Noble Savages: Napoleon Chagnon’s Fierce Book

Napoleon Chagnon spent years living among the Yanomamo of Venezuela and wrote, among other things, a classic ethnography still used widely in anthropology classes. It came to pass that Chagnon and his ethnography came under scrutiny, actually a few waves of scrutiny, from practitioners of cultural anthropology in part because his monograph depicted the Yanomamo as “fierce people” and this characterization of them was used, misused really, against them by outside forces including the government to justify their “pacification.” The Yanomamo were indeed being abused by these outside forces, and it is probably true that Chagnon’s research became a tool of those elements. But this criticism of Chagnon’s work was an interesting twist on the ad hominem argument. Rather than asserting that someone’s scholarly findings were wrong because that individual is a bad person, the assertion was made that the findings were wrong because they had bad political implications. Over time, a number of accusations against Chagnon and others working in the Amazon were made, hyped, and disproved. In the end, many sociocultural anthropologists liked Chagnon even less than they did before, the fight never ended, and just a few weeks ago, Chagnon responded with his latest salvo, a book called “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists”.

I’m writing a piece that will be published elsewhere on the book, Chagnon, and the Yanomamo (I’ll insert a link HERE when it is available) but at this time I mainly wanted to tell you about the new book. Before doing that I just want to note the following: The fight between biological anthropology and cultural anthropology, represented in only one of its forms (or should I say fronts) by the fight over the Yanomamo is often viewed as a fight between those who seek explanations for the diversity of human behavior in genes vs. those who see human culture as constructed entirely from experience. In truth, very few anthropologists believe either of those models to be perfectly correct. Quite a few anthropologists in both fields recognize a more nuanced explanation for human behavior. The evolutionary history of our species has shaped us to have certain drives, tendencies, abilities, and limitations that are important factors in our development but culture and individual behavior are just as much products of history and lived experience guided, tempered, limited, and potentiated by drives shaped by natural selection.

Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists reviews many of Chagnon’s key findings about the Yanomamo and discusses the controversy over these findings. I’m not yet sure if the new book replaces the older ethnography for use in the classroom; that is going to depend on what a particular course is about. Chagnon reviews his theory of where Yanomamo “fierceness” comes from and all that, but his monograph and this new volume both remind us that there is much about Yanomamo lifeways beyond guys beating each other up with sticks. To me the most important lesson of Chagnon’s work, which is supported by parallel work by others in the region, is this: Human culture is capable of a wide range of variation including but not by any means limited to strong patriarchy with a violent edge. Women in Yanomamo society are often treated badly. This does not make the Yanomamo unique, as women are treated badly in most human societies. The difference is that the Yanomamo are a group of people living in a smaller scale society than our own, and especially, a society that is different from our own, so it may be easier to parse out some of the connections between context and cultural expression. The Yanomamo do not show us something that we could not see in ourselves, but the anthropological view of that group and any other group “elsewhere” in culture or even distant in time (i.e., pre-industrial) or that relies on a very different economy (swidden in the case of Yanomamo) reveals human nature by reflecting it in different kinds of mirrors. When it comes to understanding culture, all mirrors are like the ones in the fun-house, distorting and biasing. For this reason, we need to use a lot of different mirrors. Anthropology reminds us that our own culture does not provide us with the best possible mirror even if we tend to think it does, and that all mirrors are similarly untrustworthy.

In his research with the Yanomamo, Chagnon may have done some things wrong, or things that we would not do today as methods and understanding of ethics have changed. But the same could be said of other anthropologists who worked in the field back in the 1960s, but for some reason we don’t hear that criticism. Personally, I think that this is primarily due to Chagnon’s identification with biological anthropology. Hell, he even uses the word “sociobiology” which is a dog whistle for many indicating a tendency towards genetic determinism. In any event, it may be instructive to look at a parallel case of ethnography done in the bad old days, but by a different field researcher.

