Be Thankful You Live in the Here and Now

Yali Mabel, the chief of Dani tribe, Papua, Indonesia. (istockphoto)

Yali Mabel, the chief of Dani tribe, Papua, Indonesia. (istockphoto)

Lest you think that life in tribal societies was idyllic, think again. It truly was nasty, brutish, and short. Especially for women.

That’s made clear in a recent book by Jared Diamond – The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

By “the world until yesterday” he means the vast majority of human existence. The tribal way of life was so prevalent and so important that our bodies and minds are designed for that way of life (because that’s where we evolved). Our current society is radically different from how humans normally have lived – and for the most part, is radically improved.

Until yesterday, death was ever-present – from disease, from accidents, from animal predators, from murder, and from warfare. Average life expectancy was about 40 years. Physical discomfort was ever-present – from heat and cold, from injuries, from disease, from insects, from skin irritations, and from unsanitary conditions to name a few. Emotional discomfort was ever-present: anywhere you’d go, anything you’d do, there was always the threat of attack from enemies.

Ironically, depression and mental illness didn’t seem to be common in tribal societies. But anxiety must have been. And physical pain certainly was.

And were people ever mean to each other. Whereas our society lives under intermittent warfare, tribal societies had chronic warfare; never-ending warfare with neighboring villages or tribes. They were ruthless to their enemies. The taking of prisoners was practically nonexistent; captured enemies were simply killed. And when enemies were killed, it was a happy occasion for the perpetrators; the whole village would celebrate.

As indicated above, life was particularly brutal for women. One of the most common activities, and one of the most common causes of warfare, was the capturing of women from neighboring tribes or, more commonly, from villages and clans within the same tribe. Imagine being captured and having to live apart from your family for the rest of your life. Sadness and despair among them must have been rampant.

And for captured and non-captured women alike, wife-beating was the norm. Wife-killing was not uncommon. When a husband was upset with is wife for something, a common practice would be for the husband to shoot his wife with his bow and arrow in order to inflict on her a nonfatal injury. Sometimes he would miss and cause a fatal injury.

That probably was practiced worldwide, because it is described vis-a-vis the tribesmen of New Guinea (including in the book Child of the Jungle by Sabine Kuegler), as well as of the Amazon rainforest – opposite ends of the earth.

Those areas were one of the last areas untouched by civilization, so modern anthropologists were able to study them in order to extrapolate how premodern societies the world over always have lived. Nowadays there are likely no more tribal societies untouched by human civilization available to study, but there was in the 1960s and 1970s.

Another recent book that makes plain the savagery of traditional societies is Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists by Napoleon Chagnon. He’s referring to the political correctness of the latter, who are very reluctant to acknowledge the constant brutality and warfare associated with traditional societies. In the 1960s Chagnon was able to live among one of the last tribes in the Amazon rainforest untouched by modern civilization.

It’s a great book. But there’s an apparent contradiction therein. He briefly criticizes Christian missionaries for promoting monogamy among the tribespeople, pointing out that polygamy was the norm in such societies and helped foster social solidarity. Polygamy results in more genetically related people, i.e. more family members, and it’s this genetic relatedness that encourages cooperation within tribal groups.

But Chagnon also writes extensively that the biggest single cause of warfare in those societies is ultimately over women. Would not polygamy be a big factor in causing this warfare? Under polygamy one man has several wives, even though the male/female ratio is still around 50/50. That means many men have no wives, prompting them to go out and seek them by raiding other villages.

So while polygamy may foster group solidarity by producing more genetically related persons, it also fosters warfare. Which would you prefer?

Meantime, be thankful you live right here, right now. Compared with how life was for most of human existence – and not just in tribal societies but also in nation-state societies up until about a hundred years ago – life for the vast majority of people in modern societies is pretty good.