The Fierce Anthropologist

Another Noble Savage

Posted Jul 21, 2013

Source: UCSB

Napoleon Chagnon has lived up to his name.

The second of 12 children from a scrappy family in Port Austin, Michigan, “the most famous American anthropologist since Margaret Mead—and the most controversial,” has over the course of his long, illustrious career, run in with: colleagues, students, Salesian missionaries, a New Yorker editor, a New York Times reviewer, a National Book Award nominee, the AAA (American Anthropological Association), the ABA (Associação Brasiliera de Anthropologia), OCAI (Oficina Central de Asuntos Indigenas, or the Venezuelan Indian Commission), FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Indio, or the Brazilian Indian Service), Cultural Survival, and Fundafaci (Fundación para las Familias Campesinas y Indígenas, or the Foundation for the Families of Farmers and Indians). That list is incomplete.

And for years before he fought off intellectuals, Napoleon Chagnon fought his way into the jungle. There was the first trip up the Orinoco River, in an aluminum rowboat with an outboard motor, to the village of Upper Bisaasi-teri—where on 28 November 1964, in a cloud of bareto gnats and stared down by a dozen drawn arrows, he made first contact with the Yanomamö. (“Strands of dark green snot dripped or hung from their nostrils—strands so long that they drizzled from their chins down to their pectoral muscles and oozed lazily across their bellies, blending into their red paint and sweat.”) There was the first visit to Mishimishimaböwei-teri, in Shamatari territory, up the Mavaca River 4 years later—where he stood his ground, stripped to his loincloth, holding onto a 12-year-old’s bow and arrows. (“I felt naked and, as a matter of fact, I very nearly was.”) And there was the most harrowing of all expeditions, up the Jaguar River to Iwahikoroba-teri, early in 1971—where as he rested half lame with a charley horse and sprained ankle, exhausted from diarrhea and covered with hives, 3 men tried to crawl up his hammock and smash his skull with an ax. (“They made a no owä (an effigy used in the wayu itou ceremony) of me and ceremoniously shot it full of arrows to symbolically kill me.”) That list is incomplete, too.

Over better than 2 decades, Shaki, or "The Man Called Bee," made contact with more than 60 villages, and got demographic data on a sample of some 4000 people. On a small budget, with little assistance, armed with a Polaroid camera, a tape recorder, a set of notebooks (his “leafs”), and his enormous computer printouts, he collected genealogies that extended back over a century, and settlement patterns that extended into 2 countries. He drew blood samples; he redrew maps. Attacked by anacondas and jaguars and Yanomamö, harassed by anthropologists and missionaries and members of the press, he repeatedly risked his reputation, and his life, to bring Stone Age facts to scientific light.

He found out that some patas, or “Big Ones,” or headmen, were the fathers of very big families. Matakuwä, or “Shinbone,” for instance, who probably died in the 1930s, begot 20 sons and 23 daughters on 11 wives. He had 113 granddaughters and 118 grandsons; he had 245 great-granddaughters and 235 great-grandsons. Shocking stuff, to some of the social scientists among us. But to biologists like Chagnon, not so much. Since his lifelong friend and collaborator, Bill Irons, read the first paper on “Cultural and Reproductive Success” at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association in 1976, similar associations have been found for nonwesterners all over the world—from hunter-gatherers in Australia, to African herders, to other South American gardeners.

Even more disturbing was his discovery that good warriors, or unokais, or “Men Who Had Killed,” married on average more than twice as many women, and fathered 3 times as many children, as non-unokais did. Almost a third of all Yanomamö men died violent deaths; and almost a quarter of all women in any village were abducted women.  Nobody but Napoleon Chagnon has managed to collect the data on an unpacified culture necessary to establish those facts. But by as early as the 8th century BC, Homer had anticipated them. At the end of the Iliad, he had Priam, the king of Troy, cry out: “I have lived to see many horrors, my sons killed and my daughters dragged off captive, their houses looted and their little children smashed on the ground in the havoc of war, and the wives of my sons hauled away in the murderous hands of the Achaians.” Similar scandals were taken for granted by writers of the first histories, in the Hebrew Bible. Even before they left Canaan, Jacob’s daughter Dinah got raped by a Hivite prince, so her brothers obliterated the Hivite males, but saved “all their little ones, and their wives” (Genesis 34:29). Then on their way out of Egypt, their descendants slew every male but “took captive the women of Midian and their little ones” (Numbers 31: 15-35). And after they got back to the Jordan, they went looking for girls in Jabesh-Gilead, and destroyed every woman who’d “lain with a male”—but brought 400 virgins back to Shiloh (Judges 21:11).

Less shocking and disturbing, but less well known, are findings on how we might avoid all that. From the start of his promising career, to his memoir, Chagnon has noticed that some Yanomamö societies are more waiteri, or “Fiercer,” than others. Some villages are larger; their headmen are more powerful; their wars are more bloody; and their women are more likely to be abductees. Other villages are smaller, more egalitarian, more peaceful, and more monogamous. And the differences have something to do with ecology. Villages in the Yanomamö Fertile Crescent, on the more productive lowlands, are harder to leave. People get a lot out of their environments, and they pay a price to stay. But villages in the highlands, where food is relatively scarce and life is relatively harsh, are more easily abandoned. People settle their differences by finding another place to live. Our lives are more peaceful, our societies fairer, and our families unmolested, when we’re willing to walk away.



Chagnon, Napoleon. 2013. Noble Savages. New York: Simon & Schuster.