as shown in his modern classic The Archeology of Early Egypt: Social Transformations in North-East Africa, 10,000-2650 BC (2006)

For example, the two show how it has been the norm rather than the exception that balanced systems have been introduced around the world democracyr (democracy, as you say in today's Norwegian. See also Herbjørnsrud's essay "People's seducers love majority decisions", MODERN TIMES's summer edition 2021). In Mesopotamia, in present-day Iraq, for example, women were represented. The major setback only came centuries later with the Athenian government, where women, slaves and immigrants were banned from the public assemblies.

Mexico: the neglect

Across the Atlantic, Hernán Cortés and his European invasion forces discovered a similarly enlightened system of government during the conquest of Mexico in 1520. In contrast to the European kingdoms, the city of Tlaxcala had a city council where the best solutions were discussed. And when the question came up whether Tlaxcala were to ally with Cortés against the opponents of the Aztec alliance and their metropolis inland, it was the words of the eloquent Xicoténcatl (c. 1420–1521) that prevailed.

These conversations are reproduced in Cervantes de Salazar's chronicle (Crónica, about. 1560). But Graeber and Wengrow had to find this primary source (and its Book III) themselves in order to document the arguments and practices of the Mexican indigenous population. In a typical way, the documentation of non-European writings and voices is omitted in today's historical representations. There seems to be a kind of unconscious systematicity in this neglect, which is in line with the condescending attitude that both the Kantian and Hegelian legacies carry with them.

Furthermore: The Dawn of Everything could usefully also have added a review of the monk Bernardino sahaguns twelve-volume work from the 1500th century, in which the Nahua people's thinking and social structure were recorded in collaboration with the indigenous population.


About freedom

Another example Graeber and Wengrow highlight is Confectionery (1649–1701): the eloquent thinker and political leader of the Huron-Wendat indigenous group in present-day Canada. From the early 1680s, Kondiaronk had a close dialogue with the newly arrived French. And in New journeys to North America (1703), written by Louis Armand (Lahontan), Kondiaronk (under the name Adario) has a long series of critical objections to the unfree and hierarchical form of society brought by the European immigrants.

In the last century, a number of academics have denied that an "Indian" like Kondiaronk could have said something so wise. It has been baselessly claimed that the philosophical considerations of the indigenous population must have been Louis Armand's own invention. But Graeber and Wengrow show why such speculations can be rejected. And they cite Benjamin Franklin, who in the 1740s recorded similar considerations about indigenous democratic structures and philosophy. In the 1770s became the Iroquois leader Logan (1720–1780) known for his grandiose speeches and existentialist considerations towards the Euro-American immigrants.

Wengrow and Graber could also have referred here to the proven popular government of the confederation among the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). Even the United States Congress has now agreed, in 1988 (House of Representatives) and 2001 (Senate), that the inspiration of indigenous democracy laid the foundation for the development of the European-American immigrants' version of the mid-1750s. This is in contrast to the British royal government and their hierarchy (see more in Herbjørnsruds Global knowledge.

In sum acts The Dawn of Everything, which the authors themselves point out towards the end, a lot about freedom. About the freedom to move around. The freedom to disobey. The freedom to create social relationships. And, we might add, the freedom to read original sources and understand the world anew. Graeber and Wenrow do not use the term "decolonization" in the book, as far as I can see. But the book is in practice a mental decolonization of our time's colonial ideas. It represents a new beginning.

The unique 1619 project

Another unique magnum opus published just before the turn of the year is Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones's 600-page The 1619 Project. The book takes its title from the year 1619, when the first African slaves were brought to the United States. It happened then The White Lion ("The White Lion") brought twenty Africans from the Ndongo kingdom in Angola. These Angolans had been captured by Portuguese slave hunters and were taken to the port near Point Comfort in the state of Virginia. Among them were the couple Anthony and Isabella, who had the child William Tucker in 1624. A new chapter in the history of North America was about to begin.

In the traditional and colonialist representations of the history of the United States, much revolves around the year 1620. It was then that fundamentalist Protestants from England first fled to Holland, before traveling further across the Atlantic by ship Mayflower — and then finally arrived in Massachusetts. From here originates the myth of "thanksgiving", which is celebrated annually.

But Africans from the Ndongo people in Angola arrived in the United States one year earlier. And in 2019, The New York Times reporter got Nikole Hannah Jones impact to mark the 400th anniversary with a special issue in the newspaper: The starting point was 1619 and the decisive African-American influence on the building of the United States over the past four centuries.

For this work, Hannah-Jones was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. And in the anthology The 1619 Project, which she is helping to edit, she elaborates on the project. She has brought 17 prominent academics and writers with her – including Ibram X. Kendi.

It is nothing less than an impressive review that we get here. The book reveals that the fear of losing the opportunity to have slaves, which you did not have in England at the time, was perhaps the most important driving force for the white settlers to declare themselves independent from the English throne in 1776. And we can read about how "race » and skin color gradually became more important, ultimately absolutely decisive, for maintaining slavery: the United States thus became one of only five large, slave-based societies in world history, along with Greece, Rome, Brazil and the Caribbean.

Nikole Hannah Jones

In the late 1700th century, 40 percent of Virginia's residents were from Africa. It was they who largely built the modern United States. And it was from them that the freedom struggle came.

"All men are created equal," Thomas wrote Jefferson in June 1776, while in the same room he had a black slave serving him. The words were not worth the paper they were written on. But then Africans were also defined as people.

As this magnificent work reveals, it is the African-American freedom struggles, first with the abolition of slavery in 1865 and then with the right to vote in 1965, that best live up to the American ideals of freedom. And in November 2020, it was the African-American votes, and especially the women's votes, that ensured that Trump lost the election, while Biden won. If the white voters in the USA had decided alone, the country would still have an anti-democratic and white-power-oriented head of state – 57 percent of white men and 53 percent of white women voted for Trump in the last election.

What will happen in the future, like in 2024, no one knows. But what we do know is how important history is. No past, no present. And without present, no future. As we understand history, we also understand ourselves and our possibilities.

Therefore is The Dawn of Everything og The 1619 Project so crucial. Because they show us why a better world is possible. Why there is still hope. This was probably what I learned in the rainforest of Sumatra. I just didn't really realize it until I got these two books.



Dag Herbjørnsrud
Dag Herbjørnsrud
Former editor of MODERN TIMES. Now head of the Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas.

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