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Internet Source: The Journal of the International Institute, 8(3), Spring/Summer 2001
Source URL: http://www.umich.edu/%7Eiinet/journal/vol8no3/ferguson.html


10, 000 Years of Tribal Warfare: History, Science, Ideology and "The State of Nature"

R. Brian Ferguson

R. Brian Ferguson is a professor in the Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology at Rutgers University. This article is an excerpt from his keynote address in the series "Science, Ethics, Power: Controversy over the Production of Knowledge and Indigenous Peoples" at the University of Michigan, April 6, 2001. The series was sponsored by the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History, the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program, the Program for the Comparative Study of Social Transformations and the Rackham Graduate School at the U-M, and by the Ford Foundation Crossing Borders: Revitalizing Area Studies Grant to the International Institute.

The series sought to provide a forum for serious discussion of issues that are related to, but have implications well beyond, the recent publication and reception of Patrick Tierney's book, Darkness in El Dorado. More information on the series can be found at: http://www.umich.edu/%7Eiinet/CrossingBorders/scienceethicspower.html .

War has always been a central icon of civilization. Ours, for instance. War is the crucible that cooked it, the shield that defends it. America is a story of war. What we think about the nature of war affects our vision of its present, and future.

Civilization defines itself in opposition to savagery. The Yanomami are seen as savages; we are not. But yes we are, deep inside. Inside even mild-mannered academics are lurking killers, kept from warring on others only by the weight of civilization. Yet even civilization has been unable to tame war. So from structural realists today, back through social Darwinists, Hobbes, all the way to the Greek roots of Western civilization, war has been seen as an essential expression of political independence. So it has been told.

Napoleon Chagnon tells us that the Yanomami are our "contemporary ancestors," that they represent the way people lived at the dawn of agriculture. In the ethnographic present of The Fierce People, he says they are as yet unaffected by "our culture." Their incessant wars over sex, status, and revenge are portrayed as typical for tribal peoples until civilization pacified them….

It is very common to hear it said that even in the mid-1960s or later, Yanomami lived unaffected by "civilization." This is why their warfare could be claimed to represent the human condition as it existed in our evolutionary past. Both premise and conclusion are very wrong.

I do not dispute that the Yanomami of the Orinoco-Mavaca area in the mid 1960s and later were involved in a great deal of warfare and other violence. But in that, they are not representative of other Yanomami, or even of their own past history. I will not spend much time on my explanation of Yanomami warfare. It is summarized in a just-published article in the new journal Anthropological Theory (www.sagepub.co.uk/journals/Details/issue/sample/a015924.pdf). The book Yanomami Warfare examines every reported instance of war involving Yanomami, from all places and times, and claims to establish that the vast majority of these cases are associated with a major change in the local Western presence. To explain this association, I invoke introduced diseases, which shattered established social ties and bred suspicions of witchcraft; the anchoring of settlements close to sources of Western goods, which removed the old option of exit as an alternative to violence; and game depletion around Western centers, which took away meat sharing as a means to solidarity.

But the main factor that generates and shapes the antagonisms that lead to war is differential access to sources of Western goods, and the great advantages of a controlling trade position for securing women as marriage partners, locally manufactured products and favorable terms of bride service. These interests and antagonisms all ramified through local patterns of social and political organization, are filtered and interpreted through culturally specific lenses of cognition and evaluation-themselves all changing in the process of contact-and are contextualized by particular local history. Emic evaluations of status, insult, witchcraft, revenge, cowardice and bravery are all involved, but in holistic relationships shaped by materially-based antagonisms. My model also contains clearly specified range for agency, even free will. Still, I maintain, the practical interests associated with Western manufactures are both clearly evident and capable of explaining variations in collective violence in a way no other current theory can. The reason this connection has not been perceived before, I think, is that it can only be seen with a focus on historical process, a process of which resident anthropologists are one important part.

But, have not the Yanomami always made war, even pre-contact?

I can't find pre-contact.

