What Non-Western Societies Tell Us About Ourselves

the aborigines of tasmania

It’s easy to forget that as little as 20 years ago spending time on the internet and using wireless communication was not very common.

That Buzzfeed listicle you were poring over yesterday used to be a newspaper that reported on the details of the school levy that was going to be put on the ballot at the next election.  The TV Guide turned into Netflix, the paperback novel turned into the Kindle, and the Wednesday night sitcom turned into the Youtube clip.

It’s easier still to forget that the nostalgic past-times of yesteryear themselves are pretty new.  The TV wasn’t invented until 1926, antibiotics weren’t prototyped until 1928, and the first commercial airliner didn’t take flight until 1933.

To get an idea of how much things have changed the last 100 years it’s instructive to talk to your grandparents.  My grandma (bless her heart) grew up without running water, air conditioning, antibiotics, a car, and to this day she still cans a lot of her own food. (Of course she hasn’t been as stingy with all forms of technological progress.  She caved in with the AC and enjoys 100+ channels in crystal-clear HD television).

But it’s useful to note that life in 1900 looked a lot more like life in 1800 than 2000.  And if change is accelerating it means that not too long ago everything was evolving at a much slower pace.  Contrary to what our egos like us to believe, evolution does not favor things that are intelligent or complex.  In fact it’s the opposite.  Arrangements that require a lot of intricacy can be very powerful when executed properly….but more prone to catastrophic failure if even small unexpected changes are made.

For this reason traditional societies give us a unique opportunity to answer an extremely important question: what was life like before we got here?

Prehistoric social organizations offer a lot of information that can’t be obtained elsewhere.  They’re the closest thing humanity has to a successful randomized control trial for what works in life and what doesn’t.

There’s no reason to think we’d be better off by simply turning back the clock 10,000 years.  That’s nonsense.  But globalization has also come with its own faustian bargain: a lot of  what made humanity culturally distinct had to be axed in order to make large scale social integration possible.

The world today has more than 7,000 extant languages, but its estimated 95% of them will go extinct by 2100 if current trends continue.  Local theatrical productions have been displaced by Hollywood blockbusters.  The centralization of food production has become so extreme that France (France!) just issued a new label that lets diners know whether or not a dish was made freshly on premise, or whether it was imported as a frozen meal.  Even the haughtiest of french bistros were quietly sneaking in frozen dinners on unsuspecting customers.

To be more succinct, the world has become W.E.I.R.D.

Western.  Educated. Inustrialized.  Rich.  Democratic.

We were born into WEIRD lives, but WEIRD is not the historical norm.  Our genes are used to lives that were small, local, un-changing, groupish, and devoid of strangers.

Traditional society isn’t a fallen angel that needs to be restored, but it IS an historical encyclopedia of sorts that should be harvested to provide a lot of unique information to allow us to make better plans for the future.

So what’s left of traditional society throughout the world?

Unfortunately…..not too much.  And I don’t say “unfortunately” because it’s unequivocally a bad thing that people would leave traditional lives for western ones, but it’s unfortunate since we probably didn’t get a chance to observe them as much as we should have.  We were too busy clearing ground for a new oil field or shopping mall or……something like that.

But what have been the major insights gleaned from traditional societies?  Here are the 4 populations around the world that are the most unique from western culture and what they’ve taught us.

The yanomamo

The Yanomamo

Where they live: Throughout inner river networks in the Amazon rain forest along the Brazilian and Venezuelian coast.

What They’ve Taught Us: That humans have an innate tendency towards violence.

The phrase “Noble Savage” denotes someone who lives outside of agricultural society and has higher scruples and egalitarian instincts because of it.  Being freed from the shackles of commercial life allows them freedom to pursue higher moral ideals.

The Yanomamo were studied in depth by an anthropologist named Napoleon Chagnon, who spent the better part of 40 years studying their kinships systems, diet, fertility rates, languages and cultural evolution.  At the beginning of his studies the population had little contact with the outside world.  They had no written language and pre-colonial technology, living in 50-250 person villages called shabonos scattered throughout the inner Amazon basin.

He began his graduate studies of the Yanomamo with the presumption of the Noble Savage, but his narrative quickly changed after living with them for several weeks.

It became clear to him almost immediately that Yanomamo life was far from quaint and idyllic.  Chronic warfare was a staple of daily life, and not because of resource shortages or western colonialism was put upon them.