Today, Colin Turnbull’s book about the Mbuti Pygmies of the Congo, The Forest People, is often used in anthropology classes, and his ethnography of the Mbuti is generally accepted by many sociocultural anthropologists as valid and useful. The thing is, The Forest People is full of easily refutable facts, such as the “fact” that there is no seasonality in the rainforest and that the seasonal movement of Pygmies in pursuit of wild honey is a culturally constructed behavior unrelated to the ecology of the land. Turnbull, in this and other writings, openly denigrates the people (“Bantu farmers”) who live alongside the Mbuti, painting them as dim witted, mean spirited, violent slave owners (or, at least, poorly behaved masters over the Mbuti serfs). Turnbull also worked in Uganda with a different group, the Ik. If we turn to Turnbull’s work with the Ik of Uganda, popularized in his book The Mountain People, it gets worse. Every alternative ethnography or other source of information about that group dramatically conflicts with Turnbull’s ethnography in one way or another. Turnbull’s depiction of the Ik is horrific, with infanticide and other forms of violence widespread in Turnbull’s work but not so much in other depictions. Turnbull determined that the Ik, who had been pushed off their hunting lands and otherwise severely affected by outside forces, were a people not worth saving, and advocated dispersing the entire culture using very draconian means by the government in power in Uganda. In other words, Tunrbull’s anthropological work is highly questionable, and he quite literally collaborated with the government in an effort to wipe a group of people off the face of the earth, but many cultural anthropologists still use at least one of his books and he has not received the treatment Chagnon has received even though he seems to have actually carried out acts similar to those for which Chagnon is, apparently falsely, accused. But Turnbull was a member of the sociocultural anthropology family. Or, shall I say, the sociocultural anthropology “tribe” (a term I use reluctantly here, but that refers to Chagnon’s subtitle … by now you certainly understand the reference).

I quickly add that the comparison I make between treatment of Chagnon and treatment of Turnbull is only a loose one; there are many other factors to take into consideration including when the work was done, and the state in which the affected tribal groups were found by anthropology to begin with. Nonetheless, when I see cultural anthropologists lining up to score points taking down Chagnon, I often wonder what would have happened if Turnbull put forward an explicit biological explanation for his observations and was not a cultural constructivist.

One of the thing the Yanomamo are “used” for is to model past human societies. For a number of reasons I think this is misguided, but again, the Yanomamo do speak to the human condition more generally. In particular, Chagnon’s ethnography and other work, and criticisms of that work, speak to the problem we Westerners often have with the Hobbsian concept of “Warre.” A human society can be in a state of constant threat, constant struggle over women, resources, or some other thing with the threat of violence being ever present, but actual violence only rarely happening. It would be hard to argue that international politics of the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s was not dominated by the constant threat of the end of humanity itself due to all out nuclear war between the USA and the USSR. This struggle was the primary organizing force in world politics. But none of those nuclear weapons were ever used. The highest level of threat of violence that ever existed on this planet … the most “fierceness” to ever be brought to bear in the arena of human interaction … had enormous effects on human society and culture but was never actually operationalized the way we feared. There are other examples of fierceness being a big part of a culture but actual violence being modest in extent or intensity.

My own personal theory of Yanomamo violence is two part. First, it is complex. There is no reason to exclude male biological ineptitude in the area of reproduction (men have never figured out how to have babies on their own) as a causal factor in male anxiety about, and possessiveness over, women. We see this across cultures, in high school lunch rooms, and in the halls of the United States Congress. Men have an interest in controlling women’s reproduction that in some contexts may be manifest as violence among men, violence by men against women, athletic competition, absurd and offensive legislation, and all manner of things.

But with the Yanomamö, I’d suggest there is also something else going on. Some time prior to Chagnon’s arrival on the scene, perhaps decades before, perhaps centuries before, the Indians in the upper Amazon acquired plantains. Prior to this, if they grew food in gardens, it would have been local crops such as manioc. Plantains are Asian, and reached Africa in antiquity, and got to interior South America some time after they were introduced by Portuguese or Spanish explorers or settlers. The thing about plantains is that they are easy. You plant a shoot that was taken from an older plant, and you get this big bunch of starch to eat with very little work compared to many other forms of horticulture. But at the same time, they have a problem: Plantains take forever to grow. Many months pass before the cheap food is available, and this means that a garden is vulnerable to attack by your enemies, and some of your neighbors are probably enemies.

