Then you are in bad luck


Napoleon Chagnon




Generations of social science students were electrified by reading Napoleon Chagnon's Yanomamö, the Fierce People (1968), a monograph on a South-American Indian tribal people (click here for pictures). The film (now interactive CD-ROM) The Ax Fight, which shows an escalating conflict within a village, is an anthropological classic. Since the first time he went there in 1964, Chagnon has revisited the Yanomamö almost every year. The follo­wing interview took place in Tucson, June 1997.


You write that anthropolo­gists often discover that the people they are living with have a lower opinion of you than they have of them.


When I went down there I had a Noble Savage view of what tribesmen were like. I had gone there to learn about their way of life, and I expected them to be fascinated and intere­sted and even grateful for my going there. I was assuming that they were interested in having other people know about them. They were not; they didn't know there were other people!


Did the Yanomamö give you a hard time?


I have spend a lot of time with the Yanomamö, in total now close to six years. But initially when I went to live with them for the first time, I was completely unprepared emoti­on­ally to live in a society as primitive and as savage as the Yanomamö. They were pushy, they regarded me as sub-human or inhuman, they treated me very badly.

In their culture they expect people to be generous. They emphasize how important it is for you to be generous, and give your things to them, by making their needs seem to be more urgent than they really are. The more I was reluctant to give things away at sometimes outrageous demands that they made, the more urgent they tried to represent their needs. If I did not give my things, disas­ters would befall them, and possibly me. It was a way of coercing me.


Was there a happier side?


The happier side, the more pleasant and the truly enjoyable side, was the consequence of a long period of getting to know them, and their getting to know me. A qualitative change in our relations­hip occurred when I went home the first time and then returned. During that period of time they apparently dis­cussed me, discussed the things that I did, and basically concluded that I wasn't such a bad guy after all. More and more of them began to regard me as less of a foreigner or a sub-human person and I became more and more like a real person to them, part of their society. Eventually they began telling me, almost as though it were an admission on their part: "You are almost a human being, you are almost a Yanomamö". Yanomamö means 'human'.


You write about a sense of urgency to study them.


It became very clear to me after years of university-trai­ning, reading lots and lots of monographs about tribal peoples, that I had stumbled accidentally upon an extraordinarily unusual and short-lived oppor­tu­nity. Because very few people were as remote and isolated as the Yanomamö were. And I realised from knowing how quickly accultura­tion can happen, that if I did not decide for an intense and long term commit­ment to learning about these people while they were still the way they were, that valuable opportunities to learn many important things about them would disap­pear.


Is it a primitive people?


Yes, but keep in mind that primitive is a technical word in anthropology to refer to those societies that are organi­sed basically around kinship institutions. In other words, primitive societies are those whose entire social organisation is built on, and a function of kinship instituti­ons, like lineages, clans, marriage alliance systems, and they do not have other kinds of social systems like the state, police, courts.


Is each village autonomous?


Each village is a politically independent unit, it is almost like a nation all by itself.


Please describe some aspects of their culture.


The technological component and other aspects of their culture is more similar to hunting and gathering peoples than it is to agricultural peoples. They are agricultu­rists, but it is almost as if they want to keep one foot in the hunting and gathering stage, and the other foot in agriculture. So their entire cultural paraphernalia is very limi­ted. They have ham­mocks, baskets, a few very crude poorly fired claypots which have now disappeared in the last twenty years, bows and arrows, and not much else. A whole village of Yanomamö can pack up in five minutes and go off into the forest, and carry everything they own. So their technology and the number of material items they have is very, very limited, almost as though they are nomadic hunters and gatherers, but they are not.

Linguistically, and this is not unusual, their ways of evaluating and enumerating things in the exter­nal world are more based on the specific properties of things; like the arrow that has a slight bend in it, or the arrow that has a scorch-mark on it. If you show a Yanomamö ten arrows, and you decide to steal one from him, he will notice immediately that it has gone because he recogni­ses the arrow by its individual properties. But they have no way of saying: "I have ten arrows". They will say: "More that two arrows". In their language the words they have for enumera­ting objects are "one", "two", and then "bruka", and bruka can mean anything from three to three-million.

