About the Author
Napoleon A. Chagnon is distinguished research professor at the University of Missouri and adjunct research scientist at the University of Michigan, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He formerly taught at the University of California-Santa Barbara, Penn State, Northwestern, and the University of Michigan. He is the author of five previous academic books and lives in Columbia, Missouri.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Noble Savages 1
My First Year in the Field
The First Day
My first day in the field—November 28, 1964—was an experience I’ll never forget. I had never seen so much green snot before then. Not many anthropologists spend their first day this way. If they did, there would be very few applicants to graduate programs in anthropology.
I had traveled in a small aluminum rowboat propelled by a large outboard motor for two and a half days, cramped in with several extra fifty-five-gallon gasoline barrels and two Venezuelan functionaries who worked for the Malarialogía, the Venezuelan malaria control service. They were headed to their tiny outpost in Yanomamö territory—two or three thatched huts. This boat trip took me from the territorial capital, Puerto Ayacucho, a small town on the Orinoco River, into Yanomamö country on the High Orinoco some 350 miles upstream. I was making a quick trip to have a look-see before I brought my main supplies and equipment for a seventeen-month study of the Yanomamö Indians, a Venezuelan tribe that was very poorly known in 1964. Most of their villages had no contact with the outside world and were considered to be “wild” Indians. I also wanted to see how things at the field site would be for my wife, Carlene, and two young children, Darius (three years old) and Lisa (eighteen months old).
On the morning of the third day we reached a small mission settlement called Tama Tama, the field “headquarters” of a group of mostly American evangelical missionaries, the New Tribes Mission, who were working in two Yanomamö villages farther upstream and in several villages of the Carib-speaking Ye’kwana, a different tribe located northwest of the Yanomamö. The missionaries had come out of these remote Indian villages to hold a conference on the progress of their mission work and were conducting their meetings at Tama Tama when I arrived. Tama Tama was about a half day by motorized dugout canoe downstream from where the Yanomamö territory began.
We picked up a passenger at Tama Tama, James P. Barker, the first outsider to make a sustained, permanent contact with the Venezuelan Yanomamö in 1950. He had just returned from a year’s furlough in the United States, where I had briefly visited him in Chicago before we both left for Venezuela. As luck would have it, we both arrived in Venezuela at about the same time, and in Yanomamö territory the same week. He was a bit surprised to see me and happily agreed to accompany me to the village I had selected (with his advice) for my base of operations, Bisaasi-teri, and to introduce me to the Indians. I later learned that bisaasi was the name of the palm whose leaves were used in the large roofs of many Yanomamö villages: -teri is the Yanomamö word that means “village.” Bisaasi-teri was also his own home base, but he had not been there for over a year and did not plan to come back permanently for another three months. He therefore welcomed this unexpected opportunity to make a quick overnight visit before he returned permanently.
Barker had been living with this particular Yanomamö group about four years at that time. Bisaasi-teri had divided into two villages when the village moved to the mouth of the Mavaca River, where it flows into the Orinoco from the south. One group was downstream and was called Lower Bisaasi-teri (koro-teri) and the other was upstream and called Upper Bisaasi-teri (ora-teri). Barker lived among the Upper Bisaasi-teri. His mud-and-thatch house was located next to their village.
Left to right: James V. Neel, Napoleon Chagnon, and James P. Barker, 1966
We arrived at Upper Bisaasi-teri about 2 P.M. and docked the aluminum speedboat along the muddy riverbank at the terminus of the path used by the Indians to fetch their drinking water. The Yanomamö normally avoid large rivers like the Orinoco, but they moved there because Barker had persuaded them to. The settlement was called, in Spanish, by the men of the Malarialogía and the missionaries, Boca Mavaca—the Mouth of the Mavaca. It sometimes appeared on Venezuelan maps of that era as Yababuji—a Yanomamö word that translates as “Gimme!” This name was apparently—and puckishly—suggested to the mapmakers because it captured some essence of the place: “Gimme” was the most frequent phrase used by the Yanomamö when they greeted visitors to the area.
