Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

By Claire Panosian Dunavan

Jared Diamond provides personal insights into his decades of field work in the Pacific Islands of New Guinea in an extensive interview about his latest book, which examines tribal societies’ approaches to universal human issues including, peace and war, child-rearing, treatment of the elderly, language, religion and health.

DUNAVAN: “Was this your most personal book?”

DIAMOND: “Not just my most personal … but most practical book which people can use to modify their lives [in terms of] danger, bringing up children, getting older.”

DUNAVAN: “I want to hear about your first contact with a traditional society. What was it like?”

DIAMOND: “I grew up in Boston, my parents didn’t camp out, I had an unadventurous life. From a friend at Harvard I learned to camp out but neither of us had been to the tropics. After we both got our PhDs, and I returned to Boston, John and I immediately began asking ourselves: where can we go in the tropics? Our first trip was to Peru. Afterwards we said, ‘Peru was wonderful,’ now what’s the wildest, most adventurous place we can go? Of course it was New Guinea at the time. My dad had mentored and supervised Carleton Gadjusek who recognized kuru as an infectious disease. I had met Carleton and was fascinated by his stories ...”

“Before John and I went out there [in 1964], I was really naïve. I knew New Guineans were primitive people, meaning that they had primitive technology. I thought there would be something distinctive about their personality and cognition and so on—I fantasized for example, that New Guineans could read minds and that, in a few weeks, I could learn how to read minds. That just shows you how naïve I was.”

“My first night in New Guinea … a [local] physician in the kuru area was eager to get me and John out of his hands as quickly as possible. Instead of easing us in our first night by letting us stay in his house, he told us a bit and drove us to a native village and left us there! So my first night was spent sleeping in a hut in a village with New Guineans who did not speak English. I did not speak Fore, I did not yet speak Pidgin English (neo-Melanesian). I was tired from the long plane flights from the US, so I slept late the next morning. When I woke up there was the scene that I describe in the book about the little boys playing war. War had ended in this area in 1959. So they were not playing hopscotch, it was serious, it was very realistic. They were using small bows and arrows, they were darting back and forth, they were doing what the adults do in war. It was clear that this was training. This was my first morning in the New Guinea highlands.”

“The second night I went down to the village stream to brush my teeth and a New Guinean was there. I had already on that first day started asking the names for things in Fore and I saw a frog and I pointed and the person said “dakwo.” So I got the word “dakwo” for frog. On the second night I heard a frog croaking, [saw the man at the stream], and thought: ‘Aha! Human bond! I’ve learned a word of his language!’ ‘Dakwo!’ I cried. The man shook his head [vigorously] in response. ‘Ibisaraya!’ It was not a dakwo; it was a different frog, an ibisaraya. This was my first exposure to New Guinean knowledge of natural history.”

DUNAVAN: “Were you ever scared?”

DIAMOND: “No. I was with my friend John. People in this area had been pacified, hadn’t attacked Europeans in quite a while. But, in retrospect, it was more dangerous than I realized.”

DUNAVAN: “Examples?”

DIAMOND: “One time we were deserted by our carriers in the jungle with a half-ton of equipment. We had shotguns (we didn’t use them) … but it was difficult to get to another village and get carriers. There was a situation where I found that natives were stealing birds from our mist nets and then re-selling them to us. I suspected this and I finally got proof. I was angry. I was alone in camp surrounded by New Guineans. We could not operate if they were going to steal birds from our nets. In the presence of other New Guineans, I took a bow and arrow and broke them over my knee. I got away with it … but I would never do that now.”

DUNAVAN: “As a doctor’s son, you must have been aware of the heavy burden of disease.”

DIAMOND: “Whatever I learned from Dad … was wiped out by the fact I was 26, full of bravado, and ignorant. In fact, my hygiene standards were not as paranoid as now. Consequently, I collapsed with dysentery and fever two weeks after arrival. I got malaria on my third trip after sleeping under a bed net with a hole in it. Today I would not sleep under that tent without patching it. Claire, I did not really learn until a near-fatal boat accident. By that time, I had been visiting New Guinea for more than 15 years. I was a slow learner.”

DUNAVAN: “Do you feel a desire to help or any moral imperative when you meet traditional people and see vast disparities in their quality of life [as compared to ours]?”

DIAMOND: “No, because I would consider such a moral imperative on anyone’s part a bad idea. Because well-intentioned policies so often backfire, I would consider it a mistake not just on my part but on anyone’s part to try to change a society.”

“I don’t know what changes are going to work out well. I’ve just seen so many changes in New Guinea that have backfired. Here’s an example. What could be more obvious than providing education? The Australian colonial administration put a lot of effort into education. It’ not that one shouldn’t educate New Guineans; of course you should educate New Guineans. But the approach of the Australians consisted of requiring all young New Guineans to have a few years of primary school—a noble, worthy ideal, but it backfired.”

“The tragedy … was a double tragedy. The first tragedy was that a few years of primary school do you little good: they don’t let you get a job. But a few years of primary school do take you out of the gardens when traditional New Guineans are learning to become farmers--and learning to become a farmer really is difficult. New Guinea friends of mine who went to school told me that when they came back to their villages, they didn’t know what sweet potato to plant on what slope. The tragedy was that a few years of universal education were not enough to provide jobs but it was enough to undermine their ability to operate in New Guinea society.”

DUNAVAN: “Let’s look 50 years hence. Obviously languages are disappearing; the world will no longer exist in such a way that people can remain isolated. What will it be like for traditional societies?”

DIAMOND: “There’s a huge spectrum of possible outcomes. One possible outcome: if we in the first world mess up our own society, mess up the whole world … and you ask yourself who is going to be left after 50 years, well all of us here who don’t know how to make stone tools, don’t know what to gather, all of us here are going to starve to death. The places in the world where people will survive are the places where—within living memory—people have been living in the forest and making their own gardens.”

“So, in one scenario, 50 years from now, New Guinea and parts of the Amazon will be the best functioning places in the world because the rest of us will be dead or incompetent.”

“Other scenarios? New Guinea is developing. There’s a big natural gas project of which Exxon Mobil is in charge, so a lot of money is flowing in. In Papua New Guinea as in other countries where lots of money is [now] flowing in, the social mechanisms for making use of money are not in place and the money is not paid to individuals but to village leaders. But village leaders do not have 3000 years of experience of state government that says that village leaders are supposed to represent their people, so a lot of money gets wasted … It’s therefore possible that in Papua New Guinea as in many other parts of the world, the hope people feel now will not materialize.”

DUNAVAN: “Do you see remnants of stateless societies in so-called modern settings?”

DIAMOND: “Yes, they are all around us in rural areas of the United States. In Montana, for example, if neighbors have a dispute, they don’t hire lawyers; they deal with disputes by tribal mechanisms. Here’s another example. When I went to England in the 1950s, much of village life was essentially tribal. Everyone knew everybody. Everything was in public view. Many people spent their lives within one or two miles of where they were born. That’s why the title ‘World Until Yesterday.’ Much of yesterday is still with us.”

American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene