Big History – by Stephanie DeGooyer

According to David Graeber and David Wengrow, the first human communities were far more “complex,” “quirky,” and “interesting” than early modern political thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau made them out to be. No community was ever completely brutish or egalitarian, they argue. For example, the introduction of cities and agriculture did not incontrovertibly harken inequality and dispossession, as Rousseau and his modern heirs, Francis Fukuyama and Jared Diamond, insist. Many early cities and farming communities saw no need for hierarchical organization. And early Indigenous groups like the Yanomami, who have been stereotyped as wild beings living in a Hobbesian state of nature, were not, statistically speaking, especially violent. Research even shows that they slept together in large beds. “If they were really anything like the ‘fierce savages’ of undergraduate caricature,” Graeber and Wengrow joke, “there would be no Yanomami as they’d all have long since killed each other for snoring” (529n18).

To counter reductive stories about human history, Graeber and Wengrow argue for a radically “new science of history,” one that draws from a plethora of neglected ethnographic and historical evidence to correct myths about the ancient past (24). However, the myths they want to debunk are not as commonly held as they allege, and the scholars who traffic in them are not representative of most historians. Scholars in fields outside of cultural anthropology, including history, political science, and literary studies, have long regarded the state of nature as a political fiction rather than a plausible history. As Graeber and Wengrow admit, Rousseau himself framed his narrative as a “parable” (65). For the book’s rationale, they neglect these fields, instead focusing far too much on the psychologist-turned-pop-historian Stephen Pinker as an exemplar of how early modern state of nature narratives came to be doctrinaire amongst contemporary social scientists. Pinker, who has been the subject of much recent criticism, is more of a strawman than a telling representative of how most social scientists think about history.

Graeber and Wengrow’s overemphasis on Pinker is indicative of their larger intellectual and political ambitions. They are not content to poke holes in scholarly framings of life and community before “civilization.”  They emphasize facts, statistics, and anthropological evidence; but they also want to tell—or sell—their own big, new history of humanity. This new history centers on freedom of movement. Exhibiting the same generalizing tendency they critique in others, Graeber and Wengrow ask us to consider a startling fact about human history: for 5,000 years, if not longer, humans lived in a state of incredible freedom that has since been “lost” (25). During these years, our ancestors could take three fundamental liberties for granted. The first was the freedom to leave a community knowing there would be refuge and hospitality elsewhere. The Hadza people in North Africa and Aboriginal Australians, for example, could travel great distances, across entire continents even, and still expect a welcome reception among people who spoke different languages. The second was the freedom to disobey orders from a king or other leader without fear or shame. The Wendat people of North America only had “play kings,” symbolic chiefs who had no real authority over a member’s individual liberty. The freedom to physically move and the freedom to disobey were the conditions of possibility for the third freedom: to imagine and experiment with new social and political forms. This liberty, unsurprisingly, is the one that most interests Graeber and Wengrow. We learn that around 1350 CE, Cahokia, a city on the floodplain of the Mississippi, collapsed when its people fled. Our authors speculate that the city had been taken over by a ruling elite and their subjects wanted to seek freer lives. Descendants of the people of Cahokia would eventually organize themselves into free republics in the Eastern Woodlands societies of North America. The freedom to move led to the freedom to create new forms of political organization.         

This sketch of history about freedom of movement is remarkably Rousseauvian. Indeed, Graeber and Wengrow admit that Rousseau was not entirely wrong that the modern world has forsaken its natural liberties. But Rousseau assumed these liberties were lost for good. Graeber and Wengrow wonder if we have misplaced them. After all, our narratives about the past do not need to be teleological. We can look back to find ideas for our future in the knowledge that, for thousands of years, humans possessed the political self-consciousness and willpower to experiment with new ways of living. Here, Graeber and Wengrow’s so-called science-based approach gives way to the bias of a political agenda (precisely of the kind that is inherent in the state of nature narratives they dismiss). If Hobbes and Rousseau created fictions to explain the inequality of their present world, then Graeber and Wengrow want to usher in facts about the past to help us imagine and create new political worlds.

I share Graeber and Wengrow’s considerable interest in freedom of movement. Like them, I have enjoined historians and literary scholars to consider the eras before the world was carved into nation-states as a time of noteworthy experimentation in migration. I am also sympathetic to the political possibilities they want to resurrect from history. But I wonder if, in the name of science, they are right to present Enlightenment-era theories about the state of nature as solidly deterministic. This presentation certainly allows them to launch their own reassessment of early history and draw new political conclusions from it. Yet it also overstates the influence of some early modern thinkers while neglecting the clear influence of others.

John Locke, the early modern philosopher of social contract, is a complicated example, which is perhaps why he does not receive much discussion in the book. Locke thought that individuals had the right to leave the sovereign under which they were born. In The Two Treatises on Government, he argued that when a migrant leaves a commonwealth, the sovereign of that commonwealth no longer has any power over them. A migrant is a free agent with the right to “go and incorporate himself into any other Commonwealth, or to agree with others to begin a new one, in vacuis locis, in any part of the World, they can find free and unpossessed.”[1] In articulating this natural liberty, Locke was obviously offering a rationale for colonialism. He was also talking about Graeber and Wengrow’s three liberties: the freedom to disobey, leave, and begin a new political community. The idea that subjects possessed a natural right to exit a relationship with a tyrannical sovereign became a major catalyst of the American Revolution.[2]

Unlike Hobbes and Rousseau, Locke and other Enlightenment writers and politicians such as Emer de Vattel and Thomas Jefferson believed that actualizing natural freedom was possible through individual and collective will. Surely, the influence of this idea is just as seismic as the influence Graeber and Wengrow attribute to Rousseau and Hobbes’s State of Nature theories? Not all stories about the State of Nature are about fixed futures and romantic pasts. That said, even if Graeber and Wengrow had considered Locke’s ideas in any depth, they would not have advocated that we all become Lockeans. Through privileging non-Eurocentric histories of freedom that are not associated with colonialism or Roman law, they seek to open new horizons of political liberty.

But history cannot be repurposed so easily. As Graeber and Wengrow point out at the book’s end, the incredible freedoms enjoyed by our distant ancestors were also intertwined with the rise of elite dominance, just as liberty and dispossession were connected in a different way in Locke’s “America.” “Refugees,” they write, following the work of anthropologist and poet Franz Steiner, “were first welcomed, treated as almost sacred beings, then gradually degraded and exploited” (519). The degradation started, they speculate, when the norms of hospitality and charity converged with the conditions for the emergence of monarchy. When war-kings became associated with gods who occupied temples, they began to exert power over the private lives of those who also resided in the temples: primarily widows, orphans, runaways, slaves, and war captives. This was a recipe for patriarchy and other forms of oppression.

Graeber and Wengrow are careful to resist causal language when they mention the association between hospitality and dominance. Such a connection might erode the freedoms they want to find in the past. They concede that more work needs to be done. But it is also hard not to see something fateful, and perhaps teleological, in the suggestion that the hospitality norms that once made free movement possible—charity and asylum—may also have been the locus for the birth of patriarchal power. Overall, Graeber and Wengrow are right to argue that early humans had greater flexibility for making new political, social, and economic arrangements—and that the complexity of their lives is worth paying attention to and drawing political analogy from. But their need to find political resources in the remote regions of past, and their desire to launch a big, new science of history, may also lead them to underplay, or slip over, possible connections between those facts.

Stephanie DeGooyer is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC

[1] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (London: 1690), 259.

[2] Stephanie DeGooyer, “The Right to Leave,” Lapham’s Quarterly, April 14, 2022,

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