Let us now take a quick tour backward through Yanomami history, for simplicity keeping it to Venezuela. Does contact begin in 1950, as often said, with the establishment of the first mission? Well, the slaughter of 11 to 15 Namowei by Shamatari, the largest single killing ever reported for Yanomami, occurred within a month or two of the founding of that mission. But the mission itself was based on a foundation of local woodsmen's interaction with Yanomami-and even a brief visit to the area by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-which began in the 1940s. The incomparable life-narrative of Helena Valero, a Brazilian girl abducted by Yanomami in the 1930s, shows the gradual shift from peace to war coincident with the re-introduction of traded-in steel tools.

This activity followed two decades of major, though not complete, withdrawal of Westerners from the Upper Orinoco, a period which anthropologists and others have mistaken for timeless isolation. Before that takes us into the epoch of the rubber boom, conventionally dated 1870 to 1920, a time of fantastic fortunes and violence throughout Amazonia. The regional center was San Fernando de Atabapo, the main outpost of Venezuela beyond the lower Orinoco, about three weeks by dugout from Yanomami lands. The network of rubber barons around San Fernando so brutally coerced and exploited local indigenous people that all who could fled into the forests or to Brazil. These "egoists" as one contemporary called them also fought among themselves, and the local governor was overthrown 24 times between 1877 and 1914, commonly with the destruction of all local records-which is why we have so little history for the area. The epoch's last terrible florescence was the reign of Tomas Funes, criminal and homicidal, who killed about 600 creoles and uncounted Indians in pursuit of a fortune based on egret feathers-then a Continental fashion necessity.

Yanomami fled in terror from the press gangs, but scars on trees show that rubber tapping reached far into their homelands, and the unexplained-and previously un-noted-disappearance of Yanomami who inhabited vast lands south of the Orinoco occurred during this period. We have several reports of Yanomami raiding the neighboring Yecuana, who had Western goods but were weakened by outsiders, especially by the depredations of Funes. And there are reports of Yanomami peacefully trading or submitting as docile subordinates to Yecuana. All these variations are consistent with changing mixes of outside predation, concentrations of Western goods and war capabilities.

And before that? The half century before the boom was similar, though much less intense. There was more emphasis on trade with Yanomami, though captive-takers were still at work. Generally, the Upper Orinoco is reported as calm. One local businessman established two villages on the Mavaca, 128 years before Chagnon arrived there. Another scoffed at old reports of Yanomami belligerence. But one episode is particularly significant, as it is frequently, though erroneously, reported as the first record of Yanomami violence. The explorer Robert Schomburgk, approaching the headwaters of the Ocamo River, found the community of the Yecuana who were taking him into the mountains in panic and flight from a sudden Yanomami attack. What is not noted about this attack is the historical context. In 1838 the Yecuana, a relatively cohesive "tribe," entered into an agreement to provide Yanomami captives as slaves for the Dutch along the coast and began major raids against Yanomami in the Orinoco headwaters south of the Ocamo. Those victimized Yanomami, but not others, were reported that same year as "ferocious." Schomburgk arrived in January 1839 with his Yecuana of course paid with a bounty of Western goods in a time of their greatest scarcity. Previously, these Yecuana had a trading relationship with their Yanomami attackers, and it was a trading party that the Yanomami attacked. My inference is that it is this combination of circumstances, not Yanomami culture, that is reflected in Schomburgk's report. Within a couple of years, the Yecuana raiding ended, more Western goods trickled in through native networks, and Yanomami no longer posed a threat to the Yecuana, even in the location where Schomburgk turned back.

And before that? The Wars of Independence produced another Western withdrawal from 1800, lasting about 30 years. Before that was the late colonial period, involving a major if erratic Spanish and mission administrative presence. Seeking security at their border rather than slaves, the Spanish curtailed raiding for captives and sought to settle Yanomami in villages, with little success. No Yanomami violence is indicated, but they did engage in extensive trade. Von Humboldt-in 1800, reaching the outpost beyond San Fernando, La Esmeralda-reported them as bearers of Amazon stones, a rare item produced far to the east.

