DofE Chap 5

In what is probably the worst idea I’ve ever had, I’m reading and blogging The Dawn of Everything by David Wengrow and David Graeber.

For Chapter 5 once again I only need one post rather than two.

The chapter mostly compares and contrasts the indigenous peoples of the Northwestern Pacific coast with California. The two Davids continue their theme of describing foraging peoples who are nothing like bushmen or pygmies and they have certainly found two cultural groupings to suit the purpose. The NW people are fishermen famous for their totem poles, masks, and potlatch ceremonies. They kept and raided one another for slaves under the leadership of local big men who strove above all for the honor of various noble titles. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the Archaic world described in Hesoid’s Works and Days but without farming, but the Davids make the comparison to plantation owners in the antebellum south. In that scheme the California groups are more like erstwhile New Englanders. They have a strong work ethic, obsess over money, and enforce strict egalitarianism. (Although the Davids recall don’t much like the word.)

Much of the chapter is exploring the differences and trying to explain their origin. The Davids don’t like environmental determinism. In their ‘What do We Think’ asides (mercifully fewer in this chapter than previous but still coming in at the beginning and end of each idea to ensure we don’t look at things the wrong way) they try to warn us off of it, but they can’t seem to avoid a soft version of it. For some reason basically all or almost all the smoked fish peoples ended up with slaves, while the acorn gatherers did not. It’s definitely worth reading the chapter to see how they work all this out (or try to). But the harsh lesson seems to be that if you don’t want evil institutions you must, like a Marxist, pay a lot of attention to the means of production.

One of their most propitious ideas is the unfortunately-named ‘schismogenesis’ which is the idea that cultures largely shape themselves in opposition to other cultures. Thus humans in the past weren’t very isolated at all, they traveled a lot, and knew about one another, but deliberately cultivated habits and customs so as to reject the behaviors of neighbors. It’s a term too inelegant to become common but the concept is useful. They especially apply it to border areas of Northern California where small groups are clearly rejecting the customs of neighbors.

Along the way the Davids mention Franz Boas who pioneered a type of anti-racism in the U.S. a century ago in sharp contrast to the prevailing eugenics and racism of American academics. Boas organized the collections in the American History Museum into the culture areas that are still used today (Eastern Woodlands, Great Plains, etc). One of the points is that language doesn’t follow closely with these cultural groupings. [In for example Virginia Algonquin-speaking and Iroquoian-speaking peoples had similar material cultural.] So one shouldn’t assume, as archeologists sometimes do, that similar artifacts of two neighboring sites imply similar languages. [Post WWII coke bottles appear around the world; will future archeologists assume Americans physically migrated everywhere?]

Women are invisible in the chapter so we don’t really get a picture of how any of these peoples function. Also the readers senses that slavery among indigenous people is described with patient detachment, somewhat in contrast to how ‘colonialism’ or enslavement by Europeans in previous chapters. Maybe you’d rather clean fish for the rest of your life for some arrogant Kwakwaka’wakw thug than pick cotton for the rest of your life from some arrogant antebellum thug, but climate considerations aside, being a slave takes your freedom and puts you at the mercy of others. Humans are capable of living comfortably without owning others. [The Powhattan and Monacans didn’t own slaves and Virginians today don’t own slaves, so clearly pre-Civil War Virginians could have lived without slaves.] If detachment is the best way to see the world, then maybe our authors could have assumed that perspective earlier.


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