The Next Dawn of Everything — Stories of Human Cultures

Writer and researcher Jules Pretty explores stories that reveal how human cultures don’t converge on one ‘advanced’ model, as our current views of history assume, finding in The Dawn of Everything rich accounts of diversity, freedom and hope.


2,750 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes


These days, we find ourselves in the midst of world-spanning crises of climate, nature and social inequality. All three have the same proximate causes: a type of economy that promotes too much material consumption and a dangerous reliance on fossil fuels. Something is about to change. Yet we have never been here before. We are in the dark forest, at our darkest hour, and we are not sure if we can choose a new path.

We often don’t know what to do when great moments of transformation in life appear: the rites of passage from small to big school, a first date, your first day in a new job, a baby in the family, a friend’s death, your own advancing mortality. We have no plan for what happens next. There is no rehearsal – apart from stories that tell how others have crossed their own thresholds. We are going to need ways to open up the world ahead, where fear could still be one of our greatest emotions.
Most of life is inconceivable. Living without fossil fuels seems so, for many people. Living without air pollution from cars, also seems inconceivable.

The Red Queen said to Alice, “Why sometimes I’ve believed, as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
– Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass (1872)

Should we think of a new diet, perhaps less meat and more oat milk; should we buy an electric car now or later, fly less and cycle more; insulate our home or install solar panels, listen to the birds, have coffee with a friend? Well, one of these, then maybe another one, soon after.

The point is this: we have choices. We just may not realise this yet.

There emerges a need for new forms of story-telling, combined with a language of kindness and generosity. Kindness is both our common state and best response to threat. It is selfishness that is the outlier.

What kinds of language and values might we use to find our ways out of these deep woods? Berthold Brecht wrote in 1939:

“In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”

We find ourselves now in need of stories with hope, and then to explore how to use these to create more effective agency to address the great crises of these times. Fast transitions, regime shifts and positive tipping points are beginning to occur, showing that new ways of living can be just and fair.

Calling time on ideas of linear evolution of human cultures

This is where a brilliant, clear, refreshing and fabulous synthesis of a book comes in. It is called The Dawn of Everything, and draws on recent archaeological evidence and anthropological insight to say highly salient things about human history.

The authors, David Graeber and David Wengrow, say: most accounts of pre-modern human history “simply aren’t true, they have dire political implications, and make the past dull.”

This is interesting, not least because this book is also about the future.

Storie of human cultures: Showing the cover of 'The New Dawn of Everything', by David Graeber and David Wengrow.

The authors are willing to call out many contemporary commentators who believe in linear evolution of human ideas and cultures (the ecological determinists and evolutionary psychologists, for example), and who say that modern life must be superior to all that has gone before. Graeber and Wengrow call these “dismal conclusions”, and “prejudices dressed up as facts.”

For this book is about freedoms, not the “weird arguments” made by many in support of modern and high-consumption ways of living and organizing. We are neither at the top nor the end of a process of betterment. What has gone before was more diverse, egalitarian and astonishing than many would think.

Human cultures of the past have always diverged; they have not converged on one model perceived as more advanced or even perfect.

This book also overturns ideas about the assumed superiority of agriculture over foraging-hunting-gathering, and of city civilisations over agrarian. It also suggests that large-scale public engagement leads to innovative and diverse futures. People have always valued the things they do and places they live as extensions of identity, and so have often and explicitly refused to adopt practices and ideas from other people and places.

This cultural refusal is a key finding (it is not rejection on the grounds of being better; it is about something just being for other people and not for us).

Cultures can also get stuck, becoming less innovative. Many cultures and cities were abandoned after hundreds of years of continuity when people just walked away. They got stuck, and decided to seek something new. They sought the next dawn of everything.

Story-tellers for ‘stuck’ times

Stories of human cultures: showing Mayan masks from Guatemala
Mayan masks from Guatemala. Photograph © Jules Pretty

There are numerous valuable findings from this wonderful book.

First, humans are not inevitably nasty and selfish. More often than not, cultures and cities have been egalitarian.

Human cultures are projects of self- and co-creation. They emerge from engagement, participation, story and sense-making.

Human cultures do not converge on one model, and one model does not follow another (e.g. agriculture after foraging). All cultures diverge in space and over time. Wherever and whenever we look, there is endless human diversity. No single system is preferred, and evolutionary stages do not exist, where one model of life inevitably follows another.

Evidence from all the world over shows the enormous long-distance interactions between people and cultures. We have always lived in a small world politically and culturally connected. People travelled and journeyed to see and learn from other places. Recent DNA testing of skeletons shows much higher rates of interaction. Human cultures have never been isolated or biologically “pure.”

At times, cultures do get stuck, thinking they know or have it all. The modern era of neoliberalism and planetary nature and climate crises is an example of being stuck. We are living now in the latest of “stuck times.”

