Savaging Primitives: Why Jared Diamond’s ‘The World Until Yesterday’ Is Wrong

Survival International’s director takes issue with Pulitzer Prize-winner Jared Diamond’s assumptions about tribal peoples.

tribal woman in jungle

Jared Diamond says the Yanomami practise ‘pre-emptive treachery,’ based on the widely discredited work of Napoleon Chagnon. (Photo: © Fiona Watson/Survival)

Survival Alert is a fortnightly update on the state of indigenous peoples around the world from Survival International. Founded in 1969, Survival International is the globe’s foremost organization working for tribal peoples rights.


I ought to like Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? After all, as the Director of tribal rights organization Survival International, I have spent decades saying what we can learn from tribal peoples and that is, or so we are told, Jared Diamond’s principal message in his new work.

But Diamond makes two erroneous assertions that, if they go unchallenged, could set back by several decades the movement to secure for the world’s 150 million tribal people the right to exist, and be themselves, in the 21st century.

The first, no less wrong for being a common prejudice, is that today’s tribal people are in effect living fossils, the last vestiges of human society as it once was. Diamond argues that tribal peoples (he calls them “traditional societies”), while partly modified by contact, are best thought of as living more or less like humankind did until the “earliest origins of agriculture around 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent.”

The endpoint to this argument is that today’s tribes will in the end evolve, and progress, in the way everyone else has.

Describing tribal peoples as more violent than industrialized societies sounds much like the arguments put forward by missionaries, explorers and colonial governments from the 16th century onward to justify the “pacification” and conquest of “savages” in far-off lands.

Many experts on tribal peoples and prehistoric man have debunked this tired notion for years, warning against seeing tribal peoples as living fossils. Diamond argues that we were all once hunter-gatherers, and this is the main key to seeing tribal peoples as a window into our past. In fact, most tribal people in New Guinea, where Diamond bases the majority of his research, do very little hunting. Rather, they rely on agriculture for most of their subsistence, and have probably done so for millennia.

The second misconception, and this one’s received remarkably little publicity, is that “most” tribal people engage in “constant” warfare, and need the benevolent hand of the state to stop them from killing each other. He partly bases his arguments on the work of American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, whose ethnography Yanomamö: The Fierce People argues that the Yanomami are “sly, aggressive, and intimidating” and engaged in “chronic warfare.” This has been widely discredited.

Diamond states that “the biggest advantage of state government is the bringing of peace.” This will raise a gasp in West Papua, an area Mr. Diamond knows, where an estimated 100,000 Papuans have been killed by the Indonesian authorities since 1963. I could go into numerous other examples of state oppression of tribal peoples, such as the recent arrests and torture of the Bushmen of Botswana, just for hunting on their ancestral land. These show that, contrary to Diamond’s assertions, states don’t save tribal peoples, but their imposition kills them.


Diamond says that state governments stop tribal people from killing each other, but doesn’t mention that Indonesian authorities have killed an estimated 100,000 Papuans. (Photo: © Jeanne Herbert/Survival)

Contrasting tribal peoples with industrialized societies has always been more about politics than science. How tribal peoples are portrayed by outsiders, and how they are treated by them, are strongly linked: Industrialized societies treat tribal peoples well or badly depending on what they think of them, and what they want from them.

Describing tribal peoples as more violent than industrialized societies sounds much like the arguments put forward by missionaries, explorers and colonial governments from the 16th century onward, to justify the “pacification” and conquest of “savages” in far-off lands.

It’s just as harmful now as it was then.

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.

Where do you see greater savagery, in tribal peoples or modern governments? Exercise some give and take in COMMENTS.

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