Book Review: Yąnomamö: The Fierce People

Book Review: Yąnomamö: The Fierce People
Illustration for Atoms vs. Bits by Helen Leon

I first heard of Napoleon Chagnon’s 1968 Yąnomamö: The Fierce People because of the controversy surrounding it.

The author’s candid account of these southern Venezuelan Amazonians wasn’t well-received by some and he was eventually accused of being a “virtually amoral eugenicist bent on conducting inhumane and deadly field experiments on a phenomenally vulnerable population” while conspiring to commit genocide by introducing “a potentially fatal contraindicated measles vaccine to the Yanomamö, probably inducing the 1968 epidemic, allowing him to test his eugenic theories.”

Needless to say, I was intrigued.

I learned that “the American Anthropological Association (AAA) saw fit to take [these] claims seriously by conducting a major investigation into the matter”, partly spurred on by anthropologists who objected to Changnon’s sociobiological theories of behavior.

Ultimately, the accusations against Changnon were deemed totally false, though not before he was banned from studying the Yąnomamö and forced to retire from the field.

Map of Yanomamo territory

It was at this point that I realized that this book belonged to my favorite class of controversy: forbidden knowledge.

Most controversial books are not forbidden knowledge. Usually, they are “hot takes”, i.e. contentious opinions based on a combination of assumptions, assertions, and widely-available facts. Forbidden knowledge is instead a type of evidence, and it’s uniquely precious for two reasons:

  • The effect of being forbidden: It’s hard to come by.
  • The cause of being forbidden: It’s likely to change your prior beliefs.

Evidence that is either widely accepted or is not taken seriously isn’t suppressed. Censors are worried about the marginal case, and therefore target knowledge that’s most likely to shift opinion into unacceptable territory. This means the most controversial evidence is both especially convincing and supportive of an unacceptable position.

So here’s what I found most controversial or unexpected in Yąnomamö:

1. They’re kinda dicks to each other

I say “kinda” because it’s more complicated than them being either totally brutal or totally noble. The more you learn about a thing, the more the situation usually turns into “it’s complicated” (though it was painting this multifaceted picture that cost Chagnon his career).

The problem of course is that if humans in our “natural state” are dicks, then dickishness isn’t some modern construct. Indigenous groups vary in levels of aggression, but the fact is that the Yąnomamö are decidedly aggressive by modern standards. Rousseauian social constructionists thus are put in the awkward position of claiming that either all the supporting research is falsified, or that violence in these nearly-uncontacted tribes still really originates from the modern world.

A high capacity for rage, a quick flashpoint, and a willingness to use violence to obtain one's ends are considered desirable traits. Much of the behavior of the Yąnomamö can be described as brutal, cruel, treacherous, in the value ladened terms of our own vocabulary.

As terrible as this sounds, you’ve probably seen something similar in abusive families, deprived areas, or depictions of historical periods. It supports the argument that this level of conflict is actually the default state of the world, and we’re socialized out of being awful to one another.

While first living among the Yąnomamö, Chagnon describes his loneliness and attempts at connecting with the tribe:

I tried to overcome this by seeking personal friendships among the Indians. This only complicated the matter because all my friends simply used my confidence to gain privileged access to my cache of steel tools and trade goods, and looted me.

However, he soon discovered that if he was willing to set boundaries on their terms, he could earn their respect:

I had to acquire a certain proficiency in their kind of interpersonal politics and to learn how to imply subtly that certain potentially undesirable consequences might follow if they did such and such to me. They do this to each other in order to establish precisely the point at which they cannot goad an individual any further without precipitating retaliation…each individual sooner or later had to display some sign that his bluffs and implied threats could be backed up.

The assessment that they’re “kinda dicks” seems correctly balanced between harshness and generosity. Their interactions reminded me of modern prisons or middle schools: an aggressive society, but a society nonetheless, shaped by the constraints put upon it.

The Yąnomamö… do not all appear to be mean and treacherous. As individuals, they seem to be people playing their own cultural game, with internal feelings that at times may be quite divergent from the demands placed upon them by their culture.

The “game” of it all is made amusingly apparent from Yąnomamö men’s nostalgia for simpler times:

Many of them later reminisced about the early days of my work when I was "timid" and a little afraid of them, and they could bully me into giving goods away.

