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2018 Book #6 - Yanomamo, The Fierce People, by Napoleon Chagnon

Book 6 - The Fierce People, by Napoleon Chagnon, Third ed., 1983.


This once-controversial book is an anthropological study of tribal people in the Venezuelan and Brazilian rainforest. From what I can tell, it was mostly controversial because it depicts systemic violence as part of the social structure, which conflicted with idealistic notions of primitive peoples that were more prevalent in anthropology in the middle of the last century. I think that debate is pretty much over and Chagnon has won.

Although there are some sections on genealogy, marriage patterns etc., with diagrams that I couldn't quite understand, most of the book is written in a narrative style that made it quite readable to me.

Although his portrait is unvarnished, it's highly sympathetic. He gets to know them very well and even goes native to some degree. He really hates the missionaries, or at least most of them, and one of my favorite bits was when he arrayed himself in tribal dress, snorted their hallucinogenic drug, chanted, danced, and howled. A Protestant missionary, who was really down on the drugs & talking to the spirits, stomped into the village square to denounce this demon worship. Chagnon gave him the finger and kept on with the ritual. The missionary left in a huff. This convinced the villagers that the white man's sky god would not punish them for engaging in their traditional rituals.

Chagnon returned many times to the jungle in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and was often accompanied by a filmmaker. I'd like to see some of those films.

Here's an article in the New York Times that gives an overview of Chagnon's career.

How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist

Tags: 2018 book reviews
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