Were the first societies anarchists?

Conventional history seeks the ultimate causes in technological factors: cities were a delayed, but inevitable, effect of the “agricultural revolution”, which launched populations on an upward trajectory and triggered a chain of other developments, for example in transport and administration, which made it possible to support large populations living in one place. These large populations then required the States to administer them.

This conventional history is undermined by new archaeological evidence, especially in the larger prehistoric cities, Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica. These “large populations living in one place” – the peasants – do not appear until later in the history of most large cities. Initially, besides the farmers drawn to a fertile floodplain, there were an equal number of hunters, gatherers and fishermen, and sometimes very large ceremonial or ritual centers. What does not appear to have been, on the whole, are ruling classes. The conventional assumption – amounting to almost a Weltanschauung – that civilization keeps pace with state authority seems to falter.

Another key element of the Standard Version is the Agricultural Revolution: a rapid and largely complete transition from mobile, egalitarian, healthy, relatively few foragers, devoid of the concept of private property, and living on wild resources, to agricultural populations, numerous, sedentary, classified in classes, infested with diseases and producing a surplus of food. The consequence, as stated above, was cities, and the inevitable concomitant of cities was states. But it turns out to be way too neat. As recent evidence shows, many populations engaged in agriculture and then returned to search for food. Many feeding communities were much more authoritarian than farming communities. And in many places, the transition from foraging to farming has taken thousands of years. It may be necessary to rename the Agricultural Revolution to Marche slowly agricultural.

Prehistory, Graeber and Wengrow insist, is much more interesting than scholars until recently knew. And not only more interesting, but also more inspiring: “It is now clear that human societies before the advent of agriculture were not confined to small egalitarian bands. On the contrary, the world of hunter-gatherers as it existed before the advent of agriculture was one of many daring social experiments, resembling a carnival parade of political forms, far more than dull abstractions of the theory of evolution. “Carnival” is reminiscent of Occupy, who with this book is a testament to the admirable energy, imagination and love of freedom of David Graeber.


For all its historical and theoretical brilliance, The dawn of everything does not fully justify the anarchist philosophical framework in which the argument is placed. Graeber and Wengrow don’t exactly preach anarchism, but the moral of their long and immensely rich study is clear: Authority relations are the most important and revealing things in any society, large or small, and no one should never be subject to any authority. she did not choose to be submissive.

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