What we can Learn from Tribal Societies

Ben Cohen
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Tribal living: Much to learn from Tribal living: Much to learn from

From a fascinating interview with the legendary anthropologist Jared Diamond in the Guardian:

"I believe the few remaining tribes and nomad groups left on the planet have a great deal to teach us," he says and it is this belief that inspiredThe World Until Yesterday.

Some tribal customs, such as widow-strangling, will not be missed, of course. "We should not romanticise traditional societies," he says. "There are horrible things that we want to avoid, but there wonderful things that we should emulate."

Take the example of child rearing. Far from being harsh towards children, many tribes and groups adopt highly permissive attitudes. "I mean permissive in that it is an absolute no-no to punish a child. If a mother or father among African pygmies hits a child, that would be grounds for divorce. There is no physical punishment allowed at all in these societies. If a child plays with a sharp knife and waves it around, so be it. They will cut themselves on some occasions, but society figures it is better for the child to learn the hard way early in life. They are allowed to make their own choices and follow their own interests."

Diamond has twin sons, Max and Joshua. Both were treated as honorary pygmies by their parents. "We let them do what they wanted as much as possible and never spanked or hit them," says Diamond. Giving free rein to his children's interests had unexpected consequences, however. Aged three, Max developed a passion for snakes and the Diamond household ended up as repository of more than 150 reptiles and amphibians.

Looking back, I think my parents adopted similar tactics when raising my brother and I (although that changed when I became a tearaway teenager) and it certainly helped me develop confidence to go and do things that interested me rather than conform to a traditional career path. My brother and I were allowed a great deal of freedom and were allowed to follow whatever we were interested in without much interference (and usually a great deal of support). Purely anecdotally, it seems to me that children raised in extremely strict households tend to act out later on in life. There are many people I know who were severely disciplined as children that had serious behavioral problems either at school, or outside of it. Someone I went to school with who was raised as a Jehovas Witness and was never allowed out ,was expelled from my school for severe behavioral problems. The last I heard he had a child as a teenager and had joined a violent street gang. Obviously there are no uniform rules and what might work for one child won't for another, but there is a lot to be said for a hands off approach to parenting.

Another interesting observation Diamond makes is one about social cohesiveness and care of the elderly:

"Most traditional societies give their older folk much more satisfying existences than we do and let them live out their last years surrounded by their children, relatives and grandchildren," says Diamond. "Old people are useful – as sources of knowledge because these societies do not have books. If you want to survive a cyclone, an old person's past experiences might well determine whether that group lives or dies. And they are often the best makers of tools and pots and baskets and weapons. In the west today – with our cult of youth – we seem to have lost how to get value from our older people."

If you've ever spent time in a care home, it would be hard to disagree with Diamond's assessment. They are mostly depressing places where families leave their parents/grandparents to spend their dying days receiving care they do not have the time or resources to give. In many tribal societies, this would be unthinkable not only from a moral point of view, but a practical one.

While we have made incredible technological advances and created enormous wealth for ourselves, we have, in many ways, forgotten what it means to be human.