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       The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?, p.1
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The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?







  Guns, Germs, and Steel

  Why Is Sex Fun?

  The Third Chimpanzee










  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

  Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada

  (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

  Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

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  (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)

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  (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)

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  Beijing 100020, China

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published in 2012 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

  Copyright © Jared Diamond, 2012

  All rights reserved

  Photograph credits appear on page 499.


  Diamond, Jared M.

  The world until yesterday : what can we learn from traditional societies? / Jared Diamond.

  p. cm.

  Includes bibliographical references and index.

  ISBN: 978-1-101-60600-1

  1. Dani (New Guinean people)—History. 2. Dani (New Guinean people)—Social life and customs. 3. Dani (New Guinean people)—Cultural assimilation. 4. Social evolution—Papua New Guinea. 5. Social change—Papua New Guinea. 6. Papua New Guinea—Social life and customs. I. Title.

  DU744.35.D32D53 2013



  Designed by Nancy Resnick

  Maps by Matt Zebrowski

  No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.



  Meg Taylor,

  in appreciation for decades

  of your friendship,

  and of sharing your insights into our two worlds


  Also by Jared Diamond

  Title Page



  List of Tables and Figures

  PROLOGUE: At the Airport

  An airport scene

  Why study traditional societies?


  Types of traditional societies

  Approaches, causes, and sources

  A small book about a big subject

  Plan of the book


  CHAPTER 1. Friends, Enemies, Strangers, and Traders

  A boundary

  Mutually exclusive territories

  Non-exclusive land use

  Friends, enemies, and strangers

  First contacts

  Trade and traders

  Market economies

  Traditional forms of trade

  Traditional trade items

  Who trades what?

  Tiny nations


  CHAPTER 2. Compensation for the Death of a Child

  An accident

  A ceremony

  What if…?

  What the state did

  New Guinea compensation

  Life-long relationships

  Other non-state societies

  State authority

  State civil justice

  Defects in state civil justice

  State criminal justice

  Restorative justice

  Advantages and their price

  CHAPTER 3. A Short Chapter, About a Tiny War

  The Dani War

  The war’s time-line

  The war’s death toll

  CHAPTER 4. A Longer Chapter, About Many Wars

  Definitions of war

  Sources of information

  Forms of traditional warfare

  Mortality rates

  Similarities and differences

  Ending warfare

  Effects of European contact

  Warlike animals, peaceful peoples

  Motives for traditional war

  Ultimate reasons

  Whom do people fight?

  Forgetting Pearl Harbor


  CHAPTER 5. Bringing Up Children

  Comparisons of child-rearing



  Weaning and birth interval

  On-demand nursing

  Infant-adult contact

  Fathers and allo-parents

  Responses to crying infants

  Physical punishment

  Child autonomy

  Multi-age playgroups

  Child play and education

  Their kids and our kids

  CHAPTER 6. The Treatment of Old People: Cherish, Abandon, or Kill?

  The elderly

  Expectations about eldercare

  Why abandon or kill?

  Usefulness of old people

  Society’s values

  Society’s rules

  Better or worse today?

  What to do with older people?


  CHAPTER 7. Constructive Paranoia

  Attitudes towards danger

  A night visit

  A boat accident

  Just a stick in the ground

  Taking risks

  Risks and talkativeness

  CHAPTER 8. Lions and Other Dangers

  Dangers of traditional life



  Human violence


  Responses to diseases


  Unpredictable food shortages

  Scatter your land

  Seasonality and food storage

  Diet broadening

  Aggregation and dispersal

  Responses to danger


  CHAPTER 9. What Electric Eels Tell Us About the Evolution of Religion

  Questions about religion

  Definitions of religion

  Functions and electric eels

  The search for causal explanations

  Supernatural beliefs

  Religion’s function of explanation

  Defusing anxiety

  Providing comfort

  Organization and obedience

odes of behavior towards strangers

  Justifying war

  Badges of commitment

  Measures of religious success

  Changes in religion’s functions

  CHAPTER 10. Speaking in Many Tongues


  The world’s language total

  How languages evolve

  Geography of language diversity

  Traditional multilingualism

  Benefits of bilingualism

  Alzheimer’s disease

  Vanishing languages

  How languages disappear

  Are minority languages harmful?

  Why preserve languages?

  How can we protect languages?

