The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? 
by Jared Diamond.
Penguin, 498 pp., £8.99, September 2013, 978 0 14 102448 6
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It’s a good bet a culture is in trouble when its best-known intellectuals start ransacking the cultural inventory of its ancestors and its contemporary inferiors for tips on how to live. The malaise is all the more remarkable when the culture in question is the modern American variant of Enlightenment rationalism and progress, a creed not known for self-doubt or failures of nerve. The deeper the trouble, the more we are seen to have lost our way, the further we must go spatially and temporally to find the cultural models that will help us. In the stronger versions of this quest, there is either a place – a Shangri-la – or a time, a Golden Age, that promises to reset our compass to true north. Anthropology and history implicitly promise to provide such models. Anthropology can show us radically different and satisfying forms of human affiliation and co-operation that do not depend on the nuclear family or inherited wealth. History can show that the social and political arrangements we take for granted are the contingent result of a unique historical conjuncture.

Jared Diamond, ornithologist, evolutionary biologist and geographer, is best known as the author of Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years, one of the most influential accounts of how most of us came to live in places with huge concentrations of people, grain and domesticated animals, and how this helped create the world of massive inequalities and disparate life chances with which we now live. Diamond’s was not a simple, self-congratulatory ‘rise of the West’ story, telling how some peoples and cultures showed themselves to be essentially cleverer, braver or more rational than others. Instead, he demonstrated the importance of impersonal environmental forces: plants and herd animals amenable to domestication, pathogens, a favourable climate and geography that aided the rise of early states in the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean. These initial advantages were compounded by interstate competition in metallurgy for armaments and navigational devices. His argument was much praised for its bold and original synthesis, and much criticised by historians and anthropologists for reducing the arc of human history to a handful of environmental conditions. There was no denying, however, that Diamond’s simple quasi-Darwinian view of human selection was ‘good to think with’.

The subtitle of his new foray into deep history, ‘What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?’, suggests, without a trace of irony, that it might be more at home in the self-help section of the bookstore. By ‘traditional societies’, he by and large means hunting and gathering and small horticultural societies that have survived into the modern world in the marginal and stingy environments into which states have pushed them. They span the globe, but Diamond draws his principal examples from New Guinea and Australia, where his bird-watching interests lie, and from the findings of studies of hunter-gatherer societies (the Hadza and !Kung of Africa, the Piraha, Siriono and Yanomamo of Latin America) that fit best with his argument.

What could these historical relics possibly teach the wired, hyper-modernist residents of Diamond’s home village of Los Angeles? The question is not so preposterous. As he explains, Homo sapiens has been around for roughly 200,000 years and left Africa not much earlier than 50,000 years ago. The first fragmentary evidence for domesticated crops occurs roughly 11,000 years ago and the first grain statelets around 5000 years ago, though they were initially insignificant in a global population of perhaps eight million. More than 97 per cent of human experience, in other words, lies outside the grain-based nation-states in which virtually all of us now live. ‘Until yesterday’, our diet had not been narrowed to the three major grains that today constitute 50 to 60 per cent of the world’s caloric intake: rice, wheat and maize. The circumstances we take for granted are, in fact, of even more recent vintage than Diamond supposes. Before, say, 1500, most populations had a sporting chance of remaining out of the clutches of states and empires, which were still relatively weak and, given low rates of urbanisation and forest clearance, still had access to foraged foods. On this account, our world of grains and states is a mere blink of the eye (0.25 per cent), in the historical adventure of our species.

Why, Diamond asks, should we not plumb this vast historical record of human experience for what it might teach our WEIRD – ‘Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic’ – societies? Though they are the most thoroughly studied of societies, they are totally unrepresentative. If we wish to generalise about human nature, not to mention the history of human experience, we must, he argues, cast our net more widely.

