Napoleon Chagnon controversy: Anthropologists battle over the nature of fierceness.

Who is Fiercer: Yanomamö Indians or Dueling Tribes of Anthropologists?

Who is Fiercer: Yanomamö Indians or Dueling Tribes of Anthropologists?

The state of the universe.
May 2 2013 7:41 AM

Are Anthropologists a Dangerous Tribe?

They’re battling about Yanomamö Indians, research ethics, and the nature of fierceness.

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Chagnon claims to have identified a nexus of behaviors practiced by the Yanomamö that he called the waiteri complex—the fierceness complex, if you will. Infant girls are more often subject to infanticide or are less likely to survive to adulthood than boys. Men can marry more than one woman. These two factors combine to produce a shortage of marriageable women. Among the Efe Pygmies of the Ituri, this shortage results in men marrying much later than in most other societies. In other societies it may result in polyandry (one woman marrying more than one man). But in the Yanomamö, according to Chagnon, it leads to men fighting vigorously over women, enhancing the value of fierceness. (Chagnon points out that some of the men regarded as most fierce gained this reputation early and manage to maintain the label without continued violent acts.)

However, if we look at the full range of research on the Yanomamö, there appears to be variation among villages. It is possible that the groups Chagnon worked with engage in a relatively high rate of violence. All of the anthropologists who have worked with the traditional Yanomamö have documented some degree of violence, yet Chagnon's research is the main source of knowledge about this feature of Yanomamö culture.

 In a recent interview, Chagnon told me that variation in violence across Yanomamö villages is not clear from the available information. According to Chagnon, “one of the most central variables when discussing issues like violence and fighting is mortality rates: What fraction of the male population dies violently, i.e., shot with arrows or killed in club fights? I have provided these statistics for the various groups of Yanomamö I have studied in Venezuela over the past 35 years. None of the anthropologists who have been working in Brazil seem to have done this. … If my colleagues who have worked among the Brazilian Yanomamö could provide evidence from their field research showing the fractions of deaths among both males and females by various causes (sicknesses, accidents, violence, etc.) we would be in a better position to discuss the comparative amounts of violence and begin trying to explain these differing amounts by the variables that seem to be associated with them—like village size, elevation, terrain type, degree of contact with non-Yanomamö, etc.”

Violence is tricky to measure. A very high murder rate would be 400 per 100,000 people per year. If we were studying a population with that rate and the population consisted of three villages with about 100 people in each village, we might observe only one or two homicides a year, or none over three or four years, or a much higher number because we happen to be on the scene at just the right moment.


But the cultural trait of fierceness may be only weakly or not at all linked with actual rates of homicide. Years ago the anthropologist R. Dyson-Hudson studied homicide rates among several Turkana groups, cattle-keepers in East Africa. All the men are, essentially, warriors, and the relationship between different groups is often bellicose; they fight mainly over cattle. But the research showed that their homicide rate was among the lowest in the world.

One of the most important areas of contention in the debate over Chagnon’s methods has to do with why the Yanomamö fight. Anthropologist Brian Ferguson suggested that levels of violence seen by Chagnon were exacerbated by unprecedented access to Western goods such as machetes. Chagnon traded some of these goods to his informants. However, machetes are not tools of warfare for the Yanomamö, but tools of farming. Still, altered horticulture practices could lead to changes in the resource base which, in turn, could lead to more fighting. To me, the best argument against the machete theory of Yanomamö violence comes from Ettore Biocca’s biography of a young woman who was captured by the Yanomamö at the age of 12. This biography documents plenty of violent behavior well before Chagnon came along. Others have speculated that nearness to other warring tribes escalated violence among the Yanomamö. Colonialism and the influence of state societies on tribal groups are also standard suspects in any behavior that is regarded as unsavory.

It is difficult to avoid concluding that the Yanomamö are indeed “fierce,” but it is also far too easy for Westerners to translate the idea of fierceness incorrectly and to misunderstand its role in Yanomamö culture.

