Demonstrates Zuni Weaving
Techniques.” Photograph by
United States National Museum
Walter Hough, 1880-1886.
Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 009,
Image No. MAH-3648. Public
Indigenous critiques of gender and marriage go further than The Dawn of Everything
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2021).
The Dawn of Everything is a hard book to criticize, in large part because it’s so astonishingly good. It’s an electrifying piece of work, erudite and exuberant and iconoclastic, at times so beautifully written as to send its sentences closer to the sun than most nonfiction dares to soar. Add to this the fact that co-author David Graeber, among the most beloved social theorists in recent memory, died suddenly just before its release and you can begin to understand why The Dawn of Everything has become such a phenomenon. Its living co-author, David Wengrow, recently attested to receiving fanmail “almost daily.”1David Wengrow, “Apocalypse No!: Pseudo-Archaeology, Ancient Tech-Lords, and Ordinary People,” The Nation, December 22, 2022 (https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/ancient-apocalypse-graham-hancock/)
Reactions from specialists may have been more measured, but in truth most academics have not received this fireball of a book nearly as frostily as some reviewers have insinuated (and frankly the most uncompromising of the scholarly takes have tended to smack of professional jealousy more than sincere disagreement). Meanwhile, other academics have been so adrenalined upon reading The Dawn of Everything as to compare Graeber and Wengrow not only to Claude Lévi-Strauss but also to Darwin and Galileo.2For an especially silly academic critique that positively drips with envy, see Arjun Appadurai, “The dawn of everything?” Anthropology Today 38:1 (Feb 2022): pp. 1-2. (Appadurai’s review, if you can call it that, accuses Graeber of manhandling history so as to contrive “a prolegomenon to his own shamanic status” among radical intellectuals, whatever that means.) For the comparison to Claude Lévi-Strauss, see Luiz Costa, “The Dawn of Everything Seen from Amazonia,” Anthropology Today 38:2 (April 2022): pp. 27-28. For the comparison to Darwin and Galileo, see Guilio Ongaru, “David Graeber Knew Ordinary People Could Remake the World,” published simultaneously in Jacobin and Tribune, October 22, 2021 (online).
It’s a rare book that generates so much superlative praise but so little studious criticism, and for a book this ambitious to receive such a reception is something of a squandered opportunity. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that The Dawn of Everything may indeed turn out to contain the raw materials for an entirely new paradigm in our study of humanity’s common past. But new paradigms don’t sprout fully formed from the pages of a single book. It takes far more than just one or two minds to accomplish something like that. And no one can think in a room full of hot air.
The unhappy task I’ve assigned myself in this essay is to suck some of the air out of the room. Because embedded in The Dawn of Everything rest a pair of howling anachronisms, nested together like Matryoshka dolls, and sooner or later someone’s got to point them out. In The Dawn of Everything, the procreative (“married”) household and its attendant sex/gender binary arrive on the scene without explanation and thousands of years too early. This error compounds as the book goes on, ultimately coming to hang hazily over the Davids’ entire account of human history.
The Davids are emphatic that the protagonists of the deep human past must be understood as the intellectual and emotional peers of modern humans. With incredible verve and precision, Graeber and Wengrow strike down the received wisdom that the deep past was characterized by vast swaths of time in which people around the world lived in more-or-less uniform states of proto-political purgatory, graduating every other millennium or so into new but equally uniform stages of relative historical development. Their book’s core insight is that at no point has the history of humanity been pre-political. What makes us human is our capacity for politics, our ability to make self-conscious and intentional decisions about how to organize our lives together. On every page, The Dawn of Everything affirms the capacity of human beings to recognize and criticize our communities, to deliberate, to struggle, to invent and reinvent our social arrangements—to invent and reinvent ourselves.
Yet Graeber and Wengrow fail to apply that same insight to either the procreative, sexually exclusive family or the binary sex/gender system that supports it—two features of our global social life that together constitute arguably the most important organizing principle of Eurocentric modernity. Instead, in every human settlement and each historical epoch the Davids describe, we invariably encounter “women” and “men.” Even more glaringly, we also tend to encounter “husbands” and “wives.” Where are they all coming from?
Graeber and Wengrow accuse earlier generations of social theorists, from Rousseau to Steven Pinker to Yuval Noah Harari, of habitually returning to the Garden of Eden, by which they mean substituting biblical fable for empirical fact. It was from the tangled undergrowth of Eden as much as anywhere that canonical European myths like the noble savage (which the Davids restyle as the “stupid savage”) emerged. But The Dawn of Everything, despite itself, ends up elevating an equally specious European trope, one we might call the “chaste savage.” Like generations of scholars before them, the Davids apparently take for granted that ancient peoples lived in arrangements that always rhymed, inexplicably, with the modern Western family and were structured, at their most basic level, by binary sex.
Clearly, the Davids haven’t yet managed to demystify all the myths. It seems Graeber and Wengrow, too, have wound up ensnared in that same Garden, the one that only exists in fantasy, where man and woman exist as primordial categories and the whole of humanity can be represented by an originary husband and wife. Let’s untangle them, before it’s too late.
Graeber and Wengrow begin with what they call the “indigenous critique” of European society, showing that it was in dialogue with indigenous interlocutors that Europeans came to understand hereditary privilege as vulnerable to reasoned debate—and therefore possible to overthrow. “For European audiences,” Graeber and Wengrow write, “the indigenous critique would come as a shock to the system, revealing possibilities for human emancipation that, once disclosed, could hardly be ignored.”3The Dawn of Everything, pp. 31. Emanating from the agoras of the Americas and trafficked to Europe in transcribed dialogues and travel narratives, this critique of Western political and social mores by indigenous thinkers—like the Wendat orator Kandiaronk, to name the most prominent example from The Dawn of Everything—was apparently so destabilizing to Europeans that their contradictory attempts to metabolize it ended up sparking the Enlightenment.
