Tribal lessons

Last Updated: Sun, Jan 13, 2013 19:41 hrs

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.” Mr Sheldon went to help her, but the other Pirahã stopped him, saying that she didn’t want his help. 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. 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? Mr Diamond is a geographer at UCLA whose earlier books Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse became bestsellers, offering sweeping 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 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.

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, Mr Diamond writes, do not share these attitudes. Without central governments, they have trouble bringing wars to an end. 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, Mr 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. Mr 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.

“Loneliness is not a problem in traditional societies,” Mr 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.

Mr Diamond’s knowledge and insights are 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 Mr 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.

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 civilisations.

©2013 The New York Times News Service

What Can We Learn From
Traditional Societies?
Jared Diamond
Viking; 499 pages; $36

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