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5.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review, 7 Jan 2013
This review is from: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (Paperback)
*A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.

The main argument: The onset of agriculture and farming some 11,000 years ago (termed the Neolithic Revolution), is arguably the most significant turning point in the history of our species. Agriculture induced a major population explosion, which then led to urbanization; labor specialization; social stratification; and formalized governance--thus ultimately bringing us to civilization as we know it today. Prior to the Neolithic Revolution--and extending back time out of mind--human beings lived in a far different way. Specifically, our ancestors lived in small, largely egalitarian tribes of no more than 50 to 100 individuals, and hunted and foraged for their food.

The transition from our traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle, to early farming (and herding), to civilization as we know it now (which, on an evolutionary time-scale, occurred but yesterday) has certainly brought with it some very impressive benefits. Indeed, many of us today enjoy comforts and opportunities the likes of which our more traditional ancestors would never have dreamed of. However, it cannot be said that the transition from traditional to modern has left us without any difficulties. Indeed, some would go so far as to say that the problems that civilization has introduced outweigh the benefits that it has brought; and even the most unromantic among us are likely to agree that our experiment in civilization has not been an unmitigated success.

This then brings us to the problem of solving the difficulties that civilization has left us with. Now, when it comes to solving our problems, it is without a doubt the spirit of our age to look ever forward for solutions--by which I mean we tend to look for new technologies and hitherto untested arrangements to help us out of our current predicaments. However, when we consider that our traditional lifestyle served us well for millennia on end, and that it was under this lifestyle wherein we underwent much of the biological and psychological evolution that lives with us to this day, we can begin to see how it may be fruitful to look back at this traditional lifestyle for possible solutions to the problems we now face. (This idea is not new; indeed, the `state of nature' has traditionally been of great interest to philosophers--for it has been thought that understanding how we lived by nature may serve as a guide to help us design the most fitting political communities given our present circumstances).

Also of interest here--and deeply connected to the more practical goal mentioned above--is that investigating our traditional way of life promises to shed light on our underlying human nature in a way that is not possible when we look at ourselves through the obscuring artifice of civilization. It is these things that we stand to gain by learning about traditional societies, and it is this very project that geographer Jared Diamond takes up in his new book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

Diamond is certainly not one to deny that civilization has brought with it many important benefits over our traditional way of life (the most important of which, according to the author, being that state governments are much more effective at ending the cycles of violence that tend to plague traditional societies). However, Diamond does contend that there are many areas wherein traditional practices represent an improvement over how we do things in the modern world, and that these practices could (and should) be incorporated into our modern way of life (both at the personal and societal level). Specifically, we could afford to learn a thing or two from traditional societies when it comes to conflict resolution (how to re-establish and mend relationships); raising children (that it really does take a whole village to raise a child); treating the elderly (that they are deserving of respect, and are still capable of contributing to the community in many important ways); approaching risk (with extensive caution); communicating (in a face to face way, and with multiple languages); and in diet and exercise (favoring natural foods, reducing salt, and sugar intake, and adopting a more active lifestyle).

In the course of his exploration of traditional societies, Diamond also delves into why and how our ancestors transitioned from traditional societies to civilizations (with a focus on such areas as social, economic and political stratification, and also religion).

Diamond has made a career out of studying the traditional societies of Papua New Guinea, and is therefore a very credible authority on the subject matter at hand. What's more, his wealth of experience has left him with a trove of interesting and illuminating anecdotes to draw from, and these are on full display here. Finally, I felt that the author always maintained a very sober and balanced view with regards to the benefits and drawbacks of both traditional and modern societies. I would have liked to have seen certain topics discussed more, and others less, but this is mere personal preference. Altogether a very good book. A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com; a podcast discussion of the book is also available.
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Showing 1-10 of 23 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 26 Jan 2013 12:49:00 GMT
Diamond's notion that state governments are less violent than what he calls 'traditional' peoples is, to say the least, questionable.

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Jan 2013 22:07:14 GMT
So, I assume you will want to address Diamond's argument (and not just his conclusion). What, specifically, about Diamond's argument do you want to contest?

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Jan 2013 01:50:36 GMT
A detailed criticism will be published in the next few days by Survival International (though it will still be focussed on the assertion that Diamond thinks most tribal peoples are in a state of constant warfare, and how this is pretty much the same as 19th century colonialist views of them).

