Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes -- the Yanomamo and the Anthropologistsby Napoleon A. Chagnon
The most controversial and famous anthropologist of our time describes his seminal lifelong research among the Yanomamö Indians of the Amazon basin and how his startling observations provoked admiration among many fellow anthropologists and outrage among others.
ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT SCIENTIFIC MEMOIRS OF OUR TIME
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The most controversial and famous anthropologist of our time describes his seminal lifelong research among the Yanomamö Indians of the Amazon basin and how his startling observations provoked admiration among many fellow anthropologists and outrage among others.
ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT SCIENTIFIC MEMOIRS OF OUR TIME
When Napoleon Chagnon arrived in Venezuela’s Amazon region in 1964 to study the Yanomamö Indians, one of the last large tribal groups still living in isolation, he expected to find Rousseau’s “noble savages,” so-called primitive people living contentedly in a pristine state of nature. Instead Chagnon discovered a remarkably violent society. Men who killed others had the most wives and offspring, their violence possibly giving them an evolutionary advantage. The prime reasons for violence, Chagnon found, were to avenge deaths and, if possible, abduct women.
When Chagnon began publishing his observations, some cultural anthropologists who could not accept an evolutionary basis for human behavior refused to believe them. Chagnon became perhaps the most famous American anthropologist since Margaret Mead—and the most controversial. He was attacked in a scathing popular book, whose central allegation that he helped start a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö was quickly disproven, and the American Anthropological Association condemned him, only to rescind its condemnation after a vote by the membership. Throughout his career Chagnon insisted on an evidence-based scientific approach to anthropology, even as his professional association dithered over whether it really is a scientific organization. In Noble Savages, Chagnon describes his seminal fieldwork—during which he lived among the Yanomamö, was threatened by tyrannical headmen, and experienced an uncomfortably close encounter with a jaguar—taking readers inside Yanomamö villages to glimpse the kind of life our distant ancestors may have lived thousands of years ago. And he forcefully indicts his discipline of cultural anthropology, accusing it of having traded its scientific mission for political activism.
This book, like Chagnon’s research, raises fundamental questions about human nature itself.
“Noble Savages is an epic—not only of one of the most extraordinary physical and intellectual adventures ever experienced by a major scientist, but also the history of one of the most significant events in the early, often turbulent meeting between evolutionary biology and the social sciences."
“Very few people have led lives as fascinating as Napoleon Chagnon’s, or have lived among people as dangerous as the Yanomamö, and fewer still have his courage or his honor. Noble Savages is a page-turning masterpiece. You don’t need to know anything about anthropology to read it. By the time you finish, you’ll know a lot."
“Noble Savages is Napoleon Chagnon’s equal-time response to the libels that were piled upon him by reckless journalists and irresponsible colleagues. For those who followed the debate it is a welcome summary, and for those who did not it is a brilliant introduction to the innocent nobility of the fierce Yanomamö and the petty savagery of the mean-minded savants who saw their outworn ideologies under attack. Chagnon was always himself a fighter and this book is his final knockout punch in a fight he didn’t pick, but has most assuredly won.”
“A beautifully written adventure story. . . . Noble Savages is a remarkable testament to an engineer's 35-year effort to unravel the complex working of an untouched human society.”
“One of the most interesting anthropology books I have ever read. . . . [Chagnon's] portrayal of society's origins has so much to say about the nature of our species that it should be examined thoughtfully.”
“Engaging. . . . A fascinating portrayal of the discomfort and danger that anthropologists working in remote areas face. The book is at its most entertaining when documenting the challenges of everyday life in the jungle — how to sleep fitfully in a hammock among enemies who might attempt to assassinate you in your sleep or how to net a juicy tapir for your dinner.”
“This memoir, Chagnon’s first book for a general audience, recounts with confident prose and self-effacing humor his intense immersion, from 1964 onward, within this fascinating people and their jungle environment. . . . In this invaluable book, Chagnon delivers a gripping adventure travelogue. His take on the corrupting relationship between politics and science is as likely to re-stoke the flames of debate as settle outstanding accounts.”
“Fascinating reading for anyone interested in native peoples, history and where we all come from.”
“It’s not hyperbole to call Chagnon the most controversial and famous anthropologist in America. . . . [Noble Savages] is a memoir that offers a highly readable mixture of adventure, science, and scandal.”
Verdict The book is geared toward informed lay readers, but some knowledge of current anthropological theory is necessary for a complete understanding. This memoir is bound to be popular—and deservedly so.—Elizabeth Salt, Otterbein Univ. Lib., Westerville, OH
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My first day in the field—November 28, 1964—was an experience I’ll never forget. I had never seen so much green snot before then. Not many anthropologists spend their first day this way. If they did, there would be very few applicants to graduate programs in anthropology.
I had traveled in a small aluminum rowboat propelled by a large outboard motor for two and a half days, cramped in with several extra fifty-five-gallon gasoline barrels and two Venezuelan functionaries who worked for the Malarialogía, the Venezuelan malaria control service. They were headed to their tiny outpost in Yanomamö territory—two or three thatched huts. This boat trip took me from the territorial capital, Puerto Ayacucho, a small town on the Orinoco River, into Yanomamö country on the High Orinoco some 350 miles upstream. I was making a quick trip to have a look-see before I brought my main supplies and equipment for a seventeen-month study of the Yanomamö Indians, a Venezuelan tribe that was very poorly known in 1964. Most of their villages had no contact with the outside world and were considered to be “wild” Indians. I also wanted to see how things at the field site would be for my wife, Carlene, and two young children, Darius (three years old) and Lisa (eighteen months old).
