Tom Payne is riveted by a thought-provoking study of peoples from New Guinea to the Kalahari Desert, which asks what we can learn from such societies.

By Tom Payne

7:00AM GMT 08 Jan 2013

Parents: when your child cries in the night, should you pick him up and let him snuggle in your bed? Or, like a mother in a traditional society, would he be in your bed already, his skin touching yours for much of his first year at least? Like the Aka pygmies, should you start weaning him gradually after about three years? If he rolls towards a fire, should you pick him up, or let him get a bit singed, as some families in New Guinea do? If he dies in an accident, should you go to court, or hope that whoever seems responsible will help to pay for the wake?

At last, when you feel you are becoming too dependent on him, do you (a) rely on food taboos to make sure he can’t eat the best cuts of bandicoot; (b) wait for him to kill you; or (c) once you become a widow, insist that he strangle you, and shout at him witheringly until he complies?

Not all of these options sound pretty, let alone practical. But it’s Jared Diamond’s belief that some aspects of traditional cultures can be beneficial to modern ones. And even if they are unlikely to be useful, still, a closer study of the Nuer tribes of Sudan, the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert, or the Dani of New Guinea can perhaps explain some aspects of our own behaviour. And if that doesn’t work out either, then at least the inquiry is fascinating.

He’s completely right about the last point. What we can learn from traditional (which is also to say, earlier) societies is more a matter of cherry-picking. Even so, anyone kept awake by that crying baby would be informed as well as diverted by the chapter on child-rearing. Diamond confesses that he tried controlled crying as a father, but now admires the strong sense of independence he finds in the youth of New Guinea, where he has spent months at a stretch birdwatching.

That claim of independence, which he sometimes calls autonomy, could be a flaw in his argument. At times he suggests that we as individuals could thrive on ancient precepts (such as, watch less television and eat less salt). At others, for example, a thought-provoking discussion of restorative justice, the advantage comes to the wider society.

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But in the societies from which this wisdom comes, such steps are taken in the interests of a group of people, often for pragmatic reasons of survival: face-to-face atonement is vital in a world where people confront their wrongdoers daily. It can even lead to such apparent oddities as a family who, for historical reasons, ended up giving pigs to another family, even though the latter had killed a father from the former.

The anthropology throughout the book is scholarly and accessible; Diamond’s application of it is balanced and careful. Maybe it’s because of that care that he sometimes withholds an assessment of cause and effect.The chapter in which we read of New Guinea’s well-adjusted children follows one in which we learn that the wars on that island kill hugely greater percentages of the population than any of the 20th century’s mechanised conflicts. The question remains: what sort of social system could offer one without the other?

His discussion of traditional religions is similarly fascinating, particularly since he approaches the subject as an evolutionary biologist. But here, too, he praises tribal communities for not using religion to justify their wars.

That may be so, but something causes them. And in other societies – Rwanda, say, or South Africa – the healing process is something that can owe a lot to a shared faith that transcends racial division.

This is a chapter that uses Diamond’s impressive knowledge of traditional cultures to give us a broad sweep through all humanity.

I put this book down not completely convinced that I could incorporate many of its teachings into my life, nor thinking that New Guinea was all that attractive a place for a long holiday; but it did leave me riveted, thinking hard and, I dare say, a bit less begrudging of bed space if someone wakes up crying with a cold tonight.

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?
by Jared Diamond

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