As for their clothing, from our point of view they are naked. In an uncontacted Yanomamö-village the men and women wear basically a few cotton strings around their waists and their fore­arms. The men tie their penis to a cotton string around their waist. But if their penis becomes untied, they are extraordinar­ily embarrassed.


If there is no state, no law, no police, then how are the bad guys controlled?


What makes a guy bad is what his enemies in other villages think of him. In his own village he would not be considered a bad guy, he would be considered a hero. Now within the village they have certain rules about what is appropriate behavior with your kin and your neighbors. You should not steal the food of members of your village, but it is perfectly alright to steal food from other villages. You should not kill people in your own village, but it is appropriate to kill people in other villages, if they are your enemies. We have the same rules.

So 'bad' is a relative term, but there are nevertheless people whose range of behavior within the village can get exces­sive. I know a particular headman that I wrote quite a bit about, who had become so brutal and so homici­dal that even people in his own village did not like him. A bad guy can become a tyrant, and very few people in that village were willing to challenge the tyrant. There are no social mechanisms to deal with somebody in the village who has gotten out of hand. In our culture we can call the police and have him arrested. In their culture, if they want to challenge that guy, they have to do it as an individual. And if this guy is a brute and quick to pick up his club or his weapons, you better be equally good.


They live in communal dwellings?


Even though to us it looks like a communal dwelling, each part of it is constructed by an individual family, and they just link them together. They cooperate when they build it to make it circular and enclosed for defence purposes.


Defence against whom?


Defence against enemies, other Yanomamö. They try to make a completely enclosed, circular village, to us it looks like it is a communal village, but each section of that village is a private house­hold. Even though it is wide open and you cannot tell. They all live together under one roof, they can see, smell and hear each other, and life is extremely public.


Are extramarital affairs possible?


They are possible, and many young guys attempt to have them, in fact many old guys attempt to have them. Sometimes the women are quite willing and cooperative in this. They may decide that they like the flirtatious approaches of a young guy, and they will quickly and discretely say: "Meet me in the garden by my bareama kakö banana-plant". And they may have a clandestine affair, but they will keep it secret of course. Men are always looking where their women are, and if their wife is away for more than a few minutes without the husband knowing where she is, he begins to get suspicious. And even the suspicion of infidelity will cause brutal fights. So the men are constantly tracking where their women are, what they are doing, and if the men happen to be on a hunt for example, they have infor­mers in the village who will tell them: "Your wife was out with some other guy", and that is sufficient to cause a fight.


The informer may be lying....


Not if the man picks his informer intelligently. The informer is usually a close relative, like a brother of the man.


It is basically a male-dominated society?


Well, a lot of societies are male-dominated, and the Yano­mamö are not unusual in that regard.


If you grow up either as a boy or a girl in Yanomamö-society, will you get a different view on life?


Little girls learn quickly that they have less freedom than little boys. They become economically useful assets to the household compared to little boys, they have to start collecting water when they are very young, help mum carrying food from the garden, baby-sit, and they tend to become adults much younger in their life than little boys do. Boys can extend their childhood as little boys can in Holland or Germany or the United States until they are thirty-five of forty years old, before they start doing anything serious and responsi­ble.

Young men are always a constant problem in Yanomamö villa­ges. Once they are post-adoles­cent, they begin to have sexual inte­rests, they are called huya, young men. Huyas are a big pain in the ass. Huyas in all cultures are a big pain in the ass. Gangs; juvenile delinquents.


But I guess they can be used by someone?


Well, they are useful because they can shoot bows and arrows and they get impressed into military service just as we do with our huyas in Western industrial civilisations.


Are the Yanomamö patrilocal or matrilocal?


Adult brothers try to remain together for cooperation and defence, you can trust your kinsmen more than you can trust strangers. Brot­hers tend to be very cooperative and quick to defend each other. And without police or state or laws and courts, your only source of defence is your kinsmen. And the more closely you are related to your relati­ves, the greater is the probability that they will defend you, whether you are right or wrong. But they expect you to defend them, and kinsmen in general to defend each other, whether they are right or wrong.


