View Full Version : About Chagnon's Fierce People: Admissions to Humanity

James Brody
July 4th, 2005, 08:53 PM
After a 110 mile ride, I parked the Suzuki in Milford, PA, in a spot midway between the bookstore and the diner. The store had two copies of Chagnon's dissertation (one of them for $8) and one copy of the "Complete Works of Charles Darwin" (about $600). I ate after buying Chagnon's book and, hypnotized, read it the next day.

Fun Stuff:

Chagnon, the doctoral candidate, found the Yanomamo to be smelly, assaultive, paranoid, drug-abusing farmers, monkey-eaters, and hunters of other Yanomamo. Shock! Many of them chewed tobacco incessantly, regularly blew a psychedelic into each other's noses, and dripped spit and nasal mucus everywhere, even when picking through Chagnon's clothing, food, or tools. He complained their hands were dirty and they responded by spitting tobacco juice onto their palms, rubbing them together briskly, and returning to their searches!

He, thus, lived in South America the life his peers enjoyed in Michigan: long weeks on oatmeal, sardines, peanut butter, and a daily morning latte! (Stimulants kept both the indians and their watcher on task.) Because Chagnon was a doctoral student and perhaps viewed as a lower life form by himself, his faculty, and the Yanomamo, several months passed before he came out of his shell. Instead of becoming more insular, he identified his peanut butter as animal excrement and discovered ways to get even with thieves and beggars, ways that won him approval from the tribe's leader, the older males, and the women. (Even thugs count votes and estrogen, aka tit-for-tat, regardless of the shape of its container, carried the day.)

Kaobawa was headman. He personally searched the village perimeter for evidence of pending raids on his group, buffered fights within his tribe so they made scars but not corpses, and used scouts to identify both enemies and future garden sites (80% of the tribe's calories came from farming and some of the plants required several years to be productive). His job demanded that he produce more food so that he had plenty to give away at feasts...plenty of beggars on the Orinoco River and Kaobawa was their neocortex!

Battles and Conciliation:

Kaobawa restrained the hotheads but bullied the cowards during raids on neighboring tribes. (It was often a case of raid or be raided and everyone had to shoot and get shot at these times.) Also, an equal to Tony Blair, he used feasts to negotiate alliances with his neighbors while assessing both their gains and his from using those same feasts for ambushes. Feed the targets before killing them! He also counted votes from the silent majority and used them to stop a noisy, impulsive, "fierce type" from taking command. The computations were difficult and impulsiveness could be fatal for the entire village. William James, who once praised the role of great men as catalysts of societies, would have respected Kaobawa.

Chagnon remarked in several places that it's a man's world on either side of the Orinoco River but I wonder if this is average UMich PC. It's true that little Yanomamo boys played forever but ten-year-old girls were put to work by their mothers and wove hammocks and loincloths, carried firewood, cooked for the guys, and tended to the wounded. This was less fun than strutting, punching other children, or sticking spears and arrows in small lizards. Chagnon remarked that beating your wife gave you a reputation for ferocity but with little risk, a woman knew she was loved if she was not beaten too much. She also got upset if she was not beaten at all. Not sure how the lizards felt...

PC may be correct, but...

A dispassionate observer might find that women did far better than what might be expected in a culture that sanctioned aggression and in which male jealousy operated in those same directions. Further, the Yanomamo caused their own scarcity problem when they killed first-born daughters and aborted or murdered a second child if the first, a male, was still nursing. These practices meant that the tribe had relatively few women: further, many men had no wife but a few men had several. (Kaobawa was satisfied with two but swapped one out instead of beating her because she was unfaithful.) Such conditions should favor power for women, power they exerted through sex (forbidden so long as they were pregnant or nursing, some of the wives also had reputations for being "stingy with their pussy") and through relatives. Women with lots of relatives, especially brothers, were not bartered to neighboring tribes. And the daily foot on the throats of little girls belonged to their mothers! As for the "happy" males, the guys not only practiced giving punches, making arrows, and swinging clubs but they also took punches to their chest or kidneys, got shot, and got hit not for money but for the rights to (1) acquire brain damage through impulsiveness and drug addictions and (2) show off one more scar on the top of their shaved head.

