Friday, January 05, 2018

The Fierce People

     Napoleon Chagnon. Yanomamö: The Fierce People (1968) In 1964 and 1965, Chagnon spent about 13 months with the Yanomamö. A PhD was one result. This Case Study in Cultural Anthropology is another. It’s aimed at students, hence a nice personal tone, with anecdotes about Chagnon's reactions to the people he came to know. He does the standard thing,  describing the people’s “adaptations” to their physical and social environments, their kinship structure, their myths, and their politics, which for the Yanomamö is primary. Their life focuses on gaining respect and power within their villages, trading and allying themselves with neighbouring villages, raiding their enemies, and as often as not betraying their allies.
     Physically and ecologically their life is hard. They build gardens, and must stay near them to protect them. New gardens must be built every four or five years. Their technology relies almost exclusively on the materials the jungle affords them. Villages trade goods with others, but more for political reasons than material need, since everybody can make what they need when they need it. Villages with European contacts have acquired steel and aluminum pots, knives, and other trade goods, which they trade with remote villages.
     But the most important currency is women. Their marriage rules are fairly complicated. Fathers and brothers have the right, individually and as a group, to decide with whom to trade a woman. A husband may trade one of his wives or give her away (usually to a younger brother). Marriage ties are more important than blood ties. Alliances between villages require the exchange of women. Raids are often done to abduct women. A man may be accepted into a village by marrying a local girl: her family become his allies, and he strengthens their group.
     Fierceness determines social and political status. Alliances between villages, created by hosting a feast, determine the political status and relative security of the villages. Fighting for status is expected and encouraged, but the various kinds of fight are carefully regulated to minimise bloodshed. Even so, while Chagnon provides no numbers, the death rate from manslaughter and murder must be evry high. (Other sources indicate that half of all male deaths are by violence).
     The daily routine of a man revolves around gardening and cooking, taking drugs, politics, occasional hunting, and fighting. and occasional raiding For a woman, it's gardening, cooking, childcare, making hammocks, foraging, and serving her husband. Both men and women will play with children, who for the most part are left to amuse themselvesuntil about 6 or 8 years old. Fights, raids, and feasting punctuate this life.
     Chagnon’s description of his life among the Yanomamö is vivid and personal. His technical discussion of their kinship system, and its effects on their politics, is clear. He is at pains to emphasise that marriage ties are more important than blood ties, most of the time. Marriage creates and preserves the lineage, and lineages are politically significant groups.
     Ok, that’s a summary of what I’ve learned, mistakes and all.
     What’s my impression of the Yanomamö? Schoolyard bullies. Boasting, with occasional violence to back up the boasts; anxiety about maintaining one’s reputation; accumulating as much treasure as possible; doing only necessary chores; and lazing about as much as possible: does that sound familiar? About the only thing that’s missing from the schoolyard is the explicit trade in women, but among high school students the charming bully gets the girls, so the difference isn’t as great as it might seem. In short: Yanomamö life is nasty, brutish, and short.
     The Wikipedia article notes disagreements with Chagnon’s take on Yanomamö culture. But the article contains enough reference to documented raids and massacres that the argument that the Yanomamö are basically just as kind and loving as other tribal people sounds like special pleading. I think that Chagnon’s account is plausible. The Yanomamö really are more concerned with their violent notions of male honour than most peoples are. But keep in mind that violence and male honour are linked in every human culture. That suggests that the  Yanomamö are merely an extreme example of a human constant, of species-specific behaviour.
     More thoughts on violence, honour, and the Yanomamö are found on The Art of Manliness.
     Chagnon writes well. The book includes a good selection of photographs and diagrams. **½

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