How to change the course of human history

(at least, the part that's already happened)

2 March 2018
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The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of 'agricultural revolution' remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors.

Art work by Banksy (title unknown). Source: Flickr

1. In the beginning was the word

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality?’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

Simply framing the question this way means making a series of assumptions, that 1. there is a thing called ‘inequality,’ 2. that it is a problem, and 3. that there was a time it did not exist. Since the financial crash of 2008, of course, and the upheavals that followed, the ‘problem of social inequality’ has been at the centre of political debate. There seems to be a consensus, among the intellectual and political classes, that levels of social inequality have spiralled out of control, and that most of the world’s problems result from this, in one way or another. Pointing this out is seen as a challenge to global power structures, but compare this to the way similar issues might have been discussed a generation earlier. Unlike terms such as ‘capital’ or ‘class power’, the word ‘equality’ is practically designed to lead to half-measures and compromise. One can imagine overthrowing capitalism or breaking the power of the state, but it’s very difficult to imagine eliminating ‘inequality’. In fact, it’s not obvious what doing so would even mean, since people are not all the same and nobody would particularly want them to be.

‘Inequality’ is a way of framing social problems appropriate to technocratic reformers, the kind of people who assume from the outset that any real vision of social transformation has long since been taken off the political table. It allows one to tinker with the numbers, argue about Gini coefficients and thresholds of dysfunction, readjust tax regimes or social welfare mechanisms, even shock the public with figures showing just how bad things have become (‘can you imagine? 0.1% of the world’s population controls over 50% of the wealth!’), all without addressing any of the factors that people actually object to about such ‘unequal’ social arrangements: for instance, that some manage to turn their wealth into power over others; or that other people end up being told their needs are not important, and their lives have no intrinsic worth. The latter, we are supposed to believe, is just the inevitable effect of inequality, and inequality, the inevitable result of living in any large, complex, urban, technologically sophisticated society. That is the real political message conveyed by endless invocations of an imaginary age of innocence, before the invention of inequality: that if we want to get rid of such problems entirely, we’d have to somehow get rid of 99.9% of the Earth’s population and go back to being tiny bands of foragers again. Otherwise, the best we can hope for is to adjust the size of the boot that will be stomping on our faces, forever, or perhaps to wrangle a bit more wiggle room in which some of us can at least temporarily duck out of its way.

Mainstream social science now seems mobilized to reinforce this sense of hopelessness. Almost on a monthly basis we are confronted with publications trying to project the current obsession with property distribution back into the Stone Age, setting us on a false quest for ‘egalitarian societies’ defined in such a way that they could not possibly exist outside some tiny band of foragers (and possibly, not even then). What we’re going to do in this essay, then, is two things. First, we will spend a bit of time picking through what passes for informed opinion on such matters, to reveal how the game is played, how even the most apparently sophisticated contemporary scholars end up reproducing conventional wisdom as it stood in France or Scotland in, say, 1760. Then we will attempt to lay down the initial foundations of an entirely different narrative. This is mostly ground-clearing work. The questions we are dealing with are so enormous, and the issues so important, that it will take years of research and debate to even begin understanding the full implications. But on one thing we insist. Abandoning the story of a fall from primordial innocence does not mean abandoning dreams of human emancipation – that is, of a society where no one can turn their rights in property into a means of enslaving others, and where no one can be told their lives and needs don’t matter. To the contrary. Human history becomes a far more interesting place, containing many more hopeful moments than we’ve been led to imagine, once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there.

2. Contemporary authors on the origins of social inequality; or, the eternal return of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Let us begin by outlining received wisdom on the overall course of human history. It goes something a little like this:

As the curtain goes up on human history – say, roughly two hundred thousand years ago, with the appearance of anatomically modern Homo sapiens – we find our species living in small and mobile bands ranging from twenty to forty individuals. They seek out optimal hunting and foraging territories, following herds, gathering nuts and berries. If resources become scarce, or social tensions arise, they respond by moving on, and going someplace else. Life for these early humans – we can think of it as humanity’s childhood – is full of dangers, but also possibilities. Material possessions are few, but the world is an unspoiled and inviting place. Most work only a few hours a day, and the small size of social groups allows them to maintain a kind of easy-going camaraderie, without formal structures of domination. Rousseau, writing in the 18th century, referred to this as ‘the State of Nature,’ but nowadays it is presumed to have encompassed most of our species’ actual history. It is also assumed to be the only era in which humans managed to live in genuine societies of equals, without classes, castes, hereditary leaders, or centralised government.

Alas this happy state of affairs eventually had to end. Our conventional version of world history places this moment around 10,000 years ago, at the close of the last Ice Age.

At this point, we find our imaginary human actors scattered across the world’s continents, beginning to farm their own crops and raise their own herds. Whatever the local reasons (they are debated), the effects are momentous, and basically the same everywhere. Territorial attachments and private ownership of property become important in ways previously unknown, and with them, sporadic feuds and war. Farming grants a surplus of food, which allows some to accumulate wealth and influence beyond their immediate kin-group. Others use their freedom from the food-quest to develop new skills, like the invention of more sophisticated weapons, tools, vehicles, and fortifications, or the pursuit of politics and organised religion. In consequence, these ‘Neolithic farmers’ quickly get the measure of their hunter-gatherer neighbours, and set about eliminating or absorbing them into a new and superior – albeit less equal – way of life.

To make matters more difficult still, or so the story goes, farming ensures a global rise in population levels. As people move into ever-larger concentrations, our unwitting ancestors take another irreversible step to inequality, and around 6,000 years ago, cities appear – and our fate is sealed. With cities comes the need for centralised government. New classes of bureaucrats, priests, and warrior-politicians install themselves in permanent office to keep order and ensure the smooth flow of supplies and public services. Women, having once enjoyed prominent roles in human affairs, are sequestered, or imprisoned in harems. War captives are reduced to slaves. Full-blown inequality has arrived, and there is no getting rid of it. Still, the story-tellers always assure us, not everything about the rise of urban civilization is bad. Writing is invented, at first to keep state accounts, but this allows terrific advances to take place in science, technology, and the arts. At the price of innocence, we became our modern selves, and can now merely gaze with pity and jealousy at those few ‘traditional’ or ‘primitive’ societies that somehow missed the boat.

This is the story that, as we say, forms the foundation of all contemporary debate on inequality. If say, an expert in international relations, or a clinical psychologist, wishes to reflect on such matters, they are likely to simply take it for granted that, for most of human history, we lived in tiny egalitarian bands, or that the rise of cities also meant the rise of the state. The same is true of most recent books that try to look at the broad sweep of prehistory, in order to draw political conclusions relevant to contemporary life. Consider Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution:

In its early stages, human political organization is similar to the band-level society observed in higher primates like chimpanzees. This may be regarded as a default form of social organization. … Rousseau pointed out that the origin of political inequality lay in the development of agriculture, and in this he was largely correct. Since band-level societies are preagricultural, there is no private property in any modern sense. Like chimp bands, hunter-gatherers inhabit a territorial range that they guard and occasionally fight over. But they have a lesser incentive than agriculturalists to mark out a piece of land and say ‘this is mine’. If their territory is invaded by another group, or if it is infiltrated by dangerous predators, band-level societies may have the option of simply moving somewhere else due to low population densities. Band-level societies are highly egalitarian … Leadership is vested in individuals based on qualities like strength, intelligence, and trustworthiness, but it tends to migrate from one individual to another.

Jared Diamond, in World Before Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, suggests such bands (in which he believes humans still lived ‘as recently as 11,000 years ago’) comprised ‘just a few dozen individuals’, most biologically related. They led a fairly meagre existence, ‘hunting and gathering whatever wild animal and plant species happen to live in an acre of forest’. (Why just an acre, he never explains). And their social lives, according to Diamond, were enviably simple. Decisions were reached through ‘face-to-face discussion’; there were ‘few personal possessions’, and ‘no formal political leadership or strong economic specialization’. Diamond concludes that, sadly, it is only within such primordial groupings that humans have ever achieved a significant degree of social equality.

For Diamond and Fukuyama, as for Rousseau some centuries earlier, what put an end to that equality – everywhere and forever – was the invention of agriculture and the higher population levels it sustained. Agriculture brought about a transition from ‘bands’ to ‘tribes’. Accumulation of food surplus fed population growth, leading some ‘tribes’ to develop into ranked societies known as ‘chiefdoms’. Fukuyama paints an almost biblical picture, a departure from Eden: ‘As little bands of human beings migrated and adapted to different environments, they began their exit out of the state of nature by developing new social institutions’. They fought wars over resources. Gangly and pubescent, these societies were headed for trouble.

It was time to grow up, time to appoint some proper leadership. Before long, chiefs had declared themselves kings, even emperors. There was no point in resisting. All this was inevitable once humans adopted large, complex forms of organization. Even when the leaders began acting badly – creaming off agricultural surplus to promote their flunkies and relatives, making status permanent and hereditary, collecting trophy skulls and harems of slave-girls, or tearing out rival’s hearts with obsidian knives – there could be no going back. ‘Large populations’, Diamond opines, ‘can’t function without leaders who make the decisions, executives who carry out the decisions, and bureaucrats who administer the decisions and laws. Alas for all of you readers who are anarchists and dream of living without any state government, those are the reasons why your dream is unrealistic: you’ll have to find some tiny band or tribe willing to accept you, where no one is a stranger, and where kings, presidents, and bureaucrats are unnecessary’.

A dismal conclusion, not just for anarchists, but for anybody who ever wondered if there might be some viable alternative to the status quo. But the remarkable thing is that, despite the smug tone, such pronouncements are not actually based on any kind of scientific evidence. There is no reason to believe that small-scale groups are especially likely to be egalitarian, or that large ones must necessarily have kings, presidents, or bureaucracies. These are just prejudices stated as facts.

In the case of Fukuyama and Diamond one can, at least, note they were never trained in the relevant disciplines (the first is a political scientist, the other has a PhD on the physiology of the gall bladder). Still, even when anthropologists and archaeologists try their hand at ‘big picture’ narratives, they have an odd tendency to end up with some similarly minor variation on Rousseau. In The Creation of Inequality: How our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire, Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, two eminently qualified scholars, lay out some five hundred pages of ethnographic and archaeological case studies to try and solve the puzzle. They admit our Ice Age forbears were not entirely unfamiliar with institutions of hierarchy and servitude, but insist they experienced these mainly in their dealings with the supernatural (ancestral spirits, and the like). The invention of farming, they propose, led to the emergence of demographically extended ‘clans’ or ‘descent groups’, and as it did so, access to spirits and the dead became a route to earthly power (how, exactly, is not made clear). According to Flannery and Marcus, the next major step on the road to inequality came when certain clansmen of unusual talent or renown – expert healers, warriors, and other over-achievers – were granted the right to transmit status to their descendants, regardless of the latter’s talents or abilities. That pretty much sowed the seeds, and meant from then on, it was just a matter of time before the arrival of cities, monarchy, slavery and empire.

The curious thing about Flannery and Marcus’ book is that only with the birth of states and empires do they really bring in any archaeological evidence. All the really key moments in their account of the ‘creation of inequality’ rely instead on relatively recent descriptions of small-scale foragers, herders, and cultivators like the Hadza of the East African Rift, or Nambikwara of the Amazonian rainforest. Accounts of such ‘traditional societies’ are treated as if they were windows onto the Palaeolithic or Neolithic past. The problem is that they are nothing of the kind. The Hadza or Nambikwara are not living fossils. They have been in contact with agrarian states and empires, raiders and traders, for millennia, and their social institutions were decisively shaped through attempts to engage with, or avoid them. Only archaeology can tell us what, if anything, they have in common with prehistoric societies. So, while Flannery and Marcus provide all sorts of interesting insights into how inequalities might emerge in human societies, they give us little reason to believe that this was how they actually did.

Finally, let us consider Ian Morris’s Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve. Morris is pursuing a slightly different intellectual project: to bring the findings of archaeology, ancient history, and anthropology into dialogue with the work of economists, such as Thomas Piketty on the causes of inequality in the modern world, or Sir Tony Atkinson’s more policy-oriented Inequality: What can be Done? The ‘deep time’ of human history, Morris informs us, has something important to tell us about such questions – but only if we first establish a uniform measure of inequality applicable across its entire span. This he achieves by translating the ‘values’ of Ice Age hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers into terms familiar to modern-day economists, and then using those to establish Gini coefficients, or formal inequality rates. Instead of the spiritual inequities that Flannery and Marcus highlight, Morris gives us an unapologetically materialist view, dividing human history into the three big ‘Fs’ of his title, depending on how they channel heat. All societies, he suggests, have an ‘optimal’ level of social inequality – a built-in ‘spirit-level’ to use Pickett and Wilkinson’s term – that is appropriate to their prevailing mode of energy extraction.

In a 2015 piece for the New York Times Morris actually gives us numbers, quantified primordial incomes in USD and fixed to 1990 currency values.1 He too assumes that hunter-gatherers of the last Ice Age lived mostly in tiny mobile bands. As a result, they consumed very little, the equivalent, he suggests, of about $1.10/day. Consequently, they also enjoyed a Gini coefficient of around 0.25 – that is, about as low as such rates can go – since there was little surplus or capital for any would-be elite to grab. Agrarian societies – and for Morris this includes everything from the 9,000-year-old Neolithic village of Çatalhöyük to Kublai Khan’s China or the France of Louis XIV – were more populous and better off, with an average consumption of $1.50-$2.20/day per person, and a propensity to accumulate surpluses of wealth. But most people also worked harder, and under markedly inferior conditions, so farming societies tended towards much higher levels of inequality.

Fossil-fuelled societies should really have changed all that by liberating us from the drudgery of manual work, and bringing us back towards more reasonable Gini coefficients, closer to those of our hunter-forager ancestors – and for a while it seemed like this was beginning to happen, but for some odd reason, which Morris doesn’t completely understand, matters have gone into reverse again and wealth is once again sucked up into the hands of a tiny global elite:

If the twists and turns of economic history over the last 15,000 years and popular will are any guide, the ‘right’ level of post-tax income inequality seems to lie between about 0.25 and 0.35, and that of wealth inequality between about 0.70 and 0.80. Many countries are now at or above the upper bounds of these ranges, which suggests that Mr. Piketty is indeed right to foresee trouble.

Some major technocratic tinkering is clearly in order!

Let us leave Morris’ prescriptions aside but just focus on one figure: the Palaeolithic income of $1.10 a day. Where exactly does it come from? Presumably the calculations have something to do with the calorific value of daily food intake. But if we’re comparing this to daily incomes today, wouldn’t we also have to factor in all the other things Palaeolithic foragers got for free, but which we ourselves would expect to pay for: free security, free dispute resolution, free primary education, free care of the elderly, free medicine, not to mention entertainment costs, music, storytelling, and religious services? Even when it comes to food, we must consider quality: after all, we’re talking about 100% organic free-range produce here, washed down with purest natural spring water. Much contemporary income goes to mortgages and rents. But consider the camping fees for prime Palaeolithic locations along the Dordogne or the Vézère, not to mention the high-end evening classes in naturalistic rock painting and ivory carving – and all those fur coats. Surely all this must cost wildly in excess of $1.10/day, even in 1990 dollars. It’s not for nothing that Marshall Sahlins referred to foragers as ‘the original affluent society.’ Such a life today would not come cheap.

This is all admittedly a bit silly, but that’s kind of our point: if one reduces world history to Gini coefficients, silly things will, necessarily, follow. Also depressing ones. Morris at least feels something is askew with the recent galloping increases of global inequality. By contrast, historian Walter Scheidel has taken Piketty-style readings of human history to their ultimate miserable conclusion in his 2017 book The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, concluding there’s really nothing we can do about inequality. Civilization invariably puts in charge a small elite who grab more and more of the pie. The only thing that has ever been successful in dislodging them is catastrophe: war, plague, mass conscription, wholesale suffering and death. Half measures never work. So, if you don’t want to go back to living in a cave, or die in a nuclear holocaust (which presumably also ends up with the survivors living in caves), you’re going to just have to accept the existence of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

The liberal alternative? Flannery and Marcus, who openly identify with the tradition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, end their survey with the following helpful suggestion:

We once broached this subject with Scotty MacNeish, an archaeologist who had spent 40 years studying social evolution. How, we wondered, could society be made more egalitarian? After briefly consulting his old friend Jack Daniels, MacNeish replied, ‘Put hunters and gatherers in charge.’

3. But did we really run headlong for our chains?

The really odd thing about these endless evocations of Rousseau’s innocent State of Nature, and the fall from grace, is that Rousseau himself never claimed the State of Nature really happened. It was all a thought-experiment. In his Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind (1754), where most of the story we’ve been telling (and retelling) originates, he wrote:

… the researches, in which we may engage on this occasion, are not to be taken for historical truths, but merely as hypothetical and conditional reasonings, fitter to illustrate the nature of things, than to show their true origin.

Rousseau’s ‘State of Nature’ was never intended as a stage of development. It was not supposed to be an equivalent to the phase of ‘Savagery’, which opens the evolutionary schemes of Scottish philosophers such as Adam Smith, Ferguson, Millar, or later, Lewis Henry Morgan. These others were interested in defining levels of social and moral development, corresponding to historical changes in modes of production: foraging, pastoralism, farming, industry. What Rousseau presented is, by contrast, more of a parable. As emphasised by Judith Shklar, the renowned Harvard political theorist, Rousseau was really trying to explore what he considered the fundamental paradox of human politics: that our innate drive for freedom somehow leads us, time and again, on a ‘spontaneous march to inequality’. In Rousseau’s own words: ‘All ran headlong for their chains in the belief that they were securing their liberty; for although they had enough reason to see the advantages of political institutions, they did not have enough experience to foresee the dangers’. The imaginary State of Nature is just a way of illustrating the point.

Rousseau wasn’t a fatalist. What humans make, he believed, they could unmake. We could free ourselves from the chains; it just wasn’t going to be easy. Shklar suggests that the tension between ‘possibility and probability’ (the possibility of human emancipation, the likelihood we’ll all just place ourselves in some form of voluntary servitude again) was the central animating force of Rousseau’s writings on inequality. All this might seem a bit ironic since, after the French Revolution, many conservative critics held Rousseau personally responsible for the guillotine. What brought the Terror, they insisted, was precisely his naive faith in the innate goodness of humanity, and his belief that a more equal social order could simply be imagined by intellectuals and then imposed by the ‘general will’. But very few of those past figures now pilloried as romantics and utopians were really so naive. Karl Marx, for instance, held that what makes us human is our power of imaginative reflection – unlike bees, we imagine the houses we’d like to live in, and only then set about constructing them – but he also believed that one couldn’t just proceed in the same way with society, and try to impose an architect’s model. To do so would be to commit the sin of ‘utopian socialism’, for which he had nothing but contempt. Instead, revolutionaries had to get a sense of the larger structural forces that shaped the course of world history, and take advantage of underlying contradictions: for instance, the fact that individual factory-owners need to stiff their workers to compete, but if all are too successful in doing so, no one will be able to afford what their factories produce. Yet such is the power of two thousand years of scripture, that even when hard-headed realists start talking about the vast sweep of human history, they fall back on some variation of the Garden of Eden – the Fall from Grace (usually, as in Genesis, owing to an unwise pursuit of Knowledge); the possibility of future Redemption. Marxist political parties quickly developed their own version of the story, fusing together Rousseau’s State of Nature and the Scottish Enlightenment idea of developmental stages. The result was a formula for world history that began with original ‘primitive communism’, overcome by the dawn of private property, but someday destined to return.

We must conclude that revolutionaries, for all their visionary ideals, have not tended to be particularly imaginative, especially when it comes to linking past, present, and future. Everyone keeps telling the same story. It’s probably no coincidence that today, the most vital and creative revolutionary movements at the dawn of this new millennium – the Zapatistas of Chiapas, and Kurds of Rojava being only the most obvious examples – are those that simultaneously root themselves in a deep traditional past. Instead of imagining some primordial utopia, they can draw on a more mixed and complicated narrative. Indeed, there seems to be a growing recognition, in revolutionary circles, that freedom, tradition, and the imagination have always, and will always be entangled, in ways we do not completely understand. It’s about time the rest of us catch up, and start to consider what a non-Biblical version of human history might be like.

4. How the course of (past) history can now change

So, what has archaeological and anthropological research really taught us, since the time of Rousseau?

