The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

Hugh Black reviews Jared Diamond’s best-seller The World Until Yesterday, What Can We Learn  From Traditional Societies (2012). In this review Hugh focuses on Diamond’s comparison between modern and traditional societies in their relationship with children and elders. 


Hugh Black

WEIRDness is everywhere. You are WEIRD, I am WEIRD, and we live our WEIRD lives by the rules of WEIRD institutions and practices: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. This catchy acronym, originally coined to highlight bias in psychological studies, is used by Jared Diamond from the opening of his most recent book, The World Until Yesterday (2012), to define the societies that the majority of his readers will live in, as he does most of the time.

These WEIRD societies are contrasted and compared with the ‘traditional societies’ of the book’s title, each side studied through the frame of the other. Every society is of course unique, and the precise definition of a ‘traditional’ or a WEIRD society here is slippery. DICHOTOMY The major difference is one of population size, not simply in itself but in its effects on organisational complexity and anonymity. ‘Traditional societies’ may be split into ‘bands’ of one or several families, ‘tribes’ of several hundred individuals, and ‘chiefdoms’ of thousands. In each of these cases (less so respectively), every person in the society will know or have some traceable connection to every other, decisions may feasibly be taken by the society as a whole (either in council or by direct vote), and food may be obtained by hunting-gathering or small-scale shared production.

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WEIRD societies are one subset of the ‘state’, comprising at least tens, if not hundreds of thousands or millions of individuals, where there is very little chance of any one person knowing any other, decision-making necessitates leaders (elected or otherwise), executives and bureaucrats, and the food consumed is produced by reasonably large-scale agriculture or herding. The catalyst for development from one of these society types to the next is food availability. Hunter-gatherer societies can only support a small population, whereas farming societies have much more capacity for expansion; each society grows as large as its means of food acquisition allows. Indeed, it is possible for this development to be reversed – farming villages may revert to hunter-gatherer bands under drought or other severe conditions. While this may sound like a simple thesis of ‘us and them’, in Diamond’s hands the lines of familiarity and otherness are well balanced.

Diamond’s own experience of traditional societies centres on the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, which he has spent much time visiting and studying since the mid-sixties in a great variety of disciplines including ecology, evolutionary biology, environmental history and, of course, anthropology. His great knowledge of New Guinean cultures is evidenced throughout the book, with accounts of his many shocks and surprises at New Guinean thinking told in very readable anecdotes, as well as reports and opinion from his many native acquaintances.

[cml_media_alt id='2981']Jared Diamon libro(326x499)[/cml_media_alt]The World Until Yesterday has been met with the now-traditional mixture of praise and criticism that all of Diamond’s books enjoy. Those in the field (anthropology in this case, as economics and ecology previously) lament his propensity for anecdote and his cherry-picking (1) of research to fit his narrative in lieu of more rigorous scientific analysis. But this is to miss Professor Diamond’s real gift: that of the storyteller. It is the mixture of scientific research with personal knowledge, and analysis with opinion, that makes for such an interesting and insightful (2) read.

The themes covered in The World Until yesterday are by no means exhaustive, but display an interesting variety, including attitudes towards known and unknown people, wars and conflict resolution, danger, religion, language and health. Some of these other themes will be covered in future articles, but the parts I personally found most engaging, and those that I will focus on for the remainder of this piece, are those on societies’ treatment of and attitude towards their young and elderly.

The most eye-catching set of photographs in the book’s insets are those displaying the differences in childhood experience between traditional and WEIRD societies, and in particular those depicting objects associated with childhood. As we would expect, the number of toys accessible to even the poorest children in WEIRD societies far outweighs that of traditional children, but more important than this is the origin and function of these toys. WEIRD children (or their parents) will buy manufactured toys, and will choose them mainly by their capacity to entertain. A large part of the play process for traditional children is the making of their own toys: Diamond describes Kenyan boys making cars out of sticks and string, and Nuer children creating sand, ash and mud farms to herd their mud cattle into. It is not, of course, uncommon for WEIRD children to make some of their own toys and equipment, but this will be the odd addition to rather than the centrepiece of their toy collection. 

