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History, explanation, and war among the Yanomami: A response to Chagnons Noble Savages

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Why do people make war? Is it in human nature? Publication of Napoleon Chagnon's Noble Savages resurrects old arguments, largely displaced in recent times by study of larger scale political violence, and sidelined by more contemporary theoretical currents. This shift ceded the human nature issue to a variety of biologistic approaches, for which Chagnon's image of the Orinoco-Mavaca Yanomamo is foundational. Chagnon proposes that war is driven by reproductive competition, with men fighting over women, revenge, and status, among a Stone Age' people living as they had for countless generations, in a tribal world untouched by larger history or the world system. This paper challenges each of those claims, and offers alternatives that provide a very different view of Yanomami warfare, and why men fight wars.
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Anthropological Theory
2015, Vol. 15(4) 377–406
!The Author(s) 2015
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DOI: 10.1177/1463499615595166
History, explanation, and
war among the
Yanomami: A response to
Chagnon’s Noble Savages
R Brian Ferguson
Graduate Program in Peace and Conflict Studies, Rutgers
University, USA
Why do people make war? Is it in human nature? Publication of Napoleon Chagnon’s
Noble Savages resurrects old arguments, largely displaced in recent times by study of
larger scale political violence, and sidelined by more contemporary theoretical currents.
This shift ceded the human nature issue to a variety of biologistic approaches, for which
Chagnon’s image of the Orinoco-Mavaca Yanomamo is foundational. Chagnon proposes
that war is driven by reproductive competition, with men fighting over women, revenge,
and status, among a ‘Stone Age’ people living as they had for countless generations, in a
tribal world untouched by larger history or the world system. This paper challenges
each of those claims, and offers alternatives that provide a very different view of
Yanomami warfare, and why men fight wars.
anthropology and science, Napoleon Chagnon, human nature, Davi Kopenawa, noble
savages, war, Yanomami
Two major books on the Yanomami appeared in 2013: The Falling Sky: Words of a
Yanomami Shaman, by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, and Noble Savages: My
Life among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists,by
Napoleon Chagnon. In The Falling Sky, Kopenawa gives us the Yanomami view of
people, spirits, and the forest in natural order, along with a searing critique of the
outsiders who invaded, exploited, sickened, and portrayed them. In Noble Savages,
Chagnon combines reminiscence and score-settling against multitudinous enemies
Corresponding author:
R Brian Ferguson, Rutgers University-Newark, 365 Martin Luther King, 903 Hill Hall, Newark, NJ 07102, USA.
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with detailed explication of sociobiological theory as it applies to Yanomami social
behavior. Both books deal with a characteristic of Yanomami life which has been
most noted in the outside world – war.
This paper relates these books to the research presented in my own Yanomami
Warfare: A Political History (Ferguson, 1995), to highlight persisting issues in
anthropological explanation of war. My main argument will be with the claims
of Chagnon, in Noble Savages and his earlier publications, but The Falling Sky
informs us at several junctures. Critically evaluating Chagnon’s work is necessary
as his research has been lionized as science prevailing over politically motivated
attack (Dreger, 2015; Edge, 2013; Wade, 2013). If at this moment of high visibility,
anthropologists do not scientifically evaluate Chagnon’s representations and
theory, and offer an alternative explanation of why Yanomami fight, they cede
understanding to psychological Darwinist interpretations which persuasively argue
that men are born to kill (Ferguson, 2011, 2013).
Alternative perspectives
Although the two new books are about as different as can be, close reading reveals
similarities in their portrayal of why war happens among Yanomami. Some
anthropologists argue – with well-considered reasons – that Yanomami raiding
should not be categorized as ‘war’, as Chagnon and I do. Kopenawa observes
that Yanomami ‘arrowing’ and white people’s war are extremely different, in
objectives and indiscriminate slaughter. But he does not dispute that their own
‘arrowing each other’ is war. ‘Yet it was not because of land, gold, or oil that
Oeoerie brought the waitiri war valor into existence at the beginning of time ...We
inhabitants of the forest only go to war to avenge ourselves’ (Kopenawa and
Albert, 2013: 359–60). Kopenawa does differ strongly with how much emphasis
Chagnon gives to war – ‘they continue to lie about us by saying ‘‘The Yanomami
are fierce. All they think about is warring and stealing women. They are danger-
ous!’’ Such words are our enemies and we detest them’ (Kopenawa and Albert,
2013: 24).
Nevertheless, Kopenawa’s emphasis on valor and revenge as the personal motiv-
ations leading to war is similar to Chagnon (2013: 230; Kopenawa and Albert,
2013: 357–8, 362). Kopenawa dismisses the idea that raids are launched to capture
women, though female captives may be taken if the opportunity presents during
raids for revenge (Kopenawa and Albert, 2013: 366–7, 557). His own father had
two wives taken by capture (Kopenawa and Albert, 2013: 173). That too is much as
Chagnon (2013: 226) has said: captured women are ‘an unexpected bonus’ in raids
for revenge.
The major difference between these two perspectives is that while Kopenawa
acknowledges that men ‘furiously confront’ each other and ‘ardently struggle’ over
women, that is usually settled by non-lethal fights. Though, on occasion, a man is
killed, and then revenge raiding begins. ‘But this kind of thing rarely
happens. ...Our elders certainly did not arrow each other because of women,
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unlike what the white people sometimes claim’ (Kopenawa and Albert, 2013:
366–7). For Chagnon, ‘The motive the Yanomamo give for lethal raids almost
always has to do with revenge for the death of some person. As emphasized else-
where, the previous killing is often a result of some fight over women’ (2013: 257),
although he also stresses that a great many personal grudges of all sorts lead up to
killings that provoke revenge (Chagnon, 1990a: 101; 2013: 214–22).
The essential difference in the way these books portray war is how these cultur-
ally constructed personal motives are understood. For Kopenawa, these motives in
themselves explain why Yanomami shoot arrows at each other – period. For
Chagnon, these are proximate goals – to maximize sexual access to women, to
take revenge, and to seek cultural recognition – which serve the ultimate evolu-
tionary goal of increasing inclusive fitness by fostering the survival and reproduc-
tion of self and close kin. In this contrast, Kopenawa and Albert provide an emic
understanding, and Chagnon an etic explanation.
Emics and etics (Harris, 1979: 32–41) involve two entirely different and equally
important approaches to the study of social life. Emics are the perspective of native
actors. Any study of agency must well attend to them, for those are the immediate
rationales for behavioral choices. An emic study can also communicate to readers
cultural understanding, the local meaning of life and action. Anyone seeking to
grasp the emotional, cognitive, symbolic logic of another people is seeking emic
knowledge. Davi Kopenawa’s narrative is incomparable in this regard.
Regarding the reasons why men fought, Kopenawa’s stated motivations are very
similar to emic accounts that were collected and reported for indigenous people
around the world, before the anthropology of war developed as a distinct field. For
decades, field anthropologists dutifully reported what native people told them
about life when they were a child, or their father was a child, and these accounts
consistently presented the moral values that justified deadly violence as the reasons
why wars occurred. In my first overview of the anthropological literature, revenge
in particular was identified as the single most common explanation of why tribal
people make war (Ferguson, 1984a: 39). These ethnographic reports did not lead to
any broader understanding of war causation. An etic approach to war, in contrast,
frames it in terms of theory developed by outside analysts, in terms of factors and
patterns which are potentially generalizable across different cultures. There is no
hint that etic is superior to emic. They are addressed to different ends. If what you
want to know is how Yanomami themselves think about war, read Kopenawa and
I agree with Chagnon in employing an etic approach. What he seeks to explain,
the explanandum, is why men, Yanomami men in this case, go to war. His explan-
ans, that which explains this behavior, is reproductive competition between men.
The evidence he provides in support of reproductive competition is of two sorts:
anecdotal accounts where a killing and/or raiding is preceded by a conflict over
women; and with much more probative weight, statistics that are claimed to show
that killers have higher reproductive success. I think this etic explanation is faulty,
and will challenge the evidence which supposedly supports it.
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My own book, Yanomami Warfare: A Political History (Ferguson, 1995), offers
a very different etic theory. What I seek to explain is variations in the occurrence of
actual, specific wars: first, times of peace vs. times of war; second, what type of
group is attacked, vs. what type of group does the attacking. My explanans is a
pattern of material interests, based on antagonistic relations in access to steel tools
and other western manufactures, in the times when they were very scarce. In this
explanation, actors’ stated reasons for fighting, whether for revenge, or over
women, insults, or suspicions of sorcery, are understood as cultural rationales
for underlying material objectives. These are the sparks that set off a raid, and
they determine exactly when and against whom deadly action is taken. However,
the decisions occur within a highly structured context that establishes directionality
of hostilities, and sets options for political behaviors.
Specifying the expectations and evidence for both etic approaches occupies the
second half of this paper. Other work must be done first: describing how western
expansion has shaken the Yanomami world for centuries; and then showing how,
by the second half of the 20th century, Yanomami society had been radically
transformed by the combined effects of a quest for western goods, the devastation
of new infectious diseases, and the resulting maelstrom of war. This historical
moment is the starting time of Kopenawa’s own memories and Chagnon’s detailed
reconstructions of raiding behavior.
Throughout his writings, and again in Noble Savages, Chagnon portrays the
Yanomami and their wars as representing ‘a truly primitive cultural adapta-
tion ...before it was altered or destroyed by our culture’ (Chagnon, 1977: xi).
