An incredible example of societal collapse

this sounds like the end state of libertarianism.


Well, that was depressing.


Post post-scarcity.


My first thought as well. This is “rugged individualism” taken to its logical (and unbearably rugged) end.


Post-late-stage capitalism?


The last paragraph was pasted twice. You might want to fix that.

The claims about the Ik are so outstanding, I wanted to learn more about them.

Here’s a page that describes the Ik in a different way:

Child bearing is sign of blessings to humankind and to the Ik tribe raising children is a social responsibility. The parents share the asak with infants up to a certain age, 4 years on average and then the grandparents pick them up. The grandparents are a living information data bank from which children acquire basic life survival skills. At an average age of 13 years, the grand children leave their grandparents asak. Boys of the same age group erect their own asak and live as a gang, while girls are “mature” and ready for marriage.

While this page explains:

The Ik People became famous in 1972, British-American anthropologist Colin Turnbull published his book “The Mountain People” in which the Ik People came across as a people who did not love.

A visit to one of the Ik Villages on Mount Morungole will disprove that. They are quite loving, quite welcoming ad Turnbull simply got it wrong.

The Wikipedia page contains also substantial criticism of Turnbull’s work.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’d take a book called “the collapse of complex societies” with a massive grain of salt. YMMV.


Good, I added a link to this comment at the top of the post.


As usual, the truth is more complex. Turnbull studied the Ik at a time of particular stress, when years of drought meant they were struggling to survive. A more recent study shows that in better times, Ik society looks much more similar to other tribal societies:

But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Tainter’s book is an important study of how and why societies collapse, most often driven by exhaustion of natural resources.


This is an excerpt from a widely criticized account of Ik culture written in 1972 by a white dude who did not speak their language, and mostly studied Ik villages governed by other tribes. T.O. Beidelman wrote a few years later :

This book cannot be discussed in any proper sociological terms, for we are provided with only snatches of data. Rather than being a study of the Ik, this is an autobiographical portrait of the author utilizing the Ik as counters for expressing his personal feelings and experiences in the field.

So, yeah. It’s an interesting account, but do keep in mind that it is more a reflection of who Colin Turnbull was than who the Ik people are.


“Incredible” is apt. I don’t believe this nonsense.

Sending a 3 year old out into the wild and thinking any survive on their own.


I was going to say that the account given in the article doesn’t seem like a sustainable model for a society, but I guess you cleared that up already.

I suggest you read the criticism detailed in the Wikipedia article, it explains why Turnbull’s impression might have been distorted.


I did. But as I tell my students, it’s okay to start your research at Wikipedia, but never to end it there.


I am glad you looked into this. Just reading the excerpt, I was having a very hard time believing this was true or even possible outside of extreme famine or genocidal circumstances.


I’m SHOCKED that would be the case! /s

Apparently, you can visit and find out for yourself…


That is the point of the post. The society collapsed in bad times.

Ok, now I’m really curious what else you found, out.

Because as far as I understand it, the article you linked doesn’t counter any of Heine’s arguments, and Townsend does not bring any additional accounts that confirm Turnbull’s claims, she just takes them for granted and says now things are different.

What can I say, I just have one data point on Tainter’s book, and so far it’s not looking good for him.

Although, as I said, the title is a bit strange. I think that all societies are complex by nature, so what would make those that collapsed “more” complex? Also “collapse” is such an evaluative term, societies change all the time, and arguably most of them exist until the people they’re made up have passed away. But that’s just my perspective.

Edit: corrected the (I hope obvious) mistake.


Tainter deals with all of this. It’s a fairly academic book, so he carefully defines both terms (complex and collapse). To Tainter, both concepts are continuous variables, rather than discrete states. His central theory roughly boils down to the idea that as a society gets more complex, the marginal returns on activities such as gathering food, energy, etc gradually reduce until they go negative. That doesn’t necessarily cause a collapse, but there’s evidence of this at play in all the examples of collapse he analyzes. More recent work building on Tainter’s theory suggests that a collapse wouldn’t necessarily be seen as such by the people experiencing it, because the most immediate cause of suffering and death as a society unravels is most likely to be war, famine, or other “natural” disasters. But Tainter’s point is that there’s a systemic factor in more complex societies that makes them unable to cope with these events. In simple term, more complex societies are less resilient to shocks.

A more recent theory that builds on Tainter’s work is panarchy theory, as set out in Walker and Salt’s elegant book Resilience Thinking:

W&S draw on ecology to show that the cycle of collapse and re-organisation has consistent repeatable features, even it it’s not always predictable in advance. I would tend to recommend W&S in preference to Tainter, although I do recommend reading Tainter if you really want to study the topic seriously.

Whoa. As I had posted on another thread, 14 years ago today I was writing an article on Collapse after organizing a symposium within the Anthropology department of my home university in Montreal, basically a reaction to the recently published Collapse by Jared Diamond, before I headed to Detroit and saw first hand what collapse was… And as I did the literature review I remembered my trusty old book by Joseph Tainter, the first book I bought in college and the first academic book, almost 30 years ago to the day, the first paperback edition. Still now it is one of the most thorough opus on civilisation collapse written. And I re-read it from time to time.
Kudos to Mr. Belshaw for bringing it back to light. I am too busy teaching to write something brilliant about it.


“Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish; and short.”

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