ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT SCIENTIFIC MEMOIRS OF OUR TIME
When Napoleon Chagnon arrived in Venezuela’s Amazon region in 1964 to study the Yanomamö Indians, one of the last large tribal groups still living in isolation, he expected to find Rousseau’s “noble savages,” so-called primitive people living contentedly in a pristine state of nature. Instead Chagnon discovered a remarkably violent society. Men who killed others had the most wives and offspring, their violence possibly giving them an evolutionary advantage. The prime reasons for violence, Chagnon found, were to avenge deaths and, if possible, abduct women.
When Chagnon began publishing his observations, some cultural anthropologists who could not accept an evolutionary basis for human behavior refused to believe them. Chagnon became perhaps the most famous American anthropologist since Margaret Mead—and the most controversial. He was attacked in a scathing popular book, whose central allegation that he helped start a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö was quickly disproven, and the American Anthropological Association condemned him, only to rescind its condemnation after a vote by the membership. Throughout his career Chagnon insisted on an evidence-based scientific approach to anthropology, even as his professional association dithered over whether it really is a scientific organization. In Noble Savages, Chagnon describes his seminal fieldwork—during which he lived among the Yanomamö, was threatened by tyrannical headmen, and experienced an uncomfortably close encounter with a jaguar—taking readers inside Yanomamö villages to glimpse the kind of life our distant ancestors may have lived thousands of years ago. And he forcefully indicts his discipline of cultural anthropology, accusing it of having traded its scientific mission for political activism.
This book, like Chagnon’s research, raises fundamental questions about human nature itself.
Few social scientists end up as famous or contentious as American anthropologist Chagnon, whose unusually extensive field work among a highly remote Amazonian people, the Yanomam , led to unorthodox conclusions about primitive societies in general and the Yanomam 's warlike nature in particular. In 2000, however, a veritable academic firestorm arose after Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon charged Chagnon, among others, with harming, deliberately or inadvertently, his research subjects, not least by starting a measles epidemic an accusation that provoked his official condemnation (later reversed) by the American Anthropological Association. This memoir, Chagnon's first book for a general audience, recounts with confident prose and self-effacing humor his intense immersion, from 1964 onward, within this fascinating people and their jungle environment. It also critiques the Amazon's politically powerful, "sinister" Salesian Catholic missionaries, as well as the "ayatollahs of anthropology" for their Marxist-derived agenda and Rousseauian "noble savage" ideals, which run counter to his own Hobbesian beliefs. In this invaluable book, Chagnon (Yanomam : The Last Days of Eden) delivers a gripping adventure travelogue. His take on the corrupting relationship between politics and science is as likely to restoke the flames of debate as settle outstanding accounts.