Their wars are said to be a normal, expected form of political behavior, among
‘our contemporary ancestors’ (Chagnon, 1983: 213–14), at the dawn of agriculture
(1983: 30). In Noble Savages, the message is plain: ‘The Yanomamo are probably a
typical example of what life is like in a state of nature’ (2013: 231). Their fighting
exemplifies ‘Warfare in the Stone Age’ (2013: 217):
Life in the societies of the ancient past – the ‘Stone Age’ – appears to have been
decidedly uncertain and fraught with danger, mostly from neighboring
peoples ...The distant past of humanity may have been more like what Thomas
Hobbes had in mind, a life that was short, nasty, and brutish. Perhaps we might
want to consider this possibility as we learn more about the nature of human life in
a ‘state of nature’. (Chagnon, 2013: 7)
The Yanomami seem untouched by history to Chagnon because he never looked
for it.
By the starting time of Kopenawa’s memories and Chagnon’s ethnographic
reconstructions, Yanomami social existence had been thoroughly transformed, in
a way that fostered much greater violence. What seemed normal to them was a
recent, derived situation. Explanation of Yanomami wars must be grounded in the
practicalities of historically transformed social reality. That context must be laid
out before considering the explanandum and explanans of war.
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The plan
This paper will make four broad points. Part I demonstrates that Chagnon’s rep-
resentation of the Yanomamo as unaffected by the outside world until the 1950s is
indefensible, by outlining the complex history of western contact. (I use Yanomami
to designate the entire ethnolinguistic people, and Yanomamoto designate the
western Yanomami of the far upper Orinoco, including those studied by
Chagnon.) Part II refutes Chagnon’s claim that the Yanomamo as he found
them were living representatives of our Stone Age ancestors, detailing the social
changes that transformed the Orinoco-Mavaca River area by the time of
Chagnon’s original fieldwork. This same perspective applies to the context of the
intense warfare of Davi Kopenawa’s childhood. Part III turns to explanations of
Yanomami warfare. Chagnon’s theory – popularly boiled down to fighting over
women and revenge – is non-predictive and poorly supported by cases. Against that
I offer my own explanation, which is predictive and strongly supported by evidence
from all over Yanomami lands. In applying an historical perspective to conflict,
Part III will consider the role Chagnon sometimes played in aggravating intergroup
tensions. Part IV evaluates Chagnon’s central theoretical claim, that Yanomamo
killers have three times as many children as non-killers of the same age. As thus
stated, this claim is plainly untrue. Beyond that, his data does not indicate any
reproductive advantage for killers, whatsoever.
To make these points requires drawing on a very large evidentiary base, far too
much for a journal article, so I will summarize arguments and evidence presented in
my other publications. I cannot proceed, however, without acknowledging prede-
cessors who provided much of the historical information I synthesize: Padre Luis
Cocco (1972) and Ernest Migliazza (1972) for broad historical studies; Bruce
Albert (1988), John Early and John Peters (1993; Peters, 1973), Raymond
Hames (1983); Alcida Ramos (1972), Giovanni Saffirio (1985), and William
Smole (1976) for the Yanomami areas within which they worked; Nelly Arvelo-
Jimenez (1973), Janet Chernela (1993), John Hemming (1987), Neil Whitehead
(1988), and Robin Wright (1981) for overviews of and around the Yanomami
region; and for ‘internal’ histories of Orinoco-Mavaca area Yanomamo,
Napoleon Chagnon’s tireless village history reconstructions (1966, 1974, 1977)
and Helena Valero’s (1984; Biocca, 1971) peerless accounts from inside the
Yanomamo world, during the 20th-century ebb and incoming tide of western intru-
sion. Much research has been added since publication of Yanomami Warfare,so
much that I cannot begin to list relevant sources – although mention must be made
of Caballero’s (2014) new history of western incursions into the far upper Orinoco.
I A people without history
The lost world of pre-Columbia
Contrary to the widespread view at the time of Chagnon’s early fieldwork, pre-
Columbian native societies of northern Amazonia were not characterized by the
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small size and simple organization of ethnographically known shifting horticultur-
alists. Ethnohistory and archaeology reveal large riverine settlements, bordering on
urban scale, linked together with connections of trade, marriage, war, alliance, and
ritual. These systems reached into smaller scale societies in highland interiors.
Without any doubt, these were social worlds full of tumult, change, and conflict.
Whether, how, and why Yanomami warred is entirely unknown. It is clear, how-
ever, that they were actors in this larger system, not ‘isolated’ as in later times.
Participation in this vast network is indicated by their role as long-distance traders
of precious ‘Amazon stones’, sacred items for lowland chiefs (Ferguson, 1995:
68–9). Accordingly, my emphasis on western contact should not be misconstrued.
Europeans did not initiate the current of local history. They only stepped into it,
with terrible consequences for indigenous peoples. But at least with the European
intrusion, some observations were committed to writing, which enables us to grasp
their impact.
The genocidal centuries
Slave raiding by or for Europeans reached the Negro, Branco, and Orinoco rivers
that encompass Yanomami highlands from the 1620s onward, more or less rapidly
devastating lowland societies. Some were by Spanish or Portuguese, but both (and
the Dutch) engaged ‘friendly’ natives to go deep into the forests to capture humans
for trade, killing many more in the process. ‘The desire of exchanging slaves
(poitos) for hatchets, fish-hooks, and glass trinkets, induced the Indian tribes to
make war upon one another’ (Humboldt, 1889: 427). In the 1730s, captive-taking
reached a peak, with some 20,000 going to the Portuguese from 1740 to 1750. These
wars for captives totally transformed the indigenous world of northern Amazonia
(Ferguson, 1995: 77–82).
After roughly 1750, the scale of slaving diminished across the northern Amazon.
The Spanish and Portuguese tried to establish political control on their respective
sides of the border, and used trade goods to entice locals to leave the interior forests
and settle in villages. Yet slave-taking still went on. The first historical mention of
Yanomami, by their earlier name Guaharibo, comes from a Yecuana ally of the
Spanish around 1759, who knew all the rivers and passes up to the Orinoco head-
waters, where they went to raid. The Yanomami’s recent status as the largest
‘unacculturated’ native population in the Americas is because their Parima and
Siapa highlands are not traversed by any of the rivers that carried slavers. Yet the
predators came in from the edges (Ferguson, 1995: 82–91).
How Yanomami lived during the slaving holocaust is conjectural, but they cer-
tainly were less reliant on horticulture and more on foraging than observed
Yanomami (Ferguson, 1998). Of course, gardens can be made with stone axes,
burning, and taking down trees with vines and deadfalls, but it takes a small frac-
tion of the effort with steel tools. Some steel was entering Yanomami trade net-
works by the late 18th century, often accompanied by existential hazard.
Yanomami military prowess is evident as those who raided them were also
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‘dying of fear’ from their retaliations. Under such circumstances, internal war
among Yanomami is expectable, but not documented (Ferguson, 1995: 68–76, 82).
Middle history
The upper Orinoco region included two Yanomami language groups, the Sanema
of the upper Ventuari and environs, and Yanomamo in the Parima highlands and
far upper Orinoco. The Sanema were near to Yecuana peoples, who raided them
for captives up to 1838. Yanomamo were more insulated, though still raided for
captives by neighboring peoples (Ferguson, 1995: 180–2).
The Yecuana were heavily involved in the rubber boom, which in this area
began in 1875–80. Throughout Amazonia, the rubber boom was another period
of cataclysmic destruction of forcibly conscripted indigenous peoples. Venezuelan
presence on the upper Orinoco increased dramatically, alternating strangling
monopolies with violent rebellions. Yecuana suffered, but also became major tra-
ders, and began to fear raids by Yanomami seeking plunder (Ferguson, 1995:
The year 1913 began a special horror, as local tyrant Tomas Funes created a
reign of terror to force labor. Yecuana fled into the higher forests and kept on the
move. Yanomamo were not as exposed, but not immune. Along the far upper
Orinoco, tappers’ scars on trees were visible 60 tough kilometers beyond the
Guaharibo Rapids, the traditional border of Yanomamo land. There is substantial
evidence that in the late 19th century Yanomami lived in the region between the
Orinoco and Siapa rivers who later disappeared, quite possibly extinguished by
Funes or driven into higher land (Ferguson, 1995: 106–8, 187–91).
During the boom, steel tools reached some Yanomami, by plunder or exchange,
but again with risks from outside, and attendant internal raiding. Some
Yanomamo, including the Shamatari population bloc, began moving south from
the highlands towards rivers feeding the Orinoco and Rio Negro in Brazil.
Chagnon (1973) emphasizes that they were moving away from enemies. But equally
important was the pull of machetes and axes. The general pattern was to move to
headwaters and then down streams, to where steel could be obtained without
danger (Ferguson, 1995: 191–5, Map 4). More steel, and the absence of regular
raiding from outside, enabled these Yanomamo to greatly expand their reliance on
cultivated foods. ‘Presumably the size of the populations involved is a function
of their agricultural potentials, and the Shamatari apparently expanded earlier
than the Namowei-tedi because they had access to steel tools sooner’ (Chagnon,
1966: 167).
Life after Funes
With the rubber industry in collapse and Funes killed, Venezuelans fled the upper
Orinoco. A passing observer in 1932 found local natives decrying a dearth of the
manufactured goods they now required: ‘an interesting spectacle is taking
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place ...affording an opportunity for some ethnologist to record a brand-new
primitive culture in the making’ (Hanson, 1933: 588). This is the brief interlude
that Chagnon and others mistook for timeless isolation, an unbroken continuum
from the Stone Age.
