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It's All About the Culture

Doing Fieldwork among the Yanomamo
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Violence and Culture

Napoleon Chagnon is one of the best-known living cultural anthropologists, and the Yanomamo are one of the best-known pre-modern societies.  Chagnon also wrote cogently about his experience studying the Yanomamo, who are particularly renowned for their aggressiveness (although there are some who question this interpretation).  In the introduction of his case study Yanamamo: The Fierce People, he tells the story of entering their society and the challenges he faced in doing fieldwork with them.  Of course, not all fieldwork experiences are alike, but he raises some of the perennial issues that we all face in the encounter with others unlike ourselves.

    I spent nineteen months with the Yanomamo, during which time I acquired some proficiency in their language and, up to a point, submerged myself in their culture and way of life.  The thing that impressed me most was the importance of aggression in their culture.  I had the opportunity to witness a good many incidents that expressed individual vindictiveness on the one hand and collective bellicosity on the other.  There ranged in seriousness from the ordinary incidents of wife beating and chest pounding to dueling and organized raiding by parties that set out with the intention of ambushing and killing men from enemy villages….
     I collected the data [about their culture] under somewhat trying circumstances, some of which I will describe in order to give the student a rough idea of what is generally meant when anthropologists speak of “culture shock” and “fieldwork.”  It should be borne in mind, however, that each field situation is in many respects unique, so that the problems I encountered do not necessarily exhaust the range of possible problems other anthropologists have confronted in other areas.  There are a few problems, however, that seem to be nearly universal among anthropological fieldworkers, particularly those having to do with eating, bathing, sleeping, lack of privacy and loneliness, or discovering that primitive man is not always as noble as you originally thought….
     My first day in the field illustrated to me what my teachers meant when they spoke of “culture shock.”  I had traveled in a small, aluminum rowboat propelled by a large outboard motor for two and a half days.  This took me from the Territorial capital, a small town on the Orinoco River, deep into Yanomamo country.  On the morning of the third day we reached a small mission settlement, the field “headquarters” of a group of Americans who were working in two Yanomamo villages.  The missionaries had come out of these villages to hold their annual conference on the progress of their mission work, and were conducting meetings when I arrived.  We picked up a passenger at the mission station, James P. Barker, the first non-Yanomamo to make a sustained, permanent contact with the tribe (in 1930)….
    We arrived at the village, Bisaasi-teri, about 2:00pm and docked the boat along a muddy bank at the terminus of the path used by the Indians to fetch their drinking water.  It was hot and muggy, and my clothing was soaked with perspiration.  It clung uncomfortably to my body, as it did for the remainder of the work.  The small, biting gnats were out in astronomical numbers, for it was the beginning of the dry season.  My face and hands were swollen from the venom of their numerous stings.  In just a few moments I was to meet my first Yanomamo, my first primitive man.  What would it be like?  I had visions of entering the village and seeing 125 social facts running about calling each other kinship terms and sharing food, each waiting and anxious to have me collect his genealogy.  I would wear them out in turn.  Would they like me?  This was 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, because I had heard that successful anthropologists always get adopted by their people.  I had learned during my seven years of anthropological training at the University of Michigan that kinship was equivalent to society in primitive tribes and that it was a moral way of life, “moral” being something “good” or “desirable.”  I was determined to work my way into their moral system of kinship and become a member of their society.
      My heart began to pound as we approached the village and heard the buzz of activity within the circular compound.  Mr. Barker commented that he was anxious to see if any changes had taken place while he was away and wondered how many of them had died during his absence. I felt into my back pocket to make sure that my notebook was still there and felt personally more secure when I touched it.  Otherwise, I would not have known what to do with my hands.
   The entrance to the village was covered over with brush and dry palm leaves.  We pushed them aside to expose the low opening to the village.  The excitement of meeting my first Indians was almost unbearable as I duck-waddled through the low passage into the village clearing.
     I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly men, 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.  We arrived at the village while the men were blowing a hallucinogenic drug up their noses.  One of the side effects of the drug is a runny nose.  The mucus is always saturated with the green powder and the Indians usually let it run freely from their nostrils.  My next discovery was that there were a dozen or so vicious, underfed dogs snapping at my legs, circling me as if I were going to be their next meal.  I just stood there holding my notebook, helpless and pathetic.  Then the stench of the decaying vegetation and filth struck me and I almost got sick.  I was horrified.  What sort of a welcome was this for a person who came here to live with you and learn your way of life, to become friends with you?  They put their weapons down when they recognized Barker and returned to their chanting, keeping a nervous eye on the village entrances.
     We had arrived just after a serious fight.  Seven women 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.  The abductors, angry because they lost five of the seven captives, vowed to raid the Bisaasi-teri.  When we arrived and entered the village unexpectedly, the Indians feared that we were the raiders.  On several occasions during the next two hours the men in the village jumped to their feet, armed themselves, and waited nervously for the noise outside the village to be identified.  My enthusiasm for collecting ethnographic curiosities diminished in proportion to the number of times such as alarm was raised.  In fact, I was relieved when Mr. Barker suggested that we sleep across the river for the evening.  It would be safer there.
