Could a better knowledge of prehistory guide us today?

I just came across a glowing review/summary (1) of a book titled The Dawn of Everything. A New History of Humanity by Graeber and Wengrow (2). The authors apparently present a new understanding of the lives of early humanity, insights that they believe today’s societies could learn from. According to the authors every conceivable variation on centralization, coercion, hierarchy, violence, agriculture and urbanisation already existed in the past. The shape of societies – hierarchical or not, authoritarian or free – is therefore not foreordained by our technology or living arrangements. We should be free to choose to be equal or unequal, coercive or free, warlike or peaceful, able to create our own destiny.

Can we really learn all that much from prehistory? I have my doubts. Human nature may not have changed greatly, but humans have greatly changed life on earth. And those changes have drasticly altered the balance of power in society. Scientific and technological developments have given the ruthless and power-hungry extraordinary power and wealth, and they are using that power to shape society in their own interests. Not only has the gap between the weak and the strong grown dramatically, but at the same time life has become too complicated for many people to meaningfully participate in public affairs. How would a better knowledge of prehistory help us build a freer and fairer society?

Rather than looking to the past for advice we should make every effort to better prepare all members of society to become informed and engaged citizens and voters. Our future depends on how successful that effort will be.

I don’t expect too much from this book, yet I’d still like to get the authors’ arguments in their own words. The subject matter, our societies and our future, is too important to simply dismiss any new ideas offhand. I am waiting for my library copy to arrive.


(1) Cory Doctorow, The Dawn of Everything,

(2) David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything. A New History of Humanity.