Western retractions are times of indigenous revivals. The Yecuana became large-
scale, long-distance traders. Sanema raiding of Yecuana villages and traveling
parties became common. A new kind of relationship also began, with some
Sanema becoming dependent, subservient, wife-giving adjuncts to well-provided
Yecuana traders. This became so common later that it acquired a name,
‘Shirishanization’ (Ferguson, 1995: 110–15). Chagnon and colleagues (1970: 343)
describe its terms, using the older name for Yecuana, the Makiritare. The latter’s
supply of steel tools and other goods:
has given them a trading hegemony over the Yanomama, who have remained isolated
and thereby avoid direct contacts with outsiders. The Yanomama have traditionally
relied on the Makiritare for steel tools ...It is for this reason that groups of
Yanomama periodically take up temporary residence with the Makiritare; they
work for them in order to obtain the necessary and extremely desirable steel tools
that make their agricultural economy more efficient ...The fact that the Makiritare
have a monopoly on steel tools, which they jealously guard, has given them the
advantage in the various social relationships that emerge in mixed villages. One
way in which this advantage is expressed is that Makiritare men (in mixed villages)
demand and usually obtain sexual access to Yanomama women. If intermarriage or
semi-permanent co-residence does take place, it invariably involves a Makiritare man
with a Yanomama woman.
This differs from internal relations among Yanomami groups, due to the categor-
ical cultural difference, and the Yecuana’s (sometimes) more cohesive tribal polit-
ical structure. But in its basis in the Yecuana trade monopoly, and the extraction of
women and labor from dependent Sanema, it resembles relations between
Yanomami villages when one has a monopoly on western goods. This form of
inequality is the basis of my theory of Yanomami warfare (Ferguson, 1995: 115).
Southern Yanomamo
Further south, in the 1920s, Yanomamo known as Shamatari from the Parima
highlands were approaching creole woodsmen on the left bank of the Rio Negro,
sometimes raiding and killing them for their goods. In one of the last raids by
Shamatari against retreating woodsmen, around 1932, Yanomamo captured a
young girl, Helena Valero (Ferguson, 1995: 197–205). She lived with Yanomamo
until escaping to a mission in 1956, and has given two independent tapings of her
life among them, during the period of retraction and then return of westerners
(Biocca, 1971; Valero, 1984). Her cross-checkable narratives provide an incompar-
able window into Yanomami life and warfare (Ferguson, 1995: 197, 393–5).
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Valero’s captors were at the forefront of Yanomamo expansion, gaining many
machetes and axes. Soon they were raided by another Yanomamo group, as
women fled to the forest trying to hide their western goods. Several died, and
Valero was taken again, beginning her long odyssey across several local groups.
The starting point of her captivity was a time of intense violence, as the only
sources of steel in that whole area were disappearing, then gone. Steel was so
precious that men sat on their machetes, kept them in hand, and slept with them
on their chests. But with no continuing sources of western goods to generate
inequality and hostility, eventually raiding fell off.
When Valero passed to the Orinoco area, and to the Namowei bloc of
Yanomamo later studied by Chagnon, she saw inter-group tensions rise just as
woodsmen, the US Army Corps of Engineers, a boundary commission, and finally
missionaries entered the region (Ferguson, 1995: 197–220). When her hot-headed
husband, Fusiwe (or Husiwe), seemed intent on starting a war, an older man
counseled peace. Fusiwe, he said, was too young to remember how terrible the
past time of war had been. ‘I know it, because I am old ... Your father used to weep
with me and you yourself, who were then a child, used to weep for hunger’ (Biocca,
1971: 218). The period of maximum isolation of the far upper Orinoco was a time
of peace. With the western return, peace did not last.
Around the Toototobi River
By the 1940s, peaceful interactions with woodsmen along Negro tributaries picked
up, as Shamatari traded with and worked for them. Davi Kopenawa was born
along the Toototobi River around 1956. This is the beginning of his historical
recollections, based on what his elders told him. They spoke of long journeys to
Shamatari to get steel tools (Kopenawa and Albert, 2013: 173–4).
What they really wanted from the white people of the river were their brand new metal
tools, for they did not possess any. At the time, it was very difficult to obtain such
tools. So they returned from their long journeys downriver with a few machetes and
sometimes an axe head, but it was always with great difficulty. Then they could clear
new, vaster gardens, and grow the plants that would feed their relatives. Yet they still
needed to take turns lending each other these few tools ...this way, when a man had
finished clearing his plot, another could take a turn working, and then another and
another ...The elders often told me this when I was a child.
Kopenawa refers to the westerners who invaded the forest as ‘the People of
Merchandise’ (Kopenawa and Albert, 2013: 8) – which could be a suitable title
for a Yanomami ethnography of ourselves.
Although Kopenawa’s discussion of why Yanomami make war is quite different
from my etic explanation, his portrayal of the quest for western goods, and the
general description of historical periods, is very much in accord with mine. Even
though he clearly and correctly connects association with outsiders as bringing
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disease, the goods they offer became an obsession: ‘Our mind is constantly
attracted by white people’s merchandise. We are too often thinking about obtain-
ing machetes, axes, fishhooks, pots, hammocks, clothes, guns, and ammunition’
(Kopenawa and Albert, 2013: 160). What Kopenawa does not do is connect this
obsession, and the antagonisms related to unequal access, to the structure of pol-
itical relations and war in a given area. But what actor in any local world does
social analysis like that?
For all Yanomami, the 20th century was characterized by two historical themes:
varying availability and modalities of securing steel, and danger of being attacked
by raiders seeking captive labor or western goods. From Venezuela to Brazil, the
same options appear: raid ‘whites’ or other natives who had a much better stock of
goods; submit to trade controllers in a dependent, exploitative relationship; or
occupy a position to spatially control trade.
The Yanomami were not unusual. Across Amazonia, steel and other manufac-
tured goods quickly became necessities, and were the means of seducing indigenous
peoples. Subsistence practice rapidly came to require steel tools, which became
necessary means of production. Native people traveled long, dangerous distances
to get them. All over Amazonia, across historical periods, indigenous people raided
both Europeans and other natives to get their tools and other highly desired goods
(Ferguson, 1990: 244). Hemming (1978: 9) calls this the ‘fatal fascination, the
greatest weakness of Brazilian Indians’. The lure of steel might be compared to
that of gold on Europeans.
One of the most anthologized articles of bygone years was Lauriston Sharp’s
‘Steel Axes for Stone Age Australians’ (1952). He revealed how this substitution led
to social transformation. Very little was ever done to follow up on Sharp’s astute
observations. That is a notable blindness throughout anthropological theory
(Ferguson, 1998). With so many high-minded theoretical issues to contemplate
and argue, why focus on something as mundane as acquiring new metal tools?
But for social relations on the ground, nothing – not even massive deaths from new
diseases – has more profound implications. Steel axes and other goods produce not
only a technological revolution, transforming indigenous subsistence possibilities,
but also a revolution in dependency, in that they only originate with aliens. This
dependent relationship is so powerful that Yanomami knowingly expose them-
selves to deadly infection to secure a better supply – as Kopenawa confirms.
When Chagnon reviewed Yanomami Warfare, he wrote: ‘If you substitute the
words ‘‘machete’’ or ‘‘steel tool’’ for ‘‘Coke bottle,’’ you get an academic version of
‘‘The Gods Must Be Crazy’’ theory of primitive warfare’ (Chagnon, 1996: 207).
Steel tools are not a Coke bottle dropped from a plane. They are the cutting edge
for massive transformation of Yanomami life. The exact character of that trans-
formation is described next, for the most thoroughly documented Yanomami
region, that of ‘Chagnon’s’ Yanomamo.
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II ‘The ethnographic present’
Chagnon began his fieldwork, centered at the juncture of the Orinoco and Mavaca
rivers, in 1964. This, he tells readers, is the Stone Age (albeit without stone tools),
the Yanomamo before western contact changed them. That window of observation
is what anthropologists used to call the ethnographic present.
Almost two decades before his arrival, several hours upstream from Boca
Mavaca, the Mahekoto-teri opened the modern era of western contact when
they created a plantain garden alongside the Orinoco to attract woodsmen. It
did, and trade was set at three stalks of plantains for one machete – a bonanza.
In 1948 New Tribes evangelists began visiting them, and in 1950 created a mission
nearby (Ferguson, 1995: 217–18). In the popular, history-free story of the
‘untouched’ Yanomami, this is their first major contact with the outside world.
NTM missionary James Barker is the man who introduced Chagnon to the
An important document in Yanomami historiography is Barker’s relatively
unknown article in the Boletin Indigenista Venozolano (1959). He portrays a
series of fights and raids around and even into his mission that is one of the
most intense episodes of Yanomami violence ever described. Eventually, things
settled down around the mission, as they usually do. I mention this because it
bears striking comparison to Davi Kopenawa’s discussion of the period of intense,
multilateral raiding of his early childhood. His people raided and were raided by
others all around, during a time when major Brazilian expeditions came through,
and two permanent missions were established within striking distance (Kopenawa
and Albert, 2013: 364–5). It is not possible to match the specific antagonisms he
mentions with the general history of contact, conflict, and raiding for that time and
place described in Yanomami Warfare (Ferguson, 1995: 155–63). However, its
timing and the subsequent establishment of mission-dominated peace are consist-
ent with my reconstruction.
To return to the Orinoco-Mavaca Yanomamo, the Namowei – a population
bloc including the Bisaasi-teri, Chagnon’s initial study population – in the early
1940s made long treks to ask for or take western goods from other Yanomamo or
outsiders, just as Davi Kopenawa’s people did. Once Mahekoto-teri attracted the
woodsmen, Namowei cemented an alliance with them. The Mahekoto-teri gave
them axes and machetes, which Namowei traded to more interior groups for dogs,
as Namowei in turn traded dogs to Mahekoto-teri (Ferguson, 1995: 216–26). The
Bisaasi-teri group moved to the Mavaca River by 1950, giving them access to more
outsiders. Around 1953 they made a garden on the Orinoco itself. In 1958 they
were invited to move in next to a new government malaria station at the mouth of
the Mavaca, where in 1959 they were joined by New Tribes missionaries (Ferguson,
1995: 241, 264–65).