Chagnon documents the process of Yanomamö setting up new gardens and moving villages, something one must do now and then because of the ecology of swidden (slash and burn) agriculture, as tenuous and dangerous. A village with no allies would have a hard time moving to a new location. Preferably, a village sets up initial gardens near another village that is friendly(ish), continues to use the old gardens for food as the new gardens grow, and eventually everyone moves to that location. Chances are the new neighbors are is friendly because there has been an exchange of marriage partners over a period of time. That could only occur, however, between villages that already have good relationships perhaps owing to the trading of goods between the villages, and that sort of trade relationship usually follows a period of cooperative ritualized feasting designed to lessen tensions and enhance ties.

Feasting, followed by trading, followed by the friendly exchange of marriage partners is a pattern seen in many traditional groups around the world, including traditional (ethnographically documented) Native Americans outside the Amazon. A similar pattern can be seen among the royal families of Europe as well. Something like this seems to be a common pattern which is, unfortunately, too often interrupted by intergoup warfare because this system is tenuous and prone to collapse. Chagnon and other anthropologists have described this pattern with the Yanomamö. There probably isn’t much dispute about that. Where Chagnon and I might disagree is that to him concern over women is the main source of angst, where I’m thinking that concern over gardens may have effects of a similar magnitude.

In my view, the Yanomamo do represent a datum on the spectrum of one particular subgroup of humans: People living with traditional technology and practicing horticulture. There are lot of different traditional human societies that produce food using traditional means, some with swidden agriculture, some raising cattle, and so on. Across these societies, living in different environments and with different regional cultural traditions, there is a lot of variation in cultural practice, but as a whole we can identify a handful of common traits with variations. For example, age grading is not strict or complex in horticultural groups like the Yanomamö, but it is more common in pastoral, cattle keeping, groups. But even among cattle keepers, it is most commonly found at a higher level of development in Nilotic groups. Taken together, the rain forest dwelling gardeners in the Amazon, elsewhere in Latin America, Africa, and Asia may very well share more in common than any of these groups do with pastoral groups. A nice test of this idea are the Gauchos of South America (who, by the way, were friends of Darwin). After cattle keeping was introduced to the Pampas, a culture emerged that resembled in many ways traditional cattle keepers of central Asia and Africa, perhaps also resembling the early ranchers of Texas and Florida, if we step far enough back and squint a bit. You’ve heard the phrase “you are what you eat” … well, how about the somewhat clumsier, “Your culture is what you’all do about food and stuff.”

Many of the readers of this blog, because you just love missionaries, will find one of the main themes of Chagnon’s book especially interesting. I refer here to the relationship between the missionaries working in that part of the Amazon, the Yanomamo or other groups living there, Chagnon and other anthropologists, and the government officials (and a handful of others). The last phase of Chagnon’s work in Venezuela involved more messing around among these entities than it involved data collection, it seems. I remember a conference a few years back, around the time when these events were unfolding, and during one of the Chagnon-bashing waves, when numerous accusations were about regarding Chagnon, including the suggestion that he had attempted to overthrow the government of Venezuela. I remember thinking that a lot of otherwise smart people were treating a wide range of accusations, some very clearly absurd, as roughly equally viable, ignoring credibility of the suggestions and rather holding on to each possible wrongdoing as just another of several arrows in an academic quiver. The harrowing story Chagnon tells in Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists is his version (and he was there) of those events. Dangerous tribes indeed.

As I’ve mentioned above, I’ve written something elsewhere that I’ll link to here that addresses additional aspects of Chagnon’s work, the controversy, and the Yanomamo. Now, I’d like to switch to a more technical question about the name of the “tribal” group discussed in Chagnon’s book.

Throughout the text above, I’ve used the term “Yanomamo” without any fancy diacriticals, partly because I don’t trust your browser (or anyone’s browser, really, not just yours!) to get it right and I don’t want my blog post to be riddled with random happy faces or some other inappropriate symbol. But one needs to use diacriticals to say what I’m about to say so forgive me if you encounter oddness in what follows. I want to briefly discuss how to spell “Yanomamo” as well as how to pronounce the term. Also, there may be some politics.

“Yanomamö” and “Yanomamï” are two different spellings of the same word, and both are dog whistles, it turns out. Chagnon used Yanomamö and many more recent writers use Yanomamï. The use of the latter has caused many people to pronounce the name of the group in question “Yanomamee” (or, to put it differently, “Yanoh mommy”). This is exaserbated by the common mispelling (because of a dropped diacritical) “Yanomami” which really looks like Yan Oh Mommy.

