ISBN: 0143124404

Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, has written a book about traditional societies, specifically ones that were discovered and studied by scientists. He describes their traditional ways before they was tainted by the moderns. (Note that his anthropological definition of “traditional” refers to hunter-gatherer lifestyles, while current usage refers to something resembling life about sixty years ago with a strong patriarch working to provide for his housewife and children.)

The shift from hunting-gathering to farming began only about 11,000 years ago; the first metal tools were produced only about 7,000 years ago; and the first state government and the first writing arose only around 5,400 years ago. “Modern” conditions have prevailed, even just locally, for only a tiny fraction of human history; all human societies have been traditional for far longer than any society has been modern.

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..…in the last 75 years, the New Guinea Highland population has raced through changes that took thousands of years to unfold in much of the rest of the world. For individual Highlanders, the changes have been even quicker: some of my New Guinea friends have told me of making the last stone axes and participating in the last traditional tribal battles a mere decade before I met them. Today,

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In some respects we moderns are misfits; our bodies and our practices now face conditions different from those under which they evolved, and to which they became adapted.

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Traditional societies represent thousands of millennia-long natural experiments in organizing human lives.

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Rarely or never do members of small-scale societies encounter strangers, because it’s suicidal to travel into an unfamiliar area to whose inhabitants you are unknown and completely unrelated. If you do happen to encounter a stranger in your territory, you have to presume that the person is dangerous, because (given the dangers of traveling to unfamiliar areas) the stranger is really likely to be scouting in order to raid or kill your group, or else trespassing in order to hunt or steal resources or kidnap a marriageable woman.

The book offers tons of detail on how traditional peoples lived, reproduced, raised families, gathered food, and waged war, allowing you to check the fantasy constructions of amateur evolutionary psychologists who are prone to cherry-picking data to justify their conclusions. The presentation of this book, however, was academic and dry, reading more like a college textbook, but there were many pieces of valuable information…

..the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon calculated, from Yanomamo genealogies that he gathered, that if one compares Yanomamo men who have or haven’t killed people, the killers have on the average over two and a half times more wives and over three times more children. Of course the killers are also more likely to die or to be killed at an earlier age than are non-killers, but during that shorter lifespan they win more prestige and social rewards and can thereby obtain more wives and rear extra children. Naturally, even if this correlation does apply to the Yanomamo, I’m not recommending it to all you readers, nor can it even be generalized to apply to all traditional societies.

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A cross-cultural sample of 90 traditional human societies identified not a single one with mother and infant sleeping in separate rooms: that current Western practice is a recent invention responsible for the struggles at putting kids to bed that torment modern Western parents.

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…food is a major and almost constant subject of conversation. I was initially surprised that my Fore friends spent so much time talking about sweet potatoes, even after they had just eaten to satiation. For the Siriono Indians of Bolivia, the overwhelming preoccupation is with food, such that two of the commonest Siriono expressions are “My stomach is empty” and “Give me some food.” The significance of sex and food is reversed between the Siriono and us Westerners: the Sirionos’ strongest anxieties are about food, they have sex virtually whenever they want, and sex compensates for food hunger, while our strongest anxieties are about sex, we have food virtually whenever we want, and eating compensates for sexual frustration.

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A common Western reaction to danger that I have never, ever, encountered among experienced New Guineans is to be macho, to seek or enjoy dangerous situations, or to pretend to be unafraid and try to hide one’s own fear. Marjorie Shostak noted the lack of those same Western macho attitudes among the !Kung: “Hunts are often dangerous. The !Kung face danger courageously, but they do not seek it out or take risks for the sake of proving their courage. Actively avoiding hazardous situations is considered prudent, not cowardly or unmasculine. Young boys, moreover, are not expected to conquer their fear and act like grown men. To unnecessary risks, the !Kung say, ‘But a person could die!’”

The “alpha male” archetype has apparently come from studying ancient humans, but here we have data how these men show reluctance to engage in that type of behavior, doing so only as necessity to survive, not to feel alpha. While men who were warriors had more children, it’s apparent that even beta males who excelled at weaving, for example, got their slice of the sexual pie. Only in modern times do beta males seem to be nearly shut out from procreation.

There is also absolutely no sign of individuality which we may take for granted as a rightful human condition. In fact, tribal life is downright socialistic. The pooling and sharing of resources were required for survival…

Plants don’t move around and can be gathered more or less predictably from one day to the next, but animals do move, so that any individual hunter risks bagging no animal on any given day. The solution to that uncertainty adopted almost universally by hunter-gatherers is to live in bands including several hunters who pool their catch to average out the large day-to-day fluctuations in catch for each individual hunter.

