skip to primary navigationskip to content

How Jared Diamond Stole the Grand Narrative: Reclaiming Social Complexity in Global Perspective

When Jan 11, 2019 09:00 AM to
Jan 13, 2019 05:00 PM
Where McDonald Institute Seminar Room, Courtyard Building, Downing Street
Contact Name
Attendees Registration required
Add event to calendar vCal

Grand narratives have made a comeback. It began with Jared Diamond’s widely read Guns, Germs and Steel, today marketed with the subtitle: “a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years”. Since then, historians, political scientists, classicists, biologists and social anthropologists have contributed to this burgeoning genre of informed popular science literature. Examples include David Graeber’s influential Debt: The First 5,000 Years; Ian Morris with Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels; Yuval Hariri with Sapiens; Walter Scheidel with a titular “…history of inequality from the Stone Age to the twenty-first century”; and James C. Scott with Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.

Starkly different in their theoretical approaches, political commitments, and ultimate conclusions, these works have one thing in common: they wear their investment in the grand narrative proudly on their sleeves, striding across time, space, and disciplinary boundaries as they assert deep truths about humans and how we organize ourselves. We, as archaeologists, had assumed we occupied a special disciplinary role as the intellectual custodians of humanity’s deep history. Yet our turf has been encroached upon by others, who are not only claiming the multi-millennia narrative for their own, but in doing so are tackling “classic” archaeological themes like the origins of inequality, collapse, archaic states, and so on. Moreover, their narratives make extensive use of archaeological datasets in the process of building their generalizations while simultaneously omitting archaeological perspectives and interpretations.

How has it come to be that archaeological data is now at the cutting edge of humanistic and social scientific writing, but archaeologists themselves only rarely seen? Why are we, as a discipline, not producing the leading accounts of our species’ history, especially given that it is our data that is the necessary basis for any such project? To put it bluntly, something has gone badly wrong.

The purpose of this forum is to create an opportunity for archaeologists to reassert our status as the leading narrators of humanity’s deep history. In the process, we will foreground new, archaeologically-driven ways of theorizing and presenting the emergence of complex societies (especially those conventionally discussed in terms of early states, chiefdoms, urbanism etc.) at a global scale. This emphatically does not mean a return to moribund debates about neo-evolutionary typological categories (tribes, chiefdoms, ad infinitum), or their many critiques, under which we propose to draw a firm line. Instead we seek novel, data-informed and accessible scholarly accounts which address how social complexity emerges; why it endures; why it doesn’t; and why it can often look similar at large scales across different contexts. We do not expect a single narrative to emerge, and competing accounts are welcome. Collaboratively, we would like to transform the contributions to this forum into an accessible edited book designed to provide a foundation for future narratives in archaeology.

This forum will be a small-scale and discussion-focused event, which will stimulate productive dialogue while creating space to test new ideas and exchange perspectives. While we seek accounts that broadly address social complexity, we do not want to constrain contributors’ approaches to the topic. We (the organizers) will be addressing a number of themes that we believe offer some potential for global archaeological analysis—we look forward to seeing whether the other participants find these frameworks valuable, or seek to proceed in quite different directions.

These themes are: capital, violence, and scale. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century presents runaway inequality as the result of the returns from capital outstripping labour with respect to economic growth. Although inequality is a recurrent theme for archaeology, we have not yet explored the utility of Piketty’s theory for more remote time periods. Stephen Pinker and Walter Scheidel have offered rather different accounts of the role of violence in human history; is violence the only real antidote to inequality (as per Scheidel), or following Pinker, is violence undergoing progressive decline as complexity has increased? Geoffrey West has focused on the dynamics of the scales at which human communities are organized, arguing that societies can be usefully understood within the quantitative framework of complex adaptive systems. Does this undermine our tendency to seek major thresholds in the transformation of human societies (e.g. villages into cities).

These themes will be central in our own contributions, but there are clearly alternative ways of building ambitious, comparative narratives, and we encourage a widening of the discussion as well. Frankly, however, we would prefer to avoid: (i) a debate on whether or not grand narratives are intrinsically worthwhile (it is clear they will be made whether or not we participate in their production, and we will operate on the premise that archaeology’s absence from the grand narrative is to be lamented); and (ii) regionally limited approaches which cannot be applied more broadly. Our goal is to renew an ambitious and nuanced, yet comparative archaeology of social complexity, and to reassert the centrality of archaeology in understanding the very largest patterns in human history.

Further information at

An Oral History of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research