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Scientist a Fierce Advocate for a 'Fierce People'

SCIENCE FILE

Aggression and All, the Yanomamo Are Revealed in His Milestone Study

May 15, 1997|FREDERIC GOLDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chagnon soon realized that the Yanomamo had a single, all-consuming preoccupation with warfare. "It affected almost everything they did," he says, shaping their mythology, rituals, settlement patterns, political behavior and marriage practices.

The fighting was mostly over women. Typically, it was set off by the seizure of a married woman by another man within the village or abductions of women by raiders from other villages.

In his first 15 months of fieldwork, one of his study villages was raided no fewer than 25 times--six times by the very group with which he was living. He reckoned that about 40% of all Yanomamo men had been involved in killings--and, moreover, were proud of it.

When Chagnon published these astonishing findings, he set off an academic firestorm. Colleagues accused him of exaggerating Yanomamo killing--and especially took issue with his claim that the bloodiest warriors had the greatest "reproductive success."

"He has taken a small part of a society and built an identity card for [an entire] people," chided anthropologist Bruce Albert of the Research Institute for Cooperation and Development in Paris.

But Chagnon, who said the Yanomamo themselves boast of their fierceness, stands by his work. He said his detractors resent him "because my years of fieldwork make their casual visits to the Yanomamo villages look pretty skimpy as serious anthropological research."

Lately, Chagnon has also been quarreling with the Salesians, Roman Catholic missionaries in Yanomamo territory. Although he acknowledges their good works, he said they are destroying Yanomamo society, even if unintentionally. They do this, he said, by luring whole villages to their missions with promises of desired goods, including shotguns, but failing to provide adequate medical care when they contract unfamiliar diseases such as measles.

For a while the quarrel got so bad that the Venezuelan government kept Chagnon from visiting the Yanomamo--apparently, he said, because of pressure from his enemies.

He has been allowed to resume his annual field trips and recently even got access to Yanomamo villages in Brazil, which have long been wary of foreign researchers. But, as Chagnon's new edition emphasizes, the news from Yanomamo country isn't good.

Increased contacts with the outside world, he said, are tearing up Yanomamo culture. Especially devastating has been the invasion of illegal gold miners--garimpeiros--from Brazil who, he said, have appropriated ore-rich Yanomamo land, polluted rivers with their mining operations, spread disease and killed and raped hundreds of Yanomamo.

Chagnon, who has become a fierce advocate of his "fierce people," is deeply concerned about their future. At the very least, he hopes the latest edition of his milestone book will help keep the public spotlight on them.

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