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Publisher's Summary

Most of us take for granted the features of our modern society, from air travel and telecommunications to literacy and obesity. Yet for nearly all of its six million years of existence, human society had none of these things. While the gulf that divides us from our primitive ancestors may seem unbridgeably wide, we can glimpse much of our former lifestyle in those largely traditional societies still or recently in existence. Societies like those of the New Guinea Highlanders remind us that it was only yesterday - in evolutionary time - when everything changed and that we moderns still possess bodies and social practices often better adapted to traditional than to modern conditions.
The World until Yesterday provides a mesmerizing firsthand picture of the human past as it had been for millions of years - a past that has mostly vanished - and considers what the differences between that past and our present mean for our lives today.
This is Jared Diamond’s most personal book to date, as he draws extensively from his decades of field work in the Pacific islands, as well as evidence from Inuit, Amazonian Indians, Kalahari San people, and others. Diamond doesn’t romanticize traditional societies - after all, we are shocked by some of their practices - but he finds that their solutions to universal human problems such as child rearing, elder care, dispute resolution, risk, and physical fitness have much to teach us. A characteristically provocative, enlightening, and entertaining book, The World until Yesterday will be essential and delightful listening.
©2012 Jared Diamond (P)2012 Penguin Audio
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
4 out of 5 stars
By BRB on 01-30-13

A visit with our ancient ancestors

Jared Diamond is patient with the non-academic reader. He presents his intriguing ideas in story form with a minimum of statistics and dry facts. He shares his insights from a long career of living among primitive people in several areas -- mostly Papua New Guinea. He tells about the similarities and differences of their lives compared to ours. Then he asks, "Could they have been onto something that we could revisit in our own lives?" It is a good question and one that stays with the reader long after the book is finished.

One example: in primitive groups, children spend a lot of time in age-mixed groups which allows the younger kids to learn from the older ones and the older ones to feel pride and accomplishment when they teach the younger ones. In our culture, children are separated into age-specific groups and taught together by an adult. The age segregation continues outside school in team sports and play dates. With small families, some children do not have experience with children of other ages -- often until they become parents themselves. As I was reading this, my 10-year-old grandson was playing with his 1-year-old cousin, showing her new ways to play with her "baby" toys. She was delighted with his attention and soon turned her push-car upside down as he had done, spinning the wheels with her hands. Later, the 10-year-old went to a museum with his 20-year-old cousin to see dinosaurs. The 20-year-old grew up in this town and had visited the museum many times, so he was an expert in the eyes of the 10-year-old and he seemed to enjoy the adulation.

This book made me think about the "advances" we have made in our culture and question it. Most of it has been good (sanitation, public health, medical care) but some of the old ways have merit and deserve examination. After all, they were in practice until "just yesterday" and helped us survive and evolve to what we are today.

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26 of 26 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By SJS on 02-04-13


I'm a great fan of Diamond and I enjoyed this book a lot and learned from it. The topic is one I've thought of often-- the world has recently changed so much (cell phones, Internet, pavement, airplanes, cars, movies, television, immense variety of food, medicine) but people haven't changed. Our basic needs are the same and it's not clear how well modern society fulfills some of them even while other needs are satisfied beyond the dreams of our ancestors. The two things that weren't excellent were (a) the section on diet. This is a topic that has been written about extensively all over the place so there wasn't anything new as there was in other sections and (b) the narrator was very good but not, I felt, a good match to the book, since he sounded like a young man (30s or 40s), yet the book was written in the first person by Diamond who mentioned repeatedly that he's 75 years old. I think a narrator with an older but still energetic sound would have fit better. Those minor points aside, I loved the book and recommend it highly.

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15 of 15 people found this review helpful

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