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By John Canfield, Samantha LaSpina, Christie Winsor

Librarian: Sue Ann Brainard 

Chagnon, Napoleon

     1997 Yanomano: The Fierce People. 5th ed. Harcourt Brace College Publishers, New York.   


The Yanomano 5th edition is based on research conducted by Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist who studied the Yanomamo tribe extensively. This tribe consists of 20,000 individuals that are indigenous to the Amazon Rainforest, located between Venezuela and Brazil in South America.  This ethnography focuses on the day-to-day routines that all members of the Yanomamo follow.  Alliances and feasting are two of the most important pillars of relationships between villages.  These social interactions can be very complex, with both parties seeking more gain than loss. These relationships also make it difficult to decipher the Yanomamo kinship. Due to the complicated nature of their language, the names of people are quite abstract, making their genealogy hard to trace. The vocabulary of the Yanomamo is very intricate, yet they have no written language.  Instead, their stories and myths are passed down by word-of-mouth between multiple generations.  The Yanomamo are known as “the fierce people” because of their frequent engagement in violent activities with neighboring tribes.  One theory, popularized by Marvin Harris, speculates that these conflicts are caused by a lack of protein. However, Chagnon insists that the root of these conflicts, and the Yanomamo's competitive nature, is their desire to own women for means of reproduction.  Strong abstract.


Figure 1: Location of the Yanomamo (Chagnon 1997: Fig.1)



Figure 2:  Napolean Chagnon with a member of a Yanomamo tribe (Chagnon 1997: Fig 2)

Figure 3:  Raiders lining up at dawn prior to departing for an attack on an enemy. (Chagnon 1997: Fig. 3) (page 197)


Figure 4:  The four parallel layers of the Yanomamo cosmos.  (Chagnon 1997: Fig. 4) (page 100)

Figure 5:  Yanomamo social structure (Chagnon 1997: Fig. 5) (Page 142)  


Cultural setting

The Yanomamo are a foraging horticulturalist society located in the Amazon Rainforest in-between Venezuela and Brazil. The Yanomano’s main source of food comes from plantains and bananas that they garden and gather through the use of a simple agriculture technique called slash-and-burn (Good 1995). Gardening and gathering these crops allows the Yanomano to settle down and procreate, and it also provides them with an essential amount of vitamins and minerals. However, due to the lack of protein, they must travel throughout the year to hunt for wild animals to get the allotted amount of fat and meat needed. (Good 1995). The total quantity of food one has gathered or hunted is always divided among members of the community. Although most of the food is shared within the kin, many members outside the family would trade crops or provide services, like sex (Gurven 2005). The amount of food one gives another shows how they value their friendship (Chagnon 1997:15) 

Gardens are the life blood of the Yanomamo; without a garden it is nearly impossible to survive.  Chagnon describes the controversy a sub-group faces when there is a dispute between two parties of a tribe.  One of the fighting parties may be asked to leave the village and must consider how they will produce a new garden.  There are a few options available for resolutions, and the appropriate one depends on how severe the dispute was.  If it was a mild dispute they may consider living close for a while and going back to the old garden for food until they have established a new garden.  Another option would involve moving close to an ally tribe and using their gardens until they have re-established a garden of their own.  A final option is to take the roots of plantains and plant at a new location and live off of plantains until they have a place to grow permanently.  In addition to gardens, the Yanomamo frequently cut down palm trees  and allow grubs to grow within the fallen palm.  They then harvest the grubs as a source of protein.  This is as close to "domesticating" animals as the Yanomamo get.

Chagnon also describes particular social rules dealing with the gardens of a tribe.  The produce from a garden may be shared with others in the tribe as each family sees fit.  Tobacco, however, is rarely shared and may never be taken without permission.  Within the garden, old logs or shrubbery may be placed around the area where the tobacco is grown to signify that this belongs to the owner of the garden and may not be taken without permission.  Even though the tobacco is “fenced off”, it is still easily accessible.  The fence is more significant as a moral reminder rather than a physical barrier.



