WE have just laser-scanned, precision-mapped and virtualised Skara Brae, Orkney’s world-heritage Neolithic village. Older than the Pyramids at Giza and even Stonehenge, the archaeologists have translated this settlement into a 3D space, where from your browser you can tour the connected rooms.

It’s a poignant service. I have been to Skara Brae twice in my life, but with rising waters and erosion (which the virtual version tries to highlight), I fully expect to be told one day that those will have been my only allowable visits.

The experiences were awe-inspiring enough. Late afternoon light on the hills and waters of the Bay of Skaill; these submerged hives of industry, worship and play beneath me; and some distance away, the standing stones of Stenness, calling communities to celebration or worship.

I love the contending interpretations of Skara Brae’s function. Was it a kind of executive compound for high religious leaders, supporting them to lead the ceremonies at Stenness?

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Or do the equal sizes of the Brae’s rooms, with no privilege or status implied in them, have deep implications for our understanding of history? What if our movement into agriculture – and Skara Brae was cultivating livestock, grains and sealife – didn’t automatically imply the need for hierarchy, elites and domination?

We are all sensitised to these questions as a result of the best-selling success of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by archaeologist David Wengrow and anthropologist David Graeber (who died last year). They’ve set many new hares running about the human record, as it spans the last 10 to 15 thousand years.

One hare attacks the idea of an inevitable and tragic “fall” – that is, from bucolic, egalitarian hunter-gatherers, to regimented, status-obsessed farmers and city-builders. The implication is (promoted from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Yuval Noah Harari) that we must accept the tragic cost of material progress and development.

And that cost is an inevitable degree of top-down authority, in order to organise workforces and store surpluses. Not to mention the exploitation and warring that goes with that.

It ain’t necessarily so, say Wengrow and Graeber. If we rid ourselves of this framing – which they note, writing as good anarchists, serves recent power structures all too well – we begin to see some extraordinary variation and creativity in how human beings have organised themselves.

For example, it seems that many Ice Age communities consciously flipped between egalitarian and authoritarian structures, but according to the seasons. As exemplified by Native American tribes like the Inuit, Nambikwara or Crow, during months of cultivation and gathering, there was a strict equality of status. But when more barren months ensued, and collective celebrations occurred, chieftains and elders regained their temporary, ceremonial authority. Then they promptly lost that power again when the time returned to secure provisions for the community.

There’s a self-conscious flexibility here – in effect, a political consciousness, say the writers. This doesn’t sit well with the flip from “simple and noble savage to oppressed labourer” that you find in status-quo accounts of human history.

What if, Wengrow and Graeber constantly ask (and substantiate), developments could have been different? What if cities and states might not have lead inexorably to empires and patriarchal oppressions, but were more like Minoan Crete? Which if you sensitively read the evidence before you, was a matriarchal form of rule run on a theological basis by a caste of priestesses?

Or take the “Hopewell Interaction Sphere” in Ohio, where Native American tribes from across the country incessantly exchanged beautiful objects and implements. They spurned opportunities to form a territory that was agriculturally productive and politically coherent, and instead designed a common platform for endless display and carnival. In our contemporary choices over politics and economy, say the academics, why shouldn’t we be just as confident in our priorities?

WE need to let the historical record speak to us differently. As the Davids put it succinctly: “What happens if we accord significance to the 5000 years in which cereal domestication did NOT lead to the emergence of pampered aristocracies, standing armies or debt peonage, rather than just the 5000 in which it did?”

As they joyfully survey a human history more profoundly diverse and creative than the cliches render it, the authors of The Dawn of Everything want us to shift our common sense about ourselves. “The ultimate question of human history is not our equal access to material resources (land, calories, means of production)”, they write, “but our equal capacity to contribute to decisions about how to live together.”

They even revive a term which has taken something of a backseat to “equality” in social justice terms, which is “freedom” – meaning the freedom “to move, to disobey, to rearrange social ties”.

They speak of the Wendat tribes of North America. They were famously deliberative about community matters; they submitted to chiefs “only in so far as it pleased them”; and they couldn’t comprehend the levels of coercion they encountered in the 19th century urban centres of the US and UK.

Wengrow and Graeber put it this way. We moderns are free to travel – but then we have to pay to do so. We can defy the orders of superiors – but then we lose our jobs. “The Wendat had play chiefs and real freedoms, while most of us today have to make do with real chiefs and play freedoms.”

It may make more sense of these perspectives if you know that David Graeber was a guiding intellectual of Occupy Wall Street, and wrote the books Bullshit Jobs and Debt: A 5000 Year History. As he asserts, the field studies in The Dawn of Everything “suggest that, even now, the possibilities for human interventions are far greater than we’re inclined to think.”

Coming back to Skara Brae, it means allowing it to be even stranger than it already is. What wider networks could the settlement have been part of? Or how intensely local might the Stenness stones have been – the kind of excessive spectacle that communities regularly built to serve their seasonal variances?

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For me, Skara Brae’s deep creativity always inheres in the carved stone balls and objects found there. The shapes are startling and science-fictional: a baroque grenade, a video-game controller, a pulsating microbe.

No-one can quite figure out their function. Are they toys? Religious objects? Castors that helped transport much larger items? I especially like the idea that they might have been “talking stones”, passed around a communal gathering, enabling voice and participation.

I’m glad to feel less weirded-out by these objects as a result of Wengrow and Graeber’s massively stimulating reframe of history. Their book assumes a kind of primary creativity, playfulness and design-consciousness to human existence. This means that we don’t need to nail down the function of everything with precision.

So the Skara Brae objects could just have been cool items to stimulate possibilities and imaginative options. You know, the things we moderns like to think we exclusively surround ourselves with, addictive smartphones and all. The link between a Neolithic settlement and its virtualised game version is even deeper than we might assume.