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Yanomamo, the Fierce People (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology) Paperback – April, 1977
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Economically they were Neolithic. Most of their calories came from primitive agriculture, although all of their meat came from hunting. Politically they were closer to a Paleolithic culture. The tribe was not united under a single leadership. The political unit was the village. There were about 125 villages. These villages averaged about 75 members. The range was from 40 to 250 inhabitants. Although the Yanomamo in the villages spoke the same language, the villages were often at war.
If the population in a village got too small the men would be killed, and the women and children would be carried off. If it got too large there would be a growing number of conflicts between the men, and the village would divide. Villagers liked to establish alliances with nearby villages. However, these alliances were unstable. If men in one village thought it was in their interest to raid a presumed ally, they often would.
Conflicts within a village were usually over women. When men raided another village they tried to abduct women. The Yanomamo did not like to confront long odds and desperate situations. If a single Yonomamo man in a raiding party was killed, the raid was considered to have been a failure. Nevertheless, a high percentage of men died violently, perhaps one fourth during the course of their lives. In 1988 Dr. Chagnon wrote an article in Science magazine that said that a Yanomamo man who killed other men in war averaged three times as many children as a man who had not killed enemies in war.
Although the Yanomamo men lived more violent lives than inner city gang members, they do not look muscular. I wonder how one would do in a physical fitness test that emphasized strength. I wonder how one would perform against an American of the same weight who was a trained boxer or mixed martial arts fighter, or an untrained but experienced street fighter.
Dr. Chagnon was introduced to the members of one village in 1964 by a Christian missionary. He was accepted into the village, but he was not inducted into it. Thus, he was not expected to engage in fights for dominance or in raids on other villages. He learned the Yanomamo language in a reasonable amount of time.
The Yanomamo share the incest taboo with nearly all humans, because it is instinctive. When children are born of closely related parents, harmful recessive genes often pair off, causing congenital deformities. Leaders of the village, and noted hunters and warriors often had more than wife. A man with more than one wife liked to marry sisters. This too is instinctive, and common among cultures that practice polygamy. Women have genetic stakes in the children of their sisters, so arguments between sisters are less common than arguments between fellow wives of the same man who are not related.
Virginity does not seem to be prized, but a Yanomamo man will kill a man who has an affair with his wife.
Yanomamo: The Fierce People sold over one million copies, and made Napoleon A. Chagnon one of the most famous anthropologists in the world. Nevertheless, many anthropologists reacted negatively to him and his book, and even questioned his honesty. This was because they wanted to believe that war is a recent vice, rather than a long time practice that has affected human evolution.
The raids practiced by Yanomamo men are similar to raids Jane Goodall and others have observewd among chimpanzees. Because chimpanzees are our closest relative, this kind of behavior is many millions of year old.
In his book War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, Lawrence H. Kelley argued that written accounts of tribal peoples by literate observers, as well as fossil remains of prehistoric humans indicate that prior to the advent of civilization a much higher percentage of men were killed in war than have died that way since, even during the twentieth century with two world wars.
Peter Frost, a Canadian anthropologist, has argued that a tribal existence breeds men for violence, while civilization breeds men for obedience to the law. This is because during most of history the criminal justice systems of civilized countries have killed criminals before they had the opportunity to have children who would inherit their crime genes. This explains why races that have practiced civilization for thousands of years have lower crime rates than races that have been recently introduced to civilization.
A pessimistic appraisal of human nature does not mean that we must accept evil. It does indicate that there is often wisdom in tradition and that as an abstract ideal freedom should be viewed skeptically.
The Paleolithic era existed for about two and a half million years. It has affected the evolution of human nature more than the five thousand years or so of civilization. By studying people like the Yanomamo we can learn about our ancestors, and consequently ourselves.
The Yanomato were a people of perhaps 10,000 souls in total. They lived in separate villages of from 50 to 200 plus people that warred against other villages on a regular basis. There were no representatives of the government of either Brazil or Venezuela. He was the only outsider in the villages he lived in. There were some missionaries in some of the villages.
The Yanomamo were a stone age people who were just acquiring some metal items from the outside world. They wore minimal clothing, a penis sheath for the men, and a short skirt for the women.
The people in a village lived in one building which surrounded an open central courtyard, and had an outside wall, and roof covering around the outside. Each family built a part, and lived in the section that they built. Everyone slept in hammocks. Each village had a village garden where the different families had their own individual plants. About 85% of their food came from the garden the remaining 15% was from hunting or finding items in the jungle. The men used bows and arrows that they made to hunt, and for war. When war was conducted, there were ambushes and raids on enemy villages. Women captured in war were raped first, and then made a part of the community in the village. Men were killed in wars, and if too many were killed from a village, it could upset the balance of power, and cause a village to ally with another for self defense. Wars were conducted between the villages for different reasons, including getting women from the other village.
They practiced infanticide at times such as a baby arriving too soon after the last child. There was a bias toward male children. Women were valued, and generally in short supply, with part of the reason being female infanticide. Men and women tended to be monogamous while the arrangement lasted. There were no formal weddings or other commitments for a man and a woman. After a high ranking man was through with a wife, he sometimes gave her to one of his followers.
All in all, a very interesting and informative book.