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The Yanomamo of the Amazon Basin

Napoleon Chagnon has spent about 60 months since 1964 studying the foot people’ of the Amazon Basin known as the Yanomamo. In his ethnography, Yanomamo, he describes all of the events of his stay in the Venezuelan jungle. He describes the “hideous” appearance of the Yanomamo men when first meeting them, and their never-ending demands for Chagnon’s foreign goods, including his food. There are many issues that arise when considering Chagnon’s Yanomamo study.

The withholding of genealogical information by the tribesmen, and how Chagnon was able to obtain his information is an interesting and significant aspect of this study. Why did Chagnon feel that this genealogical information was important? And was Chagnon’s choice to study the Yanomamo, despite their hesitancy to cooperate, a wise and ethical one? Chagnon spent his first five months collecting what he thought was an intricate and elaborate table of genealogical information, marriage relationships, and kinships within the Yanomamo village of Bisaasi-teri.

He knew from the beginning that it would be difficult to obtain the actual names of the tribesmen because it is a symbol of honor, respect, dignity, and political admiration. The less your name was spoken in public within the village, the higher you were regarded. And it was considered an extreme taboo to discuss the names of the deceased as well, which made it exceptionally difficult for Chagnon to trace family lineages to the past. Chagnon would interview villagers asking for the names of all members of their community, including the deceased.

He recounts many situations in which the interviewee whispered a name into his ear, made him repeat it aloud and then the person whose name he was supposedly calling would cry out in anger while others laughed. It wasn’t until five months into his development of a genealogical chart, on a trip to another Yanomamo village, that he discovered the name he had for the village headman translated into “long dong” and that all of his names were in fact ridiculous and, of course, incorrect. For months and months to follow Chagnon would have to be incredibly strategic and smart in choosing who to interview and what to ask them.

He began to only interview in his hut in private, where distractions from other village members could not influence a lie or joke. He would look for inconsistencies in some of the villagers’ responses and simply put an end to his connection with them and stick to only those who were being truthful and helpful. He even increased the reward given to villagers who were willing to give genealogical information and therefore created a rapid craze of helping villagers. This way, they were competing to give him information for their eventual rewards, not plotting against him.

It took him months to compile his accurate collection of genealogical data, and even after gathering most of it, he still needed his friend, Rerebawa, to double-check most of it for him. He even went so far as to seek out other villages who had bad relations with Bisaasi-teri to break the “name taboo” and give away names. Chagnon felt that the most important aspect of his research in Bisaasi-teri was to collect genealogical information and organize the marriages and relations between the villagers. This turned out to be his most difficult task, but nonetheless the most useful.

He tells in the very beginning of the ethnography that the Yanomamo are considered a very “primitive” societal organization of human beings. The most obvious sign of primitive human life is simply the way the dress. In addition, their fickle nature, lack of industry, methods of hunting and gathering, and political organization, contribute to their primitive nature. As proved by anthropologists, primitive human life is essentially based on genealogy, marriage practices, kinship, settlement arrangements and political affairs.

It was through studying these topics in the Yanomamo village of Bisaasi-teri that Chagnon was to be able to fully understand their way of life. Once he was able to figure out the genealogical data and organize kinships and relationships between kinships in the village, he would be able to understand the social organization of the villagers. In collecting all of the genealogical information from the villagers, he would be able to make connections and conclusions as to why different kinships make certain relations and how certain relations are formed.

One of the first aspects of familial relations that he noticed that would present a problem was that children refer to their father and their father’s brother using the same term whereas in our culture, we refer to father as “father” and his brother as “uncle”. Even though Chagnon does not come out and state a concrete “hypothesis” about Yanomamo culture and/or human behavior that he was looking to test, the reader is given the impression that Yanomamo culture is one of the very few primitive cultures in the world that have had limited to no contact with the outside world.

And even thought some anthropologists have attempted to study cultures similar to the Yanomamo, their hostile and archaic behaviors make it extremely difficult to live within a community of that sort. It was therefore a great challenge to anthropologists as a whole to study, research, and understand a culture so different from our own. It was this way of life, with multiple marriages, inter-village politics and warfare, and unique myths that intrigue the science world.

It is a life accomplishment for Chagnon to have been able to organize the genealogical data of the Yanomamo, and furthermore, understand and draw conclusions as to how they live, why they live, etc. Much of Chagnon’s conclusions came from his genealogical data. His friend, Rerebawa, was a man who was married into the village of Bisaasi-teri and was serving his wife’s parents by hunting and gathering for them. It is because of Chagnon’s collection of these inter-familial relationships that he understood why his friend was even in that village to begin with.

Chagnon was crossing a very heated line when he dared to collect the names of every villager in Bisaasi-teri and even the names of the deceased members of that community. Wasn’t it enough that he invaded their village, was eating their food and disrupting their simple way of life? This village was almost completely isolated from the world outside of that of the Yanomamo before he arrived, and he now thought that he had the right to completely disregard their “name taboo” and go around asking everybody who’s who.

The science field as a whole is a very touchy subject. There are many fields within the science world that concentrate completely on things that really cannot be proven. Given there is evidence and supported theories for most of the information that is researched and published, but a lot of it is not substance. Anthropology is different from subjects such as Chemistry and Astronomy because it is the study of humans. The evolution of humans is where the uncertainty comes into play in Anthropology, but the Yanomamo study is a cultural study and therefore is concrete.

However, I’m forced to ask why in fact it was necessary for Chagnon, or any anthropologist for that matter, to invade a community in which they are not fully welcome, and use whatever means necessary, taboo or socially acceptable, to complete their research. I understand that this is an established field of study and that cultural studies are very common worldwide, but I tend to disagree that it is necessary to invade an area where you do not have complete permission. The Yanomamo seemed to be quite hesitant in accepting Chagnon, and even now he recounts events where they try to take advantage of him and the things that he brings.

This is part of their culture, but what is the global importance of his research? I’m sure there is an answer because his study is widely accepted and taught, hence this paper, but I have not been able to understand the purpose of such projects other than fascination. In general, the “ethics” of something is an issue that must be decided by those involved in the situation. The opinions of the Yanomamo as to whether or not Chagnon’s genealogical study was ethical are just as important as the western scientists’ opinions.

And if language presents a barrier to communicate and agree on a study taking place, then maybe that study just was not meant to happen. Not everything and everyone in this world is open to be analyzed, photographed, interviewed, etc. by western scientists. So was it ethical for Chagnon to go to Bisaasi-terri, drop his bags and start working? I say no. Was it really that important for Chagnon to go there and study people who didn’t come out and announce their welcoming of outsiders? I say no.

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