All human cultures engage in refusal. They know what others are doing, but in order to remain true to their own identities, they commonly refuse to adopt certain other technologies and ideas. Some foragers lived alongside agriculture for 3,000 years, and refused to adopt it. Some city states knew all about metal and the wheel, and again refused to use them.

Of course, non-conformists exist in every culture. What differs is how each culture reacts to them. Many cultures in history valued non-conformists (such as tricksters, jesters, story-tellers, shamans, and the physically and mentally diverse), seeing them contributing to diversity and divergence.

Agriculturalists and forager-hunter-gatherers lived side-by-side for thousands of years. In many places, cultures used different modes of living during different seasons; some foraged and took up agriculture; some farmed for hundreds of years and adopted foraging.

Foragers-hunters-gatherers established many cities and monumental cultures, and engaged in small-scale gardening and domestication of what we now call weedy species.

There was also oscillation within years and across seasons: within years some people foraged-hunted-gathered for certain seasons, and then farmed in others; some peoples developed different social structures and even personal names in different seasons of the year (a ruler in one season, people’s assemblies in another). Seasonality of values and identity is still with us – we behave differently during Christmas and Ramadan, during long holidays (the French grand vacances). People set aside work, for a bit, and affirm values in community, family, giving and resting.

Many city states and cultures had no kings, queens or rulers, no palaces or temples. People governed through assemblies, councils (as often women-led as by men). Some cities built public baths, others huge social housing projects. Many created co-housing units larger than for single families (long-houses). The traditions of long-houses for co-living continued to Norse-Icelandic culture, the Pacific North-West, and in rainforest forager cultures worldwide.

After a time, many cultures simply hit a wall. They stop. They are abandoned. It seems people in them choose to go and create something different. Most were not conquered or beaten by war.

Active choices and human futures

Showing wheat from Suffolk.
Wheat from Suffolk. Photograph © Jules Pretty

Catalhöyük was long thought of as one of the first agricultural sites and cities. But the people are now known to have preferred and celebrated wild aurochs over domesticated cattle. They knew about the latter for 1,000 years, yet never used them. Elsewhere in Mesopotamia, there are many examples of refusal: cities that knew about agriculture for 3,000 years, yet never adopted it. Such refusals were not irrational or silly: they were on the grounds of choices about practices that defined others who were not them. People want to stay as themselves.

The first organised city cultures in the world were not in Mesopotamia, but at the mega-sites and mammoth houses of current Ukraine-Moldova (4100-3300 BCE), each with huge central assembly places for exchange, sharing and decision-making. Individual cities were 300 hectares in size, contained co-living houses, and reached populations of 10,000 people.

In today’s California, the dozens of cultures and language groups centred on only foraging-hunting-gathering are sometimes described as existing because agriculture failed to reach them. Yet there was interaction with agricultural communities of the greater south-west. They also knew about agriculture, and refused to use it.

Poverty Point in Louisiana of today contains some of the largest mounds in the Americas. These cities were built around 1400 BCE by forager-hunter-gatherers. In Japan, the Jomon culture comprised 14,000 years of (pre-rice) forager culture, producing cycles of settlement, craft, storage, and traditions of building things and breaking them down again (traditions that continue to today in Shinto and Buddhist culture).

Teotihuacan in central America was a city culture on eight square miles of land. It had no central ruler, nor did it adopt the ball courts, kings and palaces of nearby Tikal and Calikmal. Teotihuacan was egalitarian, with stone social housing containing plumbing and sanitation, each finely decorated with art and images (much psychedelic). After 500 years, Teotihuacan was abandoned. Again, we today do not know exactly why.

The largest city culture in the Americas before modern times was Cahokia (in current Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi). The city had a population of 15,000, and flourished for 300 years between 1050-1350 CE. The people were forager-hunter-gatherers, supplemented with gardens with domesticated sumpweed, goosefoot, knotweed and mayweed. Cahokia and all the surrounding river valleys were depopulated at the same time, creating a long-lasting “empty quarter” that no other peoples entered.

There was public engagement and assembly for culture-making, where individual and collective agency leads to divergence of choice.

There was refusal of what appear to be more efficient or productive options. Identity was more important.

There was explicit adoption of egalitarian structures and social support.

Showing prayer flags, Tuva.
Prayer flags, Tuva. Photograph © Jules Pretty

Cultures have lived alongside other differing cultures for thousands of years. They knew about other ways of living, and decided not to adopt. There was no perfect economic system of living waiting to be revealed.

There was long-distance travel, journeying and staying, leading to biological mixing inside stable cultures.

There was sudden abandonment of modes of living, when people decided they had become stuck and needed to do something different.

We know that fossil fuels will have to be almost entirely eliminated from all economies worldwide (excepting perhaps communities living at high latitudes that are dark and cold for long periods of the year), and thus the spread of adoption of renewable energy generation is central to preventing climate catastrophe. The overarching aim is to electrify everything, with a particular focus on wind, water, solar and battery storage.

