Sick Societies

Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony

Robert B. Edgerton

The Free Press

New York, 1992




Many anthropologists have chosen not to write about the darker side of life in folk societies.  Among themselves they may talk freely about the kinds of cruelty, irrationality and suffering from their field research.

Anthropologists believe that the ineffective practices they see in a folk society are the result of social disorganization brought about by colonialism.

They censor because not doing so would offend the people being described.

Redfield’s former student Oscar Lewis restudied Tepoztlan a few years later, he found widespread social conflict, malicious gossip, mistrust hatred and fear.

Those in the harmless people had a really high homicide rate.

Indeed there is a pervasive assumption that long standing social traditions must play a positive role.

Many anthropologists have also tried to reconstruct the way of life they believe the people led before colonialism.

Female genital mutilation, infibulation, was defended because it reinforced values of female purity and family honor.

Navaho belief in witches engendered fear, violence and tragedy. 

The Nuer went hungry due to a prohibition against eating chicken or eggs.

Even the most accomplished ethnographers have ignored the maladaptive.

Sirinio were so unconcerned with their family members it amazed Homberg.  Lost in the night he called for help and no one answered.  After half an hour the cries ended.  His sister said, “A jaguar probably got him.”



He is proposing several questions. 

--First, can we identify valid criteria for determining whether one sociocultural system is more adaptive- or less harmful to its members- than another? 

--Second, do maladaptive or useless beliefs or practices occur even in societies that have survived in the same ecosystem for many year? 

--Finally, if maladaptive beliefs and practices can be identified, why do they occur.

A harmful belief or practice would endanger a person’s physical or mental health.

In addition to asking questions about individual well-being and health, we would now ask whether the population can adequately carry out the tasks necessary to meet the needs of its members.

Noyes declared that henceforth only older men would be allowed to have sex with young, and as yet “imperfect,” women. 

238 individuals who some 30 years ago lived in Duddie’s Branch, an isolated “hallow” in Eastern Kentucky.  Most people simply defecated on the ground, leaving their feces to be eaten by their emaciated dogs. Their hair literally throbbed with lice.  Anthropologist Rena Gazaway still grew fond of them.  She thought many were mute.  One man had heard of the American “King” – someone named Kennedy but he could not say what a king was.  These people were fiercely loyal to their way of life.  They could express great love for their families.  They had pride, dignity, courage, and generosity.

The relativists insistence on respect for the values of other people has undoubtedly done more good for human dignity and human rights than it has done harm to science. 


Most particularistic interpretive anthropologists who confine themselves to a single culture and reject all comparison nevertheless implicitly use a comparative perspective. 

The emotions of another people, to choose only one example, are either the same as ours or different, and either conclusion implies, at the very least, comparisons between the emotions of the interpreter and those of the people being interpreted.

Nevertheless, what I am proposing calls for the evaluation of other cultures.  Some are maladaptive because they endanger people’s health, happiness, or survival.  In addition to relativism many say there can be no universal standards for evaluating peoples’ cultural beliefs or social institutions – many say it is quite impossible to even understand others.

Philosopher Richard Rory has endorsed the views of philosophers no less celebrated than Wittgenstein and Quine that scholars should abandon their quest for objective truth. 

Cultural relativism, one of the most venerable – and, - many say, most valuable – principles. This principle, or more correctly, this axiom, states that because there is no universally valid standard by which the beliefs or practices of other cultures can be evaluated, they can only be judged relative to the cultural context in which they occur.

There are some highly vocal scholars who deplore cultural relativism and confidently exalt the superiority of one culture over others, such as Allan Bloom.

Famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis  in its strong version claimed that the language people spoke had such a profound effect on how they saw the world and thought about it.

Subsequent research proved Whorf wrong on all counts.  The Hopi did have tenses and various words for time.

No ethnographer known to the author has returned from a stay in another culture to report that the people they encountered were so alien that their beliefs and practices were completely incomprehensible. 

Berlin and Kay, showed the basic color terms are universally translatable because eleven psychophysiological defined colors serve as the focal points of all the basic color terms in all the languages of the world.

In the late 19th century the scholarly study of small non-western societies began in earnest.The belief that some traditional beliefs and practices were useless survivals lasted until it was supplanted by the emerging concept of functionalism developed by Bronislaw Malinowski in the 1920s and 1930s.  Malinowski’s British rival in the development of functionalist theory was A. R. Radcliffe.