Well, the first thing is that asking about the ‘origins of social inequality’ is probably the wrong place to start. True, before the beginning of what’s called the Upper Palaeolithic we really have no idea what most human social life was like. Much of our evidence comprises scattered fragments of worked stone, bone, and a few other durable materials. Different hominin species coexisted; it’s not clear if any ethnographic analogy might apply. Things only begin to come into any kind of focus in the Upper Palaeolithic itself, which begins around 45,000 years ago, and encompasses the peak of glaciation and global cooling (c. 20,000 years ago) known as the Last Glacial Maximum. This last great Ice Age was then followed by the onset of warmer conditions and gradual retreat of the ice sheets, leading to our current geological epoch, the Holocene. More clement conditions followed, creating the stage on which Homo sapiens – having already colonised much of the Old World – completed its march into the New, reaching the southern shores of the Americas by around 15,000 years ago.

So, what do we actually know about this period of human history? Much of the earliest substantial evidence for human social organisation in the Palaeolithic derives from Europe, where our species became established alongside Homo neanderthalensis, prior to the latter’s extinction around 40,000 BC. (The concentration of data in this part of the world most likely reflects a historical bias of archaeological investigation, rather than anything unusual about Europe itself). At that time, and through the Last Glacial Maximum, the habitable parts of Ice Age Europe looked more like Serengeti Park in Tanzania than any present-day European habitat. South of the ice sheets, between the tundra and the forested shorelines of the Mediterranean, the continent was divided into game-rich valleys and steppe, seasonally traversed by migrating herds of deer, bison, and woolly mammoth. Prehistorians have pointed out for some decades – to little apparent effect – that the human groups inhabiting these environments had nothing in common with those blissfully simple, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers, still routinely imagined to be our remote ancestors.

To begin with, there is the undisputed existence of rich burials, extending back in time to the depths of the Ice Age. Some of these, such as the 25,000-year-old graves from Sungir, east of Moscow, have been known for many decades and are justly famous. Felipe Fernández-Armesto, who reviewed Creation of Inequality for The Wall Street Journal,2 expresses his reasonable amazement at their omission: ‘Though they know that the hereditary principle predated agriculture, Mr. Flannery and Ms. Marcus cannot quite shed the Rousseauian illusion that it started with sedentary life. Therefore they depict a world without inherited power until about 15,000 B.C. while ignoring one of the most important archaeological sites for their purpose’. For dug into the permafrost beneath the Palaeolithic settlement at Sungir was the grave of a middle-aged man buried, as Fernández-Armesto observes, with ‘stunning signs of honor: bracelets of polished mammoth-ivory, a diadem or cap of fox’s teeth, and nearly 3,000 laboriously carved and polished ivory beads’. And a few feet away, in an identical grave, ‘lay two children, of about 10 and 13 years respectively, adorned with comparable grave-gifts – including, in the case of the elder, some 5,000 beads as fine as the adult’s (although slightly smaller) and a massive lance carved from ivory’.


Upper Paleolithic burial site at Sungir, Russia. Source: Wiki Commons

Such findings appear to have no significant place in any of the books so far considered. Downplaying them, or reducing them to footnotes, might be more easy to forgive were Sungir an isolated find. It is not. Comparably rich burials are by now attested from Upper Palaeolithic rock shelters and open-air settlements across much of western Eurasia, from the Don to the Dordogne. Among them we find, for example, the 16,000-year-old ‘Lady of Saint-Germain-la-Rivière’, bedecked with ornaments made on the teeth of young stags hunted 300 km away, in the Spanish Basque country; and the burials of the Ligurian coast – as ancient as Sungir – including ‘Il Principe’, a young man whose regalia included a sceptre of exotic flint, elk antler batons, and an ornate headdress of perforated shells and deer teeth. Such findings pose stimulating challenges of interpretation. Is Fernández-Armesto right to say these are proofs of ‘inherited power’? What was the status of such individuals in life?

No less intriguing is the sporadic but compelling evidence for monumental architecture, stretching back to the Last Glacial Maximum. The idea that one could measure ‘monumentality’ in absolute terms is of course as silly as the idea of quantifying Ice Age expenditure in dollars and cents. It is a relative concept, which makes sense only within a particular scale of values and prior experiences. The Pleistocene has no direct equivalents in scale to the Pyramids of Giza or the Roman Colloseum. But it does have buildings that, by the standards of the time, could only have been considered public works, implying sophisticated design and the coordination of labour on an impressive scale. Among them are the startling ‘mammoth houses’, built of hides stretched over a frame of tusks, examples of which – dating to around 15,000 years ago – can be found along a transect of the glacial fringe reaching from modern-day Kraków all the way to Kiev.

Still more astonishing are the stone temples of Göbekli Tepe, excavated over twenty years ago on the Turkish-Syrian border, and still the subject of vociferous scientific debate. Dating to around 11,000 years ago, the very end of the last Ice Age, they comprise at least twenty megalithic enclosures raised high above the now-barren flanks of the Harran Plain. Each was made up of limestone pillars over 5m in height and weighing up to a ton (respectable by Stonehenge standards, and some 6,000 years before it). Almost every pillar at Göbekli Tepe is a remarkable work of art, with relief carvings of menacing animals projecting from the surface, their male genitalia fiercely displayed. Sculpted raptors appear in combination with images of severed human heads. The carvings attest to sculptural skills, no doubt honed in the more pliable medium of wood (once widely available on the foothills of the Taurus Mountains), before being applied to the bedrock of the Harran. Intriguingly, and despite their size, each of these massive structures had a relatively short lifespan, ending with a great feast and the rapid infilling of its walls: hierarchies raised to the sky, only to be swiftly torn down again. And the protagonists in this prehistoric pageant-play of feasting, building, and destruction were, to the best of our knowledge, hunter-foragers, living by wild resources alone.

The excavations at Göbekli Tepe. Source: Flickr

What, then, are we to make of all of this? One scholarly response has been to abandon the idea of an egalitarian Golden Age entirely, and conclude that rational self-interest and accumulation of power are the enduring forces behind human social development. But this doesn’t really work either. Evidence for institutional inequality in Ice Age societies, whether in the form of grand burials or monumental buildings, is nothing if not sporadic. Burials appear literally centuries, and often hundreds of kilometres, apart. Even if we put this down to the patchiness of the evidence, we still have to ask why the evidence is so patchy: after all, if any of these Ice Age ‘princes’ had behaved anything like, say, Bronze Age princes, we’d also be finding fortifications, storehouses, palaces – all the usual trappings of emergent states. Instead, over tens of thousands of years, we see monuments and magnificent burials, but little else to indicate the growth of ranked societies. Then there are other, even stranger factors, such as the fact that most of the ‘princely’ burials consist of individuals with striking physical anomalies, who today would be considered giants, hunchbacks, or dwarfs.

A wider look at the archaeological evidence suggests a key to resolving the dilemma. It lies in the seasonal rhythms of prehistoric social life. Most of the Palaeolithic sites discussed so far are associated with evidence for annual or biennial periods of aggregation, linked to the migrations of game herds – whether woolly mammoth, steppe bison, reindeer or (in the case of Göbekli Tepe) gazelle – as well as cyclical fish-runs and nut harvests. At less favourable times of year, at least some of our Ice Age ancestors no doubt really did live and forage in tiny bands. But there is overwhelming evidence to show that at others they congregated en masse within the kind of ‘micro-cities’ found at Dolní Věstonice, in the Moravian basin south of Brno, feasting on a super-abundance of wild resources, engaging in complex rituals, ambitious artistic enterprises, and trading minerals, marine shells, and animal pelts over striking distances. Western European equivalents of these seasonal aggregation sites would be the great rock shelters of the French Périgord and the Cantabrian coast, with their famous paintings and carvings, which similarly formed part of an annual round of congregation and dispersal.

Such seasonal patterns of social life endured, long after the ‘invention of agriculture’ is supposed to have changed everything. New evidence shows that alternations of this kind may be key to understanding the famous Neolithic monuments of Salisbury Plain, and not just in terms of calendric symbolism. Stonehenge, it turns out, was only the latest in a very long sequence of ritual structures, erected in timber as well as stone, as people converged on the plain from remote corners of the British Isles, at significant times of year. Careful excavation has shown that many of these structures – now plausibly interpreted as monuments to the progenitors of powerful Neolithic dynasties – were dismantled just a few generations after their construction. Still more strikingly, this practice of erecting and dismantling grand monuments coincides with a period when the peoples of Britain, having adopted the Neolithic farming economy from continental Europe, appear to have turned their backs on at least one crucial aspect of it, abandoning cereal farming and reverting – around 3300 BC – to the collection of hazelnuts as a staple food source. Keeping their herds of cattle, on which they feasted seasonally at nearby Durrington Walls, the builders of Stonehenge seem likely to have been neither foragers nor farmers, but something in between. And if anything like a royal court did hold sway in the festive season, when they gathered in great numbers, then it could only have dissolved away for most of the year, when the same people scattered back out across the island.

Why are these seasonal variations important? Because they reveal that from the very beginning, human beings were self-consciously experimenting with different social possibilities. Anthropologists describe societies of this sort as possessing a ‘double morphology’. Marcel Mauss, writing in the early twentieth century, observed that the circumpolar Inuit, ‘and likewise many other societies . . . have two social structures, one in summer and one in winter, and that in parallel they have two systems of law and religion’. In the summer months, Inuit dispersed into small patriarchal bands in pursuit of freshwater fish, caribou, and reindeer, each under the authority of a single male elder. Property was possessively marked and patriarchs exercised coercive, sometimes even tyrannical power over their kin. But in the long winter months, when seals and walrus flocked to the Arctic shore, another social structure entirely took over as Inuit gathered together to build great meeting houses of wood, whale-rib, and stone. Within them, the virtues of equality, altruism, and collective life prevailed; wealth was shared; husbands and wives exchanged partners under the aegis of Sedna, the Goddess of the Seals.

Another example were the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Canada’s Northwest Coast, for whom winter – not summer – was the time when society crystallised into its most unequal form, and spectacularly so. Plank-built palaces sprang to life along the coastlines of British Columbia, with hereditary nobles holding court over commoners and slaves, and hosting the great banquets known as potlatch. Yet these aristocratic courts broke apart for the summer work of the fishing season, reverting to smaller clan formations, still ranked, but with an entirely different and less formal structure. In this case, people actually adopted different names in summer and winter, literally becoming someone else, depending on the time of year.

Perhaps most striking, in terms of political reversals, were the seasonal practices of 19th-century tribal confederacies on the American Great Plains – sometime, or one-time farmers who had adopted a nomadic hunting life. In the late summer, small and highly mobile bands of Cheyenne and Lakota would congregate in large settlements to make logistical preparations for the buffalo hunt. At this most sensitive time of year they appointed a police force that exercised full coercive powers, including the right to imprison, whip, or fine any offender who endangered the proceedings. Yet as the anthropologist Robert Lowie observed, this ‘unequivocal authoritarianism’ operated on a strictly seasonal and temporary basis, giving way to more ‘anarchic’ forms of organisation once the hunting season – and the collective rituals that followed – were complete.

Scholarship does not always advance. Sometimes it slides backwards. A hundred years ago, most anthropologists understood that those who live mainly from wild resources were not, normally, restricted to tiny ‘bands.’ That idea is really a product of the 1960s, when Kalahari Bushmen and Mbuti Pygmies became the preferred image of primordial humanity for TV audiences and researchers alike. As a result we’ve seen a return of evolutionary stages, really not all that different from the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment: this is what Fukuyama, for instance, is drawing on, when he writes of society evolving steadily from ‘bands’ to ‘tribes’ to ‘chiefdoms,’ then finally, the kind of complex and stratified ‘states’ we live in today – usually defined by their monopoly of ‘the legitimate use of coercive force.’ By this logic, however, the Cheyenne or Lakota would have had to be ‘evolving’ from bands directly to states roughly every November, and then ‘devolving’ back again come spring. Most anthropologists now recognise that these categories are hopelessly inadequate, yet nobody has proposed an alternative way of thinking about world history in the broadest terms.

Quite independently, archaeological evidence suggests that in the highly seasonal environments of the last Ice Age, our remote ancestors were behaving in broadly similar ways: shifting back and forth between alternative social arrangements, permitting the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of year, on the proviso that they could not last; on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable. Within the same population, one could live sometimes in what looks, from a distance, like a band, sometimes a tribe, and sometimes a society with many of the features we now identify with states. With such institutional flexibility comes the capacity to step outside the boundaries of any given social structure and reflect; to both make and unmake the political worlds we live in. If nothing else, this explains the ‘princes’ and ‘princesses’ of the last Ice Age, who appear to show up, in such magnificent isolation, like characters in some kind of fairy-tale or costume drama. Maybe they were almost literally so. If they reigned at all, then perhaps it was, like the kings and queens of Stonehenge, just for a season.

5. Time for a re-think

Modern authors have a tendency to use prehistory as a canvas for working out philosophical problems: are humans fundamentally good or evil, cooperative or competitive, egalitarian or hierarchical? As a result, they also tend to write as if for 95% of our species history, human societies were all much the same. But even 40,000 years is a very, very long period of time. It seems inherently likely, and the evidence confirms, that those same pioneering humans who colonised much of the planet also experimented with an enormous variety of social arrangements. As Claude Lévi-Strauss often pointed out, early Homo sapiens were not just physically the same as modern humans, they were our intellectual peers as well. In fact, most were probably more conscious of society’s potential than people generally are today, switching back and forth between different forms of organization every year. Rather than idling in some primordial innocence, until the genie of inequality was somehow uncorked, our prehistoric ancestors seem to have successfully opened and shut the bottle on a regular basis, confining inequality to ritual costume dramas, constructing gods and kingdoms as they did their monuments, then cheerfully disassembling them once again.

If so, then the real question is not ‘what are the origins of social inequality?’, but, having lived so much of our history moving back and forth between different political systems, ‘how did we get so stuck?’ All this is very far from the notion of prehistoric societies drifting blindly towards the institutional chains that bind them. It is also far from the dismal prophecies of Fukuyama, Diamond, Morris, and Scheidel, where any ‘complex’ form of social organization necessary means that tiny elites take charge of key resources, and begin to trample everyone else underfoot. Most social science treats these grim prognostications as self-evident truths. But clearly, they are baseless. So, we might reasonably ask, what other cherished truths must now be cast on the dust-heap of history?

Quite a number, actually. Back in the ‘70s, the brilliant Cambridge archaeologist David Clarke predicted that, with modern research, almost every aspect of the old edifice of human evolution, ‘the explanations of the development of modern man, domestication, metallurgy, urbanization and civilisation – may in perspective emerge as semantic snares and metaphysical mirages.’ It appears he was right. Information is now pouring in from every quarter of the globe, based on careful empirical fieldwork, advanced techniques of climatic reconstruction, chronometric dating, and scientific analyses of organic remains. Researchers are examining ethnographic and historical material in a new light. And almost all of this new research goes against the familiar narrative of world history. Still, the most remarkable discoveries remain confined to the work of specialists, or have to be teased out by reading between the lines of scientific publications. Let us conclude, then, with a few headlines of our own: just a handful, to give a sense of what the new, emerging world history is starting to look like.

The first bombshell on our list concerns the origins and spread of agriculture. There is no longer any support for the view that it marked a major transition in human societies. In those parts of the world where animals and plants were first domesticated, there actually was no discernible ‘switch’ from Palaeolithic Forager to Neolithic Farmer. The ‘transition’ from living mainly on wild resources to a life based on food production typically took something in the order of three thousand years. While agriculture allowed for the possibility of more unequal concentrations of wealth, in most cases this only began to happen millennia after its inception. In the time between, people in areas as far removed as Amazonia and the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East were trying farming on for size, ‘play farming’ if you like, switching annually between modes of production, much as they switched their social structures back and forth. Moreover, the ‘spread of farming’ to secondary areas, such as Europe – so often described in triumphalist terms, as the start of an inevitable decline in hunting and gathering – turns out to have been a highly tenuous process, which sometimes failed, leading to demographic collapse for the farmers, not the foragers.

Clearly, it no longer makes any sense to use phrases like ‘the agricultural revolution’ when dealing with processes of such inordinate length and complexity. Since there was no Eden-like state, from which the first farmers could take their first steps on the road to inequality, it makes even less sense to talk about agriculture as marking the origins of rank or private property. If anything, it is among those populations – the ‘Mesolithic’ peoples – who refused farming through the warming centuries of the early Holocene, that we find stratification becoming more entrenched; at least, if opulent burial, predatory warfare, and monumental buildings are anything to go by. In at least some cases, like the Middle East, the first farmers seem to have consciously developed alternative forms of community, to go along with their more labour-intensive way of life. These Neolithic societies look strikingly egalitarian when compared to their hunter-gatherer neighbours, with a dramatic increase in the economic and social importance of women, clearly reflected in their art and ritual life (contrast here the female figurines of Jericho or Çatalhöyük with the hyper-masculine sculpture of Göbekli Tepe).

Another bombshell: ‘civilization’ does not come as a package. The world’s first cities did not just emerge in a handful of locations, together with systems of centralised government and bureaucratic control. In China, for instance, we are now aware that by 2500 BC, settlements of 300 hectares or more existed on the lower reaches of the Yellow River, over a thousand years before the foundation of the earliest (Shang) royal dynasty. On the other side of the Pacific, and at around the same time, ceremonial centres of striking magnitude have been discovered in the valley of Peru’s Río Supe, notably at the site of Caral: enigmatic remains of sunken plazas and monumental platforms, four millennia older than the Inca Empire. Such recent discoveries indicate how little is yet truly known about the distribution and origin of the first cities, and just how much older these cities may be than the systems of authoritarian government and literate administration that were once assumed necessary for their foundation. And in the more established heartlands of urbanisation – Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, the Basin of Mexico – there is mounting evidence that the first cities were organised on self-consciously egalitarian lines, municipal councils retaining significant autonomy from central government. In the first two cases, cities with sophisticated civic infrastructures flourished for over half a millennium with no trace of royal burials or monuments, no standing armies or other means of large-scale coercion, nor any hint of direct bureaucratic control over most citizen’s lives.

Jared Diamond notwithstanding, there is absolutely no evidence that top-down structures of rule are the necessary consequence of large-scale organization. Walter Scheidel notwithstanding, it is simply not true that ruling classes, once established, cannot be gotten rid of except by general catastrophe. To take just one well-documented example: around 200 AD, the city of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico, with a population of 120,000 (one of the largest in the world at the time), appears to have undergone a profound transformation, turning its back on pyramid-temples and human sacrifice, and reconstructing itself as a vast collection of comfortable villas, all almost exactly the same size. It remained so for perhaps 400 years. Even in Cortés’ day, Central Mexico was still home to cities like Tlaxcala, run by an elected council whose members were periodically whipped by their constituents to remind them who was ultimately in charge.

The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history. For the most part, we’re just too blinded by our prejudices to see the implications. For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.


Watch the authors discuss some of the issues raised in this essay in the following videos:

1. David Graeber and David Wengrow: Palaeolithic Politics and Why It Still Matters (13 October 2015) (Vimeo)
2. David Graeber and David Wengrow: Teach-Out (7 March 2018) (Facebook)
3. David Graeber and David Wengrow: Slavery and Its Rejection Among Foragers on the Pacific Coast of North America: A Case of Schismogenesis? (22 March 2018) (Collège de France)


  1. ‘To Each Age Its Inequality’ by Ian Morris. New York Times, 9 July 2015. See:
  2. ‘It's Good To Have a King’ by Felipe Fernández-Armesto. Wall Street Journal, 10 May 2012. See:

Published 2 March 2018

Original in English
First published in Eurozine

© David Graeber, David Wengrow / Eurozine


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  • johan hendrick

    I thought of a few concepts while reading your words that ring true[noting that we all have divergent origins and that city housing can be filled with casual occupancy as much as a fixed trans-generational resident..
    somewhere there must be a city that was besieged at its core but built around [surrounded] also occurs that but a few builders built most of the housing..that others needing numbers actually built housing +security to retain certain transitory artisans and freeman or opportunist’s.
    .[the thing is its much more than hunter to farmer as you reminded us] but I think oppertuinisticly we were much more mobile and many even banished and or entrapped into a system that suited someone’s immediate needs

  • jansand

    Although I find much of the confrontation of the new knowledge of the historical development of humanity quite reasonable the truly revolutionary development of automatic production of necessities diverges immensely from the previous intimate integration of humanity with the dependence of natural forces. That the tools we conceive and proliferate can gain independence from human requirements and demands is something quite different from previous human social arrangements. It dispenses with the necessities of human interdependence to survive and substitutes as yet undeveloped motivations within technologies that are still not fully understood and probably conflict immensely with the basic functions of human society to the point where humans can become irrelevant. It is an utterly new and completely strange development in civilized dynamics and I have seen little if any sensible analysis of its progressive outcome.

