The book that Sapiens Reading my review of the Sapiens I realize I fell prey to the reverse form of Gell-Mann amnesia: suffering through Harari’s other book, Homo Deus, should have made me revise my opinion of Sapiens right away, and not wait for Graeber and Wengrow to put things right. wished it could be: an honest, academically rigorous, intellectually stimulating, fun overview of archeology’s current understanding of prehistory, and an exploration of the reasons why the popular view has become so divergent from the professional.
I won’t pretend to have digested all 700 pages after one read, but a few mental models popped up immediately.
The first is the importance of play: there is some evidence — and much hypothesizing — that at least some of the modern societal setup came about as a result of play. Pretend-kings of annual feasts may have, at some point, decided to be true rulers. The first use of clay modeling was to build toys, not pottery. And to extrapolate to the more recent past: powerful graphics cards built for photo-realistic video games are now mostly used for cryptocurrency mining. The outcomes don’t always need to be good!
That is another important point: the book dismantles the myth of linear progress and replaces it with a theory of multiple (social) worlds in which some may be more suitable at different times for different populations, but none could be called universally “better” than others. We are in dicey territory here, because one of the authors — the late David Graeber — was a well-known activist for anarchism and you’ll have a hard time finding a review of The Dawn of Everything which doesn’t try to frame it as some sort of a call to anarchy. But it is hardly the first book published in the last five years to point out some of the deficiencies of the current state of affairs, while pointing out that social experimentation was the modus operandi for most of human (pre)history.
The how of our mistaken ideas of the neolithic leads to another important mental model: premature codification of hypotheses as facts. The chain of events leading from Rousseau’s essay on the mythical Noble Savage to historians mistaking it for actual history echoes many of the medical myths with which I am more familiar, from iron-rich spinach to fever-causing atelectases. Most fields of human endevor won’t let facts get in the way of a good story.
My own field being as far away from archeology as you can get, I had to ask the one “real” archeologist I knew — with recent field-work experience in Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean — what she thought of the facts in this book. And, somewhat surprisingly, she saw nothing new, controversial, or groundbreaking in any of the stated facts. For what it’s worth, an anonymous Amazon review from someone claiming to be an expert in the field confirms this. This is important: we can argue about interrpretation — and unlike some popular historians the authors here clearly mark the parts where they are telling a story more than stating facts — but the truth about how much we know should not be in doubt.
Meanwhile, professional book reviewers, quick to judge, easy to confuse, attention spans short, don’t know what to make of any of it: as sure a sign as any that The Dawn of Everything is a true masterpiece.