Both words are the same and are meant to be pronounced the same way, but they use two different conventions developed by linguists to indicate various sounds used across the world’s languages. It is my understanding that the second depiction is the one more in favor these days, which would render “Yanomamö” obsolete. However, I stick with the older form because I follow a different convention; once a term has become widely used even if convention changes it is better to stick with the historical version that has been used for years in titles, indexing systems, etc. etc. unless the term is inherently offensive. To me, Neanderthals will never be Neandertals, even though the correct pronunciation of “th” in that word has always been a hard “t” and for some reason we’ve decided to acknowledge that by rationalizing (this one time) the spelling.

I’m pretty sure, though, that people who write “Yanomamö” are more likely to be biological anthropologists, and people who write “Yanomami” or “Yanomamï” are more likely to be cultural anthropologists. I find this cute but annoying at the same time. It is annoying mainly because a generation of students are learning to mispronounce the name, because the purveyors of the latter convention don’t actually know how to use it. By the way, Robert Borofsky, in his book titled “Yanomami,” further claims that yet another variant, “Yanomama,” is the term preferred by cultural anthropologists but “Yanomami” is more neutral.

Even my own use of the term here is incorrect because I can’t get my software, or blogs, to add the squiggly thingie that is supposed to be attached to the bottom of the “a” in the word. Still, you will want to know how to pronounce the term correctly. Roughly, it is like this:
First, make your voice nasalized. If you don’t do that, then you are wrong no matter what. Then say:

Yan oh ma moe(the oe like in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).

If you said “Yan oh mam ah” you’d be much closer than if you said “Yan oh mommy” and if you said “Yan oh mamo, rhymes with “book ‘em Danno” you’d still be wrong but less wrong.

Having said all that, there may be variations in how the word is actually, in the field, pronounced over time and space. For instance, the same group has been “pronounced” elsewhere in time and space as Yanoama. That’s way different. One problem with all of this is that people name themselves in ways that may not be in accord with what we Westerners think. In other places I’ve discussed the Bushmen of Namibia and Botswana whom I called “Ju/‘hoansi” (good luck pronouncing that, there’s a ‘click’ in there somewhere). This word is partly based on the affix use for “real” as in “of our world” (roughly speaking). These folks refer to themselves as “the real people” and they also refer to their own dogs, as opposed to dogs of missionaries or other visitors to their land as “the real dogs.” Their term for themselves really just means “us.” Both culture and language are variable and changing. There really is no way that does not offend that principle of reality to assert that a particular spelling or pronunciation of the name of the Amazonians in question is correct to the exclusion of others. And, it is just like culture to come up with a way to use spelling variants as a fierce weapon!

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6 thoughts on “Noble Savages: Napoleon Chagnon’s Fierce Book

  1. I had been only vaguely aware of this story, but hearing more of the details makes the treatment Jared Diamond has received from anthropologists (much of it patently lame) seem very much of a piece. It’s an oddly tribal profession.

    Re nukes, don’t over-anticipate. IMO a regional exchange triggered by resource conflicts remains very likely.

  2. @Steve Bloom:

    I was under the impression that just about the only thing that united the fractious anthropologists was disdain for Jared Diamond.

  3. I do not find your position suggestion that espousing a biological form of explanation makes one more vulnerable to attacks from sociocultural anthropologists convincing. The problem is that there was also quite a negative reaction against Colin Turnbull’s depiction of the Ik soon after The Mountain People came out, with calls for him to be expelled from the American Anthropological Association. For just one example of the widespread reaction, see Fredrik Barth’s ‘On Responsibility and Humanity: Calling a Colleague to Account’. Current Anthropology, 15 (1), March 1974. Depictions that may be so one-sided as to catalyse attempts at ethnocide by governments or other powers elicit reactions of condemnation from anthropologists whether such depictions come from those who orient to Darwininan explanations or cultural constructivism.

  4. Greg, what you are saying may be very true, but at the moment it is still the case that Turnbull’s book (the forest people) is widely used and has been in intro texts for years, and his association with the Ik problem is not the primary reference socio-cultural (or other) anthropologists make in relation to him.

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