The idea that every known society is well adapted to its environment is on the face of it tantamount to arguing that all living humans are equally healthy simply because they are alive.  But all populations yet discovered believe that a steel axe is better than a stone one.  Others have pointed out that for various purposes certain systems of writing, money, or counting were more efficient than others.

Ruth Benedict’s 1934 best-seller Patterns of Culture showed that all cultures are equal.  She even praised cannibalism as adaptive.  Elsewhere she compared the Zuni, Dobu and Kwakiutl.  She actually said the less violent were her favorites.  She said the Dobu were paranoid.  She even said others were sick. 

Eric Fromm wrote the Sane Society in 1955 and he said some societies could be sick.  Kroeber, then the doyen of American anthropology, not only rejected relativism, but declared that as societies “progressed” from simple to more complex, they became more “humane”.  Kroeber decried segregating women during menstruation, ritual prostitution, torture, sacrifice and the belief in magic and superstition. 

John G. Kennedy asserted that witchcraft beliefs were “irrational and dysfunctional”.   Herskovits once wrote about a critic of cultural relativism who defined an anthropologist as “a person who respects every culture pattern but his own.” 


One reason why defining maladaptation is so difficult is that there is a multiplicity of levels at which it can be said to occur. 

David F. Aberle to specify the conditions that would terminate the existence of a society.  They are 1) the biological extinction or physical dispersion of its members.  2) apathy of the members defined as a loss of motivation to survive. 3) the war of all against all.  And 4) the absorption of the society into another one.  Walter Goldschmidt offered a version he called “social imperatives  These are groups, values, status and role, authority and ideology. 

There are many potential criteria for maladaption.  He relies on the most self-evident.  These would include:

1)                        the failure of a population or its culture to survive because of he inadequacy or harmfulness of one or more of its beliefs or institutions

2)                        Maladaption exists when enough members of a population are sufficiently dissatisfied with one or more of their social institutions or cultural beliefs that the viability of their society is threatened. 

3)                        It is maladaptive when a population maintains beliefs or practices that so seriously impair the physical or mental health of its members that thay cannot adequately meet their own needs or maintain their social and cultural systems. 

Maladaption is not only common; it is inevitable (none, we will learn, are perfectly suited).



When Europeans first made contact with them in the eighteenth century, the approximately 4,000 Tasmanians then living had the simplest technology ever reported for a human society.  They manufactured no more than two dozen items.  Francois Peron was the first person ever officially called an anthropologist.  He visited Tasmania in 1802.

They actually had had more technology before but forgot it.

When their children were sent to European schools they performed as well as European children except in grammar and arithmetic.  But despite freezing temperatures they never made an effort to fashion clothing.

They had to carry a firebrand, their principal medical treatment was slashing the patient with deep cuts until the victim was covered with blood.  The Europeans gave them dogs for young women.  They had no economic need for conflict.  But each band claimed exclusive foraging rights to its territory, making any trespasser subject to death and the killers subject to retaliatory raids.  But raids to capture women were the main cause of death.  They failed to create institutions to curb their destructive tendencies. 

It is hard to see how raid, counter raid and pervasive fear could be adaptive. 



            Weston LeBarre refers to the ancient and widespread idea that the fundamental source of semen, and thus fertility and life, is the brain.  LeBarre shows that it led countless populations throughout the world to become headhunters in order to eat the brains of others because it was thought that doing so would enhance their own life essence and fertility.  The great antiquity and virtual ubiquity of this demonstrably false belief led LaBarre to coin the term “group archosis” to refer to “nonsense and misinformation so ancient and pervasive as to be seemingly inextricable from our thinking.”  He concluded, “A frightening proportion of all culture is arguably archosis, more especially sacred culture.”

            A similar question can be raised about the universal existence of ethnocentrism in human society.  Ethnocentrism may once have been adaptive by reinforcing in-group commitment, solidarity, and cooperation or by preserving scarce economic resources. 

            As British anthropologist Roy Ellen has suggested, another reason why early human beliefs and practices were not highly adaptive is that humans are not consistently rational.  Although Ellen did not use this example, we might note that one reason for this is that people tend to make faulty causal inferences.  This limitation has led them to blame one another rather than bacteria of viruses for ill health. 

            Some folks protect their children from sorcerers but not from fire or knives.


            The history of small societies is one of little change even in the realm of technology.