I think that Darwin's ledger was more in balance for the two genders than it might appear.

As for genes and environments, culture is inherited in a Lamarckian sort of way (DeWaal, 2001; Odling-Smee et al, 2003; Richersen & Boyd, 2005) and brutality is associated not only with tradition but also with impulsiveness and lower IQ (See Rowe, 2000.) Further, estrogen also helps not only with cooperation but may be a significant factor in the relative size and complexity in the cortex and how much time we spend talking instead of swinging clubs or riding motorcycles). It may also be that average guys who were less impulsive and more thoughtful were denied wives or informally shared them at the wife's initiative. Culture, thus, favored genes for hot heads and hot heads embellished that culture. Kaobawa, on the other hand, established his nastiness when very young but later, through political savvy, made extensive alliances that insured him against swapping blows every couple of weeks. Nastiness kept him alive until, through reciprocity, he later became a hub.

Bottom Lines:

Doctoral-candidate Chagnon first attempted to keep himself clean, shaven, and fed but discovered that he achieved more research if, like a Yanomamo, he bathed, laundered, and ate less. He then became a tolerated, sometimes lied-to, nuisance with clumsy language, questions, camera, and notebook. In Chagnon's view, Yanomamo approached him only when they wanted to beg or take advantage of a "subhuman." Swapping steel tools for bananas did not get him respected until he got a little nasty. Near the end of his stay, Chagnon hid some of Kaobawa's allies in the bottom of his boat and took them to safety, navigating past a ring of adversaries from surrounding tribes. He also put away his notes and withdrew to his hut after one death: he explained his sadness when the children asked "Why?" and at that moment gained acceptance as a human, a Yanomamo instead of only a Michigan grad student.

Chagnon still looks like an instigator: (His picture is at http://www.hbes.com/HBES/photos00.htm) Joseph Conrad would have loved this book! So do I. "Yanomamo: the Fierce People" is part of EP's lore but Chagnon's version is richer than all of the paraphrases of him by intro texts. I hope that someone reprints this classic but, meanwhile, buy it if you can find it. (The Milford Book Cellar, 281 West Harford St, has one copy left but for about $10; haggle and get him to $8! You may have an easier job finding textbook versions that, however, also seem to be out of print.)

As for Chuck: the shopkeeper and his wife came down $95: the set wouldn't fit on the Suzuki but goes in the mail tomorrow. I later rationalized melting a lot of plastic and possibly being cheated: today, July 4th, however, is the 15th anniversary of my walking out of a fat state job despite having a mortgage and a kid in college. I never regretted choosing freedom. I left at the end of one year after my by-pass and freedom for the next 15 led to five marathons, four summer's teaching at the Cape, this Forum, to living sometimes on chili or spaghetti while buying any book that I want, and many splendid opportunities to appear a fool. As for the kid? He's a new VP at Bank of America. Something to do with computers...

Happy Independence Day!


Chagnon, N. (1968) Yanomamo: The Fierce People. NY: Holt, Rinehart, Winston.
Odling-Smee F.J., Laland, K.N., & Feldman, M.W. (2003) Niche Construction. The Neglected Process in Evolution. Monographs in Population Biology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Richerson, Peter, & Boyd, Robert (2005) Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rowe, D. (1994) The Limits of Family Influence: Genes, Experience, and Behavior. NY: Guilford. (Buy David Cohen if you can't find Rowe: Cohen, D. (1999) Stranger in the Nest: Do Parents Really Shape Their Child's Personality, Intelligence, or Character? NY: Wiley.)
de Waal, F. (2001) The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist. NY: Basic Books. (Buy this one if you can't find Chagnon!)

Copyright, James Brody, 2005, all rights reserved.