Before that, from the 1720s to the 1760s, this entire region was engulfed in massive raids for slaves, captured by Indians and traded out to Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish. The Upper Orinoco, reported as previously populous and peaceful, became a blood bath with thousands of captives taken out and the main watercourses left uninhabited. Yanomami, withdrawing further into the mountains, were not as catastrophically affected, but raiders reached into their lands from every direction. Now is the time, 1756 to be specific, of the first report of Yanomami bellicosity. It comes from a Yecuana "chief," telling a Spanish soldier how he knew all the trails in Yanomami country because he went there to make war on them. According to this source, the Yanomami were, "very brave [and would] not be friends with any kind of Indian." Small wonder, under the circumstances.

Before that there is no historical record of the Yanomami. But it is clear they were already hit by the bow waves of European expansion. 1630 to 1720 is when the complex river based societies-previously noted-all around them were wiped out or reduced to violent appendages of the colonialists. Whether this affected Yanomami warfare, and how, if at all, war was involved in Yanomami relations with river chiefdoms before that, are matters of pure speculation.

The point is, Yanomami warfare cannot tell us anything about the existence or intensity of war at the dawn of agriculture or in our species' evolutionary past. Even if one rejects my model of Yanomami warfare, it is incontestable that the circumstances of their wars have been linked to a major, destabilizing Western presence from before the 1750s right up to today. This point has been missed only because anthropologists have been so inattentive to history.

In the previous discussions, I claim that the image of Yanomami warfare as representing primeval anarchy is doubly wrong. It is ahistorical as just noted, and unscientific, being completely out of accord with archaeological evidence on the origins of war. But as a social fact the image is very real, with real consequences in important ideological currents.

In international relations theory, the basis of foreign policy analysis, the dominant paradigm for more than 50 years has been "structural realism." Realists believe that what they call anarchy-the absence of overarching governmental institutions-inevitably creates a situation where all independent groups will seek to enhance their own power and security, which causes fear and counter efforts among others, and it is this inherent dynamic that explains war. Realism is currently being challenged by post-Cold War events and theories, and anthropology is getting more involved, like it or not. Some authors are explicitly invoking cultural anthropology to challenge realist theory. At the same time, realists are responding to the new circumstances by elaborating their models to account for, in a very non-anthropological way, recent internal violence along ethnic or religious lines.

Thus it is significant that in the past three years, two scholars have used the Yanomami case in support of the realist paradigm, one a neo-Darwinian who uses them to claim that arms races are as natural as tree trunks. Both arguments rely heavily on decontextualized generalizations about the logic of Yanomami conflicts-such as that a local group always lives in fear of raids by its neighbors, which is certainly not true for most Yanomami most of the time. In my view, the Yanomami case does bear some resemblance to the expectations of realist theory during periods of war. Those periods are not an inherent quality of "anarchy," but an outgrowth of powerful, contradictory material interests in a dialectic of internal and external politics, all converted into the highest and meaningfully potent moral values of the culture-all of which is beyond the scope of structural realism. A more comparative, historical and analytical perspective on Yanomami warfare thus offers the possibility of going beyond the constraints of realism rather than reinforcing it.

I mentioned neo-Darwinian approaches. One of the major media distortions of the controversy over Darkness in El Dorado is that it is a battle of science vs. anti-science. Compounding this is the frequent identification of science with evolutionary biological approaches. I am currently working on a volume about psychological Darwinism, which repeatedly makes the point that a variety of approaches, from ethology, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, primatology and others, are often quite detached from empirical findings relevant to their claims and thus are unscientific. A prime illustration is their handling of war.

The antiquity of war, the proposition that it was a regular feature of our environment of evolutionary adaptiveness, is a bedrock premise of much theorizing. Such war is predicted as an outgrowth of reproductive competition, and it is required as a selection mechanism for traits such as male risk taking, which in turn is argued to be why men get paid and promoted more. From Richard Alexander in 1979 to Azur Gat in 2000, when challenged by the absence of archaeological support for this assumption, psychological Darwinists have replied that war was present but did not leave traces, so the sensible thing to do is project recently observed tribal violence indefinitely backward in our past. I believe that the evidence as summarized in this talk shows the scientific indefensibility of that projection.

But this disregard for data is not confined to just-so stories about the past. Psychological Darwinists also create what might be called "phantom facts," claims about observable reality which are contradicted by actual research findings. The Yanomami and their warfare provide many clear examples of this, and to make this point more clear, in what follows I will confine my refutations exclusively to the published field reports of Napoleon Chagnon. In doing so, I am summarizing the article in Anthropological Theory, where details and documentation can be found.