Overview of the Ethnography

One of the many foci of the ethnography was Chagnon’s attempt to configure a kinship in order to determine individuals' relatives. However, due to the complex social interactions within the tribes, it was nearly impossible to construct a precise kinship. By recruiting informants, Chagnon was able to understand why uncovering these relations was so problematic. A couple of these limitations involved the Yanomano’s polygamous beliefs. Men and women tend to have more than one significant other, therefore determining a child’s biological parent was difficult (Alvard 2009.) Another reason it was hard to decipher kinships kinship was due to the abstract names that members in their society had. Each member in the society had very specific, long names, so that when someone died their name was forever erased from the Yanomano’s vocabulary (Chagnon 1997:27). This was Chagnon’s most challenging obstacle to get over because members of the society would not discuss the deceased.

The Yanomamo have an intricate and advanced vocabulary compared with many cultures.  Despite the fact that they have an intricate vocabulary and no written language, stories and myths have been passed down from generation to generation.  The most significant of these myths is their view of the structure of the world.  Contrary to many Western ideas, they Yanomamo believe in four layers of existence (see Fig. 4).  The lowest of the four layers (layer 4 as depicted in Fig. 4) is where the Yanomamo are presently.  This represents what Westerners would consider the life we are presently living.  The third layer is where a person goes after death.  In this layer, the Yanomamo believe a person continues “living”.  They hunt, grow gardens, marry, and have children:  it is a continuation of their present everyday life. 

Also passed down through vocal stories are the legends of the jaguar.  He (the jaguar) is represented a couple of ways by varying tribes.  The main idea is that he is part human and part beast. He is depicted as dumb, fumbling, clumsy, yet cunning.  He got a taste of human flesh and he now hunts humans.  Although the Yanomamo are “the fierce people”, they fear the jaguar and fear becoming cannibals themselves. 

Most importantly, the Yanomamo refer to everyone by their kinship ties with that person (Chagnon 1996:124). This social practice directly influences who is considered marriageable. Men only consider their father's sister's daughters or their mother's brother's daughters; anyone else is wholly off-limits, except in special cases (Chagnon 1996:133). Long before marriage, men and women occupy completely different roles in society. Girls work hard to help their mothers from a young age, and are married by the time of their first period, if not before. However, boys are allowed a much longer and more carefree childhood period, and do not marry until their early 20’s. They also have the opportunity to help choose who their wife (or wives) will be. The day-to-day life of the Yanomamo is straining for everyone, regardless of gender. The village rises at dawn, before the heat becomes unbearable, and works in the garden (where the dietary staple plantains are grown), until they retire midmorning. In the afternoon, the men either return to the garden or take hallucinogenic drugs, while the women work to haul firewood.

Alliances play an important role in the culture of the Yanomamo. Although the alliances each village makes are not immune to failure, or outright betrayal, they do provide a basis for exchange of women and alliances in times of war (Chagnon 1996:148). Alliances progress through three stages, and grow stronger with each. The first stage is sporadic trading, the second mutual feasting, and the last (a difficult stage to achieve because of the inherent distrust between each village) is a reciprocal exchange of women (Chagnon 1996:156).

In Chagnon’s ethnography, one feast in particular is closely examined. Years before, the village Chagnon had stayed with was weak, and attempted to augment their relationship with another village by accepting an initiation to a feast, but they were attacked, and many were killed. The village then sought refuge with another group, whom they invited to this particular feast. From the beginning, it seemed that the other group was being pointedly hostile—they arrived one week early and insisted on being fed, which is considered rude in Yanomamo society. Everything at the feast went well, each man has an opportunity to dance and show off, while everyone ate extensively, but things deteriorated when the visiting tribe refused to leave. There is no option but to have a chest- slapping fight (Chagnon 1996:178). The competition goes poorly for the hosts, and the conflict almost turns into a confrontation, but a negotiation allows avoidance of bloodshed.

As an explanation for the violence and great amount of warfare conducted among Yanomamo, Marvis Harris stated a lack of protein caused much violence (Lizot 1994).  Chagnon however, has done work with the Yanomamo to monitor their protein intake and concluded they take in more protein than many people in Westernized societies.  Lizot has questioned Chagnon's techniques for collecting this data and states that he only collected data from one small tribe.  Lizot also questions Harris's theory about why they engage in so much warfare.  As of yet, it is not completely clear why the Yanomamo engage in so much warfare:  although the Yanomamo attribute the majority of warfare to women (Chagnon 1997).