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“Food is never consumed alone by a family; it is always (actually or potentially) shared out with members of a living group or band of up to 30 (or more) members. Even though only a fraction of the able-bodied foragers go out each day, the day’s returns of meat and gathered foods are divided in such a way that every member of the camp receives an equitable share.

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…two areas located a sufficient distance apart are likely to have fluctuations in food availability that are out of phase. That opens the door for your group to reach a mutually advantageous agreement with another group, such that they allow you onto their land or send you food when they have enough food but you don’t, and your group returns the favor when it’s the other group that’s short of food.

Diamond seems to have lost favor with liberals because of this book, perhaps because he has veered away from the environmental determinism that suggested all humans are equal. He says that war may be genetically ingrained in humans. He implies revenge is a natural human outlet. He highlights the benefits of a traditional family unit along with more hands-on parenting by the mother (i.e., not dropping your kid off at day care). He implies that single motherhood is damaging to children from tribal evidence that states increased parent care increases the child’s survival. He criticizes how Westerners are eager to ship off their elderly to die in nursing homes. He is against obesity (and presumably fat acceptance). And he’s quick to point out differences in gender. The closer you get to the truth, as Diamond is learning, the more likely you will be outcast.

But even though states are much more powerful than hunter-gatherer bands, that doesn’t necessarily imply that states have better ways of raising their children. Some child-rearing practices of hunter-gatherer bands may be ones that we could consider emulating.

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The adolescent identity crises that plague American teen-agers aren’t an issue for hunter-gatherer children. The Westerners who have lived with hunter-gatherers and other small-scale societies speculate that these admirable qualities develop because of the way in which their children are brought up: namely, with constant security and stimulation, as a result of the long nursing period, sleeping near parents for several years, far more social models available to children through allo-parenting, far more social stimulation through constant physical contact and proximity of caretakers, instant caretaker responses to a child’s crying, and the minimal amount of physical punishment.

Today’s humans fear death in the form of nuclear fallout, terrorism, or gun violence, but the most common fears of traditional humans were starvation, predators, and falling trees. Yes, falling trees. Traditional humans, which I must remind you are part of our ancestry, organized and evolved to avoid famine. This is why the human body is so great at extracting most of the energy from food, leading to obesity in times of plenty. This is why our kidneys are so powerful at retaining salt, a rare commodity in ancient times, leading to hypertension today. Our body perfectly adapted to survive the conditions of how the traditionals lived, but now that we have been removed from this environment, we encounter a host of “Western” diseases that are unheard of in traditional societies.

Under the conditions of low salt availability experienced by most humans throughout most of human history until the recent rise of salt-shakers, those of us with efficient salt-retaining kidneys were better able to survive our inevitable episodes of salt loss from sweating or from an attack of diarrhea. Those kidneys became a detriment only when salt became routinely available, leading to excessive salt retention and hypertension with its fatal consequences. That’s why blood pressure and the prevalence of hypertension have shot up recently in so many populations around the world, now that they have made the transition from traditional lifestyles with limited salt availability to being patrons of supermarkets.

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Around the year 1700 sugar intake was only about 4 pounds per year per person in England and the U.S. (then still a colony), but it is over 150 pounds per year per person today. One-quarter of the modern U.S. population eats over 200 pounds of sugar per year.

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Groups of Aboriginal Australians who temporarily abandoned their acquired sedentary Western lifestyle and resumed their traditional vigorous foraging reversed their symptoms of diabetes; one such group lost an average of 18 pounds of body weight within seven weeks.

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Today, when many of us regularly ingest high-sugar meals and rarely exercise, a thrifty gene is a blueprint for disaster. We thereby become fat; we never experience famines that burn up the fat; our pancreas releases insulin constantly until the pancreas loses its ability to keep up, or until our muscle and fat cells become resistant; and we end up with diabetes.

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Those of us whose ancestors best survived starvation on Africa’s savannahs tens of thousands of years ago are now the ones at highest risk of dying from diabetes linked to food abundance.

Here’s a preview of a documentary about a New Guinea tribe that Jared profiles (unfortunately I could not find the full version online):

The best parts of this book is when he relays personal stories of having lived with tribes, including a handful of close calls with death. I also enjoyed his recounting of traditional slices of life. The information was valuable and logically presented, but the book was boring at times and a challenge to complete. Nonetheless, I think it is an important work that allows us to look closer into our past in order to live better in the present.

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Read More: “The World Until Yesterday” on Amazon