  • Brutalist_Receptacle

    Christ, whatta reactionary!

  • rsm64

    When you describe Gobekli Tepe as “hyper-masculine” I think you are adapting it for the story you want to tell, rather than accurately characterizing Gobekli Tepe culture. There are many bird sculptures with bright, curious, intelligent eyes still visible in the stone. How do you know they are male?

    • David Wengrow

      Thanks for your comment, which raises an interesting question – in the art of Göbekli Tepe, species like lion, aurochs, and boar are shown in attacking pose with (erect) male genitalia, prominently shown, which is highly unusual in early Neolithic (PPN) art of roughly the same period. For instance the animal figurines found in number at early Neolithic village sites almost never have marked sex, and seem mostly concerned with (domestic?) ungulates, not wild species. They are in clay, not stone. Are miniature, not monumental. How do you imagine male sex might be indicated on a carving of a raptor bird, at least in a way we’d be able recognise? The only way I can think of would be by adding a mammalian-type penis to a raptor body – i.e. by the principle of composite figuration, which is something the sculptors of Göbekli Tepe seem studiously to avoid (some further discussion of why composite figures are generally so rare in prehistoric art can be found in my book, ‘The Origins of Monsters’).

      • rsm64

        “in the art of Göbekli Tepe, species like lion, aurochs, and boar are shown in attacking pose with (erect) male genitalia, prominently shown, which is highly unusual in early Neolithic (PPN) art of roughly the same period.”

        I think you are guilty of making sweeping generalizations based on ambiguous data. Most of the animals in the pictures of Gobekli Tepe sculpture are not sexed. Your focus on the ones that are says more about you than about the sculptures.

        “How do you imagine male sex might be indicated on a carving of a raptor bird, at least in a way we’d be able recognise?”

        The sculptors knew birds are hard to sex and included them nevertheless. They weren’t portraying hyper-masculinity with the birds. Look at the dove on the so-called vulture stone: I see a bright, curious, wondrous eye that transcends gender. Why do you ignore the many examples of birds among the sculptures?

        • David Wengrow

          I think you make good points, but remain struck by the contrast (in content and medium) between the images at Gobekli Tepe and those found at broadly contemporary Neolithic sites, especially the gendered aspects. More of head-clasping birds to come in the book – not ignoring them but this particular article was getting quite long, even by Eurozine’s generous standards.

          • Excuse me for chiming in here unsolicited. I’m one of the excavators of Göbekli Tepe and while you’re certainly right that there indeed are animals whose sex is hard (or impossible) to determine (like birds, snakes, scorpions etc.), the majority of mammals depicted with sexual characteristics indeed is male, while clearly female depictions are lacking (there only is one example of a later added graffito obviously depicting a woman).

            The large (up to 5.5 m) central pillars of Emclosure D also may corroborate to this impression. Again sexual characteristics are not depicted – but these anthropomorphic pillars are depicted wearing belts and loincloths which at clay figurines from other sites (a find group not present at Göbekli Tepe actually) usually are reserved to male depictions.

          • rsm64

            I fear you overemphasize genitals and head-clasping, once again revealing more about yourself and your limited imagination. I see realism in the portrayals and I think your samples from other cultures are inadequate to warrant the interpretation you want to force.

            I was bearing my teeth to a squirrel today, thinking of Gobekli Tepe animals. The squirrel looked at me unfazed. He knows me because I feed them daily. What you might interpret as a threatening teeth-baring gesture was not the squirrel’s interpretation. I fear you have lost knowledge of personal relations with animals. I see a kindred spirit of love for animals in Gobekli Tepe sculpture, particularly the bright, knowing eyes of both the vulture and the dove in the “vulture stone”. How does a prominent nonviolent dove with a curious look fit into the “hyper-masculine” agenda you seem so attached to?

            The head-clasping, if those are heads, is likely related to leaving the dead out for animals to scavenge. Once again I relate because I too wish my body dumped in the desert when I die. Like Zoroastrians, or Edward Abbey …

  • Ness Mesileipä

    Very interesting, and makes sense in light of a likely evolutionary past where humans developed in troops, similar perhaps to chimps and gorillas, where set of hierarchies (male and female, for example) and alliances are common, and where the needs of an individual can become frustrated by a hierarchy. Need to be careful though, calling someone a chief or wealthy in context of the time does not imply an inherited status, at least not much longer than the buildings that were constructed and then cheerfully taken down.

  • James

    I don’t think this article makes as strong a case as its rhetoric suggests.

    Most practitioners of the “big history” approach acknowledge that their models are painted in broad strokes. In addition, the authors criticized are writing popular histories, geared toward a mass audience. It’s easy to point to where they’ve left things out. But is the conventional model they describe wrong?

    The authors here complain, for example, that the turn to agriculture was a much longer and more complex transformation than a simple “switch.” I don’t think anyone would disagree. Still, the transformation took place. Not in all places and at all times in the same way, and not without reverses, but it happened.

    Also: to say that earlier societies experimented with different forms of social organization only says that more hierarchical structures didn’t come out of nowhere. This is not surprising, or upsetting. Furthermore, the fact that when social groups got together in larger, less egalitarian structures to perform more complex tasks would seem to support the traditional model for explaining the origins of inequality.

    In short, I don’t see how anything said here points toward “an entirely different world history.” It only suggests that the full story has to take into account some counter evidence and says that things aren’t quite as simple and straightforward as some of the more prominent popularizers have made it out to be in recent bestsellers. But I don’t think there’s anything here that Diamond or Fukuyama or Morris would see as invalidating any of their larger arguments.

    • davidgraeber

      Actually, we don’t say that when foragers got together in larger groups they necessarily became more hierarchical – in some cases we cite (such as the Inuit) we note it was precisely the other way around. What we do say is that there is no correlation between scale and hierarchy. The existence of egalitarian cities is the most dramatic case in point here. As for agriculture, you can’t very well blame agriculture for the rise of social inequality if 1. stratified societies existed before agriculture, 2. early agricultural societies were typically more egalitarian than the non-agricultural ones living nearby, and 3. insofar as states etc emerged out of agricultural societies, it was thousands of years later. To say that agriculture “caused” the state because some agricultural societies did eventually produce states is like saying that the invention of calculus in the Medieval Islamic Caliphate “caused” the nuclear bomb.

      • JuHoansi

        No one is saying agriculture caused social inequality, only that it exacerbated it. I’m not convinced early cities were egalitarian, certainly ancient Sumer wasn’t. Why did all cities eventually become inegalitarian city-states, whereas most egalitarian H-G societies remained egalitarian? Are there any egalitarian hunter gatherer societies that transformed straight into states without adopting agriculture first?

        • davidgraeber

          I’m not sure why I’m replying to someone who reads sentences that say “many early cities were robustly egalitarian” and acts as if they said “all early cities were robustly egalitarian” but actually, during the first millennium or so of Sumerian civilization you don’t find palaces or temples or royal burials etc but vast meeting halls etc. The hierarchical stuff comes later.

          There are actually foragers who created kingdoms (the Calusa is an oft-cited example), whether you can call them “states” depends on your definition. Others had aristocrats and slaves. But again you miss the point of my calculus example.

          • lemppu

            But why did they end up into hierarchical stuff?

          • Borjan Zarevski

            They did not. They abandoned their cities. Climatic changes? Perhaps…

          • Borjan Zarevski

            First cities / stone build settlements didn’t have defense walls. Some, later on, (Mohanjo Daro), didn’t have palaces or rich burials and tombs – sign of societal stratification. They did have standardized weights, or construction style, shared across quite large territories where other cities were built. So, we can speak about non-hierarchical civilization. 200 000 inhabitants, probably.

      • James Harris

        I think you’re over emphasizing the term “cause” then. The nuclear bomb could not have existed without calculus. When answering your question of “how we got stuck” agriculture is an important development in that regards. This doesn’t fit your optimistic view, but it could very well be possible that various structures all reduce risk towards a hierarchy and thus over time we get more and more stuck. This probalistic approach would then account for those that slipped through the cracks at times.

        • Borjan Zarevski

          It is not agriculture per se. It is not sedentary style. It is about hereditary accumulation of “whatever” goods. Land, seeds, abstract or symbolical. About exclusive access to them

  • Don

    It appears that the basic argument is that where social relations are flexible or vary on a yearly cycle in a fission-fusion pattern there is more equality, and there where social relations are more fixed, such as within the nuclear family there is less equality. If so, where even the closest social relations are subject to some pattern of fission – fusion we should find more equality. Such as the pattern of many Western households where there is a daily fission of dispersal to work and school, and then a fusion of returning home. Is this so?

    • davidgraeber

      you know to be honest I hadn’t even thought of it that way! That’s interesting. Will reflect on the point.

    • fred

      Do you think that it means that egalitarian societies are the ones who promote empathy thanks to more change. You can think about being someone else because you can actually become someone else. So the more there are changes in the society, the more you approcah the “veil of ignorance” society in which you care about others because you could be in their situations? I wonder also how egalitarian societies relate to money or the mana from Mauss as if everyone can have the money or the mana (as suggested by positive money, qe for the people, universal income) whreas in rentiers societies with money or mana for the few and not the many (bank money creation oligopolies or mana given only to kings), you would have an inegaliterian society.

      • David Wengrow

        Yes – a good example is cases where police service rotates among the general populace (e.g. Great Plains), so the manner in which police exercise force is tempered by the fact that next year those same individuals will be ordinary civilians, on the receiving end of things.

    • dilgreen

      Another thought is that the family (I must admit, as a non-specialist in this area, using the word across such vast swathes of history feels decidedly risky), is the social structure which has the strongest inbuilt inequality that is unavoidable – that due to age.
      It is in the family, of course, where non-productive babies and elders are cared for (also sick people in many early arrangements, I imagine).
      Further (and I’m really on uncertain ground here), societies with lower technical capacity presumably experienced food and disease-related disasters more intensely – and one gathers often made more ‘pragmatic’ decisions about who would live, and who would die in such circumstances, with less productive and low ‘sunk-cost’ individuals often being sacrificed to necessity.
      These choices represent ultimate, and irretrievable inequality, followed by unavoidable intimate contact with the individuals who made the decisions.

    • Borjan Zarevski

      There are egalitarian nuclear families. Children inherit the property of their parents in equal parts, independently of their order of birth or their sex. Parents doesn’t intervene considering the marital or professional choices. On specific territory, the type of statistically dominant type of family has a strong influence on contemporary political outcomes. Emmanuel Todd wrote couple of thousands pages about it.

      • Don

        Not familiar with Todd. In relation to the point of the article it would be interesting to know to what degree he ascribed the equality to a fission – fusion, or dispersal – aggregation pattern.

        • Borjan Zarevski

          As far as I remember, in those egalitarian nuclear families, fusion is not applied on the property that has to remain as a whole, or getting bigger by alliances. Property is submitted to fission. There is a displacement of the idea of prosperity or “risk aversion”.

  • Al_de_Baran

    The axe is grinding visibly here, which is fine–I’d rather see sparks than have to listen for dog whistles–but it’s hard not to conclude that the authors are as emotionally invested in their preferred world-view as the so-called Rousseauvian narratives’ proponents are in theirs. For all the authors’ hand-waving about “overwhelming evidence”, there are a a total of two footnotes to this article. Also, the word “seems” appears throughout the piece. So, none of this seems terribly “overwhelming”, to me.

    The simple fact of the matter is that we will never be able to draw firm interpretative conclusions about the social practices of our distant ancestors. At best, we can draw inferences, and odds are those inferences will align with what we would rather believe.

    In any case, if contemporary research and evidence really are overturning our view of the past, then there is no reason to doubt that future research will unearth evidence that calls into question the interpretations that Graeber and Wengrow have made here.

    • davidgraeber

      the footnotes were actually added by the editor – there is indeed overwhelming evidence and it will be cited no doubt to the point of dizziness or even nausea in our upcoming book.

      • Al_de_Baran

        I look forward to it, then. But it couldn’t have hurt to have given a more concrete taste of it here.

        And my point remains regarding the likelihood of future evidence overturning the conclusions stated here as this particular variant of “the elephant in the dark” plays on and on. Granted, it’s a bet on my part, but given my own reading of the “overwhelming evidence” for variable human interpretations dictated mainly by values and personal preferences, it’s one I am happy to take.

        • davidgraeber

          well if the strongest counter-argument you have is “if things change one way they may change another” I’d say we’re doing pretty well.

          however, there are reasons to think a change on the scale we’re talking about here is unlikely. It’s not as if there was once a lot of evidence for the Rousseau position – it was presented as a myth or a parable, and then evidence was organised around it, then ignored or explained away if if it didn’t fit. We didn’t start with a story and looked for evidence, we’re still in the process of figuring out exactly what the evidence indicates – even though we can be pretty sure now what it doesn’t indicate. Knowledge isn’t just a pendulum. There is cumulative understanding as well.

          • Al_de_Baran

            I am not making counter-arguments; I am expressing reservations. I’ll reserve any counter-arguments for when the book with all that overwhelming evidence appears.

            With all due respect, I also remain skeptical that you and your colleague are as disinterested as you claim. One may start with evidence and then frame a story around that. But despite all the good faith and intentions in the world, after a certain tipping point, the serpent has an interesting way of biting its own tail, at which time confirmation bias ensues.

            At a minimum, I hope you understand that I am not hostile to your project, and I welcome thought-provoking and contrarian viewpoints. I simply remain skeptical that there will ever be enough evidence from ancient history to allow firm and unequivocal interpretations of social relationships in ancient communities. But that applies as much to the Rousseauvian narrative as to any other, so I am happy to see it challenged.

          • davidgraeber

            well since we’re not sure what our (positive) conclusions are that biased us in this way, please do summarise them for us.

  • MrB

    On structural violence in gender relations, dominant scholarship is even more wrong than that on social inequality. See:

  • Helga Vierich

    One of the conclusions of the first conference on hunter-gatherers, when studies of over sixty foraging societies were evaluated, was that they tended to have seasonal patterns of aggregation and dispersal, even among the Hadza and the San. So the accounts of small bands (which actually are temporary and fluid camping parties typical of the dispersed phases,) as if these represent the scope of “society” – this fictional “tiny” group, did not come from the established anthropological literature.

    When I did my own fieldwork, under the supervision of Richard B. Lee, and Bruce Schroeder, it took me to a perviously almost unknown group of San who had kept their identity and foraging economy despite being balanced right on the edge of the agro-pastoral Tswana chiefdoms for over 500 years.

    The Kua still had annual cycles of aggregation and dispersal. During aggregations, organizational leadership on a scale much larger than local camping groups emerged, mostly to initiate large scale, healing and ceremonial events, and occasionally to settle disputes. This informal leadership was not a kind f authority stemming from some kind of hereditary hierarchy of “royal” vs commoner lineages, but rather it was based on reputation. People were judged on the basis of at least a few decades of closely observed individual behaviour; people were literally honoured with high rank if their behaviour earned trust. Occasionally I did find that honour attributed to whole family groups, but this was rare and it was certainly not indicative of economic inequality.

    During times of aggregation when many camping parties clustered within a few minutes walk, these trusted people tended to host the bigger gatherings. They often had the largest networks of kin and friends, and in most cases they epitomized the ideals of courage, diligence, generosity, fairness, and honesty… and if they had wit, diplomacy, and talents like story-telling, dancing or musical genius, these were bonuses.

    Therefore, if there has been a mis-characterization of the latent complexity, and of the scale of networking, within hunter-gatherer societies, I doubt that it has happened due to what the actual forager-specialists have been saying. On the other hand, I see an unfortunate confounding of the size of individual networks and group sizes, evoking “Dunbar’s number”; I see similar misunderstanding perpetrated in unfortunate phrases such as that used by EO Wilson: (page 243, The Social Conquest of Earth).

    “Throughout prehistory, as humans evolved their cognitive prowess, the network of each individual was almost identical to that of the group to which he belonged. People lived in scattered bands of a hundred or fewer (thirty was probably a common number). They had knowledge of neighboring bands…but the heart of each individual’s social existence was the band, and the cohesion of the band was kept tight by the binding force of the network it composed…”

    (??? Where did he get this model? It might be from out-dated material presenting human cultural change in terms of unilinear evolution, but it is perplexing: there is an anthropology department right in Wilson’s own university.)

    The individual networks, of each Kua adult, linked them to over a hundred people in thirty to fifty OTHER bands over an area of nearly 8000 square miles! A husband might share less than half of his network of friends and relatives with his own wife. A single band, via all the links among its members, could be linked to every other band, not only in the Kua language group, but even to some bands in neighbouring language groups such as the G/wi and the G//ana. And then there are the further networks via “weak ties” that can waft information, gossip, stories, decorated shells, technical innovations, new songs, and even bad jokes… past six or seven degrees of separation. Is social media today any different?

    Egalitarianism is not so much an economic state – or a political one – as it is a social ideal of fair sharing and no bullying – so weaker and more vulnerable people are neither overlooked nor disrespected. This kind of behavioural ideal – as well as the other individual qualities that lead to a good reputation – and achieved rank – are hardly limited to tiny groups – they scale up very well, and ideals about fairness, honesty, and integrity can be found even in the most complex industrial societies. In fact, are these not the personal attributes sought after – or at least attributed to – those who seek leadership in almost every society?

    So it is not the “kind” of economy that makes a difference, it is the degree to which “egalitarian” ideals like the Golden Rule are followed in practice. And this is closely related to the effectiveness of social controls over use of force, threat, bribery, and dishonesty to obtain influence and power.

    It is not even the creation of private property so much, as the disengagement of such social controls that permitted the loss of shared responsibility for community welfare. It was also the disengagement of social controls that opened community commons to over-exploitation. Elinor Ostrom and Robert McC Netting both documented the way small scale farm-hold tenure was combined with rules preventing over-exploitation of the forests and pastures of community commons. Ask yourself, then, if it was not the domestication of plants and animals, if it was not “agriculture”, if it was not “private property” (as Rousseau thought), what was it that led to inegalitarian injustice in human societies?

    And remember, there are lots of reasons someone might be honoured in death.

    • davidgraeber

      Thanks for this, I very much appreciate the contribution. And I certainly don’t want to put the primary blame on anthropologists who studied foragers for the neglect of seasonality and the acceptance of band/tribe/chiefdom distinctions, but I don’t think we anthropologists are entirely innocent either, or that all blame can be put on sociobiologists or other such obvious villains. The “Man the Hunter” collection for instance very much lent itself to this kind of interpretation, and seems to have marked a turning point in not just popular attitudes but crucially attitudes among other scholars. If nothing else we definitely weren’t objecting loudly enough if pretty much everyone who wasn’t a student of forager societies ended up with the impression that foragers lived chiefly in relatively isolated bands. Finally, there’s the question of why we assume people like the Kua are particularly like Palaeolithic mammoth hunters, since as you yourself point out (as if this wasn’t one of our major points!), being a forager doesn’t in itself determine very much.

      As for the burials: again, we thought that was our point.

      Anyway, speaking as a fellow anthropologist, I think some humility is in order. If everyone has totally the wrong idea, we have not been doing a very good job of what we’re supposed to be doing – not just gathering knowledge but making it available to others to think with. Let us try to do something about that.

      • Helga Vierich

        I agree. But see how much resistance there is from both sides… even within anthropology. Models that suggest progress is happening – we are moving “forward” toward some goal of generalized human welfare and leisure and food security — the Enlightenment of Hobbes — are still what most people want to hear. The opposite – that we are moving “away” – leaving generalized human welfare etc behind in the golden age of the forager — the Enlightenment of Rousseau — is presented as the only way to interpret data showing that even today’s foragers, on some of the world’s worst real estate, still manage an economy that is mostly adequate to their needs and resilient.

        This is based on a completely false duality.

        • Ellis Spinks

          Your comments and Graeber’s response made more sense to me than the original article itself and the comments I’ve read.

          • Lemon

            You might like reading & viewing these Ellis,

            they have a scholarly paper: “Farewell to the ‘childhood of man’: ritual, seasonality, and the origins of inequality”

            and a recorded lecture/talk “David Graeber and David Wengrow: Palaeolithic Politics and Why It Still Matters”

          • Ellis Spinks


  • W Scheidel

    I have been intrigued to learn that my book The Great Leveler (published in 2017, not 2015 as stated in the text) is one of those that belittles Pleistocene evidence for inequality: Sungir, Dolni Vestovice, Arene Candide, Saint-Germaine-la-Riviere and La Madeleine are all there (pp.30-32), together with a reference to Graeber and Wengrow’s own work! Curious.