What if you don't have any kinsmen?


Then you are in bad luck. Now, regarding patrilocality and where people live after marria­ge, if you look at primates like chimpanzees, they are doing basical­ly the same thing as humans are doing. One sex migrates into the other group, and that same sex of the other group migrates back into the original group. What humans have done is say: Let's get the two groups together and live in the same community. So villa­ges tend to be construc­ted by two or more lineages or clans, groups of people who are related through the male line, just like we inherit names in Western civilisation. All of the people who have your last name would be a member of a patri-lineage. So you end up with villages that tend to have a dual organisation: two families that exchan­ge women back and forth. 


But women sometimes do live in villages where they were not born.


Lets say two villages that have been enemies decide to become allies, because both realise that they have many other enemies out there, and the best thing for them to do, to deal with their other enemies, is to become friends. One way to make friends with people in other villages who are potentially ene­mies, is to give a woman to them in marria­ge. But you don't do this without great concern for the safety of the girl. She does not want to live there; her relati­ves compel her, they have authority over whom she marries. Marriage is something too politi­cally important to groups like the Yanomamö and presumably throughout our history, to allow the whims of young people to have charge of it.

So for political reasons two villages who want to become friends, may decide that the best way to do that is to start exchanging women. We'll give you one of our young women, for one of yours. It is usually the promi­nent men in the village that do this. And if the first village gives a girl to the other one, they expect the man who is going to marry her, to come and live in their village for several years. So the young man will do bride-service in the village where his wife lives, and her family can get to know him, they sort of sniff him over. After a two or three year period, during which he has to do a lot of tasks and favours and hunt for the father in law, he'll be allowed to bring his wife back to his village. But the women never like that arrangement, because once she is in a different village, she doesn't have her brothers to protect her. And since she is a stranger in the other village, she is more likely to be approa­ched by a lot of other men for sexual activi­ties. This means that her husband, who will resent this, will not only get into a lot of clubfights with these other men in his own village, but he will punish her too. So the life of a woman who has to live in a different village where she doesn't have brothers, can be very, very tragic in many cases.


You write that most fights result from disputes over women. Why are women so scarce?


For several reasons. The primary reason is that successful men often have two, three, up to five or six women. And if a guy has five wives, about five guys are going to have no wife. So polygy­ny creates a shortage of women. From the point of view of the male, women are a scarce commodity. And if men want to be reproducti­vely successful they have to do a lot of social maneu­vering and manipulation in order to find a wife of their own. A man's career may start out with not having a wife, but maybe his brother will share his wife with him. So early in a man's career, he might be polyandrous, two or three brothers sharing one woman, and then as he becomes more promi­nent, he might acquire his own wife.


Women are also abducted in raids, which reminded me of what chimpanzees are doing.


The recent work among chimpanzees indicates very clearly that once the chimps were no longer provisioned to the level they were before, and returned to a more natural kind if existen­ce, researches began to make realisations and discoveries that they had never made before. Chimpan­zees send out patrols to their borders, they are constant­ly guarding borders and looking for opportunities to invade and kill members of another group, snatch female chimps, and bring them back to their own group.

But Yanomamö don't get their women raiding. Even though occasion­ally women are captured in raids, that is not the purpose or the function of a raid. The raid is usually to get revenge for a previous death. If a woman happens to be away from the village, and the raiders can safely take her back with them without her screaming and giving away their location, they will do it. But abduction is not necessarily or very frequently done on raids. Most of the abductions are done right at home. A group of Yanoma­mö from another village will come and visit. If the visitors have women with them and their neighbours are mercenary, they may just take the women away from the men and send the men packing. That's how most abductions are taking place.


Why did the visiting group pay a visit in the first place?