My ears were ringing from three dawn-to-dusk days of the constant drone of the outboard motor. It was hot and muggy, and my clothing was soaked with perspiration, as it would be for the next seventeen months. Small biting gnats, bareto in the Yanomamö language, were out in astronomical numbers, for November was the beginning of the dry season and the dry season means lots of bareto. Clouds of them were so dense in some places that you had to be careful when you breathed lest you inhale some of them. My face and hands were swollen from their numerous stings.
In just a few moments I was to meet my first Yanomamö, my first “primitive” man. What would he be like? I had visions of proudly entering the village and seeing 125 “social facts” running about, altruistically calling each other kinship terms and sharing food, each courteously waiting to have me interview them and, perhaps, collect his genealogy.
Would they like me? This was extremely important to me. I wanted them to be so fond of me that they would adopt me into their kinship system and way of life. During my anthropological training at the University of Michigan I learned that successful anthropologists always get adopted by their people. It was something very special. I had also learned during my seven years of anthropological training that the “kinship system” was equivalent to “the whole society” in primitive tribes and that it was a moral way of life. I was determined to earn my way into their moral system of kinship and become a member of their society—to be accepted by them and adopted as one of them.
The year of fieldwork ahead of me was what earned you your badge of authority as an anthropologist, a testimony to your otherworldly experience, your academic passport, your professional credentials. I was now standing at the very cusp of that profound, solemn transformation and I truly savored this moment.
My heart began to pound as we approached the village and heard the buzz of activity within the circular compound. Barker commented that he was anxious to see if any changes had taken place while he was away, especially how many Yanomamö died during his absence. I found this somewhat macabre, but I later came to understand why this was an important concern: among the Yanomamö it is offensive—and sometimes dangerous—to say the name of a dead person in the presence of his close relatives, so it is important to know beforehand, if possible, who is no longer living to avoid asking about them.
I nervously felt my back pocket to make sure that my nearly blank field notebook was still there, and I felt more secure when I touched it.
The village looked like some large, nearly vertical wall of leaves from the outside. The Yanomamö call it a shabono. The several entrances were covered over with brush and dry palm leaves. Barker and I entered the opening that led to the river. I pushed the brush aside to expose the low opening into the village.
The excitement of meeting my first Yanomamö was almost unbearable as I crouched and duck-waddled through the low passage into the open, wide village plaza. I looked up and gasped in shock when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men nervously staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips, making them look even more hideous. Strands of dark green snot dripped or hung from their nostrils—strands so long that they drizzled from their chins down to their pectoral muscles and oozed lazily across their bellies, blending into their red paint and sweat.
Green nasal mucus laden with hallucinogenic hisiomö snuff powder
We had arrived at the village while the men were blowing a greenish powder, a hallucinogenic drug called ebene, up each other’s noses through yard-long hollow tubes. The Yanomamö blow it with such force that gobs of it spurt out of the opposite nostril of the person inhaling. One of the side effects of the hallucinogen is a profusely runny nose, hacking and choking, and sometimes vomiting. The nasal mucus is always saturated with the green powder, and the men usually let it run freely from their nostrils.
My next discovery was that there were a dozen or so vicious, underfed growling dogs snapping at my legs, circling me as if I were to be their next meal. I stood there holding my notebook, helpless and pathetic. Then the stench of the decaying vegetation, dog feces, and garbage hit me and I almost got sick.
I was shocked and horrified. What kind of welcome was this for the person who came here to live with you and learn your way of life, to become friends with you, to be adopted by you? The Yanomamö put their weapons down when they recognized and welcomed Barker and returned to their chanting, keeping a nervous eye on the village entrances.
We had arrived just after a serious fight. Seven of the women from this shabono had been abducted the day before by a neighboring group, and the local men and their guests had just that morning recovered five of them in a brutal club fight that nearly ended in a shooting war with arrows. The neighboring abductors, now angry because they had just lost five of their seven new female captives, had threatened to raid the Bisaasi-teri and kill them with arrows. When Barker and I arrived and entered the village unexpectedly, they suspected or assumed that we were the raiders.
On several occasions during the next two hours the men jumped to their feet, armed themselves, nocked their arrows, ran to the several entrances, and waited nervously for the noise outside the village to be identified. My enthusiasm for collecting ethnographic facts and esoteric kinship data diminished in proportion to the number of times such an alarm was raised. In fact, I was relieved when Barker suggested that we sleep across the river for the evening, adding “because it would be safer over there.” I disconsolately mumbled to myself, “Christ! What have I gotten myself into here?”
