Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 27, 2009

Chagnon among the Yanomamo

Filed under: anthropology,evolutionary psychology,Yanomami — louisproyect @ 5:59 pm

When I first got word of the Jared Diamond/New Yorker magazine scandal, I could not help but think of Napoleon Chagnon and the Yanomami. Just around the time that the Marxism list was launched, a big fight broke out among anthropologists over Chagnon’s fieldwork with the Amazon rainforest Indians provoked by the publication of Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon”. Sides were drawn in the profession between those pro and con Chagnon, who at least unlike Jared Diamond had professional qualifications in the field. In doing some preliminary research on the Chagnon-Tierney dispute, I have learned that some experts in the field without any apparent axe to grind have faulted his research.

I plan to revisit the controversy in light of what I have learned about evolutionary psychology, particularly through my reading of Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee” but want to start off by posting some excerpts from the fifth edition of Chagnon’s “Yanomamo”, a book that was titled “Yanomamo: the fierce people” in its initial publication in 1977. Given all the controversy his research has generated, it is understandable why he would have dropped the fierce people, especially since the global perception that they are facing extinction. It would be like writing a book in 1940 titled “The Aggressive Jew”.

The excerpts below are not intended to be an introduction to Chagnon’s work, but only passages that struck my eye for obvious reasons except for the last, which I will explain beforehand. For a useful presentation of Chagnon’s approach, I have made available an article from the 1988 Science magazine titled “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population” at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/chagnon.pdf.

1. Chagnon meets the Yanomamo:

My heart began to pound as we approached the village and heard the buzz of activity within the circular compound. Mr. Barker commented that he was anxious to see if any changes had taken place while he was away and wondered how many of them had died during his absence. I nervously felt my back pocket to make sure that my notebook was still there and felt personally more secure when I touched it.

The entrance to the village was covered over with brush and dry palm leaves. We pushed them aside to expose the low opening to the village. The excitement of meeting my first Yanomamo was almost unbearable as I duck-waddled through the low passage into the village clearing.

I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from their nostrils—strands so long that they clung to their pectoral muscles or drizzled down their chins. We arrived at the village while the men were blowing a hallucinogenic drug up their noses. One of the side effects of the drug is a runny nose. The mucus is always saturated with the green powder and they usually let it run freely from their nostrils. My next discovery was that there were a dozen or so vicious, underfed dogs snapping at my legs, circling me as if I were to be their next meal. I just stood there holding my notebook, helpless and pathetic. Then the stench of the decaying vegetation and filth hit me and I almost got sick. I was horrified. What kind of welcome was this for the person who came here to live with you and learn your way of life, to become friends with you? They put their weapons down when they recognized Barker and returned to their chanting, keeping a nervous eye on the village entrances…

As we walked down the path to the boat, I pondered the wisdom of having decided to spend a year and a half with these people before I had even seen what they were like. I am not ashamed to admit that had there been a diplomatic way out, I would have ended my fieldwork then and there. I did not look forward to the next day—and months—when I would be left alone with the Yanomamo; I did not speak a word of their language, and they were decidedly different from what I had imagined them to be. The whole situation was depressing, and I wondered why I ever decided to switch from physics and engineering in the first place. I had not eaten all day, I was soaking wet from perspiration, the bareto were biting me, and I was covered with red pigment, the result of a dozen or so complete examinations I had been given by as many very pushy Yanomamo men. These examinations capped an otherwise grim day. The men would blow their noses into their hands, flick as much of the mucus off that would separate in a snap of the wrist, wipe the residue into their hair, and then carefully examine my face, arms, legs, hair, and the contents of my pockets. I asked Barker how to say, ‘Your hands are dirty’; my comments were met by the Yanomamo in the following way: They would ‘clean’ their hands by spitting a quantity of slimy tobacco juice into them, rub them together, grin, and then proceed with the examination.