    • David Wengrow

      Sorry about the publication date. For us the issue isn’t about whether people note the existence of Sungir etc. (Ian of course does this too, in his book) – as we say it’s about what we make of them and their implications for world history. In the (2017) Great Leveler you describe rich Ice Age burials in some detail, but then immediately follow with a section called ‘The Great Disequalization’, beginning: ‘Inequality only took off after the last Ice Age had come to an end’, and how ‘new modes of subsistence … eroded forager egalitarianism’. This is exactly what we find so strange and problematic, for all the reasons we go into: even writers who are familiar with the data seem to end up preserving the old (Rousseau-like) narrative of human history. We think it’s time for a change.

    • David Wengrow

      Date of Great Leveller corrected by the Editor – advantages of digital publishing!

      • W Scheidel

        Cheers! Although I’d stick to my guns regarding “take-off” of (especially) economic inequality only after the end of the last Ice Age — much depends on the definition of “take-off,” but intense and sustained income and wealth inequality would seem hard to create without farming and animal husbandry; which doesn’t mean that the latter immediately leads to the former.

  • Helga Vierich

    In inegalitarian societies, the degree of unfairness, dishonesty, betrayal, bullying, and sheer cruelty is therefore not a function of a shift from foraging to any other economic system, it is a function of failed social controls over certain classes of people.

    When the community condone the idea that a man is the owner and master of his wife and children, and can use violence to make them obey his will or whim, the trouble begins. When the community condone acts of cruelty and betrayal of trust between two people, even between children at play, it is teaching a different code of acceptable behaviour; one that will elevate the person who will use intimidation and dishonesty to get more than a fair share. When leadership is achieved out of bribery and/or creating fear or hatred among people, the trouble gets worse.

    Pinker reflected on this and considered how the use of violence (especially vengeance and mob retaliation) seem to be driven by moral outrage. In other words, the mechanism behind a lot of the violence we see in the world today, as in wars and “terrorism” is moral in origin. The terrorism of the IRA, the Mau-Mau, the FLQ (Quebec separatists), and many others – was a reaction to colonial aggression and repression in previous generations… fuelled by outrage… as were many of the past revolutions. But should we therefore suggest doing away with morality? What about the research showing that even monkeys and small babies already tend to side with the helpful and kind person, and are outraged at injustice?

    What if impulses toward fairness and equal sharing can only be suppressed with threats and violence in the first place? So a more peaceful world would not be the result of less morality, but of more fairn-sharing and justice?

    It does bother me that Graeber and Wengrow here seem to create this strawman of the “tiny=egalitarian=foragers” – almost suggesting that the ethnographic accounts of 20th century foragers actually created this model – and thus were romanticized accounts of unrepresentative societies. I think this particular straw man was mostly created by non-anthropologists, who may have meant well, but ended up with a caricature.

    Furthermore, how can anyone overlook the obvious fact that hunting and gathering is a kind of ECONOMIC activity. It is not the sole determinant of the scale or scope of human society. I wonder if they are trying to revise the wrong thing? The scope and scale of human social networks is a function of culture, and it is always the same. Forager societies are just usually much less dense on the ground much of the year. They are not fundamentally different except most of them have good social controls over people who can harm other people.

    • davidgraeber

      a straw man is an imaginary, obviously wrong position that you make up and attribute to others. We in fact cited major respected sources saying exactly what we claimed they did.

      • Helga Vierich

        Oh I see what you mean. So you are saying that the specific authors you cited – Flannery and Marcus – did NOT know that their imagined “stage” of egalitarian=tiny hunter-gatherer groups, was wildly off base? They thought it was accurate?

        Okay. I’ll agree with that.

        And yes, I see that this leads to the gloomy dilemma where some people conclude that we humans can only save ourselves from the our current ineptitude – not just in countering inequality but also in dealing with ecocide and climate disaster – by “going back” to this golden age of hunter-gatherer equality (and by killing off most of humanity)?

        You are right in attributing this model to some of the Enlightenment sources you cited. What I objected to was the implication that subsequent research has somehow neglected to blow Rousseau out of the water as well as Hobbes.

        I thought we were beyond all that; most cultural anthropologists and many archaeologists that I know, jettisoned uni-lineal evolutionary theory over twenty years ago.

        That is why I thought you had set it up as a straw man.

        • JuHoansi

          But living in tiny egalitarian hunting and gathering groups was a stage. What were we doing 100,000 years ago if not hunting and gathering? How about 200,000 years ago? How about 75,000 year ago?

          Did not agriculture arise at some point? Or was agriculture always present from the beginning? If so, where’s the evidence of agriculture from 200,000 years ago?

          Obviously all of humanity was living as hunter gatherers for most of human evolution until some people started doing agriculture. That’s what I would call a ‘stage’

          Stage 1. H-G
          Stage 2. Agriculture
          Stage 3. Industrial society

          How is this “wildly inaccurate”?

          And why would going back to the golden age necessarily mean ‘killing off most of humanity’?

          • Helga Vierich

            First of all, I doubt that any “tiny” deme would have survived for long, so even as foragers, humans had to be involved in interconnected communities of thousands of people, very likely including several language groups for every “culture area”.

            Secondly, the idea of “stages” implies a kind of unilinear development – like a body that starts out as a single cell, increases cell numbers to the point where tissue systems differentiate, then the body grows, matures, reproduces, and eventually ages and dies… Or you could use another metaphor – like the building of a house or getting dressed. First the frame work or the undergarments…then the walls or the pants and the sweater… etc

            But what if we blink that idea of stages aside for a moment? What if we re-imagin human beings who can spend time doing various different economic activities, all of which are, in essence, options. Hunting is no more characteristic of a human being than playing golf or doing carpentry for a living. I can imagine a person doing all of these at some point during his life; exercising these as economic options. Hunting and gathering was not some early stage of being human. It is just an economic system that worked out best over the long haul during the climatic tumult of the Pleistocene.

            Of course I see your point: in bringing up the idea that things happened in a certain order you are reminding us that the idea of stages is deeply imbedded in the modelling that was accepted in anthropology for a long time. Almost every archaeology book – like Flannery’s – takes the reader through a kind of “progression” from “simple” to “complex” societies.

            Along the way, for some reason, the most “simple” is linked to foraging, egalitarian, and small communities; and the impression is created that therefore to be an egalitarian, you had to live as a hunter-gatherer, and live in a tiny society.

            Why? Can we not have an egalitarian urban society? Can we not have oppressive interpersonal relationships in tiny residential groups? Yes, apparently we can.. as the data on small cult groups illustrates.

            What if being egalitarian – or not – is a function of how individual human beings have learned to interact, not a function of the kind of economic activities they undertake, or of the scale of their community?

            If we ask that, then we can turn our attention to the question of what exactly produces inegalitarian relationships among people, and why any society would tolerate this.

            As you can see, it is not, at that point, very helpful to start with the idea that people can only be egalitarian if they are identical in ability or temperament – or even physical size or intelligence. Even among the most egalitarian hunter-gatherers the amount of individual variation in interests and abilities and talents is just as wide ranging as in any other society, and that does never even begin to get into questions of sexual differences.

            So it is not the human beings within forager societies who are “simple”… nor are they somehow better suited genetically to hunting or digging up wild roots than the average British Cabinet minister. In fact…no, …never mind.

            So why should “agriculture” represent a new – let alone some inevitable next “stage”? All the hunter-gatherers I ever talked to knew perfectly well that seeds grew if you planted them. In fact it was traditional among the Kua for women to sometimes toss nuts and berries and seeds along the ground and bury them with their feet as they walked along. They would have been collecting all this stuff for hours, and then did this “planting” on their way home. It was “thanking” the mother plants. It was restoring a balance – or perhaps making desired plants more widely distributed: I cannot be sure if it was superstition or strategy. Maybe in some ways superstitions are associated with good ecological strategies on some level of the “super-organic” that is not always consciously articulated.

            So why would such a practice become so dominant, so important, that people are actually clearing pieces of ground in order to make SURE that the seeds get a chance to grow? I have a few suggestions, and none of them rely on the idea that this happened in “richer” environments or because people got smarter. Nor do I think people made this kind of effort in order to form permanent settlements, build towns, …let alone build civilization.

          • JuHoansi

            The funny thing is that I agree with almost everything you just said 🙂 But by ‘stage’ I am not imputing any moral, progressive, or inevitable qualities to that concept. If we strip away all those associations with that word, what we are left with is the simple brute fact that humanity in general (not all human groups) seems to have generally adopted different economic practices over time.(and not even always in the same order). The first practice was hunting and gathering, which some people still do in remote pockets of the world. Agriculture originated at some point after this. Then industrial urbanization. Like you, I don’t want these social changes to imply a direction from simple to complex, or primitive to advanced, or something inevitable and progressively and thus morally better. I want to avoid presentism.

            If you still object to the word ‘stage’ perhaps we can come up with a more suitable term that doesn’t carry those connotations. I’m not personally attached to the term ‘stage’, I just can’t think of anything else right now. I agree that the moral, progressive, and inevitable baggage that surrounds the concept of ‘stage’ is problematic.

            Having said that, I don’t think we can actually have an egalitarian urban mass society for instance. The way urban industrial civilization is structured, with its extensive specialization of labor and technology requires hierarchical command and authoritarian social relations. Who is going to supply all the things we take for granted if, (as in most hunter gatherer societies), nobody can tell someone else what to do? So much of modern society depends on order giving and order taking. There’s a reason hunter gatherer groups never developed the kind of sophisticated, alienating, and destructive technology that agricultural and industrial societies later created. Their egalitarian social ethos, with their emphasis on individual autonomy and freedom, would never allow it.

            So, while I agree that economic production doesn’t determine social relations (like Marx thought), economic production will always be circumscribed by a society’s social relations.

          • Helga Vierich

            Okay.. I understand what you meant; thanks for the clarification. However on one point, I have a feeling you might be mistaken.. it is not necessary for that person, that can “tell people what to do” to be richer, to own more, or even to have coercive power over the task force. People can achieve massive cooperative projects without a coercive or formalized hierarchy. Leadership emerges through affiliative emotions: respect, trust, love, and so on…

            Expertise is another odd issue. I did not expect to find this, but even accepting that in our industrial society there are always experts and specialists who have massively greater depths of knowledge than most people… I did not expect to find the same was true among hunter-gatherers. But it was. There is this one woman who was the go-to person if you wanted to understand what happened during childbirth and could deal with most things that went wrong… then there was this guy was the known expert at predicting the appearance of constellations.. there was that person everyone acknowledged as the best arrow maker.. then there was this old granny who knew all the rarest poisons in case you couldn’t find the usual grubs… it was an endless encyclopedia held in hundreds of individual heads and would have taken me a lifetime to write it all down… or more.

          • Isabel

            I am just a lay person and a very ignorant one about the history discussed here, but I have an interest in permaculture and I think this is relevant to what you say about the knowledge and practice of agriculture among groups known as hunter gatherers.



            But it is important to consider is that there is difference between monocultures and agricultural practices seeking to maintain and even increase diversity.

            As a point of reference, this is what a forest garden looks like.


            This is another piece of information worth considering.

            “When scholars first began increasing their estimates of the ecological impact of Indian civilization, they met with considerable resistance from anthropologists and archaeologists. Over time the consensus in the human sciences changed. Under Denevan’s direction, Oxford University Press has just issued the third volume of a huge catalogue of the ‘cultivated landscapes’ of the Americas. This sort of phrase still provokes vehement objection—but the main dissenters are now ecologists and environmentalists. The disagreement is encapsulated by Amazonia, which has become the emblem of vanishing wilderness—an admonitory image of untouched Nature. Yet recently a growing number of researchers have come to believe that Indian societies had an enormous
            environmental impact on the jungle. Indeed, some anthropologists have called the Amazon forest itself a cultural artifact—that is, an artificial object.”


          • Helga Vierich

            The Amazon, like most of other landscapes, was altered by humans. Even before domestication, the distribution and frequency of wild species was affected by deliberately set fires, by deliberate as well as less intentional practices, and the diversity of wild animals was also affected.

            Despite almost universal ideas that humans are destructive, particularly to megafauna, this is not what much of the latest research indicates. Data from a diversity of ecosystems in Australia, South America, Coastal Alaska, and southern Africa all point to a different interpretation: as hunter-gatherers and as low density long fallow gardeners, human communities generally increased ecological diversity and stability.

            Insofar as “forest gardening” as it was done by the Maya and many other “slash and burn” horticulturalists, tends to use only 20% (or less) of the landscape in any given year, it creates a mosaic of plant communities in various stages of ecological succession. Favoured trees producing nuts or fruits or rarely cut down, and indeed are actively propagated. See

          • Isabel

            Thank you for taking the time to reply to my comment. I appreciate it.

  • Jim Brown

    As a layperson with no ties to academia, I find that the article and much of the discussion suggest the rise of what you might call gradualism, an idea that spans several disciplines. David Dennet for instance is fond of the “unacademic” phrase sorta, as in some biological groups are sorta conscious, compared to humans. In addiction studies it is increasingly thought that substance abuse is a spectrum condition, rendering questions like “is alcoholism a disease” irrelevant. Gender and identity are thought considerably more fluid that they were a generation ago. A certain kind of modern human mind both likes and needs boundaries and binaries. But the boundaries are probably blurry and the binaries are rhizomatic. If the anthropological evidence is shifting as the authors suggest, then it’s time to alter the thinking. As an undergraduate 30 years ago I was sorta taught one had to choose between a Rousseau version of nature or a Hobbesian view. In truth the answers vary so much with time and place that it’s no good trying to erect a unifying theory.

    • Helga Vierich

      Non-duality might be a good thing to try, maybe?

  • Hard science has a remarkable way of making liars of us all.

    • JuHoansi

      What were we “lying” about?

      • We lie to ourselves when we think we know how things are, until direct experience proves to us otherwise. Science is the organization of direct experience into a format we are able to share and agree upon by testing those direct experiences ourselves if we are so inclined.

  • JuHoansi

    “One can imagine overthrowing capitalism or breaking the power of the state, but it’s very difficult to imagine eliminating ‘inequality’. In fact, it’s not obvious what doing so would even mean, since people are not all the same and nobody would particularly want them to be.”

    Oh God, not this shit again. It’s a straw man. Nobody claims that “people are all the same” and that this is what people supposedly mean when they advocate for equality.

    What people mean by equality is in the political/social/ economic sense of being treated equally within the scope of a given group’s ideology. It means the putative rules governing a society apply to everyone more or less equally. This is not based on some ontological notion of physical or psychological ‘sameness’, but on the basis that each member of the group is worthy of having relatively equal moral standing as a member of the group. It’s not about ‘making’ people the ‘same’, but treating people with equal respect when deciding who gets what, when, and how.

    If “nobody particularly wants” equality, then you’ve got a lot of explaining to do with regard to the majority of modern hunter gatherer groups who, as Richard Lee put it, are ‘fiercely egalitarian’.

    • davidgraeber

      your own statement is contradictory. If all “equality” meant was being treated within the scope of a given group’s ideology, then all the graphs and declarations about inequality of wealth would be meaningless, since Sam Walton and a homeless person in the US are treated equally within the terms of their group’s ideology – or would only be unequal if one could prove that on top of he million-to-one wealth imbalance, there was also some other injustice that violated US legal or ideological norms as a result. You’d just have to throw all that Gini coefficient stuff out the window.

      So your argument makes no sense.

      “Egalitarianism” is different from equality (or inequality) – the later are treated as an objective state, which is as we argue basically a straw man – the former refers to a moral principle that people (or at least certain categories of people) should all be treated the same, or even be the same, according to certain criteria of recognised social value.

      • JuHoansi

        Sam Walton and a homeless person are certainly NOT treated equally, even within the terms of the ideology of the US. That’s absurd.

        Being treated the same, and being the same, are two different things. A disabled person is not the same as an able bodied person. Yet, the disabled person can be treated either equally or unequally. There is archaeological evidence in the Pleistocene, for example, that disabled people were cared for, fed, clothed, and helped. In other words, treated with equal moral worth as the rest of the group. They weren’t simply left to fend for themselves or to die.

        Again, nobody, not even the most hard core Marxist, argues that everyone IS the same, or should be MADE to BE the same, in some ontological sense. What would ‘sameness’ mean then? The argument is whether people are TREATED the same.

        • davidgraeber

          By your definition, sheer amount of wealth should not make any difference and is not a measure of “inequality” unless it leads to other consequences – if we accept this definition, then all existing “inequality studies” are not in fact studies of inequality at all. The irony is what you are drawing attention to as important is exactly what we draw attention to as important: turning wealth into power, people being told they lives or needs are of no intrinsic importance or worth. Except you insist that’s what “inequality” already refers to. Sorry. That’s just not how people are using the term. If you look at the debates surrounding Piketty or Atkinson or any of the historians of inequality that we cite, that’s simply not what they are primarily referring to, they are referring to property distribution. The use of terms like “equality” and “inequality” thus disguise a tacit assumption that differences in distribution of wealth however conceived must always also be differences in power and dignity and esteem, and this is precisely what we are saying we want to challenge, If you want to go off and try to convince the world that “inequality” means something other than the way everyone is now using it and they should all stop and use it differently, well, go ahead, good luck with that. We prefer to change the terms of discussion.

          • JuHoansi

            I guess I’m not following what you’re saying then.

            Wealth inequality is just one form of inequality, no? There are others, such as political inequality, status inequality, etc. And wealth inequality (like all inequality) is achieved by treating people differently.

            So when you say that eliminating inequality is difficult to imagine because people ARE NOT all the same, how else am I supposed to understand the meaning of this remark? That people ARE the same is an existential claim that nobody is making.

            We can both agree that (all) people are not the same, correct?

            So who exactly is claiming that people ARE all the same? And why would people BEING the same be any basis for equality, or an egalitarian ethos? Who exactly is making this claim (that people ARE the same) the basis of advocating for equality?

            Saying eliminating equality is difficult to imagine (even though most mobile hunter gatherers have actually done so) BECAUSE people ARE NOT the same, is something a right wing ideologue would say. “Well, we can’t have equal pay because people (or people’s jobs) are all different, and women especially are inherently different”.

            It just sounds like you’re conflating or using some sort of ontological non-identicality with the reasons for political/ wealth inequality.

            This sounds rather odd, coming from an anarchist.

          • davidgraeber

            no I’m saying that as soon as you say “I’m against inequality” (as opposed to saying I am against capitalism, or the state, or class power, or the ability to turn wealth into power, or all forms of domination, or any of a hundred other things you might frame as your problem) you open up all sorts of existential questions which – in our current context at least – WILL come up and make it seem like you are asking for something impossible or undesirable, thus leading to either being dismissed as utopian, or having to compromise into some sort of technocratic reformism. Let us take inequalities of wealth. To eliminate them entirely, you’d have to have everyone have exactly the same stuff. But of course that’s absurd because people are all different and they don’t all want the same stuff. So you want them to have stuff that’s equivalent in value? Then you have to come up with a single uniform criteria of value to measure all wealth. If we were really rigorous about doing this we’d have to give all objects the equivalent of prices, quantify all values even more than we do already. Or you say, well, whatever, we just won’t measure a lot of stuff, but then that opens the door to compromises that might cause critics to say you’re not really egalitarian at all… Or that actually do open the way to power differentials… I’m just trying to illustrate how the fact of human differences does translate into all sorts of problems if “equality” is your primary value. Obviously can’t go into the whole thing here but you see where I’m going with this. It’s not even that I’m objecting to equality as a value. I’m saying equality of WHAT? You start with the what. Otherwise you end up having conversations like we’re having with Piketty

          • JuHoansi

            Ok, I understand a little better. Thanks.

            Your main objection to the term ‘inequality’ seems to be its unqualified vagueness as a category.

            Fine. That’s an important point.

            So if we take inequality of wealth, you feel we run the risk of being considered utopian or impossibly unrealistic if we advocate for equality of wealth. First, I don’t mind being considered utopian, and as an anarchist myself, I certainly do demand the impossible. Second, equality of wealth does not necessarily mean everyone has the exact precise same amount of ‘stuff’. Of course it definitely can mean this, but I have rarely read or met anyone who actually literally believes this. This is what I was talking about. Almost nobody, even hard core Marxists, do not advocate this. Even those hunter gatherers whom we could agree and classify as ‘egalitarian’ do not each have the exact same amount of stuff. Some may have better or more spears, some may have better or more hand axes, nets, arrows, baskets, blowpipes, huts, etc. And the hunter who struck the fatal blow of an animal may get dibbs on the choicest piece of meat, yet we still refer to these people as ‘egalitarian’. Richard Lee was also always careful to refer to San groups as ‘relatively egalitarian’, obviously recognizing that no human group is ‘perfectly’ egalitarian.

