IRIS NRC Book Club: The Dawn of Everything

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Online via Zoom
@ 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm

This series is presented in collaboration with the Institute for Regional and International Studies National Resource Center (IRIS NRC).

About the Book

How did our distant ancestors live? And what can this tell us about our contemporary world? Drawing on wide-ranging research in archaeology and anthropology, The Dawn of Everything is an ambitious attempt to overturn the conventional narrative about human history, including the origins of farming, property, cities, and democracy, and replace it with a more accurate, interesting, and unpredictable story.

This event series will feature experts from across the UW-Madison campus providing their assessment of the book and how it might change the way we think about and teach the deep past as well as what it tells us about the present.

Session 1: Rethinking the Roots of Inequality
February 15, 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM (US CT)

Recommended reading: The Dawn of Everything, Chapters 1-2.

What are the origins of social inequality? The story we all know is that humans used to live in small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers until the invention of agriculture led to the formation of settlements, then cities, then states, which brought with them ever greater inequality. Yet, according to Graeber & Wengrow, new evidence shows that for thousands of years our distant ancestors consciously and collectively transformed their worlds in a variety of ways. In this introductory session, we will introduce the book, its authors, and the controversies it has generated.

Session 2: The Revolution that Never Happened?
February 22, 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM (US CT)

Recommended reading: The Dawn of Everything, Chapters 3-7.

Some 10,000 years ago, the first ‘Agricultural Revolution’ decisively and irreversibly changed the trajectory of humankind forever. Or did it? Graeber & Wengrow instead present an account of a partial and contingent process whereby farming practices were taken up and rejected in different parts of the world over the course of thousands of years. In this session, we will examine the evidence they leverage and its implications for how we understand history.

Session 3: Cities, Scale, and Political Hierarchy
March 1, 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM (US CT)

Recommended reading: The Dawn of Everything, Chapters 8-9.

It is often assumed that as societies become more dense and complex, top-down forms of governance inevitably emerge in order to maintain order. Drawing on evidence from Mesoamerica, Ukraine, China, and the Indus Valley, Graber & Wengrow argue that the story is far more complex. In this session, we will assess their argument and what it means for our understanding of ancient cities.

Session 4: The Deep Past and the Political Present
March 8, 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM (US CT)

Recommended reading: The Dawn of Everything, Chapters 10-12.

If our distant ancestors really did invent a wide variety of different political formations, why is it so difficult to imagine political alternatives in the present? In this final session, we will examine some of the key insights and limitations of the book for our understanding of the past. We will also ask how this might inspire us to rethink the political challenges we face today.