What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies

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

By Jared Diamond

Penguin Books (2012)

Book Review

In this book, evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond examines dozens of traditional societies that have persisted into the modern era. Diamond subdivides these societies into “bands” consisting of a few dozen hunter gatherers; “tribes” consisted of a few hundred farmers, herders or farmer/hers; and “chiefdoms,” consisting of thousands of farmers/herders ruled by a single chief.

All humans lived in hunter gatherer “bands” until the agricultural revolution 11,000 years ago. At this point, “bands” slowly evolved into “tribes.” Aground 5,500 BC, larger food surpluses caused “tribes” to evolve into “chiefdoms.” Most “chiefdoms” were held together by shared religious beliefs enabling strangers to trust thousands of people they didn’t know personally. Until the advent of colonialism, “chiefdoms” were still widespread in the Americas, Polynesia and much of sub-Saharan Africa.

In many regions of the world, “chiefdoms” evolved into states around 5,000 years ago. States were characterized by still greater food surpluses, increased technological innovation, economic specialization, standing armies, and bureaucratic governance.

Diamond draws most of his examples of contemporary traditional societies from New Guinea, the main focus of his field work. However he also includes numerous examples of traditional societies studied by other anthropologists.

He strongly advocates for the role of the state in reducing the violence human beings inflict on one another. From the statistics he offers, there seems to be a big drop in homicide and intertribal violence (ie war) when traditional societies come under state control. Unfortunately this view directly contradicts recent studies published in the American Journal of Public Health. They refer to 190 million deaths directly and indirectly related to 20th century wars – more than the previous four centuries combined. (See AJPHA Publications)*

At the same time, Diamond has has identified many features of traditional societies that could potentially benefit modern industrialized society. Examples include many aspects of traditional childrearing (including demand feeding**, co-sleeping***, reduction or elimination of physical punishments, and an increased role for alloparenting****). Diamond also identifies clear cognitive benefits from the multilingualism that characterizes many traditional societies, as well as strong health and social benefits from restorative justice,***** the paleolithic diet (see Mayo Clinic Paleo Diet), and systematic efforts to incorporate elder wisdom into community life.


*Unfortunately Diamond’s research is strictly limited to patriarchal societies. They include no matriarchal societies in which women’s prominent leadership role helps to reduce social violence.  See Oxford bibliographiesl  For example the Nagovisi in modern day New Guinea (Modern Societies Where Women Literally Rule).

**With demand feeding, infants are fed when they experience hunger, rather than at parental convenience,

***Co-sleeping is a practice in which babies and young children sleep in the same bed or close to one or both parents, as opposed to in a separate room. In New Zealand, co-sleeping is common in Maori culture and the Ministry of Health issues pepi pods (which eliminates the risk of a parent rolling over on a small infant). See Government to Fund Pepi Pods for Every Family That Needs It

****Alloparenting is a term used to classify any form of parental care provided by an individual towards a non-descendant offspring.

*****Restorative justice is an approach to criminal offending involving mediation between the victim and the offender, sometimes with representatives of the wider community.

The Advent of Agriculture in Britain: The Archeological Evidence

The World of Stonehenge – Part 2 the Age of Ancestors

BBC (2018)

Film Review

The Age of Ancestors is about the advent of the agricultural revolution (aka the Neolithic Age) to Britain. The Neolithic began spreading across Europe around 5,000 BC and covered the continent by 4,500 BC. It took several hundreds years for neolithic technology to cross the English Channel to Britain and Ireland.

The best evidence of evidence of this transformation is preserved under peat bogs in western Ireland. It includes an elaborate network of stone walls from 3,500 BC. They were most likely used to separate cows from bulls and calves, suggesting that dairy herding was extensive. There are also pottery containers and hand millstones from the same period. Pollen evidence suggests our neolithic ancestors were growing wheat, oats and barley. There is also evidence, from skeletal remains, of violent conflict, presumably over land claims.

Other archeological evidence suggests that isolated pockets of forest needed to be cleared to create grain fields and pasture. However hunter gatherer groups persisted in remaining forest areas. Skeletal evidence indicates that hunter gatherers were much healthier on a diet of fish and red deer, than farming families relying on a diet of dairy products and grains.