            Psychologists Donald Campbell has suggested that this may be so because people have evolved to be conservative.  It is a survival mechanism.  Joseph Lopreato postulated a genetic basis.

            Consider the Ijaw of Nigeria, who above all else wanted to have more children but nevertheless killed all twins of either sex, even after British rule declared such actions to be homicide.  

The fearsome Inuit wasted time on protection.  They avoided lakes that had superior fishing.  Good hunting areas could not be visited at night for fear. 


Campbell also said if humans are to succeed they devise social and cultural mechanisms to control certain aspects of their biological nature.

The role of genetic factors is poorly understood.  So background is needed.  Goertz has said that without symbols and meanings men would be monstrosities without many more instincts.  Some people don’t like Goertz’s tabula rasa message.  If it is culture that shaped our nature, why are we one species with differing cultures instead of different beings altogether. 

It is likely that in the Pleistocene environment, like early hominids, men had to learn to cooperate in hunting and gathering.  Thus, the Dakota Indians exalted the manly virtues of the warrior but when warfare was suppressed after the US military conquest, they became apathetic and depressed.

The individualism that Tocqueville saw in the 1830s held the seeds of our individualism which is now destructive.  Will we get away from it when it is maladaptive?


            If genetics determines our differences, as Daniel Freedman believes, it would follow that some cultural practices that were adaptive for the more genetically quiescence Navaho children – the use of a cradleboard, for example-would be maladaptive for more active Euro-American children.


Humans are clearly predisposed to enjoy the company of other humans, to cooperate (at least in some activities), and, as several scholars have suggested, we very likely have a need for recognition or positive affect as well.E.O.Wilson has said that there is a genetic superego. 

Many of the predispositions that are commonly believed to exist in humans have the capacity to threaten society and resist the efforts of culture to constrain them.  The list is a long and familiar one.  Campbell has argued that if a society is to survive, it must develop its means to stop our anti-social ways.  Trivers has the same feeling.

Various small, relatively peaceful societies like the San fight over women;  They kill other men over sexually attractive women, their goal is not social well-being but personal satisfaction.

A need for variety may lead to creativity, as Ralph Linton believed, but it can also lead to socially disruptive, deviant behavior.   




            Because no society yet described is completely lacking in social differentiation; Even the smallest societies, family and multiple family groups or individual families. Until quite recently, all societies placed the well-being of adults above children and those of men above women.

            Many states have not only neglected and exploited most of their own people, they have polluted and degraded their physical environments.  The most powerful have dominated, conquered, or destroyed neighboring societies.  They usually have the greatest happiness for the smallest number. 

            Usually the men decide who the women will marry and then they must be subordinate.  The Chumash had lower classes and kept slaves. 

Even more difficult to explain in adaptive terms than the practice of torturing wild animals was the cruelty they showed to their invaluable sled dogs.  If a dog got weak it was beaten and left to starve. 


Men have approved of wife beating in virtually every folk society.  In Papua New Guinea men so monopolized the access to animal flesh that women and children had to eat the flesh of deceased relatives.

It was not at all uncommon for women to carry loads of wood, water and other valuables that were in excess of their own body weight.  What is more, after colonial governments curtailed warfare to such an extent that there were no more raids by enemies and hence there could be no imperative reason for men to carry weapons, men still did not carry the other types of supplies.

Is there an adaptive advantage for a society to have its men so ruthlessly assert their superiority over women?  Perhaps it helps them to keep their masculinity and self-confidence.  Be these values are not necessarily adaptive. 

In the GUisii, When the groom first visited the bride’s home before the wedding ceremony, he was accosted by a crowd of highly vocal women who colorfully criticized his appearance and taunted him.  When the bride visited the groom’s relatives she found the door to her future mother-in-law’s house barred by a crowd of hostile women who , not to be outdone, screamed insults at her, mocked and pinched her, and sometimes even smeared dung on her lips before allowing her inside. 

The Guissii committed rape almost four times as often as the average rate in the US.  In 1937, there were so many rapes that the British colonial government had to threaten military action, and in 1950 there were so many convictions for rape that there were not enough prison facilities to hold the offenders. 


The malnourished adolescent poor in 18th century London we so short that only two of 81 ethnic groups known have been shorter.  In1840 in Manchester the average age at death for gentlemen was 38, for traders 20 and for unskilled laborers 17.

The East German Ministry for State Security – the infinite Stasi – employed over 34,000 full-time secret police, 6,000 of whom did nothing but monitor phone calls.