Traditional societies in effect represent thousands of natural experiments in how to construct a human society. They have come up with thousands of solutions to human problems, solutions different from those adopted by our own WEIRD modern societies. We shall see that some of these solutions – for instance, some of the ways in which traditional societies raise their children, treat their elderly, remain healthy, talk, spend their leisure time and settle disputes – may strike you, as they do me, as superior to normal practices in the First World.

The lens through which Diamond, an unrelenting environmental biologist, sees the world affords striking insights but there are still massive blind spots. His discussion of languages, for example, is both passionate and convincing, as one might expect from a scholar whose New Guinea field site is home to roughly a thousand of Earth’s seven thousand languages. Aside from the ‘nine giants’ (Mandarin, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese), each with more than a hundred million speakers, the rest have on average only a few thousand speakers and a great many have far fewer. The ‘giants’ create vast heartland zones of monolingual citizens within which minor languages are exterminated. Inasmuch as language ‘speciation’ depends largely on dispersal and isolation, the contemporary processes of concentration and cultural homogenisation militate against the development of new languages and the survival of those already endangered. Half of the roughly 250 Australian languages are extinct, one third of the hundreds of Native American languages spoken in 1492 have disappeared and another third are unlikely to survive another generation. Each heartland of a ‘giant’ language is the graveyard of the languages it has overwhelmed.

The commonest contemporary cause of death is cultural and economic engulfment: the majority language so dominates the public sphere, media, schools and government that mastering it is the sole route to employment, social status and cultural citizenship. Diamond pauses to consider the argument that the consolidation of languages might be a fine thing. After all, eliminating language barriers makes for better mutual understanding. Why would one prefer a world in which hill peoples navigate through a linguistic thicket in which they must operate in five or more languages, as his informants do in the New Guinea Highlands?

Here, Diamond, as evolutionary biologist, has two choices. He could claim that the extinction of languages is the process of natural selection at work, just as the scientific racists of the late 19th century claimed that the extermination of backward tribal peoples like the Herero was a tragic but inevitable result of the expansion of superior races. But instead, he takes up a position not unlike that held by E.O. Wilson on the disappearance of species. He argues that just as natural diversity is a treasury of variation and resilience, so linguistic diversity represents a cultural treasury of expression, thought-ways and cosmology that, once lost, is gone for ever.

Literature, culture and much knowledge are encoded in languages: lose the language and you lose much of the literature, culture and knowledge … Traditional peoples have local-language names for hundreds of animal and plant species around them; those encyclopedias of ethnobiological information vanish when their languages vanish … Tribal peoples also have their own oral literatures, and losses of those literatures also represent losses to humanity.

It is undeniable that we are in danger of irrecoverably losing a large part of mankind’s cultural, linguistic and aesthetic heritage from the effects of ‘steamroller’ languages and states. But what a disappointment it is, after nearly five hundred pages of anecdotes, assertions, snippets of scientific studies, observations, detours into the evolution of religion, reports of near-death experiences – Diamond can be a gripping storyteller – to hear the lessons he has distilled for us. We should learn more languages; we should practise more intimate and permissive child-rearing; we should spend more time socialising and talking face to face; we should utilise the wisdom and knowledge of our elders; we should learn to assess the dangers in our environment more realistically. And, when it comes to daily health tips, you have to imagine Diamond putting on his white coat and stethoscope as he recommends ‘not smoking; exercising regularly; limiting our intake of total calories, alcohol, salt and salty foods, sugar and sugared soft drinks, saturated and trans fats, processed foods, butter, cream and red meat; and increasing our intake of fibre, fruits and vegetables, calcium and complex carbohydrates. Another simple change is to eat more slowly.’ Perhaps wary of resistance to a fully fledged hunter-gatherer diet, he recommends the Mediterranean diet. Those who have trekked all this way with him, through the history of the species and the New Guinea Highlands, must have expected something more substantial awaiting them at the end of the trail.