2. The Yanomamo make a fool of Chagnon:

At first I tried to use kinship terms alone to collect genealogies, but Yanomamo kinship terms, like the kinship terms in all systems, are ambiguous at some point because they include so many possible relatives (as the term ‘uncle’ does in our own kinship system). Again, their system of kin classification merges many relatives that we ‘separate’ by using different terms: They call both their actual father and their father’s brother by a single term, whereas we call one ‘father’ and the other ‘uncle.’ I was forced, therefore, to resort to personal names to collect unambiguous genealogies or ‘pedigrees’. They quickly grasped what I was up to and that I was determined to learn everyone’s ‘true name’, which amounted to an invasion of their system of prestige and etiquette, if not a flagrant violation of it. They reacted to this in a brilliant but devastating manner: They invented false names for everybody in the village and systematically learned them, freely revealing to me the ‘true’ identities of everyone. I smugly thought I had cracked the system and enthusiastically constructed elaborate genealogies over a period of some five months. They enjoyed watching me learn their names and kinship relationships. I naively assumed that I would get the ‘truth’ to each question and the best information by working in public. This set the stage for converting my serious project into an amusing hoax of the grandest proportions. Each ‘informant’ would try to outdo his peers by inventing a name even more preposterous or ridiculous than what I had been given by someone earlier, the explanations for discrepancies being “Well, he has two names and this is the other one.’ They even fabricated devilishly improbable genealogical relationships, such as someone being married to his grandmother, or worse yet, to his mother-in-law, a grotesque and horrifying prospect to the Yanomamo. I would collect the desired names and relationships by having my informant whisper the name of the person softly into my ear, noting that he or she was the parent of such and such or the child of such and such, and so on. Everyone who was observing my work would then insist that I repeat the name aloud, roaring in hysterical laughter as I clumsily pronounced the name, sometimes laughing until tears streamed down their faces. The ‘named’ person would usually react with annoyance and hiss some untranslatable epithet at me, which served to reassure me that I had the ‘true’ name. I conscientiously checked and rechecked the names and relationships with multiple informants, pleased to see the inconsistencies disappear as my genealogy sheets filled with those desirable little triangles and circles, thousands of them.

My anthropological bubble was burst when I visited a village about 10 hours’ walk to the southwest of Bisaasi-teri some five months after I had begun collecting genealogies on the Bisaasi-teri. I was chatting with the local headman of this village and happened to casually drop the name of the wife of the Bisaasi-teri headman. A stunned silence followed, and then a villagewide roar of uncontrollable laughter, choking, gasping, and howling followed. It seems that I thought the Bisaasi-teri headman was married to a woman named “hairy cunt.” It also seems that the Bisaasi-teri headman was called ‘long dong’ and his brother ‘eagle shit.’ The Bisaasi-teri headman had a son called “asshole” and a daughter called “fart breath.”

And so on. Blood welled up to my temples as I realized that I had nothing but nonsense to show for my five months of dedicated genealogical effort, and I had to throw away almost all the information I had collected on this the most basic set of data I had come there to get. I understood at that point why the Bisaasi-teri laughed so hard when they made me repeat the names of their covillagers, and why the ‘named’ person would react with anger and annoyance as I pronounced his ‘name’ aloud.

3. The Yanomamo as “specimens”.

(I doubt that Chagnon consciously intended to dehumanize the people he was studying, despite his initial horror at their appearance, but I was struck by his comparison to them as the slime that lives within crustaceans below. That speaks volumes about the mindset of certain anthropologists.)

In this chapter I will discuss the daily social life and social organization of the fanomamo from several vantages, for there are, indeed, a number of acceptable land widely used approaches to the understanding of social organization in primitive (societies. I will focus primarily on the fascinating problem of village fissioning lamong the Yanomamo and how this reflects the ‘failure of solidarity,’ the inability lof villages to be held together by kinship, marriage, descent from common ancestors, and the ephemeral authority of headmen such as Kaobawa. It would appear that primitive societies can only grow so large at the local level—the village in this lease—if internal order is provided by just these commonly found integrating mechanisms: kinship, marriage, and descent.

