Anthropology on Noble Savages, Napoleon Chagnon

Within weeks of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday Napoleon Chagnon splashed in with Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists.

This page offers a selection of anthropology-oriented reviews and responses. Crucial point is one lesson anthropology has learned: contemporary peoples are not pristine windows onto a primitive past or distillations of human nature. Especially not a group of people doing slash-and-burn horticulture with steel axes.

A follow-up page tracks anthropology and reactions to the Marshall Sahlins resignation from the National Academy of Sciences protesting the election of Napoleon Chagnon. See also Survival International’s collection of links, The Fierce People? The myth of the ‘Brutal Savage’. For the ongoing volleys, see The Emperor’s New Suit In The Garden Of Eden, and Other Wild Guesses or, Why Can’t Napoleon Chagnon Prove Anything? in TruthOut and for a review of how Chagnon was featured on The Edge see Epigenetics on The Edge of Human Nature, Goodbye to all that.

History, explanation, and war among the Yanomami: A response to Chagnon’s Noble Savages. R. Brian Ferguson, Anthropological Theory, December 2015
Ferguson writes a tour-de-force rebuttal and extended evaluation, also using The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman (2013).
Why do people make war? Is it in human nature? Publication of Napoleon Chagnon’s Noble Savages resurrects old arguments, largely displaced in recent times by study of larger scale political violence, and sidelined by more contemporary theoretical currents. This shift ceded the human nature issue to a variety of biologistic approaches, for which Chagnon’s image of the Orinoco-Mavaca Yanomamo is foundational. Chagnon proposes that war is driven by reproductive competition, with men fighting over women, revenge, and status, among a ‘Stone Age’ people living as they had for countless generations, in a tribal world untouched by larger history or the world system. This paper challenges each of those claims, and offers alternatives that provide a very different view of Yanomami warfare, and why men fight wars.

Last of the Stone Age Warriors. Beth A. Conklin, American Anthropologist, December 2013
Yet no matter how far from civilization [Napoleon Chagnon] journeyed, metal tools got there first. To anyone familiar with Brian Ferguson’s (1995) comprehensive historical analysis of Yanomami warfare, Noble Savages reads like a screenplay based on Ferguson’s thesis: that unequal access and competition for scarce metal tools were factors in many conflicts. Chagnon’s account shows how demands for Western goods dominated his interactions with Yanomamö. Steel was the obsession of this Stone Age. . . .

Throughout his career, Napoleon Chagnon has been admirably forthcoming about his research activities; one reason his work has received so much scrutiny is that he has told so much. Noble Savages does what an autobiography should do: reveal something of its subject’s life and tell his story as he wishes. It offers rich insights into the inner world of one of today’s best-known anthropologists. Those seeking to understand the inner worlds of the people whose stories he tells, however, must look elsewhere–perhaps, increasingly, to hear directly from Yanomami themselves.
Note: Conklin also discusses that “Among Yanomami, Catherine Alès (2002) documented high rates of partible paternity and gender relations at odds with Chagnon’s model.” I had not seen this in other reviews.

Fight Clubs: On Napoleon Chagnon. Peter C. Baker, The Nation, 3 June 2013
For all his claims to be working in opposition to the archetype of the noble savage, Chagnon is implicitly committed to the idea that the Yanomami he met were in some sense completely different from us–that they lived, to borrow a phrase from the pop science writer Jared Diamond, in a premodern sliver of the “world until yesterday” preserved in our midst. The Yanomami are, at different points in Chagnon’s book, “wild,” “primitive” and “Stone Age”–never mind all their steel, or the fact that they rely on farming, not hunting or gathering, for 70 percent of their diet. Never mind that none of their primary crops–bananas and plantains–are indigenous to the Amazon or even South America.

Are Anthropologists a Dangerous Tribe? Greg Laden, Slate – Science, 2 May 2013
We in Western society often have the luxury of ignoring our brutishness. What is more fierce than a party of Yanomamö men intent on attacking neighboring enemies or addressing some transgression with a bit of chest-pounding? Well, you are. And I am. War has never been more deadly, and lives never so widely ruined or effortlessly ended, as in the normal course of events that accompany the day-to-day operation of Western society. Whatever lessons might be learned from the ethnographic study of the Yanomamö are not strictly lessons about an exotic tribe or model for primordial humans. They are lessons about our species, all of us.