European intellectual culture’s confused encounter with the indigenous critique also profoundly influenced the stories European scientists came to tell about the deep human past, from Rousseau’s noble savage to Hobbes’s primordial barbarity. But the deep squeeze of the early modern imperial crucible uncoupled these founding stories of modern political philosophy from whatever basis they could have had in reality—not only from the realities of indigenous life and politics at the time of first contact, but also from the empirical evidence of prehistory and antiquity provided by archeology. Taking Europe’s encounter with the indigenous critique as its starting point, then, Graeber and Wengrow frame The Dawn of Everything as a corrective to our fundamental misconceptions—myths—about the deep human past.
It’s worth pointing out from the outset that, in excavating the indigenous critique, the Davids seem to have left some substantial pieces of it in the sand. For example, you’d hardly know it from The Dawn of Everything, but European accounts of indigenous life from the early modern period nearly all focused, to a striking degree, on the format of the indigenous family—and, more to the point, on indigenous societies’ apparent tolerance for what Europeans saw as aberrant domestic and intimate arrangements. But relatively little of this is referenced in The Dawn of Everything, and so it tends to fade into the background of the Davids’ reconstructed indigenous critique.
As I mentioned, Graeber and Wengrow find their most forceful proponent of the indigenous critique in Kandiaronk, whose ideas were ferried into the European intellectual ferment by the disgraced French royal Baron de Lohanton, who in the seventeenth century lived among the Algonkian-speakers of the Great Lakes region.4It’s not entirely clear what species of scandal alienated the Baron Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce de Lahontan from the class of nobles into which he was born in 1666. After inheriting his father’s noble station at the age of eight, Lahontan left Europe as a teenager to begin a new vocation as a soldier in New France. There he distinguished himself not only as a navigator and linguist, but also as a loudmouth and smartass. Lahontan’s real offense was likely his unconcealed disdain for the Jesuits, but another story holds that his fate was sealed when complaints of his colorful bar-room jokes reached even the Bourbon king across the Atlantic. In any event, Lahontan’s famous impudence ultimately prevented his repatriation to France. He first published his chronicles in 1703 in the hopes of funding a modest civilian life in Amsterdam; he was dead within ten years. Lohanton’s strange and beautiful New Voyages to America (1703) includes the author’s own rich observations of indigenous sociality, but most importantly, it also includes transcribed debates with a semi-fictionalized Kandiaronk over fundamental questions of social organization. Graeber and Wengrow tend to focus on the narrowly political aspects of these exchanges—that is, those aspects that emphasize customs of deliberation and consensus-building in the indigenous public square. But Lahontan devotes a much larger portion of his pages to matters of sexual and domestic organization, for instance by explaining (in great detail) the customs through which Wendat “marriages” could be dissolved and reconstituted at will. Reading Lohanton, it becomes clear that the Frenchman’s indigenous interlocutors directed their most forceful critiques at the format of European conjugal relationships, and especially the institution of marriage, which they diagnosed as incompatible with the ideal of human freedom.
“They look upon it as a monstrous thing to be tied one to another without any hopes of being able to untie or break the Knot,” Lahontan wrote of Wendat attitudes towards the mandatory lifelong coupling of Christendom. “They are altogether Strangers to that Blind Fury which we call Love,” he elaborated, adding that in “rejecting the Empire of Love” the Wendat “are not altogether so savage as we are.” In fact, horrified by their encounter with the European family, Lahontan’s Wendat neighbors came to regard it as “a firm and unmovable Truth” that “Eropeans [sic] are born in Slavery, and deserve no other Condition than that of Servitude.” As Adario, Lahontan’s stand-in for Kandiaronk, says, “The [indigenous] People cannot conceive that the Europeans, who value themselves upon their Sense and Knowledge, should be so blind and so ignorant as not to know that Marriage in their way is a source of Trouble and Uneasiness.”
Lahontan, in his characteristically didactic if oddly charming style, may have captured the message better than most chroniclers of New France. But similarly forceful critiques of the European family and the institution of marriage pepper scores of similar travel narratives from the period. It is simply undeniable that, for a great many European observers, the most striking contrast between European and indigenous societies lay in the latter’s widespread refusal to endorse domination inside the household as an acceptable way to regulate procreation—or to regulate anything, for that matter. The Davids largely pass over this in silence. It would seem they struggled to recognize that the indigenous critique arose less from the amphitheater than from the home hearth, and had everything to do with the format of family relations.
To grasp the gravity of the Davids’ omission requires that we follow their lead in looking askance at the European intellectual tradition. In the period of high colonialism, how did the colonizers come to think about the phenomenon of human variation? More to the point, how did they rationalize their dizzying encounter with the array of unfamiliar family forms they observed around the world?
Again, let’s start where the Davids do, in the learned societies and royal academies of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. During this period, classical explanations for human difference crumbled one by one under the weight of new visions delivered to Europe through imperial exploration. In their place, new folk theories came to form, at least one species of which proposed to explain human difference according to relative historical stage of sexual moral development. “Virtually every early modern traveler to Africa, Asia and America, and every commentator on Jews and Muslims, as well as the Irish, has something to say about their sexual habits,” the intellectual historian Jonathan Burton notes.5Jonathan Burton, “Western Encounters with Sex and Bodies in Non-European Cultures, 1500-1750,” pp. 495-509, in The Routledge History of Sex and the Body: 1500 to the Present (2013), Sarah Toulalan and Kate Fisher (eds), Routledge. In this way, Europeans came to understand the sexual practices of non-European people as simultaneously decadent—that is, deviations from some originary ideal— and primitive, in that they imagined such practices to be easily dissolvable via Christian conversion, through which something like a state of primordial chastity could be restored.
The historian of science Terence Keel characterizes the European science of human variation as “a type of mongrel creation, with only part of its intellectual heritage knowable.” Crucially, this mongrel creation never derived from “a pure secular origin”—in fact, Keel argues, the much-lauded secularization of the Enlightenment represented nothing so much as “a transference of religious forms into nonreligious spaces of thought and practice.”6Terence Keel, Divine Variations: How Christian Thought Became Racial Science (2018). Stanford University Press. It was within this stew of dislocated Christian reasoning and decaying classical wisdom that early modern science coalesced. And this science, obsessed as it was with human genesis, came to fixate on the format of procreation in non-European households as much as on the distribution of phenotypes across the non-European globe.
