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The World Until Yesterday

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The World Until Yesterday

What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?


15 min read
10 take-aways
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Limit your exposure to modern maladies by adopting the wise habits of primitive people in traditional societies.

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  • Innovative


Members of bands and tribes in traditional societies make few contributions to such scientific fields as astronomy, chemistry and physics. Their knowledge of the modern world is limited. Yet the modern world also has a limited understanding of traditional societies, for example, the !Kung tribe in Africa or the Xingu Indians of Brazil. Modern states have more sophisticated technology than any band or tribe, but this superiority does not extend to the rituals of everyday living. Traditional societies have effective, time-tested methods for raising children, resolving disputes, caring for the elderly and limiting exposure to diabetes, heart attacks and other noncommunicable diseases. Not all aspects of traditional societies are exportable to modern ones, including certain hunter-gatherers’ practice of infanticide and euthanasia. Historian Jared Diamond brilliantly details multiple realms of modern life that could learn from bands’ and tribes’ traditional approach. getAbstract recommends his comprehensive review of traditional and modern societies to academics, as well as amateur anthropologists and everyone seeking a deeper understanding of what modern people can learn from ancient ways.


How Traditional Societies Can Enlighten Modern Ones

Modernity has its advantages, like medical care, comfortable lifestyles and security. Contemporary states put judges and police officers between parties who are in conflict to keep their disputes from deteriorating into violent acts of vengeance. Traditional tribes and bands are less successful in keeping likely combatants apart. Warring tribes conduct ongoing violent reprisals against each other to avenge prior killings. Endless attacks and raids that pit rival tribes against each other, though common in traditional societies, are alien to modern societies.

However, traditional societies in New Guinea and other lightly developed places provide practical insights into multiple realms of daily life, including resolving disputes, raising children and maintaining good health. Traditional societies are composed of tribes with hundreds of members, such as the Dani tribe of New Guinea, or bands – the least complex type of society – featuring several dozen members who are part of extended families. Today, hunter-gatherer bands include Pygmies in Africa’s equatorial forests, the !Kung in the Kalahari Desert, and South America...

About the Author

Jared Diamond, a geography professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, also wrote Collapse. His book Guns, Germs and Steel won the Pulitzer Prize.

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