History and Historiography

The Roots of Inequality: An Exchange

By David Wengrow, reply by Kwame Anthony Appiah New York Review of Books

In response to:

Digging for Utopia from the December 16, 2021 issue

To the Editors:

In The Dawn of Everything David Graeber and I present a new history of humanity, based on the latest findings in our fields of archaeology and anthropology. These findings challenge long-held assumptions about the origins of inequality, the nature of freedom and slavery, the roots of private property, and the relationship between society and the state. They present fresh opportunities for a dialogue between archaeology, anthropology, and philosophy, but Kwame Anthony Appiah in his review of the book prefers to challenge the empirical basis of our work [NYR, December 16, 2021]. He argues that we distort our sources in order to present an artificially rosy picture of our species’ past and its prospects for greater freedom.

For example, Appiah is dissatisfied with our account of the Ukrainian “mega-sites,” huge prehistoric settlements that exhibit no evidence for temples, palaces, central administration, rich burials, or other signs of social inequality. We note that population levels are “estimated in the many thousands per mega-site, and probably well over 10,000 in some cases.” Appiah alleges that these figures are inflated, based on a “discredited maximalist model.” He cites archaeologist John Chapman in support. According to Appiah, Chapman argues that the mega-sites were not cities at all, but seasonally occupied festival grounds.

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