On the morning of the third day we reached a small mission settlement called Tama Tama, the field “headquarters” of a group of mostly American evangelical missionaries, the New Tribes Mission, who were working in two Yanomamö villages farther upstream and in several villages of the Carib-speaking Ye’kwana, a different tribe located northwest of the Yanomamö. The missionaries had come out of these remote Indian villages to hold a conference on the progress of their mission work and were conducting their meetings at Tama Tama when I arrived. Tama Tama was about a half day by motorized dugout canoe downstream from where the Yanomamö territory began.
We picked up a passenger at Tama Tama, James P. Barker, the first outsider to make a sustained, permanent contact with the Venezuelan Yanomamö in 1950. He had just returned from a year’s furlough in the United States, where I had briefly visited him in Chicago before we both left for Venezuela. As luck would have it, we both arrived in Venezuela at about the same time, and in Yanomamö territory the same week. He was a bit surprised to see me and happily agreed to accompany me to the village I had selected (with his advice) for my base of operations, Bisaasi-teri, and to introduce me to the Indians. I later learned that bisaasi was the name of the palm whose leaves were used in the large roofs of many Yanomamö villages: -teri is the Yanomamö word that means “village.” Bisaasi-teri was also his own home base, but he had not been there for over a year and did not plan to come back permanently for another three months. He therefore welcomed this unexpected opportunity to make a quick overnight visit before he returned permanently.
Barker had been living with this particular Yanomamö group about four years at that time. Bisaasi-teri had divided into two villages when the village moved to the mouth of the Mavaca River, where it flows into the Orinoco from the south. One group was downstream and was called Lower Bisaasi-teri (koro-teri) and the other was upstream and called Upper Bisaasi-teri (ora-teri). Barker lived among the Upper Bisaasi-teri. His mud-and-thatch house was located next to their village.
Left to right: James V. Neel, Napoleon Chagnon, and James P. Barker, 1966
We arrived at Upper Bisaasi-teri about 2 P.M. and docked the aluminum speedboat along the muddy riverbank at the terminus of the path used by the Indians to fetch their drinking water. The Yanomamö normally avoid large rivers like the Orinoco, but they moved there because Barker had persuaded them to. The settlement was called, in Spanish, by the men of the Malarialogía and the missionaries, Boca Mavaca—the Mouth of the Mavaca. It sometimes appeared on Venezuelan maps of that era as Yababuji—a Yanomamö word that translates as “Gimme!” This name was apparently—and puckishly—suggested to the mapmakers because it captured some essence of the place: “Gimme” was the most frequent phrase used by the Yanomamö when they greeted visitors to the area.
My ears were ringing from three dawn-to-dusk days of the constant drone of the outboard motor. It was hot and muggy, and my clothing was soaked with perspiration, as it would be for the next seventeen months. Small biting gnats, bareto in the Yanomamö language, were out in astronomical numbers, for November was the beginning of the dry season and the dry season means lots of bareto. Clouds of them were so dense in some places that you had to be careful when you breathed lest you inhale some of them. My face and hands were swollen from their numerous stings.
In just a few moments I was to meet my first Yanomamö, my first “primitive” man. What would he be like? I had visions of proudly entering the village and seeing 125 “social facts” running about, altruistically calling each other kinship terms and sharing food, each courteously waiting to have me interview them and, perhaps, collect his genealogy.
Would they like me? This was extremely important to me. I wanted them to be so fond of me that they would adopt me into their kinship system and way of life. During my anthropological training at the University of Michigan I learned that successful anthropologists always get adopted by their people. It was something very special. I had also learned during my seven years of anthropological training that the “kinship system” was equivalent to “the whole society” in primitive tribes and that it was a moral way of life. I was determined to earn my way into their moral system of kinship and become a member of their society—to be accepted by them and adopted as one of them.
The year of fieldwork ahead of me was what earned you your badge of authority as an anthropologist, a testimony to your otherworldly experience, your academic passport, your professional credentials. I was now standing at the very cusp of that profound, solemn transformation and I truly savored this moment.
My heart began to pound as we approached the village and heard the buzz of activity within the circular compound. Barker commented that he was anxious to see if any changes had taken place while he was away, especially how many Yanomamö died during his absence. I found this somewhat macabre, but I later came to understand why this was an important concern: among the Yanomamö it is offensive—and sometimes dangerous—to say the name of a dead person in the presence of his close relatives, so it is important to know beforehand, if possible, who is no longer living to avoid asking about them.
I nervously felt my back pocket to make sure that my nearly blank field notebook was still there, and I felt more secure when I touched it.
The village looked like some large, nearly vertical wall of leaves from the outside. The Yanomamö call it a shabono. The several entrances were covered over with brush and dry palm leaves. Barker and I entered the opening that led to the river. I pushed the brush aside to expose the low opening into the village.
The excitement of meeting my first Yanomamö was almost unbearable as I crouched and duck-waddled through the low passage into the open, wide village plaza. I looked up and gasped in shock when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men nervously staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips, making them look even more hideous. Strands of dark green snot dripped or hung from their nostrils—strands so long that they drizzled from their chins down to their pectoral muscles and oozed lazily across their bellies, blending into their red paint and sweat.
Green nasal mucus laden with hallucinogenic hisiomö snuff powder
We had arrived at the village while the men were blowing a greenish powder, a hallucinogenic drug called ebene, up each other’s noses through yard-long hollow tubes. The Yanomamö blow it with such force that gobs of it spurt out of the opposite nostril of the person inhaling. One of the side effects of the hallucinogen is a profusely runny nose, hacking and choking, and sometimes vomiting. The nasal mucus is always saturated with the green powder, and the men usually let it run freely from their nostrils.