The use of coercive force still occurs even in small hunting and gathering societies.  However these attempts to dominate are typically short lived.

Eastern highlands warfare among societies was so ferocious that entire populations were sometimes annihilated.  In order to survive, a society needed a great war leader who could rally and recruit allies for the decimated populations. 

Audrey Richards observed that a chief among the Bemba of Rhodesia bracticed savage mutilation on those that offended him. From Africa to Polynesia, chiefs, their families, and retainers often ruled over the great majority of the population, through the use of force. 

The Kwakiuti had to give half of their food production to the chiefs.  They also had a large number of slaves (perhaps 15% of the population) while commoners went hungry. 

The Aztec empire is a more extreme than that of a people who had a small group of leaders who dominated, enslaved and ate their fellow citizens.  Almost all the welth taken in battle, including the flesh from the sacrificed victims, went to the Aztec elite – the king, nobles, and priests. 

Aztecs sacrificed from 15,000 to 250,000 a year and they ate most of them.  Many sold themselves into slavery because they could not otherwise provide for themselves. 

Shaka got the Zulus into fighting shape. His discipline was brutal.  For all to see with a sharpened stake driven up the anus, while vultures pecked at the corpse.  Fyn, who spent a great many days with Shaka, once saw him order the deaths of sixty boys under the age of twelve before he sat down to breakfast. 

Kumase is the capital of the Asante.  They had immense gold.  Asante commoners, the conquered peoples or the slaves who made up the bulk of the Asante Empire; but there can be no doubt that the empire was ruled by a small elite that prospered brilliantly from the labor and military service of many.

Not until the men of Belgium’s King Leopold killed an estimated 6 million people in the Belgium Congo did the world seriously object.  The only remarkable thing about the fact that states with great military power practice genocide is that it is so unremarkable. 


The reproductive success of the poor not only sharpens the Malthusian sword that rises above the entire population, it threatens the power and hence the adaptive success of the elite.  A population that grows too large to feed itself may meekly die off in starvation or disease, but it may also rebel, destroying the well-being and the lives of the elite. 

Unlike the British counterparts, the rulers of Tokugawa Japan chose to reject advances in military technology.  Armed with a gun, the rudest peasant could kill the noblest lord.  By the end of the 16th century, the feudal lords had already begun the process of removing firearms from the peasants. 



            Nevertheless, many traditional medical practices were not only useless but could be downright dangerous.  Children were allowed to play with their feces, and sick persons lay unattended in hammocks that were exposed to cold and rain.  Indeed, some of Siriono believed those who became ill had to eat.  Those who became ill gorged themselves to death.  An Australian Royal Commission estimated that 15,000 babies a year were killed by overdoses of opium.

When President Garfield was wounded by an assassin in 1881, his doctors probed the wound with unwashed fingers. 


Yanomamo Indians had 43 percent of all females born die during their first year (probably more than half due to infanticide) and only 22 percent of the population lived beyond the age of 30.  And in Mexico, it has been estimated that nutritional deficiencies directly accounted for 25 percent of deaths of preschool children. 

In 1982 40,000 children died from malnutrition or preventable disease each day.  That is 14 million dead children a year.  In 1990 it was the same.  Black men in Harlem are less likely to reach the age of 65 than men in Bangladesh.

Mormons in California have one of the lowest mortality rates from cancer and cardiovascular disease ever recorded.  A telling case in point is the decision of people to leave foraging for agriculture, even though their health suffers.  Life expectancy for all ages and sexes were determined to be lower in foraging situations.

At its peak around 500 AD, the Aztec had a life expectancy between 14 and 17 years, infant mortality was about 40 percent, and only 38 percent of everyone born lived to be as old as 15. 

To hunter-gatherers lives are between 20 and 40 years, depending on the particular society.  And infant mortality is high most hunting and gathering people do live through regular periods of extreme hunger and death of heir children.

The aborigines of Australia could only feed their population by aborting as many as half of all fetuses that were conceived.


K. R. Howe had contested European descriptions of the great health and beauty of early Polynesians.  They had arthritis, dental decay, parasitic disease and other infection that led to incredible infant mortality.  Very few lived beyond the age of thirty. 

In Papua New Guinea 20 o 30 percent died before the age of 5.  They did not make good use of the easily available protein.  They limited the amount that mothers could eat during pregnancy or while nursing.  Small children were typically denied animal protein. 

