Monday, June 3, 2013

Review of Yanomamö

Yanomamö, 6th edition, 2013, by Napoleon Chagnon. Glossy's rating: 7.5 out of 10

This is a book about one of the last tribal groups to come in contact with civilization - the Yanomamö of Venezuela and Brazil. A brave American anthropologist named Napoleon Chagnon lived among them for a total of 60 months over the course of 30 years, starting in 1964. Temperamentally similar to explorers of old, he has infused this volume with an infectious sense of adventure.

By the time Chagnon arrived in their part of the jungle, the Yanomamö had already left the stone age by acquiring a number of steel axes through trade with other Indians. They were also cultivating plantains, which came to the Americas after Columbus. Other than that Chagnon found them in a pretty pristine state:

"I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men 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, and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from from their nostrils - strands so long that they clung to their pectoral muscles or drizzled down their chins. We arrived at the village while the men were blowing a hallucinogenic drug up their noses. One of the side effects of the drug is a runny nose."

He learned their language, became friends with many of them and collected an immense amount of data about their genealogy, history, demographics and nutrition.

They turned out to be one of the best-nourished populations ever described. For example, they were getting more animal protein per capita than their contemporaries in Germany and the UK. And they achieved that while only working (mostly hunting and gardening) 3 hours a day. How were they able to escape the Malthusian trap? Chagnon doesn't talk about that in this book, but I'm guessing that the relatively recent introduction of steel axes helped them do it by allowing them to clear more land for their gardens. Perhaps when Chagnon studied them, their population (about 20,000) hadn't yet caught up with the land's new, higher, axe-assisted carrying capacity.

It's unlikely that endemic warfare played a significant role in safeguarding them from Malthusian forces. The vast majority of the people killed in their wars are men, yet women are the limiting factor in population growth.

According to Chagnon's data, about a quarter of adult Yanomamö men die violently. They raid each other's villages for women and engage in blood feuds.

"A captured woman is raped by all the men in the raiding party and, later, by the men in the village who wish to do so but did not participate in the raid. She is then given to one of the men as a wife."

Marital infidelity also reliably leads to violence. And of course women goad men into fighting, calling them cowards if they don't prosecute their wars actively enough. The raids are ambushes of the unarmed, not battles. However, they do engage in several forms of duels which sometimes turn deadly. In one of those men take turns hitting each other's chests with fists. No defense is allowed. In another they hit each other over the heads with giant poles. Duels, combined with the preference for ambushes over battles, suggest a split verdict on these particular savages' nobility.

Chagnon determined that Yanomamö men who had killed fellow men had 2.6 times more wives and 3.1 times more children than Yanomamö men who had not killed. He got a lot of grief for this and similar findings. An anthropologist named Marvin Harris objected to them because as per Karl Marx, humans only ever fight for economic resources. Fighting for women was felt to be too Darwinian, and as all leftards know, Darwin's theories now only apply to frogs and butterflies, not humans. Harris had a lot of supporters, and collectively they got more space in this volume than malaria, dysentery, man-eating jaguars and every other source of annoyance that Chagnon had to encounter in his professional life.

The Yanomamö are clearly being selected for the quality they call waiteri (fierceness). Yet women of Old World backgrounds do not generally find Amerindian men attractive. Predictably, most of the Amerindian component in New World mestizo populations comes through the female line. This implies that Caucasoids and Negroids have had even more selection for machismo than these guys - a stunning thought to anyone who's read this book.

At least among some Caucasoids this machismo is now held in check by self-control, social trust and a long-term outlook. There's little evidence of any of that among the Yanomamö. They steal, exploit the weak and betray "allies" much more often than people in civilized societies. Every possible social advantage is exploited right now, with little thought given to the possibility of establishing long-term mutually beneficial relationships based on reciprocity.

Their pottery is shoddily made and quickly broken. Their boats are meant to be discarded after several uses. They walk the jungle barefoot and often get thorns in their feet, which in addition to causing pain, can stop an entire hunting or raiding party. Yet in spite of the abundance of natural sources of leather all around them, they never got around to inventing shoes.

Their mathematical vocabulary is limited to "one", "two" and "many". Their standard way of indicating the distance to a location is to point with a finger to the place in the sky where the sun will most likely be when they get there. They eat the ashes of their dead.

All of this makes their commonalities with us especially interesting since they hint at possible human universals. They believe in the afterlife, complete with heaven and hell. Every one of the 200 or so Yanomamö villages has its own patriotism, and they consider non-Yanomamö to be barely human. The idea of eating their pets (dogs, for example) seems deeply immoral to them. Yes, I know that East Asians eat dogs, but they aren't their pets. The favorite food of the Yanomamö is the most sugar-rich substance known to them - honey.

They show signs of sexual modesty. Men tie their stretched foreskins to a string around their waists. If the phallus accidentally becomes untied, they drop everything they were doing (even a duel) to quickly tie it back up. Why? Chagnon doesn't elaborate, but I would guess that the purpose of tying one's penis is to make it conspicuously inoperative, i.e. temporarily closed for business. Conspicuous availability is obscene. When the Yanomamö are given pants by missionaries, they don't tie their penises under them. Similarly women, even though naked except for feathers and the odd string, close their legs while standing up from a sitting position. Again, since the use is obscene, open availability for use is obscene too.

