Yanomamo: The Fierce People

Excerpts from: Napoleon A. Chagnon. Yanomamo: The Fierce People, CBS College Publishing, New York, NY, 1983.

There is a large tribe of Tropical Forest Indians on the border between Venezuela and Brazil. They number approximately 12,000 people and are distributed in some 125 widely scattered villages. They are gardeners and they have lived until very recent time in isolation from our kind of culture. The authorities in Venezuela and Brazil knew very little about their existence until anthropologists began going there. The remarkable thing about the tribe, known as the Yanomamo, is the fact that they have managed, due to their isolation in a remote corner of Amazonia, to retain their native pattern of warfare and political integrity without interference from the outside world. They have remained sovereign and in complete control of their own destiny up until a few years ago. The remotest, uncontacted villages are still living under those conditions.

The Yanomamo are thinly scattered over a vast and verdant Tropical Forest, living in small villages that are separated by many miles of unoccupied land. They have no writing, but they have a rich and complex language… Much of their daily life revolves around gardening, hunting, collecting wild foods, collecting firewood, fetching water, visiting with each other, gossiping, and making the few material possessions they own: baskets, hammocks, bows, arrows, and colorful pigments with which they paint their bodies. [See photo.] Life is relatively easy in the sense they can ‘earn a living’ with about three hours’ work per day… The villages can be as small as 40 to 50 people or as large as 300 people, but in all cases there are many more children and babies than there are adults. This is true of most primitive populations and of our own demographic past. Life expectancy is short.

The Yanomamo fall into the category of Tropical Forest Indians called ‘foot people’. They avoid large rivers and live in interfluvial plains of the major rivers. They have neighbors to the north, Carib-speaking Ye’kwana, who are true ‘river people’: they make elegant, large dugout canoes and travel extensively along the major waterways. For the Yanomamo, a large stream is an obstacle and can only be crossed in the dry season. Thus, they have traditionally avoided larger rivers and, because of this, contact with outsiders who usually come by river…

Two major seasons dominate their annual cycle: the wet season, which inundates the low-lying jungle making travel difficult, and the dry season–the time of visiting other villages to feast, trade, and politic with allies. The dry season is also the time when raiders can travel and strike silently at their unsuspecting enemies. The Yanomamo are still conducting inter-village warfare, a phenomenon that affect all aspects of their social organization, settlement pattern, and daily routines. It is not simply ‘ritualistic’ war: at least one-fourth of all adult males die violently.

Social life is organized around those same principles utilized by all tribesmen: kinship relationships, descent from ancestors, marriage exchanges between kinship/descent groups, and the transient charisma of distinguished headmen who attempt to keep order in the village and whose responsibility it is to determine the village’s relationships with those in other villages. Their positions are largely the result of kinship and marriage patterns–they come from the largest kinship groups within the village. They can, by their personal wit, wisdom, and charisma, become autocrats but most of them are largely “greaters” among equals. They, too, must clear gardens, plant crops, collect wild foods, and hunt. They are simultaneously peacemakers and valiant warriors. Peacemaking often requires the threat or actual use of force, and most headmen have an acquired reputation for being waiteri: fierce.

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