Human Diversity in the Ice Age

In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity we read the first part of chapter 3, “Unfreezing the Ice Age” as a way to discuss human diversity in the Ice Age:

This was after finishing chapter 2, “Wicked Liberty” for the History of Anthro Thought 2023. Next, we Finished chapter three.

Summary: Rethinking Human Diversity in the Ice Age

Changing Views on Human Evolution

In their book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, David Graeber and David Wengrow challenge traditional views of human evolution and diversity. In the late 1980s, genetic studies suggested that all humans descended from a common “Mitochondrial Eve” in Africa around 75,000 years ago (79-80). This implied a uniform human population that diversified as it spread to different climates. It was also believed that Homo sapiens did not interbreed with other hominins like Neanderthals.

However, more sophisticated genetic analyses in 2010 revealed a surprising reality. Throughout hominid history, the ancestors of Homo sapiens interacted with a diverse range of bipedal species through a process of “mosaic evolution” (81). Evidence of interbreeding with Neanderthals and Denisovans emerged, suggesting they were subspecies rather than distinct species. Today, humans are a “relict species,” the sole surviving bipedal hominin, with minor biological differences compared to the diversity of the past.

Complex Culture and the Illusion of Revolution

The traditional narrative held that although human biology was established around 200,000 years ago with Anatomically Modern Humans, complex culture only emerged around 45,000 years ago (83). This apparent delay led to speculation about a “creative revolution” or sudden mutation enabling language and symbolic thought.

Graeber and Wengrow argue that this “revolution” is an illusion stemming from the Eurocentric focus of archaeology (83-84). As research expands to other regions, like the Panga ya Saidi cave in southern Africa or the cave art in Borneo and Sulawesi, evidence of earlier complex culture is emerging. The 45,000-year mark is a mirage based on where archaeology has been concentrated.

Social Diversity among Hunter-Gatherers

Anthropologists once modeled human social arrangements on chimpanzees, emphasizing hierarchy, warfare, and male dominance (82). The discovery of bonobos, equally related to humans but more egalitarian and female-centered, challenged this view (93). Most anthropologists now believe that hunter-gatherers lived in small, egalitarian bands with significant roles for women.

However, Graeber and Wengrow stress that hunter-gatherer societies were diverse, not uniformly egalitarian. As humans spread across the world, they adapted to various environments, developing a range of economic, social, and political arrangements. The authors cite Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest, which discusses how humans use tactics like ridicule and shaming to prevent individuals from dominating others (86).

Rethinking the Impact of Agriculture

Anthropologists once believed that agriculture enabled dense populations, social hierarchy, monumental architecture, and labor organization. Elaborate burials with wealth objects, especially for children, were seen as signs of inherited status. Agriculture was thought to be a departure from egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands, leading to gender inequalities and stratification.

However, recent discoveries challenge this view:

  • Elaborate burials like Il Principe in the Czech Republic, with exotic grave goods, have been found among hunter-gatherers (88).
  • Remarkable structures like Göbekli Tepe in Turkey predate agriculture by thousands of years (89).
  • Evidence of “bustling centres of trade and craft production” exists in the absence of agriculture (91).

Graeber and Wengrow argue that these findings do not necessarily indicate durable social hierarchies. Instead, they reveal the diversity of human societies, which cannot be reduced to a simple dichotomy between egalitarianism and hierarchy.

Political Consciousness and Dialogue

The authors emphasize that people in the past were capable of imagining social alternatives and making choices about the societies they wanted to live in. They had political consciousness and engaged in dialogue to explore different possibilities.

Neuroscientists have found that humans can only hold a thought in their head for about seven seconds, except when engaged in conversation. Graeber and Wengrow argue that “human thought is inherently dialogic” (94), and that indigenous societies valued these kinds of conversations as part of their way of life.

In conclusion, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity challenges us to rethink our assumptions about human evolution, social diversity, and the impact of agriculture. By recognizing the complex reality of the past, we can better appreciate the range of possibilities for human societies.

Recap: Rethinking Human Diversity in the Ice Age

In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity we read the first part of chapter 3, “Unfreezing the Ice Age” as a way to discuss human diversity in the Ice Age:

This was after finishing chapter 2, “Wicked Liberty” for the History of Anthro Thought 2023. Next, we Finished chapter three.


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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