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. Continue reading Noble Savages: Napoleon Chagnon’s Fierce Book