I will also counterpose two points of view that are widely found in the field of I anthropology. One of the approaches is the “structural” approach, which focuses on 1’ideal models’ of societies, models that are constructed from the general rules of (kinship, descent, and marriage. These are highly simplified but very elegant [models, but they do not address the actual behavior of individuals in their day-to-Iday kinship roles, their actual marriage practices, their life histories, and why [individuals simply cannot ‘follow’ the ideal rules. The second approach is the statistical models’ approach, which is usually based on large numbers of actual I behavioral and genealogical facts, but yields less elegant, less simplified models. However, such models conform more to reality. I prefer the latter, for they lead to a more satisfactory way to understand individual variation and therefore the ability to predict social behavior. To be able to engage in this approach, one must, of course, [know what the “ideal” patterns are that people’s behavioral choices deviate from. A poignant way of illustrating the difference in these approaches is an anecdote I once heard the famous French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss use to justify his interest in ideal models and ‘structures.’ He likened social and cultural anthro–pology to a kind of science that studies crustaceans. It is legitimate, and even meritorious, he said, to concern oneself with the shell of the organism itself. ‘ Levi-Strauss preferred to consider the shells: They are attractive, symmetrical, pleasant to handle, and pleasant to think about. But he acknowledged that there were other ways of studying this life form. One could focus on the slimy, amorphous, rather unpleasant animal that lives in the shell—such as an oyster or snail. That, too, was a legitimate and meritorious endeavor, and he had no objection if others pursued that kind of approach. The issue, of course, has to do with the extent to which the shell and the amorphous animal inside it make much sense when considered alone and separately. My own view is that the animal inside the symmetrical shell is not as amorphous as it appears and itself has some structured integrity. I also believe that there has to be some kind of causal relationship between the animal and the type of structure it generates in the form of an elegant shell. The shell in this analogy is ‘social structure.’ The amorphous animal inside it is ‘social behavior.’ Once the question is posed, ‘What causes the animal to produce the elegant, symmetrical, shell?’ then a great variety of possible answers—and theoretical issues—comes into play. These are questions about causes of human behavior and, in turn, how that behavior—acts, thoughts, sentiments found among individuals in particular cultures—is shaped by and reflects realities such as demographic facts, physiological differences between males and females, and the evolved nature of the organism itself.


  1. I was very interested in your Levi-Strauss anecdote – where did you find it? is it published anywhere?

    Comment by Patrick — June 30, 2009 @ 8:23 am

  2. All I was doing was quoting Chagnon. He does not give a source for this anecdote.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 30, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

  3. Here’s a link to a PDF file of a paper by R. Brian Ferguson which is not only deeply critical of Chagnon but offers an alternative materialist explanation of warfare amongst the Yanomamo:

    Click to access a015924.pdf

    Anecdotally, a friend of mine who was taught by Chagnon once told me that he’s . . .well the most diplomatic way of putting it would be to say that he’s a ‘high-maintenance’ person. It’s revealing that Liszot’s work on the Yanomamo produced rather different results than NC’s. L., for example, does not depict Yanomamo women as being wholly ground down and subjugated as C. does.

    To give NC his due, I seem to recall that he was deeply critical of the incursions the Yanomamo suffered from 1980s, and the highly adverse consequences it had for them. Oh, and the Levi-Strauss story is a pretty standard one amongst us anthros.

    Comment by Dr. X — July 1, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

  4. Brian Ferguson is a very important critic of Chagnon and it would be fair to say that he is generally more reliable than Tierney. I plan to read his articles before beginning to post about this controversy. I will also have plenty to say about Lizot who is as nutty as Chagnon in his own way.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 1, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

  5. I am curious about your photo copyright. My agency represents Doctor Chagnon I have no record of your requesting use of the final image. Please contact me at cdevore@anthrophoto.com

    Comment by Claire — November 13, 2012 @ 3:32 pm

  6. Thank-you very much for your prompt response!

    Comment by Claire — November 13, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

  7. For the record, Claire is Claire Devore. Her website is run by the Devore family, including a Harvard professor who took Chagnon’s side in the dispute. Apparently, this was all about politics, not intellectual property.


    The author also quotes Irven DeVore, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard, as saying Chagnon “gathered very detailed and documented data on the villages — so much so that another investigator could study the population and come to a different conclusion. Chagnon’s study was ‘scientific’ in the best sense of the word.”

    Comment by louisproyect — November 13, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

  8. On the contrary! I would be delighted to ask Dr. Chagnon about your purchase of the photo! I didn’t think you had the funding. Would you like a ten year term or?

    Comment by Claire — November 13, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

  9. Claire, what a phony you are. If you had simply written me with an honest profession of your belief in sociobiology and the rest of the degraded nonsense that has made anthropology the handmaiden of imperialism, I would have understood completely. If I found out that some skinhead website had used one of my videos without my permission, I would have demanded that they take it down at once. But thanks for giving me the clue that I needed to investigate Irven DeVore. I might have something to say about him down the road.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 13, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

  10. […] wanted removed. I think her problem (and more likely that of Chagnon and Professor DeVore) was more with the text than the picture, as the first few paragraphs would […]

    Pingback by Busted by the sociobiologists, and busting back « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 17, 2012 @ 10:10 pm

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