(We may have to add “taking stuff off nerds” to our list of Cultural Universals.)

2. Being a Yąnomamö woman sucks, though gets better with age

Growing up as a girl:

Yąnomamö society is decidedly masculine...there is a definite preference to have male children, resulting in a higher incidence of female infanticide...Female children assume duties and responsibilities in the household long before their brothers are obliged to participate in useful domestic tasks.

Getting married:

Girls have almost no voice in the decisions reached by their agnate concerning their marriage. They’re largely pawns to be disposed of by their kinsman…In many cases, the girl has been promised to a man long before she reaches puberty, and in some cases, her husband actually raises her for part of her childhood.

Once married, wife-beating is endemic and downright encouraged. A Yąnomamö man beats his wife as punishment, but also to signal his capacity for violence to other men:

Many men, however, show their ferocity by meting out serious punishment for even minor offenses. It is not uncommon for a man to injure his errant wife seriously, and some men have even killed wives.

Women expect this kind of treatment and many measure their husband's concern in terms of the frequency of minor beatings they sustain. I overheard two young women discussing each other's scalp scars. One of them commented that the other's husband must really care for her since he has beat her on the head so frequently!

This doesn’t even include intervillage warfare and abductions, in which case captured women are usually gang-raped before being married off.

With old age, women’s lives improve somewhat:

A woman gains a measure of respect when she becomes old. By then she has adult children who care for her and treat her kindly. Old women also have a unique position in the world of intervillage warfare and politics. They are immune from the incursions of raiders and can go from one village to another with complete disregard for personal danger. In this connection, they are employed as messengers and, on some occasions, as recoverers of bodies.

This reversal of fortune for old women may explain why there are at least two known cases of older women choosing to return to the Yąnomamö after having lived in modern society.

3. Anthropology before ethics committees was bananas

There are some really egregious examples like the anthropologist who married and impregnated a Yąnomamö teenager and then brought her back to New Jersey, but even the comparatively scrupulous Changnon engaged in some curious practices. The 60s may have been an Anthropology-story sweet spot where rigorous records were kept, but they also got up to some wacky hijinks.

The best of these is when the author decides to take his friend Rerebawä to the Venezuelan capital Caracas in a Coming to America-esque adventure. Rerebawä had never left the woods before, so naturally, they immediately fly him through a lighting storm in a cargo plane.

Our hapless traveler first wonders if the plane will collide with the “upper layer” of the cosmos, before being downright traumatized by violent turbulence around what he thinks is their giant metal bird:

I strapped Rerebawä into his safety harness. He had grown very quiet and was now obviously worried—if we weren't going to crash into the upper layer, why was it necessary to tie ourselves into the seats? … The pilot tested the motors, and the roar was deafening: Rerebawä s knuckles were white as he clutched the edge of his seat… It was one of the worst flights I ever had, for we hit the storm soon after we gained cruising altitude.

Despite the rocky start, the trip turned out well enough:

The next week proved to be both sobering and outrageously funny at times as Rerebawä discovered what Caraca-teri [Caracas] and its customs and ways were like, and how much he would have to report to his co-villagers: the staggering size of the buildings reaching to the sky, built of stone laid upon stone; elevators; people staying up all night; the bright lights of the automobiles coming at an incredible speed at you during night travel, looking like the piercing eyes of the bore spirits; the ridiculous shoes that women wore with high heels and how they would cause you to trip if you tried to walk through the jungle in them; and the marvels of flush toilets and running water.

He was astounded at how clean the floors were in the houses, was afraid to climb suspended stairs for fear they would collapse, and could not drink enough orange soda pop, or get over the fact that a machine would dispense it when you put a coin in and pushed a button.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when Rerebawä returns to his village and tries to explain Caracas to the others:

"Is it bigger than Patanowa-teri's shabono?" they asked him skeptically, and he looked at me, somewhat embarrassed, and knew that he could not explain it to them. We both knew that they would not be able to conceive of what Rerebawä had seen. His arm stretched out and he described a large arc, slowly, saying with the greatest of exaggeration his language permitted: "it stretches from here to—way over—there!" And they clicked their tongues, for it was bigger than they imagined.

If you’re going to read just one thing in this book, read the bit about this caper in chapter 7. It’s the sort of thing I’ve always wondered about but naively assumed no genuine academic would ever engage in.

