State of na­ture

A rene­gade an­thro­pol­o­gist takes on an­gry na­tives — and aca­demics.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - book­world@wash­ RE­VIEW BY RACHEL NEW­COMB

NO­BLE SAV­AGES My Life Among Two Dan­ger­ous Tribes —The Yanomamo and the An­thro­pol­o­gists By Napoleon A. Chagnon Simon & Schus­ter. 531 pp. $32.50

Napoleon Chagnon’s “No­ble Sav­ages” is a sprawl­ing book that ex­plores his com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship with the Yanomamo In­di­ans of Venezuela, as well as his war with an­thro­pol­ogy. Au­thor of one of the best-sell­ing an­thro­pol­ogy texts of all time, “Yanomamo: The Fierce Peo­ple” (1968), Chagnon was later vil­i­fied by ac­tivists, jour­nal­ists and an­thro­pol­o­gists for ex­ploit­ing the Yanomamo. This oc­ca­sion­ally un­wieldy yet en­gag­ing mem­oir is his at­tempt to ex­plain his work to a lay au­di­ence while also putting to rest those ac­cu­sa­tions, which ef­fec­tively black­listed him in the field of an­thro­pol­ogy.

When Chagnon first met the Yanomamo In­di­ans, their ar­rows drawn, they were a group of “burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men ner­vously star­ing us down,” their lips dis­tended from chew­ing huge chunks of to­bacco. “Strands of dark green snot dripped or hung from their nos­trils . . . driz­zled from their chins down to their pec­toral mus­cles,” a side ef­fect of the Yanomamo’s ten­dency to blow hal­lu­cino­gens up their noses. To Chagnon, the Yanomamo of­fered the chance to study a pop­u­la­tion seem­ingly un­sul­lied by con­tact with the West­ern world, although by the time he ar­rived in 1964, mis­sion­ar­ies and Catholic priests had al­ready be­gun mak­ing in­roads. Nev­er­the­less, he found th­ese In­di­ans to be suf­fi­ciently un­ac­cul­tur­ated for his stud­ies. He writes that “this was the last chance for an an­thro­pol­o­gist to ob­serve this fas­ci­nat­ing so­cial and po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion that ter­mi­nated with the devel­op­ment of the po­lit­i­cal state and ‘civ­i­liza­tion.’ ”

Chagnon’s de­scrip­tions of his field­work are more the­matic than chrono­log­i­cal, with chap­ter topics that range from rea­sons for Yanomamo raids and re­venge to his early ex­pe­ri­ences bring­ing his fam­ily to the field. Much of this book is pre­oc­cu­pied with the ar­gu­ment that ini­tially made Chagnon a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure in an­thro­pol­ogy: that the bel­li­cose be­hav­ior of the Yanomamo orig­i­nated in con­flicts over women rather than over re­sources. Ad­di­tion­ally, those Yanomamo who were killers of men had greater re­pro­duc­tive success than non-mur­der­ers. Thus, Chagnon be­lieved, the Yanomamo of­fered a glimpse of hu­mankind’s Hobbe­sian ori­gins, be­fore law and so­ci­ety in­ter­vened to rein in our es­sen­tially war­like na­ture.

Such as­ser­tions put him at odds with the pre­vail­ing an­thro­po­log­i­cal view that hu­mankind was es­sen­tially egal­i­tar­ian and peace­ful prior to the rise of set­tled agri­cul­ture, a stance that he calls both “Euro­cen­tric and eth­no­cen­tric.” He writes that “the ar­gu­ment that tribes­men are egal­i­tar­ian be­cause no­body has ‘priv­i­leged’ ac­cess to ‘strate­gic’ ma­te­rial re­sources . . . er­ro­neously projects our own po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic views into the Stone Age.”

