Why Was This Man an Outcast Among Anthropologists?

Napoleon Chagnon’s new memoir reignites the firestorm over his study of the Yanomamö

While Chagnon defends conclusions drawn from decades of fieldwork in the Amazon, some fellow scholars charge that he has engaged in sensationalistic self-promotion. Peter Murphy

In November 1964, a young American anthropologist named Napoleon Chagnon disembarked from a motorized rowboat after traveling for days up the Orinoco River into the territory of the Yanomamö, one of the world’s last isolated Indian tribes. Entering the village where he planned to spend the next 17 months, the 26-year-old Chagnon confronted “burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows!” The Indians’ features, he later wrote, were distorted from wads of tobacco wedged between gums and lips. “Strands of dark green snot dripped or hung from their nostrils,” the result of their blowing a green hallucinogenic powder known as ebene up one another’s noses using a yard-long tube. “The Yanomamö blow it with such force,” he noted, “that gobs of it spurt out the opposite nostril of the person inhaling.”

Chagnon’s first encounter with the tribe marked the beginning of a remarkable—and incendiary—career. In his new memoir, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists, Chagnon recounts his forays, conducted over 35 years, into the rainforest borderlands between Brazil and Venezuela. There he mastered the Indians’ language, mapped genealogy, observed social hierarchies and set forth a thesis that turned anthropology on its head. Challenging Rousseau’s romantic notion that man in his natural state is altruistic and peace-loving, Chagnon described the Yanomamö as a violent tribe whose males derive status—and women—from killing rivals. His groundbreaking 1968 work, Yanomamö: The Fierce People, sold one million copies, became a standard university text—and made him an outcast among anthropologists.

Chagnon based his findings on copious research. He traveled to dozens of remote Yanomamö villages, cultivated informers and interviewed killers. He asserted that the territory was in a chronic state of war. Tribal groups often abducted females from other villages, prompting acts of retaliation and nomohori, or “dastardly tricks,” to lure rivals to their deaths. He also asserted that one-quarter of adult Yanomamö men were murdered by other Yanomamö, and that murderers were highly respected and produced more children than those who didn’t kill. “The whole purpose and design of the social structure of tribesmen,” he writes in his memoir, “seems to have revolved around effectively controlling sexual access by males to nubile, reproductive-age females.”

Peers considered Chagnon’s conclusions to be racist and simplistic and his claims of brutality much exaggerated. Terence Turner, a Cornell University anthropologist and Amazon specialist, called Chagnon a “sociopath” whose “pronouncements about the intrinsic violence of the Yanomamö has actively hurt them.”

Chagnon’s reputation took another blow 12 years ago, with publication of journalist Patrick Tierney’s book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. Tierney charged Chagnon and a geneticist who worked with him, James V. Neel, with a litany of offenses, including exacerbating a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö in 1968. (Neel died in 2000.) Tierney also alleged that Chagnon had handed out weapons as bribes to enlist the tribe’s cooperation in his research, and thereby had encouraged them to commit violence.

Two years later, the American Anthropological Association criticized Chagnon in a blistering report. But the group later rescinded that rebuke, after researchers determined that Tierney’s book was riddled with errors and incorporated biased sources. (Much information was provided by Salesian missionaries in Yanomamö territory, with whom Chagnon had had a long-running feud.)

A professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Chagnon is still angry over his treatment. He was consumed for years by the “disagreeable stench” of Tierney’s book, he writes in his memoir; he castigates the AAA’s leadership and urges that “self-righteous renegade anthropologists” such as Turner be prohibited from leadership in the group. Many of his colleagues, however, are unlikely to allow him the last word on his controversial career.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.