As Chagnon studied them, the Yanomamö became more and more integrated into civilization. Catholic and Protestant missionaries gave them modern tools and established schools for their children. Brazilian gold prospectors brought modern diseases. On the one hand, throughout this process the Yanomamö clearly wanted more, not fewer machetes, axes, guns, outboard motors, matches, aluminum pots, etc. On the other hand Chagnon is right to point out that the civilization that gave them all of those things is in the long run unlikely to afford them the kind of social status that many Yanomamö enjoyed before contact. What can they contribute in return for such status? Even Mexican Indians, who have had millenia of Malthusian agriculture to develop a capacity for hard work, are pretty low in their country's social hierarchy. Muscle work doesn't pay much. 

20th century decolonization produced the opposite dilemma. In the vast majority of cases it reduced the material standard of living of the decolonized peoples, as well as their life expectancy. Yet it gave them something to be proud of, has improved their perceived status, their self-conception. If we only look at it from their perspective, was one thing worth the other? I'm inclined to say yes. 

Since civilization itself doesn't appear to have gained anything from pulling the Yanomamö into its bosom (for example, there are no signs of oil in their jungle), it seems to me that, overall, civilizing them was probably a bad thing to do.


  1. > It's unlikely that endemic warfare played a significant role in safeguarding them from Malthusian forces. The vast majority of the people killed in their wars are men, yet women are the limiting factor in population growth.

    Quite interesting, I never thought of that. I had always assumed endemic violence did relieve malthus pressure. It seemingly tallies so well, after all, with people of hunter-gatherer origin not liking to work long hours -- then (Gentile) Russkies doing somewhat 'better' on this variable, then Dutch somewhat better than they, and Japanese better than Dutch.

    One possibility, whether for Yanomamo or other groups, is that if there's quite an excess of women around (due to violent death of men), then unattractive women of fertile age could get killed by raiders committing democides -- just as old women are.

    I think my edition of Chagnon had some census numbers by age group and gender, but it's years since I looked at it.

    Another possibility, I think, is that deaths of men actually do impact the effective population fecundity. After all, men aren't so useless. A pop that is kind of short on men, especially good ones, might, for assorted reasons, have somewhat fewer completed pregnancies and higher child mortality.

  2. Or, how about fertile women being killed due to violent resistance on their part, during the melee of a raid/democide, or during attempted escape from the scene of one?

    Their children, after all, are going to be killed in such an event, especially male children or young female ones. This, along with the presence of other kin of theirs, may incent them to fight and/or flee in some cases. No doubt it is fitness-enhancing for them to acquiesce anytime resistance-escape is quite improbable and/or they have few kin around, but those conditions need not hold true invariably.

  3. I don't know if the Japanese have necessarily had less violence in their history than the Dutch or the Russians. I think they had a long feudal period with warring kingdoms. The samurai had to do something. The Dutch have seen lots of warfare. The Swiss were famed as mercenaries for centuries, and they're still famous for working hard. We can also think of the Vikings. Especially before the advent of indiscriminate aerial bombardment, warfare mostly killed men. The size of the next generation shouldn't be much affected by that.

    I think Chagnon did say that old women aren't touched in Yanomamo warfare. The excess of fertile women among them just leads to polygamy. He said that women resist being abducted, but are rarely killed. You mentioned children - there is no incentive to kill girls at all. Those are just future wives for the abductors. Girls are married off right after puberty, which is around 12. The Yanomamo sometimes promise each other wives who have not yet been born, so they know how to wait.

    Chagnon alluded to Yanomamo mothers sometimes killing their newborns, but in my 2013 edition he didn't say how common this was or what the typical reasons for it were. He wrote that in 1985 he was called to testify about this in Venezuela. He didn't want Venezuelan cops to start throwing Yanomamo women in jail, so he stopped talking about infanticide in his works after that experience. If I ever get around to finding a pre-1985 edition of this book, I'll change this blog post to reflect the infanticide info. My current guess is that women would feel obligated to kill infants who were conceived by men other than their current husbands. For example, children conceived in adulterous relationships or during raids. Since typically all the men in a raiding party rape an abducted woman, paternity would be impossible to establish. Infanticide, when practiced on girls, would definitely relieve Malthusian pressure.

  4. About the violence-Conscientiousness correlation across pops, another idea occurred to me -- one which has little to do with malthus pressure.

    Actually, I came across the idea in near-complete form, and added little or nothing. The idea is rent-seeking or expropriation. Surely it is a close correlate of violence across pops. And if you are going to be expropriated (of stored work product) relatively more, then it is fitness-enhancing to work relatively less. You ought to apply relatively more energy towards other forms of 'work', such as improving your status in expropriative coalitions. Or for that matter, just resting and not wasting energy -- plenty of animals spend plenty of time sitting around, partly as a matter of recuperation, but I think very largely just because there's nothing for them to do at that moment that would be very fitness-enhancing.

    There may be a few kinks to iron out with this, but it's interesting.

    As for the low density of the Yanomamo in particular, perhaps it is largely just a matter of infectious disease. As you may know, when Yanomamo from the less-contacted end of the spectrum are visited by large groups of people from non-primitive society, they, at least anecdotally, often take casualties from 'harmless' infections such as 'colds'. I don't remember reading this in Chagnon but I saw it in some video. Anyway, there could be lots of 'harmless' stuff circulating among them more or less continuously, now and for the last 100 years.

    I don't think there are very many pure Ameroids in North America, but I guess some are pretty pure. They don't seem to have much more problem with infection than Europids do, though it would not surprise me if they have somewhat more trouble. But that's after centuries of ultra-massive selection. As you may know, when Iberian attackers/explorers first journeyed around the Southeast USA in ~1530, many areas were already gravely depopulated. Yanomamo living today have apparently undergone fairly little of that process.