The Dawn of Everything, Part 2

by Miriam Ronzoni on December 17, 2021


So, I had promised a Part 2, and here it is. As I anticipated in Part 1, Graeber and Wengrow suggest that we should look at early Modern and Modern exchanges between, especially, Europeans and native North-Americans in a different way. If we take seriously what European intellectuals, missionaries and explorers of the time report, the story they tell us is one of encounters characterised by muscular, vibrant debates about the merits of different social arrangements and life-styles. Crucially, in these debates, both parties were active, passionate participants, and indigenous intellectuals had very sharp criticisms to make to western political structures, as they were getting to know them. This is not the central thesis of the book (which is about early humans, recall), but it is put forward as a clue to the fact that we might have a tendency to stubbornly deny certain pieces of evidence – even when they lie in front of us, in plain sight.

The point is one to which the two Davids return at various junctures in the book, but it is tackled head-first in an early chapter, entitled “The Indigenous Critique.” To a reader like me, the thesis put forward there is as bold and thought-provoking as they come – I have no competence to judge whether it is accurate, but it really got me thinking. The idea, in a nutshell, is the following. Remember when Enlightenment writers, and social and political thinkers of the time in particular, revived the literary-philosophical tradition of the Socratic dialogue, but often with indigenous chiefs, warriors, or other eminent figures as interlocutors? And remember how, far from being brutal barbarians or noble savages, these interlocutors had very eloquent, insightful things to say about equality, freedom, and democracy – so much so that they often ended up being the voice of the author’s own thesis, as it were? Well, guess what, those most likely were not complex allegories and literary artifices. Indeed,in all likelihood many of these dialogues actually report (albeit, of course, in a reimagined way) exchanges that had actually taken place, and during which some western thinkers had a proper aha moment. Jennifer Schuessler (loosely paraphrasing James C. Scott’s appraisal of the book) puts it very well in her review for the New York Times (paywall):

The European Enlightenment […], rather than being a gift of wisdom bestowed on the rest of the world, grew out of a dialogue with Indigenous people of the New World, whose trenchant assessments of the shortcomings of European society influenced emerging ideas of freedom.

In the book, this is illustrated primarily through the figure of Kondiaronk – a statesman, intellectual and debater from the Wendat (“Huron”) confederation who features prominently (with the fictional name of Adario) in the memoirs of the Baron de Lahontan, one of the deputies of the French governor-general in the area at the time. In Lahontan’s work (a dialogue, of course) Kondiaronk/Adario embarks in a merciless critique of French mores, values, and socio-political arrangements. In so doing, he firmly rejects the prospect of him and his people being assimilated into the European life-style, as he believes the latter is one characterised by an excessive lack of freedom. What is more, these are not just forceful but unsupported proclamations: they are fastidiously, eloquently and richly argued points. Many commentators, Graeber and Wengrow notice, have pointed out how this cannot but be evidence of the fact that Adario was an entirely fictional figure – I mean, he just “sounds” too much like an Enlightenment intellectual in a salon, doesn’t he? Lahontan, however, interacted with Kondiaronk intensely and repeatedly; the latter was famously known for being an impressively witty debater, has many third party sources attest; finally, Lahontans dialogue is called Curious Dialogues with a Savage of Good Sense Who Has Traveled, and travelling through Europe is exactly what Kondiaronk did. The simplest explanation, in this case and many others from the time, is that western writers were inspired by real indigenous figures – even if, of course, they probably did not report their arguments literally. Yet commentators are, more often than not, busy trying to explain this away, as an obviously absurd possibility. The analogy with the handling of uncomfortable archaeological evidence discussed in later chapters is as clear as ever: newly researched Ukrainian mega-sites, for instance, just cannot be cities, because they ostensibly lack public quarters for the dominant cast, which cities must have – hence another explanation must be conjured up for them.

For discussions providing more detail than what I have done here, yet more manageable than the book itself, you might want to check out this and this essay by Graeber and Wengrow – both predating the book. I cannot really go into any detail about what exactly indigenous intellectuals criticised, and why exactly it is plausible to speculate that they were a source of inspiration for some crucial aspects of the social and political thought of the Enlightenment. I just would like to share what really stayed with me. Of course – but there really is nothing new here – both the image of the good savage and that of a pre-modern, barbaric life-style are out of the question on this reading. More interestingly, though, so are some post-colonial accounts, according to which any attempt to use seemingly “western” categories to understand such encounters is deeply misled. In opposition to those, the idea here is that western missionaries, explorers and conquerors, and later western intellectuals, encountered a rich intellectual and cultural life that – in kind if not in substance – looked very much like the ones they themselves knew from Universities, salons, and (when there were any) Parliaments back home. What they encountered, in other words, were humans in the business of defining and inventing themselves; shaping their own fate; providing an account of what they stood for; defending their visions against criticisms; and trying to implement it faithfully. So – as we saw in Part 1 of this review – the underlying idea seems to be that (if you excuse the bold, unqualified language here) maybe there is such a thing as a common “human nature” after all. Thing is, though, such common nature does not consist in sharing a common trajectory or certain immutable objective features, but precisely in being predisposed to self-reflection and self-creation, and thus in finding ever new ways of consciously experimenting with something different.



