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Prof. Jared Diamond. (Reed Hutchinson)
Prof. Jared Diamond. (Reed Hutchinson)

What so-called primitive societies can teach the modern world Add to ...

Scientist, author and all-round polymath Jared Diamond tells the story of a colleague, one “who enjoys encountering little-modified people,” and who ventured into the remotest jungle of New Guinea to study a group of Stone Age hunter-gatherers only recently contacted by outsiders.

To his disappointment, the researcher found the band members relocated in an Indonesian farming village, wearing T-shirts.

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“Why did you move from your wonderful jungle with such beauty and all those birds?” he asked. “Why did you move into this village?”

Their answer: “Rice to eat, and no more mosquitoes.”

The anecdote sits at the heart of Prof. Diamond’s latest book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? As the last survivors of the greatest epoch in human history shed their ancient ways in response to new pressures and opportunities, the author of Guns, Germs and Steel has responded with an exhaustive compendium of their wisdom, much of it based on his own decades-long research in the same New Guinean forests.

The crisis of survival he addresses is as much ours as it is theirs, Prof. Diamond writes. He argues that what we have lost on our own relatively recent trajectory into high-stress modernity is as significant as anything the rice-loving tribalists stand to gain from their recent launch into that world.

Diet, child-rearing, elder care, dispute resolution, risk assessment and language are some of the challenges of life that so-called primitives often manage better than moderns, according to Prof. Diamond. Without romanticizing lives that are often short or ignoring customs that seem horrific, the author makes a persuasive case for learning from our evolutionary seniors.

“Some of the practices can be adopted easily,” Prof. Diamond says in an interview from his home in Los Angeles, where he is a professor of geography at UCLA. “In the matter of bringing up children,” he points out, “it is very easy to decide to carry your baby vertically rather than horizontally” – a common custom in traditional societies, with proven benefits.

Equally doable – and desirable, according to Prof. Diamond – would be emulating a laissez-faire parenting style that gives children the freedom to explore the world and discover its perils on their own, without constant supervision.

And while he stops short of recommending the currently faddish “caveman diet” of the sort the New Guineans gave up so quickly for rice, he cites traditional societies as inspiration for some of the most successful public-health initiatives of developed countries.

In The World Until Yesterday, we learn that Brazil’s Yanomano Indians have the lowest average blood pressure in the world – along with the lowest amount of salt in their diet, “about one-200th of the salt intake of the average Canadian,” according to Prof. Diamond. Some modern states have reduced their incidence of heart disease dramatically by mandating lower salt content in processed food.

It was experimental evidence that established the link between salt and heart disease, Prof. Diamond admits. “But part of the reason why physicians did these experiments at all were the striking results from traditional societies,” he says. The non-communicable diseases that kill moderns so wantonly – diabetes, cancer and heart disease – are all but unknown among the world’s few remaining hunter-gatherers.

Prof. Diamond’s enthusiasm for ancestral ways is as personal as it is scientific, emerging throughout his book and his conversation from a wealth of anecdotes gained over almost 50 years studying birds in New Guinea.

“Some of the New Guineans I’ve worked with told me the stories of their last trip to the stone quarry, and how dangerous it was going through the territory of potentially hostile people,” he says. “Some of my New Guinea friends have told me about being involved in the last tribal wars, and today there they are with their T-shirts and their shorts and boom boxes.”

But he does not regret the changes. “When my New Guinea friends who grew up with stone tools and fire drills see steel axes and matches, they want steel axes and matches,” he says. “So their society changes, but there’s still a lot traditional they retain.”

Nor does he romanticize life in the jungle, despite all the lessons it is able to teach. Quite the contrary: He is scrupulous in cataloguing the natural and social horrors that dramatically shorten tribal lives, from warfare and infectious disease to infanticide and periodic starvation.

Among the evidence he gathers is “five different ways to dispose of elderly people,” Prof. Diamond notes, “and since my 75th birthday I have a stake in discouraging these five methods.” Nonetheless, they are (or were) commonly employed among the societies he extolls and dutifully recorded in his book.

In fact, some anthropologists will probably accuse Prof. Diamond of going too far in emphasizing the aspects of traditional societies modern people find most repellent, such as his contention that warfare is more prevalent in tribal societies because there are no states to suppress it.

“But lots of anthropologists want to deny that, because they love their traditional people and they don’t want to see them accused of doing things that we consider bad,” Prof. Diamond says. “Denial of reality is still vigorous in anthropology.”

Prof. Diamond describes himself instead as a realist: “I see what goes on in traditional societies.” Besides, he adds, “I voted with my feet: Here I am living in Los Angeles.”

The one abiding virtue of village life that attracts him most, he says, is its social richness – something especially evident in the maturity and independence of youth unaffected by electronic games and helicopter parents. “We don’t realize how socially rewarding traditional societies are, and what we ourselves have given up – and perhaps what we could make an effort to add back into our lives,” he says. “We would end up happier as a result.”

Of course, some practices are easier to adopt than others. “Even if you don’t learn anything, even if you still want to carry your children horizontally facing backwards, traditional societies are just so interesting,” he says. It was that fascination that inspired The World Until Yesterday.

“When friends ask me, ‘Jared, how long are you going to keep going to New Guinea?’ my answer is, ‘I’ll be going to New Guinea till I’m dead or crippled,’” he says. “I love it there.”

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