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The World Until Yesterday

What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies

By Jared Diamond
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

The World Until Yesterday explores the lessons modern humans can learn from the primitive hunter-gatherer societies that roamed the earth before centralized governments emerged.

Key idea 1 of 8

Small, traditional societies like hunter-gatherer bands and tribes still exist all over the world.

You might think that modern civilization has occupied all corners of the globe, but there are still several traditional societies that live much like all of humanity did some eleven thousand years ago. Though these enclaves are no doubt influenced by the modern states in which they reside, examining them allows us to get a perspective on what life was like for our ancestors.

So what kind of traditional societies can we find across the globe today?

First, there are the hunter-gatherers such as the Siriono Indians of South America and the Andaman Islanders in the Bay of Bengal.

These societies typically split up into bands of less than a hundred individuals and are very egalitarian and democratic in nature. Everyone knows one another, so they can make decisions in face-to-face discussions and no formal leadership is required.

Second, there are tribes consisting of a few hundred individuals like the Iñupiat in Alaska. These tribes can actually practice agriculture or animal herding, but it’s less intensive and sophisticated in nature than that in actual states.

Finally, there are chiefdoms, like the Chumash Indians of North America. These chiefdoms are a marked step closer to modern states and can even comprise hundreds of thousands of individuals. They have a clear, centralized leadership which collects economic goods from members and redistributes them further to warriors, priests and craftsmen who serve the chief. There is also clear social stratification: the chief’s family is at the top of society, meaning they get the best housing, food and goods.

As you can see, there is an entire continuum of societies spanning from the hunter-gatherer bands to our moderns states. We will mostly focus on the hunter-gatherers because they are the most different from our own, and hence hold the most valuable lessons for us.

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