Noble Savages

Noble Savages

My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes-- the Yanamamö and the Anthropologists

Book - 2013
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The most controversial and famous anthropologist of our time describes his seminal lifelong research among the Yanomamö Indians of the Amazon basin and how his startling observations provoked admiration among many fellow anthropologists and outrage among others.


When Napoleon Chagnon arrived in Venezuela's Amazon region in 1964 to study the Yanomamö Indians, one of the last large tribal groups still living in isolation, he expected to find Rousseau's "noble savages," so-called primitive people living contentedly in a pristine state of nature. Instead Chagnon discovered a remarkably violent society. Men who killed others had the most wives and offspring, their violence possibly giving them an evolutionary advantage. The prime reasons for violence, Chagnon found, were to avenge deaths and, if possible, abduct women.

When Chagnon began publishing his observations, some cultural anthropologists who could not accept an evolutionary basis for human behavior refused to believe them. Chagnon became perhaps the most famous American anthropologist since Margaret Mead--and the most controversial. He was attacked in a scathing popular book, whose central allegation that he helped start a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö was quickly disproven, and the American Anthropological Association condemned him, only to rescind its condemnation after a vote by the membership. Throughout his career Chagnon insisted on an evidence-based scientific approach to anthropology, even as his professional association dithered over whether it really is a scientific organization. In Noble Savages , Chagnon describes his seminal fieldwork--during which he lived among the Yanomamö, was threatened by tyrannical headmen, and experienced an uncomfortably close encounter with a jaguar--taking readers inside Yanomamö villages to glimpse the kind of life our distant ancestors may have lived thousands of years ago. And he forcefully indicts his discipline of cultural anthropology, accusing it of having traded its scientific mission for political activism.

This book, like Chagnon's research, raises fundamental questions about human nature itself.
Publisher: New York, NY : Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Edition: 1st Simon & Schuster hardcover ed.
ISBN: 9780684855103
Branch Call Number: 304.5 CHA
Characteristics: 531 p. : ill., maps ; 24 cm.


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May 31, 2016

The parts about his time spent with the Yanomamo tribe were excellent. Unfortunately a great deal of the book is about his personal battle with the anthropological establishment. While interesting this was a little overdone and lost my attention.

silentq Jul 29, 2013

Every once in a while, you hear about uncontacted tribes in the Amazon, New Guinea or Indonesia. For a long time, I've been interested in reading detailed accounts of what life is like for these isolated groups. Chagnon's account does not disappoint. The book contains a wealth of interesting stories about his travels among the various villages, what the villages are like, how they get too large and break up into smaller groups from time to time, and what it's like to live in this environment.

I tend to sometimes romanticize life outside the mainstream of our world culture, and it certainly sounds like there are a lot of things to admire about that life. But there are also nasty, brutish elements which, in the end, make me grateful for the life I have.

In the notes at the back of this book, the author mentions another book which he published in 1992 entitled _Yanomamö: the Last Days of Eden_. Here's what he has to say about that book: "[This] is largely an expansion on my original textbook, _Yanomamö_, but with the more difficult and technical material on kinship and social organization eliminated and sections of new text added." My guess is that that book might be a more interesting one for people who are less interested in the politics of anthropology and history of Chagnon's run-ins with others of his profession over the years.

One thing that I think might be missing from this book is insight into the religious beliefs and practices of the Yanomamö. Or it might just be that religion doesn't make up a very significant part of their lives. It's difficult to speculate fruitfully without knowing more about their situation. However, there is another book about this tribe which was written by a missionary whose title implies that it addresses this theme to some degree. I've just purchased the book, but I have not yet read it. The author's name is Mark Andrew Ritchie, and the title of the book is _Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamo Shaman's Story_.

Apr 15, 2013

"Anthropologistical " is not a word.


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