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It's All About the Culture. Napoleon Chagnon is one of the best-known living cultural anthropologists, and the Yanomamo are one of the best-known pre-modern societies. Chagnon also wrote cogently about his experience studying the Yanomamo, who are particularly renowned for their aggressiveness although there are some who question this interpretation.
In the introduction of his case study Yanamamo: The Fierce People , he tells the story of entering their society and the challenges he faced in doing fieldwork with them. Of course, not all fieldwork experiences are alike, but he raises some of the perennial issues that we all face in the encounter with others unlike ourselves. I spent nineteen months with the Yanomamo, during which time I acquired some proficiency in their language and, up to a point, submerged myself in their culture and way of life.
The thing that impressed me most was the importance of aggression in their culture. I had the opportunity to witness a good many incidents that expressed individual vindictiveness on the one hand and collective bellicosity on the other. There ranged in seriousness from the ordinary incidents of wife beating and chest pounding to dueling and organized raiding by parties that set out with the intention of ambushing and killing men from enemy villages….
There are a few problems, however, that seem to be nearly universal among anthropological fieldworkers, particularly those having to do with eating, bathing, sleeping, lack of privacy and loneliness, or discovering that primitive man is not always as noble as you originally thought…. This took me from the Territorial capital, a small town on the Orinoco River, deep into Yanomamo country.
The missionaries had come out of these villages to hold their annual conference on the progress of their mission work, and were conducting meetings when I arrived.
We picked up a passenger at the mission station, James P. Barker, the first non-Yanomamo to make a sustained, permanent contact with the tribe in …. We arrived at the village, Bisaasi-teri, about pm and docked the boat along a muddy bank at the terminus of the path used by the Indians to fetch their drinking water.
It was hot and muggy, and my clothing was soaked with perspiration. It clung uncomfortably to my body, as it did for the remainder of the work. The small, biting gnats were out in astronomical numbers, for it was the beginning of the dry season. My face and hands were swollen from the venom of their numerous stings.
In just a few moments I was to meet my first Yanomamo, my first primitive man. What would it be like? I had visions of entering the village and seeing social facts running about calling each other kinship terms and sharing food, each waiting and anxious to have me collect his genealogy. I would wear them out in turn. Would they like me? This was important to me; I wanted them to be so fond of me that they would adopt me into their kinship system and way of life, because I had heard that successful anthropologists always get adopted by their people.
My heart began to pound as we approached the village and heard the buzz of activity within the circular compound. Barker commented that he was anxious to see if any changes had taken place while he was away and wondered how many of them had died during his absence. I felt into my back pocket to make sure that my notebook was still there and felt personally more secure when I touched it. Otherwise, I would not have known what to do with my hands.
The entrance to the village was covered over with brush and dry palm leaves. We pushed them aside to expose the low opening to the village. The excitement of meeting my first Indians was almost unbearable as I duck-waddled through the low passage into the village clearing.
I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly men, naked, filthy, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from their noses. We arrived at the village while the men were blowing a hallucinogenic drug up their noses. One of the side effects of the drug is a runny nose.
The mucus is always saturated with the green powder and the Indians usually let it run freely from their nostrils. My next discovery was that there were a dozen or so vicious, underfed dogs snapping at my legs, circling me as if I were going to be their next meal.
I just stood there holding my notebook, helpless and pathetic. Then the stench of the decaying vegetation and filth struck me and I almost got sick. I was horrified. What sort of a welcome was this for a person who came here to live with you and learn your way of life, to become friends with you?
They put their weapons down when they recognized Barker and returned to their chanting, keeping a nervous eye on the village entrances. We had arrived just after a serious fight. Seven women had been abducted the day before by a neighboring group, and the local men and their guests had just that morning recovered five of them in a brutal club fight that nearly ended in a shooting war. The abductors, angry because they lost five of the seven captives, vowed to raid the Bisaasi-teri.
When we arrived and entered the village unexpectedly, the Indians feared that we were the raiders. On several occasions during the next two hours the men in the village jumped to their feet, armed themselves, and waited nervously for the noise outside the village to be identified.
My enthusiasm for collecting ethnographic curiosities diminished in proportion to the number of times such as alarm was raised. In fact, I was relieved when Mr. Barker suggested that we sleep across the river for the evening. It would be safer there. As we walked down the path to the boat, I pondered the wisdom of having decided to spend a year and a half with this tribe before I had even seen what they were like.
I am not ashamed to admit, either, that had there been a diplomatic way out, I would have ended my fieldwork then and there. I did not look forward to the next day when I would be left alone with the Indians; I did not speak a word of their language, and they were decidedly different from what I had imagined them to be.
The whole situation was depressing, and I wondered why I ever decided to switch from civil engineering to anthropology in the first place. I had not eaten all day, I was soaking wet from perspiration, the gnats were biting me, and I was covered with red pigment, the result of a dozen or so complete examinations I had been given by as many burly Indians.
These examinations capped an otherwise grim day. The Indians would blow their noses into their hands, flick as much of the mucus off that would separate in a snap of the wrist, wipe the residue into their hair, and then carefully examine my face, arms, legs, hair, and the contents of my pockets. I asked Mr. So much for my discovery that primitive man is not the picture of nobility and sanitation I had conceived him to be.
I soon discovered that it was an enormously time-consuming task to maintain my own body in the manner to which it had grown accustomed in the relatively antiseptic environment of the northern United States. Either I could be relatively well fed and relatively comfortable in a fresh change of clothes and do very little fieldwork, or, I could do considerably more fieldwork and be less well fed and less comfortable….
