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Not-So-Noble Savages

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

I recently read Napoleon Chagnon\’s Noble Savages, an account of his years of anthropological field work among the Yanomamo tribes of Venezuela and Brazil. 

Blithely summarizing here:  Chagnon takes a Darwinian, socio-biological approach to anthropology.  This means that he regards the behavior of the Yanomamo, one of the last remaining Stone Age cultures, as an expression of the competition for reproductive advantage that has fueled the evolution of all other species on the planet.  And he thinks that our ancestors behaved pretty much as the Yanomamo do.

It is the scariest book I have read in a long time. 

Since a woman cannot have more than one child every nine months, having more than one husband is not necessarily to her genetic advantage  On the other hand, it is in a man\’s interest to have as many wives, and thus as many children, as possible. Yanomamo men who have killed other men enjoy superior status.  They have more wives than men who have not killed, and sire an average of three more offspring.

Because some men have several wives, and because among the Yanomamo significantly more boys are born than girls, there is a chronic shortage of women.  This, you would think, would redound to the women\’s advantage–men would go to great lengths to seduce them, bringing them flowers or feathers or food.  But it doesn\’t work that way.  Men use their daughters and nieces as currency, establishing complex systems of exchange and alliance that will in turn give them maximum access to their exchange partners\’ female relatives.

 Adult men are in constant competition for women.  They spend their lives both trying to get more wives, and guarding the ones they have from other men.  This is a lot like what happens when deer go into rut in the fall, except that bucks calm down after a few weeks, and they do not abuse the females.

Yanomamo villages regularly raid each other, not for food or land or machetes but for women.  At any given time, approximately a quarter of the women residing in a village have been abducted.   These abductions are brutal:  the kidnappers grab the woman by one arm and her \”defenders\” grab the other, and a tug of war ensues that leaves the woman, regardless of who wins, in a sorry state.  Gang rapes are common.  If a party of hunters comes across a woman and her husband from another village in the forest, they restrain the husband and rape the woman.

What with the need to get more women so as to sire more children on the one hand, and to keep other men from impregnating his wife on the other, a Yanomamo man is under a lot of stress.  He takes this out on the woman, with the excuse that she deserves punishment for her supposed infidelities. Chagnon describes the disfiguring marks of their husband\’s abuse that Yanomamo women bear.  Unable to dispatch her with a gun, the husband beats his wife with his fists and burns her with logs from the fire. He hacks at her with an ax or a machete.  He shoots curare-tipped arrows at non-vital parts of her body…unless he misses and hits a vital organ, in which case she dies.  And nobody in the tribe thinks anything of this.

If, as Chagnon believes, our ancestors lived  pretty much like the Yanomamo, isn\’t it a miracle that human females, bound to their muscularly superior males, ever evolved to walk upright and use language, let alone get master\’s degrees in business administration?

Just after I finished Chagnon\’s book the Oscar Pistorius story broke.  And it struck me as ironic that, even inside a body which, transformed by twenty-first century technology, illustrates the apex of human evolution, a Stone Age male lurks and rages.

7 Responses

  1. In the March 2013 issue of the Smithsonian magazine many of Chagnon's conclusions about the Yanomamo have been described as racist and simplistic by other prominent anthropologists.

  2. No doubt. The second half of Chagnon's book deals with the other \”noble savages\”–the anthropologists and others who dogged Chagnon's career. He goes into extensive detail about the controversies that his views have aroused.As to the accusation of racism, I could understand it except for the fact that Chagnon views Yanomamo behavior as the basis from which all human cultures evolved, regardless of race.

  3. If you want an account of the diversity of cultures in our past, you should read Jared Diamond's most recent book, \”The World Until Yesterday.\” All these earlier cultures aren't quite as warlike as the Yanomamo (he includes them in his discussion), and he argues these hunters and gatherers have much to teach us about treatment of the elderly and how to raise children, and about war and peace. E.g., Diamond points out that where grandparents have a child care role or special wisdom (and where frequent long distance travel is not required), the elderly are treated with respect and their grandchildren benefit. A good read that will balance Chagnon's findings.

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