A new book by controversial American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon has triggered a wave of protests among experts and Yanomami Indians:
- Marshall Sahlins, ‘the world’s most respected anthropologist alive today’, has resigned from the US National Academy of Sciences in protest at Chagnon’s election to the Academy. Sahlins previously wrote a devastating critique of Chagnon’s work in the Washington Post.
Davi Kopenawa, a spokesman for Brazil’s Yanomami and President of the Yanomami association Hutukara, has spoken out about Chagnon’s work: ‘[Chagnon] said about us, ‘The Yanomami are savages!’ He teaches false things to young students. ‘Look, the Yanomami kill each other because of women.’ He keeps on saying this. But what do his leaders do? I believe that some years ago his leader waged a huge war – they killed thousands of children, they killed thousands of girls and boys. These big men killed almost everything. These are the fierce people, the true fierce people. They throw bombs, fire machine guns and finish off with the Earth. We don’t do this…’
A large group of anthropologists who have each worked with the Yanomami for many years have issued a statement challenging Chagnon’s assessment of the tribe as ‘fierce’ and ‘violent’. They describe the Yanomami as ‘generally peaceable.’
Survival International’s Director Stephen Corry has said, ’Chagnon’s work is frequently used by writers, such as Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker, who want to portray tribal peoples as ‘brutal savages’ – far more violent than ‘us’. But none of them acknowledge that his central findings about Yanomami ‘violence’ have long been discredited.’
Napoleon Chagnon’s autobiography ‘Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists’, has just been published. His 1968 book ‘Yanomamö: The Fierce People’ portrayed the Yanomami as ‘sly, aggressive and intimidating’, and claimed they ‘live in a state of chronic warfare’. It is still a standard work in undergraduate anthropology.
The Yanomami live in Brazil and Venezuela and are the largest relatively isolated tribe in South America. Their territory is protected by law, but illegal goldminers and ranchers continue to invade their land, destroying their forest and spreading diseases which in the 1980s killed one out of five Brazilian Yanomami.
Chagnon’s work has had far-reaching consequences for the rights of the Yanomami. In the late 1970s, Brazil’s military dictatorship, which was refusing to demarcate the Yanomami territory, was clearly influenced by the characterization of the Yanomami as hostile to each other and in the 1990s, the UK government refused funding for an education project with the Yanomami, saying that any project with the tribe should work on ‘reducing violence’.
Most recently, Chagnon’s work was cited in Jared Diamond’s highly controversial book ‘The World Until Yesterday’, in which he states that most tribal peoples, including the Yanomami, are ’trapped in cycles of violence and warfare’ and calls for the imposition of state control in order to bring them peace.
Survival International’s Director Stephen Corry said today, ‘The greatest tragedy in this story is that the real Yanomami have largely been written out of it, as the media have chosen to focus only on the salacious details of the debate that rages between anthropologists or on Chagnon’s disputed characterizations. In fact, Yanomamö: The Fierce People had disastrous repercussions both for the Yanomami and tribal peoples in general. There’s no doubt it’s been used against them and it has brought the 19th century myth of the ‘Brutal Savage’ back into mainstream thinking.’
Note to editors:
The full statements and additional information about the controversy can be found here.