Calling all anthropologists!
August 29, 2006 5:29 AM   Subscribe

What were some of the most idyllic communities to have ever existed? I’m not looking for opinions, I’m looking for hard anthropological examples or studies that have been carried out on such cultures.

In terms of health, happiness, harmony with one another and with their environment, at what time and where have some of the most ideal communities ever existed. The term ‘community’ can include as many people as you want (from a small hunter-gatherer tribe to a whole nation), but generally I would consider that the more people who are happy, the better. I’m not looking for a veritable utopia: I understand that such a thing is impossible, and that there will always be discord within human society, however, a strong community will encounter discord and then heal it in a sane manner until further issues arise… that’s how I see it, anyway. Whether it has existed or not is another thing. ANYWAY: I used to think that the community described in this essay, “Dream Theory in Malaya”, were a fantastic example of what I’m after, however I recently discovered that a lot of the details concerning this tribe had been embellished. Nonetheless, they serve as a good example. Anyway, I’m sure there must have been some fairly idyllic places to live in ancient Asia, or Africa… perhaps the Red Indians? Maybe somewhere more modern (but remember that in most modern societies only a certain contingent of people live well, and at the expense of others, which for me does not define a healthy community) – Anyway, fire away!
posted by heylight to Society & Culture (9 answers total)
I dont have specific examples, but I dont think you'll find a 'true' utopia anywhere in history; if thats what you're looking for. Also there's the problem of documentation; if such a utopia existed, chances are it didnt make it into the history books precisely because the archives tend to document wars and kings; not utopias as such.

You might find sociological elements in the past or present that encourage coexistence and productivity; but these would be disparate and isolated tendencies (ie, they would not produce "whole societies" as utopias; they are just tendencies within a particular society or history). So in the end they might not count for much.

If you approach the question from a broad civilizational perspective (by which to narrow your search), you might start with buddhist cultures in East Asia (or perhaps some older Indian/Chinese cultures, pre 1000 AD). Asoka was a Buddhist ruler in India who renounced war and actively encouraged his subjects to solve their problems peacefully. In reality this happened only spottily; but as an unusual experiment in history, it is interesting. There are other experiments like that; consider the diversity of religions and gods in Asia in general; they're not utopian, but they also did coexist remarkably successfully for millenia (you'll find lots of wars between rulers, but you'd be hardpressed to find any holocausts (in the modern sense) against entire communities). But all this is relative; I'm assuming the standard by which you're measuring this is the modern day inability to coexist socially or politically.
posted by jak68 at 10:42 AM on August 29, 2006

Maybe I'm misunderstanding the question, but from your caveat about "modern societies" at the end, it sounds like you have a very idealistic view of what many less developed societies were like. If you're just measuring the number of people who report being happy, a majority are in most societies, including modern ones. But if you're looking for some objective measure of the health and happiness of people, I think that modern societies are going to do better than most of the less developed societies could.

Yes, there have been many societies throughout that were largely peaceful and where people were fairly content, but in most societies throughout history, life was extremely difficult in many respects that we take for granted now. A huge number of children died at very young ages, life expectancy was 30 or 40 years of age, and diseases that we can now treat easily killed whole villages at a time. People worked like beasts of burden to provide shelter and food for themselves and their families, and leisure time as we know it was nearly nonexistent.

Most people throughout most of history have lived with housing that would fail even the most basic modern safety codes, few or no educational opportunities, no modern medicine, little ability to communicate with the world beyond their own villages, and manual labor as the primary form of work. Most societies throughout history have been either homogeneous (meaning that you'd never get the opportunity to talk to someone whose experiences and beliefs differed from yours) or have experienced a significant degree of racial, gender, or cultural inequality and oppression. Most people in most societies throughout history were dirt poor. The standard of living that the wealthiest people enjoyed even a century or two ago would be considered intolerable for even the poorest people in modern America. And in most societies throughout most of history, there have been at least a few people (chiefs, lords, upper classes, etc.) who have lived "at the expense of others."

If you want to talk purely about the amount of discord and fighting in societies, I'm sure you could find less developed societies that were better off than modern Americans and other developed nations. But if you add health, safety, material well-being, leisure time, ability to pursue your own dreams and desires in life, etc., you'd be hard pressed to find a society better off than the one we live in today.

Again, maybe I'm just not understanding the question, so maybe there's some other way you could phrase it that would better describe what you're looking for.
posted by Amy Phillips at 10:44 AM on August 29, 2006

Best answer: "The Red Indians"??

Anyway, how about Iceland, among modern societies. They've had a stable society for around a thousand years, they stay out of wars and conflicts, have a high standard of living, excellent health care and educational system. And a decent airline when they want to see the rest of the world. They abolished slavery in the year 1117. The crime rate is so low the police don't carry guns, unemployment is 1.9%, and once a year, the members of the parliament (founded in 930, that's nine hundred thirty), are required to speak in rhyme.
posted by beagle at 11:20 AM on August 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

In harmony with their environment, and generally with each other, the Australian Aboriginals occupied the continent for an estimated 40,000 to 200,000 years before the arrival of white man.

I am not sure how you would rate happiness or health. Amy Phillips, above, addresses the difficulties inherent in such comparisons well.

The most famous modern utopia that springs to mind might be Christiania, in / near Copenhagen...?

You would have no trouble finding sociological / anthropological studies on either example, but it's your paper, not mine, so I'll let you do the legwork ;)

(read: i gotta get to the office)
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:08 PM on August 29, 2006

Best answer: Two fascinating, doomed cultures come to mind: the Shakers and the Moriori.

The Shakers, a North American Quaker offshoot, espoused devotion to God, hard work, and simplicity. As if this didn't put them squarely at odds with the modernizing culture around them, they were doomed, of course, by their disinterest in procreation and refusal to proselytize. As this recent Boston Globe article explains, there are still a few Shakers left in southern Maine. If they are able to attract new believers, they may yet avoid extinction.

The Moriori, we now know, were originally Maori who colonized the remote Chatham Islands in the south Pacific about 500 years ago. Separation from their New Zealand homeland — and lacking its larger population and arable land — constrained their numbers to about 2000. Gradually they developed a unique hunter-gatherer, pacifist way of life. These circumstances left the Moriori very vulnerable to the arrival of the British and later, their former brothers, the Maori, who overwhelmed the fragile culture. Michael King's Moriori: A People Rediscovered is considered the most authoritative history.
posted by rob511 at 2:48 PM on August 29, 2006

In harmony with their environment, and generally with each other, the Australian Aboriginals occupied the continent for an estimated 40,000 to 200,000 years before the arrival of white man.

Except for the bit where they wiped out all the large marsupials and altered the climate right when they got there of course.

In general I'd look for societies that have acheived parity with their resources.
posted by fshgrl at 10:38 PM on August 29, 2006

United States of America, modern-day. As close to perfection as you'll likely experience.
posted by davidmsc at 4:03 AM on August 30, 2006

Re: Beagle up there. In school I often learnt about the bloody feuds and killing-as-a-matter-of-course that happened for centuries on Iceland, which almost depopulated the country.
posted by Catfry at 4:18 PM on August 30, 2006

Except for the bit where [the Australian aboriginals] wiped out all the large marsupials and altered the climate right when they got there of course.

In general I'd look for societies that have acheived parity with their resources.

Which is exactly what happened once the megafauna had been wiped out during the aboriginals' first minute on the continent. It's probably as good an example of (very very) long-term parity as you are ever likely to find.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:07 PM on August 30, 2006

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