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Noble Savages - About Dr. Napolean Chagnon’s Ethnographic Study of the Yanomamo Indians

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Chagnon, Napolean. Noble Savages. Simon & Schuster, 2013.

        Noble Savages is about Dr. Napolean Chagnon’s ethnographic study of the Yanomamo Indians who live between Venezuela and Brazil. Chagnon studied their culture, ecology demography and their social and political behavior. Dr. Napolean Chagnon is a cultural anthropologist and serves as Chancellor’s Chair for Excellence in Anthropology at The University of Missouri and research scientist at the University of Michigan.  Chagnon earned his bachelors, master’s and P.H.D in Anthropology from the University of Michigan.

        Dr. Chagnon discusses his time with Yanomamo people and at first, he only meant to study them for his doctoral dissertation but soon realized he needed to study them in length.  The main themes of the book are political power, social status and social structure, and war among the Yanomamo.   Dr. Chagnon also reveals his own trials and tribulations with his time among the Yanomamo and the controversies surrounding his work among his colleagues.  

Among Chagnon’s discoveries was that political power and social status was very important.  Political power Among the Yanomamo involved your patrilineal descent and the number of relatives that was in your shabono. (community) Dr. Chagnon observed that the political leaders among the Yanomamo had most relatives either through blood relation or marriage.  If you were a father in a Yanomamo village you would want your daughters to be married in to a larger family to extend your influence.  Furthermore, Chagnon proves this point by saying “Yanomamo headman, Shiitawa had a large polygynous family-the largest family in the village” (271) other people that were high respected in the Yanomamo social class were the Uokais.  These were the men in the village who had the aptitude and willingness to kill someone. Uokais men had the power to tell other people what to do, and they would often listen out of respect and fear.

Another main theme of Noble Savages is the Yanomamo are in a constant state War and the reason the Yanomamo fight.  The reason they would fight was over woman and the reason this is because there are fewer women because many men have multiple wives. Yanomamo men will often kidnap women from other villages during a raid or war. Dr. Chagnon says “What these Yanomamo descent groups control and defend are reproductive rights in nubile females and the male kin who give these women to you and take them from you according to rules of incest and marriageability.” (395)  During this time Dr. Chagnon points out that it was taboo at the time to conclude that war was fought over woman.  His colleagues insisted that war must only be fought over scarce resources and materials.

Dr. Chagnon delves in to his own personal experiences while living with Yanomamo.  When he first arrives, he experiences a culture shock, but after awhile learns to respect and appreciate the Yanomamo and their culture.  When he first arrives to the village the men were blowing a hallucinogenic drug up their nose through a long hollow tube.  The drug was called egene.  The drug makes you have a very runny nose and cause you to cough, and sometimes Vomit.  Dr Chagnon also realizes that a neighboring tribe had just raided the village and kidnapped some women.  While they were able to retrieve five of the seven women; they were in a constant state of alertness. (87-88) Dr. Chagnon eventually becomes accustomed to the Yanomamos way of life.  He even helps a wounded warrior after a raid. Konoreiwa, a man of the village had been shot in the leg with an arrow and had become dehydrated because the Yanomamo believed you should drink a minimal amount of water after being shot with an arrow, which happened to be contrary to common medical practice. Dr. Chagnon goes against the Yanomamo to help Konoreiwa and makes sweet lemonade.  He tells them it is monasano which is what their word for medicine. (371-373) He convinces the Yanomamo that the monasano can only be drunk by the victim.  Konoreiwa eventually becomes healthy, and Dr.  Chagnon earns a reputation as a curer.

In Noble Savages, Dr. Chagnon talks about his fight with other anthropologist and the Salesians a catholic missionary group to discredit his work with the Yanomamo.  The Salesians tried to ruin Dr. Chagnon’s reputation because he had written that the Salesians had given shotguns to the Yanomamo to which they denied. The Salesians would collude with other groups to deny Chagnon of studying the Yanomamo in his later years. The year 2000, two anthropologists Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel, long time critics of Chagnon’s wrote an email to the president-elect of the American Anthropological Association about a book that said that he had somehow stopped treatment of the measles given to the Yanomamo. (1799-1801)

I thought Noble Savages was a very interesting and enjoyable book to read.  Chagnon doesn’t use a lot of scientific terms and is a book that anyone could read.  Noble Savages includes everything you would think would be a nonfiction book.  There was action in which he describes separate encounter with an anaconda and a jaguar.  The book was also suspenseful.  Chagnon fears for his life early in his time with Yanomamo because he fears another village is about to raid the village he is staying in.  Dr Chagnon hears a loud yell thinking he is about to be attacked only to find out that it is coming from someone in the village about to do a ritual before a battle.  Dr. Chagnon describes his fear during this time.  “The shabono became eerily quiet after dark.  I could tell that something was about to happen.  The normally crying babies were shushed by the mothers.  I could hear people moving around but I could not see them. Their hearth fires had been deliberately allowed down to embers and was very dark inside the shabono.  My eyes kept darting around, trying to desperately see what was making the soft, muffled noises.  People were moving and almost gliding past me quietly, but I couldn’t see them.  Maybe they were surrounding me and planned to shoot me for trying to witness some prohibited sacred ceremony that outsiders were not allowed to see.  The stillness was suddenly shattered by a blood-curdling scream-a man’s voice that sounded like part animal growl and part wail.  He emerged from the darkness of the shabono interior to my right, clacking his six-foot-long war arrows against his heavy palm-wood bow stave as he marched slowly out to the dim center of the village clearing, making frightening screams and growls as he mimicked various ferocious carnivorous animals and insects.  I could barely make him out as he turned and stood menacingly with his face to the southeast, toward the enemy village of Patanowa-teri but also towards me! He rested fletched ends of his arrows on the ground near his fee, next to his stout bow.  He then stared silently toward the southeast over my head.  I still thought he was staring at me.  I was thinking your next, naba!” (334-338) He also experiences sadness when a headman Matowa of the village dies and the villagers are mourning his death.  During the ceremony someone asked him why he wasn’t being his usual self and Dr. Chagnon replies “buhii ahi” which means my innermost being is cold because I am in mourning and sad.  The adults told the children that I was hushuwo, in a state of emotional disequilibrium, and that my soul was cold.  To them I was finally acting like a Yanomamo.  The ones whose hammocks were close to mine quietly reached over to me, looked at me, and touched me gently, and we wept together.” (402-403) I also found there to be comedy in the book.   Dr. Chagnon talks about his early experience learning the Yanomamo language.  What he doesn’t realize is that the Yanomamo are teaching him to say disrespectful and demeaning words to others.  The Yanomamo find this hilarious.  Noble Savages includes pictures, and maps which make the book that more enjoyable because you can see who you are reading about and where they are from.  

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