Indeed, the very idea of race derived, at least in part, from the collision of indigenous critiques with Europe’s pitifully provincial philosophy of sex. Europeans tethered their anxiety about inscrutable sexual practices—and therefore patterns of consanguinity—to their fascination with unfamiliar phenotypes. This convenient, if contradictory, linkage allowed European intellectuals to interpret human variation as simultaneously hereditary and immutable, and to situate both phenotypical and familial differences according to a temporal hierarchy of human sexual development. And it was in large part through this kind of contradictory sexual stagism that European race science began to agglomerate its apparent explanatory power.
Predictably, the puzzle of indigenous intimate relations remained a central preoccupation of European intellectual culture for hundreds of years after Lohanton. In fact, Europe’s abiding fascination with the indigenous family inspired some of the most important works of nineteenth-century natural philosophy: Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877), for example, or Friedrich Engels’s derivative The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Both of these volumes, fantastically influential even in their day, rested on a specious characterization of the Haudenosaunee family as evidence of an ancient and universal “matrilineal gens,” an idea they owed, in part, to Johann Jakob Bachofen’s controversial Mother Right (1861). Bachofen proposed a primordial state of barbarous promiscuity that was transcended by the emergence of a sexual and political matriarchy (DasMutterrecht) that coincided with the advent of agriculture. It was from this matriarchy, Bachofen suggested, that first traditional monogamy and later marriage emerged. But those very customs contained within them the germs of a new paradigm: through the experience of settled monogamy, men came to understand that paternity could be a conduit for the intergenerational transmission of property, and matriarchy was soon usurped by patriarchy, its dark opposite.
That was the theory anyway— and it was one which departed radically from the primordial chastity thesis of the early modern philosophers, who felt that humanity was divinely endowed with an innate sexual morality that could be recovered through Christian conversion. But while it surely succeeded in getting under many a clerical collar, this new theory was ultimately not as transformative as it may have seemed at first blush. Far from uprooting Europe’s stagist conception of sexual moral development, nineteenth-century revisionists like Bachofen, Morgan, and Engles instead only reformulated it. They didn’t discredit the primordial chastity thesis so much as relocate its imaginary state of universal monogamy in time. As a result, they ended up preserving the procreative, sexually-exclusive household as a (qualified) human constant by re-constituting it as an unavoidable element of civilizational development.7The Davids arguably indulge a version of this kind of thinking in a few of their book’s key moments, betraying a latent confusion about the place of the family (not to mention of gender itself) in their insistently non-stagist vision of history. For examples, see in particular their discussion of Marija Gimbutas’s controversial The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe (1982), their critique of Lévi-Strauss’s The Savage Mind (1962), and their frustratingly abbreviated discussion of Minoan Crete.
In any event, despite its leaving the scaffolding of sexual determinism entirely intact, European intellectual culture soon came to dismiss all that matriarchy business as intolerably kooky. Indeed, before the end of the century, the distinguished Edvard Westermarck managed to restore a version of the primordial chastity thesis that, despite the insistent scientism of its author, was virtually indistinguishable from the idea’s Edenic early modern form.
In his three-volume The History of Human Marriage (1891), Westermarck pulled off quite the feat of secular transference: in rejecting Bachofen’s primordial promiscuity thesis, he reconciled the sexual morality of Christendom with the emergent Darwinian science of sexual selection. In a passage that surely raised the eyebrows of even his nineteenth-century readers, Westermarck asserted that “travellers unanimously agree that in the human race the relations of the sexes are, as a rule, of a more or less durable character.” Westermarck himself, however, was surely aware of the sexual and familial diversity that existed beyond Europe; his most passionate research interests, in fact, were “sodomy” and the phenomenon he called “cousin marriage” in Morocco. Perhaps to reconcile this inconvenient evidence with his transhistorical theory, then, he derived from “the highest monkeys” and “the savage and barbarous races of man” a uniquely capacious definition of marriage. “From a scientific point of view,” he wrote, “marriage is nothing else than a more or less durable connection between male and female, lasting beyond the mere act of propagation till after the birth of the offspring.” Westermarck’s idiosyncratic explanation for his supposedly universal “marriage custom” managed to locate its origins in an innate human urge for two (and only two) parents to cohabitate after procreation—an idealistic and empirically untenable theory, derived in large part from observations of non-human primates, that barely succeeded in hiding its Christian provenance under Darwin’s beard. Still, despite its incoherence (or perhaps because of it), a distinctly Westermarckian theory of monogamous human coupling continues to drive research in evolutionary psychology and related fields even today.8A sympathetic survey published in the New York Times science section (Carl Zimmer, “Monogamy and Human Evolution,” Aug. 2, 2013) summarized the field thusly: “[R]esearch like this inevitably turns us into narcissists. It’s all well and good to understand why the gray-handed night monkey became monogamous. But we want to know: What does this say about men and women? As with all things concerning the human heart, it’s complicated.”
Finally, and most importantly for The Dawn of Everything, the indigenous family was also the inaugural fixation of the strange field of study that would, around the turn of the twentieth century, come to be known as anthropology. The first several generations of academic anthropologists were absorbed almost entirely by taxonomic analyses of kinship and consanguinity, often with indigenous Americans as their field subjects—a tradition that extended, at the very least, from Franz Boas to Claude Lévi-Strauss (who in 1948 presented a doctoral thesis called The Family and Social Life of the Nambikwara Indians). In fact, this multi-generational obsession represented something like the common branch from which the two primary subdisciplines of academic anthropology forked off, one focused on the morphology of human bodies, another on the format of human societies. The shadow of Westermarck, even now, hangs over both; much of contemporary anthropology still implicitly endorses his revamped version of the primordial chastity thesis.
Clearly, one way European intellectuals swallowed the thorny branch of the indigenous critique was by sublimating its troubling sexual and domestic bits, the things that were the furthest beyond their comprehension, and inventing for them over the centuries a whole new genre of scientific inquiry. It’s perplexing that Graeber, famously one of his discipline’s fiercest internal critics, would fail to mention all this. Why does the supposedly transhistorical institution of marriage not appear on the Davids’ list of intolerable European myths?
