Monday, June 09, 2014

Napoleon A. Chagnon and the Fierce People

I first read "Yanomamo: The Fierce People" as a textbook for an undergraduate Anthropology course back in the mid 1970s. His study of a constantly warring Amazonian tribe, who were largely (at the time) untouched by modern governments was an interesting contrast to some of the other ethnographies we read -- such as Colin Turnbull's "The Forest People" which is about (the much gentler) Pygmies of the Congo forest.

For some reason I hung on to both of these books, probably because they are classics in the field, but honestly haven't thought much about them in the intervening years. So I was interested to hear Chagnon interviewed on last night's "To The Best of Our Knowledge" broadcast "Heart of Darkness" on violence in human nature.

I do recall hearing at various times that he had got much of his information wrong (due to informants helpfully telling him what they thought he wanted to hear, which was not necessarily the truth), and may have somehow contributed to a devastating measles outbreak among the tribe.  Apparently such accusations were not substantiated and his work has seen him inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.

I have not read his newest book, "Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes -- the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists," but it's going on my "to read" list. As the title suggests, he discusses both his research and the various reactions of cultural anthropologists and evolutionary biologists.


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