Also, the general lack of concern for hygiene in the preparation and consumption of food must have substantially increased the risk of infection, as did the practice of allowing children to crawl on feces-littered ground and put contaminated objects in their mouths. 

In Maring culture close relatives of deceased persons could not enter the gardens to produce or harvest food for several weeks after the death.  As more and more nutritionally marginal people died, in increasing numbers of previously healthy adults were compelled to deny themselves food while mourning.  They began to accuse one another of causing these deaths by sorcery. 

With a handful of exceptions, women and children in all societies eat less food – less-prized food- than men, and in many societies, women’s diets are restricted even further in both calories and protein when they are pregnant. P. 115.

In Ethiopia and many parts of East Africa, the youngest child is fed whatever may be left over after his father, any guest, his mother and siblings have eaten.  As a result many are malnourished.

            In Kwashiorkor in West Africa there is a custom whereby first babies are displaced from their mother’s breast by new ones.  The first one’s hair turns a reddish blond, and it may lose its appetite, become withdrawn, and die, most often from gastroenteritis. 

50% of Mexican American households in the American southwest used a drink with lead compounds, mercury or toxic laundry bluing to cure empacho.  Ayurvedic medicine said that dehydration was thought to be polluted because of transgressions committed by its mother. 


John Kennedy warned that paranoia associated with witchcraft could make life in some societies terribly uncomfortable.  It is widespread in Latin America and in fact most other parts of the world.  This level of fear hardly seems adaptive.  There can be no doubt that the perpetual fighting of early societies created too much fear.

The Netsilik Inuit believed no one was permitted to assist the women in giving birth to pregnant women.  The Navaho Indians have been called “perhaps the most hypochondriacal people known to the anthropological literature” because of their obsessive concern with curing ceremonies.  Most Inuit groups lived in dreadful fear. 


The idea that people experienced less stress in small folk communities than in urban societies has been one of the most implicitly taken for granted assumptions of modern social science. 

Schizophrenia can hardly be considered adaptive and it has been said to be a result of the stresses of modern life.  But all now see it as somewhat genetic.  Rates of depression also vary from society to society, as do phobias, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorders, hysteria and similar ailments.  But it is not clear how much of these conditions are a result of maladaptive customs.  Lower SES people have more mental problems. 

The post-partum depression in the US, the phenomenon appears to be quite rare in non-Western societies. 



            Beliefs or practices that leave a population seriously discontented or rebellious are, under most circumstances, maladaptive because they threaten the survival of that socio-cultural system and endangered the physical and emotional well-being of the people in it. 

            But the practice of foot binding apparently did not begin until around 1100 A.D. A woman with bound feet could not work; so her husband achieved prestige by demonstrating that he could afford to have a wife who did not need to work.  Footbinding endured for over a thousand years without any widespread social protest by women. 

            These  practices were able to be put out in a decade or so but it lasted until the 1930s.  For example, the practice of sending widows or household slaves to the grave with their deceased husbands or masters was known in many parts of the world, including China, Africa, ancient Greece, Scandinavia, and Russia. 

           Known as sati in Sanskrit and Anglicized as “suttee,” this practice was observered as early as the fourth century B.C.  By choosing sati she could reduce the pollution that endangered her husband’s surviving relatives, absolve herself of sin.  But despite the great pressure, very few widows actually chose sati.  Less than 10 percent even though they were scorned and feared. 

            The practice of female genital mutilation is widespread and in Kenya in 1961 and 1962 the author could not find a single Pokot woman who would criticize the operation. 

Various ethnographers have observed that people in small traditional societies may willingly give up one of their important practices after only minimal contact with Christian missionaries or European administrators.

The Dani many of these populations gave up their warfare as soon as Australian police patrols appeared and sometimes they remained completely pacified as long as a single European was present. 

            Some African kings made and remade customs willy-nilly. However, sometimes customs are so tenaciously defended that even people of power and influence can do nothing to change them.  The Skidi Pawnee Indians of Nebraska sacrificed humans for religious purposes. 

They tortured men women and children before they did it.  A chief tried to stop them but, led on by priests, it did not help. They continued until at least 1834.    Page 142. 

The alcohol related death among American Indians n the US in 1982 was almost three times that of the whole nation. 

Profoundly disaffected people may have recourse to all manner of socially disruptive action, but suicide is common.  People in some small traditional societies also kill themselves frequently. 

