The World Until Yesterday | Jared Diamond

Summary of: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
By: Jared Diamond


Welcome to the eye-opening world of ‘The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?’ by Jared Diamond. This summary will take you on a journey to discover the various traditional societies that still exist today, such as hunter-gatherers, tribes, and chiefdoms. Gain insights into the lives, practices, and beliefs of these societies, which differ starkly from our modern world. By examining their ways of life, the book unveils valuable lessons in maintaining harmonious relationships, nurturing self-reliant children, respecting the elderly, and taking control of our health and well-being. Let’s delve into the teachings of our ancestors and uncover the profound knowledge they hold for us.

Traditional Societies Today

There still exist several traditional societies around the world today, offering us a look into the lives of our ancestors. These societies include hunter-gatherer bands, tribes with a few hundred individuals, and chiefdoms with centralized leadership and social stratification. Hunter-gatherer bands are egalitarian and democratic, while tribes can practice agriculture or animal herding on a less intensive level. Chiefdoms can encompass hundreds of thousands of people, with clear social hierarchy and economic redistribution. Among these societies, hunter-gatherer bands are the most unique and thus offer the most valuable lessons for us to learn. By examining these traditional societies, we can gain a new perspective on modern civilization and its impact on the way we live today.

Small Hunter-Gatherer Bands and Violence

Traditional societies had high rates of violence due to the absence of a judicial system, while modern states with strong central governments have lower levels of intra-group violence.

According to archaeological evidence, hunter-gatherer societies tended to exist in small bands of fewer than a hundred individuals. The reason for their small size was the limited availability of unoccupied land in which they could live. Their small bands not only restricted population growth but also caused conflict between traditional societies. War was a common feature of life in hunter-gatherer bands, and war-related mortality rates were higher in these kinds of societies than in modern states. Wars raged constantly because some individuals would ignore peace negotiations and start a new cycle of violence.

In contrast, modern states have strong central governments capable of guarding fragile peace by restraining the few aggressor individuals. Interestingly, societies involved in agriculture were even more prone to wars because of the larger stores of food produced by agriculture, which were something to fight over. Only a few societies have been able to abstain completely from war, including some Australian desert tribes. This is because of circumstances such as low population densities and harsh unproductive environments.

Though war may not exist in some societies, intra-group violence is still prevalent, and traditional societies have far higher homicide rates than modern state societies. This is mainly because of the absence of a judicial system that punishes those who resort to violence. In the absence of a judicial system, the victim or their family feels it is their duty to avenge the crime, making revenge killing very common. Having a state, therefore, curbs violence by enforcing peace and punishing criminals.

Reconciling Conflicts: Traditional vs. State Societies

In traditional societies, conflicts are resolved by re-establishing peaceful relationships, whereas in state societies, disputes are settled through criminal or civil justice. The judicial system should prioritize helping the two parties reconcile by training and funding more mediators in the civil setting and implementing restorative justice in the criminal realm. Experiments with restorative justice have yielded promising results, such as lower reoffending rates and increased closure for victims.

The Benefits of Traditional Parenting

In traditional societies, mothers are highly responsive to infants, and children receive care from allo parents as well. This social support helps children become more socially capable, and children are given adult-like roles at an early age. Traditional societies also encourage cooperation rather than competition in child-rearing practices. Contrary to modern beliefs, these practices produce confident and autonomous individuals.

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