Everything Is Just Dandy!

David Wengrow and David Graeber – Farewell to the ‘childhood of man’

The Anarchist Library

Author: David Wengrow and David Graeber
Title: Farewell to the ‘childhood of man’
Subtitle: Ritual, seasonality, and the origins of inequality
Date: June 18, 2015
Notes: DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9655.12247
Source: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Vol. 21 (3), pp. 597–619. Online: https://rai.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467-9655.12247


Evidence of grand burials and monumental construction is a striking feature in the archaeological record of the Upper Palaeolithic period, between 40 and 10 kya (thousand years ago). Archaeologists often interpret such finds as indicators of rank and hierarchy among Pleistocene hunter-gatherers. Interpretations of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the view, still common in sociobiology, that pre-agricultural societies were typically egalitarian in orientation. Here we develop an alternative model of ‘Palaeolithic politics’, which emphasizes the ability of hunter-gatherers to alternate – consciously and deliberately – between contrasting modes of political organization, including a variety of hierarchical and egalitarian possibilities. We propose that alternations of this sort were an emergent property of human societies in the highly seasonal environments of the last Ice Age. We further consider some implications of the model for received concepts of social evolution, with particular attention to the distinction between ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ hunter-gatherers.


If we seek to know about the past, a field of study that has never seemed dishonourable to any discipline other than social anthropology, the point of departure should be hunter-gatherers in favourable regions, hunter-gatherers who might not have been such and probably remain such only by reason of restrictive social forms that for them are quite possibly a distant and glorious heritage (Testart 1988: 13).

Introduction: the ‘sapient paradox’

The Henry Myers Lecture was endowed seventy years ago to promote new perspectives on the ‘the place of religious belief in human development’ (*). Only recently, however, two leading anthropological theorists concluded that, to all intents and purposes, ‘religion’ does not exist – at least not in the sense of a discrete analytical category that we can expect to find and study across the whole range of human societies. We are referring here to Marshall Sahlins’ assertion that ‘the elementary forms of kinship, politics, and religion are all one’ (2008: 197), and to Maurice Bloch’s (2008) conclusion that what we now term ‘organized religion’ is a historical residue, left over from the collapse of Bronze Age states where sacred and political power were initially fused.

If they are right, then a Myers Lecture on human prehistory could in theory be about almost anything. By choosing to discuss the origins of social inequality – our main topic – we will also find ourselves talking about religion and, probably, economics and politics as well: a position that resonates with the kind of language used today by archaeologists and evolutionary theorists, who no longer talk about the origins of ‘religion’ or ‘politics’, but rather speak of ‘behavioural modernity’ or ‘cultural complexity’. This is precisely to indicate that the earliest evidence for what we might now distinguish as ‘religious’, ‘political’, or, for that matter, ‘artistic’ behaviour is all of a piece, appearing together in striking configurations in the archaeological record of the last Ice Age. The main problem vexing prehistorians concerns the timing of that appearance.

To summarize briefly, the genetic and anatomical foundations of our species were established between 200 and 160 kya (thousand years ago); but evidence for complex modes of symbolic communication – in other words, for typically modern human behaviour – becomes widespread in the archaeological record only tens of thousands of years later. First glimmerings appear at Blombos Cave, on the southern tip of Africa, where evidence for the use of ochre-based pigments (at 100 kya) and shell ornaments (at 70 kya) is found across a series of deposits dating to the Middle Stone Age (Henshilwood 2007; Henshilwood et al. 2011). But it is only after around 45 kya, when our species was busily colonizing Eurasia, that evidence for cultural complexity becomes more widely attested: an efflorescence that has sometimes – and contentiously – been termed the ‘Upper Palaeolithic Revolution’ (Mellars, Boyle, Bar-Yosef & Stringer 2007).

None of these novel activities are exclusive to Upper Palaeolithic Europe and it is, indeed, unlikely that any of them originate there (see McBrearty & Brooks 2000). Nevertheless, it is across the southern and central parts of that continent that they are currently documented with the greatest frequency and intensity. The activities in question include the use of advanced toolkits for hunting and handicrafts, the transformation of diverse materials (e.g. bone, clay, fibre) into durable images and structures, new ways of clothing and decorating the body, the use of musical instruments, the exchange of raw materials over impressive distances, and also what are generally taken as the earliest proofs of social inequality, in the form of grand burials and – after the Last Glacial Maximum (c. 20 kya) – monumental dwellings as well. It is this apparent lack of synchrony between the ticking of our genetic and cultural clocks that Colin Renfrew (2007) provocatively calls the ‘sapient paradox’.