by Helen Currie Foster
Like many of you I’m fascinated by prehistory, always hoping for a chance to clamber up (or down) to visit incredible cave paintings. My first mystery, Ghost Cave, was inspired by climbing to cave shelters where the Devil’s River meets the Rio Grande. Ghost Cave’s cover? The famous White Shaman images. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Helen+Currie+Foster+ghost+cave&crid=24J6S4P7832FF&sprefix=helen+currie+foster+ghost+cave%2Caps%2C129&ref=nb_sb_noss
In the Dordogne, in southern France, I heard the echo of the iron cover banging into place to close the entrance to the Pech Merle cave to prevent damage from outside air. Down the clanging iron stairs we went, along chilly stone tunnels, and then—the horses! Oh, the spotted horses, so real you could almost hear them breathe. They’ve been carbon-dated to 25,000 BCE. I’ve waited in line to see the famous Font de Gaume at Les Eyzies, also in the Dordogne, and hiked, shivering, to see the pictures deep in the Pyrenees cave at Niaux. I long to visit them all. Sometimes my companions balk.
Confronted by such artistry, such deft depictions, simultaneously spare and rich, like Chinese scroll landscapes or Picasso’s early drawings, haven’t you wondered about the artists? Why were they so deep in these dark, perilous caves? What was their life—or death—outside?
Today, with climatic violence the new normal, and new discoveries daily about human prehistory (including 23 and Me’s calculation of our personal percentages of Neanderthal ancestry), I’m more and more curious every day about our long-ago ancestors. The real question, of course: what is it to be human?
Welcome to “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity,” a tome by two Brits—David Graeber, the late professor of anthropology at London School of Economics, and David Wengrow, professor at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. “The Dawn of Everything”? Sounds ferociously ambitious—overarching, maybe overreaching. But my best friend from high school—Dr. Megan Biesele, distinguished anthropologist—said “let’s read and discuss.” Easy for her to say: the tome is 526 pages long, with 83 pages of notes and a 62-page bibliography. https://www.amazon.com/Dawn-Everything-New-History-Humanity/dp/0374157359
Graeber and Wengrow boldly challenge our “received understanding” of an original state of innocence and equality, followed by the invention of agriculture and higher population levels and creation of cities leading inevitably to the rise of hierarchy and inequality. They employ often hilarious section headings. Example: “How the conventional narrative of human history is not only wrong, but quite needlessly dull.” (At 21.) (For a shorter version, see their Fall 202 article: https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/democracy/hiding-plain-sight.)
“The Dawn” asserts that the ideas of individual liberty and political equality we cherish today weren’t an outgrowth of the European enlightenment, but inspired by Native American critiques of their European invaders. The relevant heading: “In which we consider what the inhabitants of New France made of their European invaders, especially in matters of generosity, sociability, material wealth, crime, punishment and liberty.” (At 37.) One French evangelist sent to the Algonkian Mi’kmaq wrote, “They consider themselves better than the French: ‘For,’ they say, ‘you are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbour.” This missionary was irritated that the Mi’kmaq would constantly assert they were richer than the French, who had more possessions, because they themselves had “ease, comfort and time.” Such records by missionary priests were compiled in 71 volumes of Jesuit Relations (1633-1673).
I’d never heard of the Wendat tribe’s philosopher statesman Kandiaronk, reportedly a highly skillful debater, who during the 1690’s was invited to participate in a sort of salon, where he shared his devastating moral and intellectual critique of European society. Kandiaronk sounds amazing: one priest described him as “always animated, full of wit, and generally unanswerable.” His arguments were included in Dialogues (1703), published by an impoverished French aristocrat named Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce. Kandiaronk held that European-style punitive law, like the religious doctrine of eternal damnation, wasn’t required by innate human corruption but by a society that encouraged selfish and acquisitive behavior. Nor had I heard that Kandiaronk’s critiques were adopted by French Enlightenment figures during the 1700’s. I hadn’t realized that substantial origins of the French “enlightenment” were…North American.