What were our ancestors like before the domestication of plants and animals, before sedentary village life, before the earliest towns and states? That is the question Diamond sets himself to answer. In doing so, he faces nearly insurmountable obstacles. Until quite recently, archaeology recorded our history as a species in relation to the concentration of debris (middens, building rubble, traces of irrigation canals, walls, fossilised faeces etc) we left behind. Hunter-gatherers were typically mobile and spread their largely biodegradable debris widely; we don’t often find their temporary habitats, which were often in caves or beside rivers or the sea, and the vast majority of such sites have been lost to history. When we do find them, they can tell us something about their inhabitants’ diet, cooking methods, bodily adornment, trade goods, weapons, diseases, local climate and occasionally even causes of death, but not much else. How to infer from this scant evidence our ancestors’ family structure and social organisation, their patterns of co-operation and conflict, let alone their ethics and cosmology?

It is here that Diamond makes his fundamental mistake. He imagines he can triangulate his way to the deep past by assuming that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are ‘our living ancestors’, that they show what we were like before we discovered crops, towns and government. This assumption rests on the indefensible premise that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are survivals, museum exhibits of the way life was lived for the entirety of human history ‘until yesterday’ – preserved in amber for our examination.

In the unique case of Highland New Guinea, which was apparently isolated from coastal trade and the outside world until World War Two, Diamond might be forgiven for making this inference, though the people of New Guinea have had exactly the same amount of time to adapt and evolve as homo americanus and they managed somehow to get hold of the sweet potato, which originated in South America. The inference of pristine isolation, however, is completely unwarranted for virtually all of the other 35 societies he canvasses. Those societies have, for the last five thousand years, been deeply involved in a world of trade, states and empires and are often now found in undesirable marginal areas to which they have been pushed by more powerful societies. The anthropologist Pierre Clastres argued that the Yanomamo and Siriono, two of Diamond’s prime examples, were originally sedentary cultivators who turned to foraging in order to escape the forced labour and disease associated with Spanish settlements. Like almost all the groups Diamond considers, they have been trading with outside kingdoms and states (and raiding them) for much of the past three thousand years; their beliefs and practices have been shaped by contact, trade goods, travel and intermarriage. So thoroughly have they come to live in a world of powerful kingdoms and states that one might call these societies themselves a ‘state effect’. That is, their location in the landscape is designed to help them evade or trade with larger societies. They forage forest and marine products desired by urban societies; many groups are ‘twinned’ with neighbouring societies, through which they manage their trade and relationship to the larger world.

Contemporary foraging societies, far from being untouched examples of our deep past, are up to their necks in the ‘civilised world’. Those available for Diamond’s inspection are, one might argue, precisely the most successful examples, showing how some hunter-gatherer societies have avoided extinction and assimilation by creatively adapting to the changing world. Taken together, they might make for an interesting study of adaptation, but they are useless as a metric to tell us what our remote ancestors were like. Even their designations – Yanomamo, !Kung, Ainu – convey a false sense of genealogical and genetic continuity, vastly understating the fluidity of these groups’ ethnic boundaries.

Diamond is convinced that violent revenge is the besetting plague of hunter-gatherer societies and, by extension, of our pre-state ancestors. Having chosen some rather bellicose societies (the Dani, the Yanomamo) as illustrations, and larded his account with anecdotal evidence from informants, he reaches the same conclusion as Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: we know, on the basis of certain contemporary hunter-gatherers, that our ancestors were violent and homicidal and that they have only recently (very recently in Pinker’s account) been pacified and civilised by the state. Life without the state is nasty, brutish and short. Though Hobbes is not directly invoked, his gloomy view of savage life without a sovereign infuses Diamond’s narrative. ‘First and foremost, a fundamental problem of virtually all small-scale societies is that, because they lack a central political authority exerting a monopoly of retaliatory force, they are unable to prevent recalcitrant members from injuring other members, and also unable to prevent aggrieved members from taking matters into their own hands and seeking to achieve their goals by violence. But violence invites counter-violence.’

