The Graeber-Wengrow Hypothesis


Occasionally during a particular time period, a 'big idea' suggesting a fresh look at the past is offered. An example of this may be the fascinating with which Jared Diamond's book "Guns, Germs, and Steel" was receive when it was published in 1997. The latest fresh look is provided by David Graeber (anthropologist, who died in 2020) and David Wengrow (archaeologist) in their 2021 book entitled, "The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity."

Now, I have not yet read the book. The stack of books by my bedside is so large that I have to make a dent in that before I will permit myself to buy anoher one. However, the amount of press the book, which is being released on 9 November, is getting is so large that it's become impossible not to stumble across its mention again and again.

The big idea is that our understanding of the past is not only incorrect, but incorrect in a way that hampers our ability as a species to live in peace and plenty. There is definitely an effect that origin myths have on our lives--the best example is the story of Adam and Eve and how pernicious our misunderstanding of that story has been for women (and men) throughout human history. So I am onboard to hear what the other origin "boxes" we may find ourselves trapped inside.

In a guest essay for the New York Times, the authors explain their thesis. The standard story of humanity is that we lived in relatively small hunter-gatherer groups until agriculture was developed, at which time humans began to create city-states based around surpluses and specialization made possible by dependable food stores. From this came religion and government, both of which introduced hierarchy and authoritarianism as the primary mode of human existence. As G&W put it, "Urban living meant the appearance of written literature, science and philosophy, but at the same time, almost everything bad in human life: patriarchy, standing armies, mass executions and annoying bureaucrats demanding that we spend much of our lives filling out forms." Inequality is seen as inevitable and unavoidable when people live in relatively large groups, as they do in city-based civilizations.

G&W explain, "For a long time, the archaeological evidence — from Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica and elsewhere — did appear to confirm this. If you put enough people in one place, the evidence seemed to show, they would start dividing themselves into social classes. You could see inequality emerge in the archaeological record with the appearance of temples and palaces, presided over by rulers and their elite kinsmen, and storehouses and workshops, run by administrators and overseers. Civilization seemed to come as a package: It meant misery and suffering for those who would inevitably be reduced to serfs, slaves or debtors, but it also allowed for the possibility of art, technology, and science."

The upshot of this origin story is that inequality is inescapable, except possibly in small groups. But this has nefarious consequences: "The history we learn in school has made us more willing to tolerate a world in which some can turn their wealth into power over others, while others are told their needs are not important and their lives have no intrinsic worth." This origin story makes us quiescent in the face of huge wealth and power disparities--we appear to be justified in being pessimists about the human condition.

Is there any reason to believe this story is false? G&W suggest there is plenty of new (and old) archaeological evidence that it is, in fact, false: "What this new evidence shows is that a surprising number of the world’s earliest cities were organized along robustly egalitarian lines. In some regions, we now know, urban populations governed themselves for centuries without any indication of the temples and palaces that would later emerge; in others, temples and palaces never emerged at all, and there is simply no evidence of a class of administrators or any other sort of ruling stratum. It would seem that the mere fact of urban life does not, necessarily, imply any particular form of political organization, and never did. Far from resigning us to inequality, the new picture that is now emerging of humanity’s deep past may open our eyes to egalitarian possibilities we otherwise would have never considered." They point to newly excavated cities in what is now Ukraine and Moldova: "These sites were planned on the image of a great circle — or series of circles — of houses, with nobody first, nobody last, divided into districts with assembly buildings for public meetings. . . Residents definitely produced a surplus, and with it came ample opportunity for some of them to seize control of the stocks and supplies, to lord it over the others or fight for the spoils, but over eight centuries we find little evidence of warfare or the rise of social elites. The true complexity of these early cities lay in the political strategies they adopted to prevent such things. Careful analysis by archaeologists shows how the social freedoms of the Ukrainian city dwellers were maintained through processes of local decision-making, in households and neighborhood assemblies, without any need for centralized control or top-down administration."

Ramifications of this new view of human history? "For one thing, it suggests that we should be much less pessimistic about our future, since the mere fact that much of the world’s population now lives in cities may not determine how we live, to anything like the extent we might have assumed. . . All we are lacking now is the political imagination to make it happen. But as history teaches us, the brave new world we seek to create has existed before, and could exist again."

I find all of this fascinating because of its intersections with what the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches. It teaches that the City of Enoch, the City of Zion, were, are, and will be cities in which people live in peace and equality with one another. There will be no hierarchies and "-ites" among them. Indeed, as members of the Church, we even believe that certain peoples--such as the people of King Benjamin, and the people in the two generations after Christ's visit to the Americas--lived in precisely this way. So as members of the Church, we absolutely do not believe it is impossible for men and women to create these societies right here on earth. We believe it's perfectly possible, but what hinders us is sin (not a failure of the imagination).

Furthermore--and I am happy to be corrected if my memory has failed me--I believe Joseph Smith taught that the City of Zion would in fact be constructed as a series of concentric circles, just like what is described in the G&W work.

So, yes, the G&W book is on my Amazon wish list, and I look forward to reading it. But if the authors had been members of the Church of Jesus Christ, they would have already had a very different view of human history and the human future that the conventional origin story. What is a bit sad to me is that we have paid such little attention as a faith community to the liberating possibilities that our scriptures lay before us. Could we build little Zions not only in our families, but in our wards? What would that take? I think of how geographically small wards in Utah are--my home ward is exactly 2 blocks square. Wouldn't that be the perfect size to try Zion-like wings? What form would those wings take?

Food for thought, to be sure . . .