Wisdom ID Who's Failing? Reality Check Other Ways Insights False Idols Conclusions Background

Alternative Lifeways Across Space & Time

North America


Pacific Northwest Indians



Old Order Amish

Southern Paiutes


The Farm

Hot Springs Ranch



Zapotec of La Paz

South America




Europe & Atlantic

Scottish Highlanders

Irish Farming Villages

Dark Ages Europe

Alpine Pastoralists


Roman Empire

Tristan Islanders


Ancient Egypt



Post-Colonial Africa




Asia & Pacific

Iranian Nomads



Chinese Society


Indian Society






Rural Thai





Yap Islanders


Bali Rice Culture

New Guinea Highlanders


Australian Aborigines

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We members of dominant societies provide aid to less fortunate people around the world, and our affluence, our science and advanced technology, seem to prove our superiority. But as noted above, we have our problems, too – many of them serious. Is there anything important and useful that we can learn from other societies of the present, or even of the past?


These examples of human societies and their alternative behavior patterns are a work in progress and are by no means complete, but they are more than adequate to demonstrate universal patterns and reveal universal insights about our species, while suggesting an endless variety of successful approaches to life on earth.

The dominant Anglo-European society is a special case. Due to the legacy of colonialism and the power of their technology, Anglo-European society is global. It completely dominates Europe, North and South America, Australia, and much of Asia. Even in areas where Anglo-Europeans remain a minority, such as the Middle East, East Asia, South Asia and the Pacific Islands, and Africa, the Anglo-European economy and technology are dominant.

But despite the global political, economic, and technological dominance of Anglo-European society, alternative societies remain and often thrive as social and ecological "islands" in the midst of the dominant culture, often achieving surprising autonomy and independence.

Whereas at first glance these examples may seem to include incomparable "apples and oranges", we all participate in both the macro and micro levels of society, and it's vitally important to understand the relative effectiveness of local vs. global institutions. And, when we learn what works, we may wish to reform our society or even to design our own society, so it's important to look at intentional communities both historic (Amish) and modern (The Farm) as well as those which have evolved chaotically over millenia (Anglo-European and Southern Paiute).

Full disclosure: Max has direct personal experience with the following societies: Anglo-European, Pacific Northwest Indians, Southern Paiutes, Hot Springs Ranch, Maya, Amish, Yoruba, Scottish Highlanders, and Berber. For knowledge of the rest, he is indebted to anthropologist John Reader, the Peaceful Societies project of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Anthropology, and individual anthropologists including Conrad Arensberg, John Hostetler, Carobeth Laird, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, and many others.


Sociologists and anthropologists haven't been able to agree on a model for comparative study of human societies, so I've developed my own generalized model based on Pictures of Knowledge, referencing various scholarly studies for completeness, but introducing some unconventional twists in hope of teasing out some new insights.

For example, my model of human societies is inspired more by human ecology than by sociology or anthropology. Until recently, ecologists focused primarily on natural habitats, omitting humans from the ecosystem, and anthropologists traditionally distinguish human societies from their natural environments, treating their technologies as a form of "material culture" rather than as ecosystem interactions.

Also, anthropologists focus on race, language and kinship structure, which I've found to be mostly irrelevant when studying social and ecological success. And they tend to treat religion and myth as distinct from social control, whereas both religion and origin stories are directly implicated in social control for most societies. Finally, although communication and transportation technology are central in modern societies, anthropological studies often overlook or under-represent distance interactions – communications, travel, trade – between groups or settlements in traditional societies.

Topic   Subtopic   Details
History   World   Their mythology or creation story
    Society   Evolution of the society
Habitat & Ecosystem   Habitat & Ecosystems   Surrounding Landscape, Occupied Landscape, Climate, Ecosystems & Natural Resources
    Neighbors   Adjacent Societies
    Land Use   Settlement Patterns & Technology, Mobility
    Ecological Interactions   Subsistence & Other Technologies
Society   Overall Structure & Institutions   Overall structure of the entire society, overall management, institutions, population control
    Internal Connectivity   Internal Communication, Travel, Trade
    Life Cycle   Birth, Parenting & Childhood, Adult Providers, Mating, Elders, Death
    Behavior Management   Social Codes, Religion, Knowledge & Wisdom, Leadership & Decisionmaking, Conflict Prevention & Resolution
    Resource Distribution   Economy & Sharing
    Healthcare   How they care for each other's mental, emotional & physical health
    Neighbor Relationships   External Travel, Trade, Intermarriage, Conflict, etc.
    Crisis Management   How they respond to & resolve crises that affect the entire community
Summary Observations   Strengths   Values, Behaviors & Institutions that contribute to their social & ecological health
    Weaknesses   Values, Behaviors & Institutions that undermine their social & ecological health
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