In a passage that recapitulates the fable of the social contract, Diamond implies that it was explicitly to end this violence that subjects agreed to found a sovereign power that would guarantee peace and order by restraining their habits of violence and revenge.

Maintenance of peace within a society is one of the most important services that a state can provide. That service goes a long way towards explaining the apparent paradox that, since the rise of the first state governments in the Fertile Crescent about 5400 years ago, people have more or less willingly (not just under duress) surrendered some of their individual freedoms, accepted the authority of state governments, paid taxes and supported a comfortable individual lifestyle for the state’s leaders and officials.

Two fatal objections come immediately to mind. First, it does not follow that the state, by curtailing ‘private’ violence, reduces the total amount of violence. As Norbert Elias pointed out more than half a century ago in The Civilising Process, what the state does is to centralise and monopolise violence in its own hands, a fact that Diamond, coming as he does from a nation that has initiated several wars in recent decades and a state (California) that has a prison population of roughly 120,000 – most of them non-violent offenders – should appreciate.

Second, Hobbes’s fable at least has nominally equal contractants agreeing to establish a sovereign for their mutual safety. That is hard to reconcile with the fact that all ancient states without exception were slave states. The proportion of slaves seldom dropped below 30 per cent of the population in early states, reaching 50 per cent in early South-East Asia (and in Athens and Sparta as much as 70 and 86 per cent). War captives, conquered peoples, slaves purchased from slave raiders and traders, debt bondsmen, criminals and captive artisans – all these people were held under duress, as the frequency of state collapse, revolt and flight attests. As either a theory or a historical account of state-formation, Diamond’s story makes no sense.

The straw man in his argument is that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are oases of peace, co-operation and order. Of course they are not. The question, rather, is how violent they are compared to state-societies and what are the causes of the violence that does exist. There is, contra Diamond, a strong case that might be made for the relative non-violence and physical well-being of contemporary hunters and gatherers when compared with the early agrarian states. Non-state peoples have many techniques for avoiding bloodshed and revenge killings: the payment of compensation or Weregild, arranged truces (‘burying the hatchet’), marriage alliances, flight to the open frontier, outcasting or handing over a culprit who started the trouble. Diamond does not seem to appreciate the strong social forces mobilised by kinsmen to restrain anyone contemplating a hasty and violent act that will expose all of them to danger. These practices are examined by many of the ethnographers who have carried out intensive fieldwork in the New Guinea Highlands (for example by Edward L. Schieffelin in The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers, Marilyn Strathern in Women in Between, and Andrew Strathern and Pamela Stewart’s work on compensation), but they make no dent in Diamond’s one-dimensional view of the desire for revenge.

On the other side of the ledger, when it comes to violence in early agrarian states, one must weigh rebellion, war and systematic violence against slaves and women (as a rule of thumb, agrarian states everywhere created patriarchal property regimes which reduced the status and freedom of women) against ‘tribal conflicts’. We also know, and Diamond notes, that hunter-gatherers even today have healthier diets and far fewer communicable diseases. Believing, against the evidence, that hunters and gatherers live in daily fear of starvation, he fails to note that they also work far less hard and thus have far more leisure. Marshall Sahlins called hunter-gatherers, even when relegated to the most undesirable environments, ‘the original affluent society’. It’s hard to imagine Diamond’s primitives giving up their physical freedom, their varied diet, their egalitarian social structure, their relative freedom from famine, large-scale state wars, taxes and systematic subordination in exchange for what Diamond imagines to be ‘the king’s peace’. Reading his account one can get the impression that the choice facing hunters and gatherers was one between their world and, say, the modern Danish welfare state. In practice, their option was to trade what they had for subjecthood in the early agrarian state.

