Who's right? Who's wrong? Who knows the truth about the Yanomamo?
Napoleon Chagnon wrote five editions of his case study of the Yanomami titled Yanomamo: The Fierce People [1986b, 1977, 1983, 1992, 1997]. This was a very exciting book because I enjoy learning about new cultures. However, many anthropologists consider Chagnon to be very rude and are trying to force him out of the profession. According to Chagnon, the most striking thing about the Yanomamo is the ferocity of the males; they revel in violence. Thirty percent of Yanomamo males die violently, and almost half of the males over the age of 25 have participated in a killing. The fight, says Chagnon over "reproductive resources," or put more simply, women.
Chagnon suggests a connection between the procreative drive and violence that may be innate and common to all of humanity. "One thing you can never get enough of is sex," he says. Sex and violence go hand and hand, Chagnon implies, and the Yanomamo merely act out tendencies that civilized societies usually manage to hold in check.
Together with David Chanoff, Kenneth Good wrote Into the heart: one man's pursuit of love and knowledge among the Yanomama. In 1975, Kenneth Good, a graduate student in anthropology, joined Napoleon Chagnon for 15 months of field work in Venezuela. The 15 months turned into 11 years of almost permanent residence among the Indians. In time, Good learned their language and shared their semi-nomadic way of life. At the suggestions of the shaman-headman of his village, he took as his wife a very young Yanomamo girl, Yarima.
Who's right? Who's wrong? Who knows the truth about the Yanomamo? What does Yanomamo mean? Basically, the warriors of the Amazon. Who are the Yanomamo? The Yanomamo people of Central Brazil- the Amazon rainforest of Brazil and Venezuela are one of the oldest examples of the classic pre-Columbian forest footmen. The Yanomamo live in almost complete seclusion in the Amazon rain forest of South America and, according to many anthropologists, are perhaps the last culture to have come in contact with the modern world.
The Yanomamo is the largest tribal group in the Americas that has for the most part been free of contact with settled man. Even though they are almost completely isolated from the rest of the world, one Yanomamo woman has recently died of AIDS Brazilian authorities have denied this reported case of AIDS, but say it may be possible. The woman could have contracted the disease from of the 10,000 gold minors that have invaded the Yanomamo territory as recently as recently as 1991. These group range from small artisan miners known locally as "porknokkers" to giant timber companies from faraway Indonesia and Malaysia who have invaded the lands of native group throughout the region. It has been reported that between January and June, 62 Yanomami have died from either malaria or a venereal disease, both new to the Yanomamo area. Another article claims that in "recent years" 2,000 to 3,000 Yanomamo have died from introduced disease. To help protect the Yanomamo and other Brazilian Indians, the Brazilian Federal Police and an Indian protection agency, also known as FUNAI, is beginning to expel the minors from the area. Even with this preventative action in place, it may be too late for the Yanomamo that have already contracted and eventually spread these diseases acquired from the outside world.
Each Yanomamo man is responsible for clearing his own land for gardening purposes, and he usually starts this lifetime activity as soon as he is married. Adults brothers usually clear plots adjacent to each other, and if their father is still living. His plot is included with his sons'. The size of a plot is determined by the family's size and kinship responsibilities. Appropriate planning is a necessity to maintain enough food to feed the entire family for an allotted period of time (Chagnon 1983, 67).
When a garden plot is cleared and ready for burning, the brush and other small branches are stacked in piles and started on fire (Chagnon 1983, 68). These fires are also used to dry out fallen trees, making it easier for the Yanomamo women to split into firewood, which is a very important resource in the Yanomamo society. Planting the newly cleared and burned garden proceeds in either of two ways. If the site is at a considerable distance from the village, a great deal of planning is involved in determining the mixture of crops and the maturity of the cuttings to be transplanted. If the new garden is simply an extension of the old one, planning for the planting of seeds and cuttings in not a very large concern (68). Approximately 80-90% of their diets come from these well-planned gardens (59). In addition to their gardening, nuts, pods, mushrooms and honey are all gathered to supplement their diet.
The Yanomamo have a pattern of aggressive behavior that is distinguished by a hierarchy of increasing levels of intensity and gravity, from interpersonal to intervillage violence (Chagnon, 1968a, pp 132-139). Duels are simultaneously a controlled release of aggression and usually an effective form of conflict resolution. Yanomami duels are comparable with combative sports in other cultures, such as boxing in our own, except that there is no regular referee or any protective gear. Most fights start over sexual matters like infidelity, jealousy, forced appropriation of women from visiting groups, failure to honor a girl promised for marriage, and (rarely) rape (Chagnon, 1988, p 986).
