Thursday, March 24, 2022

The Dawn of Everything

Anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wenfrow have written The Dawn of Everything, one of those recent books that upends a lot of what we thought we knew about prehistory. They seem to have the sorts of personalities that want to rethink and upend, but much of this is driven by the expanding archaeological discoveries that don't fit the old models of hunter-gatherers, foragers, villagers, agriculture, etc. Things that are supposed to be there according to our theory are conspicuously absent. There are long academic tussles about such things at all times, often not any better or any more polite than our discussions about vaccine data. I have heard that the topical sides of these debates have grown more congenial, even as the political angles deteriorate in condemnations.  It does make one wonder whether there is some sort of conservation-of-discord in all individuals and societies, in that when one argument goes away we automatically just slip into another.  

We make assumptions going in, and they give an explanation of where those assumptions grew up and why we should discard them now. You can read about what is upended in general at the Amazon link above, but following Patrick Wyman, I would like to spend just a bit of time looking at our assumptions about the development of the state and how we might rethink the whole affair. I will be sprinkling in thoughts of my own as we go. It will be filtered by how well I understood the material, if nothing else. 

Because there are levels of organisation in the societies we have long studied in the Mediterranean and adjacent areas, there was a list - or more appropriately a variety of lists which included features such as fixed location, hierarchy, accumulation of surplus, development of writing.  I think V Gordon Childe's list for "civilisation" got up to ten characteristics. But over time we come across sophisticated groups that move seasonally (if this seems strange, think of the term "winter palace."  We have had remnants up to our own time). The Indus Valley Civilisation does not seem to have been hierarchical. Some rearguard action occurs among academics who claim that we have not ruled it out and it may simply have been in a form that we don't recognise. Perhaps not everyone has more lavish burials for elites after all. That is true, but you would think something would have shown up by now. Not all advanced groups have had writing. This one has long been a bother, but it also very much bothers some anthropologists. Some will not grant the designation of "state" if writing is not present.

Chinese societies have long been studied, though we have not known of much of it. But archaeology is new, and China has the additional difficulty of insisting on various events as true which are...not true. It makes it hard for their researchers, and it makes it hard for those outside to evaluate what texts and evidence mean. Apparently this is improving. They have a variation on the same problem as ours, plus that added difficulty.  They have theories of what a state, or dynasty, or civilisation is based on the ones they know, which are usually those downstream, large, and well-documented.  They have since found other civilisations farther inland that seemed to have some dominance and exercised power that don't er, fit their previous definitions. 

Then there are all those new Somethings we keep finding in Mexico and South America, and the redefining of what has been happening in Central Asia the last 4,000 years...

We now live in a world in which a state has some sort of authority over every bit of it. For this reason we do not well imagine what it is like to be free of it.  Even our outliers trying to be free of the state, such as the Amish or the survivalists don't give us a clear picture of what most of history was. We have a picture of hunter-gatherers or foragers learning about agriculture and settling down, gradually developing some ways of achieving surplus with some taking charge of others, leading to larger buildings and increasing hierarchy, then warfare, writing, long-distance trade and all the other marks of civilisation.  Voila! The state. Graeber and Wenfrow believe that only happened some of the time, perhaps not even the majority of the time. We think changes in technology or climate or rulership are what drive changes in economies. They believe there was much more choice in the matter, more agency in these peoples than we commonly credit. If the powerful groups in your area are confiscating to many of your crops, and moving fifty miles on just means new rulers you can change your lifestyle and move up into the hills. You can switch to herding, or foraged crops, or root crops that can be left for a period and returned to. It's not an easy switch most of the time, but it's better than having your children periodically dragged off into slavery, or temporary slavery to fight wars or build buildings. 

We also fail to note how fluid some of these lifestyles were over time. We are discovering that many groups moved about seasonally, or that the flow between hunting, herding, and growing went back and forth over centuries, or even within single lifetimes.  They had people in the group who knew how to do different things, at least in a general way, and they could also observe other tribes harvesting shellfish or growing small plots of medicinal/veterinary/sacred herbs that didn't require constant attention. Plus there's always chickens.

Nor is the movement always away from the nearby state unless you are unfortunate enough to be conquered or captured by it.  Others willingly join the state, sometimes as individuals, sometimes as whole tribes. Those who lived in the cities perennially believed that that is the only way to live the elevated life. Well sure.  That's where the slaves are, which allows you to do other things.  If you want any of that elevated slave action, you need to become part of the state. Even if your gig is to control large areas of crops and have slaves for that, you are going to need to be deeply involved with some state somewhere, and likely keep a place in the city (if there is a city - no longer a given). If you want to trade in anything other than raw materials, especially at a distance, you have to be part of the state, even if you set up at the periphery. If you want cash money, there's no one getting that for you up in the hills or in the shallows of the bay where the clams are.

Whole tribes ally themselves with a state in order to fight for them and get land or loot. It was all more flexible and fluid than we have credited heretofore. You could live parts of your life in the state and parts out of it.  You could switch states.


Christopher B said...

One word came to mind reading this ... Vikings.

james said...

Overlapping "states" can be a thing too.

james said...

Twain: "There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact." This seems especially true of archaeology.

Things don't get much more hierarchical than the military, but at Great Lakes the headstones look all alike.

james said...

Now that I think of it, how easy would it be to move--unless you had kin in the new place, or your whole clan moved too?

Was it you that posted the name maps of England, showing how little internal migration there had been over centuries?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It was not me.

I was referring to movements of groups. Surviving solo has been difficult in the world just about everywhere.

David Foster said...

My book group is currently reading this, and none of us are very impressed. Too high a ratio of assertions to evidence & analysis, too repetitive.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ David Foster - excellent! Please tell us all about it at the end, not only what the book says, but what came out in the conversations. With luck, I won't have to read it at all and still get most of its juice.