Thomas Hylland Eriksen
University of Oslo
This long-anticipated book by a leading archaeologist (Wengrow) and a formidable anthropologist (Graeber) who died suddenly in 2020 aims at a total renovation of human cultural history, mainly but not exclusively after the last Ice Age. The authors contend that conventional cultural history is marred by habitual thought, unilineal evolutionist approaches, Eurocentric bias and a misleading framing of central questions. Drawing on contemporary anthropology and recent archaeological discoveries, they arrive at a more fine-grained, nuanced and radical view of humanity's past. A main argument is that the Rousseau–Hobbes dichotomy is misleading. Life in the Paleolithic was neither 'nasty, brutish and short' nor led by 'noble savages'. Foraging societies could be large and hierarchical or small and egalitarian. Or even large and egalitarian, as the discovery of large non-agricultural cities in Ukraine suggests. The scale of foraging societies varied seasonally; large groups when food was abundant, divided during scarcity. Some large settlements, like Poverty Point in Louisiana, were transitory trading posts or perhaps nodes for the exchange of knowledge. They reject the idea of the agricultural revolution as a historical event. In fact, GW point out, peoples oscillated between farming and foraging for many generations. Similarly, the state has waxed and waned. There is no single direction in history from the simple to the complex, from foraging to farming or from egalitarianism to hierarchy. Although much of this material is familiar to specialists, their synthesis is powerful and the writing excellent. Their political project amounts to showing that humanity has many options. They do so convincingly, although allegations of speculative conjectures will be inevitable. The book is nevertheless an intellectual feast.