The custom among the Pirahã Indians of Brazil is that women give birth alone. The linguist Steve Sheldon once saw a Pirahã woman giving birth on a beach, while members of her tribe waited nearby. It was a breech birth, however, and the woman started crying in agony. “Help me, please! The baby will not come.” Sheldon went to help her, but the other Pirahã stopped him, saying that she didn’t want his help. The woman kept up her screams. The next morning both mother and baby were found dead.
The Pirahã believe that people have to endure hardships on their own.
The anthropologist Allan Holmberg was with a group of Siriono Indians of Bolivia when a middle-aged woman grew gravely ill. She lay in her hammock, too unwell to walk or speak. Her husband told Holmberg that the tribe had to move on and would leave her there to die. They left her a fire and some water and walked away without saying goodbye. Even her husband had no parting words for her.
Holmberg was also sick and went away to get treatment. When he returned three weeks later, he saw no trace of the woman. At the next camp, he found her remains picked clean by scavenging animals.
“She had tried her utmost to follow the fortunes of the band,” Holmberg wrote, “but had failed and had experienced the same fate that is accorded all Siriono whose days of utility are over.” Tribes at this subsistence level just don’t have the resources to care for people who can’t keep up.
Jared Diamond tells these and other stories in “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?” Diamond is a geographer at U.C.L.A. whose earlier books “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “Collapse” became best sellers, offering sweeping — and brilliant — descriptions of how geography and environment shape the destiny of nations.
In this book, he holds up tribal societies as a mirror for our own lives. Through the millenniums, different tribal groups have in effect conducted a series of experiments on how to solve essential human problems. What have they discovered and what might we learn from them?
The most obvious difference between us is that pre-state tribal societies are just a lot more violent. Especially in fertile areas where land is valuable, people often can’t wander beyond closely prescribed borders. The cycle of raids and revenge-driven counterraids goes on and on.
Diamond describes a 1961 war between two tribal alliances in New Guinea. The individual battles don’t seem ferocious. Groups of 400 or 500 warriors faced off at a distance of 65 feet. They threw spears and shot arrows at each other in uncoordinated fashion. Frequently there would be an ambush and, sometimes, a massacre of women and children.
The problem is that the warfare was constant, and over time the casualties added up. Between April and September 1961, 0.14 percent of the alliances’ total populations was killed in this war. As a share of total population, that’s a higher casualty rate than Europe, Japan, China or America suffered during the world wars.
Nation states occasionally engage in vast, hellacious wars, but these are rare. Most people in nation states feel qualms about killing another human being and have been taught to restrain their lust for revenge. People in many tribal societies, Diamond writes, do not share these attitudes. Without central governments, they have trouble bringing wars to an end. They live in peril. The highest war-related death rates for modern societies (Russia and Germany during the 20th century) are only a third of the average death rates of tribal societies. Modern societies average war-related death rates that are about one-tenth as high as tribal societies.
This is one way in which modern life is unequivocally better than traditional life. But in the arenas of child-rearing, the treatment of the elderly and dispute resolution, Diamond argues that traditional societies have much to teach us.
We live in codified, impersonal societies. They live in uncodified but more personal societies. When we have a dispute over a traffic accident, we settle it in court and the goal is to arrive at some “just” solution, based on the degree of fault and so on. When people in traditional societies have an accident there is a series of ritualistic face-to-face meetings. The goal is not so much to find fault, but to restore the relationship that has been marred by the accident.
We sit around subway cars lost in our thoughts and smartphones. But people in traditional societies converse constantly, learning from one another and sharing. Diamond writes that it was sometimes hard for him to sleep during his research trips because the New Guineans he was staying with would awake in the middle of the night and resume the conversation they had left off a few hours before.
Modern mothers tend to breast-feed children on a schedule. But mothers in traditional societies nurse on demand and spend almost all their time having skin-to-skin contact with their babies, often carrying them in a sling, with the child placed vertically and facing forward, which Diamond suggests might be why babies from certain tribal societies develop neuromotor skills faster than American infants.
“Loneliness is not a problem in traditional societies,” Diamond observes. “People spend their lives in or near the place where they were born, and they remain surrounded by relatives and childhood companions.” Identity isn’t a problem either. Neither is moral confusion. Or boredom. Diamond says life is more vivid in tribal societies. “Being in New Guinea is like seeing the world briefly in vivid colors, when by comparison the world elsewhere is gray.”
Diamond’s knowledge and insights are still awesome, but alas, that vividness rarely comes across on the page. There are many strange practices described in this book (in a discontinued practice of one tribe, widows insisted on being strangled just after their husbands passed away). But Diamond’s writing is curiously impersonal. We rarely get to hear the people in traditional societies speak for themselves. We don’t get to meet any in depth. We don’t get to know what their stories are, what the contents of their religions are, how they conceive of individual selfhood or what they think of us. In this book, geographic and environmental features play a much more important role in shaping life than anything an individual person thinks or feels.
The people Diamond describes seem immersed in the collective. We generally don’t see them exercising much individual agency. We generally don’t see them trying to improve their own lives, alter their destinies or become a more admirable people. It’s possible they do not conceive of life in this individualistic way. It’s possible they don’t see life as a journey, as we tend to, but as a cycle. It’s possible they don’t conceive of history as having direction, as we tend to, but just as an endless return.
Many books have been written comparing the hyper-individualism of today’s society with the more communal patterns that have been left behind. It is hard to learn from this one because the traditional people, at least as described here, feel so different from us.
They don’t seem like us, the day before yesterday. They seem like people separated from us by large chasms — by all the events of our written history, all the ideas of our thinkers, all the teachings of our religions.
This book reminds you how important geography is, but it also unwittingly reminds you how important history and culture are, and how certain core conceptions — our notions of individual agency, our assumptions about time and space, our moral intuitions about killing and individual dignity — have been shaped by our civilizations.
Has our society become too impersonal? Undoubtedly. Do traditional people serve as models for how we might alter our lives? It’s hard to know. They seem so distant.
Brooks, David. 2013. “Tribal Lessons”. The New York Times. Posted: January 10, 2013. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/books/review/the-world-until-yesterday-by-jared-diamond.html?_r=0