Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

Article excerpt

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Jared Diamond Penguin Books, 2012

For tens of thousands of years, our ancestors lived the way today's few still-existing primitive societies live. (Jared Diamond prefers to call them "traditional societies.") The intellectual significance is considerable: the traditional societies have amounted, he says, to "thousands of natural experiments in how to construct a human society." It is no surprise that they are fertile ground for scientific study; shaped on the anvil of long experience, they can't be replicated in a laboratory.

In The World Until Yesterday, Diamond examines 39 such cultures, ranging across the world to include several each from New Guinea and Australia, Africa, and North and South America. A great many aspects of those cultures are touched upon, but Diamond focuses primarily on selected features, to some of which he devotes considerable attention in extended and thoughtful essays. Among them: the origins and functions of religion; languages, their multiplicity but on-going extinction; the value of multilingualism; a comparison of diseases in the traditional societies with those prevalent in the United States; the ways disputes are handled; how children are reared; and how the elderly are treated. There are many things about those societies he does not discuss, which leaves readers eager to go farther.1

Jared Diamond is a cultural phenomenon in his own right. He's a splendid example of what people are capable of. Bits and pieces of his biography come to light as the book progresses. They show that he was born in 1937, studied in Cambridge, England, and at Harvard; did his Ph.D. thesis "on electricity generation by electric eels" (a subject important to evolutionary theory); became an "evolutionary biologist"; has pursued a career "as an author and university geographer" with a geography professorship at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA); has travelled to New Guinea countless times over a 49 year period since 1964 to do field work among primitive peoples there, along with much bird-watching; has lived in the United States, Germany, Scotland, Indonesia and Peru; and knows several languages that include English, German, Spanish, Tok Piksin and Russian. The book reviewed here is his fifth; he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Guns, Germs, and Steel.

It is possible to read The World Until Yesterday for its intriguing (though often repugnant) details about the cultures Diamond examines. We find, for example, that until about 1957 "the Kaulong people of the island of New Britain... practiced the ritualized strangling of widows." Women "had grown up observing it as the custom," with the result that a widow "followed the custom when she became widowed herself, strongly urged her brothers (or else her son if she had no brothers) to fulfill their solemn obligation to strangle her... and sat cooperatively as they did strangle her." Diamond tells of "endocannibalism," which is the eating of dead relatives. There are rituals calling for painful sacrifices, not the least of which is "subincising" (the splitting of the penis lengthwise). He writes of "the long list of head-hunting peoples that went to war to capture and kill enemies for their heads," and of "cannibalistic peoples who ate captured or dead enemies." There has also been "capture of enemies to use them as slaves." A belief in sorcery has sometimes led people "to blame anything bad that happens on an enemy sorcerer, who must be identified and killed." There has been, of course, much belief in spirits and ghosts. Diamond tells of one New Guinean explaining that his own people "believed that when a person died, his skin changed to white and he went over the boundary to... the place of the dead." A felicitous outcome was that when whites first arrived, the reaction was "Let's not kill them - they are our own relatives... [who] have turned white and come back. …

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