A cultural anthropologist defends his deeply engaged lifetime of work with the Amazon Indians.
Chagnon first arrived among the Yanomamö in the Amazon basin on the border of Venezuela and Brazil in 1964 as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and his initial fieldwork yielded a seminal textbook on the tribe. Living among these isolated people, the author gained their trust; learned their language, customs and reproductive patterns; and patiently constructed their genealogies, history of wars, way of life and “village fissions.” He found right away that the Yanomamö were undergoing a significant transformation from a primitive societal system to a more complex, larger and political system. Chagnon draws from the work of theoretical biology to propound the importance of “kinship behaviors” among the Yanomamö, who were constantly stressed by the threat of attack from hostile tribes and practiced this form of reproductive selection in order to survive. Indeed, having closely observed these people, the author concludes that “maximizing political and personal security was the overwhelming driving force in human, social and cultural evolution.” Many of Chagnon’s observations—e.g., that the Yanomamö fought over women—did not jibe with the then–politically correct notions of native peoples, and his research was censured at home. Moreover, Chagnon’s work in the field coincided with enormous changes in the field of anthropology, such as the challenge by E.O. Wilson’s studies in “sociobiology,” which Chagnon embraced. His subsequent research ran afoul of various academic and political authorities and native rights groups, and the author was even accused of starting a lethal measles epidemic among the Yanomamö. In the last section of the book, the author tediously rebuts the “smear campaigns.”
More than two-thirds of this rehabilitative work is a fascinating, accessible study of a little-known people.