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Jan 2013 13:49:30 GMT
Alby says:
Tribal peoples generally *were* in a state of war before states got involved. It's not a necessary feature of societies with corporate descent groups and horticultural economies, but it's definitely a general feature, and it is attested to by every archaeological and ethnographic study of pre-state societies ever conducted. Life in state societies, especially modern democratic states, is unimaginably peaceful compared to societies with corporate descent groups, aka 'tribal' societies. The peaceful, harmonious tribal societies of today are those that live in the context of the state, and it is this skewed view that makes a lot of people think that tribal people are harmonious, natural, people (with the implication being that they are better and more moral than us, the people who live in states).

This is a basic point; it is definitely true that life prior to the rise of states is a bit more violent, and for obvious reasons. If it isn't true, then nothing can be said about tribal societies. To reject this conclusion is tantamount to rejecting all of anthropological inquiry. It isn't simply a colonial view, by any means, and your opinion - that's all it is - that Diamond will set back the movement for tribal peoples isn't founded on anything sensible. And... I hate to say it, because I support SI and love Norman Lewis, but it seems as if you're using the popularity of Diamond's book to try to drum up support. I've seen your comments on a number of blogs. It's a little disappointing that the SI critique of Diamond has yet to appear, despite your claims on several online locations that it will. I think it would also be devastating for SI if it were to come out and support your ideas, as they are, unfortunately, empirically incorrect.

And here's the thing: it doesn't matter whether a group of people once lived in a violent society. It doesn't matter that people in eastern Indonesia used to behead one another frequently at the end of the dry season. Because despite these activities, the people who undertook them are still human beings, and they deserve to be treated morally, as you would treat anyone else. *That* should be the message of SI, not that tribal peoples are peaceful, enlightened, beautiful, natural creatures who never do wrong. Don't become one of the 'peace and harmony mafia', and don't bludgeon Diamond's thoughtful book on the grounds that he is setting back your movement. Because he isn't.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Jan 2013 17:45:33 GMT
We do not claim that tribal peoples `never do wrong'.

You claim that `every... study of pre-state societies ever conducted' attests that `tribal peoples generally were in a state of war before states got involved.' That's an extraordinarily bold claim, which we don't think is correct (to put it mildly).

Nor, for that matter, do Diamond or Pinker agree with you. The former rather vaguely accuses `scholars' of making untrue claims if they fail to report the `constant warfare' he (and you) are convinced prevails everywhere. The latter dismisses them as `aggressive academics' and `anthropologists of peace'.
The question is whether most tribal peoples are more violent (savage?) than anyone else. We don't believe they are, and we think the data used to `prove' this are spurious.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Jan 2013 18:56:19 GMT
Last edited by the author on 27 Jan 2013 19:14:18 GMT
Alby says:
That's not an even remotely 'bold' claim. It is simply the case. Indonesia alone provides excellent examples. Before 1915, or thereabouts, life in eastern Indonesia - a classically 'tribal' place, with few or no states having any involvement in it whatsoever - was dreadful and beset by slavery and headhunting raids every single year, with sporadic violence in between. Marriage alliances were set up between as many groups as possible in order to mitigate the effects of violence. Every single aspect of life was based in some way around the idea of killing people with swords - even the siting of villages on the edges of ravines was part of it.

When the Dutch turned up in force in the early twentieth century, they put an end to slave-raiding and headhunting, and it is notable that villages in eastern Indonesia - especially in Nusatenggara Timur, but also in Maluku and Tanimbar - began to spread out from their original defensive locations. Life improved all round.

This is also clear from the archaeological record. Raiding is an evident feature of life at, say, San Jose Mogote in the Valley of Oaxaca, one of the earliest large-scale ranked tribal societies in Mesoamerica. It is found in the ancient Near East before the arrival of states. It was found in Amazonia and mainland southeast Asia before native and European states got involved. There are no archaeological studies, or ethnohistoric studies for that matter, that support the view that life in tribal societies is anything like as peaceful as life in modern Britain. There is no location of which I am aware in which tribal life was not beset by frequent tribal war, and wherever it has been suggested that this is the case - say, the American Southwest - archaeology and ethnohistory have shown that it is a complete lie and a fabrication. Life in the ancient Pueblos was violent, and quite deliberately so.