My next discovery was that there were a dozen or so vicious, underfed growling dogs snapping at my legs, circling me as if I were to be their next meal. I stood there holding my notebook, helpless and pathetic. Then the stench of the decaying vegetation, dog feces, and garbage hit me and I almost got sick.
I was shocked and horrified. What kind of welcome was this for the person who came here to live with you and learn your way of life, to become friends with you, to be adopted by you? The Yanomamö put their weapons down when they recognized and welcomed Barker and returned to their chanting, keeping a nervous eye on the village entrances.
We had arrived just after a serious fight. Seven of the women from this shabono had been abducted the day before by a neighboring group, and the local men and their guests had just that morning recovered five of them in a brutal club fight that nearly ended in a shooting war with arrows. The neighboring abductors, now angry because they had just lost five of their seven new female captives, had threatened to raid the Bisaasi-teri and kill them with arrows. When Barker and I arrived and entered the village unexpectedly, they suspected or assumed that we were the raiders.
On several occasions during the next two hours the men jumped to their feet, armed themselves, nocked their arrows, ran to the several entrances, and waited nervously for the noise outside the village to be identified. My enthusiasm for collecting ethnographic facts and esoteric kinship data diminished in proportion to the number of times such an alarm was raised. In fact, I was relieved when Barker suggested that we sleep across the river for the evening, adding “because it would be safer over there.” I disconsolately mumbled to myself, “Christ! What have I gotten myself into here?”
As we walked down the path to the boat, I pondered the wisdom of having decided to spend a year and a half with these people before I had even seen what they were like. I am not ashamed to admit that had there been a diplomatic way out, I would have ended my fieldwork then and there. I did not look forward to the next day—and months—when I would be alone with these people. I did not speak a word of their language, and they spoke only their own language. Only a few of the young men knew a handful of words in Spanish—not enough to utter even a short comprehensible sentence.
The Yanomamö were decidedly different from what I had imagined them to be in my Rousseauian daydreams. The whole situation was depressing, and I wondered why, after entering college, I had ever decided to switch my major to anthropology from physics and engineering in the first place. I had not eaten all day, I was soaking wet from perspiration, the bareto were biting me, and I was covered with snot-laden red pigment, the result of a dozen or so complete examinations I had been given by as many very pushy, sweaty Yanomamö men.
These examinations capped an otherwise grim and discouraging day. The naked men would blow their noses into their hands, flick as much of the green mucus off as they could in a snap of the wrist, wipe the residue into their hair, and then carefully examine my face, beard, arms, legs, hair, and the contents of my pockets. I asked Barker how to say, “Don’t do that. Your hands are dirty.” My admonitions were met by the grinning Yanomamö in the following way: They would “wash” their hands by spitting a quantity of slimy tobacco juice into them, rub them together, wipe them into their hair, grin, and then proceed with the examination with “clean” hands.
Barker and I crossed the river, carried our packs up the bank, and slung our hammocks in one of the thatched huts belonging to a Malarialogía employee. When Barker pulled his hammock out of a rubber bag, a heavy, damp, disagreeable odor of mildewed cotton and stale wood smoke wafted out with it. Even the missionaries are filthy, I thought to myself. But within two weeks, everything I owned smelled the same way, and I lived with that odor for the remainder of my fieldwork. My several field hammocks still smell faintly like that—many years after my last trip to the Yanomamö and after many times through a washing machine.
After I had adjusted to the circumstances, my own habits of personal cleanliness declined to such levels that I didn’t protest anymore while being examined by the Yanomamö, as I was not much cleaner than they were. I also realized that it is exceptionally difficult to blow your nose gracefully when you are stark naked and the invention of tissues and handkerchiefs is still millennia away.
I was now facing the disappointing consequences of what, at the time, was a logical conclusion to a sequence of decisions I had made in college. When I had decided to study anthropology, I had to pick a specialization within it. I chose cultural anthropology. The next choice was to pick some kind of society—tribesmen, peasants, or industrialized existing cultures. I picked unknown tribesmen, which limited the parts of the world I could study: there are no unknown tribesmen, for example, in the United States, so I would have to consider more remote places. One of the possible places was South America, and there most of the unknown tribesmen were in the Amazon Basin.
So, here I was, my blank notebook in hand, preparing to dig in for seventeen more months of fieldwork. I was the proverbial blank slate incarnate.
It isn’t easy to plop down in the Amazon Basin for seventeen months and get immediately into the anthropological swing of things. You have been told or read about quicksand, horrible diseases, snakes, jaguars, vampire bats, electric eels, little spiny fish that will swim into your penis, and getting lost. Most of the dangers—diseases, snakes, jaguars, spiny fish, eels, getting lost—are indeed real, but your imagination makes them more ominous and threatening than many of them really are.
Most normal people have no idea how many of the simple things in life just do not exist in the field—something as simple as a flat surface to write on or put your coffee cup on. What my anthropology professors never bothered to tell me about was the mundane, unexciting, and trivial stuff—like eating, defecating, sleeping, or keeping clean. This, I began to suspect, was because very few of my professors had done fieldwork in uncomfortable circumstances remotely similar to what I now faced. These circumstances turned out to be the bane of my existence during the first several months of field research. After that they became merely the unavoidable, inconvenient, but routine conditions of the life of a fieldworking anthropologist who unwittingly and somewhat naively decided to study the most remote, primitive tribe he could find.