roger gathmann 12.17.21 at 4:51 pm

I wrote about Lahontan years ago in my blog in a similar context.


roger gathmann 12.17.21 at 4:57 pm

I can’t resist quoting Lahontan, A little context on the question of women’s rights and nudity!

“The colonial process – or the civilizing process – puts into relief superstition as its privileged target, while its subjects, the subjected, gaze with disbelief at the superstitions of the civilizers. Ultimately, what was this, for the Europeans, but the rejection of that peculiar moment in Genesis, when God, for once, stops being a politician or a magician – when he makes clothing of skin for his creatures. As he once made Adam of clay, the act of a worldmaker, so he now clothes them, the act of a colonizer – but colonizer in the most intimate sense. There is no more intimate act ever attributed to Yahweh than this: ‘Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skin, and clothed them.” As though Adam’s announcement made the seals fall from God’s eyes, too. The intimacy in this act is in its superfluity: after all, having condemned humans to labor – and the sexes to division of labor – there’s no reason that Adam and Eve could not have made their own clothes. What kind of divine necessity is on display, here? What kind of cosmic discomfort? We know that the Gods, other Gods, can be moved by human nakedness – can be stirred to desire. Per Ganymede, per Leda, per Daphne, per every metamorphosis, every skin that goes on and every skin that comes off.

These things are in the background against which Lahontan’s Dialogues was read. The problem the early twentieth century readers had with Lahontan’s “noble savage” – an idea that gets its political coloring from early twentieth century conservatism – is increased by Adario’s “obscenity’, for Lahontan has his natural sage speak about the “shameful parts”. The Europeans were very interested in the covering up or not of the shameful parts – in 1509, in the description of the seven naturals that were taken to Rouen, either from Newfoundland or from a boat that was found adrift on the ocean, Eusebius, the chronicler, makes sure to record that the savages wore a belt, to which was attached a purse like vestment for covering up the shameful parts.

Yet the Iroquois and Huron boys, to the often expressed dismay of the missionaries, went about naked. The dialogue between Adario and Lahontan approaches this topic from the point of view not of the naked boys themselves, but of the effect of this nudity on the girls. Lahontan, following in the conventions of the Europeans, connects the power of Huron women to their power of choice. Adario finds the European objection at once absurd and typical – for the notion that the fathers should have power over the girls stems, ultimately, from the power of the mine and thine among the Europeans. Adario’s explanation of the rules of sexual alliance seems to be confirmed by other writers on the Hurons. Women were not forced to marry men chosen by their parents, but they were forced to obey rules against marrying relatives. And the marriage bond was not indissoluble. Adario remarks that after forty, women don’t marry again, not wanting, after that, to have children. Lahontan has two things to say about the Huron system: that the women show cruelty by aborting unwanted children, and that they must give up nudity: “For the privilege of your boys to go about nude causes a terrible rapine [ravage] in the hearts of your girls. For , not being made of bronze, they can’t help it if, at the aspect of members that I dare not name, they go into rut on certain occasions when the rascals [coquins] show that nature is neither dead nor ungrateful to them.” [93]

Rise and fall. Adario, while sympathetic to the argument against abortion [which seems to mean, as well, infanticide], is scornful of the argument against nude children. Far from being a bad thing, it helps girls decide if they want the “big thing” which he won’t name or the medium or small – and he assures Lahontan that the caprices of women are such that the big thing won’t monopolize all hearts. Some want strength, some want spirit, some want big shameful parts.

But this is his judgment of the Europeans:

‘ I agree that the peoples among whom are introduced the mine and the thine have good reason for hiding not only their virile parts, but still all the members of the body. For what would be the good of the silver and gold of the French, if they don’t employ it to adorn themselves in rich garments? Since it is only by the clothing that one makes an estate of people. Isn’t it a great advantage for a Frenchman to be able to hide some natural default under beautiful clothing? Believe me, nudity is only shocking to those people who have property in goods. An ugly man among you, a badly built one discovers the secret of being beautiful and well made with a beautiful wig, and gilded dress, under which one can’t distinguish the thighs and the artificial buttocks from the natural ones.” [92-93]


PatinIowa 12.18.21 at 4:32 pm

Thanks for starting the discussion.

