Napoleon Chagnon's War of Discovery
He Wrote a Bestseller in the '60s About One of the Last Undiscovered Peoples on Earth. Yet His Brash Style and Opinions Have Sabotaged His Research. Now He Is Forbidden to Visit the Jungle to Finish His Work.

LA Times Magazine
Sunday, January 30, 2000

A cigarette dangles from Napoleon Chagnon's lips as he reaches into the little refrigerator under his desk for a beer. He exhales a cloud, snaps open the can and pauses to say that the moment he is about to describe is a sacred one. He takes a long swig.

It's the Venezuelan jungle in the 1960s. Chagnon is a young anthropologist. The green forest parts and a small, powerfully built man emerges, naked and proud. "He has a glint in his eye, a light you don't see in other people," Chagnon continues. "He is defiant, arrogant, king of the world. He is completely free to do whatever he wants, and that includes bashing your head in or being your friend." It is the first time this jungle dweller has encountered anyone from the outside world. "I want to know him and his culture, before he disappears."

Chagnon has spent much of his life studying those Yanomamo people, who number some 23,000 in the Amazon basin, and there is still much more to know. Yet it appears his work is finished before it can be completed. At 61, this inveterate smoker and beer drinker, this irrepressible raconteur, is one of a disappearing breed--the swashbuckling anthropologist. And his research and manner haven't just earned him fame and respect. They've also made him reviled and ostracized. Sporting a gray beard and safari vest, he seems ready for the jungle, looking more like Papa Hemingway in the bush than a professor behind his desk at UC Santa Barbara. But the truth is that he hasn't been allowed to visit the Yanomamo in years.

For most of three decades, Chagnon studied and occasionally lived among the Yanomamo, manyof whom had never seen an outsider. As one of the least modern groups of people on earth, the Yanomamo have earned a special, almost poetic status around the world. To academics, they represent humanity in a more pure form, their behavior possibly reflecting the nature of humankind. So Chagnon's findings about them are as freighted with meaning as they are disturbing.

Chagnon said he'd found a society in which homicide and warfare were common and the most violent men wound up with the most wives and children. In his view, the Yanomamo--and by extension, all humans--fought not because fighting was essential to survival but because they were programmed for violence in a lawless society. Survival of the fittest, at least in Yanomamo terms, means survival of the meanest.

Few ethnographers can tell a story better than Chagnon, and "Yanomamo: The Fierce People,"as it was titled for its first printing in 1968, became the best-selling anthropology text of all time. Readers were taken by the Yanomamo's cunning and humor and by Chagnon's confessions of fear and fascination. The book has sold nearly 1 million copies and become a staple at colleges worldwide. It turned the formerly obscure Yanomamo into symbols of the rain forest, subjects of numerous films and countless news reports, so well known that when Sting toured the U.S. to raise money for the World Wildlife Fund, his program was called, simply, "Yanomamo."

But Chagnon's book also propelled him toward conflicts with a group of his academic peers and with the powerful Roman Catholic missionaries who control much of the tribe's territory. The bitter and complex international dispute rages on, replete with personal rivalries, the conflict of science and religion and a ferocious academic debate. Are aggression and warfare part of our nature, as Chagnon suggests? Or must humans be forced into fighting?

In this battle of ideas, he has lost a major advantage: access. The missionaries have seen to it that he is now unable to get any closer to the Yanomamo than the huge satellite photos of tribal gardens in his office. At what should be the pinnacle of his career, one of the most famous anthropologists in the world cannot return to the field.

Chagnon holds his thumb and index finger an inch apart. "I am this close to putting the capstone in my research." He believes his work will show that the Yanomamo build larger villages and have come to depend on organized farming because, in a warlike society, there is strength in numbers. If so, the theory that modern life makes people into warriors would be turned on its head. Instead, he believes, war may drive the creation of modern societies. "Of course, a lot of airy-fairy types in universities who have never seen an Indian in the flesh don't want to consider this. That's why they think I'm dangerous, that I have dangerous ideas. And that's why they and the Catholic Church are keeping me out."

* * *
     Critics, and some friends, describe Chagnon in much the same way that he depicts his beloved Yanomamo man: aggressive, arrogant, defiant. "He's produced solid studies," notes Marvin Harris, an anthropologist at the University of Florida. "Nobody can talk about tropical peoples without referring to his research. But he's also very much a Napoleon, and he upsets a lot of people."

"Upsets" may be too mild a word. In the normally quiet world of academic anthropology, Napoleon Chagnon can make blood boil. Consider his appearance in 1994 at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Assn. in Atlanta. Yanomamo experts had come to discuss, among other things, how to get along among themselves. In the middle of the proceedings, Terence Turner of Cornell stood to condemn Chagnon formally. He has said Chagnon is a "sociopath" whose "lies damage the Yanomamo."

Turner says he became a vocal critic when he began investigating the slaughter in 1993 of more than a dozen Yanomamo by Brazilian gold miners. As he saw it, the Indians had been jeopardized by Chagnon's depiction of them as fierce warriors, which led the miners to attack violently and made the larger public unsympathetic. "His politics are bad," Turner says. "His ideas are used by miners and politicians, especially in Brazil, to argue for a breakup of Yanomamo land." Worse, Turner says, is Chagnon's assertion "that the males who are dominant get more women, and therefore their genes get passed on more. This is very close to the Nazi idea that there's a leadership gene that the dominant people pass on and this is the natural order."

Other critics do not use the word Nazi in their discussion of Chagnon. More typical is the complaint that he embraces sociobiology, a stream of academic thought that emphasizes the role of innate biological urges, some genetically based, in human behavior.

Sociobiology can inflame those who fear that an overemphasis on genes starts science on the slippery slope toward eugenics, a genetic-purity movement powerful early in the 20th century. It contributed to such political ideas as Nazism and in the U.S. was cited to justify many discriminatory practices, including the forced sterilization of thousands of institutionalized people. In the late 1970s, at the beginning of the debate over sociobiology, reactions were so intense that Harvard's E.O. Wilson, a proponent, was doused with a pitcher of water and knocked to the floor when he appeared to debate the issue at an academic forum.

Today's critics of sociobiology tend to express themselves more coolly, arguing that environment, economy and politics are more important in human behavior than biological urges. In the case of the Yanomamo, they believe the Indians would be peaceable if not for outside influences.

"I think a lot of the fighting over women that Chagnon describes is really because of epidemics that devastated the population, with the result that individuals became desperate to form new families," says R. Brian Ferguson, a Rutgers University anthropologist. "Fighting over women is not their normal way of doing things." Unlike Turner, Ferguson refuses to accuse Chagnon of falsifying his findings. But he suspects that Yanomamo men may have told Chagnon they fought over women because they thought it was what he wanted to hear.

"He is the golden goose for them," Ferguson says. "He brings steel tools, machetes, fishhooks, and they tell him what they think he wants to hear so they can have access to that stuff."

It wouldn't be the first time an anthropologist may have been fed information by subjects eager to please. Margaret Mead's accounts of peaceful, sexually uninhibited Pacific Islanders stood as a paragon of anthropology until 1983, when a book by Derek Freeman claimed that much of what Mead had been told was untrue. Freeman wrote that many of the people Mead interviewed had fabricated responses to suit her theories. They thought they were being polite. Ferguson wonders if the Yanomamo haven't told Chagnon dramatic war stories because they think he likes them.

Harris has long theorized that the Yanomamo go to war over food shortages caused by over-hunting. Chagnon believes "that warfare is genetically programmed," Harris says. "My point is that there is an alternative explanation. They go to war because of a lot of different social factors, one of which may be that they are fighting over animal fats, which have become scarce."

Though it seems like a purely scientific dispute, this argument over why the Yanomamo fight has real-world political implications.

If their warfare is caused by shortages, then perhaps man is a basically peaceful being who fights only when economic and social systems fail to provide for survival. If they kill simply to establish dominance, then human beings are frighteningly similar to chimpanzees, who have been observed practicing a kind of organized warfare in the wild. And this basic tendency toward violence would support a tough government response to aggression, whether it's arresting thugs on the streets or confronting Serbs in Kosovo.

* * *
     In his book, Chagnon insists that among the Yanomamo he studied, warfare is a chronic condition that existed before he arrived and continued after he departed. Warfare, he says, is prominently reflected in the tribe's mythology, politics, marriage practices and ceremonial life. In 15 months at one village, he says, he counted 25 attacks by other villages. Chagnon also confronts Harris' food theory. In a discussion with a group of Yanomamo men, he asks if they fight over meat and then offers their reply both in their native language ("Yahi yamako buhii makuwi, suw kb yamako buhii barowo!") and in translation: "Even though we do like meat, we like women a whole lot more!"

Chagnon's case against the food theory doesn't end with a flippant anecdote from the jungle. His study of the tribe's diet shows no evidence of protein shortages and no connection between the scarcity of game and outbreaks of violent conflict. Like many other criticisms of his work, he says, the food theory is wrong because it sprang from a desire to maintain a romantic view of ancient man as a "noble savage."