No matter how one defines violence and warfare in existing hunter-gatherer societies, the greater part of it by far can be shown to be an effect of the perils and opportunities represented by a world of states. A great deal of the warfare among the Yanomamo was, in this sense, initiated to monopolise key commodities on the trade routes to commercial outlets (see, for example, R. Brian Ferguson’s Yanomami Warfare: A Political History, a strong antidote to the pseudo-scientific account of Napoleon Chagnon on which Diamond relies heavily). Much of the conflict among Celtic and Germanic peoples on the fringes of Imperial Rome was essentially commercial war as groups jockeyed for access to Roman markets. The unprecedented riches conjured by the ivory trade in the late 19th century set off hundreds of wars among Africans for whom tusks were the currency that purchased muskets, power and trade goods. Borneo/Kalimantan was originally settled more than a millennium ago, it is now believed, by Austronesians who regarded it as an ideal foraging ground for the Chinese luxury market in feathers, camphor wood, tortoiseshell, bezoar stones, hornbill and rhinoceros ivory, and edible birds’ nests. They were there for trade, and that meant conflict over the most profitable sites for foraging and exchange. It would be impossible to understand intertribal warfare in colonial North America without considering the competition for fur trade profits that allowed the winners to buy firearms and allies, and to dominate their rivals.

In the world of states, hunter-gatherers and nomads, one commodity alone dominated all others: people, aka slaves. What agrarian states needed above all else was manpower to cultivate their fields, build their monuments, man their armies and bear and raise their children. With few exceptions, the epidemiological conditions in cities until very recently were so devastating that they could grow only by adding new populations from their hinterlands. They did this in two ways. They took captives in wars: most South-East Asian early state chronicles gauge the success of a war by the number of captives marched back to the capital and resettled there. The Athenians and Spartans might kill the men of a defeated city and burn its crops, but they virtually always brought back the women and children as slaves. And they bought slaves: a slave merchant caravan trailed every Roman war scooping up the slaves it inevitably produced.

The fact is that slaving was at the very centre of state-making. It is impossible to exaggerate the massive effects of this human commodity on stateless societies. Wars between states became a kind of booty capitalism, where the major prize was human traffic. The slave trade then completely transformed the non-state ‘tribal zone’. Some groups specialised in slave-raiding, mounting expeditions against weaker and more isolated groups and then selling them to intermediaries or directly at slave markets. The oldest members of highland groups in Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Burma can recall their parents’ and grandparents’ memories of slave raids. The fortified, hilltop villages, with thorny, twisting and hidden approaches that early colonists found in parts of South-East Asia and Africa were largely a response to the slave trade.

There is plenty of violence in the world of hunter-gatherers, though it is hardly illuminated by resorting to statistical comparisons between the mortality rates of a tiny tribal war in Kalimantan and the Battle of the Somme or the Holocaust. This violence, however, is almost entirely a state-effect. It simply cannot be understood historically from 4000 BC forward apart from the appetite of states for trade goods, slaves and precious ores, any more than the contemporary threat to remote indigenous groups can be understood apart from the appetite of capitalism and the modern state for rare minerals, hydroelectric sites, plantation crops and timber on the lands of these peoples. Papua New Guinea is today the scene of a particularly violent race for minerals, aided by states and their militias and, as Stuart Kirsch’s Mining Capitalism shows, its indigenous politics can be understood only in this context. Contemporary hunter-gatherer life can tell us a great deal about the world of states and empires but it can tell us nothing at all about our prehistory. We have virtually no credible evidence about the world until yesterday and, until we do, the only defensible intellectual position is to shut up.

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Vol. 36 No. 1 · 9 January 2014

James C. Scott refers to ‘rhinoceros ivory’ as one of the commodities traded historically in response to the needs of the Chinese luxury market (LRB, 21 November 2013). Rhinoceros horns, however, are not made of ivory. While elephant tusks are attached to the animal’s skull and are made of bone, rhinoceros horns are excrescences of keratin – the same protein found in human hair and fingernails – and are not part of the skull. Unfortunately for the rhinoceros, this material is highly prized in Asian markets.

Shirley Brooks
Cape Town

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