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Noble Savages

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

About The Book


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.



Excerpt from:

NOBLE SAVAGES: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists

By Napoleon A. Chagnon



Culture Shock

My First Year in the Field

The First Day

My first day in the field—November 28, 1964—was an experience I’ll never forget. I had never seen so much green snot before then. Not many anthropologists spend their first day this way. If they did, there would be very few applicants to graduate programs in anthropology.

I had traveled in a small aluminum rowboat propelled by a large outboard motor for two and a half days, cramped in with several extra fifty-five-gallon gasoline barrels and two Venezuelan functionaries who worked for the Malarialogía, the Venezuelan malaria control service. They were headed to their tiny outpost in Yanomamö territory—two or three thatched huts. This boat trip took me from the territorial capital, Puerto Ayacucho, a small town on the Orinoco River, into Yanomamö country on the High Orinoco some 350 miles upstream. I was making a quick trip to have a look-see before I brought my main supplies and equipment for a seventeen-month study of the Yanomamö Indians, a Venezuelan tribe that was very poorly known in 1964. Most of their villages had no contact with the outside world and were considered to be “wild” Indians. I also wanted to see how things at the field site would be for my wife, Carlene, and two young children, Darius (three years old) and Lisa (eighteen months old).

On the morning of the third day we reached a small mission settlement called Tama Tama, the field “headquarters” of a group of mostly American evangelical missionaries, the New Tribes Mission, who were working in two Yanomamö villages farther upstream and in several villages of the Carib-speaking Ye’kwana, a different tribe located northwest of the Yanomamö. The missionaries had come out of these remote Indian villages to hold a conference on the progress of their mission work and were conducting their meetings at Tama Tama when I arrived. Tama Tama was about a half day by motorized dugout canoe downstream from where the Yanomamö territory began.

We picked up a passenger at Tama Tama, James P. Barker, the first outsider to make a sustained, permanent contact with the Venezuelan Yanomamö in 1950. He had just returned from a year’s furlough in the United States, where I had briefly visited him in Chicago before we both left for Venezuela. As luck would have it, we both arrived in Venezuela at about the same time, and in Yanomamö territory the same week. He was a bit surprised to see me and happily agreed to accompany me to the village I had selected (with his advice) for my base of operations, Bisaasi-teri, and to introduce me to the Indians. I later learned that bisaasi was the name of the palm whose leaves were used in the large roofs of many Yanomamö villages: -teri is the Yanomamö word that means “village.” Bisaasi-teri was also his own home base, but he had not been there for over a year and did not plan to come back permanently for another three months. He therefore welcomed this unexpected opportunity to make a quick overnight visit before he returned permanently.

Barker had been living with this particular Yanomamö group about four years at that time. Bisaasi-teri had divided into two villages when the village moved to the mouth of the Mavaca River, where it flows into the Orinoco from the south. One group was downstream and was called Lower Bisaasi-teri (koro-teri) and the other was upstream and called Upper Bisaasi-teri (ora-teri). Barker lived among the Upper Bisaasi-teri. His mud-and-thatch house was located next to their village.

We arrived at Upper Bisaasi-teri about 2 P.M. and docked the aluminum speedboat along the muddy riverbank at the terminus of the path used by the Indians to fetch their drinking water. The Yanomamö normally avoid large rivers like the Orinoco, but they moved there because Barker had persuaded them to. The settlement was called, in Spanish, by the men of the Malarialogía and the missionaries, Boca Mavaca—the Mouth of the Mavaca. It sometimes appeared on Venezuelan maps of that era as Yababuji—a Yanomamö word that translates as “Gimme!” This name was apparently—and puckishly—suggested to the mapmakers because it captured some essence of the place: “Gimme” was the most frequent phrase used by the Yanomamö when they greeted visitors to the area.

My ears were ringing from three dawn-to-dusk days of the constant drone of the outboard motor. It was hot and muggy, and my clothing was soaked with perspiration, as it would be for the next seventeen months. Small biting gnats, bareto in the Yanomamö language, were out in astronomical numbers, for November was the beginning of the dry season and the dry season means lots of bareto. Clouds of them were so dense in some places that you had to be careful when you breathed lest you inhale some of them. My face and hands were swollen from their numerous stings.

In just a few moments I was to meet my first Yanomamö, my first “primitive” man. What would he be like? I had visions of proudly entering the village and seeing 125 “social facts” running about, altruistically calling each other kinship terms and sharing food, each courteously waiting to have me interview them and, perhaps, collect his genealogy.