"It's a fantasy about primitive man that says that we were all noble savages until society or capitalism or some other force corrupted our good nature," he says. Chagnon's work depicts a more complex "savage" capable of both cruelty and kindness. One of the more poignant stories in his book describes a mourning ceremony for a tribal warrior Chagnon had known. When it was over, Chagnon--whom the Yanomamo had named Shaki, or Pesky Bee, because he always asked questions--quietly retired to his hammock, deeply moved by the tribe's grief.

"One of the others asked me why I was not making a nuisance of myself, as usual, and I told him that my innermost being (buhii) was cold--that is, I was sad. This was whispered around the village, and as each person heard it, he or she looked over at me. The children who inevittably gathered around my hammock were told by their elders to go home and not bother me anymore. I was hushuo, in a state of emotional disequilibrium, and had finally begun to act like a human being, as far as they were concerned. Those whose hammocks were close to mine reached over and touched me tenderly. . . ."

Anecdotes like these are what compel anthropology teachers around the world to make Chagnon's text required reading for their students. Chagnon collected the stories during long stays in a most inhospitable environment, where he eagerly joined in local customs that included the ritual use of inhaled drugs. In a typical passage, he describes approaching a previously unvisited village after a long journey led by a boy: "I suddenly realized the absurdity of my situation and the magnitude of what I was doing. Here I stood in the middle of an unexplored, unmapped jungle, a few hundred feet from a previously uncontacted group of Yanomamo with a reputation for enormous ferocity and treachery, led there by a 12-year-old kid, and it was getting dark. My only marks of being human were my red loincloth, my muddy and torn sneakers, my hammock and a bow with three skinny arrows. . . ."

This was one of hundreds of encounters Chagnon has recorded. In recent years he has focused primarily on the factors that have pushed the Yanomamo toward agriculture and away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. He theorizes in a book being published in the fall that concerns about safety encourage the Yanomamo to form larger communities and then expand their gardens to supplement the limited amount of food available in the wild.

Yet there is still work to be done to fill in "little pieces of the puzzle" so he can "prove the theory more convincingly. I'd have this work done by now if it wasn't for all these politically correct people who want to stop me because my findings bother them," Chagnon asserts. "I may be politically incorrect, but I know the Yanomamo, and I have the best records on them of anyone in the world."

* * *
     If Chagnon's war of words were taking place on just one front, in the halls of academe, he likely would be continuing his study of the Yanomamo. After all, no American anthropologist has the power to stop him and he has the support of hundreds of professors who use his book. But the Salesian order of Catholic missionaries stands against Chagnon in a place where he can be hurt the most--the jungle itself.

In every isolated area of the world, anthropologists and missionaries have a complicated relationship. In many cases, the Amazon included, missionaries arrived first and the scientists relied on them for guidance, support and introductions. But while missionaries traditionally have sought to convert and "civilize" local people, anthropology is supposed to be a hands-off enterprise restricted to the observation of native culture. The two purposes have clashed often.

Chagnon has been critical of the missionaries and was especially bothered back in the 1970s when a missionary showed a group of Yanomamo paintings of Indians falling into a fiery hell because they had taken drugs. He has encouraged the Yanomamo to think for themselves and recalls with delight an incident, also in the 1970s, when a Yanomamo chief paid a visit to a Salesian mission to see the power of the Catholic god.

"I talk to the priest and say [the chief] wants to see the crucifix," Chagnon recalls. "He takes him into this little chapel and tells him the story of the crucifixion and points to Christ on the cross. This little guy stands there, naked except for some feathers and paint, and starts to laugh. " 'That's the hekura [spirit] they worship?' " he says. " 'His own people did that to him? I don't think we have to be afraid of that hekura.' "

Years later, other anthropologists would say that Chagnon should have thought twice about encouraging this kind of behavior and tried harder to get along with the missionaries. In Venezuela, the Salesians wield influence and power that could shock an American accustomed to the separation of church and state. A 1915 agreement between Venezuela and the church grants the order power over the remote Amazon region where the Yanomamo live. Even outside the region, the order influences Venezuelan policy through its deep connections to the power elite.

"The Salesians have educated every Venezuelan president in history and most of its other leaders," explains Frank Salamone, an anthropologist at Iona College in New York. Salamone has worked for the Salesians and the order refers journalists with questions about the Yanomamo issue to him. "I'm not sure Chagnon understood the role the church plays in that part of the world," he says, "or that he has rubbed the Salesians the wrong way."

The friction between Chagnon and the order erupted in flames in the summer of 1993 and became an instant legend in American anthropology. The place was a remote jungle clearing in the wilds of Venezuela. It was the last time Chagnon saw his lifelong Yanomamo friends in Venezuela.