Eating three meals a day was out of the question. I solved the problem by eating a single meal that could be prepared in a single container, or, at most, two containers, washed my dishes only when there were no clean ones left, using cold river water, and wore each change of clothing at least a week to cut down on my laundry problem, a courageous undertaking in the tropics. I was also less concerned about sharing my provisions with rats, insects, Indians, and the elements, thereby eliminating the need for my complicated storage process.
I was able to last most of the day on cafe con leche, heavily sugared expresso coffee diluted about five to one with hot milk. I would prepare this in the evening and store it in a thermos. Frequently, my single meal was no more complicated than a can of sardines and a package of crackers.
But at least two or three times a week I would do something sophisticated, like make oatmeal or boil rice and add a can of tuna fish or tomato paste to it. I even saved time by devising a water system that obviated the trips to the river. I had a few sheets of zinc roofing brought in and made a rain-water trap; I caught the water on the zinc surface, funneled it into an empty gasoline drum, and then ran a plastic hose from the drum to my hut.
When the drum was exhausted in the dry season, I hired the Indians to fill it with water from the river…. Meals were a problem in another way. Food sharing is important to the Yanomamo in the context of displaying friendship.
I could not possibly have brought enough food with me to feed the entire village, yet they seemed not to understand this.
All they could see was that I did not share my food with them at each and every meal. I usually reacted to these kinds of demands by giving a banana, the customary reciprocity in their culture—food for food—but this would be a disappointment for the individual who had visions of that single plantain growing into a machete over time…. Finally, there was the problem of being lonely and separated from your own kind, especially your family. I tried to overcome this by seeking personal friendships among the Indians.
This only complicated the matter because all my friends simply used my confidence to gain privileged access to my cache of steel tools and trade goods, and looted me.
The loss of the possession bothered me much less than the shock that I was, as far as most of them were concerned, nothing more than a source of desirable items; no holds were barred in relieving me of these, since I was considered something subhuman, a non-Yanomamo. The thing that bothered me most was the incessant, passioned, and aggressive demands the Indians made. But I did not want privacy for its own sake; rather, I simply had to get away from the begging.
Giving in to a demand always established a new threshold; the next demand would be for bigger items or favor, and the anger of the Indians even greater if the demand was not met. I soon learned that I had to become very much like the Yanomamo to be able to get along with them on their terms: sly, aggressive, and intimidating.
Had I failed to adjust in this fashion I would have lost six months of supplies to them in a single day or would have spent most of my time ferrying them around in my canoe or hunting for them. As it was, I did spend a considerable amount of time doing these things and did succumb to their outrageous demands for axes and machetes, at least at first.
More importantly, had I failed to demonstrate that I could not be pushed around beyond a certain point, I would have been the subject of far more ridicule, theft, and practical jokes than was the actual case. In short, I had to acquire a certain proficiency in their kind of interpersonal politics and to learn how to imply subtly that certain potentially undesirable consequences might follow if they did such and such to me…. It was sort of like a political game that everyone played, but one in which each individual sooner or later had to display some sign that his bluffs and implied threats could be backed up.
I suspect that the frequency of wife beating is a component of this syndrome, since men can display their ferocity and show others that they are capable of violence. Beating a wife with a club is considered to be an acceptable way of displaying ferocity and one that does not expose the male to much danger. The important thing is that the man has displayed his potential for violence and the implication is that other men better treat him with respect and caution….
With respect to collecting the data I sought, there was a very frustrating problem. Primitive social organization is kinship organization, and to understand the Yanomamo way of life I had to collect extensive genealogies.
I could note have deliberately picked a more difficult group to work with in this regard. They have very stringer name taboos. They attempt to name people in such a way that when the person dies and they can no longer use his name, the loss of the word in the language is not inconvenient.
Doing fieldwork among the Yanomamo
Napoleon Chagon has studied the Yanomamo, a small horticultural tribe found in Venezuela click here for map and Brazil , from to the present. The Yanomamo live along the Orinoco River and its tributaries, on both sides of the border between Venezuela and Brazil. We will refer to the Yanomamo repeatedly throughout the course; this article includes some basic information on the traditional lifestyle of this culture, as well as Chagnon's initial problems in doing fieldwork with this group. The link on Chagnon's name above will also provide you with basic information on a 's challenge to Chagnon's ethics as a fieldworker. The challenge is a complicated subject; for this class, it is sufficient to note that Chagnon frequently provided Yanomamo with steel axes and machetes--of course the missionaries were already doing so--thus changing the culture he was studying, something an ethnographer is not supposed to do. Giving axes and machetes to a culture where warfare and violence was already common led to charges against Chagnon that he had escalated the violence, changing the culture in a very negative way. However, in a culture that emphasized reciprocal exchange--see a later lesson on this--Chagnon did have to return gifts given to him with gifts that the Yanomamo wanted in order to stay and do fieldwork.
It's All About the Culture. Napoleon Chagnon is one of the best-known living cultural anthropologists, and the Yanomamo are one of the best-known pre-modern societies. Chagnon also wrote cogently about his experience studying the Yanomamo, who are particularly renowned for their aggressiveness although there are some who question this interpretation. In the introduction of his case study Yanamamo: The Fierce People , he tells the story of entering their society and the challenges he faced in doing fieldwork with them. Of course, not all fieldwork experiences are alike, but he raises some of the perennial issues that we all face in the encounter with others unlike ourselves. I spent nineteen months with the Yanomamo, during which time I acquired some proficiency in their language and, up to a point, submerged myself in their culture and way of life.