Napoleon A. Chagnon is the most polarizing anthropologist in the field. He made numerous trips over three decades into the backwaters of Venezuela to study Stone Age people called the Yanomamo, and wrote what became the best-read book in the field, “Yanomamo: The Fierce People.”
And then the attacks came. Not just attacks, but the academic equivalent of a world wrestling cage match. He was accused of causing a measles epidemic. He was accused of racism.
His latest book, “Noble Savages,” reads a little like a valedictory. It covers a description of the Yanomamo and their habits written in relatively plain English without much Academic Speak. It comes replete with amusing anecdotes of some of the hazards of field work, including a fungus infection he caught wearing a borrowed loin cloth.
But the heart of the book is a defense of his work, which has been attacked by many of his peers.
His findings almost from the get-go ran contrary to the conventional wisdom. He found warfare was common and not — as cultural anthropologists thought — caused by “shortages of scarce strategic material resources.” Instead, he says they were often started over women.
That “opened the possibility that human warfare had as much to do with the evolved nature of man” — i.e., that it was biologically rooted — “as it did with what was learned and acquired from one’s culture.”
Moreover, over the course of the years he made enemies of the Salesian missionaries, who dominated the area, accusing them of giving goods — machetes, axes, steel tools — to Yanomamo parents in what “effectively amounted to purchasing the children and taking them away.”
His work was condemned by the American Anthropological Association, and a damning book and film accused Chagnon and the geneticist he partnered with of abetting and even causing a measles epidemic that broke out in 1968.
The AAA condemnation was overturned by a subsequent membership vote, the measles accusation investigated and dismissed; yet he remains a controversial figure.
It’s hard to understand the level of vitriol. Academia is supposedly the one place where professors are free to talk unhindered by the conventions of politics.
While intense, the academic scrum doesn’t affect the casual reader. Whether the Yanomamo are really fierce and whether their nature is a function of biology or culture is a function for the professors to work out. Chagnon’s description of the life of the Yanomamo is consistent with others I’ve read and makes for fascinating reading for anyone interested in native peoples, history and where we all came from.
Curt Schleier is a book critic in New Jersey.