            I just think you are taking the word ‘equality’ way too literally when almost nobody else does.

            Don’t let absolute perfect equality get in the way of egalitarianism. 🙂

            You and Wengrow have some important and interesting insights. Your synthesis and analysis of anthropological and archaeological theories are much needed. I like the fact you are asking grand metanarrative questions about the history of humanity (fewer anthropologists seem to be doing that these days). So I’m very much looking forward to your book.

            Hope you take some of the constructive criticism from people in the comment section on board when finalizing your manuscript.

          • davidgraeber

            this is becoming increasingly pointless – I’m not saying it’s utopian, I’m saying it’s so obviously undesirable a utopia that it causes people to go to the technocratic reformist option instead. It’s a sign we might have come to the limits of fruitful exchange when I make a concrete proposal – what would it mean to call for equality of wealth right now, in our own society, how would it not lead to even further commoditization or at least quantification/bureaucratization – and you change the subject and start talking about hunter gatherers having nicer axes. Let’s just call it off, okay?

          • JuHoansi

            First you raise the specter of utopia (it was YOU who brought up the word ‘utopia’, not me), then you say you’re not saying it’s utopian, you simply say it’s not desirable, or perhaps it will be perceived as not desiriable, or something.. Well…so? Who cares? Just WTF are you saying?

            “I make a concrete proposal – what would it mean to call for equality of wealth right now, in our own society,”

            I would say that calling for equality of wealth in our own (THIS) society right now means we would have to change our own (THIS) society into some other kind of society first, right? Because in THIS (capitalist) society, equality of wealth is not on the table. Is that what you were trying to say all along?

            And by equality of wealth I don’t mean what you think it means to most people i.e. exactly equal wealth value, or precisely equal income right down to the last penny. Nobody conceives of equality of wealth in those finely tuned terms. That’s why I gave the examples of hunter gatherers. It was meant to illustrate the fact that absolute exactness in equality of wealth is not necessary to be considered ‘equality of wealth’. It needn’t reach that level of absolute precision of equality, whether in hunter gatherer societies, or in technological state societies.

          • Neil Neil Orange Peel

            Go back and read his replies and make an effort to parse them before responding. It’s farcical.

          • JuHoansi

            Why don’t you take your own advice and stop pretending you know anything about the subject, k?

          • davidgraeber

            yeah I gave up. Apparently nobody conceives of equality of wealth as equality of wealth. What he thinks they do conceive it as, god only knows.

          • Roger

            Brilliant article!

            On the issue of inequality, I would just add that it is real easy for everyone to talk past each other with conflicting and contradictory, even logically incompatible versions of the term equality.

            One, simple version of equality, grasped even by toddlers and monkeys, is equal outcomes regardless of contribution. This is what is decried in most discussions of income inequality.

            A more complex concept is proportionality of outcomes to agreed procedural effort or results. Here what is being compared is outcome to contribution. This is seen in commission sales, hourly pay (twice the hours is twice the pay), points in a sports competition, and such.

            The latter is egalitarian in terms of rules, but not necessarily outcomes. Equality of outcome regardless of contribution can be appropriate according to the rules, if that is what has been agreed to. Or not, if it wasn’t agreed to.

            In the end, it is probably better to switch from mathematical equality to discussions of fairness. As Boehm had documented extensively, foragers are very concerned with egalitarian fairness and all people playing by the same fair (impartial) rules, and failure to do so will lead to their voluntary exit if possible, and worse (conflict) if not.

            My issue with income inequality is that we are at risk of evaluating complex institutions on a scale which was never agreed on, nor even intended. The market system is based upon the ideal of impartial fair rules, and outcomes proportionate to contribution as agreed by the participants. If someone works zero hours they are (usually) expected to get zero income. This can be fair according to the rules.

            In short, there is nothing intrinsically unfair about total inequality of outcomes (a 10 to nothing shut out in baseball). It depends upon the agreed upon rules.

          • Who agreed to participate in the “market system”…”based on the ideal of impartial fair rules, and outcomes proportionate to contribution as agreed by the participants”? I don’t know about you but I was born into this system and not given any more choice than I was given a choice about which language I would learn as I grew up. “Agreeing to participate” implies that I consciously chose to participate in a system in which the “winner”, the richest oligarch on the planet, wins everything, including my blind obedience to their every whim. That is entirely nuts. The “impartial fair rules” that have emerged gradually through the development of human culture over millennia, disproportionately favor the wealthy, who use violence to enforce those “rules”, not particularly a process you could say anyone ever really “agreed upon”. Quite the opposite. Many of us have fought tooth and nail to oppose this game since it first began to take root like a cancer in human culture.

            What you are talking about in the abstract is the rules by which money is supposed to work as an arbiter of contribution to community. The reality is that the money game leads to something entirely different than “proportionate outcomes” as many alive upon the Earth today have been learning to their great dismay.

            Aside from not really ever being given the choice of opting out of this money game, the accumulated “ownership” that money represents of every life giving resource of the planet by the wealthy winners of this deeply dysfunctional game means there is often no alternate other than to “break the rules” to remain alive. So the money game is a “mandatory participation, match to the death, winner take all” game that we all play from birth, where new players are allotted very different advantages or disadvantages arbitrarily at birth.

            Sorry. No. Ain’t gonna play by those rules. I will do everything in my power to my last breathe to bring an end to the money game before it wrecks even greater mayhem, suffering and death on the life systems of this planet and every life that depends upon them than it already has and my friend, you would be wise to do so also.

            Let’s agreed to play an entirely different game, one that sustainably supports the life giving systems of this planet and guarantees everyone access to those resources, at least enough access to meet the basic quality of life needs we all share in common. The other sentient beings who share this planet with us and live in the forests, fields and waters all have at least that much access, until we cut down the forests, turn the fields into deserts and poison all the waters in pursuit of monetary profits as we play our money game.

            If you are finding it difficult to imagine a world without money, you better start working on it because all life on this planet depends on humanity abandoning this insane money game while we still can. Try compassionate sharing instead. And I am not talking about sharing the money, though that might serve to prolong the game. Money is the antithesis of Sharing.

      • Ian Conway

        “Egalitarianism” is different from equality

        No it isn’t

        the way we measure egalitarianism is by picking a metric…. figuring
        out if people are more or less equal. Then calling it egalitarian….

        That is LITERALLY how we do it.

        If you are going to say that “egalitarianism isn’t equality” then you have alot to answer about that as wikipedia shows

        is a school of thought that prioritizes equality for all people.[3] According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Egalitarian doctrines maintain that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or social status.[4

        Yep. egalitarianism is equality… in the actual sense. Every sociological study treats it as such…

        So now that we have attacked that point

        Let’s attack another.

        1. human beings do not have equal worth
        2. human beings do not have equal status

        And none of the studies of hunter gatherers(current existing ones) show that they have equal worth and equal status…. Also they assert domination over them via murder and violence far more than modern societies.

        If you are going to argue that that are more equal… yeah…. equal in poverty and famine

        Another aspect is that you forgot about the processes of wealth accumulation over time across generations…. for some reason any time you mention the time variable to people like you, you just can’t imagine the fact that games over time give you winners and losers. Sorry that you can’t imagine that economics is a game you play over your entire life, and some people are better at the game.

        • JuHoansi

          “Let’s attack another.

          1. human beings do not have equal worth
          2. human beings do not have equal status

          none of the studies of hunter gatherers(current existing ones) show
          that they have equal worth and equal status…. Also they assert
          domination over them via murder and violence far more than modern

          This is false. You are mixing things up.

          In most hunter gatherer societies, individualism is valued highly. No one can tell anyone else what to do. Each member of the group has equal worth as a human being and member of the group in which everyone is treated as kin. That is the default attitude. Same with status. Nobody has more status than anyone else, and if someone tries to puff themselves up or act arrogant, the others will ridicule that person mercilessly. Most H-G ethnographic studies on egalitarian mobile groups report this. If you don’t believe me read Richard Lee’s monographs for a start.

          These are the default attitudinal positions.

          If someone goes crazy and attacks or murders someone, that is going against the default egalitarian attitudinal position. Violence and domination are not condoned, they are condemned precisely because they violate the egalitarian ethos. And no, the rates of violence are not ‘far more’ than modern societies. Your ignorant remark about poverty and famine is also false.

          Hunter gatherers don’t play economic ‘games’, so don’t lump them in with your capitalist worldview.

          It’s obvious you haven’t read any ethnography.

          • JuHoansi

            Ian Conway, I was able to briefly read your reply to my comment before it was deleted. The deletion may have more to do with the inclusion of graphs in the comments rather than ideology. Do you feel Eurozine is deleting your comments for ideological reasons? I don’t actually know what Eurozone’s point of view is. The graphs may be screwing up the comment formatting, but I’m not sure.

            Your first point and article link showing differentials in wealth doesn’t address what I was objecting to in your previous reply. I never said anything about wealth differentials, I was replying to your comment about status differentials. And your second article link is misleading since it isn’t really talking about rank status but more like respect, and only as it applies to reproductive success. And I’m not sure what you think Gurven’s paper has to do with anything I’ve said. Besides, if you read the comments in that paper, there’s a lot of skepticism about his thesis, one based on evolutionary ‘models’.

            Your link to the violence chart by Robert L. Kelly doesn’t actually show what you think it shows. That chart is a mess, since it includes both deaths from interpersonal violence as well as from warfare and suicide. I notice you cut off the bottom of that chart which footnotes this. People like to use Kelly’s table to prove higher H-G violence rates while ignoring the tables’ limitations based on only 15 samples in turn based on mostly informant memories.

  • mylesbyrne

    We just spent some time in Nepal, working with local universities and hospitals to upgrade biomedical education and practise. Nepal seems an especially rich living example of much of what is described in this article, especially the concluding paragraph.

    Working there scrambles the Western ‘story’ of history and prehistory, as the caste system bubbles up in the midst of everyday activities. Overall, there is the sense that Nepal still retains an ancient ‘double-morphology’ (Hindu and Buddhist, itself now double-paired with Marxist-Leninism and Maoism), which is still alive and reacting against newer arrangements.

    Peering deeper into Nepal’s past and present, one struggles not to become depressed at dismal prospects for her future. Until one comes across an article like this. Any resources from the authors or other readers, which would further develop the POV of this article – especially its conclusion – regarding Nepal, would be welcome as replies to this post.

    • David Wengrow

      very moved by these succinct and powerful observations – which will inspire us to get on with the book-length version!

    • Lemon

      Insightful comment, the double-pairing is to be reflected upon, could you please elaborate further, any resources?

      They have a scholarly paper: “Farewell to the ‘childhood of man’: ritual, seasonality, and the origins of inequality”

      and a recorded lecture/talk “David Graeber and David Wengrow: Palaeolithic Politics and Why It Still Matters”

      Related to the POV of this article.

      In chapter 10 of his book on Debt, DG explores/contextualizes the origins of the rigid caste system in the region, it’ll surely interest you!

      You’d like this essay by DG too,

      and DW’s book, “What Makes Civilization?” would be worth reading as well


      • mylesbyrne

        Thank you Lemon, your links are great ways to go deeper into Graeber and Wengrow’s subject. But i’m seeking ‘radical anthropology’ specifically regarding Nepal.

        The ‘double morphology’ in Nepal is not actually Graeber and Wengrow’s sense of an adaptive choice between modes of social organisation, but more like what Spengler called ‘pseudomorphosis’ – a transformation of a culture into a broken facsimile of its former self.

        Nepal still has a fusion of Buddhism and Hinduism, but after the physical and political opening of the country in the 1950s, economic class has riven deep fractures across the old lines of caste. An ancient social core has fallen apart in mere decades, making the resultant human and environmental cost more starkly visible than elsewhere.

        So i feel Graeber and Wengrows’ points are concentrated in the history and current reality in Nepal, and hold a hope of addressing them i haven’t yet found anywhere else. In Nepal, the collision of caste and class are making ‘the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence’ livid and lurid. If we can sort it out here …

        • Lemon

          Ah, thanks for introducing me to that term psuedomorphosis.

          I was thinking about exactly the same thing you talk about, about the deep fractures recently introduced in many many parts of the world. I viewed it like a schizophrenic thing, as entirely different cosmological assumptions are imported with incredible, never before seen amounts of coercive violence in the background. I’ve seen this happen & been through this first-hand.

          It’s shattering & fracturing structures of imagination on an unprecedented scale. I believe you share my view, I’ll look into what this Spengler fella is saying, to further make sense, you know, learn, understand & analyse this… any suggestions?

          You might want to check out Alpa Shah’s work on this, although I’m not familiar with it enough to recommend specific pieces.. DG & DW could surely


          • mylesbyrne

            Alpa Shah is a great reference, thank you. I will read both her ‘Class Struggle, the Maoists and the Indigenous
            Question in Nepal and India’, and ‘EMANCIPATORY POLITICS: A CRITIQUE’, which she co-edited.

            Speaking of radical anthropology .. funny that you call Oswald Spengler a ‘fella’, since in his book i would recommend to you, The Decline of the West, ca. 1920, he uses the term ‘fellaheen’ repeatedly. His arguments re. culture vs. civilisation may be precedents for some of Graeber and Wengrows’ (and Mauss’) thinking.

          • Lemon

            Cheers mate,

            AFAIK culture vs. civilization is a debate/discussion/difference in intellectual traditions that has been ongoing for quite a while, a couple of centuries maybe! I read the Wikipedia article, many concepts I don’t like.. I’ll explore further..

            Mauss’ work preceded it by a bit, but that’s not to deny the possibility, ideas & knowledge come from interactions of humans, milieus, communities..

          • dilgreen

            Aware that you two are professionals in this field of some kind, so it’s probably stating the boringly obvious to point out that in the pre-historical survey outlined in this article, the socio-political arrangements

            discussed were very likely the hegemonic modes in the geographic region, influence from beyond which was relatively weak.
            The situation in Nepal (which I have not visited, so caution once again) is one where a powerful external dynamic that is capable of ruthlessly directed (and also blind, insensate) ‘push’, as well as insidious cultural and economic ‘pull’, has very different structural conditions to those from the historical survey.
            This is not, of course, any sort of counsel of despair. The article indeed offers hope in its suggested location of the seeds of fixed inequality in the family – these arrangements seem to have been the most mutable in their response to industrialisation, capitalism, consumerism, et al, while broader cultural tropes shift less easily – contributing, presumably, to the pseudomorphosis mentioned.
            A key subject for study, then, might be to examine the modes of this mutability, and the forces that act to shape it.

          • Lemon

            Does you two refer to me & @mylesbyrne ? Or the authors? I think it’s us

            In any case what you’re saying is absolutely correct, on all counts, in fact, it’s just that Myles had a specific request, he sought work on ” ‘radical anthropology’ specifically regarding Nepal” I just directed him to what I knew existed.

            Graeber writes about this powerful, ruthlessly directed external dynamic & societies’ reaction/response/adaptation to it in some length in his book on Debt; I’d recommended it to Myles earlier but that’s not what he was seeking..

            Not a professional by any means BTW! Proudly so! Just a curious fella..


  • Светослав Христов

    “Then there are other, even stranger factors, such as the fact that most of the ‘princely’ burials consist of individuals with striking physical anomalies, who today would be considered giants, hunchbacks, or dwarfs.”

    Can you refer me to your source on this one?

    • David Wengrow

      Here’s a link to an academic paper we wrote, published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, which has full scientific references for the body deformities and quite a few other points we made:
      (You can also find it on my page)

    • Helga Vierich

      You know, one of the interesting things I was told when I discovered that one of the most respected Kua shaman suffered from epilepsy was that he was “touched by God”. In fact there was a generalized view that all kinds of disabilities were seen as signs that these were special people. I once interviewed a man who carried his legs around in a kind of over-sized loincloth, and walked on his hands. He ran a trapline but did not hunt. This was in a remote hunter-gatherer camp just south of the border of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. This man was about forty, was married and had children. He had apparently been disabled since he was very young. A birth accident? I don’t know. But I do know that he was a respected story teller. People liked to have him and his family join their camping parties.

      It never occurred to me to ask about grave goods differentiating people who were considered to be “marked by God”. Perhaps just the fact that a person might develop special talents, or show great resilience, under such circumstances, strikes me as humbling – a lesson in patience and compassion. An valuable example that, perhaps, was not lost on the Kua hunter-gatherers either? If you are going to value the able and the quick, fine, but does this mean you devalue the lame and the slow? What kind of egalitarian would that make you?

      • davidgraeber

        well it’s not valuing and devaluing we’re talking about here but the fact that such people appear to have been the only ones to be buried at all, and they were buried with astoundingly rich grave goods – someone calculated the number of hours that it would have taken to just make the thousands of beads found on one, and it was at least 2500. But there are often indications that where ordinary bodies were turned at least partly into relics, skulls or other parts kept around, the bodies of these extraordinary individuals with extremely rich gear were not only buried but buried in a way that implied a desire to separate and confine: i.e., the graves were topped by really heavy slabs of rock. There are many possible interpretations, it’s possible status in life was very different than in death, etc, but there’s something interesting and important happening that can’t just be shrugged off.

        • Helga Vierich

          I was not shrugging it off, I was also not saying that the bodies who were buried, and buried with rich grave gear, were not extraordinary. I was suggesting that what was extraordinary about them might not have been high political rank. It might have been because of that the lives of these people had extraordinary significance of a moral and even spiritual kind. I agree that there was something happening here. As we all know from the example of Anne Frank, a young person, through acts of courage or unusual insight, can inspire reverence.

          • Lemon

            Or they could have divine powers, & be treated as metahuman beings, note that this is separate than having political power.

            IMHO you’ll find the recent book of related essays by Marshall Sahlins & David Graeber to be a very insightful read!
            PDF DL:

            In case you haven’t read it already

            Specifically the essay, “Notes on the Politics of Divine Kingship”, it discusses this specific aspect as well..

            P.S.: The size of the book balooned from 7MB to 19MB, without any apparent changes in the text, not even chapter & section additions, I wonder what sorts of metadata those folks are putting in there..

          • Helga Vierich

            I have it, thanks. It has given me a lot to think about.

            Emperors, kings, chiefs, headmen, and “big men” have sometimes been transformed by history (or our imaginations) into victims of circumstance, into power-seeking demagogues… or into self-deluded rascals who really think they are semi-divine.

            But what if it is simpler? What if it all begins with people being squashed into the fulcrum between honour and responsibility? Often the reward people give you for a job well done is an even harder job.

            I can see this happening to people in any kind of economic system: only the scale would be different.

            Aside from the occasional psychopaths, I doubt most people actually have ambitions to become widely feared and hated tyrants. Most people just want be accepted, acknowledged, and even admired. And this happiness exists in that safe zone created by the approval of trusted companions. Great leaders often emerge from this milieu and can sometimes set off hordes of eager heroic followers, and these can accomplish extraordinary things. If there was a kind of “Palaeolithic” politics behind the creation of Göbekli Tepe, this might have been how it worked.

            But what beliefs would it have worked WITH, to motivate the energy and passion needed to get that place built? Social hierarchy and positions of permanent leadership are neither necessary nor even sufficient to account for the evidence. These were not monuments to glorify leaders, or any other human beings. They did not even represent man-like gods.They were monuments featuring depictions of elephants, lions, bears, vultures, snakes, cranes, scorpions and many other creatures. Perhaps they illustrate common origin myths?

            Philosophical and spiritual traditions do of course, create great monuments. Christianity began with a personality cult, as did Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Marxism, Maoism, Mormonism, and a hundred others. But their monuments and images tend to make these leaders into demi-gods. Hinduism is different in that the sacred could manifest in animal form. Perhaps Göbekli Tepe reflects the ceremonials and spiritual traditions linking the connections among animal lives? Did these people recognize and honour keystone species within the ecosystem of the Anatolian highlands? Did they understand their own role, as humans, operating within a keystone niche as a predator among a suite of predators, an ecological engineer among a suite of engineers, an agent of the great recycling of birth and death – dust to dust – akin to the vultures and other scavengers who waste nothing and clean up after Death has walked through the land?

            That would certainly fit the kinds of spiritual traditions exemplified by stories from hunter-gatherer traditions.

          • davidgraeber

            that’s really odd!

  • davidgraeber

    Here’s one:

    Formicola, Vincenza. 2007. “From the Sunghir children to the Romito dwarf: Aspects of the Upper Paleolithic funerary landscape.” Current Anthropology 48: 446–53.

