Guide Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes -- the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists

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A fascinating portrayal of the discomfort and danger that anthropologists working in remote areas face. The book is at its most entertaining when documenting the challenges of everyday life in the jungle — how to sleep fitfully in a hammock among enemies who might attempt to assassinate you in your sleep or how to net a juicy tapir for your dinner.

In this invaluable book, Chagnon delivers a gripping adventure travelogue. His take on the corrupting relationship between politics and science is as likely to re-stoke the flames of debate as settle outstanding accounts. Upcoming Events Bookstores Against Borders. Create new account Request new password. Shopping cart There are no products in your shopping cart. Search eBooks. Would they like me? This was extremely important to me.

I wanted them to be so fond of me that they would adopt me into their kinship system and way of life.


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During my anthropological training at the University of Michigan I learned that successful anthropologists always get adopted by their people. It was something very special. I was determined to earn my way into their moral system of kinship and become a member of their society—to be accepted by them and adopted as one of them. The year of fieldwork ahead of me was what earned you your badge of authority as an anthropologist, a testimony to your otherworldly experience, your academic passport, your professional credentials. I was now standing at the very cusp of that profound, solemn transformation and I truly savored this moment.

Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes - the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists

My heart began to pound as we approached the village and heard the buzz of activity within the circular compound. I nervously felt my back pocket to make sure that my nearly blank field notebook was still there, and I felt more secure when I touched it. The village looked like some large, nearly vertical wall of leaves from the outside.

The several entrances were covered over with brush and dry palm leaves. Barker and I entered the opening that led to the river. I pushed the brush aside to expose the low opening into the village. I looked up and gasped in shock when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men nervously 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.

Strands of dark green snot dripped or hung from their nostrils—strands so long that they drizzled from their chins down to their pectoral muscles and oozed lazily across their bellies, blending into their red paint and sweat. One of the side effects of the hallucinogen is a profusely runny nose, hacking and choking, and sometimes vomiting.

The nasal mucus is always saturated with the green powder, and the men usually let it run freely from their nostrils. My next discovery was that there were a dozen or so vicious, underfed growling dogs snapping at my legs, circling me as if I were to be their next meal.


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I stood there holding my notebook, helpless and pathetic. Then the stench of the decaying vegetation, dog feces, and garbage hit me and I almost got sick. I was shocked and horrified. What kind of welcome was this for the person who came here to live with you and learn your way of life, to become friends with you, to be adopted by you? We had arrived just after a serious fight.

Seven of the women from this shabono had been abducted the day before by a neighboring group, and the local men and their guests had just that morning recovered five of them in a brutal club fight that nearly ended in a shooting war with arrows. The neighboring abductors, now angry because they had just lost five of their seven new female captives, had threatened to raid the Bisaasi-teri and kill them with arrows.

When Barker and I arrived and entered the village unexpectedly, they suspected or assumed that we were the raiders. On several occasions during the next two hours the men jumped to their feet, armed themselves, nocked their arrows, ran to the several entrances, and waited nervously for the noise outside the village to be identified. My enthusiasm for collecting ethnographic facts and esoteric kinship data diminished in proportion to the number of times such an alarm was raised. What have I gotten myself into here?

I am not ashamed to admit that had there been a diplomatic way out, I would have ended my fieldwork then and there. I did not look forward to the next day—and months—when I would be alone with these people. I did not speak a word of their language, and they spoke only their own language. Only a few of the young men knew a handful of words in Spanish—not enough to utter even a short comprehensible sentence.

The whole situation was depressing, and I wondered why, after entering college, I had ever decided to switch my major to anthropology from physics and engineering in the first place. These examinations capped an otherwise grim and discouraging day. The naked men would blow their noses into their hands, flick as much of the green mucus off as they could in a snap of the wrist, wipe the residue into their hair, and then carefully examine my face, beard, arms, legs, hair, and the contents of my pockets.

