I have been reading books on Anthropology for a few years now and the one that ignited my passion on the topic was Jared Diamonds' very popular Guns, Germs and Steel. Jared Diamond is a polymath, historian, anthropologist and physiologist, fluent in many languages, a Pulitzer prize-winning and a very cool guy. He has followed a very heterodox academic pathway that inspired me to try weird things. His book "The world until yesterday" is a gem that has not received all the attention it deserves, so I wanted to do a bit of justice here and share some of its most interesting ideas and some of my thoughts after reading it.
State societies vs traditional societies
5000 years ago, the vast majority of people lived in small groups composed of 20-100 individuals. But at several points in human history as a result of the domestication of crops (which boosted an explosive population growth), some of these groups started coming together and created the first cities. It is possible to sit in a big circle and discuss the best ways to organize a society when your group has 40 people. If your group is composed of several thousand individuals, it is not: this gave rise to the centralization of power and the birth of the first states.
Today, the situation is totally different: a vast majority of people are under the rule of a state and just a few preserved the ancient way of life. These traditional societies retain behaviours, moral codes and societal structures that have not been modified for thousands of years, and resemble more what we could call a "natural state" of humans. These people face challenges more similar to the challenges we had to face in the ancestral environment where we evolved. They can be found in very diverse places such as the Amazon forest, New Guinea, Australia, Alaska or Subsaharan Africa. So what are some of the most striking aspects of their ways of living? Can we learn valuable things from them?
In the Western world, most births occur nowadays in hospitals, with professional assistance from doctors and nurses. The attitude towards childbirth varies a lot from culture to culture. Often, childbirth takes place with the assistance of other women. On occasions, childbirth is a public event; for instance, in the Agta people in the Philippines, a woman gives birth in a public house where everyone can visit and shout out instructions to the delivering woman (push! breathe! etc). At the other extreme, the Piraha Indians women give birth by themselves and even if they are having problems, other people are not allowed to intervene (even if the problems mean the death of both the mother and the kid).
A common practice (but not universal) in traditional societies is that when twins are born, one of them is killed (sometimes being buried alive), because it is not possible for the mother to rear both children. Most traditional societies can be classified as hunter-gatherers and food is a scarce resource for them.
In state societies, children’s rearing depends (most of the time) exclusively on the parents, which normally makes life way harder in many different ways (I am not a parent myself, but I have seen way too often how people with kids go great lengths to rationalize how great parenting is, even when is not).
In modern Western society, a child’s parents are normally responsible for most of the care. Allo-parenting (individuals who are not the biological parents of the kids but take care of them) tend to have a much larger role in many traditional societies than in the Western world. In different traditional societies, children are free to walk wherever they want in the village and are considered to be the responsibility of everyone.
Regarding the involvements of fathers, there is a lot of variation. For instance, in Aka Pygmies fathers play a role in parenting almost as important as the mother. In societies such as the African Bantu groups or New Guinea Highlanders, men spent a great deal of time warring against other men and child-rearing is an occupation exclusively for women.
Something that distinguishes hunter-gatherer societies is that they are very egalitarian. In Western society, we normally assume that the responsibility for a kid's development lies on the parents and they can control how the child turns out. In many traditional societies, children are autonomous individuals and their will and desires are considered at the same level as other adults.
New Guinean Highlanders usually have burn scars as a result of playing with fire when they were infants (without adults telling them not to because they think that these experiences are part of learning). The children of the Hadza and the Piraha are allowed to play with huge and sharp knives, even if this means sometimes ending up with severe scars that they will carry for life.
Depending on the dangers of the environment, young kids are allowed to walk away from the other members of the tribe by themselves or in the company of other children. For instance, in the Amazon rainforest, where there are many poisonous animals such as snakes, bees or spiders and dangerous animals (jaguars, peccaries), kids of the Ache tribe are not allowed to go far from themselves without adult supervision. The situation is very different in the forests of Madagascar, where there are no dangerous mammals and children are allowed to go long distances by themselves.
There is no consensus, either in the state-societies or in the traditional societies, about what level of physical punishment is required to correctly educate children. However, Diamond claims that there is a general trend: hunter-gatherers inflict very little or absolutely no physical harm to kids. For Akay Pygmies, if one parent hits the infant, the other parent can consider that a reason for divorce. !Kung children are permitted to slap and insult their parents and they won't be punished for that: for the !Kung, kids are simply not responsible for their actions. Farmers societies tend to be more strict and herders usually are the strictest, inflicting severe punishment to kids (probably because misbehaviour can imply the loss of valuable livestock and entail serious consequences for the whole family)
In the Western world (most) kids are forced to go to special centres where they are educated by professionals, controlled by the bureaucrats of the state. For many years, kids need to spend a large fraction of their time adhering to strict rules of sitting for many hours while listening to an adult talk about subjects that are very often totally disconnected from the problems they will have to face later in life.