As noted by Chagnon (1977: 161), ‘No Yanomamo would tolerate the discom-
fort of living near the bug-infested rivers unless there were powerful incentives,
such as trade goods, to attract them there.’ It is not in doubt: where Yanomamo
moved to and where they chose to live often were efforts to get better access to
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steel. Steel is only the start, followed by a procession of other foreign goods, each
with its own cultural impact, such as cooking pots, clothes, medicines, outboard
motors, and shotguns. That is the contact context. What was the result?
Social breakdown and interpersonal violence
Chagnon’s claims of a ‘state of nature’ notwithstanding, examination of his and
others’ writings establishes that in the Orinoco-Mavaca region, social relations
were thoroughly transformed by the early 1960s – as summarized in ‘A Savage
Encounter’ (Ferguson, 1992).
Whenever a mission was established anywhere in Yanomami lands, some local
group moved fast to make a garden alongside it, and thereafter stayed put, both to
get western goods for themselves and to prevent others from breaking their trade
monopoly. This sharply contrasts with more traditional groups, who spend much
time on trek and visiting old gardens (see Good, 1989). As a result, areas near
Western outposts were largely hunted out. Although mission food, river resources,
and traveling in launches to hunt may have kept nutrition adequate, none of the
mission villages in the Orinoco-Mavaca area had the extensive sharing of game
animals which is the social glue uniting people in more remote and mobile groups.
Fixity also eliminated what is otherwise an option in highly conflicted situations, to
move away from opponents – though that is what raiders may seek (Ferguson,
1992: 204–6).
Increasing contact meant more disease. Two dozen Namowei died in 1945, and
10 percent of the local population all at once in 1960. By Chagnon’s initial field-
work, 130 of 240 deaths were from disease, plus 25 from ‘sorcery’. War accounted
for 37 more. Only a quarter of children had both parents alive and co-resident by
the time they reached 15. Among the Yanomami, kinship, economics and politics
are one, and marriages are the result of long negotiations with pre- and post-
marriage obligations. So many deaths in a short time shred the social fabric
(Ferguson, 1992: 203–4; 1995: 209, 232). ‘Disruption of village life and their result-
ing coalescence or fusion shatters the social organization and creates chaos, con-
flict, and disorder in the newly-constituted village(s)’ (Chagnon and Melancon,
1982: 73).
One of the most striking aspects of Chagnon’s descriptions is the abused con-
dition of women, which markedly contrasts with descriptions from elsewhere
(Ramos, 1979). Yanomami in general are very patriarchal, though Chagnon’s
own emphases certainly amplify that (Tiffany and Adams, 1994). Comparing
Orinoco-Mavaca Yanomamo to other lowland South American peoples, their
strong fraternal interest groups and reliance on plantains (which in contrast to
bitter manioc does not encourage female cooperative labor) are consistent with
stronger patriarchy (Ferguson, 1988: 149–50). However, contact made it worse for
women. Drastically increased sedentism and curtailed trekking eliminated their
more traditional and vital food-gathering role, making them specialists in the
drudge labor of finding firewood and hauling water. The unusual number of
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in-married women in pursuit of trade relations left them without the protection of
resident male relatives; and the intensity of war put women at risk and dependent
on aggressive men (Ferguson, 1992: 220–1).
Inter-group relations
Western contact, particularly the arrival of fixed outposts of missions and anthro-
pologists, transformed marital and trade relations between villages. As discussed by
Chagnon (1977: 69–73; 2013: 322–32), the marriage pattern he traced back across
generations was largely endogamous among cross-cousins. An important change
occurred once missions were in place. A brother-in-law is expected to provide
machetes, axes, and other western goods to his in-laws. Consequently, many
brides were pushed upstream in the trade current leading out from western
posts. There was ‘a cline in sex ratios’ of males to females (Chagnon, 1966:
57–8), extending from the mission village Bisaasi-teri through its chain of depend-
ent allies: 0.8, 1.1, 1.2, 1.8. Ironically, polygyny was far more common in mission
villages than in others. A related contact-induced change is the skewing of bride
service. When men from villages with good sources of steel married women from
other villages, they substituted trade goods for work. Outside males that obtained
women from mission villages were forced into unusually lengthy and onerous toil
(Ferguson, 1992: 214–216; 1995: 31–2, 281–2).
Trade between villages went through a similar reorganization. Formerly there
were networks of balanced reciprocity (see Sahlins, 1972), sometimes reflecting
ecological variations, involving hunting dogs, curare, bows, arrows, baskets and
more. When westerners established bases, those became exchange hubs, with
spokes radiating outward to more isolated groups. Hubs ceased making these
labor-intensive traditional goods, instead getting them from others in exchange
for steel. One telling example is from Bisaasi-teri, which were given spun cotton
from one dependent ally, then told another to return it as woven hammocks – ‘the
importer merely contributing labor to the process’ (Chagnon, 1977: 101). Balanced
reciprocity had given way to negative reciprocity in exchange of both women and
goods, based on control of incoming western trade (Ferguson, 1992: 209–11; 1995:
Status and politics
The status system too was transformed by the influx of western goods. Peters’
(1973: 144–51; see also Ferguson, 1995: 141; Peters, 1998) dissertation on
Yanomami of the Mucajai mission describes changes in inter-village marriage pat-
terns virtually identical to those just noted, but he goes further, in a way that
cannot be documented for the Orinoco-Mavaca area simply because no one has
written about it, rendering it ethnographically invisible. At the Mucajai mission,
possession of western goods became the key to both personal and village status.
Younger men with quick appreciation of missionary needs rose to precocious
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leadership positions. A new kind of material inequality developed, with some
young men earning five times the trade goods of others.
Back around the Orinoco, once possessing a surplus of machetes, etc., men
actualized their social value by exchange. Trade could be tense. A machete freely
given would raise the giver’s status. But they also were extorted, and when that
happened the receiver’s status went up, and the giver’s went down. In their intense
quest to obtain these trade goods, aggressive intimidation, pushing to the brink of
violence, became common in the Orinoco-Mavaca area. Showing readiness to
reciprocate in kind was necessary to prevent loss of both goods and status
(Ferguson, 1992: 221–2; 1995: 41–2).
The status of headmen was elevated in a very non-traditional way by making them
conduits of large numbers of machetes. Headman status was also elevated by the high
level of conflict. The mid-1960s Orinoco-Mavaca area contrasts measurably with
other described Yanomami groups in the scale of pounding matches that had to be
managed, the frequency of feasting that was the basis of alliance, and the complica-
tions of alliance and enmity characteristic of war zones (Ferguson, 1992: 217–20).
The transformations of contact led to severe tensions both between groups and
between factions within groups. Chagnon repeatedly emphasizes that Orinoco-
Mavaca headmen are ‘Machiavellian’ (Chagnon, 2013: 70, 98, 259), maximizing
their own political advantage. Within and between groups, status domination
backed by force or its threat was used to influence social and economic relation-
ships. Within and between groups, the principle stake was access to western manu-
factures, directly or in terms of exchange. Having more steel and other foreign
goods in itself strongly tilted relationships in favor of those with better access, but
that could be countered by threatening force. Between groups, alliances were amic-
ably close or strained to the point of war, depending on a mix of four basic factors:
the amount of disposable trade goods, direct backing by westerners (including with
shotguns), number of warriors and allies, and renowned fierceness of individuals
(Ferguson, 1995: 34–7).
Davi Kopenawa lived through a similar period of mission hegemonization in
Yanomami lands around the Catrimani and Toototobi rivers. Once again, one does
not expect social analysis in emic recollections, and the transformations noted
above cannot be inferred from his narrative. But co-author Bruce Albert did an
etic analysis for that region, which I incorporated as part of my own study:
The communities closest to the missions assume a regional monopoly of manufactured
objects which they obtain in abundance. ...They benefit first from missionary para-
medical assistance and from protection from the risks of intercommunity politics, in
which a dissuasive presence is assured them, in the minds of more isolated groups, by the
‘whites’ and their overwhelming power. The ‘mission communities’ thus try to monop-
olize and to manipulate to their own profit, in the game of intercommunity politics, the
material and non-material advantages deriving from the presence of these posts estab-
lished in their territory ...Networks of intercommunity alliance become more polarized
and progressively more dense around these mission communities: neighboring local
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groups attempt to weave with them as many matrimonial ties as they can, in order to
arrange, through affinal relations, regular access to the attentions and windfall wealth of
the missionaries. (Albert, 1988: 102–3, translated by Barbara Price)
Albert makes a few allusions to these events in footnote, but the sharp contrast
between his earlier portrayal, and his and Kopenawa’s recent portrayal, shows how
qualitatively different are emic and etic analyses.
A State of Nature?
This systematic transformation of social life in the Orinoco-Mavaca area, starting
with the renewed penetration of woodsmen in the middle 1930s, is just the latest
manifestation of tribal zone dynamics (Ferguson and Whitehead, 1992) dating
back to the early 17th century. When Chagnon arrived, the people of the
Orinoco-Mavaca area represented a Yanomami life-style in extreme conflict
mode, unlike most other Yanomami (Good with Chanoff, 1991; Ramos, 1987).
Incessant warfare is not their natural condition.
William Smole is a neutral party, publishing early and not engaged in the later
contention over the Yanomami. His fieldwork was in the traditional Yanomami
highlands of the Venezuelan and Brazilian Parima, mainly in 1970. But in 1964 he
visited Bisaasi-teri and other nearby villages, scouting possible research sites,
months before Chagnon arrived. Here is his reaction to ‘the fierce people’ perspec-
tive (1976: 31–2):
Much has been written about the violent and fierce nature of the Yanoama. It is
implied that this particular culture trait is as universally distributed over Yanoama
territory as the language, the teri and shabono institutions, and the plantain gardens;
it is also implied that it characterizes Yanoama men as much as do long bows and
arrows, quivers, and tobacco wads. It would appear, however, that, in contrast to
these universal traits, the degree of ferocity is spatially variable like trade goods,
fishing, and the use of dugout canoes. Perhaps there is even a positive correlation
between these particular variables. Conceivably, certain lowland Yanoama (such as
the Orinoco Waika [another name for Yanomamo]), far removed from the security of
their own cultural and spatial dominance, constantly menaced by aliens and foreign
values, respond violently as an exaggerated defense to compensate for their insecurity.