  CHAPTER 11. Salt, Sugar, Fat, and Sloth

  Non-communicable diseases

  Our salt intake

  Salt and blood pressure

  Causes of hypertension

  Dietary sources of salt


  Types of diabetes

  Genes, environment, and diabetes

  Pima Indians and Nauru Islanders

  Diabetes in India

  Benefits of genes for diabetes

  Why is diabetes low in Europeans?

  The future of non-communicable diseases

  EPILOGUE: At Another Airport

  From the jungle to the 405

  Advantages of the modern world

  Advantages of the traditional world

  What can we learn?


  Further Readings


  Illustration Credits

  Photo Insert

  List of Tables and Figures

  Figure 1 Locations of 39 societies that will be discussed frequently in this book

  Table 1.1 Objects traded by some traditional societies

  Table 3.1 Membership of two warring Dani alliances

  Table 8.1 Causes of accidental death and injury

  Table 8.2 Traditional food storage around the world

  Table 9.1 Some proposed definitions of religion

  Table 9.2 Examples of supernatural beliefs confined to particular religions

  Figure 9.1 Religion’s functions changing through time

  Table 11.1 Prevalences of Type-2 diabetes around the world

  Table 11.2 Examples of gluttony when food is abundantly available


  At the Airport

  An airport scene Why study traditional societies? States Types of traditional societies Approaches, causes, and sources A small book about a big subject Plan of the book

  An airport scene

  April 30, 2006, 7:00 A.M. I’m in an airport’s check-in hall, gripping my baggage cart while being jostled by a crowd of other people also checking in for that morning’s first flights. The scene is familiar: hundreds of travelers carrying suitcases, boxes, backpacks, and babies, forming parallel lines approaching a long counter, behind which stand uniformed airline employees at their computers. Other uniformed people are scattered among the crowd: pilots and stewardesses, baggage screeners, and two policemen swamped by the crowd and standing with nothing to do except to be visible. The screeners are X-raying luggage, airline employees tag the bags, and baggage handlers put the bags onto a conveyor belt carrying them off, hopefully to end up in the appropriate airplanes. Along the wall opposite the check-in counter are shops selling newspapers and fast food. Still other objects around me are the usual wall clocks, telephones, ATMs, escalators to the upper level, and of course airplanes on the runway visible through the terminal windows.

  The airline clerks are moving their fingers over computer keyboards and looking at screens, punctuated by printing credit-card receipts at credit-card terminals. The crowd exhibits the usual mixture of good humor, patience, exasperation, respectful waiting on line, and greeting friends. When I reach the head of my line, I show a piece of paper (my flight itinerary) to someone I’ve never seen before and will probably never see again (a check-in clerk). She in turn hands me a piece of paper giving me permission to fly hundreds of miles to a place that I’ve never visited before, and whose inhabitants don’t know me but will nevertheless tolerate my arrival.

  To travelers from the U.S., Europe, or Asia, the first feature that would strike them as distinctive about this otherwise familiar scene is that all the people in the hall except myself and a few other tourists are New Guineans. Other differences that would be noted by overseas travelers are that the national flag over the counter is the black, red, and gold flag of the nation of Papua New Guinea, displaying a bird of paradise and the constellation of the Southern Cross; the counter airline signs don’t say American Airlines or British Airways but Air Niugini; and the names of the flight destinations on the screens have an exotic ring: Wapenamanda, Goroka, Kikori, Kundiawa, and Wewak.

  The airport at which I was checking in that morning was that of Port Moresby, capital of Papua New Guinea. To anyone with a sense of New Guinea’s history—including me, who first came to Papua New Guinea in 1964 when it was still administered by Australia—the scene was at once familiar, astonishing, and moving. I found myself mentally comparing the scene with the photographs taken by the first Australians to enter and “discover” New Guinea’s Highlands in 1931, teeming with a million New Guinea villagers still then using stone tools. In those photographs the Highlanders, who had been living for millennia in relative isolation with limited knowledge of an outside world, stare in horror at their first sight of Europeans (Plates 30, 31). I looked at the faces of those New Guinea passengers, counter clerks, and pilots at Port Moresby airport in 2006, and I saw in them the faces of the New Guineans photographed in 1931. The people standing around me in the airport were of course not the same individuals of the 1931 photographs, but their faces were similar, and some of them may have been their children and grandchildren.