“The Dawn” discusses the Huron concept called Ondinnonk, a secret desire of the soul manifested by a dream: “Hurons believe that our souls have other desires, which are, as it were, inborn and concealed…They believe that our soul makes these natural desires known by means of dreams…Accordingly when these desires are accomplished, it is satisfied; but, on the contrary, if it be not granted what it desires, it becomes angry, and not only does not give its body the good and the happiness that it wished to procure for it, but often it also revolts against the body, causing various diseases, and even death…” Apparently tribe members spent time communally trying to decipher the meaning of others’ dreams and, sometimes, trying to help each other realize their dreams. (At 23-4, 454-5, 486, 608 n74.)
After this startling introduction to an unknown genius (I mean, I’d have loved to learn about Kandiaronk back in 10th grade…or any grade, really—and apparently his ideas can be found: https://books.google.com/books/about/Native_American_Speakers_of_the_Eastern.html?id=Fu1yAAAAMAAJ), Graeber and Wengrow provide extensive examples of our incorrect assumptions. They argue that the notion that humans inevitably moved from hunting and foraging to static agricultural lives (with inevitable hierarchy and inequality) isn’t borne out by current archeology. They point to many cultures which rejected “big ag,” opting instead to keep hunting and foraging, making occasional gardens, and spending winters in river lowlands, moving to highlands in the summer with their flocks. (This made me think of the French Pyrenees, where the “transhumance” –taking livestock to the hills—still happens.) They argue that cities weren’t inevitably hierarchical, and that many arose with populations that—even if they had kings—made their decisions collectively, not hierarchically.
“The Dawn” is unsettling. Are we “stuck” today in ideas that are not in fact “inevitable” aspects of human social organizations? Are we less creative, socially speaking, than our forebears? Well, I’ve only made it to page 486. I’ll let you know how this turns out. If I’m intellectually “stuck,” I hope not to stay that way.
But back to the caves and the art on those seeping limestone walls. My strong impression is that we frequently underestimate those who traveled before us. We assume that the ways of today’s world manifests “progress” over our past. Surely that’s true: we did manage at least temporarily to get rid of smallpox…one small victory. But apparently there’s a great deal we’ve lost, forgotten, or never known…I mean, what is the meaning of the White Shaman picture? Did the artists ride the spotted horses painted in Pech Merle? Or just admire the herds from a distance?
“The Dawn of Everything” offers fodder for that most delightful and enduring attribute of our species: curiosity. I’m still chewing on these ideas. One topic is the surprising variety of ways that societies treat—or eschew—wealth. Another that nags at me is the Wendat condemnation of our punitive habits. Dialogues reported that rather than punish culprits, “the Wendat insisted the culprit’s entire lineage or clan pay compensation. This made it everyone’s responsibility to keep their kindred under control.” Wow. Just one of the things I’ll be thinking about…
Meanwhile, a delightful book, beautifully written, which offers windows onto the 21st century culture of Kandiaronk’s relatives is the best-selling Braiding Sweetgrass by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=kimmerer+braiding+sweetgrass&crid=J2LA9POFHIJK&sprefix=kimmerer%2Caps%2C244&ref=nb_sb_ss_ts-doa-p_1_8
I found Braiding Sweetgrass so touching, especially the chapter called Allegiance to Gratitude, describing the children in the Onondaga Nation school reciting the traditional Haudenosaunee “Thanksgiving Address,” the Words That Come Before All Else. Most sections of this Address end, “Now our minds are one.” Maybe this is a living example of a communal tradition that molds a society. I recommend this book.
Helen Currie Foster lives and writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series north of Dripping Springs, supervised by three burros. She remains fascinated by human prehistory and how, uninvited, our pasts keep crashing the party. Her latest is Book 7, Ghost Daughter. “An appealing sleuth headlines a solid thriller with panache” —Kirkus Reviews