It's not that tribal people are innately more savage than people who live in state societies, but the nature of life without the state clearly favours violence. In the absence of an impartial government preventing people from killing one another, there will be more murders. This isn't speculation, at all. It is merely the case. And if I lived in a tribal society, I daresay I would kill people too. There would be plenty of incentive - indeed, necessity - to do so.

Moreover, there aren't very many tribal societies left. Almost all 'tribes' are now incorporated into states, even if it seems like they aren't. It is not possible to use current ethnographic research on tribal peoples incorporated into modern states as evidence to better understand life outside of states.

I honestly don't think you're speaking for SI. Firstly, you have no reviews and no information on your profile. Secondly, your opinions are clearly counter-posed to those of SI, which doesn't condone distorting information about tribal peoples in order to make them appear friendlier and more deserving of help. I've always understood its appeals to rest on donations in the name of our common humanity. If SI is publishing something about Diamond, then I look forward to it, but I hope it isn't the PR blunder your comments here suggest it will be.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Jan 2013 19:34:28 GMT
So, according to you...

1) Contemporary studies of tribal peoples don't count because those peoples have been `pacified'. (Which obviously begs the question: Which studies do count, and who made them?)

2) `Impartial government' prevents people from killing one another (Europeans haven't had many, then).

3) You stick by your claim which not even Diamond or Pinker makes: that all studies show that tribal peoples are more violent than state societies. (Not whether they are or not, but that all studies show they are.)

4) Your claim that `raiding is an evident feature of life' is not of course the same thing as constant warfare everywhere, but is still worth looking at. You say it applied to eg. Amazonia, `before European states got involved'. It may have, but what studies can possibly prove your case?

5) In apparent contradiction to (3) above, you also think studies which `suggest' there is not `frequent tribal war' (again, not the same thing as `constant warfare' - what frequency, month, year, decade?) are a `complete lie'.

6) You don't believe I am speaking for Survival International.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Jan 2013 20:08:24 GMT
Last edited by the author on 27 Jan 2013 20:47:50 GMT
Alby says:
1) It doesn't beg the question at all. All the evidence we have of tribal societies before the imposition of the state shows the same basic picture: life beset by violence to an extent not found in state societies. Like I said, I am not relying solely on ethnography or ethnohistory for this, but also archaeology, which shows that societies without states are more violent for the ordinary person than societies with states. So the question of who makes these studies isn't especially relevant, because we're not relying on ipse dixitism.

2) Impartial in the sense that the government is in some sense above the rest of society, operating as a relatively independent wing of it. States aren't simply a dominant descent group, but a whole new social realm.

3) Well, of course - would you prefer it if I said that I know for a fact that tribal societies are more violent than state societies? I'm only ever going to go by the existing data. And almost all of it supports the interpretation that tribal life is more violent than state life. Which it seems to be.

4) By 'constant warfare', I mean that having to think about warfare is a constant, not that life is one long siege. Every aspect of life would have to be thought of in terms of the necessity of avoiding violent death. That is exactly what we see in the ethnohistoric, oral historical, and archaeological data from tribal societies around the world: defensive palisades around Amazonian villages way before Europeans arrived; thousands of arrowheads and sling stones at strategic sites in Neolithic villages; skeletons with sling stones embedded in them; skeletons of young men who have died violent deaths occurring much more frequently in tribal areas than in state-controlled ones; the siting of early towns on hilltops (see Monte Alban for an excellent example); and so on.

Ethnohistory is also incredibly important here, and it cannot be brushed away on the grounds that it is all colonial gibberish. The Spanish accounts of the Panamanian and Columbian chiefdoms are excellent sources on tribal life in those areas - a pattern iterated throughout the world. Of course there are some terrible ethnohistoric accounts that aren't at all useful and show an evident bias, but many are great sources. On top of that, oral histories from throughout tribal areas point to constant or extremely frequent raiding. This is true throughout tribal southeast Asia, the Americas, Africa, and elsewhere. It is even true of central Asia and the Balkans until recent times.

Have you ever heard of archaeology before? It's an entire discipline devoted to studying ancient lives by what they left behind. You should look into it. There's a book coming out this year (IIRC) by Michael Heckenberger on the archaeology of Amazonia - that might be a good place to look for evidence of pre-Columbian tribal warfare, although of course it is difficult to show such things (the presence of moats and palisades at most ancient village sites is suggestive, however). Regardless, the ethnohistoric and ethnographic data - and yes, I'm aware of the limitations on these - suggest that past life in tribal Amazonia was more violent than in any state society. The research that suggests otherwise is almost always conducted among societies that are fully inducted into the state.