Most countries are now committed to 100% renewables for their electricity supply at some time in the future. Some have made dramatic advances in implementation, others have been slow (see Table 1).

Many poorer countries are predicted to save money by these investments, as many spent up to half of national export earnings on importing oil, and now increasingly have the resources to invest in other social priorities. Countries highly dependent on the income from oil will find transitions hardest, even though some have large sovereign wealth funds. Qatar styles itself a “hydrocarbon-enabled economy.” It has the highest carbon emissions worldwide at 55 tonnes C per year per person, and to date has effectively zero contribution from renewables for its electricity supply.


Table 1. Proportion of domestic electricity supplied by renewables (solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, biomass), 2022

Proportion of domestic electricity consumption supplied by renewables Countries
98%-100% Albania, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Iceland, Norway, Paraguay, Uruguay
90%-95% Ethiopia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Lesotho, Namibia, Zambia, Tajikistan
60%-80% Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, New Zealand, Portugal, Sweden
40%-50% Ireland, Spain, UK
20% China, India, Japan, Morocco, USA
Less than 0.2% Bahrain, Brunei, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia

Note: World 28%; Europe 35%; Low-income countries 66%; Upper-income countries 30%. Some of these high percentages are in countries with low total energy consumption and low access to affordable electricity. They will need to consume more to escape poverty, and there will be a need to generate more renewable energy than today. Sources: International Energy Agency (2023) (www.iea.org); Our World in Data (www.ourworldindata.org).


Choices by governments matter. In the UK in 2023, the government chose to invest in a new nuclear plant (to produce 3 GW per year); in Denmark, the government has chosen wind power on two new energy islands in the North and Baltic Seas (total of 6 GW capacity). These islands will be the largest infrastructure in Denmark’s history, and will be generating electricity by 2030. Nuclear in the UK will take 10-15 years longer to be commissioned, costs will be twice as great, and there will still be a need to pay for costly nuclear waste disposal. Such nuclear developments will therefore be delivered too late to influence the meeting of 2050 net zero targets. China and South Korea are planning 1-6 GW of floating offshore wind parks for installation in 2025-2030.

Globally, the International Energy Agency believes strong growth in clean energy means the world can deliver fossil fuel emission cuts of 35% by 2030. The IEA also say we have the tools to go much faster, and that there is now a need for “a fierce urgency of the now.”

These advances towards 100% renewables are the start of a new dawn of everything. It is instructive to see which countries are taking the lead, and how cost benefits nationally will accrue.

Cultural connections for transformations

Showing plastic from Iceland Arctic Sea beach.
Plastic from Iceland Arctic Sea beach. Photograph © Jules Pretty

In my 2022 book, Sea Sagas of the North, I visited and wrote about 160 ports, villages and coastal places culturally facing inward to the North Sea and eastern North Atlantic (in Iceland, Norway, Finland, England, Scotland and the Faroe Isles). I talked to an 80-year-old famed skipper of the trawlers and drifters, and he said, “You know we were more tolerant and kind in the days of fishing, when we travelled to other places and came back with gifts and stories.” Fisher communities on the coast of the east of England felt greater closeness and affinity with people 1,100 miles away in Iceland and Norway than communities 10 miles inland.

The ecological collapse of fisheries led directly to social and cultural change on the coasts, and people lost their friendships with others across the North Sea and eastern North Atlantic.

For my 2014 book, The Edge of Extinction, I visited and stayed with place-based and indigenous cultures in Aotearoa, Australia, Tuva, Finland, Labrador, Louisiana and California. A Finish ice-fisherman friend stood up in the audience at a conference at the American Museum of Natural History, and demanded: “Where is the escape route for our culture and people to leave your modern world? Will you give us one?” The title’s play on words was intended to suggest it was modern societies and economies that were on the edge of extinction, not indigenous ones. The book should probably have been called ‘The Edge of Our Extinction’.

My 2023 book, The Low-Carbon Good Life, centres on the diverse ways of living and public engagement we need to create to solve the nature, climate and social inequality crises facing the planet. We will be needing divergence of practice, choice and behaviours rather than convergence.

Above all, we will need good stories that lead to agency and transformation.


Find out more

Jules Pretty’s new series The Climate Chronicles is posted at his website, where you can also find details of his books, including The Low-Carbon Good Life (2023) and Sea Sagas of the North (2022). Jules is part of the project team behind the Hope Tales events and chapbooks, with fellow ClimateCultures member Nicky Saunter. See Nicky’s post, Hope Tales — Stories for Change.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow (2022) is published by Penguin.

Jules Pretty

Jules Pretty

A researcher and writer on environment and society, including 'The Climate Chronicles', and host of the Louder Than Words podcast and Brighter Futures films