The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history.
March 11, 2018 6:01 PM   Subscribe

"Those same pioneering humans who colonised much of the planet also experimented with an enormous variety of social arrangements." In a new article Davids Graeber and Wengrow argue that popularly accepted models of human history are now outmoded by archaeological findings.

Graeber, previously.
posted by doctornemo (15 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder what information Beringia, Sundaland or Doggerland would give up, if only we could dig them.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:26 PM on March 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

TL;DR - Ancient peoples about whom we know very little else, probably had different social arrangements for summer and winter, as do some non-agricultural societies about whom we do know a little more. The author presents his speculations about ancient people as if they were certainties, and insists that these speculations support his preferred political ideas.

He mentions some important archeological findings of recent times, but you can find these covered more thoroughly in National Geographic, among other places.
posted by Modest House at 6:48 PM on March 11, 2018 [37 favorites]

Modest House has perfectly summarized most of Graeber's oeuvre.
posted by PhineasGage at 8:05 PM on March 11, 2018 [6 favorites]

Amazing read, thanks.
posted by The Toad at 8:06 PM on March 11, 2018

I thought this was fun;
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.
Don't know where he got it or how it worked, but - to quote our president - "maybe we should try it".
posted by Alter Cocker at 8:11 PM on March 11, 2018 [44 favorites]

" The author presents his speculations about ancient people as if they were certainties, and insists that these speculations support his preferred political ideas. "

Stipulating this, that's one of his points about the bulk of existing accounts, no? I'm quite interested in anyone showing that other visions of our past are plausible, in that idealised pasts often inform people's sense of what a right and proper future looks like.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:39 PM on March 11, 2018 [19 favorites]

The snide bit about technocratic adjustment of Gini coefficients strikes me as unhelpful. We have right in front of us examples of societies that do a better job at educating, feeding, and caring for people, and others that do a worse job (often an immeasurably worse job). The difference? Redistributive taxation policies, first of all. Control over military budgets, second. Regulation of economic and environmental consequences, third. The authors give the impression of thinking it is wrong-headed even to agitate against the maldistribution of goods, and if this is so, maybe they are not interested in time-tested methods for improving the lot of human beings. It's fun to think about alternative histories but our admitted path dependency does not leave us with no better choices.
posted by homerica at 5:12 AM on March 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

The comment below the article are really worth a read; both of the authors are actively engaged in the discussion and I think they manage to articulate some of the ideas far more succinctly than in the article itself. The comments also directed me to James M. Scott's Against the Grain (Guardian review), an excellent in-depth look at some of the issues mentioned by Graeber and Wengrow, e.g. early agriculture and early states. It's definitely worth a read if Graeber and Wengrow's article left you aching for something more substantial.
posted by daniel_charms at 5:39 AM on March 12, 2018 [7 favorites]

Graeber, previously.

Not sure why you picked those few; Graeber's been on the blue a lot more than that (stick his name in the search box and see). Here are the first two: 1, 2.
posted by languagehat at 7:58 AM on March 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I liked this line from Graeber out of the comments:
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.
But to be honest, if it weren't for the hints indicating that these guys are respected in their field and notes in the OP that Graeber was previously frequently featured on MeFi, I'd have thought that they were just setting up and knocking down a straw man.

Does this "story we have been telling ourselves about our origins" really exist in academia, outside of popular press books and this one Flannery and Marcus book they mention? My impression has always been that the official word on what was happening in pre-history is "We have no idea what was really going on, because it was pre-history" and emphasis that parallels shouldn't be drawn to modern phenomena, but at the same time we probably shouldn't assume that people were fundamentally different or stereotypically "primitive".

Weren't the 18th century intellectuals they reference people who still pretty much thought that Greece and Rome invented everything, with some concessions to Ancient Egypt if they were feeling avant-garde, who were as much describing the "noble savage" as pre-history?

The assertion that "it’s not obvious what [eliminating equality] would even mean, since people are not all the same and nobody would particularly want them to be" is kind of tough to swallow as a serious proposition, since a great deal of progress has already been made in that direction—everyone being able to read, for example, or everyone having the option to have fewer children the way socially high-status people were able to during much of history. (As I understand it, at least.)
posted by XMLicious at 8:12 AM on March 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

You could say in a sense that setting up and knocking down straw men is what theorizing is often about, as if you delve deep enough into one issue or another, you'll inevitably reach a point where you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who actually and actively thinks in the terms you are criticizing. What you will easily find, however, is people who will unconsciously default to stuff like 18th century origin stories in things they consider non-essential to their main arguments or whatever. And in this case, even a straw man can become a great analytical tool because not paying attention to not thinking X can be just as consequential as actually thinking X; you just have to show that it is so, which I'm not sure Graeber and Wengrow have managed.
posted by daniel_charms at 11:42 AM on March 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

Thanks for the link. I guess some people are just allergic to David Graeber but I read this as a thoughtful dismantling of the popular science version of human history. I didn't read any extravagant claims about unknowable ancient cultures, but rather some thoughtful explaining of why our assumptions about ancient cultures aren't well supported by available evidence. As a bonus, I found the piece accessible and engaging.

Different strokes I guess.
posted by latkes at 7:29 PM on March 12, 2018 [7 favorites]

Does this "story we have been telling ourselves about our origins" really exist in academia,

Maybe not in graduate Anthropology and Archaeology courses, but it's still pretty common in overview classes, and textbooks where the focus isn't on Archaeology. And of course, the popular notion of agriculture > cities > oppression is massively entrenched. For every Graeber there's a hundred Diamonds or pseudo-Marxist philosophers going on like the transition to cities was a linear process.

What's fascinating is just how messy and transitory the process of agriculture and cityfication seems to be. Like there could have been large temporary cities, that there could have been other motives for the creation of agriculture and cities than the ability to give an elite a surplus.

And it really should have been more occupied - when people keep repeating how unpleasant and demanding and work agriculture is, then the question becomes "if that's so, why did it arise at least 11 times across the world in different environments?" That itself should have been a strong clue the conventional narrative was wrong.
posted by happyroach at 9:17 AM on March 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

I guess some people are just allergic to David Graeber but I read this as a thoughtful dismantling of the popular science version of human history.

I dunno much about the history/prehistory part, but when Graeber talks about economics, he sounds like a crank. Modest House really seems to have called it: he has an ax to grind, and while I'm on board with 'smash the system,' it seems to lead him to play fast and loose with arguments in his hurry to persuade people to agree with the politics behind it.
posted by mordax at 11:39 AM on March 13, 2018

I mean, what specifically is inaccurate in this article?
posted by latkes at 12:11 PM on March 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

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