Your hands are dirty. When Barker pulled his hammock out of a rubber bag, a heavy, damp, disagreeable odor of mildewed cotton and stale wood smoke wafted out with it. Even the missionaries are filthy, I thought to myself. But within two weeks, everything I owned smelled the same way, and I lived with that odor for the remainder of my fieldwork. I also realized that it is exceptionally difficult to blow your nose gracefully when you are stark naked and the invention of tissues and handkerchiefs is still millennia away. I was now facing the disappointing consequences of what, at the time, was a logical conclusion to a sequence of decisions I had made in college.

When I had decided to study anthropology, I had to pick a specialization within it. I chose cultural anthropology. The next choice was to pick some kind of society—tribesmen, peasants, or industrialized existing cultures. I picked unknown tribesmen, which limited the parts of the world I could study: there are no unknown tribesmen, for example, in the United States, so I would have to consider more remote places.

One of the possible places was South America, and there most of the unknown tribesmen were in the Amazon Basin. So, here I was, my blank notebook in hand, preparing to dig in for seventeen more months of fieldwork. I was the proverbial blank slate incarnate. You have been told or read about quicksand, horrible diseases, snakes, jaguars, vampire bats, electric eels, little spiny fish that will swim into your penis, and getting lost.

My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes -- the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists

Most of the dangers—diseases, snakes, jaguars, spiny fish, eels, getting lost—are indeed real, but your imagination makes them more ominous and threatening than many of them really are. Most normal people have no idea how many of the simple things in life just do not exist in the field—something as simple as a flat surface to write on or put your coffee cup on. What my anthropology professors never bothered to tell me about was the mundane, unexciting, and trivial stuff—like eating, defecating, sleeping, or keeping clean. This, I began to suspect, was because very few of my professors had done fieldwork in uncomfortable circumstances remotely similar to what I now faced.

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These circumstances turned out to be the bane of my existence during the first several months of field research. After that they became merely the unavoidable, inconvenient, but routine conditions of the life of a fieldworking anthropologist who unwittingly and somewhat naively decided to study the most remote, primitive tribe he could find.

Meanwhile, I had to eat and try to do my field research. I soon discovered that it was an enormously time-consuming task to maintain my hygiene in the manner to which I had grown accustomed in the relatively antiseptic environment of the northern United States.

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Either I could be relatively well fed and relatively comfortable in a fresh change of clothes—and do very little fieldwork—or I could do considerably more fieldwork and be less well fed and less comfortable. I quickly learned how complicated it can be to make a simple bowl of oatmeal in the jungle. First, I had to make two trips to the river to haul my water for the day. Next, I had to prime my kerosene stove with alcohol to get it burning, a tricky procedure when you are trying to mix powdered milk and fill a coffeepot with water at the same time.

My alcohol prime always burned out before I could turn on the kerosene, and I would have to start all over. Or I would turn on the kerosene, optimistically hoping that the stove element was still hot enough to vaporize the fuel, and start a small fire in my palm-thatched hut as the liquid kerosene squirted all over my makeshift table and mud walls and then ignited. I usually had to start over with the alcohol prime.

Then I had to boil the oatmeal and pick the bugs out of it. All my supplies were carefully stored in rat-proof, moisture-proof, and insect-proof containers, not one of which ever served its purpose adequately. Just taking things out of the multiplicity of containers and repacking them afterward was a minor project in itself. By the time I had hauled the water to cook with, unpacked my food, prepared the oatmeal, powdered milk, and coffee, heated water for dishes, washed and dried the dishes, repacked the food in the containers, stored the containers in locked trunks, and cleaned up my mess, the ceremony of preparing breakfast had brought me almost up to lunchtime!

Medium-size village on the banks of the Siapa River I soon decided that eating three meals a day was simply out of the question. I solved the problem by eating a single meal that could be prepared in a single container, or, at most, in two containers; washed my few dishes only when there were no clean ones left, using cold river water; and wore each change of clothing at least a week to cut down on my laundry, a courageous undertaking in the tropics.

I reeked like a smoked jockstrap left to mildew in the bottom of a dark gym locker. Academia is supposedly the one place where professors are free to talk unhindered by the conventions of politics.

Noble Savages | Book by Napoleon A. Chagnon | Official Publisher Page | Simon & Schuster

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