Would they like me? This was extremely important to me. I wanted them to be so fond of me that they would adopt me into their kinship system and way of life. During my anthropological training at the University of Michigan I learned that successful anthropologists always get adopted by their people. It was something very special. I had also learned during my seven years of anthropological training that the “kinship system” was equivalent to “the whole society” in primitive tribes and that it was a moral way of life. I was determined to earn my way into their moral system of kinship and become a member of their society—to be accepted by them and adopted as one of them.

The year of fieldwork ahead of me was what earned you your badge of authority as an anthropologist, a testimony to your otherworldly experience, your academic passport, your professional credentials. I was now standing at the very cusp of that profound, solemn transformation and I truly savored this moment.





From NOBLE SAVAGES by Napoleon A. Chagnon. Copyright © 2013 by Napoleon A. Chagnon. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.


About The Author

Photograph (c) Christopher Chagnon

Napoleon Chagnon was a distinguished research professor at the University of Missouri, adjunct research scientist at the University of Michigan, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He formerly taught at the University of California-Santa Barbara, Penn State, Northwestern, and the University of Michigan. He was the author of five previous academic books.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 19, 2013)
  • Length: 544 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451611472

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Raves and Reviews

“One of history’s greatest anthropologists—and a rip-roaring story-teller—recounts his life with an endangered Amazonian tribe and the mind-boggling controversies his work ignited. Noble Savages is rich with insights into human nature, and an entertaining interlude with a remarkable man.”

– Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Noble Savages is an epic—not only of one of the most extraordinary physical and intellectual adventures ever experienced by a major scientist, but also the history of one of the most significant events in the early, often turbulent meeting between evolutionary biology and the social sciences."

– E. O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus, Harvard University, and the author of The Social Conquest of Earth and Sociobiology

“Very few people have led lives as fascinating as Napoleon Chagnon’s, or have lived among people as dangerous as the Yanomamö, and fewer still have his courage or his honor. Noble Savages is a page-turning masterpiece. You don’t need to know anything about anthropology to read it. By the time you finish, you’ll know a lot."

– Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Old Way and The Harmless People

Noble Savages is Napoleon Chagnon’s equal-time response to the libels that were piled upon him by reckless journalists and irresponsible colleagues. For those who followed the debate it is a welcome summary, and for those who did not it is a brilliant introduction to the innocent nobility of the fierce Yanomamö and the petty savagery of the mean-minded savants who saw their outworn ideologies under attack. Chagnon was always himself a fighter and this book is his final knockout punch in a fight he didn’t pick, but has most assuredly won.”

– Robin Fox, University Professor of Social Theory, Rutgers University and author of The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind

“A beautifully written adventure story. . . . Noble Savages is a remarkable testament to an engineer's 35-year effort to unravel the complex working of an untouched human society.”

– Nicholas Wade, The New York Times

“One of the most interesting anthropology books I have ever read. . . . [Chagnon's] portrayal of society's origins has so much to say about the nature of our species that it should be examined thoughtfully.”

– Charles C. Mann, The Wall Street Journal

“Engaging. . . . A fascinating portrayal of the discomfort and danger that anthropologists working in remote areas face. The book is at its most entertaining when documenting the challenges of everyday life in the jungle — how to sleep fitfully in a hammock among enemies who might attempt to assassinate you in your sleep or how to net a juicy tapir for your dinner.”

– Rachel Newcomb, Washington Post

“This memoir, Chagnon’s first book for a general audience, recounts with confident prose and self-effacing humor his intense immersion, from 1964 onward, within this fascinating people and their jungle environment. . . . In this invaluable book, Chagnon delivers a gripping adventure travelogue. His take on the corrupting relationship between politics and science is as likely to re-stoke the flames of debate as settle outstanding accounts.”

– Publishers Weekly

“Fascinating reading for anyone interested in native peoples, history and where we all come from.”

– Curt Schleier, The Seattle Times

“It’s not hyperbole to call Chagnon the most controversial and famous anthropologist in America. . . . [Noble Savages] is a memoir that offers a highly readable mixture of adventure, science, and scandal.”

– Nick Romeo, Daily Beast

“An important contribution to the debates over the methods and theories used to understand humans in anthropology and evolutionary sciences—and to debates over how visionaries become the targets of those who do not share their vision.”

– Douglas William Hume, Nature

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