I initially set up my household in Barker’s vacant mud-and-thatch house, some thirty yards from Bisaasi-teri, and immediately set to work building my own mud-walled, thatched-roof hut with the help of the Yanomamö. Meanwhile, I had to eat and try to do my field research.
I soon discovered that it was an enormously time-consuming task to maintain my hygiene in the manner to which I had grown accustomed in the relatively antiseptic environment of the northern United States. Either I could be relatively well fed and relatively comfortable in a fresh change of clothes—and do very little fieldwork—or I could do considerably more fieldwork and be less well fed and less comfortable.
I quickly learned how complicated it can be to make a simple bowl of oatmeal in the jungle. First, I had to make two trips to the river to haul my water for the day. Next, I had to prime my kerosene stove with alcohol to get it burning, a tricky procedure when you are trying to mix powdered milk and fill a coffeepot with water at the same time. My alcohol prime always burned out before I could turn on the kerosene, and I would have to start all over. Or I would turn on the kerosene, optimistically hoping that the stove element was still hot enough to vaporize the fuel, and start a small fire in my palm-thatched hut as the liquid kerosene squirted all over my makeshift table and mud walls and then ignited. Many amused Yanomamö onlookers quickly learned the English expletive Oh shit! They actually got very good at predicting when I would say this: if something went wrong and I had a clumsy accident, they would shout in unison: “Say ‘Oh shit!’ ” (Oh Shit a da kuu!) Later, and once they discovered that the phrase irritated the New Tribes missionaries, the Yanomamö used it as often as they could in the missionaries’ presence, or, worse yet, mischievously instructed the missionaries to say “Oh shit!” whenever they also had a mishap.
I usually had to start over with the alcohol prime. Then I had to boil the oatmeal and pick the bugs out of it. All my supplies were carefully stored in rat-proof, moisture-proof, and insect-proof containers, not one of which ever served its purpose adequately. Just taking things out of the multiplicity of containers and repacking them afterward was a minor project in itself. By the time I had hauled the water to cook with, unpacked my food, prepared the oatmeal, powdered milk, and coffee, heated water for dishes, washed and dried the dishes, repacked the food in the containers, stored the containers in locked trunks, and cleaned up my mess, the ceremony of preparing breakfast had brought me almost up to lunchtime!
Medium-size village on the banks of the Siapa River
I soon decided that eating three meals a day was simply out of the question. I solved the problem by eating a single meal that could be prepared in a single container, or, at most, in two containers; washed my few dishes only when there were no clean ones left, using cold river water; and wore each change of clothing at least a week to cut down on my laundry, a courageous undertaking in the tropics. I reeked like a smoked jockstrap left to mildew in the bottom of a dark gym locker. I also became less concerned about sharing my provisions with the rats, insects, Yanomamö, and the elements, thereby reducing the complexity of my storage system. I was able to last most of the day on café con leche—heavily sugared espresso coffee diluted about five to one with hot milk reconstituted from powder. I would prepare this beverage in the evening and store it in a large thermos. Frequently, my single meal was no more complicated than a can of sardines and a package of salted crackers with peanut butter. But at least two or three times a week I would do something “special” and sophisticated, like make a batch of oatmeal or boil rice and add a can of tuna fish and tomato paste to it. I also ate a lot of food that I obtained from the Yanomamö—especially bananas, plantains, and potato-like tubers—by trading fishhooks and nylon fishing line.
A small village in a remote area
As to recurrent personal needs let me just say that the Yanomamö have not yet worked out a suitable sewage system. Barker mentioned to me on the first day that people just go off a ways into the jungle to do number two, and to watch where I stepped. “If you run into some of it you’ll probably run into a lot of it,” he added. The environs immediately surrounding a Yanomamö village of two hundred people are a hazardous place to take an idle stroll. We’ve all been on camping trips, but imagine the hygienic consequences of camping for about three years in the same small place with two hundred companions without sewers, running water, or garbage collection, and you get a sense of what daily life is like among the Yanomamö. And what it was like for much of human history, for that matter.
I barely recall these things now. They come to mind only when I read over old notes taken in the early days of my fieldwork, or the early letters I wrote to my wife from the field. They also come to mind when I take out one of my old, smoky field hammocks to string between two trees in my yard.
There were two things I learned that first day that would dominate much of my field research life for the next thirty-five years.
The first discovery was that “native warfare” was not simply some neutral item on an anthropological trait list, equivalent to other traits like “they make baskets with vines” or “the kinship system is the bifurcate-merging type.” Among the Yanomamö native warfare was not just occasional or sporadic but was a chronic threat, lurking and threatening to disrupt communities at any moment. The larger the community of people, the more one could sense its foreboding presence.
Warfare and the threat of warfare permeated almost all aspects of Yanomamö social life: politics, visits between villages, tensions among people, feasts, trading, daily routines, village size, and even where new villages were established when larger communities subdivided, a process I called village fissioning. This martial condition is not often discussed in the anthropological literature because there were few places in the world where populations of tribesmen were still growing by reproducing offspring faster than people were dying and were fighting with each other in complete independence of nation states that surrounded them. Yanomamö history is a history of wars, as Karl Marx claimed of the history of all peoples.
