What Traditional Societies Can Teach You About Life

A new book from best-selling author Jared Diamond tells us how we can learn a lot from people who live like most of us did 11,000 years ago

(© Keren Su/CORBIS)

For most humans living today, it's hard to imagine life without written language, governments and large-scale agriculture. But on the scale of human history, all of these are recent inventions. Until just 11,000 years ago, we lived in small groups, hunting, gathering and practicing simple farming. Tribal warfare was common, life spans were short and strangers were rarely encountered. While that lifestyle might seem to belong to the distant past, it is also the life that our bodies and our brains are adapted to, and it’s a life that some people around the world still live.

In his latest book, Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, argues that we also have a lot to learn from people who have continued to live as humans did for most of our history. The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (which comes out on Monday, December 31) takes readers around the world, from the New Guinea Highlands and the Amazon rainforest, to Africa’s Kalahari Desert and the Arctic Circle, where people still living the lives of our ancestors have lessons to teach us about how we might better live today.

What do you mean by “traditional societies?”

Traditional societies are small, a few dozen up to a few hundred people. They don’t have strong political leaders. Their membership is based particularly on relationships. They don’t deal with strangers; everybody knows everybody else. And they subsist either by hunting and gathering or by simple farming and herding, and today there still are traditional societies.

There are small societies in New Guinea and in the Amazon and in rural parts of modern nations like the United States. They contrast with what you could call “complex societies”—populous societies with thousands, millions or billions of people, with centralized state governments, where we encounter strangers every day. For example, here you and I are strangers, we’ve never encountered each other before, and we’re now talking. I’m not sending people out to kill you; you’re not sending people out to kill me. But, in a traditional society, encountering a stranger is frightening and dangerous.

Why is it important for us to learn about traditional societies?

We get ideas about how to bring up our children. We get ideas about how to have a better old age. We get ideas about how not to die of cancer, heart attacks and stroke. There’s a lot that’s admirable, and that we may envy when we hear about it. Certainly, when I was bringing up my own children, I did things based on what I learned in New Guinea that are not normal for Americans and Europeans.

What sort of childrearing practices did you adopt?

When out walking with the kids, we didn’t lead the kids. I would let my kids walk ahead. They would figure out what interested them and where they wanted to go, and I would stay 20 feet behind them so that I could run up quickly if they got into trouble.

What are some other things that we might want to consider adopting in our own lives?

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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