5) Way to take things out of context. Intuition, based on exoticisation, that Hopi Indians and other Southwestern native groups were non-violent before European contact turned out to be completely wrong, and assertions that the Hopi were entirely peaceful are lies indeed. This is shown by archaeological and ethnographic work. In other situations, it is possible that present-day ethnographic work is misinterpreted as applying to the pre-colonial past, in which case it is simply wrong, and not a lie.

Oh, and I explicitly stated in my eastern Indonesian examples that most of this warfare happened once a year, at the end of the dry season, with sporadic violence in between. The important thing isn't that warfare is truly constant in tribal societies - that would be difficult to maintain with a low-level agricultural or horticultural economy - but that it is a key and determining feature of life.

6) That's right, I don't. I don't think a representative of Survival International would go online and make passive-aggressive comments about authors and their works on blogs and If they do allow you to do that, then they have made some very silly decisions and the donors should be up in arms. Even if this is SI's position, it should be communicated in other venues, rather than through anonymous, information-less amazon profiles. The fact that you're posting these comments in SI's name makes it look like an amateurish organisation, so even if they have given you permission, I'd suggest strongly that they make you take them down.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Jan 2013 23:55:47 GMT
Plenty of violence with tribal peoples, and plenty of violence in industrialised societies. No one seems to be denying this.

Diamond makes two straightforward - and different - allegations, which can never be verified, and which are deeply subversive to tribal peoples' rights (and which we do not believe are true, based on our own experience). Essentially the same allegations have been used to justify the destruction of tribal peoples.

They are: 1) tribal peoples in general are much more violent than `state' societies; and 2) MOST tribal peoples live with CONSTANT warfare.

We consider it an essential part of Survival's work to refute such allegations which essentially brands tribal peoples as `savages' (or at least more savage than us).

The fact that they are presented as `popular science', widely read, and apparently backed up with `data', makes it all the more important that they are shown up to be merely the opinions of certain academics, and not the universal truths they claim to be.

We do not believe tribal peoples are more violent than other peoples.

We will publish at more length on this shortly, and will certainly ensure as many of our supporters as possible are informed of our position.

In reply to an earlier post on 28 Jan 2013 06:13:47 GMT
Alby says:
Plenty of violence in industrialised societies - but nothing like the amount in tribal societies. Not even close. Unless, of course, you happen to live in an industrialised society where all the houses are surrounded by high walls and where you can't go to the shops without risking death, which is pretty much the experience of tribal peoples worldwide.

"We do not believe tribal peoples are more violent than other peoples."

Then you are wrong. If you live in a tribal society - a truly tribal society, not one that has in reality become part of a state - then you will experience much more violence, and dole out more of it, than in a state. In a modern industrialised society, it is possible to go through your entire life without killing anybody or seeing anybody killed - in fact, this applies to the majority of people in industrialised societies. Moreover, we don't design our settlements around the possibility that we will be surreptitiously attacked. My house doesn't even have a fence, let alone a palisade. Why on earth would you need a palisade around your village? It costs time and effort to build such a thing, and it restricts your freedom of movement. The answer is pretty simple: fear of raids by other groups is so great as to necessitate it.

And in fact we find palisades and simple defensive features among tribal societies throughout the world - *most* of them, in fact, long before European contact. At archaeological sites in Ontario, Myanmar, Brazil, in tropical Africa, etc. We even find them in the pre-state strata of Europe, China, Japan, the Near East, mainland southeast Asia, and everywhere else. The fact is, without a state there to prevent inter-communal violence, such violence is much more likely. That isn't to say that tribal people are 'savages', because they aren't, and Diamond isn't saying that at all. Just that, in absence of a state, violence is more common. Which it certainly appears to be, based on practically all of the evidence that we have.

It doesn't matter whether the 'allegations' were once used to justify killing tribal people or not. If they actually happen to be true, then you shouldn't be saying that they're false, or you'll end up with egg on your face. People shouldn't kill other people because it's wrong to kill, whether the person is a saint or not. Tribal people are just like everybody else; they just happen to live under conditions that make violence more likely, and more necessary.
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