The World Until Yesterday: 2. Compensation for the Death of a Child

Following the schedule of our Reading Calendar

This chapter is centred in the way traditional societies manage peaceful conflict resolutions and how it differs from our modern justice systems. It begins explaining an interesting story about a boy killed by a car in New Guinea and how the victim’s and driver’s communities managed the situation.

Unlike modern societies, conflicts in little communities tend to involve people that are related in everyday live and that are going to live together in the future. The main objective, when a conflict arises, is not to determine who is wrong or right, but to “restore relationships and achieve emotional closure” that can allow the community to function with normality in the future and to avoid turning to violence which could have disastrous consequences.

Conflicts are always treated in the form of negotiation and there is not, in any case, an external power (chief, judge) that can impose a resolution. However, this negotiation, involves not only the individuals directly affected by the conflict but whole communities, clans, families, etc. The negotiation should end in the form of a “compensation” which should show the will of both parts to end the conflict and should close the issue and restore confidence between the involved parts.

Diamond goes in length to explain how all this differs from modern state organized justice systems which are thought to allow the resolution of conflicts involving unknown people with no previous and, probably, no future personal relationship among them. And this system allows to mitigate the level of violence that could generate such complex society.

Maintenance of peace within a society is one of the most important services that a state con provide. That service goes a long way towards explaining the apparent paradox that, (…), people have more or less willingly surrendered some of their individual freedoms, accepted the authority of state governments, paid taxes, and supported a comfortable individual lifestyle for the state’s leaders and officials. (p. 98)

In fact, the chapter seems in some places more a declaration of love to our modern justice system than an overview of traditional societies.

Our criminal justice system (unlike the civil one) shows the biggest distance from the traditional approach in the sense that, victim compensation and retribution, are not taken into account at all. Criminals break laws and are condemned consequently to foster deterrence, retribution or rehabilitation. It’s a business between the criminal and society as a whole. Justice is not a service to victims.

On the other side, Diamond hints at the possibility that we could try to foster the traditional negotiated resolution style in our modern world, especially when it involves conflicts between people closely related as in divorce or inheritance issues. In this cases, confidence restoration should be a priority and current court litigation achieves just the opposite: to destroy for ever personal relationships. But again, it seems to me, the author is full of reserves and far from convinced.

So, more “let’s thank the state” than “let’s learn from the salvages” again. And, I have to say, I have learn interesting things about how our modern justice system works and its logic. That was not what I expected from this book but is really welcomed.

Chapter 1. Friends, Enemies, Strangers and Traders

In this first chapter, Diamond introduces us to how frontiers, travel and trade is viewed in traditional societies. Contrary to our globalized “flat” world -according to the famous metaphor by Thomas Friedman- traditional societies arrange themselves as tiny nations with strict frontiers. People is divided clearly into friends, enemies and strangers, and being a stranger in a foreign land is a direct invitation to natives to kill you.

Following the insights he used in Guns, Germs and Steel, the author discusses what makes a frontier and a territory more or less strict, and found that it depends on four conditions: a population large enough that can have some individuals specialized in guarding frontiers, a productive, stable and predictable territory to find basic resources, valuable resources that are worth to die defending them, and a rather constant group membership. If those conditions fail we tend to see less fixed and dramatic borders. However, even in those territories we don’t see free movement of people and goods, but mostly tiny nations separated by “informal mutual avoidance”.

This implies that traditional societies tend to know very little about the world beyond those boundaries. If you are in danger of being killed by simply trespassing the lands of an unfriendly or strange community, then you don’t move much, and your view of the world is a very local one.

Next, Diamond analyzes trade in traditional societies. For me, this was the most surprising part of the chapter. In traditional societies, the more common form of way of trading is not barter -as I thought, but reciprocal giving: This is a gift for you, but I expect, someday in the future, a similar type of gift.

While in some cases traditional societies negotiate explicit exchanges, and both items pass hands at the same time, in other cases one party presents a gift, and the recipient thereby incurs the obligation to provide a gift of comparable value at some unespecified time in the future (p. 65)

Other relevant differences are how you might end up getting a gift you already have -you have lots of apples already, but receive more apples from another harvester- in order to keep social peace and friendship. the non-existence of professional sellers or buyers: one sells whatever it is that one produces (vegetables, pigs, arrowheads) and only in very specific times, and a fascinating list of the different trading items that one can find in traditional societies, from salt to whale meat, as well as shells, pigs or alcohol.

The thing clearly missing in this chapter is “the learning part”: there is no explicit statements of what can we learn from traditional societies, besides the fact that how different are they from our globalized world. Maybe that is the reason: our flat world is so different from the one of traditional societies, and  money  so unavoidable that there is nothing we can really apply from traditional societies to our own lives.

So far I enjoyed the level of detail, and one can forgive small pedantic details, like when he boats about being able to speak at least one New Guinean Language, and offers the original expression they used while talking about the river people, just in case something is missed in the translation.

The World Until Yesterday. PROLOGUE: At the Airport

Following the schedule of our Reading Calendar

This prologue as any prologue is a little overview of what the book is about and why this is relevant and you should spend your time and money reading it. The general idea goes as follows:

Most of the traits of the World we are living in are extraordinary recent when taking into account the span of time we humans have been present in the planet. State organization, metal tools, intensive agricultural production of food, urban settlements etc. begin to appear in our history less that 15.000 years ago. Until this moment, for around 6M years, we humans have been living in very different conditions and social structures, what the author calls traditional societies.

This book intends to be an overview of some of the traits of that traditional societies. Why is this important? First, because those societies are much more varied that ours and so we can learn a lot about the human nature and how to distinguish what is essential to being human and what are cultural artefacts. Every traditional society can be viewed as a social experiment where different approaches and cultural traits have been tried with different success rate. To know those cultures can also be important because we can learn something from them that can be useful to help us live a more happy and plenty live. The last reason to look at traditional societies is to be grateful that we are not there any more because there were also highly unpleasant things.

The prologue goes on introducing us to the Elman Service’s division of human societies: bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states. It defines and explains these categories as it describes how they have been evolving in history and also makes and astonishingly short briefing of Guns, Germs and Steel, his most famous book and probably the reason we are here reading another of his books. In this context, he presents us with those surviving traditional societies that will be studied in this book.

The final part: “Plan of the book” I didn’t read as I never do. In fact I tend to skip prologues altogether.

The best of the chapter: the pictures. Those images (plate 30 and 31) showing the first encounter of New Guinea Highlanders with westerners are worth looking a thousand times.

The World Until Yesterday – We have a new book to read.

Well, El Pla Subtil has been quite quiet lately. We ended our reading of Antifragile on November the 7th and since then we have been mostly absent.

On December (this is six months ago) we had a talk about the future of our Blog and both expressed our satisfaction with the book reading experience and decided that it was worth continuing. We independently concluded that reading a book that both of us had already previously read was damaging the intensity of our involvement and so we wanted to try a new book not read before by any of us. Of course it has its risks because it may turn up to be bad one. But no risk, no gain.

Our full agreement until this point ended when we had to choose a title. Finally the chosen one was:

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond.


A conservative option, we have to admit. This is the problem of consensus. You end up in middle land. You avoid the extremely bad but you miss the extremely good.

Unfortunately, at that time we had to postpone the reading of the book because of family reasons. Now it’s time to retake the project. Please take a look at our Reading Calendar to see the schedule of chapters and feel free to join us.