A raid usually involves a several men waiting outside an enemy village to ambush at dawn the first man who leaves the shinbone for an activity such as elimination or bathing. Usually only one or two individuals are killed, but sometimes there is a massacre of 10 or more people [Chagnon, 1988, p 987]. Several of the raiders may shoot arrows into the victim even after death, and then the raiders try to retreat unnoticed into the forest and return to their home village as quickly as possible [Chagnon, 1968a, pp 137,138; Good, 1991, p 44] The element of surprise is critical. Raiding parties usually involve 10-20 men, but some have been as large as 60 men when two or more villages unite against a common enemy village [Chagnon, 1997, p 223]. On rare occasions, if no one exits the shinbone, then raiders may shoot a volley of arrows through the central opening, hoping to hit someone, and then flee. The most common reason for a raid is revenge for a death in the home village. Raiding is also a major way for men to achieve social prestige. A by-product of a raid may be the abduction of one or more women who may be gang raped in the forest and then gradually integrated into the raider's village and married.
In contrast to the beliefs of Chagnon, Good [1991,p69], who lived with the Yanomamo for some 14 years, observes:
As I began to understand this better, I got increasingly upset about Chagnon's "Fierce People" portrayal. The man had clearly taken one aspect of Yanomama behavior out of context and in so doing had sensationalized it. In the process he had stigmatized these remarkable people as brutish and hateful.
Also, Good  views Chagnon's emphasis on violence as misleading [pp13, 55,56,73,174,175]. Good perceptively points out that because the Yanomami live in a communal house without inner walls, any violence is so public and obvious that the observer can easily become obsessed with it, whereas other prosocial or nonviolent aspects of behavior can be readily missed by contrast [pp 33,73]. However, Good is much more impressed with the relative harmony in such an intimate society [pp 13,33,69,80,82]. For example, he writes:
To my great surprise I had found among them a way of life that, while dangerous and harsh, was also filled with camaraderie, compassion, and a thousand daily lessons in communal harmony [p131]. The more I thought about Chagnon's emphasis on Yanomama violence, the more I realized how contrived and distorted it was. Raiding, killing, and wife beating all happened; I was seeing it, and no doubt I'd see a lot more of it. But by misrepresenting violence as the central theme of Yanomama life, his Fierce People book had blown the subject out of any same proportion [p 73]. Good also asserts that Yanomami men are not macho [p 80], that they limit rather than maximize violence [p 74], and that they lack open warfare [pp 44,46].
In conclusion, I can appreciate the efforts of both men doing their participant observation, casual conversation, and interview schedule. However, I did not enjoy learning how Chagnon took blood samples. For example, when the Yanomamo refused to provide genealogical data (because it is absolutely impolite in Yanomamo society to say the name of the deceased, Chagnon resorted to "sticking them [his informant6s] with needles to extract blood samples, to see if he could figure out himself what the relationships were." I wonder if this story is true. Okay, blood typing actually is a good method of tracing general lineages, because the type of blood you have will eliminate certain people from the pool of possible parents. This approach can considerably quantify your search. On the other hand, simply finding out peoples' blood types will not allow one to reconstruct family relationships, unless one is looking for people who share a rare blood type. Also, it strikes me as extraordinary that any anthropologist would think to bring along on his/her fieldwork ample supplies of syringes, needles, and a portable blood chemistry lab! And is it likely to expect a cultural anthropologist to be trained to do such blood work? Lastly, such a story asks us to believe that the Yanomamo, who we are told "did not take kindly to this." Stood around and let it happen-to each and every one of them. I suspect they would have responded to such a hostile act on Chagnon's part by booting him out of the village (at the very least).
Chagnon, Napoleon A. Yanomamo: The Fierce People. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1986b, 1977, 1983, 1992, 1997.
Kenneth Good with David Chanoff. Into the heart: one man's pursuit of love and knowledge among the Yanomama. Simon and Schuster, 1991
Other Suggested Readings
Dorfman, Andrea. "Assault In the Amazon." Time. 1990.
Gibbons, Ann. "Yanomami People Threatened." Science. 1991