The second discovery I made that first day was that most Yanomamö arguments and fights started over women. This straightforward ethnographic observation would cause me a great deal of academic grief because in the 1960s “fighting over women” was considered a controversial explanation in “scientific” anthropology. The most scientific anthropological theory of primitive war of the 1960s held that tribesmen, just like members of industrialized nations, fought only over scarce material resources—food, oil, land, water supplies, seaports, wealth, etc. For an anthropologist to suggest that fighting had something to do with women, that is, with sex and reproductive competition, was tantamount to blasphemy, or at best ludicrous. Biologists, on the other hand, found this observation not only unsurprising, but normal for a sexually reproducing species. What they did find surprising was that anthropologists regarded fighting over reproductive competition as ludicrous when applied to humans. Competition among males vying for females was, after all, widespread in the animal world.
Young, beautiful moko dude (post-pubescent girl)
I was stunned by the reaction to this finding by some of the most famous anthropologists of the day. There was immediate and serious professional opposition to my rather innocent description of the facts when I published them in 1966 in my doctoral thesis. I was still wet behind my ears in an academic sense, and found myself, at the ripe age of twenty-eight, already controversial for saying that the Yanomamö, a large, multivillage Amazonian tribe, fought a great deal over women and marital infidelity.
That’s when I started to become skeptical about what senior members of my profession said about the primitive world. I began suspecting that senior anthropologists believed that it was their solemn responsibility to “interpret” for the rest of the world what they regarded as the recondite meanings of the customs of other cultures.
In other words, what I didn’t know then was that if some serious, well-trained anthropologist who spent more than a year living in the midst of a warring tribe reported that much of the fighting he witnessed was “over women,” that is, was rooted in reproductive competition, then such an informed conclusion opened the possibility that human warfare had as much to do with the evolved nature of man as it did with what one learned and acquired from one’s culture. Most anthropologists, by contrast, believed that warfare and fighting was entirely determined by culture. My fieldwork raised the anthropologically disagreeable possibility that human nature was also driven by an evolved human biology. This idea was extremely controversial in the 1960s and angered many cultural anthropologists.
Thus, my very first published statements and descriptions of Yanomamö violence would constitute an allegedly dangerous challenge to the received wisdom of many senior cultural anthropologists. More immediately worrisome for me was that some of the most prominent of these anthropologists were my own teachers at the University of Michigan and several of them would serve on my doctoral committee.
It is a truly curious and remarkable characteristic of cultural anthropology, as distinct from other subfields of anthropology, that any time native people are said to do something risky for reasons other than “maximizing access to material resources,” leading figures in the profession grow uneasy and suspicious. One well-known cultural anthropologist—an Englishman named Ashley Montagu—wrote angry book-length rebuttals whenever someone prominent made such a claim. He seemed convinced that people might get the wrong impression that biological factors help explain what humans do, or, worse yet, that humans might have something called “human nature” as distinct from a purely cultural nature or, more precisely, that their behavioral characteristics might have evolved by some natural process, such as what Darwin called “natural selection.”
My career began with the uneasy feeling that cultural anthropology was one of the last bastions of opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The University of Michigan’s anthropology department was, however, the major center of the Theory of Cultural Evolution, whose proponents distinguished it sharply from biological evolution or organic evolution, that is, the evolution of biological organisms.
The standard, almost solemn, epistemological position in cultural anthropology when I was in graduate school was that humans have only a cultural nature. Thus, our physical or biological characteristics as an evolved primate are irrelevant to whatever we do as members of society. The biological properties of humans, as my professors taught me, have to be factored out of any anthropological explanation of what we do.
Among my professors were Leslie A. White, Elman R. Service, Marshall D. Sahlins, Eric R. Wolf, and Morton H. Fried, who were among the most prominent cultural anthropologists of the day and important architects of the anthropological view I have just described.
Anthropology by definition is the science of man. Isn’t it strange that this science factors out its central subject’s biology in pursuit of understanding its subject?
This rather odd but axiomatic view has deep—and widespread—roots in several of the social sciences, sociology and anthropology in particular. Briefly put, the distinguished nineteenth-century French sociologist Emile Durkheim struggled to establish a “science of society” (what today we call sociology) at a time when it was intricately bound up and intertwined with psychology and social psychology. He felt that there were irreducible facts that were purely and exclusively social in nature and could be studied in their own right, divorced from any psychological and/or biological attributes of the human organisms whose activities were the subject of study. The study of these facts, he argued, deserved to have its own science.
A similar rebellion occurred in cultural anthropology, beginning with the efforts of Herbert Spencer and perhaps culminating in the works of Leslie A. White, one of my major professors, and, later, Marvin Harris, who would become one of my most outspoken critics. White and Harris spent their lifetimes trying to create a “science of culture” (“Culturology” as Leslie White called it: the study of cultural facts). And, like Durkheim before them, they insisted that the biological aspects of human beings were not relevant to “the culture process.”
My observation that Yanomamö men fought mostly over women, and, equally important, that these conflicts and their outcomes had important consequences for understanding Yanomamö culture and society, disturbed some of my fellow cultural anthropologists. Why? As I look back on the history of my research, I was saying not just one, but two things that deeply concerned these anthropologists and that were considered to be controversial at the time.
The first was that warfare was common among the Yanomamö and that it was apparently not caused by capitalist exploitation, nor was it a reaction to oppression by Western colonial powers. This raised the possibility that warfare was, in a sense, a “natural” or “predictable” condition among tribesmen who had not been exposed to or corrupted by capitalistic, industrialized, and/or colonial cultures.
The second possibility my research raised was that lethal conflicts between groups might not be explicable by citing “shortages of scarce strategic material resources,” considered by anthropologists and other social scientists to be the only legitimate “scientific” reason for human conflict and warfare.