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[cml_media_alt id='3182']aborigen1(80x120)[/cml_media_alt][cml_media_alt id='2977']SinJared Diamond niño tribu 1(528x664)[/cml_media_alt]Both similarities and differences can also be seen in the function of toys and play. The example of the Nuer toy farms, as well as various examples of toy bows and arrows, flowers dragged around as pets, toy sailboats and miniature houses may sound like your own childhood toys, but very few WEIRD children who play with these objects go on to associate with all of them as adults. In traditional societies, however, there is often an almost seamless (3) progression from early toys to adult tools, such as in the case of Bolivia’s Siriono Indian boys: first bow and arrow at three months, shooting from the age of three at first non-living targets before graduating on to insects and birds, joining hunting trips from eight, and becoming a fully-fledged hunter at twelve; similarly, Siriono girls start to spin thread and make baskets and pots from the age of three. Diamond quotes Colin Turnbull’s study of the Mbuti Pygmies: ‘For children, life is one long frolic interspersed with healthy sprinkle of spankings and slappings… And one day they find that the games they have been playing are not games an longer, but the real thing, for the have become adults… It happens so gradually that they hardly notice the change at first, for even when they are proud and famous hunters their life is still full of fun and laughter.’

This example also helps to illustrates the dangers that some traditional societies will allow their children to face. It is nothing new for us WEIRDers to accuse ourselves of being overly protective of our children, or conversely to lambaste (4) other parents for not taking enough care of theirs. Though there is no single rule, it seems a fair generalisation to say that traditional, especially hunter-gatherer, societies are less concerned about parents’ responsibilities and grant their children much more autonomy, even in some cases treating them from birth as being on an equal footing with the adults. Extreme examples of this include the New Guinea Highlanders, many of whom bear the scars incurred from their right from infancy to play near and with fire, and the Hazda and Pirahã infants who can be seen swinging and sucking on sharp-bladed knives.

This seemingly Darwinian freedom can also be seen in some societies’ treatment of the elderly, though we should not count ourselves as exempt from this one. Diamond’s subtitle for this section outlines the broad choices that societies make towards those who can no longer hold their own physically: ‘Cherish, Abandon, or Kill?’. I would doubt that many in WEIRD societies would contemplate the third option, but where do we fall on the spectrum between the other two? Diamond tells of an outraged Fijian acquaintance who, having witnessed American retirement homes, exploded ‘You throw away your old people and your own parents!’. Elderly Fijians continue to live in their communities, often in their children’s houses where they are taken care of even to the point of having their food pre-chewed if their teeth are no longer up to the job. Some societies go further in giving their elderly free rein to terrorise their adult children, with full control over their property and actions.

The opposite imperative, to abandon or kill, occurs most often (though not universally) in nomadic societies or societies living in harsh and unpredictable environments. The impetus here is clear, if not easy for us to accept. Diamond lays out five increasingly grim methods of dispatch: neglect, in terms of food, danger or hygiene; abandonment, either at a vacated camp or accompanied to a suitable distance from which they will not return; suicide, either voluntary or under some compulsion; assisted suicide, or complicit killing, usually by strangulation, stabbing or burying alive; and violent non-consensual killing, either by the above methods or any others you care to imagine.

Thankfully, this is also the case in the majority of traditional societies, where the elderly do not simply become a burden but adapt themselves to provide different services to the community. These services fall into two categories: those that could also be performed by younger people and those that could not. Examples of the former include food collection and babysitting; while an older man will not have the strength to take on large game, he may specialise in small animals, traps, tracking and strategising, and the elderly of both sexes may be more able and willing to carry out time-consuming tasks such as foraging for nutrient-rich food or looking after young children, so that the parents are free to go on extending hunting or gathering trips.