Reception and Critique

This ethnography is one of the most well known works in the field of anthropology. However, not all response to it have been positive. Since Chagnon describes the Yanomamo as a “fierce people”, and discusses at length their primitive culture, some in Brazil blame him (and the media which sensationalized the account) for the decline of the Yanomamo people. Indeed, after Chagnon published his works, the Yanomamo began to be taken advantage of by people who had read about the tribes and thought them an easy target. This has sparked debate about whether anthropological ethnographies can be written as if in a political vacuum, where whatever is said about the people being studied cannot be used to exploit them (Booth 1989). The ethnography is generally considered very well done, however, because of its commitment to accurately describing the lives of the Yanomamo (Erikson 2005).  There are many more sources on the controversies around Chagnon's work (including a full book), but you at least found some sources.


Recent Developments

Since the 5th edition of this ethnography was written in 1997, many aspects of the Yanomamo community have changed. After the Gold Rush in Brazil in 1987, many gold miners and missionary groups had invaded the Yanomano tribes (Chagnon 1997: 204). Many Yanomano members, especially children, began to die due to diseases that the foreigners introduced to the region. Within ten years the population dramatically decreased, while the mortality rate increased (Nugent 2001). Another transformation that occurred due to the missionary groups was in the Yanomano’s lifestyle. Before the missionary groups arrived, the Yanomano people were horticulturists. They grew a variety of crops and hunted several animals in order to eat a balanced diet. Now that the Yanomamo have been introduced to the foreigners they have become more westernized. Instead of growing crops solely for themselves, they have started to grow yucca, from which flour can be made.  They then trade the flour for more appealing western items, including guns. With this new form of technology, violence has increased in the community (Chagnon 1997:215). 



The Yanomamo are a horticulturist/foraging society.  Their gardens are their main supply of food, plantains being the most important.  They hunt for food as well, but their largest supply of protein comes from grubs harvested from fallen palms.  The Yanomamo have been regarded as the “fierce people” since Chagnon published the ethnography.  Following exposure to Westernized peoples, the Yanomamo have gained access to guns, which has lead to more violence.


Scholarly and Peer-Reviewed References Cited:

Alvard, Michael

2009 Kinship and Cooperation: The Axe Fight Revisited. Human Nature 20:395-416.

In this article, kinship is used in many societies to determine individual's relatives. Although kinship provides a critical tool for understanding societies, there are also many limitations. One major limitation is the ability to find all possible individual relationships due to the amount of people in one group. Another limitation stems from polygamy, because men and women tend to have more than one significant other it is difficult to determine who the parents of a child are. In this article, the Yanomano, a tribe located in the Amazon Rainforest, and the Lamaleran, a group of whale hunters, are discussed to prove how difficult kinships are to trace and the amount of different routes one anthropologist must take to get an accurate family line. 

Booth, William.

1989 Warfare Over Yanomamo Indians. New Series This is not a journal title.  Please add the title 243(4895):1138-1140.

After the release of an article by Napolean Chagnon in 1988, which described the Yanomamo as a primitive but violent people who are constantly engaged in warfare, some factions in Brazil have been taking advantage of the Indians. Many Brazilians blame Chagnon for this, saying that anthropological studies must not be written as if the groups described live in complete political isolation. This has caused controversy in the anthropology community over Chagnon’s work, and most seem to agree that he should not have emphasized the violent aspects of Yanomamo culture so strongly.

Chagnon, Napoleon, Philip Le Quesne, and James M. Cook.

1971 Yanomamo Hallucinogens: Anthropological, Botanical, and Chemical Findings. Current Anthropology 12(1):72-74.

This article discusses both what the Yanomamo take as hallucinogenic drugs (from a biological and chemical standpoint), as well as the cultural importance of the drugs. In interviews with Yanomamo informants, the authors discovered that these drugs are not as important to the Yanomamo as tobacco, and in fact are so prevalent that there is hardly any worry that a village will run out, as there is with tobacco.

Chagnon, Napoleon

       1997  Four Parallel Layers.Yanomamo: the Fierce People. (page 100) Harcourt Brace College Publishers, New York. page numbers belong in in-text citations, not here.

       1997  Yanomamo Social Structure.Yanomamo: the Fierce People. (page 142) Harcourt Brace College Publishers, New numbers belong in in-text citations, not here.

       1997  Raiders lining up at dawn.Yanomamo: the Fierce People. (page 197) Harcourt Brace College Publishers, New numbers belong in in-text citations, not here.

Ferguson, Brian R.

1989 Do Yanomamo Killers Have More Kids? American Ethnologist 16(3):564-565.  

Changnon asserted that Yanomamo men who have killed, called unoki, have significantly more children (4.91 vs. 1.59 for men who have not killed), but there are other variables that must be considered before conclusions should be drawn. Specifically, Yanomamo headmen must be in the "killer" group, and they have significantly more children than other men, which skews the statistics used by Changnon. Likewise, because Changnon did not include children whose fathers were dead in his study, and unoki have higher mortality rates than non-unoki, the conclusion that Yanomamo killers have more offspring seems to be premature. 

1995 A Reputation for War. Natural History 104(4):62-63.

For the past few decades, scholars have utilized the pristine and uninfluenced nature of the Yanomamo to spark a debate over whether human nature is naturally violent. Ferguson contests, however, that the Yanomamo have actually been under outside influences for over 3 and a half centuries. The warfare and nature of their society can only be understood in this context. 

Good, Kenneth

       1995. The Yanomami Keep on Trekking. Natural History 104(4): 56-60

In this article the author tries to understand the reasoning behind the constant relocation of the Yanomani society. With an abundant amount of crops, such as plantains and bananas, Kenneth Good finds it unreasonable for them to have to leave their village every five weeks. However, as Good travels with the tribe he realizes that the moving is for members of the village to acquire a large amount of protein, which is only available to them through hunting wild animals.  

Gurven, Michael

        2005 To Give and to Give Not: The Behavioral Ecology of Human Food Transfers. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2004) 27: 543-583

The author, Gurven, identifies the traditions, rules, and expectations of sharing food in horticulture societies, like Yanomamo. Gurven states that due to the constant hunting and gathering members of the tribe shouldn't have more than the required amount of food to get them through the day. By meeting this demand, individuals usually give away a certain portion of the food they have gathered for the day. They first give a hefty percentage to members that fall into their kin and the rest is divided among the community. Depending on who is receiving the food, many men will ask for sexual favors or other goods in return. 

Hames, Raymond 

        1996 Costs and Benefits of Monogamy and Polygyny for Yanomamo Women. Ethology and Sociobiology 17(3): 181-199

Raymond Hames discusses in this article the positive and negative results of having more than one wife or husband. Through observation he comes to the conclusion on how multiple spouses can effect individuals economically, as well as, effect the amount of people in their kin. Due to the fact that Yanomamo tribes share their food they produce and hunt, many men find it not beneficial to have more than one wife. However, women tend to have more than one husband to increase the odds of reproduction. 

Lizot, Jacques

1994 On Warfare:  An Answer to N.A. Chagnon.  American Ethnologist 21(4):  845-862.  Anthrosource, accessed October 24, 2012.

The author, Lizot, criticizes Chagnon’s interpretations of why the Yanomami engage in warfare.  Chagnon states that women are the primary cause for war among the Yanomami.  Lizot, however, sides partly with Harris, who hypothesized that a lack of protein causes warfare.  Lizot also states warfare is caused because of the need to gain resources, including both food and women for reproduction.  

Nugent, Stephen 

        2001 Anthropology and Public Culture: The Yanomami, Science and Ethics. Anthropology Today 17(3): 10-14

This is about how the members of the Yanomamo tribe have changed since the 5th edition of the Yanomamo book was written. 


Other Reference Cited: 

Southern Methodist University

     Yanomamo. Electronic document,, October, 29, 2012.

University of California

    Napolean Chagnon and a Yanomamo.  Electronic document,    q=yanomamo&view=detail&id=EDBFAB4666CB29AA2EA2B7D29BBE5DBCCE142C3E&first=1, October 29, 2012.  

Grading Criteria (these are not weighted equally)  

Full reference to the ethnography at start of entry. Yes

Creativity, planning/organization, and depth of reflection on the issue at hand.  Nicely organized with a good depth of research.

Style (subsections, American Antiquity style, figure captions, writing, grammar etc.).  Very well written (unusual for me to make so few editing suggestions.  Good grasp of American Antiquity style.


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