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Internet Source: Economist, February 23, 2013
Source URL: http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21572173-strange-encounters-jungle-other-worlds-other-values

Anthropology and the Amazon: Other worlds, other values - Strange encounters in the jungle

Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists. By Napoleon Chagnon. Simon & Schuster; 531 pages; $32.50. Buy from Amazon.com

DID humans evolve to be peaceful and egalitarian, only taking to violence with the emergence of private property? Or have men always fought over women, and taken them by force? This book’s title reveals where Napoleon Chagnon, a controversial American anthropologist, stands on both the substance and conduct of this argument. His first “dangerous tribe” is the Yanomamo, an Amazonian tribal people he has studied since 1964 and whose men are keen murderers, wife-beaters and rapists. His second are his fellow anthropologists who, he says, prefer ideology to evidence and have played dirty to discredit him.

First, the Yanomamo. Of the men in the villages that Mr Chagnon studied 45% had killed another, sometimes in escalating ritual fights and sometimes in arguments over women. Village raids, though less common, could end in mass slaughter. Killers were feared and admired—and on average had three times as many offspring as men who had no blood on their hands.

Mr Chagnon describes Yanomamo men as “intensely jealous”, routinely beating their wives to keep them docile, and shooting arrows into their limbs as punishment for real or imagined infractions. About a fifth of all the women he studied had been abducted from one village by men from another. Many had been “dragged away”: pulled by limbs and hair while their own people attempted to hang on to them. Abduction was generally followed by gang-rape until the victim was claimed by a powerful man.

Now for the anthropologists. For ideological reasons, Mr Chagnon says, many refused to accept his findings and accused him of all sorts of wickedness. The most sensational allegation, made by an American writer, Patrick Tierney, in a 2000 book, “Darkness in El Dorado”, was that in the 1960s Mr Chagnon and his collaborators had deliberately exacerbated a lethal measles epidemic among the Yanomamo. In fact, Chagnon had administered a vaccine to try and stop an epidemic started by others. Nonetheless, he was reprimanded by the American Anthropological Association, though the reprimand was later overturned after a members’ vote.

Mr Chagnon’s understandable bitterness at such tactics shows in this book, which has an oddly uneven tone. He takes an adolescent pleasure in describing the rawness of Yanomamo life (his first contact came during a bout of hallucinogenic drug-taking, and the powder the men snorted produced “strands of dark green snot…so long that they drizzled from their chins”). He displays plenty of machismo, both real and assumed, mixed with the wavering tone of an ageing man struggling to believe the lengths to which his enemies are willing to go.

But Mr Chagnon’s central claim—that Yanomamo violence is evidence of humanity’s brutal origins—can be dismissed out of hand. Men may have evolved to rape and murder, but he has not demonstrated it. The Yanomamo are not hunter-gatherers, but live by clearing forest and planting crops, a way of life that is at most 15,000 years old, an eye’s blink in evolutionary terms.

Mr Chagnon’s chief endeavour—the gathering of genealogical information—risked sowing discord, since it meant getting the Yanomamo to repeat names, for them a taboo. To study the relative reproductive success of killers he had to get them to name their dead relations, even more sensitive. Repeating information gathered in one group to another—central to his methods, since doing otherwise left him open to deception—risked stoking inter-village enmities. And he often rewarded co-operation about providing blood samples by handing out machetes, generally to a village’s most aggressive men. That was a dubious choice of gift. Many of the brutalised women Mr Chagnon describes bore machete scars.