Every Yanomamö village, -the leaders in them-, knows that eventually it is going to be harassed by a coalition of other Yanomamö villages. So each village has allies, but allies tend to exploit each other. Say we have two villages of two-hundred Yanomamö, and they are allied. Since they are the same size, they can inflict equal harm on each other. But what happens if one of these villages splits in two and part of them goes away? Now you have a village of two hundred Yanomamö that has an alliance with a village of one hundred Yanomamö. Then the one with two hundred has an advantage over the one with one hundred. So, even though for years they may have been visiting in a friendly way, the guys who have two hundred people in their village will decide, maybe, one day, when this friendly visit happens: "Hell, we outnumber them, lets just take their women". And then this last village will do everything they can to recover their women, and that often will lead to war. So balance of power is very important; Western civilisations have always been very alert to changes in balance of power, and it is the same for the Yanomamö.


If the size of a village is so important, why do villages split?


Because there is a limit as to how big human communities can get if they are organised only by kinship. They fission into smaller villages because you cannot control the violence and squabbling and fighting that begins to take place once a village gets large.


Judging from your descriptions, the Yanomamö are a very violent people.


One of the reasons that I felt it was urgent to study the Yanomamö was that I was one of the few anthropo­logists who had an oppor­tunity to study a tribal society while warfare was still going on, and not being interdicted by the political state. Even though anthropology has a lot of literature about warfare and violence, the number of anthropolo­gists who studied tribes­men while still at war you can count on the fingers of one hand.

Now you just told me that the Yanomamö are a really violent people. My reaction to that is: The Yanomamö stand out because they are one of the few societies that have been studied by an anthro­pologist at a time that they had warfa­re. Had anthropolo­gists been around before Colum­bus in North America, I am sure that levels of violence among native Americans would be strictly comparable to those found among the Yanomamö. And the probability is very high that in our own tribal background violence was very common as well.


Anthropologists often call peoples like the Yanomamö 'egalitari­an' societies.


One of the common misunderstandings in scientific anthropo­logy is that the status of people in society is basi­cally deter­mined by the access that they have to material possessions. We tend to think of status being intimately associ­a­ted with the control and ownership of material things. Thus in anthr­opo­lo­gy, groups like the Yanomamö or the !Kung bushmen are called 'egali­ta­rian societies', everybody is equal, because every­body has the same number of resources. I think that is an absolu­tely silly and prejudicial if not Euro-centric idea. It is very clear to live in a Yanomamö village, that a guy who has a lot of close kinsmen, especially brothers, is going to have a lot more social influence than a guy who has no brot­hers.

And if your father is polygynous, you are going to have a lot of brothers. Polygyny is the fount of power. Power and status are almost entirely a function of how many kinsmen you have, and what kind of kinsmen.


You made a distinction between lowland-villages and villages in more mountainous regions.


The work you are referring to is very recent work that I have done since 1990, when I acquired access to helicopters and airplanes to fly over Yanomamö territory, and began to realise from an aerial perspective variation in ecology and geography. I also began using at that time GPS instruments, which enabled me to precisely locate where every village was. This is probably the most poorly mapped part of the world.

The villages that I have been studying from the very begin­ning all are in the lowland areas. It is not necessarily that these areas are richer, though you have no tapir or fish in the mountains, it is also easier to make a living on a flat surface. If you make a garden on a mountain-side with a thirty degree slope, the amount of effort and calories you have to expend is enormously greater than making a garden the same size on a flat surface. It is easier to do all kinds of work: collec­ting fire­work, fetching water, chopping down trees, going hunting. Large gardens are easier to make in the lowlands, but the low­lands are also easy to traverse and cross if you are going on a raid.

So villages tend to become bigger for defensive purpo­ses in the lowlands, because it is easier for enemies to reach you on a fairly flat surface. Since the population is growing, over a time this low-land area gets filled up with Yanomamö. Well, filled up, the population-density is actually very low, but villages claim and guard for milita­ry reasons a much larger area than they need for their own immediate subsistence purpo­ses. Because each village tends to prey on the weaknesses of its neigh­bours, villages that get small, get preyed upon, and they have to leave this more desira­ble area and move into less desira­ble terrain, which would be the foot­hills or the mountains where living is more diffi­cult. So big villa­ges with larger territo­ries dominate the lowlands, the losers tend to be get pushed back into the high­land areas, and their villages become smaller.