To their credit, Graeber and Wengrow do acknowledge that early modern hysteria about transgressive sex among indigenous people figured into the stunted and self-serving way European intellectuals metabolized the indigenous critique, especially as it collided with the repressive sexual morality of the Jesuits. “Scandalized missionaries frequently reported that American women were considered to have full control over their own bodies,” Graeber and Wengrow write. They even take the title of their chapter about the indigenous critique from the testimony of one irate Jesuit, who condemned the “wicked liberty of the savages” as a challenge not only to evangelical Christendom, but also the whole project of European modernity.9The Dawn of Everything, pp. 43-44.
And to be fair, Graeber and Wengrow also acknowledge that the sovereign family is not a historical constant. They note that the European household is a dark inheritance from the Roman Empire, and that “the European conception of individual freedom,” tied as it is to “notions of private property,” “traces back above all to the power of the male household head in ancient Rome.”10Ibid, pp. 66-67. (Graeber seems to have been rather fond of this point, which appears in nearly identical form in his 2011 tome Debt: The First 5,000 Years.) They even point out that our “family” bears an etymological link to an archaic Latin term for “slave.”11 Ibid, pp. 510.
But except in very oblique terms, Graeber and Wengrow don’t attempt to account for the origins of this procreative and sexually-exclusive household that was (and is) to Europeans like water to a fish, and yet, to the proponents of the indigenous critique, was so alien as to be utterly scandalous.12One recent book that does address this question is science journalist Angela Saini’s The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality (2023, Beacon Press). Saini surveys the deep history of matriliny and matrilocality to suggest that patriarchal families are preceded by the establishment of centralized authorities—states—dedicated to the management of trans-local populations. In a blurb on the dust cover, David Wegrow praises The Patriarchs for focusing on “the penetration of household and family relations by predatory systems of power and exploitation.” Still, attentive readers will note that Saini’s origin story seems rather incompatible with the theory of power and consolidation Graeber and Wengrow present in Chapter 10 of The Dawn of Everything (“Why the State Has No Origin”), which rests on their provocation that “the state” does not exist—not in prehistory, nor in antiquity, nor even in the present day. Rather than carefully tracing how and to what extent such households came to define the social lives of human groups in prehistory and antiquity, the Davids instead give us dozens of anachronistic references to “husbands” and “wives.”
And so we learn that Inuit “husbands and wives” share in common the fruits of their seasonal walrus hunt; we learn that among the Natchez of eighteenth century Florida “wives” mourned their “husbands”; we learn that in ancient Mesopotamia a “wife” could take on the debt of a “husband”; we learn that during mystical rites in Papua New Guinea “wives” pretend not to recognize their “husbands”; we learn of Moctezuma’s tax collectors abducting the “wives” of political dissidents. (Actually we get several such examples of men establishing solidarity with one another through the sexual victimization of “wives.”) And on and on. One might argue that this is a typical enough usage. Yet nowhere in The Dawn of Everything do Graeber and Wengrow probe “husband” and “wife” the same way they elsewhere probe similar abstractions like “king” or “soldier.”
In a book as careful in its diction as The Dawn of Everything, it is startling indeed to encounter such an obvious anachronism so unselfconsciously repeated. Graeber and Wengrow don’t cite Westermarck directly, but their oddly untroubled and transhistorical notion of marriage is unmistakably Westermarckian in character. Inexplicably, The Dawn of Everything places marriage and the family beyond the reach of its own major argument, which is that the deep human past was characterized by a kind of exuberant political creativity that frequently reformatted social relations at every level. Instead, they implicitly endorse a theory of human sexual development that, like Westermarck’s, locates the origins of marriage and the procreative family in something other than politics— something more, dare I say, primal. Despite their admirable allergy to all manners of determinism, somehow Graeber and Wengrow let this one slip by.
Confronted with the indigenous condemnation of marriage and the European family, it seems the Davids soon packed up their shovels, brushed off their knees, and walked away. But had they kept digging, they might have uncovered yet another dimension of the indigenous critique that’s nowhere to be found in The Dawn of Everything, one so disorienting to the European worldview that most of us moderns still haven’t gotten our heads around it. Because if we read between the lines of the European colonial literature, as Graeber and Wengrow instruct us to, it becomes clear that on the indigenous American continent there were many more genders than just two.
Here’s something else you wouldn’t know from The Dawn of Everything : in indigenous America, Europeans commonly encountered people whom everyone (even, rather incredulously, the interloping colonialists) understood to be neither women nor men.
Consider this line from Lohanton, also left unquoted in The Dawn of Everything : “There are several Hermaphrodites,” the Frenchman reported from seventeenth-century Michilimackinac, “who go in a Woman’s Habit, but frequent the Company of both Sexes.” Or consider Lohanton’s description of the people he called the “Hunting Women,” who refused sex with men (they were “of too indifferent a temper to brook the Conjugal yoak”) and contributed exclusively to social duties Lahontan identified as masculine. Most strangely, to the French romantic, their “Vicious Conduct” elicited no repercussions from their hereditary relations, who recognized “that their Daughters have the command of their own Bodies and may dispose of their Persons as they think fit.”
By the time Lahontan’s chronicle appeared in 1704, such descriptions of gender pluralism in indigenous America would have already been eminently familiar to readers in Europe. Indeed, by the middle of the seventeenth century, the phenomenon was so widely acknowledged that François Du Creux, in his authoritative History of Canada or New France (1664), simply noted, “In Europe if a man were to put on a woman’s dress he would be disguised; among the Indians, nothing is commoner.” And with European literary markets awash in so-called captivity narratives and other examples of colonial travel literature, readers could find plenty of testimonies to substantiate Du Creux’s claim.