Kids in traditional societies like to play a lot and the games they play are directly related to the activities they will have to perform once they grow up. They start playing with toy bows and arrows very young and by the time they are teenagers, they are fully trained to shoot animals for food (or enemies in a war). They spend time doing acrobatics or climbing trees, skills that will be essential for their survival when looking for food. In general, there is a seamless transition between the games that are played during childhood and the tasks that have to be performed in adult life. I really wonder, couldn’t we somehow copy this from traditional societies?
Attitude against danger
In the West, a common attitude against danger is acting macho. It seems that in traditional societies (but there is only limited anecdotic evidence for this) this attitude would be considered strange. American anthropologist Marjorie Shostak recalls how the !Kung are very aware that hunts are dangerous and people can be killed by large mammals, so they actively avoid dangerous situations and by no means are embarrassed by showing signs of what could be considered cowardice.
Languages are way more evolvable than we used to think. In the absence of invasion and imposition, the normal thing is that different groups of people speaking a common language end up talking slightly different dialects after few generations, which means that they can continue to evolve into unintelligible languages given enough time and distance. An example that comes to mind (this is from Chomsky, not Diamond) is that in the past, if you went from France to Italy, from village to village you wouldn’t see a sharp transition after you crossed the border (as you mostly see today). Instead, you would find a gradient of languages, with a positive correlation between geographical distance and language similarity. The reason why we see French or Italian as a unified language spoken more or less equally in large geographical areas is due to the influence of the states.
Most English native speakers speak a single language, in spite of many years of being exposed to other languages during school time. In traditional societies, it is very often the case that people speak 4-5 or more languages naturally. Languages are learnt by interaction with other native speakers, not by taking complicated grammar courses. Languages are also useful. It is very often the case that adjacent groups of people speak different languages, and the interaction with your neighbours can sometimes be a matter of life and death.
Diamond discusses the benefits of preserving different languages (most are becoming quickly extinct), such as some evidence that they can protect against Alzheimer, that they are cultural treasures, etc. but I remained unconvinced by these arguments. In fact, I absolutely love that there are many languages in the world and I hope that this continues to be the case, but I cannot find a better argument for it than a simple “I like languages” (which I think is also Diamond’s real reason and the rest is rationalization).
Gossip is universal, a behaviour observed in all societies known to date. Diamond recalls being impressed by how much time New Guineans spend talking to each other compared to Americans and Europeans. He mentions that on occasions they would even wake up in the middle of the night and continue talking even about the most apparently banal topics such as how many times one has pissed during the day. There are similar reports of the talkativeness of other peoples such the !Kung or the African Pygmies. The world of many traditional societies is dangerous, and it is a matter of life or death acquiring as much information as possible, even when that information might seem irrelevant.
"All human societies practise both violence and cooperation; which traits appear to predominate depends on the circumstances"
Violence is a common phenomenon for many traditional societies and there seems to be a general trend: the more people per unit of food available in an area, the more violent the society is. Many societies (but not all) participate in something called traditional warfare, involving many different groups that create alliances and fight against each other, sometimes continuously for decades. The number of deaths caused by traditional warfare is worse than even the bloodiest wars of state-wars, when looking at the deaths per capita.
Something that I found interesting is that even these people live in permanent stress and a state of alert due to the continuous danger, once the battles start, they are extremely inefficient at organizing themselves as armies and killing their enemies. For instance, when shooting arrows, they do it one by one, which gives the enemy a chance to dodge the arrows. Implementing basic strategies (such as shooting arrows simultaneously) of war would have a huge impact on their success against their enemies, which makes me think that it is not so easy to come up with these strategies in the first place.
A key difference between traditional warfare and state-warfare is that traditional societies do not take prisoners; they just kill the captured people. Taking prisoners means more mouths to feed, and food is a precious and scarce resource for traditional societies. When it comes to killing, warriors will show no mercy to the enemy and children and people of any gender are killed without remorse.
Traditional warfare was largely abolished after the Europeans started colonizing the world in 1492 and only survived in very isolated places of the world such as New Guinea and the Amazon rainforest.
In state-societies, we are conditioned since birth to abhor crimes such as murder. However, in special circumstances, .e.g. when people join the military, they need to be reconditioned to abandon those principles temporarily. Very often these people end up with huge traumas for the rest of their lives.
