Jared Diamond changed the way we understand the modern world with his Pulitzer-prizewinning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. Now he looks to tribal communities to see how we all once lived. Alison George asks him what the West has got right, and which ways of the past hold insights for the present
Your book is about traditional societies. Do you hope to shed light on the way we used to live?
Yes. Tribal societies give us a glimpse of how we all lived until virtually yesterday, in evolutionary time. They also have much to teach us about how to deal with universal human problems.
You draw heavily on your 48 years of visiting New Guinea. Why did you first go there?
I was young and eager for exploration. I asked myself what is the wildest, most adventurous place in the world? New Guinea. So I went there, fell in love with it, and I’ve been going ever since.
What made you fall in love with the country?
It is one of only three places in the world with snow on the equator, and the only one where you can stand on coral reefs and look up at the white of glaciers – it has the whole range of habitats compressed into a few miles. And New Guineans themselves are from a thousand different tribes, with a thousand languages. They are wonderful, vivid, “in your face” people. They say what’s on their mind. I’ve learned a lot from them.
What has New Guinea taught you?
When I went there in 1964, naive, New Guineans were technologically primitive. They used stone tools, and I had no idea what they were going to be like mentally. It took me very little time to realise that mentally and emotionally they were similar to me. Then gradually I discovered that there are some important differences – in their attitudes towards danger and how they raise their children, for instance.
What distinguishes their way of child-rearing?
Outside observers are universally struck by the precocious social skills of children in tribal societies. In most traditional cultures, kids have the right to make their own decisions. Sometimes this horrifies us because a 2-year-old can decide to play next to a fire and burn itself. But the attitude is that children have got to learn from their own experience.
What are the roles of family and community in these traditional societies?
Children sleep with their parents so they have absolute security, and are nursed whenever they want. They live in multi-age playgroups, so, by the time they are teenagers, they have spent 10 years bringing up little siblings.
Are there any negative aspects?
There are many things that these societies do that are wonderful, and there are some things that they do that, to us, seem terrible – like occasionally killing their old people or infants, or persistently making war.
In what context would elderly people be killed?
In most traditional societies that live in permanent villages, old people have happier and more satisfying lives than those in Western society. They spend their lives with their relatives, children and lifelong friends. And in a society without writing, old people are valued for their insight and knowledge.
But in a nomadic society, the cool reality is if you have to move and you are already carrying your baby and your stuff, you can’t carry the old person. There’s no alternative.
What happens to old people in nomadic tribes?
There’s a sequence of choices that all end up with them being abandoned or killed. The gentlest thing to do is to abandon them, leaving food and water in case they regain strength and can catch up. In some societies, old people take it upon themselves to ask to be killed. In other societies, they are killed actively. Among the Aché people of Paraguay, for example, there are young men whose job it is to kill the older people.
Sometimes infants are killed as well?
Infanticide is widespread around the world, and again, one’s thought is “this is horrible”. But what are they supposed to do? If you live in a marginal society where it is difficult to get enough food, you can’t have freeloaders. If a physically damaged baby is born that will not become an independent self-feeding member of the society, the reality is that usually the society is not going to be able to deal with that baby. So it is the responsibility of the mother to decide whether the child is healthy and, if so, to name it and bring it back. It is the mother’s decision whether the child should live.
Would traditional societies consider most Westerners to be freeloaders?
You and I are freeloaders. We are not growing our own food. We are parasites on the 2 per cent of Americans and British who produce food. In our complex society, 2 per cent of the people can produce all the food; in places like New Guinea everyone has to be a food producer.
Why do you think it is so tempting to romanticise a traditional, tribal way of life?
There is a feeling among the general public – and some anthropologists – that traditional people are peaceful. But the reality is that the great majority are not. To have peace requires a central government.
Why can’t societies without strong leaders be peaceful?
In a band or tribe of people it’s fairly democratic – the number of people is so small that you reach decisions face to face. But if you get 100 people who agree a peace treaty with the neighbouring tribe, there will always be some hot-headed young men who still have a grievance, break the armistice and kill someone, which starts the whole cycle again.
Restraining these hotheads requires a centralised force. Tribal societies, without a strong leader, can’t enforce peace. The reason a state society spreads – and why the farmers tolerate “parasites” – is that a state society maintains peace, it settles disputes.
So nation states circumvent direct vengeance?
If you have a car crash, it’s not your problem to get satisfaction from the person who broke your leg. It is, instead, the state’s legal system that does that. That’s why people from traditional societies move into the state society, but you don’t see the flow the other way. Traditional societies recognise the benefits of state power.
What do New Guineans make of rich countries like the US?
New Guineans are certainly frank in telling me what they like and don’t like about our society. They love all the material goods: umbrellas, matches, glue. They love the fact that our children usually don’t die. But they are appalled at how we bring up our children – that kids aren’t running in and out of houses. When they get to know our society, they are appalled at our loneliness, at our sparseness of personal relationships. And they are disgusted that our old age is often so miserable.
Have you ever made a “first contact” with a previously unknown tribe?
I have never, thank God, dealt with un-contacted people. Being in the first contact situation is dangerous. Nobody knows how the other person will behave.
Jared Diamond is professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. His latest book is The World Until Yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies? (Allen Lane/Viking)