To start, Chagnon's most widely cited claim in recent years is that men who have participated in a killing have three times as many children as other men of the same age. "Unokais-men who have killed-were more successful at obtaining wives and, as a consequence, had more offspring than men the same age who were not unokais. The unokais had, on average, more than two and a half times as many wives as non-unokais did and more than three times as many children." (N. Changnon, Yanamomo: The Last Days of Eden, 239-240)

But that is not what his own data in the magazine Science indicate. The "three times" advantage is for all men, regardless of age, and is mostly due to the fact that the large number of men under 25 years old have not killed and have no children. Comparing unokais and non-unokais within his four age categories reduces their offspring advantage by 70 percent. This point merits special emphasis. It was made six years ago in my book Yanomami Warfare, and I have never seen it contradicted. Seventy percent of the three-fold reproductive advantage that is commonly attributed to becoming an unokai simply does not exist.

The apparent advantage that remains has been criticized in several ways. To mention only one, Chagnon's statistic include only living fathers and their offspring. Chagnon's own statements elsewhere, and my information about eight individual war leaders, suggest that aggressive men are targeted for death, and this of course would lower the important measure, lifetime reproductive success. In response to my challenge in 1989, Chagnon acknowledged that this was, "an interesting and important question," but said he did not have the data to answer that at the time he wrote the Science article. He then added, "I subsequently collected more data relevant to that question on a recent field trip and, as my schedule permits, I will publish them... While I have not completed the analysis of these new data, my impressions of how they are shaping up give me little reason to believe that my initial suspicions are wrong"-that is, unokais are not at greater risk of violent death. That was in 1989. We are still waiting for that data to be published.

Beyond this particular issue, it is truly surprising to see how many psychological Darwinist theories on war and aggression crash against Chagnon's ethnography. Contrary to Cosmides and Buss, Chagnon makes it clear that Yanomami men do not initiate raids in order to capture women. Contrary to Daly and Wilson, to Wiener and Mesquida, and to Maschner and Maschner, Yanomami wars are not impelled by young bachelors but by middle-aged married men. Young men are frightened apprentices. Also contrary to Daly and Wilson, Pinker, and Hrdy, there is no suggestion that Yanomami men demand the killing of children a new wife brings from a previous marriage. Contrary to Wrangham and Peterson, Yanomami warfare does not follow the same pattern as that of Gombe chimpanzees, such as in patrolling borders or only attacking when there is no danger of losses. Also contrary to Wrangham, they do not parallel Gombe mating patterns of males remaining at home while females relocate to other groups, as the Yanomami preference is village endogamy, occasional external alliance marriages notwithstanding.Contrary to E.O. Wilson-in no less than the foreword to the trade edition of Yanomamo-Yanomami warfare is not territorial. Chagnon emphasizes that it is impossible to find in it a territorial purpose or consequence. Contrary to Tooby and Cosmides, all three elements of their hypothetical evolved "risk contract for war," involving risks, punishments and rewards, are contradicted by Chagnon's descriptions. Contrary to Shaw and Wong, allegiances in war do not follow genetic relatedness. True, Chagnon does suggest that in analyzing "The Axe Fight," but before his turn to sociobiology, he stated repeatedly that male blood kin are as likely to be adversaries as allies in violence. Finally, contrary to Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Ghiglieri, Fox and others, Yanomami are not reacting in war with instinctive hostility to strangers or against those who are culturally different. Chagnon stresses they usually fight individuals they know only too well.

To close, I am an unabashed advocate of anthropology as science. My view of science is nothing fancy-mainly clear, testable hypotheses, organized into broader theory, evaluated against the best information available. Regarding war, it is my view that science must be historic, that our facts must be firmly contextualized in the time of their occurrence. Archaeology allows us to do that only in a broad sense, but even so, indications of war can be very misleading if ripped from context. Through archaeology and history, we can see war develop as a cultural institution and see its occurrence or absence as responses to concrete material conditions. By science, by history, war cannot be taken as the "natural state" for humans or for society.