  The most obvious difference between that 2006 check-in scene etched in my memory, and the 1931 photographs of “first contact,” is that New Guinea Highlanders in 1931 were scantily clothed in grass skirts, net bags over their shoulders, and headdresses of bird feathers, but in 2006 they wore the standard international garb of shirts, trousers, skirts, shorts, and baseball caps. Within a generation or two, and within the individual lives of many people in that airport hall, New Guinea Highlanders learned to write, use computers, and fly airplanes. Some of the people in the hall might actually have been the first people in their tribe to have learned reading and writing. That generation gap was symbolized for me by the image of two New Guinea men in the airport crowd, the younger leading the older: the younger in a pilot’s uniform, explaining to me that he was taking the older one, his grandfather, for the old man’s first flight in an airplane; and the gray-haired grandfather looking almost as bewildered and overwhelmed as the people in the 1931 photos.

  But an observer familiar with New Guinea history would have recognized bigger differences between the 1931 and 2006 scenes, beyond the fact that people wore grass skirts in 1931 and Western garb in 2006. New Guinea Highland societies in 1931 lacked not just manufactured clothing but also all modern technologies, from clocks, phones, and credit cards to computers, escalators, and airplanes. More fundamentally, the New Guinea Highlands of 1931 lacked writing, metal, money, schools, and centralized government. If we hadn’t actually had recent history to tell us the result, we might have wondered: could a society without writing really master it within a single generation?

  An attentive observer familiar with New Guinea history would have noted still other features of the 2006 scene shared with other modern airport scenes but different from the 1931 Highland scenes captured in the photographs made by the first contact patrols. The 2006 scene contained a higher proportion of gray-haired old people, relatively fewer of whom survived in traditional Highland society. The airport crowd, while initially striking a Westerner without previous experience of New Guineans as “homogeneous”—all of them similar in their dark skins and coiled hair (Plates 1, 13, 26,
30, 31, 32)—was heterogeneous in other respects of their appearance: tall lowlanders from the south coast, with sparse beards and narrower faces; shorter, bearded, wide-faced Highlanders; and islanders and north coast lowlanders with somewhat Asian-like facial features. In 1931 it would have been utterly impossible to encounter Highlanders, south coast lowlanders, and north coast lowlanders together; any gathering of people in New Guinea would have been far more homogeneous than that 2006 airport crowd. A linguist listening to the crowd would have distinguished dozens of languages, falling into very different groups: tonal languages with words distinguished by pitch as in Chinese, Austronesian languages with relatively simple syllables and consonants, and non-tonal Papuan languages. In 1931 one could have encountered individual speakers of several different languages together, but never a gathering of speakers of dozens of languages. Two widespread languages, English and Tok Pisin (also known as Neo-Melanesian or Pidgin English), were the languages being used in 2006 at the check-in counter and also for many of the conversations among passengers, but in 1931 all conversations throughout the New Guinea Highlands were in local languages, each of them confined to a small area.

  Another subtle difference between the 1931 and 2006 scenes was that the 2006 crowd included some New Guineans with an unfortunately common American body type: overweight people with “beer bellies” hanging over their belts. The photos of 75 years ago show not even a single overweight New Guinean: everybody was lean and muscular (Plate 30). If I could have interviewed the physicians of those airport passengers, then (to judge from modern New Guinea public health statistics) I would have been told of a growing number of cases of diabetes linked to being overweight, plus cases of hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and cancers unknown a generation ago.

  Still another distinction of the 2006 crowd compared to the 1931 crowds was a feature that we take for granted in the modern world: most of the people crammed into that airport hall were strangers who had never seen each other before, but there was no fighting going on among them. That would have been unimaginable in 1931, when encounters with strangers were rare, dangerous, and likely to turn violent. Yes, there were those two policemen in the airport hall, supposedly to maintain order, but in fact the crowd maintained order by itself, merely because the passengers knew that none of those other strangers was about to attack them, and that they lived in a society with more policemen and soldiers on call in case a quarrel should get out of hand. In 1931 police and government authority didn’t exist. The passengers in the airport hall enjoyed the right to fly or travel by other means to Wapenamanda or elsewhere in Papua New Guinea without requiring permission. In the modern Western world we have come to take the freedom to travel for granted, but previously it was exceptional. In 1931 no New Guinean born in Goroka had ever visited Wapenamanda a mere 107 miles to the west; the idea of traveling from Goroka to Wapenamanda, without being killed as an unknown stranger within the first 10 miles from Goroka, would have been unthinkable. Yet I had just traveled 7,000 miles from Los Angeles to Port Moresby, a distance hundreds of times greater than the cumulative distance that any traditional New Guinea Highlander would have gone in the course of his or her lifetime from his or her birthplace.

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