Certainly the Yanoama who have moved to sites on or near navigable water are not
representative. They are outside their niche in the broadest sense, caught in a squeeze
between various adverse influences of ‘civilization.’
Psychological Darwinists cling to the image of Stone Age Yanomami as vindi-
cating their view of human nature. But to see Yanomami fighting as happening in a
situation unaffected by centuries of western disruption, to ignore the documented
social transformation occurring in the time leading up to ‘the fierce people’, is an
act of willful blindness.
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III An alternative theory of war: Antagonisms over
western goods
Yanomami Warfare uses a methodology first applied to indigenous warfare on the
Pacific Northwest coast, of mapping historical changes in contact circumstances
against actual wars (Ferguson, 1984b). Applied through Yanomami ethnography,
the method leads to a model (1995: 21–58) with specific behavioral expectations for
a specific historical context. By situating behavioral predictions in concrete circum-
stances, testable generalizations combine with history.
Explaining war, in this approach, means accounting for two things. First, tem-
porally, why are some periods peaceful and others filled with deadly violence.
Second, spatially, what sort of group – as defined by access to western goods –
is attacked, and what sort does the attacking. Rather than using selected cases of
war as anecdotal illustration, Yanomami Warfare incorporates every instance of
war reported anywhere among all Yanomami. Reports about Yanomami group
behaviors – including not just raiding but long-distance movements, alliances, and
political relations between groups – are matched with a detailed reconstruction of
changes in the western presence. This shows a clear spatial and temporal connec-
tion between political actions including war, which I explain as responses to a
combination of danger of being raided and the compelling need to acquire steel.
In a historicized social context, the model predicts that Yanomami raid when that
has the prospect of improving or protecting access to critical and scarce western
Sometimes this spatial patterning is obvious, as with raiding of whites or other
natives, Yanomami or otherwise, to take their goods. Across Yanomami lands
there is a broad pattern of those without outside trade connections raiding those
with them. More theoretically interesting is when one local group raids another,
without expectation of acquiring a lot of booty. For these situations it is predicted
that those groups with good access to established sources, such as missions or
anthropologists, use force to protect their monopoly, operating with a mixture
of generosity, threat, and raid. Those without direct access to western sources
use force or its threat to extract western goods in antagonistic trade, to drive
away middlemen, or impose themselves as middlemen, at or near the source of
western goods. Villages controlling a trade source often combine with dependent
allies one step out to attack more distant villages which pose a threat, reinforcing
their dominance in the area.
Temporally, intergroup conflict is expected to be low when western manufac-
tures are so scarce that no group stands out among others as having many of them.
Raiding is likely to be frequent when there is a major change in the western pres-
ence which dramatically alters the influx of steel – such as when a mission opens,
moves, or shuts down. Major change means that established intergroup relations
break down. If the western presence remains steady in one place, accommodations
of one sort or another eventually lead to little or no raiding. That, in a nutshell, is
how I explain variations in times of war or peace, and what sort of group attacks
whom (Ferguson, 1995: 55, 344–9).
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Emics and etics
Yanomami do not think about war in such materialistic terms. War is personal.
Not just Chagnon or Kopenawa, but field researchers of diverse theoretical orien-
tations (Albert, 1989, 1990; Good with Chanoff, 1991; Lizot, 1994; Peters, 1998)
agree that suspicions of sorcery, the desire for vengeance, and valorization of male
aggressiveness and confrontation are personal motivations that make men raid
(Chagnon, as noted, stands apart from them all in emphasizing conflict over
I fully agree that these motivations are the immediate reasoning for taking
action, so are crucial for understanding agency. Within any structured situation,
there are always options. On top of that is the fog of war – the fears, rumors,
deceptions, and unknowns that pervade a state of active threats, and so force hasty
choices. Assessments and choices must be made, and individual perceptions
and feelings can tip the scales – to attack or ally, and who, and when (Ferguson,
1995: 364–7). This is how decisions are made. Actual choices cannot be reduced
to systemic factors, and they will be the main story in any emic account of
war, what it meant or means to those who fought it. But these decisions work
within a highly structured context, which sets up the oppositions and choices to be
An etic behavioral theory addresses the underlying structure that imparts action-
able form to the multiplicity of individual understandings and motivations that
arise in the course of daily life. Why do violent acts display patterns? Why do
individual grievances and fears only sometimes lead to war, and between certain
categories of people? In lived conditions, what constitutes a severe insult, who is
suspected of sorcery, when does an old killing require revenge and when can it be
overlooked? In most situations, the build-up of personal animosities reflects a
larger, ongoing relationship, which I argue is based on the availability of western
goods, and the ability to apply force. Then, when a relationship has turned poi-
sonous, the most trivial slight can be the spark for violence (Ferguson, 1992:
Although people fight over things like land, or power, or machetes, they fight
against other people, whose lives must be taken. The issues underlying war are
emically framed in terms of culturally specific values, both to persuade others and
to justify oneself. The Yanomami think of war their own way, and every warrior
has his own reasons. Nevertheless, when one examines the total record of actions,
war patterns are explained by antagonisms related to the introduction of steel tools
and other western trade goods.
I do not dispute what Chagnon says Yanomamo told him about why they fight –
although I do suspect that they figured out that this outsider liked to hear that they
fought over women. I also believe that where he worked, fights between men over
women were more common than elsewhere among Yanomami. Partly that is
because so many men gave daughters as brides to establish channels for trade
goods, and those marriage arrangements could be extremely fraught (Ferguson,
1992: 213–16; 1995: 355–8).
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But even in the Orinoco-Mavaca area, fighting over women is not at all predictive of
war. In a theoretical exposition, Chagnon (1990a: 96–7) presents two cases as illustra-
tion. In one, a major breach developed over reclassifying potential marriage partners,
giving some men a classificatory advantage. Bad feeling persisted. Thirty years later,
no war had developed out of this quarrel, but Chagnon stresses that it still might. In
the other case, a major war broke out involving multiple villages and deaths, with no
suggestion of any fight over women preceding it (Ferguson, 1995: 355–8). Most fights
over women do not lead to war, most wars are not outgrowths of fights over women.
Nor does revenge explain the continuation of raiding, as Chagnon claims. Yes,
revenge can be a powerful force, especially if several people have been killed by
enemies. But considering the actual record of killings and raids, reasons for taking
revenge are acted on or deferred, trumped up or negotiated away, depending on
other circumstances. For the Orinoco-Mavaca area, with its relatively comprehen-
sive coverage of raids, deadly retaliation for a killing is simply not the rule. Reasons
for revenge can be constructed even without a killing when there is an interest in
striking another group; and a history of killings can be overlooked if there are
reasons for allying (Ferguson, 1995: 353–4).
Yet almost any war that happens will be justified as revenge. Sometimes revenge
raids invoke prior death shamanism – a person dies of a fever, and his enemies sent
sickness into him. As the British structural-functional school discovered about
sorcery accusations, they are crystallizations of social relations that are already
bad, a ‘strain gauge’ (Marwick, 1970). So too a personal affront that is perceived as
requiring violent retaliation depends on the prior status of relations among those
involved. All these personal motivations are real, but they are all shaped by the
availability and flow of western goods. That is what gives them collective power –
why individual grudges develop in the same direction. That is what makes personal
grievances build to the point of collective attack (Ferguson, 1995: 353–4).
Davi Kopenawa gives as much or more emphasis to revenge than Chagnon.
After one killing, he says, raids followed inexorably out of revenge. ‘Seized with the
anger of mourning for their dead kin, they carried out raids until they were able to
avenge them’ (Kopenawa and Albert, 2013: 357). As he understands the way of his
ancestors: ‘When an elder, a great man, has been arrowed by enemies or had
his bones shattered by oka sorcerers, his people instantly go to war because of
the grievance of his bone ashes’ (2013: 362).
My own reconstruction of raiding in the area of Kopenawa’s youth is much
thinner than for the Orinoco-Mavaca region, and it does include one massacre
followed by revenge raiding. In my theory, when a massacre kills several individ-
uals, that indeed can be sufficient grounds for revenge raiding (though that also
may not happen; Ferguson, 1995: 354). Yet the tensions which lead to the extreme
step of a massacre can be related to intense conflicts over a major new western
presence (Ferguson, 1995: 45). The time of killing during Kopenawa’s boyhood
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was a time of massive and tumultuous disruption due to multiple intrusions by
westerners, including expeditions, woodsmen, and new missions (Ferguson, 1995:
156–7; Saffirio, 1985: 87–102).
The explanatory limitation of revenge motivation is clear in Kopenawa’s dis-
cussions of why raiding stopped while he was still young. He relates that ‘once the
most aggressive warriors on both sides had been killed’, former enemies sought
reconciliation. Of course, by the logic of implacable revenge, that would be impos-
sible. But other considerations prevailed.
Then they spoke words of friendship and reaffirmed the end of hostilities: ‘Awe! Let us
stop arrowing each other! Let us stop mistreating each other like that! Become our
friends! We are tired of mourning our kin! We don’t want to constantly make war
anymore! Enough! It is pitiful that we can no longer clear a garden, hunt, or even draw
water without fear of being arrowed. We want our children to stop crying with hunger
and thirst.’ Then fear came to an end on both sides and people started to think: ‘Awe!
This is a good thing! I will be able to acquire their goods and we will become friends.’