Ten percent of all deaths known to Pool during the six generations in Papua New Guinea were due to suicides.  In the early 1970s 57% of the total were.

Most suicides were by men 23-34 who could not stand the manliness requirements of their society.  In societies where wives are beaten and find no refuge kill themselves. 

It is true that many societies-even the people of Duddie’s Branch- not only command the emotional commitment of their members but are closed to outsiders.  Indeed human history has been marked as much by population movement as by closed societies that jealously defend their homelands against outsiders. 

It cannot be estimated how many people who leave the society in which they are born did so because the society in which they were from did not meet their needs. 

Samburu were warriors.  The young were not allowed women.  There was near rebellion but it was held down by the idea that elders could put a curse on any young person who offended them.

Women have been quite unhappy and have blamed men for their plight.  But with rare exceptions men physically dominate women, and they are often far from gentle about it.  Spirit possessions, which occurs in many parts of the world in addition to Africa, allows women to protest against circumstances like claiming a sickness.  Many women gang up on particularly bad men.  Smart men get out of their way.

The San constantly exhort each other to share but do not do so.  They only did so if food was abundant.  In the siriono women had to hide food in their vaginas. 

Rebellious antagonism towards authority is often ritualized, with jesters. 

But it is not only the persons thought guilty of sorcery or witchcraft who become victims when a population is discontented.  Many categories of objectionable people become targets: merchants, strangers, and people who profess a different religion.

Between 1961 and 1968 all but seven of the world’s 121 largest nations had violence.  Ten of the world’s bloodiest conflicts were civil wars or rebellions.  During the first two decades after WW II there were more rebellions than elections. 

People everywhere express varying degreees of dissatisfaction .  Sometimes it leads to self-destruction. 

A society whose members are always drunk, capriciously murderous or suicidal must change or cease to exist.  Not all discontent can be adaptive (the idea he is at war with).



            The sad story of Ishi, the last surviving Yahi Indian.  The Yahi were unique among North American Indians in that they alone released arrows from bows as Mongols do.    They led a rewarding life, despite having two dialects (one for men and another for women).  They were sufficiently committed to their lives to hold out against armed white men longer than any other North American society.

            It is not uncommon for a population to think of itself as the best people on earth.  It is hard to think that a society would hold out against the industrialized Europeans.  However, some societies lost much of their culture and population before European expansion took place. 

            The Tasmanians and various others have seen much of their technology disappear.  Canoes disappeared in various parts of Melanesia to be replaced by less seaworthy rafts.  In Polynesia, bows and arrows, once important in warfare, became toys for children, and an isolated group of 200 Inuit in northern Greenland lost the ability to make kayaks, the skin covered boats so important in fishing. 

            It did not motivate its people to want to survive as Batak.  They chose to eat a nutritionally poor diet even though more nutritious foods were available.  They had low fertility and married out of their race.  They did not lose their land and other folks have survived harsher situations.  The Mbuti Pygmies, for example, consciously chose to retain the integrity of their culture, and for a long period they have very largely done so. 

            To survive a society must have a military.  P 165.

            Maricopa Indians virtually annihilated the Quechan raiders.  Shaka the Zulu replaced the traditional throwing spear with a stabbing spear.  He completely reorganized the military.   The Asante empire was built by military conquest.  Those who refused to accept Asante rule were killed in large numbers.  Yet they had no advantage in weapons. 

            The Aztec Empire, the Mayan civilization, and the great achievements of Peru came to an end.  Whether over hundreds of years or quite suddenly, the great urbanized societies collapse.  Like the Hitite. 

            Joseph Tainter has attributed the collapse of many of the worlds great civilizations to just such popular discontent.  When the Vandals came more saw gain by joining them than staying in their existing polity. 

Social collapse can be brought about by belief systems and related behaviors that involve scarcely rational assessments of the balance between investments and returns. 

Knauft saw that the Gebusi attacked presumed witches so much that their homicide rate was one of the highest ever recorded.  They started to die out with a high rate.  Idi Amin had bizarre supernatural convictions that led to bad policies.  Disregarding his council’s advice, Montezuma made no effort to stop the Spaniards. 

The pages of history are also replete with examples of prophets who led their followers to their deaths.  He describes a situation in which 100,000 people were devastated.  The Xhosa followed a prophet who had them kill all their cattle.  This ended them.  