If this is true, it may explain a lot of the criticism of my work by some of my colleagues who have studied Yanomamö in other areas. Most of my critics who are experts on the Yanomamö, have lived in very tiny Yanomamö-villages, many of which are in the highlands. Once a village gets smaller, there is less violen­ce, less fight­ing, less warfa­re, fewer abductions. Anthropologists who study these groups are quick to criticize my work where everyt­hing is conduc­ted on a much more intense scale.


Do the Yanomamö understand how western societies are organised?


I once had a fascinating discussion with a Yanomamö, who had a little bit of training from the missionaries. He had learned some Spanish, and the missionaries sent him to the territorial capital to acquire some skills in practical nursing, so he could treat snake-bites and malaria in his own village. And he told me that when he was in the territorial capital, he dis­covered law. He met police­men, and he found out what these people did. They guarantee the safely of other people in the town, and would protect them from abuse or violence against them from other people. He was intri­gued and fascina­ted with that. He thought it was such a marvel­lous thing, because in his culture his brothers had killed other Yanomamö, and he was worried that their kinsmen would seek revenge and kill him, because he would be a legitimate target, the way the custo­mary system of violence and retribution opera­tes. And he thought it was just marvellous that law existed, and he thought Yanomamö should have law and policemen, because it would protect him from possible retaliation for acts that his brothers committed.


We have our private homes, hide our bodies with clothes, and have other kinds of possibilities for privacy. Is this because we no longer live primarily among kinsmen?


Anthropological textbooks do not always communicate to you the oppressiveness of having to live among kinsmen. Because they can demand and compel you to make extraordinary sacrifices, simply because they are your kinsmen. And it is extremely diffi­cult and tedious to have to live in a society where you are compelled and obligated to give things to your kinsmen simply because they are your kinsmen. And you can have lazy kinsmen. You might want to be a little more ambitious, acquire a few more things and have a slightly better life than somebody else, but if your brother who is a lazy lout, comes along and demands half of what your garden produces, you have got to give it to him. You have no privacy. You are the creature of your relati­ves. Probably one of the greatest achievements of western civilisation is to become independent of that. If you wish, you can be isola­ted and survi­ve, because society has institutions that provide you with everything that kinsmen used to provide people. And you can turn it off and turn it on when you want to. Functions, like I need legal help, I need protection, and you can shut it off when it is no longer necessary. But if you live in a kinship-dominated society, it is always on. The Yanomamö frequently responded to my question: "Why did you fission into two groups at that site?" by saying something like: "Because there were too many others and we were sick and tired of fight­ing all the time. Everybody was begging everyt­hing I had, I got tired of it".


You are pessimistic about the future of the Yanomamö: They are likely to become beggars and bums, alcoholics and prostitutes.


I am making that statement on the basis of my knowledge of what has happened to other tribal peoples who have been accultu­rated and missionized in the lofty and admirable senti­ment and objective of making more opportunities open to them. The opportu­nities that will be available to the Yanomamö in Latin America are going to be extraordinarily limited. The best that they can hope for is getting employment as low-class laborers, or domestic servants in the households of middle and upper-class people. Which is very common in Latin-America. "When you go to the jungle, bring me back an Indian", that is the attitude in Latin America about Indians; they are servants.

They lose their culture, they acquire very expensive appeti­tes for outboard motors, shotguns and television-sets, but where are they going to get the money to buy these? They cannot get it at their local village and their local missi­on, and the missiona­ries encourage them to think about moving to the city. But when they get to the city, nobody is going to hire them. So they enter the national culture at the lowest econo­mic rung, they get depres­sed and dejected and what do they do? They end up as beggars and prostitutes and bums.

Look at the Indian-reservations of the United States: The highest alcohol-rates in the world, the highest suicide-rates. And I cannot see this being any different for the Yanomamö. They have been persuaded in some villages to give up their own cul­ture on promises of social and material opportunities that are very unlikely to occur.


But they cannot go on living like they used to.


Why can't they?