In 1564, more than a century before Lohanton first conferred with Kandiaronk on the shores of Lake Huron, René Goulaine de Laudonnière told of meeting “an Hermaphrodite” in the St. Johns river delta of Florida, “who came before us with a great vessell full of cleere fountain water, wherewith she greatly refreshed us.”13. René Goulaine de Laudonnière, “The second voyage unto Florida, made and Written by Captaine Laudonniere, which fortified and inhabited there two Summers and one whole Winter,” pp. 517-594 in Richard Hakluyt (ed.), The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation…. (1904, James MacLehose and Sons) A generation or so later, in 1591, Theodor de Bry described “numerous hermaphrodites, a mixture of both sexes” in the same region, noting their collective incorporation into ritual practices. The famous engraving de Bry made to accompany his testimony depicts muscle-bound, long-haired figures in grass skirts striding across a swampy plain, holding between them long stretchers on which recline the gaunt and gangrenous bodies of the infirm. “Persons with infectious diseases are carried to places reserved for them on the shoulders of the hermaphrodites, who supply them with food until they are well again,” he wrote.14Theodor de Bry, “Employments of the Hermaphrodites (1591),” in Michael Alexander (ed), Discovering the New World, Based on the Works of Theodore de Bry (1976, Harper & Row).
The Jesuit ethnologist Joseph-Francois Lafitau, something of a historical foil to the vagabondish (and decidedly secular) Lahontan, stood out for the libidinous intensity of his fascination with indigenous gender pluralism. “Among the Illini, among the Sioux, in Louisiana, in Florida and in Yucatan,” he wrote in 1724, “there are young men who assume women’s costumes, wearing them all their lives,” and who “take it as a mark of honour to lower themselves to women’s occupations.” A cruel and puritanical evangelist, Lafitau’s primary contribution to European science was a naive theory of primitive monotheism that rested on the Edenic fantasy of primordial human chastity. Even still, his descriptions of “hermaphrodites” betrayed something of his own sublimated curiosity and wonder. “Their profession of an extraordinary kind of life,” he wrote of indigenous persons whose genders he could not identify, “makes them pass for people of a superior order above the common run of mankind.”15Joseph-François Lafitau, Moeurs des sauvages ameriquains, comparees aux moeurs des premiers temps… (1724, Chez Saugrain l’aîné), trans. Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times (1974, The Champlain Society). For the foregoing accounts of indigenous gender pluralism in French, I am indebted to J. Michael Thoms, Leading an Extraordinary Life: Wise Practices for an HIV prevention campaign with Two-Spirit men (2007, Two-Spirited People of the First Nations).
Such accounts were hardly unique to the French. The Spanish conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca described “something very repulsive, namely, a man married to another,” in his account of interior Texas, going on to tell of “impotent and womanish beings” who “perform the office of women.”16Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, La relación que dio Álvar Núñez Cabeça de Vaca de lo acaecido en las Indias… (1542, Zamora), trans. Fanny Bandelier, The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and His Companions from Florida to the Pacific, 1528-1536 (1904, Willams-Barker Co). Perhaps ironically, considering his disdain, Cabeza de Vaca himself seems to have assimilated into a non-binary, or at least flexible, gender position in indigenous society, as the historian M. Carmen Gomez-Galisteo has pointed out.17M. Carmen Gomez-Galisteo, “Subverting Gender Roles in the Sixteenth Century: Cabeza de Vaca, the Conquistador Who Became a Native American Woman,” pp. 11-29 in Gender and Sexuality in Indigenous North America, Sandra Slater and Fay A. Yarbrough, eds. (2011, University of South Carolina Press). See pp. 11: “Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the man who wrote this statement [omitted], was a conquistador, the sixteenth-century epitome of masculinity. This quotation reflects his happiness at being a trader, since this occupation allowed him a greater freedom than his situation as a captive at the hands of the Native Americans had left him. What he forgot to mention, however, is that this role with which he was so perfectly happy was a female role among the Native Americans with whom he lived. […] In Cabeza de Vaca’s ordeal in North America we see his process of constructing an alternative identity, which, in a way, was genderless. Cabeza de Vaca’s masculine identity did not hold and was shattered because of his powerlessness and his female-gendered job.” And Vasco Núñez de Balboa, another Spaniard, was so shocked to encounter people of an unfamiliar gender, whom he derisively called joyas, integrated into native social relations in present-day Panama that in 1513 he massacred scores of them with dogs—an example of what the scholar Deborah A. Miranda calls “gendercide.”18Deborah A. Miranda, “Extermination of the Joyas: Gendercide in Spanish California,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16:1—2 (2010): pp. 253-284. This massacre was well known to Lafitau, who referenced it favorably in a survey of “women of a virile courage” and “men cowardly enough to live like women” in North America.19Lafitau, Moeurs des sauvages ameriquains (1924). Theodor de Bry even made an engraving of the incident, with a gaggle of extravagantly dressed Spaniards standing over the mauling pit; it was published as a plate in Bartolomé de las Casas’s Narratio regionum Indicarum per Hispanos quosdam deuestatarum verissima (1598).
In the nineteenth century, too, citizens of the new American republic recorded examples of indigenous gender pluralism as they pushed westward. John Tanner wrote of an encounter around 1800 with an Ojibwe trader and soldier named Ozaawindib, who “was one of those who make themselves women” and who “had lived with many husbands.” In a sensational narrative published after his return to settler society, Tanner claimed to have rebuffed Ozaawindib’s “disgusting advances,” but also noted that his Ojibwe neighbors “only laughed at the embarrassment and shame which I evinced,” sharing nothing of Tanner’s revulsion.20John Tanner, A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner… (1830, Baldwin and Cradock). All the way on the western side of the continent, numerous merchants and soldiers published accounts of a person known as Kaúxuma núpika, who between 1811 and 1837 traveled throughout the Columbia and Flathead river basins, presenting to settlers and their agents sometimes as a woman, sometimes as a man.21Suzanne Crawford O’Brien, “Gone to the Spirits: A Transgender Prophet on the Columbia Plateau,” Theology & Sexuality 21:2 (2015): pp. 125-143; Claude E. Schaeffer, “The Kutenai Female Berdache: Courier, Guide, Prophetess, and Warrior,” Ethnohistory 12:3 (1965): pp. 193-236. Around the same time, the ethnographic painter George Catlin produced a canvas depicting a group of Othâkîwaki dancers encircling a figure in a long garment—“a man dressed in woman’s clothes,” Catlin wrote, who “for extraordinary privileges” is looked upon “as medicine and sacred.”22George Catlin, Letters and notes on the manners, customs, and condition of the North American Indians (1841, Wiley & Putnam). The painting, entitled Dance to the Berdash, is displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
I could provide more examples, but I think I’ve made my point. The encounter with indigenous gender pluralism exceeded European conceptual categories; that’s why all we’re left with in the written record are reductive terms like “hermaphrodite” and later “berdache” (a sexualized descriptor now universally recognized as a slur). But clearly this phenomenon, too, was a part of the indigenous critique. And European intellectuals sublimated it in similar fashion as they did the indigenous family, rationalizing unfamiliar genders as decadent deviations from some imaginary primordial ideal, and therefore also as developmentally laggard antecedents to European Christendom’s mastery of sex.