They started bartering hammocks, pots, machetes and axes, knives, glass beads,
cotton, tobacco, and dogs. (Kopenawa and Albert, 2013: 363)
Albert adds in a footnote that ‘The groups on the Rio Toototobi stopped most
of their raiding activities in the 1960s, following the contacts with the New Tribes
Mission, and above all, the epidemics that decimated their population’ (Kopenawa
and Albert, 2013: 557). This is the way it always went for Yanomami in the 1950s
and 1960s: arrival or movement of a mission set off great tensions and raids, which
eventually diminished as some enemies moved away, others became trade-depen-
dent allies, and mission dominance increased.
In sum, those individual motivations shape and sometimes decide courses of
action in war, and certainly give it lasting meaning. But they themselves are struc-
tured by factors that determine the character of relations between local groups. This
structure is revealed by mapping changes in western presence that affect the incoming
flow of trade goods, particularly steel tools, then follows the pattern of access and
exclusion to explain the political relationships and war between local groups. This
perspective fits raiding as historically or ethnographically noted all across Yanomami
lands, but the patterning of antagonisms can be traced in finest detail in the Orinoco-
Mavaca area. Most of Chapters 10 through 14 in Yanomami Warfare deals with that
area, and the wars which were made famous by Napoleon Chagnon, with some also
described by Helena Valero. Making the case that these deadly conflicts respond to
changing interests and antagonisms in the western trade takes up most of 146 pages.
All that I can do here is indicate what that analysis finds.
Helena Valero, after being taken near the Rio Negro, through capture and flight
eventually came to be with the Namowei. Her eyewitness account of the killing of
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visiting Shamatari is the start of the near-history of Yanomamo warfare, as made
known by Chagnon (Ferguson, 1995: 208–9, 226–30). Trade, alliance, and marriage
exchanges were rapidly extending from the main source around Platanal, through
the Namowei, to more remote Shamatari to the south, who themselves were split-
ting into deadly factions. Men of one Shamatari faction visited and asked Valero’s
hot-headed husband Fusiwe to kill their rival, Ruwahiwe, when he came to trade.
They told Fusiwe that his brother, who had died from a fever, had been the victim
of Ruwahiwe’s sorcery. When Ruwahiwe came to trade, he ignored Fusiwe and
traded – the basic early swap, dogs for steel – only with Repowe, Fusiwe’s political
rival. Fusiwe and his followers came up behind and smote them with axes, then
shot them with arrows. Ruwahiwe and several others died in the massacre. Repowe
yelled at Fusiwe, ‘Why did you kill them? Huh? Because they did not give you a
dog. That. Because they only gave to me and my son, you killed them out of envy’
(Valero, 1984: 237, my translation).
The Shamatari did not take vengeance against Fusiwe. But in a few years he
came into conflict with those who would later become Chagnon’s Bisaasi-teri, over
a key trade location between Mahekoto-teri and Shamatari to the south, just as
woodsmen and then missionaries increased their presence. After Bisaasi-teri provo-
cations, Fusiwe raided, starting war among the Namowei. His aggressiveness led
others to desert him, and soon he was killed by Bisaasi-teri (Ferguson, 1995:
230–8). This is the beginning of the intermittent, scattered wars that Chagnon
reported in The Fierce People. The tensions over trade are obvious, once brought
into focus.
The same is true for all the other major conflicts in that book. In September
1950, a huge event occurred: the New Tribes Mission was established alongside the
Mahekoto-teri at Platanal, vastly upping the trade goods stakes. Only a few
months later, in February, came the biggest killing ever recorded among
Yanomami, the slaughter of about 11 Bisaasi-teri at a Shamatari feast
(Ferguson, 1995: 240). The next few years saw attacks from all sides against
Mahekoto-teri, as well as numerous short-lived alliances (Ferguson, 1995:
251–7), as Barker (1959) vividly describes. About this extreme violence, the
missionary’s conclusion was consistent with the New Tribes view of native
people under the sway of Satan: Yanomamo men fought endlessly over
women. It was Barker who later introduced graduate student Chagnon to the
Eastern Namowei divisions soon moved to the Mavaca and Orinoco and made
their own contacts with outsiders (Ferguson, 1995: 241–2). After this period of
intense change and violence, things settled down, so ‘in 1960, the political milieu
was quite serene’ (Chagnon, 1977: 80). But then came a new round of changes in
the western presence, and with them the major conflicts observed by Chagnon and
narrated in The Fierce People: the hostilities between Patanowa-teri and Monou-
teri/Bisaasi-teri, transpiring just as Chagnon arrived; the factional tensions within
Bisaasi-teri; the alliance of some northward moving Shamatari villages with
Bisaasi-teri; the unsuccessful conspiracy of Bisaasi-teri and allied Shamatari to
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slaughter Iwahikoroba-teri; and the severe club fight between Mahekoto-teri and
Bisaasi-teri (Ferguson, 1995: 289–306).
To the hundreds of thousands of students who read The Fierce People, or those
who read Noble Savages, these are presented as timeless expressions of Yanomamo
culture. But they are specific events, in a specific historical context, serving specific
interests. In only one case, the breach between Monou-teri and Patanowa-teri – the
dripping green snot incident so relished by Chagnon’s (1977: 5; 2013: 19) readers –
is there any indication of a preceding conflict over women. Even in that case,
Monou-teri’s grabbing of seven women from the visiting Patanowa-teri makes
sense as a move to forestall a disadvantageous alliance between Patanowa-teri
and a Bisaasi-teri faction (Ferguson, 1995: 295–306).
Coming after a quarter century of contact-induced social change, the middle
1960s was a highly conflicted period for three reasons. First, local social organiza-
tion had been shattered by contact and reconstituted in a way that encouraged
personal violence. Second, the establishment of a new, beckoning ‘unclaimed’
Salesian mission across the river from Bisaasi-teri and its two New Tribes posts,
government malaria station, and Chagnon’s base was very destabilizing (Ferguson,
1995: 278, 283–4). The priest liberally dispensed western goods as enticements, and
as soon as he left the field, Chagnon says (2013: 114), the priest ‘‘‘purchased’’ half
of the Bisaasi-teri to get them to move to his side of the river’. Third was the new
presence of Chagnon.
Chagnon’s role in conflicts
Much has been written and speculated about Chagnon’s role in aggravating tensions,
a point that causes him special umbrage in Noble Savages. ‘They argue that my
allegedly unpleasant demeanor provoked the Yanomamo to do violent things they
never before did’ (2013: 230). Many have discussed this in ethical terms. My goal is
just to explain why there was so much conflict swirling all around him. For that, his
personality is not the issue (except with Moawa, below), but his actions are.
Additionally, the polemical character of Noble Savages cannot be ignored, even if
Chagnon has been subject to intense political attack himself. The issue of his behav-
ior in the field and its relationship to Yanomamo conflicts simply must be addressed.
When he first visited a village, he brought ‘a quantity of assorted trade goods for
the known leaders and important men in the village’, and more each time he
returned (Chagnon, 1974: 164). Exchanging trade goods for hospitality and
cooperation is the foundation of ethnography, among Yanomami and everywhere.
This practice by other field workers could lead to serious problems, notably as the
unprecedented coordinated attacks against Jacques Lizot’s locally arrogant main
base of Tayari-teri in 1979 (Ferguson, 1995: 337–8). But Chagnon’s field situation
was different. He did not work in one or a few villages, but tried to roam all over.
Starting in 1967, he was the point man for an Atomic Energy Commission project
gathering blood, genealogical data and other information from as many villages as
possible (Chagnon, 2013: 33–7; Tierney, 2000: 36–46).
Ferguson 397
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His large gifts became legendary, known to Yanomami far away: ‘I was identi-
fied by the Yanomamo as an inexhaustible fount of goods’ (Chagnon, 1974: 165).
When he visited Iwahikoroba-teri, they had a few ‘extremely dull and badly worn’
machetes obtained ‘via a long trading network’ from Brazil. He gave the headman
and his companions some 25 machetes to distribute (Chagnon, 1974: 176–7, 180).
That largesse is why Yanomami everywhere wanted him to come (back then, not
more recently), and did everything they could to keep him from leaving and going
on to others. That is why his biomedical colleagues could show up in an uncon-
tacted village, write numbers on skin, take body measurements, photos, draw
blood, and at one point vaccinate them against measles (compare Chagnon,
2013: 203–13, 442–7; Tierney, 2000: 53–106).
Chagnon is very explicit about the strenuous and inventive efforts Yanomami
made to control his movement between villages (Chagnon, 1974: 7–12): ‘The
Bisaasi-teri did not want me to give my tools directly to the Momaribowei-teri
when I went there to visit, and the Momaribowei-teri did not want me to take my
goods past them to the Reyabobowei-teri. Each group wanted a monopoly’ (1974:
11). So it was, everywhere. Chagnon’s movements were sharply contested – an
essential fact for understanding the extraordinary atmosphere of tension, threat,
rumor, fear, and betrayal that pervades Noble Savages. His presence was not as
weighty in the long run as the impact of missions. But the missions generally stayed
put, while Chagnon moved around, and was the subject of unremitting efforts to
manipulate his movements, including telling tales of the dangers posed by others.
Everywhere killers lurked, just outside the shabono.
It would be difficult for readers of Noble Savages to glean any idea about desta-
bilization from Chagnon’s descriptions of his tireless efforts to gather scientific data.
It would be hard for them to understand why anthropologists have raised ethical
questions about his behavior in the field. Partly, that is because the most question-
able actions described in earlier works are absent in this telling. Carrying the Monou-
teri up the Mavaca so they could unexpectedly raid the Patanowa-teri before inun-
dated trails opened up (Chagnon, 1977: 135) – gone (2013: 97). His method of
extracting and confirming genealogical information by exploiting tensions between
villages (Chagnon, 1977: 12) – gone (2013: 56–8). His issuing a public denunciation
of the domineering and belligerent Mishimishimabowei-teri headman Moawa, which
was pretty close to a death threat (Chagnon, 1974: 195–6) – not there (2013: 372).
