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Review: Tribal society lessons in 'The World Until Yesterday'





"The custom among the Pirahã Indians of Brazil is that women give birth alone. The linguist Steve Sheldon once saw a Pirahã woman giving birth on a beach, while members of her tribe waited nearby. It was a breech birth, however, and the woman started crying in agony. “Help me, please! The baby will not come.” Sheldon went to help her, but the other Pirahã stopped him, saying that she didn’t want his help. The woman kept up her screams. The next morning both mother and baby were found dead.

The Pirahã believe that people have to endure hardships on their own.

The anthropologist Allan Holmberg was with a group of Siriono Indians of Bolivia when a middle-aged woman grew gravely ill. She lay in her hammock, too unwell to walk or speak. Her husband told Holmberg that the tribe had to move on and would leave her there to die. They left her a fire and some water and walked away without saying goodbye. Even her husband had no parting words for her.

Holmberg was also sick and went away to get treatment. When he returned three weeks later, he saw no trace of the woman. At the next camp, he found her remains picked clean by scavenging animals.

“She had tried her utmost to follow the fortunes of the band,” Holmberg wrote, “but had failed and had experienced the same fate that is accorded all Siriono whose days of utility are over.” Tribes at this subsistence level just don’t have the resources to care for people who can’t keep up."

Get the Story:
Book Review: Tribal Lessons (The New York Times 1/13)