reviewing jared diamond’s new book

9780670024810_custom-b3591917da92ff0caa7cd6a26012bdf93091465b-s6-c30James C. Scott at The London Review of Books:

What were our ancestors like before the domestication of plants and animals, before sedentary village life, before the earliest towns and states? That is the question Diamond sets himself to answer. In doing so, he faces nearly insurmountable obstacles. Until quite recently, archaeology recorded our history as a species in relation to the concentration of debris (middens, building rubble, traces of irrigation canals, walls, fossilised faeces etc) we left behind. Hunter-gatherers were typically mobile and spread their largely biodegradable debris widely; we don’t often find their temporary habitats, which were often in caves or beside rivers or the sea, and the vast majority of such sites have been lost to history. When we do find them, they can tell us something about their inhabitants’ diet, cooking methods, bodily adornment, trade goods, weapons, diseases, local climate and occasionally even causes of death, but not much else. How to infer from this scant evidence our ancestors’ family structure and social organisation, their patterns of co-operation and conflict, let alone their ethics and cosmology.

It is here that Diamond makes his fundamental mistake. He imagines he can triangulate his way to the deep past by assuming that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are ‘our living ancestors’, that they show what we were like before we discovered crops, towns and government. This assumption rests on the indefensible premise that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are survivals, museum exhibits of the way life was lived for the entirety of human history ‘until yesterday’ – preserved in amber for our examination.
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