‘One of the most pernicious aspects of standard world-historical narratives,’ according to anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow, is ‘that they dry everything up, reduce people to cardboard stereotypes, simplify the issues … in ways that themselves undermine, possibly even destroy, our sense of human possibility’. The ‘standard’ narratives they have in mind are the broad-brush histories of humankind by the likes of Jared Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari and Steven Pinker, all of whom have enjoyed far greater success in shaping the public perception of our deep past than most academics could ever dream of. These works, Graeber and Wengrow argue, are nothing more than contemporary riffs on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s vision of human history as a fall from primitive innocence or Thomas Hobbes’s opposing view that our history is an ascent from brute savagery.
Graeber and Wengrow set out to remedy this by proposing a ‘new history of humanity’, one that they intend will restore our ancestors to three dimensions by revealing them to have been social experimenters and dynamic makers of history. Their aim is to liberate us from the idea that