We Hold These Truths Self-Evident
Prehistoric humans were pretty dull in many respects. They lived in small bands, each ruled by a chief. For tens of thousands of years they roamed around hunting and gathering. Not only did their technology not change much during that time, they never imagined any sort of political system more sophisticated than “Ug is strongest, so we listen to him.”
History, and civilization as we know it, truly began when humans realized that if they cultivated crops, they could stay in one place and enjoy the safety and security of permanent cities. But with those benefits came the need for more complicated political arrangements, which led inevitably to stratification of power, and the ascension of hereditary rulers.
Civilization also provided specialization, which led to all sorts of marvelous technological advancements. Over many centuries, that specialization led to writers and philosophers. Eventually it also led to the notion of equality and the realization that the excesses of inequality could be addressed through new political structures. Thus was born The Enlightenment, which begat democracy, capitalism, and rapidly-accelerating material and political progress.
It’s really the only path that makes sense. Until you discover agriculture you can’t have cities, you can’t have specialization, and you can’t have all the political and material advances that follow. It’s no wonder that when we imagine worlds other than our own, we assume they would follow the same trajectory.
Hold On A Minute
But what if this story of human progress is just one of many potential stories, many potential paths? In particular, what if the progression from hunter-gatherer to farmer ignores a wide range of human experimentation in political and technological organization? What if thousands of years ago there were political power-sharing arrangements more sophisticated than our own? What if many human societies explicitly rejected year-round agriculture and the building of cities because they witnessed the destructive power of centralized political power?
What if the movement of people from one society to another was much more fluid than we previously believed? What if specialization and the spreading of knowledge across broad geographic range occurred before the rise of cities? And what if, when cities did arise, they took far more diverse forms than we previously realized?
What if the rise of agriculture was driven not by a need for reliable access to calories, but by religious ceremonies? What if for most of human history rulers had very limited power? What if warfare is not actually endemic to the human condition?
Stirring Up Trouble
David Graeber was a professor of Anthropology and David Wengrow is a professor of Comparative Archaeology. For a decade they worked on The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, which was released shortly after Graeber’s death in 2020. It’s a deliberately provocative work that takes shots at how archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians have interpreted the past and used those interpretations to make universal pronouncements about the human condition.
I am not even a well-educated amateur, much less a professional in the realms of inquiry traversed by this book, so I can’t speak to the validity of its arguments. The Dawn of Everything has fierce adherents and angry detractors, which to me means it’s fulfilling its intended purpose, which is to open debate about long-settled assumptions. I found it to be an engaging, fun, thought-provoking read full of eye-opening insights. But whether you agree with its central assertions or not, the book is quite well-researched and contains plenty of material that’s useful for any gamemaster who wants to create a world from scratch.
A Smorgasbord for Worldbuilders
The Dawn of Everything is full of examples illustrating the variability of human societies. I found myself taking copious notes as I read, imagining how I might recombine bits and pieces of our human past with ideas of my own into a new world that feels strange and new. Here are a few snippets, pieces of information about how very different societies from our past functioned, that give an idea of what I’m talking about:
- …communities typically moved between three seasonal locations: permanent villages of multi-family lodge houses made up of perhaps 2,000 people; summer camps; and camps for the annual midwinter bison hunts. The basic village pattern was a circle divided into two exogamous moieties, sky and earth, with twenty-four clans in all, each of which had to be represented in any settlement or camp… .
- In many cities, there is simply no evidence of either a class of administrators or any other sort of ruling stratum. In others, centralized power seems to appear and then disappear.
- Living in an unusually bounteous environment, often occupying villages year-round, the indigenous peoples of California, for example, were notorious for their industry and, in many cases, near-obsession with the accumulation of wealth.
- …the overall trend for 500 years or so before Europeans arrived was the gradual abandonment of maize and beans, which people had been growing in some cases for thousands of years, and a return to a foraging way of life.
- Almost all these societies took pride in their ability to adopt children or captives – even from among those they considered the most benighted of their neighbors – and, through care and education, turn them into what they considered to be proper human beings.
- …the giving of orders is representative as being almost as serious an outrage as the eating of human flesh.
- Not only did they dismantle all means of exercising coercive authority the moment the ritual season was over, they were also careful to rotate which clan or warrior clubs got to wield it: anyone holding sovereignty one year would be subject to the authority of others the next.
- Dreams were treated as if they were commands, delivered either by one’s own souls or possibly, in the case of a particularly vivid or portentous dream, by some greater spirit.
- While these products might not have been entirely novel, what the temples introduced was the principle of standardization: urban temple-factories were literally outputting products in uniform packages, with the houses of the gods guaranteeing purity and quality control.
- Pretty much all the available evidence from Minoan Crete suggests a system of female political rule – effectively a theocracy of some sort, governed by a college of priestesses.
- …Ancient Greek writers were well aware of the tendency for elections to throw up charismatic leaders with tyrannical pretensions. This is why they considered elections an aristocratic mode of political appointment, quite at odds with democratic principles; and why for much of European history the truly democratic way of filling offices was assumed to be by lottery.
- …consider that just about anyone reading this book is likely to have first learned to read in classrooms, sitting in rows opposite a teacher, who follows a standard curriculum. This rather stern way of learning was itself a Sumerian invention… .
The Dawn of Everything is truly a feast. If you enjoy reading about why things are the way they are, you’ll find plenty to chew on here. And if you’re a worldbuilder, it may make you rethink, well… everything.