Conventional narratives of human prehistory are wrong and needlessly dull, write David Graeber and David Wengrow in their new book, extracted below
One gets the sense that indigenous life was, to put it very crudely, just a lot more interesting than life in a ‘Western’ town or city, especially insofar as the latter involved long hours of monotonous, repetitive, conceptually empty activity. The fact that we find it hard to imagine how such an alternative life could be endlessly engaging and interesting is perhaps more a reflection on the limits of our imagination than on the life itself.
One of the most pernicious aspects of standard world-historical narratives is precisely that they dry everything up, reduce people to cardboard stereotypes, simplify the issues (are we inherently selfish and violent, or innately kind and co-operative?) in ways that themselves undermine, possibly even destroy, our sense of human possibility. ‘Noble’ savages are, ultimately, just as boring as savage ones; more to the point, neither actually exist. Helena Valero was herself adamant on this point. The Yanomami were not devils, she insisted, neither were they angels. They were human, like the rest of us.
Now, we should be clear here: social theory always, necessarily, involves a bit of simplification. For instance, almost any human action might be said to have a political aspect, an economic aspect, a psycho-sexual aspect and so forth. Social theory is largely a game of make-believe in which we pretend, just for the sake of argument, that there’s just one thing going on: essentially, we reduce everything to a cartoon so as to be able to detect patterns that would be otherwise invisible. As a result, all real progress in social science has been rooted in the courage to say things that are, in the final analysis, slightly ridiculous: the work of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud or Claude Lévi-Strauss being only particularly salient cases in point. One must simplify the world to discover something new about it. The problem comes when, long after the discovery has been made, people continue to simplify.
Hobbes and Rousseau told their contemporaries things that were startling, profound and opened new doors of the imagination. Now their ideas are just tired common sense. There’s nothing in them that justifies the continued simplification of human affairs. If social scientists today continue to reduce past generations to simplistic, two-dimensional caricatures, it is not so much to show us anything original, but just because they feel that’s what social scientists are expected to do so as to appear ‘scientific’. The actual result is to impoverish history – and as a consequence, to impoverish our sense of possibility.
Published by Penguin, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow is out now. Buy a copy here.