Whereas indigenous gender pluralism may have been endlessly fascinating to the early moderns, nowadays it has largely disappeared from mainstream scholarship about indigenous America. Pekka Hämäläinen’s new Indigenous Continent (2022), for example, doesn’t mention it once. Jennifer Raff’s much-celebrated Origins: A Genetic History of the Americas (2022) is only slightly better; in a text-box, Raff notes that indigenous groups often “have diverse conceptions of gender,” but she fails to integrate this insight in the rest of her book.
Still, despite the failures of mainstream history, indigenous gender pluralism never vanished entirely from global scholarly and popular consciousness. (The historical episodes I narrated earlier, far from being obscure or esoteric, are available to any historian capable of performing a well-worded Google search.23Curious historians may also consider consulting Kit Heyam’s informative Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender (2022, Basic Books). It’s remarkable that Graeber and Wengrow, voracious and uncommonly ecumenical readers both, managed to miss it.
For example, gay settler scholars released a wave of monographs in the 1980s and ‘90s that attempted to rehabilitate the term “berdache” and recover stories of what those scholars called “third genders” among indigenous Americans.24The most important examples here are Walter F. Williams’s The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture (1986, Beacon Press), Will Roscoe’s Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America (1998, Palgrave Macmillan), and Sabine Lang’s Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures (1998, University Texas Press). Mark Rifkin provides a welcome update to this tradition in his When Did Indians Become Straight?: Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty (2011, Oxford University Press). This, in turn, briefly cemented a trope in U.S. and Canadian LGBT literature that has not aged well: for a generation or so, gay and trans settler-authors in North America routinely appealed to a metaphorical indigenous (“shamanic”) ancestry that was severed from any real historical referent. Consider an early scene in Leslie Feinberg’s famous Stone Butch Blues (1993), for example, in which a Diné neighbor temporarily adopts the infant narrator into a world of “fry bread and sage” and foretells “a difficult path in life.”25See Feinberg’s second chapter in particular, which contains a number of passages like this one: “I grew in two worlds, immersed in the music of two languages. One world was Wheaties and Milton Berle. The other was fry bread and sage. […] My father grew alarmed […] He said later he couldn’t stand by and let his own flesh and blood be kidnapped by Indians.” As Lou Cornum wrote recently in Pinko magazine, “For gay settlers, the tribe provides an alternative form of collectivity, one attached to floating forms of Native American spirituality without the inconvenience of actually existing Indians.”26Lou Cornum, “Desiring the Tribe,” Pinko 1, October 15, 2019 (online).
Since about 1990, indigenous-led social movements have subjected the neo-primordialism of the gay settler scholars to some overdue criticism, while also advocating the now commonly used “two-spirit” to replace the offensive “berdache.” In a landmark 2002 essay called “Romancing the Transgender Native,” for example, anthropologists Evan B. Towle and Lynn M. Morgan took settler academics to task for fabricating “a junk drawer into which a great non-Western gender miscellany is carelessly dumped.”27Evan B. Towle and Lynn M. Morgan, “Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the ‘Third Gender’ Concept,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8:4 (2004): pp. 469-497. The gay settler scholars of the late twentieth century, fascinated as they were with what they called the “the berdache tradition,” managed to see clearly that the world inhabited by indigenous American groups overflowed Europe’s binary sex/gender system. But sadly they reached a specious and frankly dull conclusion: that human beings in their originary and primordial form existed not in two but rather in three or four discrete genders. It seems they couldn’t quite grasp the devastating insight at the core of the indigenous critique, and so instead fell into their own version of reductive primordialism, to say nothing of implicit stagism.
The insight at the core of the indigenous critique is not that there may be one or two more genders than Europeans recognize, but rather that the concept of gender itself—and sex, too— derives not from human biology but instead from the format of intimate and political relations in particular human groups. The question is not how and why Europeans eliminated the “third gender,” but rather how and why Europeans, confronted by a complex and shifting world of plural sex/gender configurations, committed themselves to the idea of a staid and inelegant binary, one that departed radically from the diverse realities they themselves readily observed not only in the Americas, but indeed around the globe.
And as for The Dawn of Everything : well, you’d think a book dedicated to overturning myths would ask how the European sex/gender binary (and the uniquely restrictive family form to which it is linked) could remain so widely affirmed by modern science, despite such robust empirical contradiction.
The Davids don’t pose that question. But had they paid better attention to the indigenous critique in its twenty-first-century instantiations, they may have. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, for example, has recently proposed the concept of “indigenous queer normativity” as a new touchstone in our study of indigenous social theory. And Simpson’s novel Noopiming (2020) draws on Anishinaabeg ontologies to present a vision of a complexly relational indigenous world in which there are, in effect, no genders— or perhaps infinite genders, so many that to even speak of gender categories, rather than the particular procreative and relational dispositions of individual persons (or non-persons), becomes untenable. Despite exerting themselves to recover the indigenous critique as it was expressed four hundred years ago, it seems the Davids overlooked the fairly obvious fact that gender pluralism constitutes a key part of that critique as it is expressed by indigenous authors in our own time.28On “indigenous queer normativity,” see Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (2017, University of Minnesota Press) and Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Rehearsals for Living (2022, Haymarket Books). Beyond these analytical examples, there exists a large and growing catalog of novels by indigenous authors addressing sexual and gender pluralism. To my mind, Simpson’s Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies (2020, University of Minnesota Press,) is the richest and most illustrative of these novels, but others include Tomson Highway’s lyrical The Kiss of the Fur Queen(1998, Doubleday Canada), Joshua Whitehead’s bare-knuckled Jonny Appleseed (2018, Arsenal Pulp Press), and Billy-Ray Belcourt’s plaintive A Minor Chorus (2022, University of Queensland Press).