In traditional societies, such as New Guineans, people have known since childhood about the great warriors of their tribes and how they are praised for their killings. "Of course New Guineans end up feeling unconflicted about killing the enemy: they have had no contrary message to unlearn".
“Traditional human societies  outside the control of state government have shown that war, murder, and demonization of neighbours have been the norm, not the exception and that members of those societies espousing those norms are often normal, happy, well-adjusted people, not ogres”
In traditional societies, old people are sometimes seen as a source of wisdom and knowledge. For rural Fidjeans for instance, old people usually share the same house that they have inhabited all their lives and they are taken care of by their children and grandchildren up to the point that sometimes the food is chewed for them. However, this is not the norm. For many hunter-gatherers, old people mean more mouths to feed and more work to do, which also means that when a person is not autonomous, sometimes they need to be "disposed of". The name of this practice is called senilicide. There are, by and large, five ways that traditional people get rid of their old people
- Neglect: They simply ignore them until they die.
- Intentionally abandoning the old person when the rest of the group shifts camp
- They encourage the old person to commit suicide (by jumping a cliff, going out to sea, etc)
- Assisted suicide by strangling, stabbing or burying alive (with the consent of the elder)
- Killing the victim without the victim's cooperation or consent.
Contact with the Western World
There is obviously a lot of variation in this regard: for instance, the Andaman islanders are fierce warriors that attack any intruder that gets closer to their shores, which means that they have successfully remained isolated so far. The contact of traditional societies with Westerners has meant total destruction for many of them, but we shouldn’t oversimplify the situation In many cases, traditional societies are very happy about establishing contact with the western world, because it brings good stuff and they are very happy to profit from it. More specifically, the western occupation of lands such as New Guinea has meant the cease of traditional warfare (which is a cause of literal nightmares for New Guineans), easy access to food and to medicine. By and large, most people are happy to go from traditional societies to a westernized lifestyle than the other way around.
“An American friend of mine travelled halfway around the world to meet a recently discovered band of New Guinea forest hunter-gatherers, only to discover that half of them had already chosen to move to an Indonesian village and put on T-shirts because life there was safer and more comfortable. -Rice to eat, and no more mosquitoes!- Was their short explanation”
My personal opinion
Diamond’s book draws heavily from anecdotal experience. I personally don’t mind this and I see the benefits of doing that, but in some cases, you are left wondering how generalizable the examples that he provides really are. Something I thought when reading this book is that the first chapters are a bit too slow (I almost abandoned the book at some point), which is a pattern I have seen in some other Diamond’s works (e.g. Collapse). I would encourage the reader to make the effort to keep reading, it is worth it.
I was personally unpleasantly surprised to discover about the levels of violence in traditional societies, and even more about some of their practices. There is a widespread romanticized view of traditional societies as somehow more morally pure people. This topic is in fact a highly sensitive issue in Australia, the country where I live. I see very often how “white-Australian” (sorry for the lack of a better term) are often accused of the abominable crimes of destroying the aboriginal cultures (i.e. the stolen generation). Although I do consider a tragedy the result of many of these cultural exchanges (and traditional societies always end up on the worst side of any of these interactions), I have to say that reading this book made me rethink many of my preconceived ideas. I do see now why some people would want to force other people to adapt their practices and I have to concede that they might have a point.
I think there are many interesting lessons here. The first one is acquiring awareness that other ways of life (and moralities) are possible. In the Western world, we usually see life in a very narrow way and we assume that most of these things we have around us are the way things must be (e.g. education in schools, or parenting). For instance, I personally plan not to have any children, but I admit that I would feel different if the responsibility of raising children was a much more communal thing.
Interestingly enough, I spoke about this with my mom and she said that you don’t need to find examples from societies so distant to us: when she grew up, in a small city in the south of Spain, she was raised in a house where she lived with grandparents, her uncles, aunts and a large number of cousins. She feels that this way of life has changed a lot in the last 50 years: most children will now be raised exclusively by their parents and will live in houses without much interaction with other adults or kids (besides any siblings).
However, the most interesting realization for me was how alien the education system really is. I have always felt this way, but I think I couldn’t articulate my thoughts as well as I can now after reading this book. Education in traditional life is not a separate part of your life. Education is not a thing. The way you learn is by playing in controlled environments, doing the same things you will be doing in your adult life. And playing is fun. In the West, we are able to educate children in factories, obtaining equality (all children can obtain at least some form of education) at the price of destroying the fun and teaching things that are very often absolutely unrelated to the problems that they will face as adults. As I said, I probably won’t have children but if I had, they certainly wouldn’t undergo the normal education system.
Thanks a lot to Miranda for the corrections and the feedback. All errors are my own