What Traditional Societies Can Teach You About Life
For most humans living today, it’s hard to imagine life without written language, governments and large-scale agriculture. But on the scale of human history, all of these are recent inventions. Until just 11,000 years ago, we lived in small groups, hunting, gathering and practicing simple farming. Tribal warfare was common, life spans were short and strangers were rarely encountered. While that lifestyle might seem to belong to the distant past, it is also the life that our bodies and our brains are adapted to, and it’s a life that some people around the world still live.
In his latest book, Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, argues that we also have a lot to learn from people who have continued to live as humans did for most of our history. The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (which comes out on Monday, December 31) takes readers around the world, from the New Guinea Highlands and the Amazon rainforest, to Africa’s Kalahari Desert and the Arctic Circle, where people still living the lives of our ancestors have lessons to teach us about how we might better live today.
What do you mean by “traditional societies?”
Traditional societies are small, a few dozen up to a few hundred people. They don’t have strong political leaders. Their membership is based particularly on relationships. They don’t deal with strangers; everybody knows everybody else. And they subsist either by hunting and gathering or by simple farming and herding, and today there still are traditional societies.
There are small societies in New Guinea and in the Amazon and in rural parts of modern nations like the United States. They contrast with what you could call “complex societies”—populous societies with thousands, millions or billions of people, with centralized state governments, where we encounter strangers every day. For example, here you and I are strangers, we’ve never encountered each other before, and we’re now talking. I’m not sending people out to kill you; you’re not sending people out to kill me. But, in a traditional society, encountering a stranger is frightening and dangerous.