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.

A Yanomamö native warrior poses for a picture at Irotatheri community, in Amazonas state, southern Venezuela, 19 km away from the border with Brazil, on September 7, 2012.
A Yanomamö warrior poses for a picture in southern Venezuela near the border with Brazil, on Sept. 7, 2012.

Photo by Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty Images

Two young boys are having an argument while their fathers, resting in hammocks, look on. The argument is over something silly but escalates until the dads decide to intervene. They equip each boy with a small pole and position them face to face, explaining the rules of the game. Each child has the opportunity to whack the other with the stick, in turn. The boys can continue to carry out this ritualized but stingingly painful combat until one of them gives up, handing victory to his opponent. Eventually, these boys will grow into men, and this sort of combat, using either long poles borrowed from the nearby dwellings or bare fists pounded on chests, will become a normal (though infrequently used) way to settle significant disputes between men. Dueling is part of the culture in which these children are being raised. Those who demonstrate the most bravery will likely rise in status, perhaps take on a leadership role, have a better choice in marriage partner, and perhaps have more than one wife.

Thousands of miles away, two young boys are also having an argument. Again, fathers are watching from the shade as tempers build. One of the boys raises a fist, but before he can strike the other child, one of the dads is on him, hugging him tightly and uttering soothing words. Naturally, this does not work very well, and the angry child squirms to break free and continues to yell at the other child. But over time, he becomes quiet and his tears of anger dry, his breathing slows, and his heart rate normalizes. The hug continues for a while longer, and then the man lets the child go. The two boys exchange a few meaningless words and wander off to play together. These boys will grow to men in a culture where sharing is the primary ethic and cooperation is a matter of survival.

The first of these stories comes from Napoleon Chagnon’s ethnography of the Yanomamö Indians of Venezuela, the second from Irv DeVore’s description of the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen (aka “San”) of the Kalahari in southern Africa. To be honest, the stories are cribbed from DeVore’s lecture on child-raising across cultures, and both stories are simplifications dramatized for effect.

Had we carried out the impossible experiment of swapping Yanomamö babies for Ju/’hoansi babies at birth, the genetically Yanomamö children would grow up as cultural Ju/’hoansi, and the genetically Ju/’hoansi children would grow up as cultural Yanomamö. Waiteri, translatable as “fierceness,” is a trait valued among the Yanomamö, while sharing and peaceful resolution of conflict is valued among the Ju/’hoansi.

The point is this: Our way of being is certainly tied to our biological heritage, but the differences we see across cultures are the products of lived experience, with cultural norms shaped by our environment and how we are brought up. It also seems true that within academia, there are subfields into which we are enculturated, and which inform and shape our thinking.

The anthropological disciplines of biological anthropology and sociocultural anthropology each have distinct cultures, with different values, creation myths, heroes, and methods for educating students. Simply put, the former seeks biological explanations for culture, while the latter sees culture as constructed from experience. This spring, a debate has been playing out in response to Napoleon Chagnon’s new book, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists (my review is here). The book and Chagnon’s recent election to the National Academy of Sciences have reheated a decades-old fight between these two disciplines.

Chagnon spent decades with the Yanomamö of Venezuela and wrote a monograph called Yanomamö: The Fierce People. The first through third editions kept the subtitle, but it was dropped for the fourth edition. The Venezuelan government had used Chagnon’s work to label the Yanomamö as dangerous and unsociable, as part of its effort to displace indigenous tribes occupying land otherwise exploitable for lumber or for other purposes.

Some sociocultural anthropologists and human rights activists have held Chagnon responsible for the use of his ethnography against an indigenous group. This seems rather unfair. If the Yanomamö are fierce, that is not Chagnon’s fault; the use of an honest ethnography for nefarious political or economic goals is not the ethnographer’s responsibility. However, a litany of other charges has been made against Chagnon. More than 10 years ago, Marshall Sahlins accused Chagnon of unethical practices, including disregarding Yanomamö cultural proscriptions against using names and discussing kinship relations in order to assemble census and genealogical data for the villages he worked in. Sahlins claimed Chagnon tricked the Yanomamö into giving up information that they held as secret, and that this led to conflicts which led to violence. Others have suggested that Chagnon’s payment of informants and helpers with western goods such as machetes caused or escalated violence. Most recently, Marshall Sahlins resigned from the National Acaedemy of Sciences in protest of Chagnon's election to that body.

