Archaeological discoveries are shattering scholars’ long-held beliefs about how the earliest humans organised their societies – and hint at possibilities for our own
by David Graeber and David Wengrow, 12 October 2021
This is a very long article and a very complex discussion and presentation. I have cut and pasted parts here to try to grasp the gist of it and do not claim it is comprehensive. Best read it all yourselves to get your own sense and interpretation of their findings, which I think are very important.
In some ways, accounts of “human origins” play a similar role for us today as myth did for ancient Greeks or Polynesians. This is not to cast aspersions on the scientific rigour or value of these accounts. It is simply to observe that the two fulfil somewhat similar functions. If we think on a scale of, say, the last 3m years, there actually was a time when someone, after all, did have to light a fire, cook a meal or perform a marriage ceremony for the first time. We know these things happened. Still, we really don’t know how. It is very difficult to resist the temptation to make up stories about what might have happened: stories which necessarily reflect our own fears, desires, obsessions and concerns. As a result, such distant times can become a vast canvas for the working out of our collective fantasies.
For most of our evolutionary history, we did indeed live in Africa – but not just the eastern savannas, as previously thought. Instead, our biological ancestors were distributed everywhere from Morocco to the Cape of Good Hope. Some of those populations remained isolated from one another for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years, cut off from their nearest relatives by deserts and rainforests. Strong regional traits developed, so that early human populations appear to have been far more physically diverse than modern humans.
Perhaps the only thing we can say with real certainty is that modern humans first appeared in Africa. When they began expanding out of Africa into Eurasia, they encountered other populations such as Neanderthals and Denisovans – less different, but still different – and these various groups interbred. Only after those other populations became extinct can we really begin talking about a single, human “us” inhabiting the planet. What all this brings home is just how radically different the social and physical world of our remote ancestors would have seemed to us – and this would have been true at least down to about 40,000BC. In other words, there is no “original” form of human society. Searching for one can only be a matter of myth-making.
Over recent decades, archeological evidence has emerged that seems to completely defy our image of what scholars call the Upper Palaeolithic period (roughly 50,000–15,000BC). For a long time, it had been assumed that this was a world made up of tiny egalitarian forager bands. But the discovery of evidence of “princely” burials and grand communal buildings has undermined that image.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many in Europe and North America believed that “primitive” folk were not only incapable of political self-consciousness, they were not even capable of fully conscious thought on the individual level – or at least conscious thought worthy of the name. Nowadays, no reputable scholar would make such claims… Anthropologists who spend years talking to indigenous people in their own languages, and watching them argue with one another, tend to be well aware that even those who make their living hunting elephants or gathering lotus buds are just as sceptical, imaginative, thoughtful and capable of critical analysis as those who make their living by operating tractors, managing restaurants or chairing university departments… One of the few mid-20th-century anthropologists to take seriously the idea that early humans were our intellectual equals was Claude Lévi-Strauss…
[With respect to] rich Upper Palaeolithic burials, so often interpreted as evidence for the emergence of “inequality”, or even hereditary nobility of some sort… We can’t know much about the day-to-day lives of Palaeolithic individuals buried with rich grave goods, other than that they seem to have been as well fed and cared for as anybody else; but we can at least suggest they were seen as the ultimate individuals… This suggests we might have to shelve any premature talk of the emergence of hereditary elites… The ethnographic record abounds with examples of anomalous beings – human or otherwise – treated as exalted and dangerous; or one way in life, another in death… Much here is speculation.
This is where seasonality comes into the picture. Almost all the ice age sites with extraordinary burials and monumental architecture were created by societies that lived a little like Lévi-Strauss’s Nambikwara, dispersing into foraging bands at one time of year, gathering together in concentrated settlements at another… Archaeology also shows that patterns of seasonal variation lie behind the monuments of Göbekli Tepe. Activities around the stone temples correspond with periods of annual superabundance… Ongoing research is likely to complicate this picture, but the overall pattern of seasonal congregation [for festive/carnival/egalitarian celebration and ritual which dissolve norms of hierarchy and propriety] seems well established… What’s important about such festivals is that they kept the old spark of political self-consciousness alive. They allowed people to imagine that other arrangements are feasible, even for society as a whole, since it was always possible to fantasise about carnival bursting its seams and becoming the new reality.
Medieval peasants often found it much easier than medieval intellectuals to imagine a society of equals. Now, perhaps, we begin to understand why. Seasonal festivals may be a pale echo of older patterns of seasonal variation – but, for the last few thousand years of human history at least, they appear to have played much the same role in fostering political self-consciousness, and as laboratories of social possibility.