On my return to Ann Arbor in 1966 from my first field trip, a University of Michigan professor, Norma Diamond, invited me to give a lecture in her large introductory class. I spoke about my field research and how important warfare was in Yanomamö culture. The students were fascinated. After my lecture Diamond thanked me for my presentation in front of her class. But, as we walked back to the Anthropology Department, she cautioned me: “You shouldn’t say things like that. People will get the wrong impression.” When I asked her what she meant, she added: “About warfare. We shouldn’t say that native people have warfare and kill each other. People will get the wrong impression.”
When I reported in one of my first articles that the Yanomamö fought a great deal over women, one prominent anthropologist, David Schneider, then at the University of Chicago, wrote a sarcastic letter to me that said something to the effect, Fighting over women? Gold and diamonds I can understand. But women? Never! And, as a last-minute addendum to a major book he was about to publish on the history of anthropological theory, prominent anthropologist Marvin Harris described my 1966 doctoral dissertation as giving credence to “the more lurid speculations” of John McLennan, a nineteenth-century Scottish anthropologist and jurist who wrote a book about primitive marriage and viewed “marriage by capture” as a “primitive stage” in human social history. I would ultimately debate this issue with Harris from 1968 until his death in 2001. Several of his disciples try to carry on this debate—or some version of it—today. Harris defended a Marxist “cultural materialist deterministic” anthropological view, while I was among a small minority of anthropologists struggling to develop a more Darwinian, more evolutionary view of human behavior. I saw no difficulty in incorporating both views into a comprehensive theory of human behavior, but Harris (and many other anthropologists) adamantly insisted that a scientific theory of human behavior had no room for ideas from biology, reproductive competition, and evolutionary theory. Many of these anthropologists argued that cultures and societies were not merely analogous to living, sexually reproducing organisms, but were homologous with them and therefore interchangeable in Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Biologists found this argument implausible and unpersuasive. One of the participants in this long debate who held to the biological point of view asked his opponent in exasperation: “Does your piano menstruate?”
Ironically, Harris and I both argued for a scientific view of human behavior at a time when increasing numbers of anthropologists were becoming skeptical of the scientific approach and were even antiscientific. However, Harris was adamantly opposed to a Darwinian perspective on human behavior—which I thought was itself an antiscientific view.
During the weeks, months, and years I spent among the Yanomamö I began to explore and document their lives in statistical and demographic ways—and my doubts about much of what I had learned about anthropology from my professors only grew.
One lesson that I eventually learned from the history of my own anthropological research and the controversies it caused was that cultural anthropology did not fit a traditional scientific definition where facts are established by observations that are verified by others to establish patterns and, if empirical observations by others do not verify the original observations, then efforts must be made to account for the differences in the observations. Instead, anthropology is more like a religion. Indeed, the organizational and intellectual structure of a large fraction of cultural anthropology is best understood if viewed as an academic fraternity that intimidates and suppresses dissent, usually by declaring that the dissenter is guilty of conduct that is unethical, immoral—or Darwinian.
Many cultural anthropologists today are afraid to make even timid challenges to this authority and are very careful to describe their findings in cautiously chosen words that are frequently vague so as not to give people “the wrong impression” or, more important, not to invite the suspicion or condemnation of the ayatollahs of anthropology, the Thought Police who guard the received wisdoms.
The Yanomamö were not my initial choice for fieldwork. I wanted to study a newly contacted tribe in the central Brazilian highlands, a group called the Suyá, one of several tribes whose members spoke a native language belonging to the Gê language family. I did the necessary library research to write a grant proposal and focused on several of the then-timely theoretical problems in anthropology. I applied for and was awarded a National Institute of Mental Health research grant on the basis of this proposal, a small grant that would cover my travel and living expenses for one year.
Unfortunately, a few weeks after I learned that my NIMH grant was awarded, the Brazilian military overthrew the democratically elected government. From talking with experienced field researchers who had worked in the Amazon area I learned that it was a bad idea to try to get anything done in a country that had just undergone a military coup. Furthermore, it might even be dangerous to try to get into some areas of the country.
I decided to pick a different tribe in a different country, ideally a tribe that straddled the border between two countries. I figured that if one of the countries had a revolution, I might be able to get into the same tribe from the other country and continue my fieldwork there. Hence, the Yanomamö, who live in Venezuela and Brazil.
About the time I was doing the library research for my NIMH proposal on the Suyá tribe, I made an appointment to meet with Dr. James V. Neel, head of the University of Michigan Medical School’s Department of Human Genetics. Neel was the founder and the chairman of that department and an internationally prominent figure in human genetics. He and several of his colleagues, Dr. William J. Schull in particular, had studied the long-term genetic effects on survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Also, Neel had collaborated in the field with Dr. Frank Livingston, who was now on the faculty in the Anthropology Department and one of my teachers. Their study focused on several native African tribes and the phenomenon of sickle-cell anemia.
I was more intrigued by some of Neel’s recent research among the Xavante (Shavante) Indians in collaboration with anthropologists, in particular, David Maybury-Lewis. The Xavante were a Brazilian tribe in the Gê-speaking language group located close to the area where I intended to study the Suyá tribe. I was interested in learning whether Neel would consider a similar collaboration with me after I had lived with the Suyá for a year or so. Many of my own anthropological interests were compatible with and even overlapped extensively with his—genealogies, marriage patterns, demographic patterns, and the social organization of reproduction. His interest in these topics was medical, while mine was anthropological and behavioral. For example, Neel wanted to know the amount of genetic variation that existed between tribes and, more important, between communities of the same tribe, a scientific question that was just starting to be explored in the mid-1960s as human geneticists and anthropologists began to document in a more sophisticated and comprehensive way the extent of human variability by using newly discovered genetic markers in, especially, easily collected blood samples.
