Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists, by Napoleon A. Chagnon (Simon & Schuster, 544 pp., $32.50)
Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s heart was pounding in late November 1964 when he entered a remote Venezuelan village. He planned to spend more than a year studying the indigenous Yanomamo people, one of the last large groups in the world untouched by civilization. Based on his university training, the 26-year-old Chagnon expected to be greeted by 125 or so peaceful villagers, patiently waiting to be interviewed about their culture. Instead, he stumbled onto a scene where a dozen “burley, naked, sweaty, hideous men” confronted him and his guide with arrows drawn.
Chagnon later learned that the men were edgy because raiders from a neighboring settlement had abducted seven of their women the day before. The next morning, the villagers counterattacked and recovered five of the women in a brutal club fight. As Chagnon recounts in Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists (originally published in 2013 and now appearing in paperback), he spent weeks puzzling over what he had seen. His anthropology education had taught him that kinsmen—the raiders were related to those they’d attacked—were generally nice to one another. Further, he had learned in classrooms that primitive peoples rarely fought one another, because they lived a subsistence lifestyle in which there was no surplus wealth to squabble about. What other reason could humans have for being at one another’s throats?
Chagnon spent decades studying the Yanomamo first-hand. What he observed challenged conventional wisdom about human nature, suggesting that primitive man may have lived in a Hobbesian state of “all against all”—where the concerns of group and individual security were driving factors in how society developed, and where a sense of terror was widespread. His work undercut a longstanding politically correct view in anthropology, which held that Stone Age humans were noble savages and that civilization had corrupted humanity and led to increasing violence. Chagnon’s reporting on the Yanomamo subsequently became unpopular and was heavily attacked within some academic circles. He endured accusations and investigations. Noble Savages is Chagnon’s engrossing and at times hair-raising story of his work among the Yanomamo and the controversies his discoveries stirred up.
Chagnon faced numerous challenges simply in gathering material on the Yanomamo, starting with the difficulty of communicating with his subjects. Their language is unwritten and unrelated to any others spoken in South America, a testament to their long isolation. They didn’t even have a clear sense or delineation of individual words when Chagnon began working with them. He struggled to find symbols for sounds in the Yanomamo language that had no equivalent in English. Math was an issue, too. Chagnon was conducting a detailed study that included compiling extensive demographic data to understand how Yanomamo culture operated. But the Yanomamo have no numbers past two, and they don’t use calendars, so they have little idea how old they are, or how far in any unit of measure one village might be from another. Compiling a census of a single village was a time-consuming chore.
Chagnon met numerous physical dangers. To reach remote villages, he traveled for days through dense jungles, often guided by friendly Yanomamo who had only a general sense of where the village they were seeking might be located. He faced jaguars, poisonous snakes, and occasionally hostile villagers. He unwittingly became embroiled in the disputes among villages merely because of whom he chose as a guide, learning in the process that the Yanomamo nursed grudges against one another that sometimes endured for years. He survived several plots against himself and his guides in hostile places. His ability to escape harm during tense encounters in remote villages may have had something to do with the shotgun he always carried.
After a year of studying Yanomamo language and customs, Chagnon began to piece together how their society worked. The Yanomamo had no king or nobles to rule villages scattered throughout a vast area. Instead, villages governed themselves, largely through so-called “headmen”—leaders who often rose to power because they had a large number of kin as allies within a village. Individual villages often made alliances with other villages because the inhabitants of both settlements were part of extended family—related through marriage, for instance—and could offer one another mutual protections. “Political status among the Yanomamo depended to a very large extent on the numbers and kinds of biologically defined (genetic) relatives one has,” he writes. His findings challenged the “fundamental message of Marxist social science that dominated most departments of anthropology in the 1960s”—that political power in early societies arose over successful battles to control “strategic resources,” not through biology or kinship.
Chagnon’s observations led him into dangerous intellectual areas. From his initial contacts with the Yanomamo, he’d noticed how prevalent violence was in their culture. He determined that as many as 30 percent of all Yanomamo men died in violent confrontations, often over women. Abductions and raids were common, and Chagnon estimated that as many as 20 percent of women in some villages had been captured in attacks. Nothing in his academic background prepared him for this, but Chagnon came to understand the importance of large extended families to the Yanomamo, and thus the connection between reproduction and political power. As Chagnon notes, biologists found his observations unsurprising and consistent with much they already knew; but to anthropologists, the notion that primitive societies fought extensively, and did so over women for the sake of reproductive rights, made Chagnon a heretic.