A desire for revenge can also destroy a society.  A belief in the necessity of blood vengeance may have been adaptive once. It no longer is.  Many societies have been unable to bring their feuds under control.  Ruth Benedict called this cultural suicide.  She was referring to the Kaingang Indians whose incessant feuds had reduced their population by 75%.

Kaiadilt men killed other Kaiadilt men in order to take their women. When they did it it was not for adaptation that they wanted women as sexual partners.  Dutch intervention saved the Marindanim because as headhunters who raided enemies as far away as 100 miles and their population was dwindling. 

Marind-amin men of Melanesia practiced ritual male homosexuality based on their belief that semen was essential to human growth and development.  They also married quite young to assure the bride’s fertility she too had to be filled with semen.  On her wedding night, therefore, as many as many as ten members of the husband’s lineage had sexual intercourse with the bride. 

Instead of enhancing a woman’s fertility the practice led to pelvic inflammatory disease that produced infertility.  Population large and small have lost their cultures, social institutions and languages.

At Masada over a thousand men lost their lives in defense of Israel.  It is seen as heroic. Had they been the last Jews, however, they would never have been heard of again.



Compared with the farmers, the pastoralists in all societies were more open and direct in their expressions of emotions and in their interpersonal relations.  Farmers tended to avoid conflict, presumably because their ties to the land made it impossible for them to move away. 

For all practical purposes, Plains Indian’s economic activities were identical.  However, their social organizations were quite dissimilar, and their cultures were dramatically different.  Some chose risky hunting for fun and others not.  Peoples right next to each other use different technologies and some are less efficient than others.  They do not take up all the other technology because it is cumbersome to do so. 

If one reflects for a moment on how most human populations solve their problems, it should be apparent that they will not always do so perfectly or even very well.

Christopher Boehm, he declared that natives were applied scientists.  Some scholars have imputed unconscious problem-solving ability to populations.  They say they are adapted even though they do not know it. 

Betty Meggers seriously concluded that people use inefficient hunting techniques and supernatural restrictions to not over hunt.  The bulk of available evidence suggests that people in all societies tend to be relatively rational when it comes to the beliefs and practices that directly involve their subsistence,  yet their non-rational beliefs sometimes destroy them. 

There is ample evidence that people in many societies can provide no rational reason for clinging to certainly belief or practices.  Americans do the same, worrying most about relatively unimportant environmental problems like pesticide residue on foods and radiation from X-Rays while largely ignoring global warming. 

58% of American college students believe that astrological predictions are valid and that 50% think that the Egyptian pyramids were build by ETs.  We saw many members of the Hawaiian priesthood and aristocracy abolished their system of food taboos.  Such farsighted leadership must have been uncommon in human history. 

Most populations manage to survive without being rational calculators in search of optimal solutions.  It appears for example, that folk populations typically adopt strategies that assure a life-sustaining but well below maximal yield of food. 

This has led some anthropologists to refer to their economic strategies in terms of “minimal risk” and “least effort.”


The sense of community said to typify small-scale societies is neither as common or as intense in these societies as proponents of the folk-urban distinction have thought.  Chumash and Kwakiutl have had powerful chiefs, social classes, and even slaves; their sense of community was sharply divided.  In reality, however, these people are notorious for being pitted against one another in perpetual envy, fear, and hostility. 

Urban dwellers suffer from various forms of personal and social distress partly because their own communities are less than idyllic but also because of the great diversity of cultures, religions, occupations, and classes.  Small-scale societies are spared the disharmony that may result from such diversity but they are not free from conflict. 

The average life expectancy in the US and Japan and Western Europe today is more than twice that ever attained by any folk-society and indeed is three times that of many. 

            Variation in DNA is adaptively neutral.  So that of drift in culture.

Pawnee practice of torturing children before sacrificing them to propitiate the Mornig Star would be considered a moral outrage by anyone reading this book.  Perhaps the lessening Pawnee anxiety, human sacrifice was a practice that created fear because failure to perform the ceremony would bring about supernatural displeasure. 

            Small tribes will be brought more and more into the larger federations, but the tendency towards xenophobia will not lessen.  These ethnic and religious revivalisms, will bring about valorization of traditional beliefs.  In a retribalized world, we can hope that people will choose wisely.  But the factors that led to maladaptation in the past will continue to threaten well-being.  That is all the more reason that those who fashion the new cultures and societies should be aware that some beliefs and behaviors serve human needs better than others.