It was mostly due to males pre-emptively creating war in order to attain status.  Usually as a ploy to pick up chicks.  His ethnography of his time there is now famous and very controversial.  It’s aptly titled, The Fierce People.

Yanomamo life was not for the faint of heart.  Warfare between neighboring villages was a persistent aspect of daily life, and if you were a man above the age of 40 there was a 44% chance that you had murdered someone if you were lucky enough to make it to that age, and a 70% chance that you knew someone else who had been murdered.

The highest level of status a man could reach in Yanomamo villages was a title called a Unokai, which is usually bestowed to the men with the highest body counts.

Most of his colleagues didn’t take kindly to his findings.  It was countered that his presence altered their behavior, that he deliberately misrepresented them in order to bring more attention to his own writing, that he deliberately spread malaria to fulfill pernicious colonial ambitions, that the violence in Yanomamo life was a strategic response to being pushed off better land, and that the Yanomamo were actually as civil as the next group of foragers when they were given the chance to interact with westerners.

However, despite all this controversy the research of Chagnon has held its ground despite many people looking for ways to tear it down.  Recent genetic advantages have also given legitimacy to his observations.

Genomics is shedding light on how useful his observations really are.  A new gene called MAO-A (“the warrior gene”) has been shown to predict provocative behavior in people who carry it, and it’s being tested to find out whether or not its over-represented in populations that have high rates of violence….like the Yanomamo.

!kung bushmen
!kung bushmen

The !Kung

Where They Live: The Kalahari desert in Botswana and Namibia.

What They’ve Taught Us: That despite our darker natures, there really is a hippy inside all of us.

If the Yanomamo are living proof of the darker angels of our nature, the !kung are a soothing reminder that our yearning for peace, love, and comradarie aren’t mere fabrications of a commercial culture and in fact have deep historical roots.

Where the Yanomamo are noted for being violent, brute and chauvinistic, the !Kung are remarkable for their gregarious and horizontal social structures.

They live in small bands of people numbering from 20-50 people, have no pre-defined leaders or social hierarchy and are remarkable for their social norms that promote pacifist conflict resolution.

Food collection, child rearing, disputes, and hunting are usually done socially and split equally between men and women.  Casual chatter, relaxation, plenty of sleep, recreational fitness, and cradle-to-grave family ties are a staple of !Kung life.

For example, !kung attitudes towards marriage and bonding illustrate how thoughtful most of their policies would be by today’s standards.  Marriage typically happens between a man in his twenties and a women in her teens, and after they get married the women will usually stay with her parents during an introductory period to see if either person feels uncomfortable with the arrangement.  During this time either person is allowed to exit the arrangement if they don’t like it without shame.

Marriages are considered to be monogamous but if arrangements are made by the couple to see other people it’s generally accepted as okay as long as it’s doesn’t interfere with the social cohesion of the village itself.

Disputes are usually conducted publicly so everyone involved with the couple on a day-to-day basis has a chance to offer input and see that the issue is resolved in a way that’s acceptable to both the couples and !kung society at large.

If only things worked that well today!

While it’s a mistake to think of the !kung as angels, it’s clear their social norms have evolved to promote cooperative group living that probably works better than most of the industrialized world they’re excluded from.

the hadza

The Hadza

Where They Live: In Tanzania along the Central Rift Valley.

What They’ve Taught Us: What life was like before we left Africa.

The Hadza are the last remaining group on earth that’s pure hunter-gatherer.  They don’t store food at all, sleep under the trees at night during the dry season, and maintain few possessions outside of what they have on their back.

They’re also one of the oldest, best preserved populations on the planet.  Their genome suggests they’ve had no co-mingling with other groups, their language is entirely unique, and there’s little evidence to suggest their way of life has changed much during the time they’ve occupied Hadzaland.

Their habitat is also conveniently located within 50 km of the Olduvai Gorge, which is an archaeological site with some of the oldest and best preserved fossils from early human evolution.  If there is a group of people that allow us to peek into our ancient past it’s the hadza.

There also aren’t very many of them.  There are less than 1,000 currently in Hadzaland, and only 300-400 of them are exclusively hunter-gatherers.

Their potential link to early human evolution has evoked a swelling of interest in almost every detail of their day-to-day life.

What do they eat?  Do they get married?  How often do they fight?  Are they naughty? Nice? What’s their genome look like?  The poor folks probably didn’t expect to have scores of curious scientists trying to spend years co-habitating with them after years of mistreatment by local governments due to their low status with neighbors.

