Friday, June 14, 2013


So we’re in the “anthropocene era” or epoch -- what’s scary is not knowing what an “anthro” really is.  How much of what we are as human beings is biology?  Isn’t there anything special about it?  How much are we what we intend and how much is controlled by who-knows-what?  Historically and theologically, this dilemma has been a live one for a very long time.  Today most people have dropped God out of the discussion.  Thank God.

Even so, there are extremely complex and tiny (atomic-level) forces as well as unimaginably vast (cosmic-level) systems that are interacting to cause us to “emerge.”  To complicate the matter even more, we are closely examining our own minds as instruments, finding them flawed, distorting, inadequate.  So there is a welcome simplicity and human engagement in the anthro study of “pristine” tribes like the Yanomamo.   The just posted an interview with Napoleon Chagnon.   Three senior anthros asked the questions, so it’s a bit puzzling sometimes -- they assume you know things that you might not.  But in the end what they are after is trying to define what these people show us about US.  Chagnon is such an engaging fellow that his stories hold us close.

First, he proposes that this tribe is not so “original” and primitive as was first thought.  True enough, they live entirely naked (except for a “penis string” whatever one does with that) and use poisoned arrows for hunting, true that they oppress women and don’t know they’re speaking “words” much less a language.  They don’t know what reading is and can’t count above “one, two and more than two”.  People do what the others around them will tolerate, which in the case of the powerful leaders means they can do what they want, including murder.  And so on.  But the real warning to the rest of us is that rather than being Adam and Eve, these people are evidently remnants of what was once a large and sophisticated civilization based on irrigation.

In the end all human life, like all other life, depends upon the food supply.  The kind and quality of all the other arrangements are dependent on the means of survival.  The Yanomamo live in small groups with a top limit of about 400 people (about the size of Valier).  They live off gardens and hunting and they do have a little bit of contact with the larger world for the purpose of getting medical help.  Chagnon’s “monetary” reward system was based on aquarium tetracycline, which cured their chronic eye infections, and fishhooks which he bought in huge quantities and that the children put to good use.  An accusation against Chagnon is that he has changed the Yanomamo culture by bringing in machetes, axes and even firearms.  But he brought only ONE shotgun, which he kept at hand next to his hammock to protect himself.  Sometimes he could avert attacks from other groups by firing the shotgun into the air.

In fact, people had been bringing in the machetes and axes in quantity for a long time.  It is the missionaries, he says, who are willing to bring in shotguns because (just like the high prairie centuries ago) it attracts converts.  These mission people are so driven by the need to rack up numbers of “converts” (there are always questions about how much the converts understand about what’s happening) that they care nothing about real world collateral damage.  When one group gets shotguns, they prey on the others until those also get shotguns.  Then conflicts turn deadly.  Same old story.

Chagnon says that every village must be able to “field” at least ten big strong men willing to fight in order for the village to survive.  The lowest level of warfare is that the two sets of men pair off into couples and pound on each others bodies until it’s just too much.  The first level of escalation is that one side ignores the “rules” and carries stones in their fists, the equivalent of brass knuckles.  The next level is carrying sticks, then bats.  There don’t seem to be archery barrages but they line up that way.   The goals are food and women.  One strategy is to invite a neighboring tribe over for a feast, then imprison the women and drive the men off.

Back in the civilized world, the missionaries (Salesians, a Catholic sub-group) attacked Chagnon by accusing him of infecting the Yanomamo with measles just as the Native Americans on the North American continent were attacked by smallpox.  Courts and academic arbiters who investigated this cleared Chagnon.  Still, it interfered with his ability to do his work.

Food (communal gardens and group hunting) and sex are about group survival.  One of the consequences of supplying machetes and axes, which transform the ease of removing trees, is that gardens expand so that more female gardeners are needed.   But the larger gardens can only allow the village to grow until it reaches the new limits.  If some force -- climate or pests -- then diminishes the garden, people die. One response to the threat is to raid neighbors.  If groups get too large, they can spin off “daughter” communities which will be smaller and may have trouble managing their feelings and interactions with the “mother” communities.

The ability of individuals to separate themselves from “groupthink” was interesting.  When Chagnon asked about mythological tales that represented events in unscientific ways, some men would dutifully report the standard story, then say,  “Do you believe that?”  Then they smiled, clearly skeptical.

In the end this Edge panel asked Chagnon what the Yanomamo thought he was up to.  Did they think he was raiding their world for valuables?  No, because they had no concept of any world except their own, no notion of what might be out there.  After all, he didn’t cart off food or women.  Did they think he was a powerful person taking advantage of them?  No, because they considered him weak and, indeed, nearly killed him a few times.  Finally, the real thing they assumed he was doing was trying “to learn how to be human.”  They assumed that they were the real humans.  So many of us do!

In fact, small towns in America congratulate themselves and persuade others who are sentimental that they are the only “real” way to live.  Mayberry, USA.  Norman Rockwell.  Both imaginary constructs.  But the cities think THEY are the ones who are “real,” the only ones who have the modern equivalent of shotguns, who therefore have the power to control everyone else.  The major cities of the planet assume that they are the centers of everything and produce the wisest ideas, but their reality may be more like the now-extinct irrigation empires of the Amazon jungle.  Controlling the water may be the ultimate weapon, the most fatal warfare.  So far.  In the anthropocene now, we even control the air.  Or ought to.

Books by Napoleon A. Chagnon
(1968), Yanomamö: The Fierce People.
(1974), Studying the Yanomamö, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
(1992), Yanomamo – The Last Days of Eden.
(2013), Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.

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