Some details are in dispute but it is clear that Chagnon had been invited by Venezuela's government to investigate clashes between the Yanomamo and miners. One day, in the middle of the jungle, he was confronted by another team of investigators, also appointed by the government, that included a Catholic bishop and an armed military escort. Deep in the wilderness, the anthropologist and the bishop argued over who had the right to be there. The bishop insisted that Chagnon leave. He considered the soldiers guarding the bishop and retreated.

Since that showdown, neither Chagnon nor the Salesians has given ground. The missionaries have attacked Chagnon in the Venezuelan press and have filed complaints from individual Indians about him with government officials. Chagnon says that at one of his last encounters with Venezuelan Yanomamo, several told him that the Salesians were spreading the notion that he used some kind of magic against the tribe.

For his part, Chagnon has used his data on Yanomamo village populations to raise concerns about the missionaries' and Catholic policies. He analyzed death rates from disease and connected the presence of missionaries to a fourfold increase in deaths in some remote villages. He published these findings, along with criticisms of the Salesians' former practice of giving shotguns and shells to Yanomamo men. Shotgun killings among the Indians escalated as the weapons spread.

Even as he criticized the Salesians, Chagnon continually has sought government permission to return to the Yanomamo territory to finish his work. Perhaps his best opportunity came and went in the mid-1990s when the Salesians persuaded Salamone to negotiate a truce with Chagnon. But the talks changed nothing. In 1998, Chagnon tried again, traveling to Caracas to plead with the government. This time he had two friends from the U.S. State Department who tried to help. They failed.

There is no small irony that an order of Catholic missionaries now stands between Napoleon Chagnon and his life's work. He was raised in a devout Catholic family, one of 12 children born to a mother who had dreamed he would become a priest. Growing up poor, Chagnon never expected to attend college, let alone become a professor. But a scholarship to a technical program pulled him out of his small hometown of Onaway, Mich., and he never looked back.

Many of his opponents in the academic world look on Chagnon's beginnings in life to explain his character as a man and a social scientist. "As the oldest of 12 children born to a French Canadian family, he probably thought that life was a real struggle," Harris says, as if this explains why Chagnon takes special note of the aggression among the Yanomamo.

Chagnon's friends can play at psychoanalysis, too, and they see dark motivations in the forces aligned against him. "The biggest cause is jealousy," says William Irons, an anthropologist at Northwestern University. "Nap's written a major book that's stood up for many years and actually made money. How many academics can say that?"

Besides raw envy, Irons sees competition over the control of the Yanomamo as a potent political symbol. Like wealthy liberals who entertained Black Panthers in the '60s, today's environmentalists get a thrill out of identifying with the least-developed tribe on earth. To boost their political agenda, they want to present the Yanomamo as innocent and peaceful. "The facts that are found in the field don't matter to them," Irons says. "What matters is their utopian view of the nature of mankind."

Over decades of study, Chagnon has become convinced that the urge to organize and fight is a practical necessity that resides deep inside us and not in modern economies or politics. He sees that ferocity and aggression are favored by modern societies as well as in Yanomamoland. He points to the memorials and honors bestowed on soldiers and warriors during every historical period. For further evidence of aggression on a visceral level, he might also look to his own situation. Ideas are supposed to compete freely in science and the academy, but this ideal has been lost in his own case. His detractors in anthropology show no sympathy or compassion.

"I can't feel sorry for him," says Harris, who, like Chagnon, is at the end of his career. "He's been too much a braggart. He took on the Catholic Church when he shouldn't have. Now he's paying. I can't say I feel bad about that."

* * *
And what of the Yanomamo? The tribe has had increasing contact with the outside world. Even the most isolated villages now obtain tools and other items through trade with Indians who live near mission stations. Diseases from the industrial world continue to threaten their health while the spread of modern language, technology, even food, erodes their culture.

In Brazil and Venezuela, the Yanomamo have been somewhat protected by the creation of special territories closed to outsiders. Chagnon prefers one that would restrict access by outsiders, including missionaries, and allow individual Indians to choose how much contact they will have with the rest of the world. Without this protection, he fears, they will be drawn rapidly into large settlements and converted both to Christianity and to a more modern way of life. Most Yanomamo will suffer in the struggle to adapt. Hundreds will die from disease. The culture will disappear. And whatever the Yanomamo can teach us about themselves, and humankind, will be lost.

"There are still a few uncontacted Yanomamo," he says wistfully. "But they are in deep trouble." Chagnon is certain he can help the Yanomamo decide for themselves how to deal with the modern world. But he fears that, just like him, they are running out of time. "It won't be too long before it's too late. And then we won't ever fully understand what's been lost."

- - -

Michael D'Antonio Last Wrote for the Magazine About Dr. David Pegues, UCLA Medical Center's Infection Control Expert. His New Book, Tin Cup Dreams, Will Be Published in March.


Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles