Author Interviews
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Sat February 16, 2013

'Noble Savages': A Journey To Break The Mold Of Anthropology

Originally published on Thu February 21, 2013 10:44 am

When Napoleon Chagnon first saw the isolated Yanomamo Indian tribes of the Amazon in 1964, it changed his life forever. A young anthropologist from the University of Michigan, he was starting on a journey that would last a lifetime, and take him from one of the most remote places on earth to an international controversy.

That controversy would divide his profession and impugn his reputation. Eventually he would come to redefine the nature of what it is to be human.

Chagnon's new book is called Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists." He spoke to NPR's Jacki Lyden about his time in the Amazon and what ensued.


Interview Highlights

On encountering the tribe for the first time

"When I looked up, I gasped at what I saw: a dozen of hideous-looking men with green slime running out of their noses, looking at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows. And I was startled, shocked, and the next thing that I realized I had about 20 very unpleasant dogs circling me as if I were to be their next meal."

On discovering the tribe's humor

"It became kind of a game for them to see who could dupe the dumb anthropologist more effectively than the next guy. What they did was connive with each other to invent a whole series of fake names for specific people in the village, and whenever I would check with another informant, the other informant would of course play along with the fabrication and give me the same names as the previous one did. ... I was there for six or seven months before I realized what they had done and I only realized what they had done by going to a different village, and when I reached that different village ... I mentioned cautiously the name of the head man and his wife, and they just burst out laughing because, in effect, they had told me that the names of these two people were various components of one's genitalia."

On shattering the anthropological paradigm

"One of the things that struck me was that my profession had convinced me that life in the state of nature, life among tribesmen, was very tranquil, and that's one of the first things I noticed was that they weren't living in a blissful state of nature, but in fact were actively engaged in raiding, club fighting, chest pounding. The next thing that I noticed was that most of their fights started with, or revolved around, abduction of women. ... I was shattering two rather sacred myths in anthropology. One is that natives in a state of nature are not really blissful, and two, they were fighting when they did fight over females — reproductive opportunities — and these were two rather serious challenges to the received wisdom of the anthropological times of the 1960s."

On the ensuing controversy over his theories

"There has always been a resistance in anthropology and sociology to accept biological or psychological explanations for either culture or society, and I was bucking that trend. ... The fact that endorsed what was later to be known as sociobiology, was also considered to be a defect on my part and reason to attack and discredit me."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

I'm Jacki Lyden. You're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

In a few moments, a conversation with one of the most celebrated Wagnerian tenors singing today. Now, when anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon first saw the Yanomamo Indians, the encounter changed his life forever. A young anthropologist from the University of Michigan, he spent three days on tributaries of the Amazon. When he lifted the grass-and-vine door to a hut to which he'd been led, he found, well, we'll have him describe that in a moment.

But it was the start of a saga that would last a lifetime and take him from one of the most remote places on Earth to the pinnacle of anthropology. Decades later, though, the controversy over his work in the Amazon would impugn his reputation and divide his profession. Napoleon Chagnon's new book is called "Noble Savages: My Life among Two Dangerous Tribes — The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists." Napoleon Chagnon, welcome to the show.

NAPOLEON CHAGNON: Thank you very much, Jacki.

LYDEN: So what did you see when you first encountered the Yanomamo back in 1968 as a young man?

CHAGNON: Well, my heart was pounding because all I knew about native peoples was what I read in books about them. And as we walked up to the shabano, the name they give to their village structure, I was really nervous. We lifted the entry leaves away, which rattled and made a lot of noise, and we had to squat down because the entrances to these shabanos are very low.

NAPOLEON CHANGNON: And when I looked up, I gasped at what I saw: a dozen of hideous-looking men with green slime dripping out of their nose looking at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows. And I was startled, shocked, and the next thing I realized, I had about 20 very unpleasant dogs circling me as if I were to be their next meal. And I thought, boy, I should have thought more about what kind of a situation I was getting into.

LYDEN: And what was the green slime all about?

CHAGNON: Well, the green slime was the consequence of having a green powder blown up their nostrils. And when the powder mixes with nasal mucus, it turns into a green liquid. And they ignore it, but they really look hideous when they're taking this drug.

LYDEN: I love the part where they played a joke. I mean, these are people who had not seen anyone from the outside world before, but they played a joke on you.

CHAGNON: Yes, they did. It became kind of a game for them to see who could dupe the dumb anthropologist more effectively than the next guy. What they did was connive with each other to invent a whole series of fake names for specific people in the village. And whenever I would check with another informant, the other informant would, of course, play along with the fabrication and give me the same names as the previous one did.

CHANGNON: So I was there for six or seven months before I realized what they had done. And I only realized what they had done by going to a different village. And when I reached that different village, after I'd made a census there, I mentioned cautiously the name of the head man and his wife, and they just burst out laughing, because, in effect, they had told me that the names of these two people were various components of one's genitalia. And they just had rip-roaring great deal of fun about that.

LYDEN: The other thing, Napoleon Chagnon, you said there were a couple of things you noticed - almost on your first day - that would hold true for all the decades hence. And this would involve, amongst other things, the raids that the Yanomamo would conduct against their neighbors. You would go on to write: They live in a state of quantic warfare. Could you explain?

CHAGNON: Well, one of the things that struck me was that my profession had convinced me that life in the state of nature, life among tribesmen, was very tranquil. And that's one of the first things I noticed is that they weren't living in a blissful state of nature, but in fact were actively engaged in raiding, club fighting, chest pounding. The next thing I noticed was that most of their fights started with, or revolved around, abduction of women.

CHANGNON: In any event, I was shattering - when I got home back to my university and my doctoral dissertation - I was shattering two rather sacred myths in anthropology. One is that natives, in a state of nature, are not really blissful, and two, they were fighting - when they did fight - over females, reproductive opportunities. And these were two rather serious challenges to the received wisdom of the anthropological times of the 1960s, and I was, in fact, violating both of these kind of sacred cows.

LYDEN: These findings of yours, eventually, decades later, they would lead to a lot of controversy. We couldn't possibly go into all of it here, but why do you think that anthropology, as you define it, was having such a hard time accepting maybe what seemed like a Darwinian notion about human nature?

CHAGNON: Well, there's always been a resistance in anthropology and sociology to accept biological or psychological explanations for either culture or society, and I was bucking that trend. And so the fact that I endorsed what was later to be known as sociobiology was also considered to be a defect on my part and reason to attack and discredit me.

LYDEN: You have fallen out with a lot of your early collaborators, and nobody seems to have wanted you to return - the priests, the governments, the university. I do want to ask you: did you set out to be a polarizing figure? Do you think there is any way you could have avoided some of this?

CHAGNON: Well, some people say I have the kind of face that people want to punch. And that's apparently the way I am. I normally don't pick fights with my colleagues. And, in fact, I have gone out of my way to be friendly and cooperative with almost all of the colleagues who later have decided that it's easier to get ahead by simply denouncing the big guy, and the easier route to success is just simply to denounce Chagnon.

LYDEN: Where are you in your life today? You have written this book, which I think you began in 1998. Is it written for your critics or yourself?

CHAGNON: I wrote it mostly for myself, because I could have just laid back and coasted the rest of my life. But the last several years of my field where I knew that the end was near, and I would eventually be shut out of the field. So all I did during those several field trips was collect as much data as I could, and I now have this enormous quantity of data that I have not even touched in terms of analyzing it.

CHANGNON: And hopefully, we will put out an enormous quantity of high-quality papers during the few years left that I have to spend on this Earth and go where my body can no longer go because I'm getting old. I can't even keep up with my German shorthaired pointer.

LYDEN: Napoleon Chagnon joined us from KBIA in Columbia, Missouri. His new memoir is called "Noble Savages: My Life among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists." Napoleon, thank you.

CHAGNON: Well, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.