In the fi­nal fourth of the book, Chagnon de­scends into a blow-by-blow ac­count of the at­tacks against him, which came from all cor­ners: jour­nal­ists, priests and ac­tivists for in­dige­nous peo­ple. Some of the griev­ances were aca­demic — for ex­am­ple, that Chagnon gave un­due weight to bi­o­log­i­cal over cul­tural ex­pla­na­tions for Yanomamo be­hav­ior or that he had ex­ag­ger- ated Yanomamo ag­gres­sion to prove his point. But other ac­cu­sa­tions were more dev­as­tat­ing, es­pe­cially the al­le­ga­tion that he had contributed to a measles epi­demic. Af­ter tack­ling the more ex­treme charges, he crit­i­cizes an­thro­pol­ogy for aban­don­ing sci­ence in fa­vor of “wit­ness­ing” the wrongs com­mit­ted against na­tive peo­ples. In his view, the in­flu­ence of post­mod­ernism has taken an­thro­pol­ogy even fur­ther away from sci­ence, call­ing into ques­tion the pos­si­bil­ity of truth and ob­jec­tiv­ity. Th­ese post­mod­ernists, he says an­grily, are now the “bare­foot” ac­tivists who are teach­ing your chil­dren.

So does the field of an­thro­pol­ogy re­sem­ble the morass that Chagnon de­picts in this book? As seen in a fun­house mir­ror, per­haps. The av­er­age Amer­i­can has very lit­tle idea what an­thro­pol­o­gists do, but many might pic­ture some­one like Chagnon, sail­ing down jun­gle rivers in hand-wrought, birch bark ca­noes and dis­cov­er­ing tribes. How­ever, the type of an­thro­pol­ogy he prac­ticed has changed, not only be­cause there are no longer any un­con­tacted tribes but also be­cause the terms of the de­bate are dif­fer­ent. An an­thro­pol­o­gist study­ing kin­ship, for ex­am­ple, might not be liv­ing in a dis­tant vil­lage col­lect­ing ge­nealo­gies to de­ter­mine who can marry whom. Rather, she might in­stead be ex­plor­ing how a so­ci­ety that does not ac­cept parent­age through adop­tion will re­spond to the in­tro­duc­tion of new re­pro­duc­tive tech­nolo­gies such as sperm or egg do­na­tion. Con­trary to Chagnon’s as­ser­tions, many an­thro­pol­o­gists still em­ploy rig­or­ous sci­en­tific method­olo­gies while also ac­knowl­edg­ing that data, drawn from the messi­ness and un­pre­dictabil­ity of so­cial life, may be af­fected by the pres­ence of the re­searcher. An­thro­pol­o­gists study ev­ery con­ceiv­able topic deal­ing with hu­man­ity, but al­ways with an eye to­ward un­der­stand­ing what it means to live in a glob­al­ized era in which ev­ery­one is now con­nected, for bet­ter or worse.

Chagnon’s rem­i­nis­cences of his time among the Yanomamo none­the­less of­fer a fas­ci­nat­ing por­trayal of the dis­com­fort and dan­ger that an­thro­pol­o­gists work­ing in re­mote ar­eas face. The book is at its most en­ter­tain­ing when doc­u­ment­ing the chal­lenges of ev­ery­day life in the jun­gle — how to sleep fit­fully in a ham­mock among en­e­mies who might at­tempt to as­sas­si­nate you in your sleep or how to net a juicy tapir for your din­ner. His deep af­fec­tion for the knowl­edge the Yanomamo af­forded him is ap­par­ent through­out the book, but, as sub­jects, the Yanomamo them­selves never fully come alive in this ac­count.

As for Chagnon, the more ex­treme ac­cu­sa­tions against him, which were found by in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sions to be base­less, un­for­tu­nately de­tract from what might oth­er­wise have been a healthy de­bate over the na­ture of an­thro­pol­ogy. Sadly, while this book may vin­di­cate its au­thor, its neg­a­tive por­trayal of the state of an­thro­pol­ogy will fur­ther sen­tence an­thro­pol­ogy in the pub­lic’s eyes.

Rachel New­comb is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of an­thro­pol­ogy at Rollins Col­lege and the au­thor of “Women of Fes: Am­bi­gu­i­ties of Ur­ban Life in Morocco.”

An­thro­pol­o­gist Napoleon Chagnon with a mem­ber of the Yanomamo In­di­ans of Venezuela. A vil­lage, right, on the banks of the Si­apa River.


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