Yanomami Indians: The Fierce People?
By Charito Ushiñahua
y first exposure to the
Yanomami tribe was as a graduate student in anthropology. Another graduate
student from the University of Michigan named Napoleon Chagnon had written a
book called "Yanomamö: The Fierce People." This ethnography of the
Yanomami made Chagnon (pronounced Shág-nun) famous and the Yanomami tribe became the best known
Amazonian tribe. Little did I know that one day this ethnography would
create a huge controversy that would tarnish the reputation of this renown
Some have characterized the
Yanomami as "one of the world's most primitive stone-age tribes."
However, this characterization is inaccurate in that the Yanomami are
horticulturalists, possessing a relatively advanced knowledge of crops and their
culture. In addition, they possess advanced bow and arrow technology,
whose use was only introduced about a thousand years ago in the Americas.
Even the advanced civilization of the Incas lacked this advanced technology.
Characterizing the Yanomami as a "stone-age tribe" is ironically in that they do
not use stone tools; for example, they use wooden arrow points rather than stone
ones as is characteristic of most Amazonian tribes.
As with most Amazonian natives,
traditionally the Yanomami do not wear any clothes with the men
supporting their member with a string-like belt. However, both men and
women do commonly decorate their bodies with flowers and feathers.
Every shabono community is considered autonomous in both economic
and political terms. Community members typically marry within the
community with a cross-cousin, that is with the offspring of a paternal aunt
or maternal uncle. With the preference for cross-cousin marriages,
Yanomami society and politics is dominated by familial relations. In
addition, Yanomami society is polygnous with one man commonly having multiple
Reproductive success is linked to the number of wives that a man has and some
anthropological studies have found a positive correlation between aggression and
fecundity of males. Lawrence Keeley in his book, "War before civilization:
The myth of the peaceful savage," found that an astounding 35 percent of males
die in warfare. Moreover, he reports that those Yanomami males who are victorious in
battle typically have more wives and children. Perhaps not surprisingly,
anthropological studies that portray an entire culture as violent have been
criticized and have caused much debate among anthropologists. Whether or not it is
justified, the Yanomami have a violent reputation that has trickled down from
anthropological studies into
the popular literature and culture.
A mineralogical survey of the
northern Amazon by the Brazilian government in 1975 revealed the presence of gold ore in
the Roraima region of Brazil. By the early 1980's, miners in search of
gold began invading the Yanomami territory in Brazil and by 1987 it had become a
full-fledged gold rush. Over 30,000 prospectors entered Yanomami lands and
established over a hundred clandestine mining operations. The resulting
massacres and diseases brought by these invaders is estimated to have caused the
death of over 2,000 Yanomami. One of the problems with gold mining is the
environmental destruction it causes. In order to separate gold from rocks
and soil, mercury is used. Mercury in the rivers and streams
bio-accumulates and permeates the entire ecosystem. The mercury
accumulates in predators and hunters (such as the Yanomami) higher up the food
chain and creates a neurotoxin that causes birth defects and abnormal child
development. The Yanomami have had increased child mortality rates while
their birth rates have declined putting their very existence into risk.
Moreover, malaria increased in the area due to the stagnant pools left by the
miners that increase the mosquito populations that are vectors of the disease.
Some have estimated that malaria is responsible for the deaths of about 13% of
the Yanomami population every year. However, the negative influence of the miners extends beyond physical health.
Their introduction of alcohol and other western goods has had an immense
negative effect on Yanomami society itself.
Tierney's book caused an uproar in the anthropological community and the American Anthropological Association (AAA) got involved in the debate. In fact, the AAA convened a special commission to investigate the allegations against Chagnon and Neel. The report by the AAA issued in May, 2002 exonerated the anthropologist and geneticist from causing a measles epidemic among the Yanomami. Nonetheless, the AAA criticized some aspects of Chagnon's research, including his portrayal of the Yanomami as "The Fierce People," and his bribing of Venezuelan officials. However, the AAA debate was not over and three years later in June, 2005 they rescinded the acceptance of the 2002 report.
As someone who is working to support indigenous people, I would like to point out that over the many years since publishing his first book on the Yanomami (whose revenues made him a millionaire), Chagnon has failed to bring significant aid to the Yanomami people. In fact, he sought to damage the indigenous movement by publicly criticizing Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami activist who helped establish the Yanomami reserve in Brazil. One might ask if it was proper behavior for an anthropologist to hurt the efforts of an indigenous Amazonian activist attempting to defend his people. Interestingly, the Yanomami leader Davi Kopenawa has predicted the destruction of the entire human race if the Amazon Rainforest is destroyed. Kopenawa states, "The forest-land will only die if it is destroyed by whites. Then, the creeks will disappear, the land will crumble, the trees will dry and the stones of the mountains will shatter under the heat. The xapiripë spirits who live in the mountain ranges and play in the forest will eventually flee. Their fathers, the shamans, will not be able to summon them to protect us. The forest-land will become dry and empty. The shamans will no longer be able to deter the smoke-epidemics and the malefic beings who make us ill. And so everyone will die." Many ecologists seem to agree with Kopenawa, believing that the Amazon Rainforest are the "lungs of the Earth" and that if the Amazon is destroyed, it will cause a global ecological disaster resulting in the eventual destruction of the human race.
If you would like to find out how you might meet the
Yanomami tribe and learn out how you might help them with the preservation of
their traditional culture, please write the author at email@example.com.
|© Copyright 2008-2011 Charito Ushiñahua, all rights reserved, Yanomami Indians.|