Yanomamo Paper Assignment
Napoleon Chagnon has spent about 60 months since 1964 studying the ‘foot people’ of the Amazon Basin known as the Yanomamo. In his ethnography, Yanomamo, he describes all of the events of his stay in the Venezuelan jungle. He describes the “hideous” appearance of the Yanomamo men when first meeting them, and their never-ending demands for Chagnon’s foreign goods, including his food. There are many issues that arise when considering Chagnon’s Yanomamo study. The withholding of genealogical information by the tribesmen, and how Chagnon was able to obtain his information is an interesting and significant aspect of this study. Why did Chagnon feel that this genealogical information was important? And was Chagnon’s choice to study the Yanomamo, despite their hesitancy to cooperate, a wise and ethical one?
Chagnon spent his first five months collecting what he thought was an intricate and elaborate table of genealogical information, marriage relationships, and kinships within the Yanomamo village of Bisaasi-teri. He knew from the beginning that it would be difficult to obtain the actual names of the tribesmen because it is a symbol of honor, respect, dignity, and political admiration. The less your name was spoken in public within the village, the higher you were regarded. And it was considered an extreme taboo to discuss the names of the deceased as well, which made it exceptionally difficult for Chagnon to trace family lineages to the past. Chagnon would interview villagers asking for the names of all members of their community, including the deceased. He recounts many situations in which the interviewee whispered a name into his ear, made him repeat it aloud and then the person whose name he was supposedly calling would cry out in anger while others laughed. It wasn’t until five months into his development of a genealogical chart, on a trip to another Yanomamo village, that he discovered the name he had for the village headman translated into “long dong” and that all of his names were in fact ridiculous and, of course, incorrect.
For months and months to follow Chagnon would have to be incredibly strategic and smart in choosing who to interview and what to ask them. He began to only interview in his hut in private, where distractions from other village members could not influence a lie or joke. He would look for inconsistencies in some of the villagers’ responses and simply put an end to his connection with them and stick to only those who were being truthful and helpful. He even increased the reward given to villagers who were willing to give genealogical information and therefore created a rapid craze of helping villagers. This way, they were competing to give him information for their eventual rewards, not plotting against him. It took him months to compile his accurate collection of genealogical data, and even after gathering most of it, he still needed his...