“What [Europeans] encountered, in other words, were humans in the business of defining and inventing themselves; shaping their own fate; providing an account of what they stood for; defending their visions against criticisms; and trying to implement it faithfully.”

This is my reading as well.

I think the rhetorical force of it is that understanding that human beings have always done so, rather been being reducible to products of immediate circumstances, historical necessity, or superhuman teleology obligates us to recommit to “self-reflection and self-creation, and thus [to] finding ever new ways of consciously experimenting with something different.”

That’s a very large aim; it’s a very big book.


Alison 12.19.21 at 8:55 am

Thank you for this set of posts. I have now finished Dawn of Everything and it made me think more about the conceptual fetters we wear when we try to imagine alternatives to the cage we are in right now. A big theme, which runs through, and links to roger’s post, is the close connection between pseudo-familial intimacy and controlling violence as the twin props of hierarchy in Western society, and that this is not a universal or inevitable feature of human existence. But something that we only ‘see’ clearly when we read comments from those outside the system, or look at how violence is differently deployed in other (perhaps lost) cultures.


tm 12.20.21 at 5:20 pm

“the story they tell us is one of encounters characterised by muscular, vibrant debates about the merits of different social arrangements and life-styles. Crucially, in these debates, both parties were active, passionate participants, and indigenous intellectuals had very sharp criticisms to make to western political structures, as they were getting to know them.”

I appreciate the intention of highlighting indigenous people as active participants of intellectual exchange rather than passive recipients of “superior” European culture but nevertheless it makes me a bit uneasy to talk about these “encounters” as if a bunch of intellectuals met in a salon for a philosophical debate. I’m sure this is not the intention of Graeber and Wengrow nor of Ronzoni but it kind of glosses over the starkly unequal circumstances under which these “encounters” happened. Practically ​immediately after contact, native Americans started suffering devastating epidemics and escalating armed conflicts (both with Europeans and with other native groups due to competition over Eruopean goods). It also glosses over the radically diverging interests of both sides of these “encounters”. While some Europeans were genuinely interested in and impressed by native societies and were willing to learn from them, those in charge – the colonialists and imperialists and slaveholders – couldn’t care less.

Of course, all the relevant historical record is written by Europeans. What we know about the thinking of the natives is already filtered through European perceptions. And their societies had already ben radically transformed by the time that say Lahontan wrote about them. This I think is important to keep in mind.

An excellent source I have already mentioned on the other thread:
Delâge Denys, Le pays renversé. Amérindiens et Européens en Amérique du Nord-Est

Another relevant (but less scholarly) source that comes to mind is Charles C. Mann’s 2005 book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

What do you people think about that?


John Quiggin 12.21.21 at 2:33 am

Thanks for this, Miriam. You’ve convinced me I need to read the book.

General question: what, if anything, is the link between this and Debt:The First 5000 Years?

Thinking about it, I responded to Debt in terms of the (maybe not) standard story where the arrival of agriculture produces hierarchies and demands for tribute, with debt, and therefore money as consequences. But that seems to be what the new book is rejecting. Has anyone discussed this?


Peter J Dorman 12.21.21 at 3:38 am

I think I’ve noticed a bifurcation in the reactions to DoE. Some people see it as primarily an integrated set of factual claims, and they tend to critique their factuality, since the claims are frequently undersupported (or worse). Others see it as a narrative to be judged in terms of how enlightening, stimulating, thought-provoking or liberating it is on those terms. Of course, not all comments slot themselves neatly into these two boxes.

Is there anything to this? If so, are CT comments reproducing the epistemic split in the humanities and social sciences.


Miriam Ronzoni 12.21.21 at 9:02 am

Hi John, I haven’t read the whole of Debt (should I?), only extracts. But I thought the thesis there was that debt proper (the hard, enforceable one, rather than the loosely understood social obligation which, I think Graeber says there, is actually older than money, barter, etc.) only comes with “state” power, and this book argues that the latter is not the inevitable by-product of…well of anything, but certainly not of agriculture? more on this when I actually read Debt!


Tm 12.21.21 at 10:32 am

“debt proper only comes with “state” power, and this book argues that the latter is not the inevitable by-product of…well of anything, but certainly not of agriculture”

Do they claim the existence of preagricultural states? Which raises of course the question of how to define “state” across millennia.


Scott P. 12.21.21 at 5:56 pm

The issue of putting one’s views into the mouths of foreigners has a long tradition in Western dialectic, from Solon’s supposed discussions with Croesus to the conversations of Alexander with the Gymnosophists, to Lucian’s dialogue of the Greek Mnesippus with the Scythian Toxaris on the nature of friendship.

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