Chagnon’s relationship with Moawa is a dramatic focus of Noble Savages (2013:
351–72) and Studying the Yanomamo (1974: 180–97). This Shamatari settlement was
his base on several research visits from 1968 to 1972. When he first arrived, they had
two ‘badly worn down and dull axes’ among 80 people. He promised them 15
machetes, six axes, and 12 cooking pots (Chagnon, 1974: 30–31, 35–6). Whenever
Chagnon came to visit, Moawa compelled him to hang his hammock right next to
his own, and exercised extreme and escalating demands that Chagnon either give him
all his trade goods, even medicines, or else distribute them only to individuals
Moawa selected. Their final confrontation, ‘one of the most volatile situations
I have ever been in’, was directly over Moawa’s control of Chagnon’s machete
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distribution (1974: 188–93). ‘Many readers will be tempted to reduce my conflict with
Moawa to a simple explanation that it represents only an ethnographer, in posses-
sion of valuable goods, giving them away in such a fashion that it was perceived by
the headman as a threat to his authority and an undermining of it.’ But he adds that
another problem was that ‘the nature of our personality characteristics simply did
not mix well together’ (Chagnon, 1974: 197). Point granted.
Despite all the aggressive efforts to monopolize him, despite the massive effects of
missions, despite the transformation of inter-village trade and marriage evident in
Chagnon’s own ethnography, despite the history of movements and wars among
the Yanomami and across Amazonia openly aimed at procuring western goods,
Chagnon refuses to consider the explanation that the Yanomami wars we know
about were driven by conflicts over those goods.
His emic explanation invoking revenge, women, witchcraft, status, and insult as
the reasons for war is solidly within the mainstream of ethnography stretching back
into the 19th century. But it is entirely non-predictive of actual behavior. The etic
behavioral approach I propose does make specific predictions about variations
between war or peace, and of what sort of group attacks and what sort is attacked.
For Chagnon, the lack of prediction is not an issue, because he has a sociobio-
logical bottom line: all these aggressive motivations among Yanomami confer
reproductive success. The most famous of all Chagnon’s assertions is that killers’
reproductive success is triple that of non-killers. ‘Chagnon’s most arresting claim is
that among the Yanomami, men who have killed enemies in combat have, on
average, three times as many offspring as men who haven’t. If true, that fact
caries enormous implications for any collective attempt to reduce levels of violence
in the world’ (Junger, 2013). It is not true.
IV Unokais
Unokais are Yanomami who have gone through a ritual purification, typically for
having participated in a killing. If many men participate in one killing, even by
shooting arrows into a corpse, they all go through the ritual. Albert (1989) and
Lizot (1994) take issue with Chagnon’s representation of the meaning of unokai.
My argument (Ferguson, 1989; 1995: 358–62; 2001: 107–8) has been about the
numbers. Chagnon’s own data invalidates this much repeated claim.
To begin, there is an elephant in the room. Chagnon repeatedly states that his
data regarding ‘unokais (those who have killed someone) indicates that they, com-
pared to same age non-unokais, have over twice as many wives and over three times
as many children’ (Chagnon, 1990a: 95, my emphasis; and see Chagnon, 1992a:
39–40; 1992b: 205; 1997: 205). He says it again in Noble Savages, just across the
page from his data table. ‘The bottom row reveals that unokais have, on average,
4.91 children compared to same-age non-unokais, who average only 1.59 offspring
Ferguson 399
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each, that is, unokais have three times as many offspring as non-unokais’ (Chagnon,
2013: 277, my emphasis). That statement is false. Chagnon’s bottom row is all men,
not sorted by age (see Table 1).
The actual advantage by age categories is 5.6 x for the 20–24-year-olds, 1.8 x for
25–30, 1.4 x for 31–40, and 1.7 x for >41. If the relative reproductive advantage of
unokais over non-unokais is averaged for the whole sample, weighted for age cate-
gories, it is 2.48 x. More than half of that is due to the 20–24 age group. Yet ‘the
five men who were estimated by me to be younger than 25 years may, in fact, be 25
years old or older’ (Chagnon, 1990b: 50). Yanomami men under 25 are rarely
fathers, and rarely unokais. So why include them? Chagnon himself (1988: 987)
eliminates 20–24-year-olds when calculating the total percentage of adult men who
are unokai. Doing the same, subtracting the 20–24 age-group, the weighted average
for all age groups over 25 years of age gives unokais 1.61 x as many children as non-
unokais: 61 percent more is not nearly as dramatic as ‘three times more children’
but would still represent a major reproductive advantage. Except that this seeming
advantage is entirely eliminated by three problems with the data.
The headman effect
All village headmen were unokai (Chagnon, 1988: 988). It is a commonplace of
Amazonian ethnography that headmen are more polygynous than others (Clastres,
1989: 32). Inclusion of all headman in the unokai category confounds the actual
reproductive advantage associated with unokai status itself. Responding to an earlier
critique (Ferguson, 1989), Chagnon obligingly factored out the 13 headmen and
presented the unokai advantage as still being statistically significant at the 0.05
level, except for the 31–40-year-old category – where it was not (Chagnon, 1989: 566).
The age effect
Within the age categories, co-variation of age with both unokai status and more
children exaggerates the advantage of being unokai. In his response to my critique,
Table 1. Unokai and Non-Unokai Offspring.
Unokais Non-unokais
Ages n
Number of
Average number
of offspring n
Number of
Average number
of offspring
20–24 5 5 1.00 78 14 0.18
25–30 14 22 1.57 58 50 0.86
31–40 43 122 2.83 61 123 2.02
>41 75 524 6.99 46 193 4.19
Total 137 673 4.91 243 380 1.59
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Chagnon created and attacked a straw man: that I ‘assume’ that all men produce
the same number of offspring if they live to be the same age. Of course not. This
non-response notwithstanding, the point is obvious: as a man progresses through
Chagnon’s four age categories, he is more likely to have gone through the unokai
ceremony, and more likely to have more children. Inescapably, some part of the
unokai reproductive advantage within age categories is due to co-variation with age.
The age effect adds to the headman effect in exaggerating the reproductive
advantage of being unokai. There is no way of telling how much, though Fry
makes a heroic effort. Using various assumptions and combinations of factors,
he calculates that a combination of the headman effect and the age effect reduces
the unokai reproductive advantage by 56 percent to 104 percent (Fry, 2006: 195;
Miklikowska and Fry, 2012). Taking 80 percent as the median of Fry’s reduction of
reproductive advantage, and applying that to a 61 percent weighted advantage for
unokai, produces a ballpark figure of the remaining unokai vs. non-unokai repro-
ductive advantage of around 13 percent. Whether or not that reaches statistical
significance really does not matter, since even that edge is cancelled out by the next
and most serious problem.
The dying-early effect
Chagnon’s data on reproductive success includes only living fathers: ‘living chil-
dren whose fathers are dead ...are not included in this table’ (Chagnon, 1988: 989).
This raises the critical question: does participating in a killing increase one’s chance
of being killed? Non-unokais >41 have an average of 4.19 offspring, while unokais
of 31–40 years have 2.83. This means that non-killers who live past 40 average a 48
percent reproductive advantage over killers who are killed in their 30s, and a 90
percent advantage over all unokais who die younger than 40. Any increase in risk of
being killed can more than offset any possible reproductive advantage of being
Chagnon (1988: 990) himself raised this issue, but did not resolve it. ‘[I]t is
possible that many men strive to be unokais but die trying and that the apparent
higher fertility of those who survive may be achieved at an extraordinarily high
mortality rate.’ That seems very likely, since ‘Yanomami raiders always hope to
dispatch the original killer’ (Chagnon, 1988: 985). But Chagnon speculates that
while raiders can make themselves targets for future raids, there may be ‘an under-
lying rationality: swift retaliation in kind serves as a deterrent over the long run’
(1988: 986). Yet his own data fail to support that idea. ‘A logical assumption would
be that if unokais deter the violence of enemies, they would lose fewer close kin than
non-unokais. In actual fact, they lose about as many close kin due to violence as
non-unokais do’ (1988: 990).
Other evidence indicates that killing and becoming unokai does indeed shorten
life span. When Patanowa-teri was under attack from different directions, ‘they
concentrated on raiding [the Hasabowa-teri] until ...their fierce ones were all dead’
(Chagnon, 1977: 127). In Yanomami Warfare, six of eight identified war leaders
Ferguson 401
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died in war. People expected another to be killed, but he fled to a mission. Only one
flourished, also under the protection of a mission, and in possession of a shotgun
(Ferguson, 1995: 361). Lizot (1994: 854–5), who worked near to Chagnon’s base,
comments: ‘The men who have the reputation of being waitheri are also the favor-
ite targets for enemy arrows ...very few of these men died a ‘‘natural death’’.’ Davi
Kopenawa is very clear about this. After a killing occurs, all efforts are directed
toward dispatching the killer (Kopenawa and Albert, 2013): ‘Above all, they tried
to strike men who had already killed’ (p. 357); ‘If one of our people is killed by
arrows or sorcery blowpipes, we only respond by trying to kill the enemy who ate
him and is in an onakae homicidal state’ (p. 359); ‘it is these aggressive and valiant
men who were primarily targeted in our elders’ incursions’ (p. 364).
Putting all this together, how can one not conclude that engaging in deadly
violence substantially reduces male procreative years, and therefore reduces their
lifetime reproductive success, which is the evolutionarily significant measure? Since
after considering the headman and age effects, the unokai reproductive advantage
was on the order of 13 percent, even a small dying-early effect would mean that
killers actually had lower lifetime reproductive success than non-killers. All the
evidence indicates that the dying-early effect is anything but small.