These may be valid criticisms, but we should also take into account context and timing. While Chagnon was busy extracting information in Venezuela, anthropologists around the world were extracting similar information from other groups. Many cultures hold certain information, like names or relationships, in special regard. I worked with one group that had proscriptions against referring to certain people by name, using instead ambiguous kinship terms. As a graduate student assisting with a long-term project, I was trained in how to get past this problem. When we were conducting a semiannual census, we needed to identify each individual accurately. The purpose of this research was to unravel the mystery of a low fertility rate; the people we were studying were well aware of this objective and were widely appreciative of the effort. To get good data, we would bring along willing informants who knew most of the people and have that person help, with the occasional discrete inquiry off to the side when he was unsure of someone’s identity, to link individuals to records in our database.

A good portion of the history of anthropology involves extracting accurate descriptions from local informants without upsetting people. Chagnon seems to have had a harder time than average getting past the taboos, but his story is different from that of many other ethnographers in only one important respect: Most ethnographers produced findings that matched the expectations of sociocultural anthropologists. Chagnon, however, had become an unabashed sociobiologist. It is not the case that Chagnon was doing it wrong relative to his contemporaries. Rather, it is problematic for some that his paradigm for research rests in biology rather than culture.

During the mid-to-late 1980s, after Chagnon’s fieldwork was done, research ethics changed. The same ethic that requires informed consent in medical research has been applied to field research. But the post-hoc evaluation of earlier research is applied today to only a small number of fieldworkers from the bad old days. The best predictor of who is being brought to account for their sins is not the work they did or the methods they used, but rather which framework their research was grounded in: biological or sociocultural.

The publication of Patrick Tierney’s book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon in 2000 marked a low point in anthropology and a high point in the anthropological game called “pin the blame on Chagnon.” Tierney described a number of acts ranging from unethical to downright heinous carried out by Chagnon as well as geneticist James Neel, French anthropologist Jacques Lizot, fieldworker Kenneth Good, and the Atomic Energy Commission. One of the most extreme involved experimentation on human subjects during a measles outbreak. According to Tierney, Neel obtained a certain number of measles vaccines from the United Nations. Half of the vaccine doses disappeared, and Tierney implied that Neel had sold them. According to Tierney, Neel then gave only half of the people in each village a dose in order to study the difference between those vaccinated and those not vaccinated, in an experiment worthy of Josef Mengele.

The American Anthropological Association and other groups looked into all of the charges and discovered that Tierney’s book was really a work of fiction based very loosely on fact. With the exception of relatively minor transgressions by individuals other than Chagnon or Neel, everyone was cleared. Neel was asked to drop off half of the vaccine doses with missionaries, which accounts for the “missing” portion. He was instructed to dose only half of the villagers at time since the vaccine was expected to make many of the people who received it ill. By giving half the people the vaccine, the un-dosed half could care for the sick, and later the other half could be given the shot.

A long list of cultural anthropologists used Darkness in El Dorado to discredit both Neel and Chagnon. After investigations cleared these researchers, most of those anthropologists either remained silent or continued to uncritically refer to Darkness in El Dorado, despite the book having been discredited.

The accusations in Darkness in El Dorado were an unfair way to judge Chagnon’s research. But there is a fair way to judge it, which is to ask whether he was right. Are the Yanomamö fierce or not? The Yanomamö are what can be called a “middle range society.” The term refers to the population size (not small like most forager groups such as the Ju/’hoansi, and not large like peasant or industrial societies). It can refer to people who are horticulturalists (raising much of their food in small gardens), pastoralists (keeping animals such as cattle), or seafaring fishing people. A number of cultural traits have been associated with middle range societies, with only a subset of these traits found in any one culture. They include strict social roles defined by age; patrilineality, where both wealth and clan names are transmitted through the male line; the recruitment of most men into a warrior status at some point in their lives; a relatively high degree of tension and conflict with other groups, often over resources such as land or cattle; and some degree of ritualized bellicosity.

Women are treated variously in middle range societies. Among the Lese of Central Africa, where I worked, women are generally respected and influential, though restricted from certain activities. In other societies, women are essentially owned by the men, subject to violent treatment, and generally required to do a large share of the hard work.

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.