(Sometimes I blow people’s minds by telling them that my grandfather, who grew up poor in a tropical country, didn’t know what ice was. As in he didn’t know that if water got cold enough it turned hard. Still, I have to think that his life was actually closer to ours, we who read blogs on the internet, than to a Yąnomamö of the Amazon.)

4. Yąnomamö life is violent, but norms exist to contain this

As aggression is necessary, it is encouraged from a young age:

Although Ariwari is only about four years old, he has already learned that the appropriate response to a flash of anger is to strike someone with his hand or with an object, and it is not uncommon for him to give his father a healthy smack in the face whenever something displeases him. He is frequently goaded into hitting his father by teasing, being rewarded by gleeful cheers of assent from his mother and from the other adults in the household.

However, totally unchecked aggression would result in unsustainable levels of homicide, so there are de-escalation mechanisms to diminish violence between both individuals and villages.

They have a series of graded forms of violence that ranges from chest-pounding and club-fighting duels to out-and-out shooting to kill. This gives them a good deal of flexibility in settling disputes without immediate resort to killing.

The customs of chest-pounding and club-fights have the same basic rules: contestants take turns hitting each other in a designated way until someone gives up. I was struck by how much these graded-violence customs resembled a game I experienced in middle school: bloody knuckles. The rules are exactly the same as the Yąnomamö customs, except you take turns striking the knuckles rather than thumping the chest or clubbing the head.

Yanomamo chest pounding

The interesting thing about all three of these games is that it’s hard to be good at them in a way that can be straightforwardly leveraged to bully everyone. Unlike say a wrestling match or sword duel, it’s more about durability than skill, and even the winner inevitably emerges worse for wear. After a hard-fought contest, you’re in no position to challenge anyone else for a while so there’s a natural limit to how often you can participate.

Personally, I’ve really appreciated these rituals. In middle school, I was a scrawny kid that didn’t do well in real fights, but I was reliable enough at bloody knuckles to generate a tiny bit of menace and respect that probably saved me from worse interactions.

5. Most of their food comes from agriculture

I’d always thought that “uncontacted” peoples were hunter-gatherers, or perhaps fishermen, but it turns out, by calories, the Yąnomamö are mostly agriculturalists and therefore Neolithic (sorry Paleo-dieters).

Although the Yąnomamö spend almost as much time hunting as they do gardening, the bulk of their diet comes from foods that are cultivated. Perhaps 85 percent or more of the diet consists of domesticated rather than wild foods—plantains are by far the most important food in the diet.

Further, plantains are an Old-world crop, first brought along long trade networks with intermediately-connected indigenous groups. The Yąnomamö are still in indirect contact with the modern world, which leads to the next surprising point:

6. “Uncontacted” peoples have access to technology fit for 19th-century Kings

You may have seen this photo before:

Indigenous with Aluminum Pot

These are indigenous Amazonians photographed from the air. When I first saw this I was fascinated, but also confused by two items that seemed out of place. The first is what looks like a machete in the center boy’s hand, but even more interesting is the small white pot by their feet.

Chagnon explains:

Most Yąnomamö groups still use clay pots, although these are being rapidly replaced by aluminum ware, which is traded inland to the more remote villages.

Metallic aluminum is a modern invention, and early on it was incredibly expensive. A small block of aluminum was once displayed alongside France’s crown jewels, and Emperor Napoleon III (Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew) kept aluminum cutlery for his most honored guests (the less honored had to settle for gold).

Archeologists tell of paleolithic burial sites containing seashells, artifacts, and minerals from thousands of miles away. It had felt hard to conceptualize a prehistoric trade network that could move goods so far, but the movement of these pots illustrates this beautifully.

7. They hate stepping on thorns but haven’t invented shoes

Walking entails certain kinds of risks. The Yąnomamö have no shoes or clothing, so thorns are always a problem. A party of 10 men can rarely go more than an hour without someone stopping suddenly, cursing, and sitting down to dig a thorn out of his foot with the tip of his arrow point. While their feet are hardened and thickly calloused, walking in streams and through muddy terrain softens the callouses and then the thorns can get deeply embedded.

I knew that early people had walked around barefoot, but I’d assumed that their hardened feet offered protection from all but the worst environments (snow, pointy rocks, etc.). It seems that they don’t, and now I really appreciate shoes (sorry barefoot runners).

