Book: The world until yesterday

Jared Diamond mines traditional societies for lessons to improve our own. Fiona Gruber reviews. 

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies
Jared Diamond, Allen Lane, and imprint of Penguin Books RRP $29.99

Until about 11,000 years ago all humans lived in small bands and subsisted by hunting and gathering or very primitive forms of farming. There were no nation states, no cities, no large-scale settled agricultural societies. Such a way of life seems inconceivable today, but traditional societies living in ancient ways do of course still exist in marginal isolated terrains.

New Guinea has been more isolated than most. Until the 1930s a million islanders knew nothing of the outside world and the world knew nothing of them. Jared Diamond, in The World Until Yesterday, calls this the last large-scale first contact, when Westerners penetrated the rugged highlands.

What they found was a population broken into thousands of small bands and tribes, speaking a dizzyingly large array of languages and living lives of material simplicity but cultural complexity.

Diamond, best known for Guns, Germs and Steel, his 1997 Pulitzer-Prize-winning study of the inter-relationship between environment and Eurasian dominance, has been visiting New Guinea since 1964. His field trips, as a physiologist, geographer and ornithologist have involved many months in remote settlements.

He has witnessed firsthand the rapid changes of society, changes that took thousands of years in the West. Longer life expectancy – albeit coupled with obesity and other Western diseases – modern technology, literacy, centralised government and bureaucracy, and a breakdown in the traditional hostilities between and within tribes have arrived at an accelerated pace.

As he waits to board a plane, he observes “most of the people crammed into that airport hall were strangers who had never seen each other before, but there was no fighting going on among them. This would have been unimaginable in 1931 when encounters with strangers were rare, dangerous and likely to turn violent”.

Diamond’s central thesis is that we can learn a great deal from the different ways traditional small-scale societies deal with everyday issues. He brings in other tribal societies to illustrate cultural diversity, a total of 39 including Australian Aboriginal clans, the !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari and the Inuit of Alaska. Much of this material is decades-old anthropological research, but skewed towards an environmental analysis that downplays the importance of kinship structures or gender politics.

However, he makes many interesting points: the importance of multilingualism in traditional societies; the self-sufficiency of children and a lack of competition in their play; the vital importance of social interaction and mutual help, and a lack of loneliness and social isolation. He also points out why so many of his New Guinean friends are eager to embrace modernity: medicines, education and more efficient tools being three considerations.

In our homogenised, hyper-connected world, there is a fascination for people who still live the traditional lives of our ancestors. In reality, however, these societies have been evolving over millennia and continue to change. Far from being a window into time, we are visiting modern people who may live lives that are remote, in ways we cannot know, from their own ancestors’ practices.

They are also, since contact, living transitional rather than traditional lives. It’s interesting to also note that the rather romanticised view of small-scale tribal societies offered in this book may jar with the sensibilities of Australians engaged with the complex political and social issues inherent with being colonists in a land already inhabited by Aboriginal peoples for the past 60,000 years.

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