Noble Savages

My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists

by Napoleon A. Chagnon

Noble Savages

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NPR Summary

Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon describes his life-long research among the Yanomamo, an isolated tribe in the Amazon, and the controversy inspired by his 1968 book Yanomamo: The Fierce People. Chagnon's conclusion that the Yanomamo's violent habits are biologically ingrained — rooted in genetics, rather than learned behavior — caused an uproar within the scientific community.

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Excerpt: Noble Savages


Culture Shock

My First Year in the Field

The First Day

My first day in the field — November 28, 1964 — was an experience I'll never forget. I had never seen so much green snot before then. Not many anthropologists spend their first day this way. If they did, there would be very few applicants to graduate programs in anthropology.

I had traveled in a small aluminum rowboat propelled by a large outboard motor for two and a half days, cramped in with several extra fifty-five-gallon gasoline barrels and two Venezuelan functionaries who worked for the Malarialogía, the Venezuelan malaria control service. They were headed to their tiny outpost in Yanomamo territory — two or three thatched huts. This boat trip took me from the territorial capital, Puerto Ayacucho, a small town on the Orinoco River, into Yanomamo country on the High Orinoco some 350 miles upstream. I was making a quick trip to have a look-see before I brought my main supplies and equipment for a seventeen-month study of the Yanomamo Indians, a Venezuelan tribe that was very poorly known in 1964. Most of their villages had no contact with the outside world and were considered to be "wild" Indians. I also wanted to see how things at the field site would be for my wife, Carlene, and two young children, Darius (three years old) and Lisa (eighteen months old).

On the morning of the third day we reached a small mission settlement called Tama Tama, the field "headquarters" of a group of mostly American evangelical missionaries, the New Tribes Mission, who were working in two Yanomamo villages farther upstream and in several villages of the Carib-speaking Ye'kwana, a different tribe located northwest of the Yanomamo. The missionaries had come out of these remote Indian villages to hold a conference on the progress of their mission work and were conducting their meetings at Tama Tama when I arrived. Tama Tama was about a half day by motorized dugout canoe downstream from where the Yanomamo territory began.

We picked up a passenger at Tama Tama, James P. Barker, the first outsider to make a sustained, permanent contact with the Venezuelan Yanomamo in 1950. He had just returned from a year's furlough in the United States, where I had briefly visited him in Chicago before we both left for Venezuela. As luck would have it, we both arrived in Venezuela at about the same time, and in Yanomamo territory the same week. He was a bit surprised to see me and happily agreed to accompany me to the village I had selected (with his advice) for my base of operations, Bisaasi-teri, and to introduce me to the Indians. I later learned that bisaasi was the name of the palm whose leaves were used in the large roofs of many Yanomamo villages: -teri is the Yanomamo word that means "village." Bisaasi-teri was also his own home base, but he had not been there for over a year and did not plan to come back permanently for another three months. He therefore welcomed this unexpected opportunity to make a quick overnight visit before he returned permanently.

Barker had been living with this particular Yanomamo group about four years at that time. Bisaasi-teri had divided into two villages when the village moved to the mouth of the Mavaca River, where it flows into the Orinoco from the south. One group was downstream and was called Lower Bisaasi-teri (koro-teri) and the other was upstream and called Upper Bisaasi-teri (ora-teri). Barker lived among the Upper Bisaasi-teri. His mud-and-thatch house was located next to their village.

We arrived at Upper Bisaasi-teri about 2 P.M. and docked the aluminum speedboat along the muddy riverbank at the terminus of the path used by the Indians to fetch their drinking water. The Yanomamo normally avoid large rivers like the Orinoco, but they moved there because Barker had persuaded them to. The settlement was called, in Spanish, by the men of the Malarialogía and the missionaries, Boca Mavaca — the Mouth of the Mavaca. It sometimes appeared on Venezuelan maps of that era as Yababuji — a Yanomamo word that translates as "Gimme!" This name was apparently — and puckishly — suggested to the mapmakers because it captured some essence of the place: "Gimme" was the most frequent phrase used by the Yanomamo when they greeted visitors to the area.

My ears were ringing from three dawn-to-dusk days of the constant drone of the outboard motor. It was hot and muggy, and my clothing was soaked with perspiration, as it would be for the next seventeen months. Small biting gnats, bareto in the Yanomamo language, were out in astronomical numbers, for November was the beginning of the dry season and the dry season means lots of bareto. Clouds of them were so dense in some places that you had to be careful when you breathed lest you inhale some of them. My face and hands were swollen from their numerous stings.

In just a few moments I was to meet my first Yanomamo, my first "primitive" man. What would he be like? I had visions of proudly entering the village and seeing 125 "social facts" running about, altruistically calling each other kinship terms and sharing food, each courteously waiting to have me interview them and, perhaps, collect his genealogy.

Would they like me? This was extremely important to me. I wanted them to be so fond of me that they would adopt me into their kinship system and way of life. During my anthropological training at the University of Michigan I learned that successful anthropologists always get adopted by their people. It was something very special. I had also learned during my seven years of anthropological training that the "kinship system" was equivalent to "the whole society" in primitive tribes and that it was a moral way of life. I was determined to earn my way into their moral system of kinship and become a member of their society — to be accepted by them and adopted as one of them.

The year of fieldwork ahead of me was what earned you your badge of authority as an anthropologist, a testimony to your otherworldly experience, your academic passport, your professional credentials. I was now standing at the very cusp of that profound, solemn transformation and I truly savored this moment.

From Noble Savages by Napoleon A. Chagnon. Copyright 2013 by Napoleon A. Chagnon. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.

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