Myths about prehistory debunked in a refreshing book

In “The Beginning of Everything,” Graeber and Wengrow go through prehistoric times and history in seven-mile boots.

We go far back in time, to tens of thousands of years ago when the earth was still largely overgrown with large forests. There people lived among the sounds of cows lowing, mammoths trumpeting and birds chirping. The lives of these noble savages rippled along leisurely. There was no private property, now and then a mammoth was slaughtered together and everyone helped each other. People were happy. Until agriculture was done, more people started living together in cities and the fairy tale of a peaceful society disappeared. Henceforth, especially strong men from wealthy families who possessed much more than others, oppressed the rest of the subjects.

And then there’s a second dominant story, which claims something quite different. This shows that people in prehistoric times did not live harmoniously together, but were purely selfish and destroyed each other if they themselves would benefit from it.

These two persistent myths about how people lived together in prehistoric times were coined by the philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). But they are largely nonsense, argue David Graeber and David Wengrow in their book The Beginning of Everything – The New History of Mankind. Wengrow is Professor of Comparative Archeology at the Institute of Archeology at University College London. Graeber was professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. He died shortly after the completion of the book.

Dangerous Predators

Debunking myths, that’s what the authors mainly want to do. In particular, the idea that farming and living together in cities is a leap towards real civilization is a thorn in her side. They strongly contradict the image that everything changed for humanity because of this. Most convincingly, they do this by looking at how hunter-gatherers lived.

The excavation of Göbekli Tepe, where already in prehistoric times large groups of people lived together and made special buildings.

Teomancimit, wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Didn’t they mainly roam around in small groups? Yes, that also happened, but in addition, these kinds of clans often joined together to form a larger tribe. Probably to hunt or party together. Scattered around the world, several places have been found where large numbers of people lived together tens of thousands of years ago. Take Göbleki Tepe in present-day southeastern Turkey. Eleven thousand years ago, people built twenty gigantic walls in an environment that consisted of forests and steppes.

These walls consist of two hundred T-shaped pillars over five meters high and weigh a ton. They are decorated with dangerous predators, poisonous reptiles and waterfowl. It must have taken an incredible effort to make this. And therefore also a form of organization. But how? Many researchers argue that it takes organized agriculture, writing, a powerful leader and bureaucracy for large groups of people to live together. But none of this was there in that place. In short: large groups lived together in a different way a long time ago. And Göbleki Teope is no exception. There are many more examples of remarkable structures from tens of thousands of years ago.

Simple knife pickers

The first large cities, which arose later, also turned out to be remarkably often able to do without writing, rich kings and extensive civil servants. Archaeologists conclude from excavations that all inhabitants probably had a lot of say in important decisions. They were represented through their neighborhood or age group. According to the authors, this agricultural revolution, which you read back in many history books, does not exist at all. The transition was not at all sudden and there were all kinds of different forms of cohabitation. Strange, the authors say, that this is no longer the case and that we see so much social inequality around us. They do not specify exactly how this could be done. But they force the readers to think about this for themselves.

The examples in this book make people curious about long ago. The fact that beautiful buildings were already made in prehistoric times, decorated with beautiful works of art, shows that those hunter-gatherers were not stupid boys and girls. The image of the simple living berry pickers needs to be adjusted. They were just as creative and smart as we are.

The main message of this book is that prehistory is much more diverse than we thought. It is a refreshing message, which the authors know how to substantiate. ‘The beginning of everything’ is a well-written book with beautiful examples. The documents about excavations in particular are very well substantiated, which you may also expect from two professors of archeology and anthropology. The authors also dare to add anything and everything. In this way they go through history with seven-mile boots, but keep the reader on the lesson in this more than six hundred pages book. The only drawback is that they repeat a lot, a slightly tighter structure could have prevented this. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is one of the most exciting books on science to come out this year.


Source: Kennislink by www.nemokennislink.nl.

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