It is undeniable that this oversight has consequences for the Davids’ account of human history. The Dawn of Everything’s major contribution is that it shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the social worlds inhabited by our deep human ancestors were actually far more diverse—far more free—than those we occupy today. But this intellectual project breaks down along what may be its most important axis. Armed with only an incomplete replica of the indigenous critique, Graeber and Wengrow end up projecting the provincial family form and sex/gender system of early modern Europe backwards in time and outwards in space, applying it to geographic and temporal contexts where it does not belong.
This error is most conspicuous in the Davids’ account of Çatalhöyük, the famous terraced city of the Turkish Neolithic, whose rhizomatic dwellings were entered via trapdoors in their roofs and adorned on the inside with decorated bull skulls. Graeber and Wengrow note that research about Çatalhöyük was long dominated by what archeologists once called the Mother Goddess, a matronly deity thought to be represented in numerous clay sculptures as a figure with prominent hips and breasts. In line with more recent scholarship, however, Graeber and Wengrow endorse a more prosaic interpretation of those clay sculptures, seeing them not as hallowed representations of the divine, but rather as charms, casually made and just as casually discarded, that, they say, may have illustrated a kind of cultural linkage between femininity and horticultural productivity. Indeed, the Davids see encoded in the material culture of Çatalhöyük something remarkably similar to the agricultural matriarchy earlier proposed by Bachofen, “in which the role of mothers in the household… becomes a model for, and economic basis of, female authority in other aspects of life.”29The Dawn of Everything, pp. 219.
I daresay the error embedded in that sentence is, by now, rather obvious. If matriarchy derived from the generalization of pre-extant household roles across society writ large, then where exactly did those households—not to mention mothers’ roles within them—come from? The precondition for Çatalhöyük’s social system, in the Davids’ conception, seems to be the natural preservation of certain innate womanly functions inside the procreative household.30This is an inescapably outdated idea that Graeber and Wengrow attempt to rehabilitate through their notion of “woman, the scientist,” whose unique relationship to horticulture, they suggest, dates to the Ice Age. See The Dawn of Everything, pp. 236-241. Once again, the family and the woman within it precede everything else; a trans-historical autonomous household again emerges as the prerequisite for the (matriarchal) social system that ultimately gives it meaning.31See The Dawn of Everything, pp. 221: “While it’s unclear what social rules and habits were responsible for maintaining the autonomy of households, what seems evident is that these rules were learned mainly within the household itself.” My point is that, in Çatalhöyük, Graeber and Wengrow unfortunately stumble into something of a tautological trap.
But the Davids’ real sin, if you ask me, is that they manage to overlook precisely what makes the Çatalhöyük-ian household so interesting. Lost in the Davids’ discussion of matriarchy are two key facts about Çatalhöyük, uncovered only in the past several decades, each of which is far more radical and suggestive than anything the twentieth-century proponents of the Mother Goddess thesis could have imagined. First, geneticists have revealed that only rarely were the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük-ian households closely related to one another.32See Marin A Pilloud and Clark Spencer Larsen, “‘Official’ and ‘practical’ kin: Inferring social and community structure from dental phenotype at Neolithic Çatalhöyük, Turkey,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 145:4 (2011): pp. 519-530; Maciej Chyleński et al, “Ancient Mitochondrial Genomes Reveal the Absence of Maternal Kinship in the Burials of Çatalhöyük People and Their Genetic Affinities,” Genes 10:3 (2019): p. 207 and Reyhan Yaka et al, “Variable kinship patterns in Neolithic Anatolia revealed by ancient genomes,” Current Biology 31:11 (2021): pp. 2455-2468. It seems residents of Çatalhöyük, including children and the elderly, organized themselves into intensely meaningful domestic arrangements according to criteria other than consanguinity. Their households seem to have fulfilled many of the social functions we today associate with families—things like the intergenerational transmission of myths, the care of youth and elders, and the disposal of the deceased (famously, Çatalhöyük-ians buried their dead beneath their beds). But hereditary relation plainly had nothing to do with the arrangement. Despite what the Davids say, to speak of “the role of mothers” in a household like that is clearly an error in terms.
The second key fact has to do with those big-breasted, wide-hipped figurines—the ones the Davids, like so many scholars before them, insist on referring to as “female.” As it turns out, there’s a problem with those statuettes. It’s not just that they don’t depict goddesses. It’s that they can’t be said to depict women, either.
Scholars have long acknowledged that burials in Çatalhöyük evince a striking degree of parity between remains typically sexed as male and those typically sexed as female. For example, “male” and “female” skeletons in Çatalhöyük frequently show identical dietary and lifestyle markers (suggesting they consumed the same food and performed the same work) and there are no substantial differences in the kinds of ceremonial goods buried with them. “In terms of gender relations [in Çatalhöyük], we can acknowledge a degree of symmetry, or at least complementarity,” Graeber and Wengrow concede—a conclusion that might have threatened their flirtation with Neolithic matriarchy, had they allowed it to stand. “Yet the point remains,” they add, returning to the ubiquitous “female” figures, “that there exist no similarly elaborate or highly crafted depictions of male forms in the portable art of Çatalhöyük.”33The Dawn of Everything, pp. 221-222
But if that’s the case, then Çatalhöyük doesn’t contain any depictions of female forms, either.34See Ellen H. Belcher, “Identifying Female in the Halaf: Prehistoric Agency and Modern Interpretations,” Journal of Archeological Method and Theory 23:3 (2016): pp. 921-948, especially p. 944: “[R]igid gender binaries are not visually represented in [Neolithic] Halaf representing gender in any of the ways that are recognizable to the modern eye, and on others, gender was represented on a spectrum from ambiguous to overt.” The Mother Goddess statuettes can’t really connote anything analogous to femininity, because there is no evidence of any sex/gender distinction, much less a binary one, structuring social relations in Çatalhöyük. The figurines’ prominent breasts and hips were probably intended not to mark them as female—a category that plainly did not exist—but as human, that is, as irreducibly different from any of the many representations of non-human animals that otherwise dominate Çatalhöyük-ian art. That archeologists have uncovered a number of artifacts that include not only large breasts but also penises and testicles provides still more evidence of this point.
