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Fight Clubs: On Napoleon Chagnon | The Nation

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Fight Clubs: On Napoleon Chagnon

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In December 1919, Franz Boas, the German-born academic widely recognized as the father of American anthropology, published a letter in this magazine accusing four of his American colleagues—whom he did not identify—of having used their research positions as cover for engaging in espionage in Central America during the recently concluded war. Ten days later, the governing council of the American Anthropological Association voted 20 to 10 to censure Boas, claiming that his highly public letter was unjustified and in no way represented the AAA’s position. Boas was a founding member and former president of the association, so the censure was doubly humiliating; it essentially forced him to resign from both the AAA’s governing body and the National Research Council.

Noble Savages
My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.
By Napoleon A. Chagnon.

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About the Author

Peter C. Baker
Peter C. Baker lives in Chicago and Wilmington, North Carolina.

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The Boas incident was the prelude to a century in which anthropology has been haunted by questions of means and ends. What sorts of alliances with power are worth it? What responsibilities (if any) do anthropologists have to the populations they study? Above all, to what extent has Western anthropology been fatally compromised by its associations—direct and indirect, public and covert—with a violent and imperial foreign policy? In several books, the anthropologist David Price has cataloged the substantial sums of money funneled from the military and intelligence community to academic anthropology over the years, as well as the contribution of American anthropologists to every significant war effort in modern US history. Most recently, ethnographers have joined the Army’s Human Terrain System program, designed to aid military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan by decoding the nuances of local culture. Price notes that although the revelation of these collaborations has often sparked heated short-term controversy, the disputes have passed without prompting broad, discipline-wide reform—or even conversation. After all, what anthropologist wants to spend time discrediting anthropology, a discipline that relies on trust, most importantly the trust of foreign governments and the subject populations that are the source of the discipline’s prized product of local knowledge? At what point are the ethical costs of doing anthropology too high, for ethnographers as well as the people they study?

That last question applies equally to anthropologists who may not work directly for the military or do fieldwork in areas explicitly labeled war zones. There is no better example than the career of Napoleon Chagnon, author of the bestselling anthropological text of the twentieth century, a slim volume called Yanomamö. Published in 1968, when Chagnon was 30, the book describes his fieldwork among the eponymous group of about 20,000 people who lived (and still live) in rainforest villages on both sides of the Venezuela-Brazil border. (Chagnon called them the Yanomamö, but most people who study the group call them the Yanomami.) Chagnon claimed—and now claims again in his recently published memoir, Noble Savages—that he arrived at his first Yanomami village in 1964 expecting to meet egalitarian natives living in harmony with nature and each other. This, he says, was what his University of Michigan anthropology professors had prepared him for. Instead, he found a way of life more reminiscent of Thomas Hobbes’s notion of the “state of nature”: an aggressive people mired in a cycle of inter-village combat, revenge begetting revenge and deception begetting deception. Death by murder was strikingly common, as was brutality toward women.

For Chagnon, the shock was immediate. No sooner had he and his guide arrived than they found themselves surrounded by “a dozen burly, naked, filthy, 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 their noses.” Whatever else might be said about this type of writing, with its blend of the lurid and the exotic, it appealed to American undergrads—or at least their professors assumed it did, and they kept assigning Yanomamö in Anthro 101. Before long, the book was in its second edition, then its third; a sixth came out last year. Chagnon has claimed, not unreasonably, that it has been read by as many as 4 million people, and it has certainly sold over 1 million copies. Unlike most other academic anthropologists, especially those writing in the 1960s, Chagnon brought lucidity and flair to his descriptions of fieldwork’s trials: the impossibility of staying clean and avoiding insects, the Sisyphean ordeal of trying to make a cup of oatmeal, the deep frustration of miscommunication, the loneliness. But it is obvious from reading Yanomamö that he also found the fieldwork to be a thrilling adventure. Trekking through the rainforest, a shotgun in one hand and a machete in the other; shooting tapir to roast over an open fire; building dugout canoes; forging friendships; tagging along for raids—Chagnon made cultural anthropology look more exciting than any textbook or tweedy professor’s lecture on kinship rituals. The book’s popularity has also benefited from the stylish films about the Yanomami that Chagnon made with the renowned visual ethnographer Timothy Asch.

In both the book and the films, there is a lot of fighting: chest-pounding matches, club fights, ax fights, raids, counter-raids, ambushes. Chagnon decided that Yanomami warfare was in large part about women, and specifically the question of who got to have sex with them. Women were regularly abducted from other villages during raids, and success in combat boosted a man’s social status, increasing his odds of securing wives for himself and his relatives. In order to reach this conclusion, Chagnon first constructed elaborate genealogies, tracing family trees across generations and far-flung villages to observe the relationship between blood ties and war patterns. This required not just learning the Yanomami language, but also overcoming his hosts’ frequent reluctance to supply the information he wanted. The most significant obstacle was a system of name taboos, including a prohibition against speaking a person’s name in that person’s presence and another against uttering the names of the dead.

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