As we walked down the path to the boat, I pondered the wisdom of having decided to spend a year and a half with these people before I had even seen what they were like. I am not ashamed to admit that had there been a diplomatic way out, I would have ended my fieldwork then and there. I did not look forward to the next day—and months—when I would be alone with these people. I did not speak a word of their language, and they spoke only their own language. Only a few of the young men knew a handful of words in Spanish—not enough to utter even a short comprehensible sentence.
The Yanomamö were decidedly different from what I had imagined them to be in my Rousseauian daydreams. The whole situation was depressing, and I wondered why, after entering college, I had ever decided to switch my major to anthropology from physics and engineering in the first place. I had not eaten all day, I was soaking wet from perspiration, the bareto were biting me, and I was covered with snot-laden red pigment, the result of a dozen or so complete examinations I had been given by as many very pushy, sweaty Yanomamö men.
These examinations capped an otherwise grim and discouraging day. The naked men would blow their noses into their hands, flick as much of the green mucus off as they could in a snap of the wrist, wipe the residue into their hair, and then carefully examine my face, beard, arms, legs, hair, and the contents of my pockets. I asked Barker how to say, “Don’t do that. Your hands are dirty.” My admonitions were met by the grinning Yanomamö in the following way: They would “wash” their hands by spitting a quantity of slimy tobacco juice into them, rub them together, wipe them into their hair, grin, and then proceed with the examination with “clean” hands.
Barker and I crossed the river, carried our packs up the bank, and slung our hammocks in one of the thatched huts belonging to a Malarialogía employee. When Barker pulled his hammock out of a rubber bag, a heavy, damp, disagreeable odor of mildewed cotton and stale wood smoke wafted out with it. Even the missionaries are filthy, I thought to myself. But within two weeks, everything I owned smelled the same way, and I lived with that odor for the remainder of my fieldwork. My several field hammocks still smell faintly like that—many years after my last trip to the Yanomamö and after many times through a washing machine.
After I had adjusted to the circumstances, my own habits of personal cleanliness declined to such levels that I didn’t protest anymore while being examined by the Yanomamö, as I was not much cleaner than they were. I also realized that it is exceptionally difficult to blow your nose gracefully when you are stark naked and the invention of tissues and handkerchiefs is still millennia away.
I was now facing the disappointing consequences of what, at the time, was a logical conclusion to a sequence of decisions I had made in college. When I had decided to study anthropology, I had to pick a specialization within it. I chose cultural anthropology. The next choice was to pick some kind of society—tribesmen, peasants, or industrialized existing cultures. I picked unknown tribesmen, which limited the parts of the world I could study: there are no unknown tribesmen, for example, in the United States, so I would have to consider more remote places. One of the possible places was South America, and there most of the unknown tribesmen were in the Amazon Basin.
So, here I was, my blank notebook in hand, preparing to dig in for seventeen more months of fieldwork. I was the proverbial blank slate incarnate.
My Life in the Jungle
It isn’t easy to plop down in the Amazon Basin for seventeen months and get immediately into the anthropological swing of things. You have been told or read about quicksand, horrible diseases, snakes, jaguars, vampire bats, electric eels, little spiny fish that will swim into your penis, and getting lost. Most of the dangers—diseases, snakes, jaguars, spiny fish, eels, getting lost—are indeed real, but your imagination makes them more ominous and threatening than many of them really are.
Most normal people have no idea how many of the simple things in life just do not exist in the field—something as simple as a flat surface to write on or put your coffee cup on. What my anthropology professors never bothered to tell me about was the mundane, unexciting, and trivial stuff—like eating, defecating, sleeping, or keeping clean. This, I began to suspect, was because very few of my professors had done fieldwork in uncomfortable circumstances remotely similar to what I now faced. These circumstances turned out to be the bane of my existence during the first several months of field research. After that they became merely the unavoidable, inconvenient, but routine conditions of the life of a fieldworking anthropologist who unwittingly and somewhat naively decided to study the most remote, primitive tribe he could find.
I initially set up my household in Barker’s vacant mud-and-thatch house, some thirty yards from Bisaasi-teri, and immediately set to work building my o...
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