[cml_media_alt id='2995']Yali_man_Baliem_Valley_Papua[/cml_media_alt]Although age gives no benefit in performing these services over youth, there are some skills that the elderly excel at. These include the making of things such as tools, baskets and textiles, but also the cultural knowledge that is necessary to provide and guide medicine, religion, entertainment, relationships and politics. In a non-literate society (5) there is no external repository of information equivalent to books, documentaries or Wikipedia, so this function is met by the memories of the elderly. Many of Diamond’s interviewees, on being asked a difficult question, would say “Let’s ask the old man/woman”. And this is not only knowledge of the abstract or ritual sort, but also essential geographical, botanical and other information that could quite literally be the difference between life and death.

Diamond tells of one experience on the Southwest Pacific island of Rennell, where for an environmental impact report he was asking middle-aged islanders for details of 126 plant species on the island. The locals split these plants into four classes: completely inedible, edible to animals but not to humans, edible to humans, and ‘eaten only after the hungi kengi‘. In exploring this fourth class, he was taken to see a very old woman, probably in her late 70s or early 80s, who explained that the hungi kengi was the biggest cyclone that Rennell had experienced in living memory, probably around 1910. With all normal sources of food unavailable, the population had faced starvation, and had resorted to eating anything that was in any way digestible. This required knowledge of which undesirable foods were poisonous, and whether any of these could be prepared so as to have their poison removed. At the time of the hungi kengi, there were islanders still alive who remembered the last major cyclone and were able to impart their knowledge of that crisis. When Diamond visited, this old woman was the only surviving witness of the hungi kengi, and she alone held the sum of knowledge necessary to cope with the next crisis.

These brief extracts demonstrate the two ways we can look at traditional practices. There are undoubtedly many things we can learn from traditional societies, such as the different attitudes to childhood mentioned above, but there is equally a great deal that we may be happy to have left behind. I am very happy to be free of any need to personally see off my grandmother, and have little fear that we will not have to hand the information necessary to weather the next crisis. The World Until Yesterday presents us with many ideas, beliefs, attitudes and customs from traditional societies each of which can be taken either positively or negatively, but always provides us with some food for thought.

Use of English for Spanish Speakers

(1) Cherry-picking

  • Definition: as a phrase to pick up facts randomly.
  • Example: “[…] cherry-picking of research to fit his narrative in lieu of more rigorous scientific analysis”. (“picando de las investigaciones para que encaje en su narrativa, en lugar de un análisis científico más riguroso“).
  • Translation: picando
  • Comment: Be aware of which context is used.

(2) Insightful

  • Definition: able to perceive clearly or deeply; penetrating
  • Example: “such an interesting and insightful read.”. (“ un libro tan interesante y revelador“).
  • Translation: revelador, profundo, penetrante.
  • Comment: use this word for books, film, exhibitions, when learning different perspectives and angles.

(3) Seamless

  • Definition: not having clear divisions into parts;smooth:
  • Example: “there is often an almost seamless progression from early toys to adult tools,.”. (“normalmente hay una progresión casi en una progresión sin divisiones desde los juguetes de la primera infancia a las herramientas de adultos“).
  • Translation: sin división.

(4) To lambaste

  • Definition: to scold or reprimand harshly; berate.
  • Example: “To lambaste other parents for not taking enough care of theirs.”. (“Recriminar a los otros padres el no cuidar a sus hijos“).
  • Translation: recriminar, reprochar.

(5) Non literate-societies

  • Definition: societies where most of the population do not know how to read or write a language.
  • Example: “In a non-literate society there is no external repository of information equivalent to books.”. (“En una sociedad analfabeta no hay un depósito externo de información equivalente a los libros“).
  • Translation: analfabeto/a.


Autor: Hugh Black

I was brought up in the Scottish Borders and Edinburgh. I am specialised in Classic Studies in Italy. I teach English at Alba School of English in Edinburgh where I work with people from different nationalities. I have a passion for interculturality. Linkedin.

Me crié en las Fronteras Escocesas y Edimburgo. Me especialicé en estudios clásicos en Italia. Enseño inglés en la academia Alba en Edimburgo donde trabajo con gente de diferentes nacionalidades. Tengo una gran pasión por la interculturalidad. Linkedin.

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