#27. A Summary of ‘The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?’ by Jared Diamond

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

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond (Viking; December 31, 2012)

Table of Contents:

i. Introduction/Synopsis


1. Studying Traditional Societies

2. Hunter-Gatherer Bands

3. Tribes and Chiefdoms


Section 1: Conflict and Cooperation in Traditional Societies

4. Conflict in Traditional Societies (Beginning with Hunter-Gatherers)

  • a. Inter-Group Conflict and Violence
  • b. Intra-Group Conflict and Violence

5. Cooperation in Traditional Societies

Section 2: Conflict Resolution

6. Conflict Resolution in Traditional Societies

7. Conflict Resolution in Modern Societies: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?


8. Parenting and Childhood

  • a. Infancy
  • b. Allo-Parenting and Multi-Age, Multi-Sex Playgroups
  • c. Sharing, Autonomy and Responsibility

9. Old Age

  • a. Old Age in Traditional Societies
  • b. Old Age in Modern Societies: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?


10. Health and Mental Fitness (via Multilingualism)

  • a. Health
  • b. Mental Fitness (via Multilingualism)


11. The Origin of States

12. Religion

13. Conclusion

i. Introduction/Synopsis

The onset of agriculture and farming some 11,000 years ago (termed the Neolithic Revolution), is arguably the most significant turning point in the history of our species. Agriculture induced a major population explosion, which then led to urbanization; labor specialization; social stratification; and formalized governance—thus ultimately bringing us to civilization as we know it today. Prior to the Neolithic Revolution—and extending back time out of mind—human beings lived in a far different way. Specifically, our ancestors lived in small, largely egalitarian tribes of no more than 50 to 100 individuals, and hunted and foraged for their food.

The transition from our traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle, to early farming (and herding), to civilization as we know it now (which, on an evolutionary time-scale, occurred but yesterday) has certainly brought with it some very impressive benefits. Indeed, many of us today enjoy comforts and opportunities the likes of which our more traditional ancestors would never have dreamed of. However, it cannot be said that the transition from traditional to modern has left us without any difficulties. Indeed, some would go so far as to say that the problems that civilization has introduced outweigh the benefits that it has brought; and even the most unromantic among us are likely to agree that our experiment in civilization has not been an unmitigated success.

This then brings us to the problem of solving the difficulties that civilization has left us with. Now, when it comes to solving our problems, it is without a doubt the spirit of our age to look ever forward for solutions—by which I mean we tend to look for new technologies and hitherto untested arrangements to help us out of our current predicaments. However, when we consider that our traditional lifestyle served us well for millennia on end, and that it was under this lifestyle wherein we underwent much of the biological and psychological evolution that lives with us to this day, we can begin to see how it may be fruitful to look back at this traditional lifestyle for possible solutions to the problems we now face. (This idea is not new; indeed, the ‘state of nature’ has traditionally been of great interest to philosophers—for it has been thought that understanding how we lived by nature may serve as a guide to help us design the most fitting political communities given our present circumstances).

Also of interest here—and deeply connected to the more practical goal mentioned above—is that investigating our traditional way of life promises to shed light on our underlying human nature in a way that is not possible when we look at ourselves through the obscuring artifice of civilization. It is these things that we stand to gain by learning about traditional societies, and it is this very project that geographer Jared Diamond takes up in his new book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

Diamond is certainly not one to deny that civilization has brought with it many important benefits over our traditional way of life (the most important of which, according to the author, being that state governments are much more effective at ending the cycles of violence that tend to plague traditional societies). However, Diamond does contend that there are many areas wherein traditional practices represent an improvement over how we do things in the modern world, and that these practices could (and should) be incorporated into our modern way of life (both at the personal and societal level). Specifically, we could afford to learn a thing or two from traditional societies when it comes to conflict resolution (how to re-establish and mend relationships); raising children (that it really does take a whole village to raise a child); treating the elderly (that they are deserving of respect, and are still capable of contributing to the community in many important ways); approaching risk (with extensive caution); communicating (in a face to face way, and with multiple languages); and in diet and exercise (favoring natural foods, reducing salt, and sugar intake, and adopting a more active lifestyle).

In the course of his exploration of traditional societies, Diamond also delves into why and how our ancestors transitioned from traditional societies to civilizations (with a focus on such areas as social, economic and political stratification, and also religion).

Here is Jared Diamond introducing his new book:

What follows is a full executive summary of The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond.


1. Studying Traditional Societies

Ever since civilization first reared its head, states have continued to expand and encroach on lands originally occupied by hunter-gatherers and other traditional societies (meaning small farming and herding communities). This is the inevitable result of the fact that states are far larger and more powerful than traditional societies, together with the inevitable struggle over limited land resources (loc. 477).

Nevertheless, a handful of traditional societies do yet exist, and we can therefore learn about them by way of studying them directly (loc. 635). Still, it is naive to think that their current way of life is a fully accurate representation of how such societies operated prior to the emergence of states (loc. 638). The fact is that all extant traditional societies have been exposed to extensive contact with state societies, and are influenced in many ways by their laws and policies, people, and products (loc. 638). Nevertheless, it is clear that traditional societies continue to live in a way that is far different from those of us who live in states, and certainly highly reflective of our traditional way of life.

What’s more, there are other means we can resort to to gain an even more accurate picture of how traditional societies operated in their natural state. To begin with, we may refer to the accounts of those who made first contact with traditional societies (granted, many of these accounts came from people who were far from scientific in their approach, but regardless, their observations do provide us with an important bit of evidence here) (loc. 641). And over and above this, we can glean much about our traditional way of life from archaeological digs and finds (loc. 644).

So, what do these sources tell us about traditional societies? Let us find out.

2. Hunter-Gatherer Bands

Today there are but a smattering of hunger-gatherer societies that remain, and these are primarily in lands that have been found to be relatively unproductive and/or unfit for agriculture (loc. 409). They include “the !Kung of Africa’s Kalahari Desert, the Ache and Siriono Indians of South America, [and] the Andaman Islanders of the Bay of Bengal” (loc. 409).

*For prospective buyers: To get a good indication of how this (and other) articles look before purchasing, I’ve made several of my past articles available for free. Each of my articles follows the same form and is similar in length (15-20 pages). The free articles are available here: Free Articles

3 thoughts on “#27. A Summary of ‘The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?’ by Jared Diamond

  1. Having not read the book, I was interested in knowing a little more about what it says about eating fat and specifically saturated fat. The fats that traditional societies use are predominantly saturated fats (whether from animals or from plants such as coconuts), so it seems strange that Diamond would suggest that we should avoid them.

    • Hi Allan. It’s not so much that Diamond is advising we avoid fat entirely. He’s just saying that we tend to consume far more of it than we should. You’re right that some saturated fat was a natural part of our diet as hunter-gatherers (and Diamond acknowledges this), but we ate far less of it then than we do now. All things in their proper proportions!


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