  • David Tyner

    I so love this conclusion, in part because it affirms my own intuited conclusions about the necessity of dealing with personal and family issues, to cultivate the work needed to repair and restore participatory social democracy (we’ve got manufactured #Demockery now). I see misogyny (and other forms of sexism) as prototypical of maintaining the structures of systemic oppression, when added to personally working on racism (my own ‘hidden’ white male privilege / shame). Please check into Dr Beverly DiAngelo if unfamiliar, as she’s burning brightly about both.

    “Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence.”

    Similarly, Gloria Steinem (and others) observations about feminists having the courage to raise their daughters right, but not their sons — perhaps concerned of becoming a “Mommys Boy.” There a huge weight of gender denigration associating pussy and weakness, conflated as being a “wussy.”

    Thank you and I am so looking forward to your book

  • sjmckee

    What a long way to go to arrive at a completely fraudulent conclusion.

    No mention in this entire article about what we know about human nature but from a few archaeological examples are extrapolated some kind of proof that cities will be the birthplace of egalitarian civilization.

    This is a purely political conclusion likely consistent with the ideology of the writer.

    Additionally I would strongly suggest that we should not want a egalitarian civilizations. The great Innovations come from places like the US that reward the busy and the smart and The Driven.

    The Soviet Union was to a degree egalitarian and we know how that turned out

    • davidgraeber

      whatever you say, boss

      • sjmckee

        What a revealing and pitiful response.

        I would suggest to anybody who has read this article and is persuaded to listen to Jordan Peterson on YouTube concerning egalitarianism.

        The only certainty about pursuing this silly desire that has been presented is that State coercion will follow.

        • Luke Thomas

          State coercion follows capitalism as it is all about leveraging the desperate. Corporations that benefit from social infrastructure would not be profitable if they had to fund it. BTW the scientist that improve technology come from all over the world and they are inspired by curiosity.

        • davidgraeber

          since almost all the examples we cite lacked states, I think it’s pretty clear who’s response is “revealing and pitiful.” You don’t even care what the evidence is. You just repeat the same tired doctrine anyway. It’s just like dealing with a Stalinist

        • BlackBloc

          We’re discussing early human societies. Not lobsters. Let me know when Jordan Peterson starts discussing primates, at the very least.

      • Steve A

        What a wildly unprofessional response. You should probably update with an actual rebuttal.

        • davidgraeber

          there was nothing in what the person said worth responding to, just a series of right-wing prejudices. “This contradicts what I already believe so it must be wrong” is not an argument.

          • C Erickson

            That’s a pretty telling response right there….

    • Colin Holmes

      I spent at least 20 minutes thinking about this comment and the motivations of the person who wrote it.

    • cuckholddon

      OK–I think your talking about free enterprise—But–free enterprise without controls/limits creates tyranny–It’s been happening in the US & other free countries for some time now where Corporations & the wealthy Control government (even choose them) because the people let them-

  • António Fernandes

    Interesting! I was just finishing a book review on this that basically argues (also following Alain Testart) that ice age rock art in Europe is a sign of ruling elites hence pinpointing the beggining of social inequality to that period! Didn’t bought it though! Not to say that rock art (of that period) is not political…

    • David Wengrow

      I find Testart’s work on all this fascinating, but it’s not nearly well known enough in Anglophone scholarship, partly I think because his major work on slavery isn’t translated. We will address this issue of slavery and stratification in forager societies in an article (coming out soon in American Anthropologist), and in the book.

  • Stefan Link

    Just curious why you do not aim your fire at James Scott, whose most recent book seems to be an obvious target for your revisionist fire. Perhaps because he’s a fellow anarchist?

    • davidgraeber

      that’s funny, two comments, to opposite effect. Actually, we think Jim is moving in the right direction, he just hasn’t gone quite so far. He definitely shares our view of the Neolithic.

      • Stefan Link

        Doesn’t his book indulge exactly the fall-from-grace narrative you are attacking? I understand you are intellectual allies, but here you must surely disagree?

        • davidgraeber

          he doesn’t really have much to say about hunter-gatherers. We’ve talked with him about the possibility that slavery, elites, etc, emerged in certain foraging societies and that the earliest farmers, at least in certain parts of the world, might have even been an egalitarian reaction to such predatory foraging societies.

        • David Wengrow

          Where do you find that in Jim’s book? I read it in various drafts and, while I would agree he doesn’t spend much time on hunter-gatherers, I don’t see a “fall from innocence”-type argument either. Quite the opposite in some ways. Interested to hear more about how you read him, especially as some of his reviewers seem to have read him that way too.

  • Preslava

    Thanks for an inspiring article. Wondering what you guys think of last year’s book by James Scott, Against the Grain (2017) which I think is so relevant to supporting your argument? Scott similarly undermines the received wisdom on the necessity of oppressive state power and the emergence of sedentary bureaucratically controlled societies.

    • davidgraeber

      well we’re both friends and intellectual allies of Jim though we don’t agree on quite everything – parting ways on urbanisation for instance.

      • spencer winans


    • David Wengrow

      I wrote what I think on the back of Jim’s book!

  • Arthur Palmer

    This is a very naive overview which seems to ignore or dismiss the evidence that small societies & language groups, have developed the most complex sophisticated languages (Anindilyakwa an Australian Aboriginal language spoken by the Warnindhilyagwa people on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory of Australia. , social organisation ( Aboriginal Central desert eight subsection classificatory kin system) &Land tenure systems. The concept of small bands of hunter gathers wandering around aimlessly like terrestrial sharks looking for a feed , a fight or to fornicate in an egalitarian state is a complete nonsense. There never was a simple nor egalitarian state. The extreme levels of violence in the forms of murder, revenge raids & general relentless internecine warfare puts pay to any elysian fields or Rousseau fantasy from the beginnings of human evolution. If the violence isn’t convincing enough them look at the work load share of women in HG societies – around 80%+.

    • David Wengrow

      You have our position confused with some of the positions we are actually trying to debunk. We don’t believe there was ever an age of egalitarian societies either, but neither do we believe it was a Hobbesian war of all against all. Our point, in fact, is that you no longer have to choose between Hobbes and Rousseau as the start of the human story.

  • James Harris

    I certainly think the article overemphasized the difference between the problems of the origin of inequality vs the origin of being stuck with inequality. Additionally, Graber condescending tone when it comes to anything mathematical is hardly tasteful. I’m actually a little surprised he didn’t answer his own question by saying record keeping methods and other sources of technocratic control resulted in ever increasing “stickiness” of inequality as debts were never forgotten or forgiven. This would be pessimistic though, which is what he’s trying to avoid. Having an answer to the question defeats his other purposes, so he puts himself in an odd situation.

    • davidgraeber

      I like math. I don’t like pretend math. Coming up with an income estimation for Palaeolithic foragers is not actually a mathematical observation; it’s a set of qualitative, subjective value judgments that allow one to pretend to be doing “objective” scientific calculation when one really isn’t. It isn’t math we have a problem with. It’s people dressing up their prejudices in mathematical language to make it sound like it has a validity it does not really have.

      • James Harris

        Sure, you gave a fantastic example of BS math from economics spreading into everything. But in “Debt” as well as here you show a disdain for technocratic culture and the math it uses in its own role and to reinforce roles. Money theoretically starts as a token of a debt that cannot be paid, and becomes what we have today. At which point did it become “bullshit”? Here there is a sense of disdain when you speak of Gini Coefficients and it’s not just in how the tool is used for BS narratives but seemingly for the tool itself. You emphasize that life is *meaningful* rather than valuable, because meaning is a qualitative state. In part of Debt you also theorize that it took slavery and taking people out of their familial contexts before they could be turned into units and thus a monetary unit of account. I had an issue with that passage because, tribes being our intellectual peers, would certainly be able to count to 1 and could pick any number of things, including individuals, as a unit of account.

        • davidgraeber

          sorry you’re wrong. We are objecting to the rendering of qualitative experience and values into bogus quantitative form so as to claim the mantle of science for one’s personal ideological beliefs

    • Helga Vierich

      Um.. There are other sources of control, and these are betrayal of trust, lying, and use of force.

      “How did we get here? My own suspicion is that we are looking at the final effects of… the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures. At its root is a veritable obsession on the part of the rulers of the world… with ensuring that social movements cannot be seen to grow, flourish, or propose alternatives; that those who challenge existing power arrangements can never, under any circumstances, be perceived to win.”

      David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years

      (please excuse my editing)

      • James Harris

        Thank you very much for the quote. I will have to save that somewhere.

  • James Harris

    I really hope to get a reply to this, David Graber what’s your view on exorphin theory? It states more or less that human domestication and agriculture came about due to pleasure inducing chemicals from particular crops.

    • davidgraeber

      like we’re all addicted to gluten, that one? I don’t know. I put it up there with the “stoned ape” theory – who knows? Might even be true. Though if so it seems to have taken an awful long time for the addiction to really take hold.

      • James Harris

        It’s more about solving the issue of why humans show symptoms of domestication that solving why “civilization” occurred. I think human domestication is probably an important precursor and it might be interesting to view various cultures from a domesticated/nondomesticated spectrum.

  • Jorn Bettin

    Fascinating article, especially the conclusion “Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale …” I think many of those who are marginalised on an individual level would agree.

    Are you familiar with the notion of neurodiversity, which originated in the autistic community? Here is a good definition: Within the dominant pathology paradigm, autism is seen as a disorder. This of course conveniently supports the perspective of non-autistic family members.

    I would be interested in your thoughts on the models of collaboration, innovation, and systematic discrimination that I have developed based on many discussions with autistic people, reading books written by autists, and based on my own autistic experience. I am no anthropologist, but I have read some of the authors/books you cite, and in the back of my head, I always see power dynamics in society driven by factors that can be observed at all scales of human organisation:

    1. Autists are capable of collaboration, it just does not look and feel like neurotypical collaboration: and

    2. Neurodivergence is at the core of creativity

    3. The essence of humanity

    4. The origin of human thoughts and limits of human language

    5. Designing filtering, collaboration, thinking, and learning tools for the next 200 years

    • David Wengrow

      Thank you for this Jorn, and for the references. We’re familiar with the concept, and my own intuitive reaction (not yet having read it all) is that what you say makes a great deal of sense. Do you know Roy Richard Grinker’s “Unstrange Minds”? It’s a wonderful account of autism in children, by an anthropologist, which also goes some way to considering how the condition is regarded in cultures other than our own.

      • Jorn Bettin

        Hi David, yes I know about Roy Richard Grinker and have watched one of his talks but have not yet read his book. In 2005 he received a grant from Autism Speaks, an organisation that advocates research for finding a “cure” for autism, and that is viewed with significant contempt by the autistic community. But more recently Roy Richard Grinker seems to have distanced himself from the pathology paradigm

        Once you have had the time to take a look at the references above, I would be very interested in a more detailed exchange of knowledge and insights from an anthropological perspective. The referenced pages and presentations contain many pointers to relevant research from a range of disciplines.

        I find that this little experiment captures what I observe on a daily basis. There is also new research that explores differences in the way the neurochemical reward system in the brain works. Some (or most?) people seem to enjoy having some level of power over others. The small subset of those who also lack empathy seem to be professional social pyramid builders who become experts at manipulating others. If you are autistic, exerting control over others is unrewarding, and yielding to arbitrary authority (rather than a source of verifiable knowledge) makes no sense.
        Neurodiversity undoubtedly is multi-dimensional, but people with pronounced autistic traits and people with a psychopathic lack of empathy seem to play important roles in social evolution.

        Roughly speaking autists tend to become experts at identifying spurious complexity in human rituals and cultures, and psychopaths seem to be experts at creating a never ending stream of social games for the typical population. The resulting dynamics seem to shape cultural evolution at all levels of scale.

  • Sorry guys but the astute Alan Jacobs has your number: “I’ll just note that it’s pretty sad that this from-the-ground-up reconsideration of history, this utter dismantling of conventional narratives, this opening of the door to radical new possibilities, is all in the service of … reaffirming and reinscribing the decontextualized, autonomous subject of the liberal order. Graeber and Wenbow throw out the historical narrative pioneered by Rousseau in order to provide a slightly different justification and celebration of Rousseau’s picture of the human being. “I love to tell the story, … to tell the old, old story …” It seems yet another illustration (as if any were needed) of Patrick Deneen’s thesis that liberalism fails through succeeding, and when confronted by that failure, always replies with the demand for mo’ better liberalism. Graeber and Wenbow lack the imagination to think their way beyond what in our time is the most conventional of all anthropologies. It turns out that a thoroughgoing revision of our understanding of early human history just happens to confirm everything Graeber and Wenbow already believe. What were the chances? ” That’s at

    • davidgraeber

      Has our number? Well, if you feel that, for instance, any feminist critique of power in the family or of its relation to larger power structures in society is necessarily and by definition a form of “liberal individualism” sure, but otherwise, there is simply no basis for the accusation.

      The irony is the “astute Alan Jacobs” you are citing, who does turn out to be quite astute, has now withdrawn the accusation and admitted he’d read the essay wrong. Oops! You are now I am afraid to say in a position not unlike Wile E Coyote when he walked off a cliff and got halfway across the canyon until he noticed he wasn’t standing on anything, and…

      • David Wengrow

        Meep meep ..

  • lemppu

    Good article, even though the tone was a bit annoying especially at the beginning, and felt like a lot of hyperbole.

    But does this really change the general big picture, is it really wrong? Yes, it is good to criticize crude simplifications and remind of the huge complexity of the topic, something that should give us all some humility before making grand declarations, but do the authors here step too much into making their Case just like so many others before them?

    To draw a broad stroke of development, the examples outlined by authors seems to fit into the classical narrative quite seamlessly. Spatially and temporally sporadical greater-than-other -individuals and groupings, buried with great ornaments, do not seem to that far from what is proposed by Flannery and Marcus. That is, human hierarchies developing out of individuals manipulating the spiritual and symbolic plane of human existence. It would be not too far fetched that these people exhibited spiritual greatness to people who were willing to decorate them and their graves with such an effort. Timeframe from beginning to end of this period is greater than from end of this period to this day.

    The development of agriculture and cities, when put in context, seems to exhibit this tendency, where inequalities become more structural and solid, but the timeframe is thousands of years.

    Now, to say that cities were egalitarian for hundreds of years or millenia, don’t contradict the big picture, where they ended up developing lasting inequalities and hierarchies in accelerating pace.

    This doesn’t of course mean that dense settlements cannot be egalitarian or that agriculture cannot be made sustainable, but it doesn’t contradict the validity of overall broad line of development of human hierarchies.

    Resorting just to rhetorical claims of “rousseauanism” or purported “innocence” do not serve the serious debate for understanding the development and endurance of inequalities and hierarchies among humans in different times and places.

    What comes to the conclusions of authors, the existence of long-lasting egalitarianism in historical cities as dense and large settlements does not in itself prove the case for egalitarianism in organizing current cities and regions. However, it is not a reason not to work towards it anyway.

    • David Wengrow

      Our argument is that these things you refer to are not causally linked. Farming doesn’t *cause* private property (3000 years, or even 500 years is way too long for a cause/effect type argument); living in cities doesn’t *cause* autocratic forms of government; and what this means is that our political destiny is not caged in by the forces of history to the extent we are usually led to believe. The possibilities of future change are not shaped and bounded by “great historical forces” crashing around above our heads (the “origins of civilisation” etc.), but – we argue – by processes that are at least to some extent still within our power to change: the relations of family, gender, the household, the young and the old. What we do with that freedom is of course another matter, but simply knowing it exists seems important to us.

      • lemppu

        If you are usually led to believe to oversimplistic explanations, it doesn’t mean certain tendencies do not exist. It is good to criticize crude simplifications where people are just cogs beyond any agency, but to say that overall developments of certain types of living and producing, ie. agriculture and cities, tend to result into certain kind of social arrangements, albeit in a very slow pace with not necessarily any observable change during a lifetime of individual, is not a wrong story but something we seriously need to take into account while contemplating possibilities of libertarian alternatives.

        It is already well proven long ago that private property and autocratic modes of governing have existed without agriculture or cities, so pointing that out is just stating the obvious.

        I would dispute your claim that there is no causal link between certain types of agriculture, cities and autocratic government. Denying them is just wishful thinking distracting us from the real challenges of understanding the tendencies toward hierarchy and inequality, which we surely need to take into account.

        3000 or 500 years is not way too long to point to a structural pressure into certain modes of living, especially if the pressure seems to point into same kind of end result time and time again. The example from Mexico, where they apparently _had to rebuild the city_ to make it egalitarian also seems to go out of egalitarianism after few centuries, so it doesn’t contradict the general picture of cities tending into hierarchy and inequality.

        When we have historical examples of egalitarian arrangements in dense settlements we should have a closer look of their social organization before disqualifying the claim that truly egalitarian arrangements can mostly happen in the small scale. What was the actual size of these cities and how they were organized, ie. was it a federation of small units or something like that? In the end, given time, even those cities, very small by current scale, tended to succumb into autocratic modes of governing.

        So in my view you didn’t challenge the traditional big picture, because you did not actually take that as your target. Instead you focused on an oversimplified popular narrative built out of that, building an image of “innocent rousseauanism”. Of course framed this way it is easy to challenge but more of a light sparring instead of a real match.

        • davidgraeber

          what you have announced is a call for special pleading. We effectively said “the term egalitarianism is so vague it might as well have been designed so you can take any complex group and say it isn’t ‘really’ egalitarian.” You said “I insist we do this to any complex group.” But you don’t say we must also do it to any “simple” group – even though the results would be the same, you can always say gender or age relations aren’t “really” equal if that’s what you set out to do, and anyway, often they obviously aren’t. What we are saying in the essay is why don’t we stop playing these games, instead identify the features we actually object to in what we are calling “unequal” social relations, and look at whether THEY come from, what sustains or undercuts them, and what we can do about them.

      • Radical People Podcast

        I wonder if it is some combination of factors, such as agriculture plus population density, for instance. If agriculture increased the number of people in a region both by potentially having more food as well as by keeping people in one place, this could have nudged at the origins of property lines; my field versus your field. My cow versus your cow.

        Combined with the then potential to reduce the wild game avaialble as this increased population hunted the edgelands, perhaps population increase then overwhelmed the surplusses generated by settlement.

        Add in the potential for bad seasons or crop failure, and then perhaps a situation arises in which stored surplusses, which didnt really exist in a mobile hunter gatherer life, need organized distribution and even security.

        I think definitively pinning down an “a ha, this is it!” factor that forever squashes more egalitarian living in favor of hierarchy may prove impossible. But seemingly, in the long run, all cities seemes to trend that way.

        • David Wengrow

          How long is the long run? I think other David has made the point that autocratic forms of government don’t last forever either: monarchies, dynasties, and empires regularly crash and burn. One thing we’ll do in the book is try to show the mounting evidence from different quarters of the globe, that cities organised on anti-authoritarian principles often lasted for many centuries in this form, which is not bad going, and certainly not all of them ended up as monarchies, and even those that did tended to contain monarchy within a pre-existing system of checks and balances (urban assemblies, neighbourhood councils, etc.). 5th century Athens (a slaveholding society that systematically excluded women from politics) begins to look both less exceptional, and — in terms of democracy — distinctly less accomplished.

          • Radical People Podcast

            I’ll need to see more examples of cities that remained egalitarian for extended periods of time without either disbanding or trending towards hierarchical systems. Im not suggesting they don’t exist, Im just not terribly familiar.

            Places like Catalhoyuk seem like they straddled a border between hunter gatherer and sedentary living. Which is to be expected, that people don’t just flip a switch and change modes of existence. But the residents there still hunted as a large part of their sustenance, and I wonder if their speculated egalitarianism was a remnant from their nomadic history, or an invention that came with settlement.

            It is always strange trying to pin down what people thought, believed, aspired to when they have been dead for thousands of years.

            I guess the stubborn notion is that it just seems easier to organize and empathize with small numbers of people as opposed to very large groups. In that regard, it seems intuitive (though could be wrong, who knows) that smaller societies would lend to more horizontal arrangements.

          • davidgraeber

            a small society contains everyone who’s ever insulted your mother, humiliated you in any way as an adolescent , or who any of your sexual partners cheated with on you. It’s actually kind of an amazing testimony to the human capacity to be reasonable that small villages manage to regularly come to consensus on important issues at all considering the baggage.

