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.


6 thoughts on “Chapter 1. Friends, Enemies, Strangers and Traders

  1. Barter as the primitive form of trade is a myth. No significant amount of trade has ever been performed in the form of barter. It cannot. You have a calf, you need apples. First, probably the only guy in your village who needs a calf has everything in the world but apples. Second, even if he has apples, they are ready for harvest in late autumn while your calf is born in spring. Third, your calf is worth the apples that can produce 3 or four producers. Since the calve is for growing up and turning into a workforce animal (let’s imagine) you cannot kill and divide it. There are a lot of reasons why barter has had only a marginal use in trade there where you are interchanging goods with people whom you don’t trust. The rest of your daily trading is done in the form of credit which can take a lot of different forms (gifts to be returned, promises of payment to be honored, etc…).

    Moreover. Diamond talks about luxury things like shells and doesn’t seem to notice that those things are probably used mainly as money. In spring you change your calf for seven shells, in autumn you interchange your shells by apples from different producers.

  2. As for the New Guinean quote, I forced myself (quite reluctantly, I have to admit) to a pious interpretation: he is not sure of the translation, and puts the original there, just in case he is making a mistake so that somebody can notice it. Because if this is simply showing off… well, it is not a well omen for what is to come.

    • That makes perfect sense Carlos. It’s actually sad to remember how many times that barter myth has been sold to me: in introductory books on economics, in high-school, in TV programs…
      And about the New Guinean quote, yes I do hope that it’s not going to be a general trend of showing off. My Tok Pisin is quite rusty ;-D

      And because tonight I am in a very procrastinating mood, I discovered that Tok-Pisin is a sort of pidgin English, found a Tok-Pisin/English dictionary online ( in case you are interested) and discovered:

      Bilong = in order to
      Nating= For no reason

      “Pren” does sounds like “friend” and “nating” is very close to “nothing”, so maybe he is trying to show us in a very oblique way, how Tok-Pisin is close to English…

  3. “The thing clearly missing in this chapter is “the learning part”: there is no explicit statements of what can we learn from traditional societies”

    Remember that in the introduction he said that studying traditional societies we can either:
    – learn about the human nature
    – learn good ideas to organize our lives
    – thank God that we are not anymore a traditional society.

    I think that this first chapter falls in the third group 😉

  4. “thank God that we are not anymore a traditional society. I think that this first chapter falls in the third group” Are we really that different? I think the concept of reciprocal giving is still very common. For example, when you receive a birthday gift, you’re supposed to remember the giver’s birthday as well and make a gift of a similar value (in general it’s considered impolite to make a much cheaper or much more expensive gift). Also doing and returning favours is an another example of reciprocal giving.

    • Sorry by the confusion. My “Thank God that we are not any more a traditional society” was referred to the part explaining that those people lived all their lives in 20 square kilometres because they could be immediately killed if went stranded into another’s group territory.
      Of course, the institution of the gift is quite similar today at was then. Although it seems, from what we learn in the chapter, that part of their old functions have been replaced today by the market economy. The gift part should fall into the “learn about the human nature” 🙂

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