Napoleon Chagnon’s “Noble Savages” is a sprawling book that explores his complicated relationship with the Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela, as well as his war with anthropology. Author of one of the best-selling anthropology texts of all time, “Yanomamo: The Fierce People” (1968), Chagnon was later vilified by activists, journalists and anthropologists for exploiting the Yanomamo. This occasionally unwieldy yet engaging memoir is his attempt to explain his work to a lay audience while also putting to rest those accusations, which effectively blacklisted him in the field of anthropology.
When Chagnon first met the Yanomamo Indians, their arrows drawn, they were a group of “burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men nervously staring us down,” their lips distended from chewing huge chunks of tobacco. “Strands of dark green snot dripped or hung from their nostrils . . . drizzled from their chins down to their pectoral muscles,” a side effect of the Yanomamo’s tendency to blow hallucinogens up their noses. To Chagnon, the Yanomamo offered the chance to study a population seemingly unsullied by contact with the Western world, although by the time he arrived in 1964, missionaries and Catholic priests had already begun making inroads. Nevertheless, he found these Indians to be sufficiently unacculturated for his studies. He writes that “this was the last chance for an anthropologist to observe this fascinating social and political transition that terminated with the development of the political state and ‘civilization.’ ”
Chagnon’s descriptions of his fieldwork are more thematic than chronological, with chapter topics that range from reasons for Yanomamo raids and revenge to his early experiences bringing his family to the field. Much of this book is preoccupied with the argument that initially made Chagnon a controversial figure in anthropology: that the bellicose behavior of the Yanomamo originated in conflicts over women rather than over resources. Additionally, those Yanomamo who were killers of men had greater reproductive success than non-murderers. Thus, Chagnon believed, the Yanomamo offered a glimpse of humankind’s Hobbesian origins, before law and society intervened to rein in our essentially warlike nature.
Such assertions put him at odds with the prevailing anthropological view that humankind was essentially egalitarian and peaceful prior to the rise of settled agriculture, a stance that he calls both “Eurocentric and ethnocentric.” He writes that “the argument that tribesmen are egalitarian because nobody has ‘privileged’ access to ‘strategic’ material resources . . . erroneously projects our own political and economic views into the Stone Age.”
In the final fourth of the book, Chagnon descends into a blow-by-blow account of the attacks against him, which came from all corners: journalists, priests and activists for indigenous people. Some of the grievances were academic — for example, that Chagnon gave undue weight to biological over cultural explanations for Yanomamo behavior or that he had exaggerated Yanomamo aggression to prove his point. But other accusations were more devastating, especially the allegation that he had contributed to a measles epidemic. After tackling the more extreme charges, he criticizes anthropology for abandoning science in favor of “witnessing” the wrongs committed against native peoples. In his view, the influence of postmodernism has taken anthropology even further away from science, calling into question the possibility of truth and objectivity. These postmodernists, he says angrily, are now the “barefoot” activists who are teaching your children.
So does the field of anthropology resemble the morass that Chagnon depicts in this book? As seen in a funhouse mirror, perhaps. The average American has very little idea what anthropologists do, but many might picture someone like Chagnon, sailing down jungle rivers in hand-wrought, birch bark canoes and discovering tribes. However, the type of anthropology he practiced has changed, not only because there are no longer any uncontacted tribes but also because the terms of the debate are different. An anthropologist studying kinship, for example, might not be living in a distant village collecting genealogies to determine who can marry whom. Rather, she might instead be exploring how a society that does not accept parentage through adoption will respond to the introduction of new reproductive technologies such as sperm or egg donation. Contrary to Chagnon’s assertions, many anthropologists still employ rigorous scientific methodologies while also acknowledging that data, drawn from the messiness and unpredictability of social life, may be affected by the presence of the researcher. Anthropologists study every conceivable topic dealing with humanity, but always with an eye toward understanding what it means to live in a globalized era in which everyone is now connected, for better or worse.
Chagnon’s reminiscences of his time among the Yanomamo nonetheless offer a fascinating portrayal of the discomfort and danger that anthropologists working in remote areas face. The book is at its most entertaining when documenting the challenges of everyday life in the jungle — how to sleep fitfully in a hammock among enemies who might attempt to assassinate you in your sleep or how to net a juicy tapir for your dinner. His deep affection for the knowledge the Yanomamo afforded him is apparent throughout the book, but, as subjects, the Yanomamo themselves never fully come alive in this account.
As for Chagnon, the more extreme accusations against him, which were found by independent commissions to be baseless, unfortunately detract from what might otherwise have been a healthy debate over the nature of anthropology. Sadly, while this book may vindicate its author, its negative portrayal of the state of anthropology will further sentence anthropology in the public’s eyes.
My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes —The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists
By Napoleon A. Chagnon
Simon & Schuster. 531 pp. $32.50