In making his sociobiological case, Chagnon excoriates anthropologists as enemies
of science. In doing so he garnered wide media coverage and high profile endorse-
ments. As Robin Fox put it on the dust jacket of Noble Savages, ‘this book is his
final knockout punch in a fight he didn’t pick but has most assuredly won’.
Introducing a special online homage (Edge, 2013), Richard Dawkins wrote:
‘Napoleon Chagnon is a Living World Treasure. Arguably our greatest anthro-
pologist.’ In The New York Times Nicholas Wade (2013: D3) wrote that Chagnon’s
book gives us ‘a deep insight into the last remaining tribe living in the state of
nature untouched human society’. That is one reason for this response.
A better reason is that the issue matters.
Are humans by nature prone to war? For many years in many ways, many have
argued we are (Ferguson, 2011, 2013). Chagnon’s (1990a) own theory is simple:
that men are primed to use deadly violence in reproductive competition.
If resources needed to survive and reproduce are scarce, they will fight over that.
If not, then men will fight over ‘reproductive resources’, namely women – as the
Yanomamo supposedly prove. There is always an evolved reason to kill. Hobbes
was right (cf. Fry, 2011).
Chagnon’s work is a major buttress for many other innatist explanations, many
of which invoke the Yanomami, even when Chagnon’s own writings directly
contradict their hypotheses (Ferguson, 2001: 106–11). In one form or another,
these all hold that evolution somehow coded into our genes and brains proclivities
that make men prone to war. We are capable of learning peace – all psychological
Darwinists will say that – but our basal state tilts towards war. If science says that is
402 Anthropological Theory 15(4)
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true, it makes a big difference in anyone’s thinking about the future of war and
This article has argued against drawing that conclusion from the Yanomami.
They do not represent humankind in a state of nature, but were mightily ‘touched’
by the imperial world for centuries. The society Chagnon studied was drastically
restructured by western contact, both within and between local groups. Fighting
over women or for revenge does not predict the patterning of warfare – antagonism
over steel tools and other western goods does. There is no evidence that participat-
ing in killings leads to any increase in reproductive success and, much more likely,
reduces it.
Yes, war has been an important aspect of Yanomami culture for centuries at
least. But Yanomami are not naturally warlike. In some places and times, they
became that way. Neither does war spring out of human DNA. War is a cultural
and historical variable. It is also one of the greatest curses to afflict humanity. It is a
duty of anthropology, with its cross-cultural and holistic perspective, to generate
and test theory for explaining war.
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R Brian Ferguson is a Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University-Newark.
His main research focus is war. Publications cover many areas, including general
theory on war; tribal warfare, especially by the South American Yanomami (as in
Yanomami Warfare: A Political History, 1995); the impact of expanding states on
native war patterns (as in War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous
Warfare, 1992, co-ed.) archaeological evidence pertaining to the earliest war; evo-
lutionary theory and war; war and other identity-linked violence in contemporary
states (as in The State, Identity and Violence: Political Disintegration in the Post-
Cold War World, 2003, ed.); and recent efforts by the U.S. military to incorporate
anthropological expertise into counterinsurgency efforts. He is currently complet-
ing a book titled Chimpanzees, ‘‘War’’,and History: Are Men Born to Kill? A second
line of research investigates the rise of organized crime in New York City of the
early 20
century. He is the Director of the Graduate Program in Peace and
Conflict Studies at Rutgers-University-Newark.
406 Anthropological Theory 15(4)
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... Wrangham (2018) has also suggested that human group conflict and aggression is more proactive, while chimpanzees are more reactive. While human influences have been suggested to contribute to chimpanzee group conflict (Ferguson 2011), evidence supports the influence of speciesspecific selection for violence that can be interpreted as war (Wilson et al. 2014;Wrangham and Peterson 1996). ...
... The conclusion that chimpanzee warfare is an innate trait resulting from natural selection has not gone unquestioned. Ferguson (2011) has argued that food competition linked to human impact is the more salient cause of coalitional aggression and violence in chimpanzees. Power (1991) has also suggested that food provisioning is a major contributor to organized violence in chimpanzee communities. ...
... These results are supportive of the hypothesis that engaging in warfare contributes to greater reproductive success but are not conclusive due to the limited number of populations studied to date, small sample sizes, and the likelihood of other factors that contribute to warfare. For a critique of Chagnon's conclusions, see Lizot (1994) and Ferguson (2015). ...
... While some of the emphasis on physical violence can be attributed to the theoretical and ideological orientation of the researchers themselves or the allure of observations of these behaviors in nonhuman primates, an argument might be made that these data and how they are manifested in both bodies and bones are seductive in their supposed clarity. The traces of interpersonal violence can sometimes be found in the human skeleton, and this evidence can be measured, quantified, and contextualized (Ferguson 1997;Frayer and Martin 2014;Walker 2001). As subdisciplinary shifts in biological and archaeological anthropology favored increased quantification, evidence of physical violence came to serve as one form of appropriately rigorous data. ...
... Perhaps most infamously, Chagnon's research on club fighting among the Yanomami held standing for decades as the preeminent example of a proposed link between success in bouts of interpersonal violence and reproductive success (Chagnon 1968). However, this theory was refuted by several studies via reanalyses of previous research on the Yanomami, including Chagnon's own data (Ferguson 2015;Fry 1998). A parallel and separate examination of boundary patrolling in Pan troglodytes (chimpanzees) was used as evidence for our primal violent state. ...
In its broadest conceptualization, violence includes everything from physical assault to the creation and maintenance of institutional structures that are discriminatory and exclusionary. However, violence as a topic of biological and archaeological anthropological inquiry has often been limited to malevolent physical assault perpetrated by men against other men. This is due to an outsized focus on the role that men played in the evolutionary history of our species. This conceptualization of violence obscures both the ways that other forms of harm—other violence(s) also often committed by men—structure the daily lives of people who do not have significant social or institutional power and how this harm becomes embodied. In this paper I explore how gendered knowledge production in anthropology has influenced our acceptance of what counts as meaningful harm. I posit that the threat of physical violence and encounters with other violence(s), specifically emotional and structural violence, shape the lives of people who are structurally disadvantaged in ways that are missing from our analyses. When we forgo emphases on war and murder and choose to study other violence(s) that are enacted in families and relationships, we become aware of the kinds of hidden assaults that are often meted out in small doses, eventually accumulating and impacting individual mental and physical health and survivorship. © 2021 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved.
... Chagnon 1990, per una replica). Ferguson (1995Ferguson ( , 2001Ferguson ( , 2015 ha sostenuto che le variabili poste in correlazione statistica sono definite in modo vago, portando dunque a conclusioni scorrette. Diversi studiosi hanno in particolare sottolineato l'esigenza di precisare, distinguendole, le definizioni operative di termini come "aggressività", "violenza", "guerra" (Kelly 2000;Miklikowska, Fry 2012;Fry, Söderbergh 2013). ...
Full-text available
The “controversy over the Yanomami” has affected central issues, both epistemological and ethical and political, for the discipline and practice of anthropology, particularly concerning the ethics of field research; the way to use research data to support certain theoretical hypotheses; the relationships between popularization and politicization of research and, more generally, the responsibility of anthropologists with respect to both the uses of their studies in the public sphere and towards the human subjects with whom they work. In this article, I examine some key moments of the “controversy”. In particular, I try to reconstruct the way in which the image of the Yanomami as the “last primitive society” was initially consolidated, inside and outside anthropology, and, in this sense, I compare the ethnographies of Chagnon and Lizot. In the paper, I also place particular emphasis on the different ways in which ethnographers have textually marked their positioning in the field as “proof” of the “authenticity” of their representations of the Yanomami world. In the last part, I summarize the effects of the “media storm” on American anthropology, which were caused by the accusations of ethically inappropriate, if not completely execrable, behavior addressed to Chagnon and Lizot in Darkness in El Dorado, the book-report by journalist Patrick Tierney.
... This relates to a second point that there is a plethora of work undertaken by outsider researchers. An example that roused concern about representing the other in anthropological ethnographic research was in relation to the work by Napoleon Chagnon of the Yanomami peoples (see Ferguson, 2015). Eminent anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins (2000) suggested that the position Chagnon held enabled him to do 'fieldwork in the mode of a military campaign'. ...
... This relates to a second point that there is a plethora of work undertaken by outsider researchers. An example that roused concern about representing the other in anthropological ethnographic research was in relation to the work by Napoleon Chagnon of the Yanomami peoples (see Ferguson, 2015). Eminent anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins (2000) suggested that the position Chagnon held enabled him to do 'fieldwork in the mode of a military campaign'. ...
Full-text available
en This essay aims to rethink the epistemological study of violence among the Yanomami's Venezuelan and Brazilian world. In doing so, I reopen some of the discussions between Marshall Sahlins and Napoleon Chagnon/National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in the context of the much longer debate about ‘innate aggressiveness’ (as virtue or vice) as it came to be revived in the context of the Cold War, decolonisation and the protests against the Vietnam War. Le « peuple féroce » dans le contexte de la politique étrangère des États‐Unis: une approche anthropologique et historique de l'interprétation par Napoléon Chagnon des Yanomami fr L'objet de cet article est de repenser l'étude épistémologique de la violence dans le monde des Yanomami au Venezuela et au Brésil. Ce faisant, certaines discussions entre Marshall Sahlins et Napoléon Chagnon/l'Académie nationale des sciences (NAS) sont revisitées dans le contexte du débat beaucoup plus nourri sur « l'agressivité innée » (en tant que vertu ou vice) ressuscité dans le cadre de la guerre froide, de la décolonisation et des manifestations contre la guerre du Viêt Nam.
Develops an integrated model of settlement, and evaluates it with data collected on the Yanomamo of Venezuela. The theoretical perspective employed derives from evolutionary and behavioural ecology, fields of research which employ neo-Darwinian principles to model how group-living individuals adapt to the environment.-after Author