This mongongo nuts reflection was my third guest post for Savage Minds. I copy the post here for the RSS feed and for Kindle Subscriptions. This post is related to several sections of this blog, including Agriculture as “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”? and the follow-up series on Jared Diamond resulting in the Yanomami Ax Fight: Jared Diamond, Science, Violence & the Facts.

In a recent post, Kerim does excellent work tracing the Savage Minds engagement with Jared Diamond, which dates to the establishment of this blog as a scrappy band of Davids taking aim at Goliath.

These days, Diamond gets criticized mostly for not reading or potentially libelous composite misreadings. But I want to dial this back to Diamond’s 1987 article “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” when Diamond obviously takes anthropology from Richard B. Lee–mongongo nuts with no acknowledgment–and also reproduces Lee and Irven DeVore, again with no credit for what almost any professor would call plagiarism.

Did people challenge Diamond for this taking of anthropology in 1987? Could a more forceful response have cautioned Diamond from appropriating anthropology with impunity and “diluting the brand“? Would Jared Diamond have become… JARED DIAMOND?

Does Jared Diamond read?

Anthropologists have criticized Jared Diamond for not reading, or not understanding what he says he has read. In Questioning Collapse, Norman Yoffee says Diamond has misinterpreted his book as well as Joseph Tainter’s work, the first two sources cited in the “Further Readings” section of Collapse (Yoffee 2009:177). In the same volume, Drexel Woodson “wonders how discerningly Diamond read the five books on Haiti” (2009:278). Rex’s Savage Minds review of Questioning Collapse notes that Diamond apparently did not read the critiques very closely: “The kindest thing one can say about Diamond’s position here is that it is unintelligible, because the alternative options are that a) Diamond’s personal animus against the authors was so intense he could not understand the content of the book or b) he simply did not read the book he is reviewing.” And of course at iMedia Ethics, evidence that Jared Diamond’s 2008 New Yorker article was a “fictional composite constructed from random stories.”

Long before all this, however, Diamond’s 1987 Discover Magazine article “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” read and took anthropology too closely, especially from Richard B. Lee. Although this article might seem to be in the distant past, it is still a staple for Introduction to Anthropology readers like Applying Anthropology and continues to draw commentary on the internet.

Mongongo Nuts

Diamond obviously uses Richard Lee–without any referencing–for that famous quote about mongongo nuts:

It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” (Diamond 1987:65)

Now, as Diamond’s article continues to circulate, some associate the quote more with Diamond than with Lee (see the 2009 BBC blog-post “Do hunter-gatherers have it right?” which mentions “one Kalahari Bushman quoted by Jared Diamond”).

Why did Diamond not mention Lee? One idea woud be that in a three-page popular article like “Worst Mistake,” there simply is no space for citation. However, that doesn’t make sense. First, Diamond used the same phrase about the mongongo nuts in his book The Third Chimpanzee (1991). Diamond mentions Lee one time, at the end, in a suggestion for “further readings,” but he does not get a specific reference, even in a book-length treatment. Second, it is not as though Diamond did not mention any academic researchers in “Worst Mistake”–he does cite George Armelagos, whose name is longer than Lee’s.

Another idea is that Diamond takes Lee’s work just because it is ethnography–and since ethnography is often viewed as “hanging out” (as the commenter Strong points out in the recent discussion about Hau), then it is free for the taking. Therefore Armelagos, who does real research and analysis in a lab, gets cited, while Lee is just overhearing things while hanging out. This view would certainly match with Diamond’s later work, in which a bit of hanging out while doing other scientific studies makes Diamond eligible to write something like ethnography in the “Annals of Anthropology.”

However, I don’t think this explanation would make as much sense in relation to Lee’s work–anyone with some familiarity would know how much Lee was measuring, quantifying, counting, analyzing, with just as much rigor as in a laboratory setting.

Interplanetary archaeologists to fellow spacelings

Perhaps more seriously, compare what Lee and Irven DeVore write for the introduction to Man the Hunter (1968) with how Diamond concludes “Worst Mistake”:

Lee and DeVore 1968:3

To date, the hunting way of life has been the most successful and persistent adaptation man has ever achieved. Nor does this evaluation exclude the present precarious existence under the threat of nuclear annihilation and the population explosion. It is still an open question whether man will be able to survive the exceedingly complex and unstable ecological conditions he has created for himself. If he fails in this task, interplanetary archaeologists of the future will classify our planet as one in which a very long and stable period of small-scale hunting and gathering was followed by an apparently instantaneous efflorescence of technology and society leading rapidly to extinction. On the other hand, if we succeed in establishing a sane and workable world order, the long evolution of man as a hunter in the past and the (hopefully) much longer era of technical civilization in the future will bracket an incredibly brief transitional phase of human history–a phase which included the rise of agriculture, animal domestication, tribes, states, cities, empires, nations, and the industrial revolution.

Diamond 1987:66

Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited from outer space were trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering façade, and that have so far eluded us?


Diamond is just condensing Lee and DeVore, changing some phrasings here and there. I would grade this as structured plagiarism.

Did anyone confront Diamond?

As far as I know, this article has not been discussed on Savage Minds and I haven’t seen other anthropology blogs tackle it. Somehow 10 years later what Diamond once labeled the “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” became The Explanation for Everything, as early agriculture adoption leads to Guns, Germs, and Steel. So I’m hoping for comments about this episode of anthropological history. Did anyone take Diamond to task for plagiarism? Could an earlier and forceful response had given Diamond pause before later anthropological appropriations?

My feeling is many anthropologists have deferred to Diamond in part because he seems to be standing for good things–the inaccuracies of The Third Chimpanzee could be excused because Diamond emphasizes evolution; the geographic determinism of Guns, Germs, and Steel OK-ed because it is supposedly anti-racist; the choose-to-fail account in Collapse let stand because of Diamond’s concern with climate change. Still, has Diamond moved public opinion at all with regard to evolution, anti-racism, or climate change? Would it really be worse without Diamond?

This earlier episode, as Diamond plagiarizes the agricultural revisionists, offers potential insight for anthropology’s dance with Diamond and how anthropologists might change the terms of debate going forward.