I had taken human genetics courses in the Anthropology Department from James Spuhler, whose graduate course included some of Neel’s own graduate students and, to my surprise, even a few faculty members in Neel’s department.
After an initial and fruitful discussion, I agreed to collaborate with Neel in a short-term biomedical/anthropological research study after I had spent a year among the Suyá and learned their language and the intricacies of their social organization.
However, Neel was also in the process of developing a collaborative relationship with Venezuelan colleagues who were doing similar research among several native tribes in that country, Dr. Miguel Layrisse in particular. Layrisse was internationally known for his serological studies among Venezuelan Indians, much of it done in collaboration with the German-born cultural anthropologist Johannes Wilbert. Layrisse had, for example, discovered a genetic marker known as the “Diego factor,” a group of genes found only in people with Native American ancestry and in certain Mongolian populations in Asia. The Diego factor was initially used tentatively to classify Native American tribes into putative “early arrivals” to the New World and “later” populations. Layrisse and Wilbert had begun collecting blood samples to document the genetic characteristics of all the tribes in Venezuela and the variations found among them.
In view of the practical difficulties I would face as a result of the military coup in Brazil, Neel suggested that I consider doing my field research in a Venezuelan tribe that was close to the Brazilian border, a possibility that, as I mentioned, I was already considering. Such research was suddenly all the more possible and attractive because of Neel’s recently established connections with Layrisse in Venezuela.
There were a number of Venezuelan tribes whose territories extended into Brazil—the Pemon in the savannah region and the Amazon tropical forest Ye’kwana, for example. There were yet other Venezuelan tribes on the Colombian border that were found in both countries that I also considered, but because they were relatively easy to get to, they were more acculturated by contact with Venezuelan and Colombian nationals. I wanted to study a tribe that had had minimal contact with Western culture.
The most attractive group to me was the apparently numerous but largely unknown group, then known as the Waika. In my general reading in preparation for my comprehensive examinations for the anthropology doctoral program I had read the scant literature that existed on the Waika Indians, who were rumored to be very numerous, warlike, and isolated in the largely unexplored area on the border between Brazil and Venezuela. There were a few recently published firsthand accounts for the Venezuelan Waika, among them several articles by an American missionary named James P. Barker, who had recently begun evangelical mission work in this area.
Layrisse and Wilbert had also recently done blood-sampling work among almost all of the tribes in Venezuela, including a few visits to small villages of Waika (sometimes called Sanema) Indians who periodically moved out of the deep forest and were in sporadic contact with the Ye’kwana Indians and the missionaries who were working with the Ye’kwana. Both the tribal names Waika and Sanema turned out to be other names for the Yanomamö. Johannes Wilbert had published brief descriptions of his encounters with these somewhat mysterious Indians, but apart from Wilbert’s initial and brief reports, there was nothing substantial from anthropologists on any groups of Venezuelan Waika Indians. Indeed, the field of cultural anthropology based on fieldwork in Venezuela was scarce in the mid-1960s.
After a few meetings with Neel and discussions of his developing collaborative agreements with Layrisse in Venezuela, I decided to take Neel’s recommendation and begin my research among the Waika in the headwaters of the Orinoco River, a region of Venezuela called the Territorio Federal Amazonas. It was not yet a state, but rather a federal territory. In a strange sense, I felt a little like Lewis and Clark accepting Thomas Jefferson’s commission to explore the newly purchased Louisiana Territory.
Things then happened very quickly. In November 1964, my wife, our two small children, and I departed from New York on a Venezuelan freighter. We had a large amount of personal and field equipment packed into five large fifty-five gallon metal barrels, so taking a freighter was much less expensive than flying. I was among the Yanomamö (“Waika”) Indians about two weeks after we reached Venezuela and remained there for the next seventeen months, except for two trips of ten or so days out of the jungle to see my wife and our children.
The Waika called themselves Yanomamö, but so little anthropological research had been done among them that this fact either was overlooked or people simply continued to call them by a somewhat derogatory name that had been used by the few locals who came into occasional contact with them. (The word Waika seems to be derived from a Yanomamö word, waikäo, meaning to “dispatch a wounded animal (or person),” in other words, administer the death blow.)
My contact with the world outside ceased almost entirely for the next seventeen months. For example, I was vaguely aware when I went into the Yanomamö area in late 1964 that the United States had sent several hundred military advisors to South Vietnam to help train the South Vietnamese army. When I returned to Ann Arbor in 1966 the United States had some two hundred thousand combat troops there.
In early 1966, as my initial anthropological field research drew to an end, Neel and a team of his medical researchers joined me in the Yanomamö area for some two weeks as we had planned. Layrisse brought them into the Mavaca area, where I had my mud-and-thatch hut, and we worked from there. Apart from Layrisse, the only Venezuelan in the medical group that initial year was a young dentist, Dr. Charles Brewer-Carías, who had published a short monograph on the dentition of the Ye’kwana Indians. Brewer was also an avid explorer, a self-trained naturalist, and a gifted photographer.
Layrisse left the next day and returned to Caracas while Neel and a small team of medical doctors and Ph.D. candidates from his department and in other departments of the University of Michigan Medical School remained with me for some two weeks. They collected blood samples, urine, feces and saliva samples, made dental casts, and performed physical and dental examinations of all the Yanomamö in each village we visited, including detailed anthropometric information. To make certain that everyone’s data records could be pooled, I used a black felt-tip marker to put on everyone’s arm an ID number that was linked to the genealogies I had collected during my fieldwork.