      • “Farming doesn’t *cause* private property”. Your point has been well made. ‘Private property’ is an idea. Ideas are essentially very dynamic and fluid until they become culturally institutionalized in structures like money and markets. The causal seed of tyrannical hierarchies and the accumulation of cultural power is, I think, the cultural embracing of the idea of the hereditary transmission of ‘private property’. Farming may not “cause private property”, but private property is the cause of many environmentally and socially destructive human behaviors from fascism to poverty. Poverty is the consequence of a set of institutionalized human behaviors seeded around ‘private property’ rather than resource access. It helps to isolate the root causes/motivators.

  • cuckholddon

    Hierarchy- is all over nature–including our closest “Relative” the Chimps–
    It’s hard to imagine that all Humans could have ever been “Equal” anymore than in nature (except for mabe plant life-
    We humans “Could” & Should turn back the hands of time a bit by using politics–Demanding policies whereby the top 30%(by wealth) pay enough in taxes to support the less fortunate through social programs (they might be 5% less wealthy-by still wealthy) by any measure–

    • lemppu

      If you want an insight on why humans evolved out of great ape hierarchies, check Christopher Boehm’s “Hierarchy in the Forest – The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior”. To put it short, the role of physical strength diminished considerably by the invention of weapons, when virtually anyone could kill the bully any day.

      Boehm proposed the return of great ape hierarchies after the last ice age but Benoit Dubreuil in his “Human Evolution and the Origins of Hierarchies: The State of Nature” proposed that it was not a return of old hierarchies but of a novel type, result of a manipulation of certain features of human egalitarianism. Anatomically modern human social hierarchies do not necessarily have anything to do with physical strength as in great apes.

  • Neal Gorenflo

    What do you make of the political science research that shows smaller political entities outperform larger ones in democratic governance?

    Also, the book Against the Grain argues that only certain types of agriculture (cereal crops in flood plains with regular harvests) lead to unequal states. Couldn’t its conclusion be compatible with the conclusions here, not mutually exclusive? In other words, agriculture could both have and have not lead to unequal societies depending on the type of agriculture.

    If I’m remembering correctly from that book, the determining factors as to whether agriculture resulted in an oppressive state were –> the food source was harvested all at once, easily measured, easily transported, and could be stored for relatively long periods. This enabled control of the resource and thus society to be more easily centralized.

    One point of that book that supports the argument here is that while unequal ancient states are studied far more than other large-scale settlements (because of the monumental architecture that went with them), they’re the exception rather than the rule. Egalitarian settlements were more common. Do you agree with that?

    Observation: If the legibility of a resource leads to inequality, then a society run on money, data, and oil would be super unequal…oh, right.

    • David Wengrow

      Some of those conclusions are most surely compatible – but we are struck by exceptions too, like the grain-based cities of prehistoric Ukraine, larger than Mesopotamian ones and just as old, which were astonishingly egalitarian for half a millennium and never turned into “states”. We have a fair bit to say about those, but couldn’t fit it into this piece.

      • lemppu

        Looking forward what you have to say about prehistoric cities in Ukraine. Do you mean Trypillian or something else?

        Hierarchy and inequality in cities is usually presented to happen via division of labor, but in my understanding Trypillian culture was a subsistence economy that lacked public infrastructure, division of labor and large-scale trade. Did the recurring burning of houses also have something to do with preventing the pressures of division and inequality?

        But didn’t trypillians too, in the end, develop into state-level hierarchies?

        • David Wengrow

          Not to my knowledge – it’s not clear what happened to cause their decline, but I see no significant evidence for a growth of stratification prior to that. Do please let me know if you’re aware of anything to the contrary. Thanks

          • lemppu

            In my understanding they were pressured by pastoralists and developed hierarchy of settlements, central cities surrounded by smaller satellites. On closer look I couldn’t find references of any “state-level hierarchies” so I’ll take that back.

            However, some references to stratification in European Prehistory: A Survey (Springer 2002, p. 220) and Anthony et al. in Current Anthropology 27/4, 1986.

    • dilgreen

      As someone who always looks to the deep and consistent forces and characteristics in play in any situation, I tend towards structuralist interpretations and approaches (architect by training), and such inevitable outcomes of particular sets of relationships appeal to me.
      However, one must always remember that human culture is a ‘hall of mirrors’, capable of an infinite and astonishing variety of refractions, distortions, translations, through which such inherent attributes of an environment (‘human nature’, resource type, climate, scale, whatever) can be processed to produce lived/apparent ‘reality’.
      Structuralist thinking is still meaningful – a house of mirrors cannot introduce new features, and is restricted to ‘topological’ deformations (in biological morphogenesis, I believe these are called ‘structure preserving transformations’) – but must allow for this variety to avoid vacuity.

  • Helga Vierich

    Political ranking systems in tribal societies: headmen and chiefs, even the more temporary leaders of cooperative task forces in hunter-gatherer cultures, have often been described as though they were powerful and somehow in charge and could use force. I wonder if this is really accurate?

    There is certainly a higher degree of formal rank attached, to leadership positions, among the people I did fieldwork among in West Africa: Fulani, Mossi, Dagara and the Bwaba (this was in Burkina Faso). I was there as a principal scientist working for a “green revolution” institute, called The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. I was looking into food security and farming systems. I admit, my previous experience of studying the economy of hunter-gatherers had left me with a certain expectation that a more hierarchical tribal society would be more prone to inequality and use of power and force.

    I remember in vivid detail the day I learned how limited and idiotic my prejudices made my own perceptions of these people.

    I was doing a long series of interviews with lineage heads and village chiefs, as part of my inventory of granaries – to get an idea of surplus food production in each village. All the lineage heads had many more granaries than did individual households, because every household gave a certain amount from their harvest to their lineage heads, who in turn were obliged to pass some on to the village chiefs. I took measurements and the various granaries and made estimates of how much surplus grain was being stored. It was clear that a certain surplus was part of the calculation involved in the labour each household put into farming. And these surpluses were being skimmed upward toward the village chief…

    As I was being dragged over a series of such enormous structures, in the compound of one of these village chiefs, I admit, I was thinking darkly about how he was enriching himself by exhorting tithes and extra work from each poor farmer in the village.

    Then the chief turned to me and announced – with a happy sigh: “I have grain from eight years of harvests!”

    I think I frowned at him.

    I thought – but did not say “…well lucky you.”

    Then he deflated my bubble of discontent, totally. Because the next thing he said was, “I have enough to feed the whole village now during the next drought!”

    Suddenly, I saw him, really saw him. He wasn’t a powerful schemer taking advantage of these poor struggling villagers. He was the focus of all their hopes to survive famine. He was their risk insurance strategy. This tired, gray-haired, granddad, was in fact laden with the responsibility and working his heart out to live up to it. I watched him fussing over possible insect damage in one granary and checking the next for signs of mold and moisture damage. Then, I went back to my tent and looked back over the previous weeks of notes from all these interviews with lineage elders and village chiefs and just had a good cry. I suddenly loved them all very much. It was a major revelation for me..

    “I finally have enough to feed the whole village during the next drought”.

    And there was some archaeological evidence from that same region, that drought did not interfere with the supply of millet available to villagers in another remote part of the Sahel hundreds of years ago. The system is real and it was still working when I saw it in the 1980s.

    These lineage systems, and the leadership positions they entail, are basically risk aversion strategies, and the leaders within them are often the reluctant recipients of appointments to positions involving maximum responsibility to safeguard community resource stores or stocks: the communal granaries, the communal grazing rights, and authority over the management of the herds.

    Lineage elders often jointly form counsels, which serve to prevent escalation and force resolution of, interpersonal and inter-lineage conflicts.

    This calls into question the idea of the “big man” as a self-aggrandizing winner of a competitive battle for rank, based on bullying and manipulation, in a dominance hierarchy.

    Rather, it suggests a person who wins trust and reputation for conscientiousness and honoring promises: a person who can articulate the consensus, who inspires confidence in the face of risks. Such political leadership constitutes the fulcrum of a set of “risk insurance” practices revolving around careful management of food and stock surpluses hoarded in village granaries, herds, and commons.

    These leaders enforced rules that permitted sustainable use of the communal resources. These consisted of the village land base, not just the small temporary clearings used for crops, but all the mosaic of secondary growth – the meadows, the shrubby areas where young pioneering trees were becoming established, the more mature forest, as well as the sacred groves of old growth forest. The use of the commons was carefully monitored in direct proportion to the conscientious care of lineage heads and village chiefs. Over-use, whether by over-grazing, excessive hunting, excessive harvesting of trees (or their fruits), was discouraged by means of public shaming and fines.

    Thus, I found that these lineage leadership systems among the slash and burn “shifting” systems of horticulture were safe-guarding a sustainable cultural ecology. These people were able to co-exist with massive wild biomass and species diversity, as long as the careful use of the commons was enforced by these local authorities.

    Development efforts to introduce more cash crops and to increase the “dollar/day” figures one might assign to these rural people had in some ways had the effect of destabilizing this whole traditional systems of risk insurance and sustainable ecological engineering. Individualization of “profit-seeking” through cash crops, which was encouraged by a focus on each household as an income generating enterprise, thus sometimes has had a crippled these traditional risk management systems.

    I think that in many regions, the “tragedy” of the commons unfolded when such local management systems were undermined, not as an automatic result of the selfish inclinations of competing households, not because of human nature, but because of the breakdown of traditional risk management vested in communities.

    • Jorn Bettin

      Thanks for pointing out how the “liquidity” of cash
      acts as a destabilising force by reducing valuable local and domain-specific knowledge about risk management, and by providing explicit incentives for individual profit seeking and against knowledge sharing and cooperation.

      We have to recognise that the liquidity of abstract metrics is a disadvantage and not an advantage.

      At an interdisciplinary workshop last week we touched on a very similar challenge in the context of industrialised agriculture vs urban farming.

      “… Metrics in physical units that track human activities in the productive economy (produce, design/engineer/construct, maintain, transport/communicate) have the potential to be particularly useful for large-scale inter-community and inter-national coordination and fair distribution of energy and resource flows. The less such metrics are converted into globally tradeable abstract monetary units, the less potential there is for speculation and corruption. The more metrics from the physical world such as human carbon emissions or non-recycled waste are used to track progress towards human values, the less relevant the old and simplistic paradigm of economic “growth” becomes. …”

      • Helga Vierich

        Wow. Well this is a response I did not expect from my own comment.. but yes, the measurements – and indeed the actual things we chose to measure (cash vs calories, for example) make a big difference in how the resulting data is perceived. I guess we are all blinkered by our conceptual paradigms at times.. and it is such a rush and a joy to suddenly see it al form a different perspective.

        • Jorn Bettin

          Our “educational” system does a good job of indoctrination… I very
          much like your observations in this discussion. Have also replied to one of your other posts on the topic of hierarchy, but the Disqus system flagged my post as spam. There seems to be no human looking after the poorly designed filters. If you’d like to discuss hierarchies and trusted competency networks, we can discuss via email ( Using this forum is painful.

      • Borjan Zarevski

        “metrics” are useful when strangers appear on the horizon. As extra kinship, friendship, affinities. Sociologically. If “isonomia” is implicated. A bit complicated to reduce in a post here.There are “gods” of metrics and interesting etymologies like those of “rex” for example. Double morphology of kinship facing bureaucracy, etc.

    • Borjan Zarevski

      The development of technology, tools as exosomatized organs, social “tools” included, disrupted “traditional” “human nature”, traditional kinship roles or risk management. Nothing to do with selfishness or empathy.

  • Randal Mcmurphy

    It is interesting to read a good biography of the Morgan family of JP Morgan fame. The first morgan was the largest man in the colony and he was given or elected keeper of fences and the pound. He was a big man and In no short order he had control of all the finances and was basically boss!

  • ashleyjthomas

    Will there be a version of this with citations? I’m a developmental psychologist and I study infants’ ideas about social hierarchy, and found this incredibly useful.

  • John Sawdon

    Very interesting, reminded of Michel Foucault (History of Sexuality, the Archeology of Knowledge and Discipline and Punish) – a lot. The narrative is that there is no easy narrative. Look to the self and how power structures are visited upon that, our bodies. Not very popular these days. But so much to offer in terms of method and perspective.

    • davidgraeber

      thanks – yes, we are honestly not sure ourselves where this will all lead, and have several times changed our perspectives on the larger patterns as we learned more. It’s way too big for any simple narrative to contain it.

      • John Sawdon

        You may have already read it but there is a relatively short essay called “Nietzsche, Genealogy and history” which kind of sets out his method which is extremely dense and not a little opaque (in the way in which continental philosophers can often be) but extremely useful, and very much chimes with the findings you present here. Where as most commentators here seem to be interested in the substance of your work, I am more interested in your method….

        • David Wengrow

          Will certainly take a look, many thanks

  • Anthony H

    I wrote substantially and sincerely trying to comment on the article, but Disqus marked it as spam. I’m sure I do not understand how it was anything of the sort. Anyway, I am not going to hold my breath that my comment will ever post, but at the same time, if ever it ever does, it would seem very rude to ask questions and never attend to the answers. So, here is just thanks for the article and thanks anyway, potentially, for the discussion.

    • davidgraeber

      what dd you ask about?

      • Anthony H

        It did it again since I posted again last night. Truly I am at a loss to say why. Fool me once… Also, the account delete function does not, apparently, work.

  • Monte Kitchens

    Absolutely remarkable work. Thank you for informing and inspiring.

  • davidgraeber

    thanks much appreciated!

  • Helga Vierich

    Is anarchy the opposite of civilization? That is the way many people seem to think of it. But I don’t agree. I suggest that the opposite of anarchy is not civilization, it is just the absence of a recognized authority with the power to enforce….

    Authority can come in two forms: it can be imposed or chosen. If people chose to follow a leader, or respect the judgement of someone who otherwise has no way of imposing their will, this is not a chain of command, it is trust and respect. It may not be complete consensus but it is a far cry from the kind of authority that is backed up by violence. We have a word for that too: tyranny. The word anarchy may be used as if it means the opposite of “hierarchy”, but then we need to be very specific about what exactly we think hierarchy actually is.

    Isn’t “hierarchy” frequently used to imply a gradient of power over others? It conjures up the pecking order of chickens and the “dominance hierarchy” of baboons. But there is a difference between hierarchy resulting from imposed authority and a hierarchy resulting from consensual followership.

    Look what happens in in every human society when there is a major emergency. Human beings may occasionally respond to a crisis by running around like chickens with their heads cut off, but most of the time they do exactly the opposite – they cooperate, they help one another, they form surprisingly orderly task forces, and perform extraordinary acts of heroism.

    When people rally around someone for guidance in a crisis, we acknowledge the phenomenon of the “natural leader”.

    This is not limited to dramatic occasions, it is just toned down. Groups of people undertaking regular tasks, even ordinary everyday work, also seem to sort themselves into a kind of cooperative chain of suggestions and actions, and, when a joint effort is called for, someone will either be given – or will “take” charge – the job of organizing the sequence of tasks to be accomplished. Such impromptu organizational hierarchies emerge almost instantly among groups of friends and families getting together at BBQs, joint vacations, fishing trips, volunteer clean up crews, and are also in evidence at weddings, funerals, and various other customary celebratory get-to-gethers.

    That is precisely what happens during larger aggregations among hunter-gatherers too. And, scaled down, it even happens everyday, in every co-residential group.

    The so-called “band” of the hunter-gatherers is actually a camping party of at most half a dozen households, usually assembled by informal negotiation well in advance. Custom allows for fluid turnover as various households arrive and depart for other assignations or due to conflicts within the camping party. I found the largest bands tended to centre around certain people who were widely respected and had large and active networks of friends and relatives.

    “Popular” people tend to have the most extensive networks: they can get things done, they can get you information, and they can, as a result, pull together the largest cooperative groups and hold the biggest parties. It is exactly the same in all human cultures.

    This is not a mystery. Nor is it mysterious that people do not consider this to be the same thing as an authoritarian hierarchy. But I can tell you right now: this is how anarchy works.

    One more thing should also be obvious: the minute a popular person tries to coerce people with threats – they lose trust and respect. That is the death of willing cooperation. If the coercive threat can be followed up, this the beginning of inequality, of sycophants and patsies, of sneering references to teacher’s pets, to an obedience based on fear, to talk of taking others “down a peg”, of bullying, of razor gangs, and, last but not least, of self-affirmation fallacies that turn people into obnoxious and cruel tyrants.

    That is the window into a hell, the danger not unknown even among the utter masters of graceful anarchy. The explanation offered to Richard Lee should ring like a bell – “if… he comes to think he is better than other people: someday he may kill someone.”

    They know.

    We all know. Well, perhaps people in positions of power and authority can fool themselves; maybe that is what self-affirmation fallacies are for?

    Anyway, I think that is why living in bigger groups, especially in “civilizations” can be tricky. You need to push the slider over the middle in the direction of anarchy – and away from the counter-pole of coercive tyranny – to get genuine leadership. That is what we mean by democracy, isn’t it?

    We get to vote, and try to do so usually on scant personal knowledge of the candidates. We know we can be lied to, we know false promises are sometimes made, we look for someone we think we could trust and whose life seems consistent with values we cherish.

    We often find ourselves electing one among a panel made up of rich people. Being wealthy is, unfortunately, often a poor substitute for having leadership qualities, let alone real concern for the welfare of ordinary little people in a vast sea of citizens. But in societies with profound socio-economic inequality, we all too frequently have to make do with such “popularized” counterfeits. Isn’t this why may states have a balance of powers, between head of state, various parliaments, congresses, courts, senates, and other assemblies? Isn’t that why many citizens are concerned about special interest groups and conflicts of interest between private and public concerns? Isn’t this one of the ironies of constitutional monarchies – where an older aristocratic power is sometimes required to step in, to counter policies dictated more by party politics than national interest?

    Isn’t that why freedom of the press is a keystone element in a democracy?

    • I like your analysis of the dynamics of hierarchical vs anarchic societies. I think the whole process can be described as the decision spaces of sentient being(s), be that individuals or communities. At birth or perhaps before, we each begin to generate an internal image of ‘reality’ that informs our personal decisions/actions. Generally speaking this personal ‘worldview’ or ontology evolves over the course of our lives hopefully allowing us to align our behaviors with our natural and cultural environments in a manner that is self beneficial.

      As communities we engage in a similar process of arriving at a consensual shared image of ‘reality’ that informs our decisions/actions as a community. My own analyses has led me to understand that many of the structurally violent hierarchical communities arise from the shared cultural idea of personal/property-ownership that has become rigidly institutionalize. Sharing of access to resources is a much more fluid and anarchic cultural narrative that helps us to avoid overt centralization of power and ‘authority over others hierarchies’.

      Ideas and our capacity to share them is what creates human cultural communities. Ideas are essentially very fluid until they become culturally institutionalized. Money is the institutionalize/ritualized cultural embodiment of the personal/property-ownership idea. Money and Markets are the primary source of most of the environmental problems confronting our global human community. As individuals, we don’t generally ‘decide’ to poison our own environment, but the decisions that today are arising from the global community ‘decision space’ being informed by shared ‘cultural values’ like money and markets are generating unsustainable individual and community human decisions/behaviors(actions).

      Understanding all this may help us to begin to chart a course towards a sustainable global human civilization informed by a shared cultural perspective that generates sustainable human decisions/actions instead of what is happening right now.

    • cuckholddon

      Never will a population large than a few dozen All chose the same leader–anarchy is when the people who did’nt chose that leader Refuse to do what’s best (or thought to be best) by the majority for that civilization–

    • Borjan Zarevski

      Maybe a digression: The word “Tyrant” transmitted to us by the Greeks, has a Pre-Greek origin, with unknown etymology. For Greeks tyrant was someone who disrupts traditional aristocratic, hereditary, lineage alike rule. Sometimes they were so just, progressive and popular that they didn’t have necessity to keep bodyguards during their public appearances, feasts or weddings, or ever. The Roman institution of “dictator” was, on the other or the same hand, something similar to a positive “tyrant” – when someone was appointed, in urgent situations, to find a solution, political or militarily, not because he was a gifted leader, let me say average… but because he was the less corrupted citizen living in a productive and political independence.

    • gusandra

      When old Oman functioned as an Imamate, new Imams were chosen, or drafted, by a committee of sheikhs. Imams typically had to be cajoled or even threatened before they would accept the leadership position. (After all, most sensible people would not want the hassle and responsibility of being leader.) Western electoral politics works just the opposite. Narcissists and sociopaths vie with one another for positions of power.

  • Rick Smith

    The bit that’s already happened is precisely the bit we can’t change – it’s in the past!

  • Henrik Karlsson

    Thank you for this! Many stimulating thoughts.