Undaunted, Chagnon plunged even further into the thicket of political incorrectness. In a 1988 Science article, he estimated that 45 percent of living Yanomamo adult males had participated in the killing of at least one person. He then compared the reproductive success of these Yanomamo men to others who had never killed. The unokais—those who had participated in killings—produced three times as many children, on average, as the others. Chagnon suggested that this was because unokais, who earned a certain prestige in their society, were more successful at acquiring wives in the polygamous Yanomamo culture. “Had I been discussing wild boars, yaks, ground squirrels, armadillos or bats, nobody . . . would have been surprised by my findings,” he writes. “But I was discussing Homo sapiens—who, according to many cultural anthropologists, stands apart from the laws of nature.”
By this point, a segment of the academic community had already been trying to discredit Chagnon for years. In the late 1970s, for instance, a panel Chagnon organized to discuss the role of new biological theories in the study of man’s past was almost cancelled because of objections from cultural anthropologists. The panel proceeded, but protestors attacked the eminent Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson when he rose to speak, knocking him down and dousing him with cold water. Critics, meanwhile, charged Chagnon with faking his data and branded him a racist. He found it difficult to get back into Venezuela to continue his studies. His problems intensified as the field of anthropology changed and cultural anthropologists increasingly began to reject the scientific method that Chagnon pursued in favor of a postmodernist approach. Chagnon calls these new anthropologists believers, not scientists. They saw their field not as a path of inquiry but as a means of social change—one that condemned the industrialized, capitalist nations for exploiting natural resources and “peaceful” primitive peoples.
Tensions escalated with the 2000 publication of Patrick Tierney’s explosive book, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. In the preface, Tierney identified himself as an advocate for whom being a “traditional, objective journalist was no longer an option.” He charged that Chagnon and his biologist colleague, James Neel, had caused a measles epidemic among the Yanomamo through a vaccination program designed to test Neel’s theories of the Indians’ genetic fitness. The result, said Tierney, was “ethnocide.” The book also claimed that the Chagnon team withheld medical care from the Yanomamo. Critics piled on, accusing Chagnon again of falsifying his data and staging scenes in documentary films he’d helped make about the Yanomamo. A committee of the American Anthropological Association charged that Chagnon fired a gun into Yanamamo villages to intimidate the residents and that he associated with criminals in Venezuela.
With help from supporters and independent investigators, Changon eventually refuted the charges. One former colleague of the anthropologist said that it took him just a few hours of conversations with epidemiologists, including those at the Centers for Disease Control, to dismiss the most serious accusations about the measles epidemic. Numerous scientists reported that the vaccine in question had no record of giving anyone measles. In 2011, the scientific journal Human Nature published a long article by Alice Dreger, a professor in the medical and bioethics program at Northwestern, addressing most of the charges against Chagnon. She dismissed much of what Tierney wrote as “falsehoods” and “a fictitious picture” of Chagnon’s actions in the Amazon. Dreger also denounced the American Anthropological Association for conducting an investigation largely run by Chagnon’s critics. But the Association wasn’t alone. The New Yorker, a magazine fabled for supposedly dogged fact-checking, had run a long article by Tierney, “The Fierce Anthropologist,” without apparently doing much vetting.
Readers can perhaps get a sense of the current state of the anthropology field by considering the most absurd claim against Chagnon: that he was a McCarthyite. The evidence for this was little more than Tierney’s observation that Chagnon grew up in the 1950s in a rural area of Michigan, where “anti-Communist feeling ran high, and where Senator Joseph McCarthy enjoyed strong support.” Critics also sniped at Chagnon for being, in Tierney’s description, “a free-market advocate.” Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, a Chagnon defender, calls this kind of branding “an irredentist leftism that considers even moderate and liberal positions reactionary.”
The publication of Noble Savages, which Chagnon was writing and, apparently, rewriting for some 14 years, has further enhanced the author’s standing after his long battle to restore his reputation. But it has also opened old wounds and raised new worries about the decline of objectivity and the abandonment of truth-seeking in the social sciences. Chagnon concludes by citing the prediction of biologist Paul Gross (co-author of Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science) that “the barefoot anthropologists, the activists, will be teaching your children.” They’re teaching them now, Chagnon assures us.