The Yanomamö have been taken by some anthropologists as representative of the normal human condition prior to some point in time when societies became modern, or industrialized, or whatever. Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and others place the Yanomamö and other horticultural groups in the same data set as hunter gatherers. When you do that, the average rate of violence for this supposed proxy for the primordial human condition goes way up. But if we keep foragers and farmers and pastoralists and fisher folk separate from hunters, we see that the foragers probably have a much lower rate of violence than the other groups, and these other groups have highly variable rates. I suspect that high levels of ritualized violence, actual violence, and the incorporation of fierceness in the cultural trappings may make it more likely for a particular cultural group to be studied, or at least for the studies to gain attention. The Amazon is full of less studied people, including foragers and farmers, who on average have seem to have a lower level of violence than the Yanomamö, even though they share many other ecological and cultural features.

The Yanomamö represent one set of cultural adaptations humans seem to come up with when living in a post-forager, pre-industrial state in a rain forest. The utility of the Yanomamö in understanding humanity is not that they are primitive or primordial, but that they are simultaneously us and not us. Looking at the Yanomamö is like looking at a sibling or other relative and being a bit put off by some behavior they’ve demonstrated; then you realize that you do the same thing they do and suddenly learn something new about yourself. And this, of course, is why we do anthropology.

These two things happened, according to reports that are considered reliable. First, on an October night, a group of men moved through a village. One of the men made a move to kill several of the children but he was stopped by one of his friends. But shortly thereafter, he dragged an older women away from the other villagers and killed her in a nearby field. This set off a series of other events. The villagers’ homes were set on fire and the killing of children and other women started. Several villagers were found hiding from the men, and many were killed where they were found. One young girl later recalled seeing her father running off with her brother in his arms, covered with blood, as the boy shouted “They’ve killed my mother, my mother was killed.” Several of the surviving villagers were then forced to a nearby river where some were allowed to escape into the jungle on the other side, but the girl’s father got stuck in the mud where he was killed by three of the men as she watched.

And this episode: A couple of men from a neighboring village found a small group of women and children. One of the men took a nursing child from a woman and smashed the infant against a rock. Later, more men came and located the women and children who were hiding among the rocks in the rugged terrain. They forced all of them to come out into the open, then systematically killed all of the children as they tried to run away. They left the women alone although some of them were injured.

One of these accounts comes from Yanoama: The Story of Helena Valero, a Girl Kidnapped by Amazonian Indians, the biography of the 12-year-old who was captured by Yanomamö and lived with them for several years. Her story was recorded by anthropologist Ettore Biocca in 1962 and 1963. The other account comes from Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, by Nick Turse, and refers to the well-documented massacre at Trieu Ai. The killers in one of these accounts were Yanomamö men attacking a neighboring enemy village; the killers in the other account were American Marines. Without details about technology or context, it is hard to tell which account goes with which fierce tribe.

Thomas Hobbes famously wrote that humans in the state of nature live in “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” It is partly true that this is the way of life of the Yanomamö and other people in traditional middle range societies. But horrific events such as those described here are punctuations amid long periods of a more mundane struggle for food, shelter, and other daily requirements. And other groups, other humans, exist in the same Hobbesian world. We in Western society often have the luxury of ignoring our brutishness. What is more fierce than a party of Yanomamö men intent on attacking neighboring enemies or addressing some transgression with a bit of chest-pounding? Well, you are. And I am. War has never been more deadly, and lives never so widely ruined or effortlessly ended, as in the normal course of events that accompany the day-to-day operation of Western society.

Whatever lessons might be learned from the ethnographic study of the Yanomamö are not strictly lessons about an exotic tribe or model for primordial humans. They are lessons about our species, all of us.

Greg Laden is trained as a biological anthropologist and archaeologist and has conducted field work in North America, the Congo, and South Africa. He has taught at Harvard, the University of Minnesota, Century College, and a handful of other places. He writes Greg Laden’s Blog at National Geographic Science Blogs.