What appears most likely is that gender simply wasn’t a salient concept in Çatalhöyük.35For an excellent overview of all this gender trouble in Çatalhöyük, see “Chapter 3: Genesis,” pp. 57-81 in Saini’s The Patriarchs (2023). I am indebted to Saini for her perceptive synthesis of the current academic literature and for her thorough bibliography. Nor was sex. And even if there were some kind of sex/gender system in place in the Turkish Neolithic, it certainly could not be said to resemble the binary sex/gender system characteristic of Eurocentric modernity. That Graeber and Wengrow nonetheless describe Çatalhöyük according to that system’s terms of analysis has nothing to do with the archeological evidence, and everything to do with the authors’ own enmeshment in the ontological presumptions of European science. Graeber and Wengrow are, in a word, projecting.
This kind of projection is exactly what the archeologist Sandra E. Hollimon—unreferenced in The Dawn of Everything—warned against in 2001, when she argued that researchers “should operate from the deductive position that multiple genders were present” in prehistoric settlements. Strikingly, she seems to have derived this insight from her own version of the indigenous critique: her proposal was motivated, Holliman wrote, by preponderant evidence of “non-binary genders” in indigenous America and elsewhere. Similarly, Pamela L. Geller has recently called on her fellow bio-archeologists to rethink their historic project of “sexing” human skeletal remains according to European modernity’s dimorphic sex/gender system, and to acknowledge that system to be “neither universal in space nor beyond transformation through time.”36Sandra E. Hollimon, “The gendered peopling of North America: Addressing the antiquity of systems of multiple genders,” pp. 123-134 in The Archaeology of Shamanism (2001), Neil Price (ed). Routledge; Sandra E. Hollimon, “Gender and California Archaeology: You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe,” Proceedings of the Society for California Archaeology 22 (2009); Pamela L. Geller, The Bioarchaeology of Socio-Sexual Lives: Queering Common Sense About Sex, Gender, and Sexuality, Springer (2016). If only we can jettison that sex/gender system, that most tenacious of European myths, “we will see that there are worlds within worlds awaiting us,” Geller writes. The Dawn of Everything, needless to say, provides no insight into such worlds. In fact, its authors seem not to even realize they exist.
The anthropologists Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale, writing in the Ecologist, have suggested that Graeber and Wengrow “have no explanation for sexism, nor are they interested in how or why gender relations change.”37Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale, “All things being equal: A critique of David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything,” The Ecologist, December 17, 2021 (online). I agree that the Davids provide no explanation for sexism, but I’d say their book actually does display a certain (admittedly intermittent) curiosity about changing gender relations. It’s just that the Davids, like Lindisfarne and Neale, only pose the question from within the constrictive template provided by European science, which inevitably views the sex/gender binary as derivative, to some extent, of human biology. The problem with The Dawn of Everything, to my mind, is not that it’s indifferent to shifting relationships between men and women, but that it fails to grasp that any division of humanity into dimorphic opposites reflects a political decision, not a natural fact.
In light of the indigenous critique, it should have been obvious to Graeber and Wengrow that man and woman, like husband and wife, are social categories with origins of their own. But The Dawn of Everything, to its great detriment, takes them for granted.
I began this essay by saying that Graeber and Wengrow, despite their best efforts, have ended up snagged in the brambles of Eden. But I should add that I don’t think they’re doomed to languish there forever. In fact, if you ask me, The Dawn of Everything may yet give us the tools we need to cut them loose.
Graeber and Wengrow set for themselves a bold agenda: to account for “how relations that were once flexible and negotiable ended up getting fixed in place.” For the Davids, “the biggest question we can ask of history” is this: “How did we find ourselves stuck in just one form of social reality, and how did relations based ultimately on violence and domination come to be normalized within it?” By the close of their final chapter, they’ve begun to circle around a conclusion. It seems one possible answer to their broad inquiry lies in the braiding together of what they call “external violence and internal care.”38The Dawn of Everything, pp. 519.
In other words, the Davids tiptoe right up to a theory of social domination that has everything to do with the regulation of intimacy through violence—that is, it has everything to do with the format of the family, and furthermore with the format of sex and gender. In their book’s final pages, Graeber and Wengrow recall the “searing, unforgettable spectacles of pain and suffering” that in Europe “convey the message that a system in which husbands could brutalize wives… was ultimately a form of love.” Then they recall the Wendat rituals that “make clear that no form of physical chastisement should ever be countenanced inside a community or household.” And they conclude:
It seems to us that this connection—or better perhaps, confusion—between care and domination is utterly critical to the larger question of how we lost the ability freely to recreate ourselves by recreating our relations with one another. It is critical, that is, to understanding how we got stuck, and why these days we can hardly envisage our own past or future as anything other than a transition from smaller to larger cages.39The Dawn of Everything, pp. 512-515.
It’s a shame that this insight comes at the end of The Dawn of Everything, and not its outset. Had it been allowed to frame the Davids’ “grand dialogue about human history,” I think we would have at least seen fewer husbands and wives popping up where they don’t belong. We might have even seen fewer women and men.
Wengrow notes in his dedication that he and Graeber had planned to write “no less than three” sequels to The Dawn of Everything. Graeber’s death naturally placed the prognoses of those books a little up in the air. Only time will tell if those sequels are forthcoming, or if they enter the same imaginary canon as volumes four through six of Capital, empty pages to be speculated about by generations of opinionated readers to come.
But maybe, just maybe, one of those planned sequels will take up with more rigor the matter of “external violence and internal care,” will take seriously the indeterminacy of sex and gender, will divest from the provincial sexual moralism of European science and dispel with Westermarck’s transhistorical husbands and wives. The Dawn of Everything, as I said, would certainly seem to provide the tools for such a sequel. But it might fall to us, rather than the Davids, to wield them.~