Patriarchy: An Anthropological Study

 

The Underside of History: A View of Women Through Time

by Elise Boulding

Westview Press (1976)

Book Review

Published at the height of the women’s movement, this is a remarkable read. The first book of its kind, it employs extensive anthropological and historical evidence to trace the contribution of women to the rise of civilization. In most historical accounts, the role of women in development has been largely invisible

Beginning with the appearance of our hominid ancestors in Africa two million years ago, Boulding traces their migration to the Middle East, Europe, Asia and North and South America – highlighting the early civilizations that developed in each of these regions. She concludes with the current role of women in each of these geographical areas.

The part of the book I found most surprising describes the role women played in inventing tools from pebbles, bones and skulls to use in food preparation. They also invented ceramic pots and bags made of animal skins to store it and built huts to provide a protected space for child rearing.

During the hunter gather period, men and women played an equal role in production activities and decision making. After they learned to grow their own crops (following a decline in large game animals), women tended to be dominant because hunting was precarious and men relied on women for food. Women also had charge of the first domesticated animals (goats, sheep and pigs) and passed control of their land and livestock in a matrinlineal pattern.

Better access to food increase population density, which in turn necessitated an increase in food production. This led to the discovery of the plow and the domestication of cattle, which shifted basic control of food production to men. They, in turn, assigned women secondary tasks, such as weeding and collecting firewood and water.

The discovery of mining and metal working technology occurred around the same time, which would lead to the rise of trading economies and armies to protect settlers against raiding hunter gatherers. With the rise of cities and militarization, societies were “stratified” for the first time. “Stratification” and the rise of an idle ruling elite (kings and priests) would lead to the development of a social hierarchy that tended excluded women from public spaces and confined them to domestic labor at home.

According to Boulding, women still played a number of public leadership roles during antiquity and the Middle Ages – a privilege they lost during the Industrial Revolution.

 

The Origin of Poverty

Poor Us: An Animated of Poverty

Ben Lewis (2012)

Film Review

This documentary divides the history of poverty into six broad areas: pre-civilization, “early civilization” (8000 – 800 BC), Greece and Rome (800 BC – 400 AD), the Middle Ages (400 – 1500), European colonial era (1500 -1850) and industrial civilization (1850 – present). The use of animation is surprisingly effective in painting an overview of the lifestyles typical of these different periods.

Prior to the agricultural revolution that marked the advent of civilization, no one was poor. In a hunter-gatherer society, very little work is required to procure adequate food and water. Leisure time is plentiful. The downside of being a hunter gatherer is that life is very precarious and there’s was no way of planning for sudden climate change and other natural events that periodically wipe out the food supply.

During early civilization, everyone was poor except for rich kings and priests who ran everything. There were repeated famines and the average life expectancy was 35 years.

Greek civilization produced historians and philosophers who, for the first time, tried to identify the causes of poverty. They concluded that poverty was essential to civilization because it induces people to work.

The concept of charity first arose in the early Middle Ages and is a key component of all the world religions, which emerged during this period.

The film maintains that all modern poverty results from plunder and force, mainly at the hands of European colonizers. In the early 1500s, Europe was much poorer than contemporaneous civilizations in China, Africa and the Americans. In medieval China, for example, the government was responsible for flood control and vast granaries that fed the entire population during famines.

Europeans systematically plundered and destroyed the advanced pre-European civilizations in China, Africa and North and South America. Then the European elite used this wealth and power to drive their own peasants off their communally farmed lands. Those who didn’t end up in jail or the workhouse, ended up in squalid city slums and worked in early factories.

Prior to the industrial revolution, 90% of the world lived in extreme poverty. By 1948, this percentage had dropped to 50%. By the 1970s, it was down to 15%. At present most extreme poverty is in third world countries that have been systematically exploited by the industrial North for their resources and cheap labor.

The film features a number of economic analysts with differing perspectives on why industrialization caused the rate of extreme poverty to drop. Most agree it was a combination of fossil fuel-based technology and successful revolutionary and union activity which allowed workers to keep a bigger share of the wealth they produce.

Over the last few decades, the relative weakness of grassroots movements has led to significant increase in poverty within the supposedly wealthy industrialized countries.