How did humans go from savanna-dwelling primates to moon-bouncing Tide Pod™ eaters? This is the big question that Big History has been trying to answer for millennia. Sure, other ages may have framed the question differently.
Pre-Internet historian Herodotus may have asked, How did humans get from Promethean clay to Babylon? Mass death enthusiast Christopher Columbus may have asked (he didn’t), How did humans get from biblical clay to Indian gold? But for the past few hundred years, the Big Thinkers, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Jared Diamond, have generally agreed on the basic contours of our history:
Humans set out on our baffling journey in a pristine Garden of Eden, living benignly in small bands of hunting and gathering primitives. They would dance, copulate, and paint in caves in an egalitarian state of nature, or a nasty, brutish one depending on your temperament and desire for couch cushions, cotton cuffs, and monarchy. Our fall from Eden came with the slithering of agrarian city-states into our lives. As soon as we began cultivating beans and beer, the story goes, we had to build a large bureaucratic apparatus to manage all the products and people populating these nascent city-states. Given the complexity of this task, dictators, kings, and emperors – keen administrators, that is – were unfortunately necessary to organize this dense population into productive workers. Most of the people living in this new thing called “civilization” would have to toil as slaves, alas. Sorry, this is just the Faustian bargain one must make to enjoy cities and storable food: wage/chattel slavery and all-powerful despots in exchange for literature, indoor plumbing, and memes.
But anthropologist and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber, is having none of it. In a recent piece published in Eurozine, he and UCL archaeology professor David Wengrow argue that this story is all wrong. Instead, the Davids suggest, the story is a lot messier and a lot more open to alternative forms of civilization and economy:
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