An Ax to Grind: Napoleon Chagnon, the Yanomami and the anthropology tribe. Glenn H. Shepard, Notes from the Ethnoground, 30 March 2013
What no one remembers about “The Ax Fight” is that there is no ax fight in “The Ax Fight.” The sharp edge of the ax, though raised in the climax of the film, is quickly turned around to the blunt side and never deployed, defusing what could have been a lethal turn to the explosive but highly ritualized stick-duel that Timothy Asch captured on film. I guess “The Stick Fight” doesn’t have quite the same ring. Another thing to remember about “The Ax Fight” is that exactly one month after it was filmed in late February of 1971, Second Lieutenant William Calley of the U.S. Army was found guilty for his participation in the massacre of some 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians at My Lai three years prior. U.S. casualties in Vietnam up to 1971 surpassed 45,000 (three times the current Yanomami population) and total Vietnamese casualties of that war will never be known, though the number likely surpasses 5 million. So much for “The Fierce People.”

Napoleon Chagnon, a most controversial anthropologist. Lori A. Allen, Al Jazeera Opinion, 8 March 2013
Poverty, illness, apartheid and occupation are not always so exciting. They produce slow, painful battles, the consequences of which are far reaching and take a long time to tell. And they’re often depressing. To be sure, the stories of hundreds of thousands of people forcibly displaced, whether within Sri Lanka or out of Palestine, are not so amusing as those of the Indiana Jones-wannabes shadow-boxing their violent illusions. Not so fun to read as the creatively snarky critiques of books like Chagnon’s. But they are important, useful stories nonetheless. Useful for understanding the human condition. Important for making sense of the protracted violence that circumscribes so many people’s lives. I wonder how anthropologists can sneak these darker sagas past the infotainment censors. The media and anthropologists could make better use of each other and let their reading publics see beyond the sensationalising dramas and distorting stereotypes, to have a greater awareness of how people live and struggle for better lives.

The Real News of Anthropology. Paul Stoller, Huffington Post, 26 February 2013
I’m afraid that these protestations will have little impact on the public perception of anthropology or, for that matter, the social sciences and humanities. For the moment, these counter-arguments can’t compete with the deeply mythical texture of the life and times of Napoleon Chagnon. In the sweep of time, though, Chagnon’s work is but a blip on the screen. In the nanosecond reality of the media universe, Chagnon’s ideas and struggles will quickly revert back to what they are: “very old news.” The real news in present-day anthropology is the ongoing work on structures of poverty and social inequality, work that exposes how contemporary economic practices trigger widespread real world suffering. That scholarship produces results that are politically threatening to men like Rick Scott, Scott Walker and Rick Perry. That’s why they’re slashing higher education budgets. What better way to undermine anthropology, sociology, and the humanities and protect their economic and political interests?

Why anthropology? John Colman Wood, Im/placed: Identities in space and place, 23 February 2013
In the swirl of debate over the publication of his latest book, Noble Savages, which refers in equal measure to the Yanomami and his critics, the question that’s been missed is Why anthropology? . . . I didn’t get into anthropology to learn about uncontacted people living in a state of nature (as the naïve Nicolas Wade fantasized in the Science Times). Uncontacted people don’t exist. If they did, they wouldn’t be interesting. Human beings are interesting not for what they are in some pristine, static, or removed sense, but for what they do with other human beings. The Yanomami aren’t interesting because they represent original humanity. They are interesting for how they understand and manage their affairs with each other and their neighbors.

Review of ‘Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes–The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists’. Rachel Newcomb, Washington Post: Opinions, 22 February 2013
So does the field of anthropology resemble the morass that Chagnon depicts in this book? As seen in a funhouse mirror, perhaps. The average American has very little idea what anthropologists do, but many might picture someone like Chagnon, sailing down jungle rivers in hand-wrought, birch bark canoes and discovering tribes. However, the type of anthropology he practiced has changed, not only because there are no longer any uncontacted tribes but also because the terms of the debate are different. An anthropologist studying kinship, for example, might not be living in a distant village collecting genealogies to determine who can marry whom. Rather, she might instead be exploring how a society that does not accept parentage through adoption will respond to the introduction of new reproductive technologies such as sperm or egg donation. Contrary to Chagnon’s assertions, many anthropologists still employ rigorous scientific methodologies while also acknowledging that data, drawn from the messiness and unpredictability of social life, may be affected by the presence of the researcher. Anthropologists study every conceivable topic dealing with humanity, but always with an eye toward understanding what it means to live in a globalized era in which everyone is now connected, for better or worse.

