Freeing our Historical Imaginations – by Christen Mucher

I keep a large classroom map from the 1950s hanging on my living room wall. Titled “Beginnings of European Ascendancy to 1600,” it’s an outsized lesson on the politics of historical imagination. The map traces the “Great European Discoveries” across space in colorful lines originating in Spain, Portugal, England, and France. Shaded areas in Europe and Asia bear the recognizable names of historical polities or ethnic groups, but the largely colorless expanses of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania are decorated with leaping black figures only captioned “Hunters and Food Gatherers.” The shading, according to the legend, denotes the “Probable Limits of Agriculture and Herding Ca. 1600,” meaning that agriculture, Europe, and Asia are visually synonymous in this imagined past.

As David Graeber and David Wengrow argue in The Dawn of Everything, domesticated agriculture has been culturally synonymous with “civilization” (and, inversely, “hunting and gathering” with “barbarism”) since the Enlightenment. The Dawn of Everything is a book-length critique of the evolutionary thinking that tied domesticated agriculture and the “rise of cities” to the end of history, a Euro-American supremacist ideology so clearly visualized by the “Beginnings of European Ascendancy” (2). In their provocative book, Graeber and Wengrow call for a major conceptual shift away from the dominance of so-called stages of development in the narration of human history: those ways of classifying peoples of the past based on assumed modes of subsistence such as hunting, farming, etc. In fact, the authors question whether current-day categories are even adequate, let alone accurate, to describe the ways past peoples lived their lives.

One of Graeber and Wengrow’s major interventions is articulating the limitations placed on the human historical imagination by the continued application and repackaging of Enlightenment-era evolutionary thinking. The authors also challenge the oft-repeated censure—that “we have no way of knowing” the times that preceded us—by experimenting with pasts filled with playful, inventive, self-conscious political thinkers well aware of neighboring peoples and events, with people who “one would have been able to talk to, when they were still alive” (1, 5). The authors puncture the assumption that everyone 20,000—or even 100,000—years ago lived in the same way and that there was, or is, a universal form of social organization toward which all humans uniformly move. Instead, the authors focus on creativity, idiosyncrasy, and contingency.

Yet coming from a history, literary studies, and cultural studies background myself—rather than the fields of archaeology and anthropology, like the book’s authors—many of their critiques landed as rather conventional. Humanities scholars have been criticizing the European Enlightenment for decades; feminist epistemologists routinely question the politics and materiality of knowledge production; scholars of Native American and Indigenous studies are quite familiar with the “Indigenous critique[s]” of Euro-American societies. Moreover, some of Graeber and Wengrow’s explanations are in line with a recent trend in environmentalism troublingly redolent of earlier extractive resourcing practices: looking to the Indigenous past and Indigenous knowledge-bearers for solutions to the current climate crisis. Nonetheless, although the sentiment in The Dawn of Everything is too optimistically recuperative for me, I do support the future it envisions, which is also where I see the book’s main intervention for eighteenth-centuryists. Theirs is a version of the past in which Indigenous humanity, intelligence, and equity is assumed, not erased.

This leads us to “Hopewellian geometry” (459). As the authors point out, the Newark (Ohio) earthworks—which include the Great Circle and Octagon—are a “cosmogenic miracle” worthy of recognition across the globe. Created by the ancestors of current-day Indigenous peoples in North America (whose period of “cultural expression,” c. 100 BCE–500 CE, has been rather arbitrarily termed “Hopewell” by archaeologists), the Newark earthworks’ presence, let alone significance, is nonetheless hardly common knowledge in the United States. A recent UNESCO bid seeks to change this, but the persistent lacunae reaffirm the authors’ general premise: despite what specialists write and debate, non-specialists’ understandings of human history—especially “ancient” human history—has been and continues to be profoundly shaped by Enlightenment-era and capitalist notions of evolution and progress. These historical imaginations in turn rest on a profound negation of Indigenous intelligence (complex geometrical systems? Impossible!) and, therefore, a wholesale negation of Indigenous humanity.

In the early United States, antiquarians, politicians, and government agents refused to believe that the earthworks across the Mississippi Valley had been made by the continent’s Indigenous peoples. Structures like the Great Circle, they argued, had been made by Vikings, Israelites, or Malaysian builders. Even today, nonsense about earth-working architects from outer space continues to find air time on Netflix and the History Channel; moreover, few non-Indigenous people question the idea that North America before 1600 was a blank land sparsely populated, apparently, by leaping “Hunters and Food Gatherers.” To the authors’ immense credit, much of the first 500 pages of The Dawn of Everything sets up the final few chapters’ critique of these conventional imaginary pasts.

I, myself, like to imagine a future in which the histories of so-called Fort Ancient, Cahokia, or Poverty Point are as well known and accepted as their counterparts in ancient Egypt, China, or Mesopotamia. This is not to suppose that any one living today has the most “accurate” or final version of the long-ago past. Yet if scholars begin to understand their own accomplishments in the present as in dialogue with—rather than superior to—those of the distant past, then perhaps they can begin to undo some of the knowledge strictures that base the differences between peoples on the “ascendancies” or prejudices of only a few hundred (or even thousand) years. We could stop, for example, using the phrase “back to the Stone Age” as a threat, and realize that, in fact, there is a lot more to learn about “Stone Age” ancestors than we have been taught. Freeing the historical collective imagination along with Graeber and Wengrow will, I believe, help prioritize “our capacity to create something different” and lead to new, unimagined futures (8).

Christen Mucher is Associate Professor of American Studies at Smith College, MA

Cite this note as: Christen Mucher, “Freeing our Historical ImaginationsJournal18 (July 2023),

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