    The suggestion that foragers might have been “more conscious of society’s potential than people generally are today, switching back and forth between different forms of organization every year” is especially intriguing. A lot of the ethnographies of the early 1900s now strike me as potential goldmines of knowledge.

    It’s tempting to look for a simple static version of our past; I’ve done so myself. Mainly interested in learning environments, I read a lot about foragers looking for a prestine arrangement of learning in society. The diversity of real foragers disappointed me, and I longed for those simplifications that Diamond and Fukuyama sell. Reading this, however, made me realize that the diversity is in fact even more intriguing than the simpler accounts. We’ve done so many experiments, and we can do so many more.

    But it also makes me depressed thinking about the schooling of the world. How teachers came to the Kwakiutl, teaching them not to have potlatches, not to explore unknown social possibilities. And so on. And so on. Again and again. So many deep, time tested bodies of knowledge, so many possibilities, all destroyed.

    Looking forward to the book and new ideas.

  • Abu Nudnik

    Income inequality is a pitch to use people’s envy to seize power.

    • davidgraeber

      to the contrary it’s usually evoked to draw attention to the fact that some people monopolise power by corrupting the political system with their money, and use that power to get even more money and put everyone else in debt, then base the “economy” increasingly on trading that debt back and forth with each other and calling it “finance”

      but this is moving rather beyond the topic of the essay!

  • Some Body

    Did anyone else read this, especially sections 4 and 5, and keep having the word “carnival” ring in their heads?
    (The term “carnival” has roots in early 20th-century philosophy and anthropology, but I’m particularly thinking about the way Mikhail Bakhtin interpreted the concept. See his “Rabelais and His World”, the second half or so of “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel”, and a few other works).

    • davidgraeber

      definitely an historical link there, yes

  • The authors should be more specific about which inequality they’re talking about. There’s a big difference between material and legal inequalities. And there’s the difference between relative and absolute inequalities when comparing time periods. For example: would you rather be equally legal or materially equal to everyone?

    • davidgraeber

      The article and all sources in it were obviously referencing inequalities of wealth.

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  • Urmas Alas

    “As Claude Lévi-Strauss often pointed out, early Homo sapiens were not just physically the same as modern humans, they were our intellectual peers as well.” With some evolutionary irony, the last 10,000 years have actually shrunk our brains.

  • SteB1

    I’m more than sympathetic to the aims of this essay. I understand what the purpose is, and that is to overcome the crushing hopelessness that the modern form of society, and it’s grossly unequal power relationships is inevitable.The aim appears to be to undermine the narrative that only small societies can be egalitarian, and large societies need a strict hierarchical order with a powerful ruling elite. Superficial narratives are peddled that imply the archaeological record supports this view, and the aim here appears to be to contradict this narrative with the latest and accumulated evidence, which does not support this simplistic narrative, which many commentators, including popular ones present.

    The case is generally well argued, although I might take issue with some generalizations. But then again the objections are often dealt with to some extent in the essay. An example would be the characterization of social stratification, an elite, in the Mesolithic. But then it’s recognized that the evidence is somewhat scattered temporarily and spatially. I think we can agree that the past is much less homogeneous, and less easily generalized than is commonly thought.

    However, the one issue I have are the narratives argued against. There was a serious misunderstanding when I responded to George Monbiot’s tweet about this essay on Twitter, and David Graeber didn’t take kindly to me saying “Well I’ve read it, and I fail to see what is revolutionary”. Yes it’s revolutionary in that it overturns societal myths and narratives which exist at a certain level. But many of the points made are not necessarily new to the more insightful. In other words, the arguments only contradict certain narratives, and not all insight.

    I must add at this point that I am not an academically qualified anthropologist, and the nearest thing I’ve formally studied to this subject is quaternary ecology. However, the past, our societies from the past have been a major interest of mine for over 45 years. And for the same reason as the authors in that I sought the type of society they wanted, and wished to know what was possible from studying the past, and other societies.

    The reason I make this point is that I’ve periodically read the literature, and have been particularly interested in new evidence, new discoveries. But I’ve never read literature systematically like an academic anthropologist would. I’m also very averse to writers who try to coerce me into their narrative. What I’m trying to say, and this was the basis of the misunderstanding, is that I was aware a long time ago, that the transition to agriculture, the pattern of pre-agricultural societies, and all the points the essay makes, were nowhere near as simple or one dimensional as the narratives argued against in the article suggest.

    My dislike of narratives, is how to typify them. They exist at all sorts of levels, and vary enormously. This is what I meant by the analysis not being as revolutionary as George Monbiot implied. But that might just be from my perspective, as I can only see things in terms of what I know, and not through someone else’s eyes. Maybe it is revolutionary to others. More specifically I question the ability of challenging these narratives will be to change society, as only a relative small proportion of the public, even the educated public, are really familiar with the narratives being challenged in the essay.

    I’d already personally concluded a very long time ago, that egalitarian, less hierarchical large and complex societies were possible. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’ve been arguing this point for a long time.

    Much of my spare time for the last 30 years or so has been focused on trying to understand how to make it possible. My conclusion is that to make it possible we have to address the false ideas people have, and the myths presented here are one such example. But you cannot address every false idea people have. And so we need sort of meta ideas, to undo all the false ideas in circulation, and not have to address each individually. This means addressing our use of ideas themselves, and particularly the way the mistaking the map for the territory logical error is rampant in our culture. If everyone could grasp this one idea, perception could be changed.

    You see I’ve come to the conclusion that powerful elites control our societies, with the control of common ideas through which people understand the world. This sense of hopelessness induced by the idea that the current model of society is the only one possible, is an excellent example. I’m not some know it all, and I suffer daily with the struggle how to explain it, in a way which will be understood. My belief is that change must be from the bottom up, and requires a change in perception of a large proportion of the public.

    • SteBi, you use the phrase “My Belief”, let’s say instead, “Your working hypothesis” on “How we change the course of human history.”

      Ideas are the coin of cultural discourse, sometimes called cultural Memes because ideas that spread through human culture display similarities to the way genes mutate and evolve over time and spread through populations. Unlike genes though, ideas can mutate very rapidly and don’t necessarily require generational time frames to propagate, only a shared conversation between two friends.

      Many of us are extremely troubled by the direction we see our global human civilization moving, so we wish to change that ‘course’. The big question is how and to what affect? Those of us who are privileged enough and short sighted enough are happy to let things continue more or less unchanged.

      Not changing was never an option. The constantly changing environment around us guarantees that. Maybe we will learn technologies that will allow us to alter our basic genetics rapidly enough to successfully survive but it is much more likely that we will alter our own behaviors by evolve our cultural memes quickly enough to successfully respond to the environmental changes we have already set in motion and thus ensure the survival of at least some of us within a greatly changed cultural and natural environment. The genetic changes will follow more slowly and hopefully with greater wisdom learned from mistakes experienced if we are the authors of those changes and not merely merely the blind vehicles of genetic evolution we have largely been so far.

  • Online_Reflection

    An interesting synthesis and analysis of the newest information and evidence in human pre-history (and its current (mis)use as metaphor in modern political discourse). Very much enjoyed this article from the perspective of an interested anthropology layperson. Look forward to the book version – it will be on my bookshelf when it comes out.

    • davidgraeber

      thanks! we’re on it.

  • Troy Wiley

    Just wondering how Andy Schmookler’s Parable of the Tribe theory fits in with all of this, that humans evolved beyond biological “natural selection” to social “selection for the ways of power” where there would be an inevitable struggle for power among tribes that would spread like a contagion throughout all humanity. What if inequality arose not with agriculture, or private property, but instead with the selection for the ways of power that arose when early tribes started bumping into each other?

    • davidgraeber

      well the interesting thing about Schmookler’s model is why in so many times and places it DIDN’T happen. (His point is the fairly obvious one that if you have 5 tribes in a valley, and 4 are peaceful and one is aggressively violent, the other 4 have a problem and can either flee, be wiped out, be conquered, or learn how to be effectively violent themselves, and start training for war. This is supposed to lead to everyone becoming equally violent over time.) You read constantly in the ethnographic lit about parts of Africa, Amazonia, etc etc where there was one “bad apple” who’d periodically (every few years) raid everyone else, killing and plundering etc, and people would just accept this as part of life and not dedicate their society to self-defensive training. If this isn’t evidence people are not naturally violent I don’t know what is.

  • MontyJohnston

    I’m sorry – It was survivalism, pecking orders, and tribal warlords from the jump. We’re just a bunch of animals, doing what animals did.

    This fantastic egalitarian constitutional democracy thing we’ve finally come up with – see how vulnerable even it is to a smart/stupid tribal warlord and his pecking-order followers.

    Let’s not give ourselves too much credit.

    • davidgraeber

      why because you say so? You’re projecting fantasies based on your own biased assumptions about human nature on to history. If what you say is true, egalitarian cities would not have existed for centuries, and evidence clearly indicates that they did. So you’re wrong. You see, science, empiricism, that means if you say “it must have been like that” and you discover it was ‘t, then you change your assumptions, because you realise they must have been wrong.

      • MontyJohnston

        Donald Trump would say all America is egalitarian cities, towns, and country. Do you agree?

        Plus, too, show me, please, the written documentation from these ancient egalitarian cities.

        • davidgraeber

          ah so you don’t believe in archaeology. Okay. Believe what makes you happy.

          • MontyJohnston

            Check the third-to-the-last sentence in the article; that the ancient family is dysfunctional. That’s the heart of my point; plus there is not the beginning of enough evidence in the article to suggest that it doesn’t ray up through tribe and then inter-tribal relations.

            You know the military model, and the medical model? formed around life and death? Best to check out the hunter/gatherer model. Last I heard, average lifespan then was 19.

          • davidgraeber

            the article is not a presentation of evidence, that would take several books. The article is a summary of the findings of many decades of scientific research, presented by two prominent scholars in their fields. While I respect the impulse to question authority, to simply say “well this contradicts my assumptions about human nature so I will just say the evidence must be wrong, even though I don’t know what that evidence really is” is precisely how a closed-minded ideologue would react.

          • MontyJohnston

            The article makes a specific point of not saying, “The evidence proves that hunter-gatherer life was not particularly difficult.” Rather, it goes out of its way to say that there is no evidence that it was not easy.

            Have you read the particulars of male and female tribal initiation rites? 13-year-olds? or of the rigid social hierarchies within and between families and tribes? Have you ever killed a deer with a rock?

            What part is played in our discussion by your thinking it makes sense to insult me? rather than for you to question your near-fantasy assumptions and the relatively hollow nonsensical case of these authorities over other authorities?

            Don’t you know what evidence is?

          • JuHoansi

            “Last I heard, average lifespan then was 19.”

            Really? Who told you that? Source please…

          • MontyJohnston

            No good source. Some anthropological something about hunter-gatherers I stumbled into within the last few years that sounded reliable enough to store away in my cerebral cortex.

            It still sounds about right.

  • Drumsgoon

    Very interesting read, the environmentalist-marxist origin mythology needs to go, like previous origin myths. I find the use of inequality, even though of valid criticism of the concepts, still a bit vague. Most importantly I miss the important distinction between political inequality of rights and inequally distributed social (biological) attributes. The former is a problem, the latter is a fact of human nature and the groups they form that can only be prevented (but also increased or preserved in injust ways) by the former.

    Are you familiar with Kaplan’s criticism of the ‘equal happy flourishing tribesmen’? What do you think about William N Goetzmann’s work on the importance of trade in the development of civilisation? It could explain a lot these dual-movents you describe.

    In case you are wondering, yes I am libertarian-minded.;p

  • Stivvanos Maqqi Amolngatti Âû

    Nice to see someone else from the autistic community pick up on that line quoted by Jorn Bettin below! This is very much something that I think autistics (and numerous other othered groups) can speak to. Certainly it is worth pausing to remember that any inequality in a society is effectively the sum total of a multitude of inequalities that arise in the interactions of pairs of individuals within that society, and that as a result it makes sense that the most important inequalities are those the recur over and over through a lifetime, that is, the inequalities that arise in the interactions of people who share the same immediate living space.
    came to this article via a link shared by an old
    friend/archaeologist… but as the article progressed I found it as interesting from the point of view of someone quite involved in development of the autistic community.
    More recently I’ve been
    musing on the differences in how aspects
    of ‘personal space’ (physical, emotional, communication, intellectual spaces, and also
    ‘personal time’) are defined and experienced by autistics,
    and how this differs (or does not differ) from the way other
    neurodivergent and neuromajority people define and experience them. This article meshes quite nicely with those musings.
    much food for thought also in
    terms of both how the (largely online) autistic community has been
    developing and how individual autistics experience and respond to a
    largely non-autistic society.
    Anyway, thanks for this article. Its way too late at night for my brain to allow me say anything particularly sensible to add to this discussion, but I’ve saved it (and several links from the comments) to re-read.

    Thanks again!


    • Jorn Bettin

      The challenge for autists and other minorities lies in creating a safe and self-sustaining physical space and economic autonomy for culturally divergent creativity and productivity. Some of things a minority group needs to survive and live may need to be sourced from the rest of society, and the minority group needs to figure out what it can produce that is valued by the rest of society in return. The latter can be very problematic, as the values of mainstream (=neurotypical) society only have limited overlap with the diverse things and activities that minorities may value.

      Research of highly competitive Western cultures [such as demonstrates that the social game known as capitalistic economics is a game of luck. Within that game success has nothing to do with value creation for society and everything to do with social manipulation skills and lack of empathy . As long as our culture is defined by social gaming, individuals can succeed in two ways:
      1. Adopt psychopathic behavioural patterns to claim and take credit for the success of others [see for example Depending on ones level of empathy, beyond the facade of social success, mental health will suffer more or less in the process.
      2. Work together as a collaborative team to share knowledge, resources, opportunities and success, and thereby being able to shift the odds for an entire group of people.

      The team approach is better for human mental and physical health and it also allows a group to be more selective in terms of where to look for opportunities and how to contribute to society. Problems with hierarchical forms of organisation result from cultural inertia and from the extent to which humans are culturally programmable.

      To me it seems that mixed teams of neurodivergent individuals and neurotypical individuals can only survive if either the culture explicitly values and assigns special significance to neurodivergent individuals (not the case in most contemporary societies), or if the non-typical team members constitute a very sizeable minority, so that marginalisation becomes impossible.

  • APS

    Thank you so much for your inspiring work in composing this article. The explorations made are so fascinating and, I believe, significant to humanity’s questions/issues today. The dismantling of the misunderstanding or willful ignorance of human history and a thoughtful exploration of our story is one of the most important endeavors we can embark upon. I am just so grateful to have the resource of your article and I plan on reading all your reference material. Thank you again.

  • crelliott

    It has seemed to me that people who have or believe they have functional and kind families are often blind to the ways in which dysfunctions within family structure creates an acceptance of inequality from the earliest days of life. Mothers who feel they sacrifice everything also often try to extract much in return. I say mothers because dependably (because of biological constraints) it is here that all family begins. When I look at government and society I see flickers of family life. Parenting is the ultimate imbalance of power. Many rise to the challenge and force themselves to be accountable but arguably many do not and this provides framework.

    My Uncle always espoused that idea that society was doomed and that hunter gatherer life was idyllic. It never resonated with me though. My parents were wholly terrible because they were ill prepared for parenting, they were socially isolated and they were financially at the edge. They also were incompatible with each other and tore each other down. I benefited from interactions with society and could not see how my uncle’s version could be true. Concepts of ownership were always strongest at the small scale familial level.

    Perhaps our modern inequality is made worse because technology has allowed us to see ourselves in our small tribes where ideas stagnate and ownership becomes more pronounced. Perhaps we are not truly living in large scale society but rather in tiny tribes and it is this framing that trips us up as we try to make sense of it.

  • Tampa Tom

    I’ve been out of action regarding paleoanthropology and archealogy for a few years, but I really enjoyed the presentation — a nice gift to the younger folks who missed out on this fun subject I saw fade out about 25 years ago. This is a fun subject, right?
    (mostly) Hairless bipeds, shuffling about like lost penguins, will continue to mystify and reveal biases regarding the habitats we occupied in our past. It’s certainly true our cultural adaptations had to radiate out from somewhere.
    But I think it was our big brains and opposable thumbs, combined with tactile fingers… oh now I’m rambling.
    Anyways, speaking of spheniscidae:
    Why are human comfortable in crowds, as we seem at ease in gatherings exceeding hundreds of thousands (often barely clothed)? Not very monkeylike! Even for langurs.

    • Tampa Tom

      Yes, I googled: “penguin scientific name”

  • Leo S. Ross
  • Raphael

    Graeber and Wengrow, what about the marginalization of Bonobos as potential models of human nature and the valorisation instead of Chimpanzees? You only need to read a bit about the differences between the two to understand, whereas both share a common ancestor with us and equal amounts of genetics. Another classic bias in hegemonic constructions of ‘human nature’…

  • Tim Britton

    The conclusion of the article: that social inequities are not a function of the unwieldy size of a community, but indeed crop up first within families and other close relationships. I would take it a step further and say that it is our relationship with the different parts of ourselves that we may be uncomfortable with that we must come to terms with before we can expect to have healthy relationships with anyone else. And this work, by virtue of the fact that it is the most confrontative and honest, is the hardest, yet the only work that is ultimately effective. Not that we aren’t compelled by outer consequences. That is where we can look for the smoke that indicates the fire.

    Here is the conclusion of the article I’m referring to:

    “For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.”

  • Joel

    Fascinating writing, and I 100% agree with the conclusion.

    My understanding of social (in)equality is that there is normally a method of producing and enforcing inequality that lies alongside a story that legitimises it.

    How much can archaeology tell us about the latter?

    From my reading, studies of egalitarian societies (that the article doesn’t appear interested in) can actually tell us quite a lot about the latter, so I guess I’m somewhat attempting to defend their ‘value’ here

  • CARambolagen

    Perhaps you would like to read Richard Wrangham and Colleagues on this: “Apes and the origins of human violence” should be illuminating on this topic

  • RobertSF

    Fantastic article! Very insightful!

  • David Wyman

    Thank you. Much to think about here.

  • RogerSweeny

    Accepting everything you say as true, I don’t see that it changes much.

    Here in eastern Massachusetts, temperature bounces around a lot. April 15 may be cooler than February. There is no simple break between cold season and warm season, or any obvious date to say, “this starts the transition between cold and warm.

    Yet it is useful and generally true to say that it gets warmer from early February to early August. It is also useful and generally true to divide the year into four parts: a cold and warm season and two transitions, aka winter, spring, summer, and fall.

    There actually was an agricultural evolution; early civilizations weren’t all the same as later ones. That doesn’t mean the conventional wisdom isn’t broadly true, any more than the fact that the last two years here saw February warmer than March means it isn’t broadly true that things get warmer from early February on.

    • davidgraeber

      you’re still assuming that there’s an overall continuous movement in one direction but we’re challenging that. The last few thousand years might have been marked by hierarchical arrangements in most of the world but they’re a relatively brief period if you’re looking at 40 thousand. There’s simply no evidence the Neolithic, for instance, marked an overall shift towards stratified society as compared to the Mesolithic, it might well have been the opposite. As I’ve remarked before, saying agriculture made later states possible is true in a sense, but only in the same sense that the discovery of calculus made the hydrogen bomb possible. The only reason it even looks like there is an overall movement towards states and empires is that eventually, a few states and empires figured out effective ways to enslave a lot of their neighbours, and the effects are still with us. If you want to organise all human history around the fact this did eventually happen, sure, you can do that, that is indeed what most people do, but it’s because you have decided that’s what all history was necessarily leading up to. That’s not an empirical observation of the overall direction of history, despite some fluctuations. It’s simply an a priori assumption you bring in yourself.

  • Kyle Miller

    I wish the essay hadn’t ended so soon. I’m interested in what the authors conclude about human nature from their research.

    The conclusion suggests that inequality begins on a personal level: Are we then destined (or hard-wired) to creating inequality? What causes that? Are some people immoral and abusive of their authority or all of us?

    And what happened in the homes of the people in more egalitarian societies to make them different from today’s?

    I’ve recently come to think that more authoritarian and ego-driven individuals shape cultures over time. Their voices are loudest, so to speak, and then what they say becomes “mainstream.” And that cultural pressures create psychological harm in the home. Culture shapes human inequality rather than the opposite.

    It’s probably more complicated than that, but I’m curious what the authors would consider to be the root cause of inequality: human nature, nurture, or an interplay between the two?

    If love to read a book about this regardless.

  • Chris

    I like how you are spiraling outside of the predefined prejudices of your past colleagues.