Meet Joe Science. Jonathan Marks, Anthropomics, 19 February 2013
Nicholas Wade starts off, “What were our early ancestors really like…?” – a good question, but one to which Napoleon Chagnon’s work is irrelevant. Bad start, though, because it means that even now, neither Chagnon nor Wade apparently understands what the Yanomamo actually tell us about anything. . . . Neither of the pieces puffing up Chagnon, and publicizing his hatred of his colleagues, even acknowledges the existence of alternative interpretations of Chagnon’s work. The problem, simply put, is that Chagnon’s statistics were rubbish, because he neglected to include the children of killers who had themselves been killed.

Sociobalderdash, and the Yanomami? Part II. Ken Weiss, The Mermaid’s Tale, 19 February 2013
To repeat: Much more important is the degree to which observations today can be credibly extrapolated into the past, from one part of the world to all of humanity’s patrimony. All of this ado over Nap’s work is irrelevant to that question: Even were his descriptions indisputably 100% accurate, they don’t contribute to the greater legitimate debate about the nature of our evolution. Yanomami culture today, in the Amazon, says nothing about our African past 200,000 years ago. One way to see the colorful charivari that has always surrounded Dr Chagnon has to do with the knowledge of his nature, not just the nature of his knowledge.

Tribal Warfare: ‘Noble Savages,’ by Napoleon A. Chagnon. Elizabeth Povinelli, New York Times – Sunday Book Review, 15 February 2013
No doubt facing public accusations of large-scale wrongdoing must be harrowing. But “Noble Savages” starts by backing out of one tragedy only to end in another. It is less an exposé of truth than an act of revenge. If your belief in your culture’s superiority is founded on thinking of other societies as prehistoric time capsules, then you will enjoy this book. If not, say a requiem for the trees and make an offering to the pulp mill.

Science, Advocacy and Anthropology. Monica Heller, Leith Mullings, Ed Liebow, and Alan Goodman, American Anthropological Association Blog, 17 February 2013
The more general point is that at the very core of our discipline are commitments to the best of science and the best of advocacy. Advocacy suggests at minimum an ethical position to try to protect and better the lives of the individuals we work with, in particular those who are without access to power. Science stands for prediction (based on current understanding), followed by systematic observation and analysis and then, usually, revised understanding. But there is something more: we recognize that science is a practice that is undertaken in a social context, and as such it can be limited by the social hierarchies of its time, creating burdens and benefits, winners and losers. To have this awareness is not ‘anti-science.’ Indeed, it offers the sort of tough love of science that all responsible scientists ought to share. And every time the debate about ‘science’ versus ‘advocacy’ re-emerges, we cannot but hope that our discipline’s lengthy track record of critically embracing science can show that the debate itself is based on false premises. We’d love to put an end to the futility of the science versus advocacy version of “Whack a mole” so we can focus on quality anthropological work for the public good.

Indiana Jones is to Anthropology as Fred Flintstone is to Neolithic Life. Leith Mullings, American Anthropological Association Blog, 19 February 2013
To the Editor,
While we recognize that the figure of Indiana Jones is attractive, it is about as useful for understanding anthropology as Fred Flintstone is for understanding life in the Neolithic. Your article perpetuates an outdated and narrow stereotype of our profession. The 11,000 members of the American Anthropological Association alone actually spend their time doing a vast array of things. Today’s anthropologists can be found in such diverse endeavors as leading the World Bank, designing health care for areas devastated by disaster, or researching the causes of the 2008 recession or the deaths of 100 boys in a defunct reform school in Florida. The representation of a field paralyzed by debates about ‘science, ’ vs. ‘advocacy ’ is similarly inaccurate, given the non-polarized ways most anthropologists today understand ‘science’, ‘advocacy’ and the nature of the field. The article also misses one of Napoleon Chagnon’s lasting legacies to our field: the reminder to engage in constant reflection about anthropological ethics. The American Anthropological Association recently did just that, releasing its new Statement on Ethics: Principles of Professional Responsibility in October 2012. Finally, we consider lively debate neither dangerous nor self-serving: it is a key to knowledge.

Sex, Lies, and Separating Science From Ideology. Alice Dreger, The Atlantic, 15 February 2013
I spent about a year researching the Chagnon-Tierney controversy, so I know from my conversations with Chagnon that, on more than one occasion, Margaret Mead rose to personally help Chagnon in his work–most notably when she vocally objected to attempts to ban a session on sociobiology at the AAA meeting that Chagnon had organized. How painful that their reputations have both had to face authors who wove not only false stories about them, but false stories so well supplied with pseudo-documentation that reasonable people believed them. The two cases raise a question I often find myself pondering: How do you effectively face a critic who amply footnotes what amounts to a fantasy?
This piece by Alice Dreger is mostly about the smearing of Margaret Mead and how that is now documented as itself a smear. I include it because it has been so often missed by many of these reviews.