That said, cane sandals don’t seem particularly hard to make so I don’t exactly understand how they haven’t invented something to protect their feet, yet can come up with specialized contraptions for climbing thorny trees:

Yanomamo climbing

I’ve never worn cane sandals though, so maybe shoes below some level of sophistication just aren’t worth the fuss.

8. You can buy a canoe full of plantains for a few pocket knives

The Venezuelans who carried supplies upstream to the mission always bought plantains from the Yanomamo for ridiculously low prices and sold them for up to 800% profit

This exchange rate surprised me, though I soon remembered traveling in developing regions and buying unbelievable bounties for pennies. With enough of a technology gap, this makes sense though; if a futuristic alien showed up and wanted your house in exchange for a teleporter or something, you’d probably take the deal.

9. Their “plant medicine” seems more like PCP than ayahuasca

Psychoactive “plant medicines” like psilocybin, peyote, and ayahuasca are increasingly popular among Western techies and intellectuals, and many have origins in indigenous cultures. They’re often used with the goal of reaching deep truths and higher levels of conscientiousness, and I’d expected to see this from the Yąnomamö as well.

Yanomamo taking ebene

However, the Yąnomamö continue their inconvenient flouting of stereotypes by taking drugs mostly to get really stoned:

Now, it was time for them to take ebene, their hallucinogenic drug. They separated into several groups and began blowing the brownish-green powder up each other's nostrils with 3-foot long hollow tubes. As the drug would be administered, each recipient would reel from the concussion of air, groan, and stagger off to some convenient post to vomit. Within ten minutes of taking the drug, the men would be bleary-eyed and wild, prancing around in front of their houses, stopping occasionally to vomit or to catch their breath. In each group there would be one man particularly adept at chanting to the hekura, the mountain demons, and he would soon take over the show, while the others retired to the sidelines in a stupor, green slime dripping from their nostrils.

That said, there is some hekura communing, so I can’t dismiss ebene as a party drug entirely. Perhaps it’s actually similar to psychedelics in the west—there’s a consciousness vs. partying use-case divide.

10. They’re pretty good sports all in all

The author would constantly have things stolen from him, and eventually, he learned to ask a local child, who would cheerfully identify the culprit. The author would then go steal the offender’s hammock, forcing the thief to return the item and endure village taunts about getting so easily caught. That would be the end of it until inevitably something else was stolen and the process repeated itself.

Once, in retaliation for stealing boards from his canoe, Chagnon set the perpetrators’ canoes loose into the river:

I then pulled out my hunting knife and, while their grins disappeared, cut each of their canoes loose, set it into the current, and let them float away. I left without further ado and without looking back.

You’d think with people as fierce as these he’d have earned some arrows in the belly or at least a chest-pounding, but they took it in stride and Chagnon even had the backing of the village:

The headman of the village later told me with an approving chuckle that I had done the correct thing. Everyone in the village, except, of course, the culprits, supported and defended my action.

The juxtaposition of nonstop aggression alongside the capacity for letting bygones be bygones continually impressed me. There were certainly long-term feuds, but somehow these never seemed more than a feast or counter-alliance away from possible resolution.

So should you read it?

Yąnomamö was forbidden because it presents compelling evidence against certain social constructionist shibboleths, though even the constructionist-skeptical will find themselves frequently taken by surprise.

Earlier editions of the book are something of a catalog of descriptions, while later editions are expanded and have a more narrative structure.

The above highlights cover most of the unusual bits; the other factoids won’t be that surprising to anyone who’s seen a few nature documentaries. Changon doesn’t especially seem to be courting controversy, just depicting what he saw. It’s short for an anthropology book (the first edition is only ~140 pages), so worthwhile reading for those with particular anthropological interest or curiosity about the finer details of the above points.

However, I think the biggest reason to read it is to travel to a world unlike your own. You may have experienced this before by reading old books; the world has evolved so much that even a mundane story from the 19th century will unintentionally illustrate dramatic changes.

Tribal warfare in the Stone Age is about as far from our world as you can get, so Yąnomamö’: The Fierce People is like an “old book” on jungle psychotropics. It will be harsh and possibly nauseating, but ultimately rewardingly mind-altering.

Thanks to Uri and Kaamya for feedback on drafts of this.

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