The World until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

world untilThis fascinating book compares traditional societies with modern society.  The term “traditional” refers to the societies of some relatively small groups of people in remote areas of New Guinea, Africa, and the Amazon region, to name a few.  These were also the lifestyles of our ancestors in the past.  While Diamond is an acclaimed scholar, he presents information in an accessible way.

Since Diamond spends part of each year in New Guinea and has many friends in traditional societies there, he often focuses on those experiences.  However, he also discusses cultures from Australia, North and South America, Africa, and Asia.  Topics include war, child-rearing, treatment of the elderly, dealing with danger, religion, language, and health.  His book made me more fully appreciate the advantages of modern society – regular access to an adequate food supply, modern medicine, a longer lifespan, and less violence, to name a few.  Diamond also thinks that considering other cultures’ ways of dealing with problems might help us in solving some of our society’s difficulties.

There are many amazing facts in the book.  For instance, among a group of 20 New Guinea natives, each spoke from five to fifteen languages—and this did not include dialects.  The conversation around a campfire moved easily from one language to another.  This is typical of traditional societies, where people learn a variety of languages during early childhood.

War in traditional societies is extremely deadly.  In one war in New Guinea, warriors on one side killed 5% of the enemy’s population, including men, women, and children, within one hour.  If the atomic bomb had killed 5% of the population in the Hiroshima area, there would have been four million casualties rather than 100,000!

Since the !Kung people in Africa don’t have weapons powerful enough to kill animals immediately, they must track the wounded prey for hours.  Usually, they arrive to find lions feeding on the prey and run the lions off with sticks.  As dangerous as these confrontation are, they are necessary if the !Kung are to avoid starvation.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

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