Book Review: Noble Savages, Fierce Controversies. Charles C. Mann, Wall Street Journal, 15 February 2013
Prior to 1492, these researchers say, this portion of central Amazonia was a prosperous, cosmopolitan, multiethnic network of big villages, fed by fish from the great river and reliant upon a multitude of forest products. When that network was thrown into turmoil by the arrival of European slavers and European diseases, the Yanomamö and many other groups fled into the hinterlands, where they now reside. If this is correct, these people are not “pure” or “pristine”; they are dispossessed. And their existence in small bands is reflective not of humankind’s ancient past but of a shattered society that has preserved its liberty by retreat. It would be risky to base conclusions about the evolution of society on the study of posses of refugees, perhaps especially those who have survived both a holocaust and a diaspora.
Note: Unfortunately Mann saves this very important critique for the end of his review.

The Weird Irony at the Heart of the Napoleon Chagnon Affair. John Horgan, Cross-Check: Critical views of science in the news, 18 February 2013
Napoleon Chagnon reiterated this view when I interviewed him for “The New Social Darwinists,” a critique of evolutionary psychology published in Scientific American in October 1995. He said he was disturbed at the degree to which some sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists downplayed the role of culture in human behavior. I said he sounded like Stephen Jay Gould, a vehement critic of genetic explanations of human behavior. I meant to goad Chagnon with the comparison, but he embraced it. “Steve Gould and I probably agree on a lot of things,” Chagnon said.

Anthropology: Tribal warfare. Douglas William Hume, Nature, 21 February 2013
Noble Savages is the story of a man who for decades has tried to bring evolutionary theory and scientific methods to the study of humanity in anthropology. In short, it is Chagnon’s philosophy-of-science case study, as he struggles against anthropology’s retreat from science. His book is an important contribution to the debates over the methods and theories used to understand humans in anthropology and evolutionary sciences–and to debates over how visionaries become the targets of those who do not share their vision.

Chagnon Speaks: Publishes Noble Savages. Debra Lattanzi, Living Ethnography, 13 February 2013
After a decade of bad press, I’m pleased that Napoleon Chagnon’s decided to tell his own story. I’m buying the book and encourage you to do the same. It’s not often that an academic survives the type of smear campaign that Chagnon suffered. It’s time we all heard his story.

Noble Savages – Interview with Napoleon Chagnon. Serena Golden, Inside Higher Ed, 18 February 2013
Napoleon Chagnon may well be the most famous and most infamous anthropologist alive. Famous for the years he spent conducting fieldwork among the Yanomamö, a large and isolated native tribe in Venezuela and Brazil, and his extensive writings on their kinship structures, marriages, warfare, and more (most notably his 1968 work Yanomamö: The Fierce People, which sold close to a million copies in numerous editions and which for decades was routinely assigned in introductory anthropology courses).

An Anthropologist, Once Accused of Genocide, Tells His Story at Last. Tom Bartlett, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 February 2013
Mr. Chagnon is, in other words, not easily cowed. He offers multiple examples of this fortitude in his new book, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists (Simon & Schuster), including when a tiger leans over his hammock and when a leopard stalks him silently on a long hike. He does not run screaming from the jungle to the anaconda-free comforts of civilization. He toughs it out. It’s not until Page 452 that he really shows weakness, admitting that he tried and failed for years to write his life story. Those early drafts were too depressing, he admits, and he was too emotional.

Chagnon’s War: The Tarzan of Anthropology. Louis Proyect, Counterpunch, 22 February 2013
In some ways, not much has changed since the profession of anthropology was in its infancy in the mid-19th century, a time when social Darwinism–a precursor to sociobiology or evolutionary psychology in many ways–was at its zenith. With social Darwinism seeing progress from barbarism to civilization as a way of eliminating the “unfit”, whether dinosaurs or naked savages in the jungle, it would inevitably affect the discipline especially during a period of rapidly expanding empire.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2013. “Anthropology on Noble Savages and Napoleon Chagnon.” Living Anthropologically website, Originally posted 20 February 2013 on the Anthropology Report website, Revised 3 December 2017.