Their genome was recently sequenced.  What did it tell us?

Quite a lot and not so much all at the same time.  The Hadza, like other isolated african populations, have very unique genomes with upwards of 3 million variants that are unique to them.  But despite the large amounts of genomic novelty the significance of the findings are pretty ho-hum.  Rather than providing sweeping insights into what humans were originally like, they paint a smaller picture of a group of people that have slowly adapted to their local environment.

Their bodies are much better equipped to handle tough, chewy fiber that most of us would consider un-edible.  This makes a lot of sense since they don’t have agriculture and have to eat a lot of wild plants.  Their taste buds are uniquely well suited for the food that’s around them and they have lots of gene clusters to combat local parasites and pathogens.

The only real novelty is that it looks like there was a decent amount of inbreeding with a now extinct human-like ancestor.  The DNA clock suggests it probably happened around the same time homo sapiens were hobnobbing with neanderthals, so it’s possible the genes of extinct non-humans are still alive and well in a large portion of the African continent.


The Dani

The Dani

Where They Live: Papua New Guinea

What They’ve Taught Us:  How many different social constructs people are capable of having.

Our notions of child rearing customs, civil law, gender roles, table etiquette,  and family structure would all have a “dafuq?” moment if we were to venture into the Grand Valley of Papua New Guinea in 1933, when they were discovered on accident by miner Dan Leahy.

The Dani territory of Baliem Valley is the most complete and vibrant interactive history book the world has provided.  It’s surrounded by mountains and dense jungle on the sparsely populated island of Papua New Guinea, which allowed its inhabitants to keep truckin’ along in complete isolation from the rest of the world until they were discovered in their entirety by accident on a zoological expedition by Richard Archbold.

He was shocked to find a population of about 100,000 people who hadn’t made much contact with the outside world for the last 48,000 years.

The Baliem valley was its own unique ecosystem that consisted of thousands of small villages with microhabitats adapted to very local conditions.

The cultural diversity found in the Baliem Valley might swamp the entirety of western culture we experience today.

For example, take languages.  The world today is dominated by the Big 9: Mandarin, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, and Japanese.   The Baliem Valley, which is a little bigger than the state of Texas, hosts more than 1,000 different languages.  Each village usually has its own dialect, and the dominant language spoken changes every couple of miles.

Villages will often need to know more than a half dozen languages in order to communicate effectively with neighboring groups. Many of the languages are spoken by 60 to 200 people.

Sexuality is another useful example.  It’s common for newly wed Dani couples to restrain from sexual activity for four to six years after having a child.  The agreement isn’t forced upon anyone, and it’s usually completed without resistance or discussion.

Other parts of the area have men and women living in the same huts but on different floors, with all the men living together upstairs and the women on the bottom, but never living in the same dwelling like western societies.

Child rearing would be an abomination by western standards.  It’s mostly hands off, and children spend a lot of their time running around unsupervised and learn entirely from participating in social customs, games, and imitating their parents.  There’s no perceived need to monitor the child’s development,  and the deliberate supervision which is seen as responsible in the US would be viewed as cumbersome and unnecessary.  What’s the point when everything they can learn is in the woods?

It’s very hard to say how any of these these practices would fare today and objective conclusions about which practices are better seem impossible.  But the experience of the Dani is a useful lesson in the sheer amount of lifestyle diversity mankind has gradually forgotten over the years.

When we watch the News and hear about on going tensions in the middle east or sex trafficking in southeast asia, might it be a little useful to consider that there are a wide variety of alternative arrangements that might be at our fingertips?

 Look to the Future, Not the Past

The point of this article isn’t to nostalgically lust for a life that’s out of reach.  I don’t know about you, but I happen to enjoy electricity, air conditioning, having access to medicine in case I need it, and many of the finer points of civilization.

But there’s an asymmetry  on how information is stored through cultural transmission.  If it’s there it can always be squeezed out some more, but once it’s gone it’s gone permanently.

In my-day-to-day life I find it’s increasingly common for people to express uneasiness about modern life.  It’s cushy and reduces work, but it has a funny way of making the small seem very big.  And once you’re in it it can be pretty hard to get out.

For this reason taking a close look at traditional societies offers a really unique and useful vantage point that can’t be replicated elsewhere.

1 thought on “What Non-Western Societies Tell Us About Ourselves”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s