The medical team began every day by attending to those Yanomamö who were sick and could be treated in the village with antibiotics and other medications found in the supplies Neel’s team brought with them from the University of Michigan.
The analytical results from the blood and other samples the medical team obtained during the brief time they spent with me in 1966 pleased Neel immensely and he subsequently offered me a position in the Department of Human Genetics to participate in additional future field trips to the Yanomamö. Although this kind of postdoctoral position would be an academic dead end for an anthropologist, the short-term benefits were very desirable: I could analyze my field data and publish extensively without the time-consuming tasks of simultaneously preparing and teaching courses—the standard career trajectory of new Ph.D.s in anthropology.
But an additional attractive aspect to the appointment was that it provided me with the opportunity to return to the Yanomamö as a member of a well-funded research program and continue my own anthropological field research. Finding money for relatively costly social science research—especially for foreign travel, as is common in anthropology—was a time-consuming and frequently disappointing process. Sometimes a young, unknown researcher had to apply to several different agencies several different times to obtain funding.
When I returned to Ann Arbor I wrote my doctoral dissertation, took two foreign language examinations (German and Spanish), completed the remainder of my doctoral course requirements (two courses in statistics), and successfully defended my thesis before my doctoral committee in time for the December 1966 university commencement. I was already on the University of Michigan Medical School faculty by the time I received my Ph.D. degree.
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Meet the Author
Napoleon A. Chagnon is distinguished research professor at the University of Missouri and adjunct research scientist at the University of Michigan, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He formerly taught at the University of California-Santa Barbara, Penn State, Northwestern, and the University of Michigan. He is the author of five previous academic books and lives in Columbia, Missouri.
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Many years ago I head a little about some controversy surrounding the Yanomamo (a stone age society on the border between Brazil and Venezuela), including charges of attempted genocide. So when I heard about this book, written by one of the principles, I jumped at the chance to read it. I found the writing engrossing and the content disturbing. Chagnon, a cultural anthropologist, recounts the story of how he set out to study one of the few remaining "wild" populations of stone age people and to test the idea that war and conflict among primitive societies was mainly driven by competition over scarce natural resources. While living among the Yanomamo, learning their language and customs, and gathering information about family histories, he discovered that most of the wars and conflicts among the various Yanomamo villages were driven by competition over access to women. While the various food resources (the only natural resource of importance to a stone age society) were generally abundant and willingly shared, women were a different matter. Many of the intervillage conflicts were initiated as raids to abduct women for wives. The conflicts continue as the raided village mounts a raid of its own to try to recover the abducted women. If one or more of the men in either of the villages is killed, then there will often ensue retaliatory raids. This is interesting in itself, and can be understood in the context of natural selection and Darwinian evolution. However, of equal interest was the response of Chagnon's colleagues when he presented his data and analysis to them. The response was a very unscientific denial of the evidence and personal hostility Chagnon. (I can testify that, as a physicist, I have observed this sort of hostility on occasion, but it is generally muted in favor of rational arguments over data and interpretation.) I was quite frankly surprised at the extent to which post-modernist thinking had infiltrated cultural anthropology (as opposed to physical anthropology) and the resulting hostility toward scientific analysis prevalent among such "thinkers" - especially those who had never studied primitive societies first hand. I found the comparison and contrast between Chagnon's encounters with the Yanomamo and his encounters with the American Anthropological Association to be quite fascinating. I encourage you to read this book and judge for yourself. Chagnon presents his data and conclusions in clear, non-technical, easily understandable language. While somewhat disturbing in their implications for human pre-history and the origin of human conflict, even more disturbing is the impact of the "scientific" controversy on both the study of the Yanomamo and the interactions of the Yanomamo with modern society - generally to the detriment of the Yanomamo.
Having read The Yanomano: The Fierce People for an introductory anthropology class years ago, it was a nice revisit with the Yanomano people. Dr. Chagnon inferred that some readers would find the book a tough go, he should realize that some of us out there are polymaths! My memory was refreshed, I learned some new information, enjoyed the book immensely. The clashes with other anthropologists was described in a somewhat lengthy fashion, but I would be mad too with all the negativity from rival groups! Good comparisons! Would have liked to have learned more about the current status of the tribes and more anecdotes about the experiences. Recommended, even to non-anthropologists! General science people would also enjoy!
It is difficult to find an anthropologist these days who has done actual field work, let alone studied a culture untouched by the influence of western civilization. Many sit surrounded by their borrowed artifacts, and cling to what they have read and have been told about the way things were in life before civilization. It is easier for these "Armchair Anthropologists" to sit back and throw darts to promote themselves while attempting to drag others through the dirt. It is clear that Chagnon has done the work, and seen what others only read about. He also bases his thoughts and knowledge on scientific fact, rather than what appears politically correct, or in the best interest for them or the organization they represent. From actually reading the memoir, the reader comes away with an honest look into the ups and downs of anthropological field work. I laughed out loud so many times at the endearing, yet troublesome (for the anthropologist), sense of humor of the Yanomamo. This work is a clear phoenix moment for a man who has been bashed so many times, he should shave his head to show his scars. It is amazing that he has maintained his patience and professionalism throughout many of the challenges, and he clearly brings these qualities when systematically addressing criticisms in the book. It is refreshing, and exhilarating to get his take on the state of anthropology and its controversies. This is a must read for anyone who would like to join an adventure into a past that Chagnon may be the last person to see.