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.