      As we walked down the path to the boat, I pondered the wisdom of having decided to spend a year and a half with this tribe before I had even seen what they were like.  I am not ashamed to admit, either, 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 when I would be left alone with the Indians; I did not speak a word of their language, and they were decidedly different from what I had imagined them to be.  The whole situation was depressing, and I wondered why I ever decided to switch from civil engineering to anthropology in the first place.  I had not eaten all day, I was soaking wet from perspiration, the gnats were biting me, and I was covered with red pigment, the result of a dozen or so complete examinations I had been given by as many burly Indians.  These examinations capped an otherwise grim day.  The Indians would blow their noses into their hands, flick as much of the mucus off that would separate in a snap of the wrist, wipe the residue into their hair, and then carefully examine my face, arms, legs, hair, and the contents of my pockets.  I asked Mr. Barker how to say “Your hands are dirty”; my comments were met by the Indians in the following way: They would “clean” their hands by spitting a quantity of slimy tobacco juice into them, rub them together, and then proceed with the examination….
     So much for my discovery that primitive man is not the picture of nobility and sanitation I had conceived him to be. I soon discovered that it was an enormously time-consuming task to maintain my own body in the manner to which it had grown accustomed in the relatively antiseptic environment of the northern United States.  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….
     Eating three meals a day was out of the question.  I solved the problem by eating a single meal that could be prepared in a single container, or, at most, two containers, washed my 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 problem, a courageous undertaking in the tropics.  I was also less concerned about sharing my provisions with rats, insects, Indians, and the elements, thereby eliminating the need for my complicated storage process.  I was able to last most of the day on cafe con leche, heavily sugared expresso coffee diluted about five to one with hot milk.  I would prepare this in the evening and store it in a thermos.  Frequently, my single meal was no more complicated than a can of sardines and a package of crackers.  But at least two or three times a week I would do something sophisticated, like make oatmeal or boil rice and add a can of tuna fish or tomato paste to it.  I even saved time by devising a water system that obviated the trips to the river.  I had a few sheets of zinc roofing brought in and made a rain-water trap; I caught the water on the zinc surface, funneled it into an empty gasoline drum, and then ran a plastic hose from the drum to my hut.  When the drum was exhausted in the dry season, I hired the Indians to fill it with water from the river….
      Meals were a problem in another way.  Food sharing is important to the Yanomamo in the context of displaying friendship.  “I am hungry,” is almost a form of greeting with them.  I could not possibly have brought enough food with me to feed the entire village, yet they seemed not to understand this.  All they could see was that I did not share my food with them at each and every meal.  Nor could I enter into their system of reciprocities with respect to food; every time one of them gave me something “freely,” he would dog me for months to pay it back, not with food, but with steel tools.  Thus, if I accepted a plantain from someone in a different village while I was on a visit, he would most likely visit me in the future and demand a machete as payment for the time that he “fed” me.  I usually reacted to these kinds of demands by giving a banana, the customary reciprocity in their culture—food for food—but this would be a disappointment for the individual who had visions of that single plantain growing into a machete over time….
      Finally, there was the problem of being lonely and separated from your own kind, especially your family.  I tried to overcome this by seeking personal friendships among the Indians.  This only complicated the matter because all my friends simply used my confidence to gain privileged access to my cache of steel tools and trade goods, and looted me.  I would be bitterly disappointed that my “friend” thought no more of me than to finesse our relationship exclusively with the intention of getting at my locked up possessions, and my depression would hit new lows every time I discovered this.  The loss of the possession bothered me much less than the shock that I was, as far as most of them were concerned, nothing more than a source of desirable items; no holds were barred in relieving me of these, since I was considered something subhuman, a non-Yanomamo.
      The thing that bothered me most was the incessant, passioned, and aggressive demands the Indians made.  It would become so unbearable that I would have to lock myself in my mud hut once in a while just to escape from it: Privacy is one of Western culture’s greatest achievements.  But I did not want privacy for its own sake; rather, I simply had to get away from the begging.  Day and night for the entire time I lived with the Yanomamo I was plagued by such demands as: “Give me a knife, I am poor!”; “If you don’t take me with you on your next trip…I’ll chop a hole in your canoe!”; “Don’t point your camera at me or I’ll hit you!”….
     Giving in to a demand always established a new threshold; the next demand would be for bigger items or favor, and the anger of the Indians even greater if the demand was not met.  I soon learned that I had to become very much like the Yanomamo to be able to get along with them on their terms: sly, aggressive, and intimidating.
      Had I failed to adjust in this fashion I would have lost six months of supplies to them in a single day or would have spent most of my time ferrying them around in my canoe or hunting for them.  As it was, I did spend a considerable amount of time doing these things and did succumb to their outrageous demands for axes and machetes, at least at first.  More importantly, had I failed to demonstrate that I could not be pushed around beyond a certain point, I would have been the subject of far more ridicule, theft, and practical jokes than was the actual case.  In short, I had to acquire a certain proficiency in their kind of interpersonal politics and to learn how to imply subtly that certain potentially undesirable consequences might follow if they did such and such to me….It was sort of like a political game that everyone played, but one in which each individual sooner or later had to display some sign that his bluffs and implied threats could be backed up.  I suspect that the frequency of wife beating is a component of this syndrome, since men can display their ferocity and show others that they are capable of violence.  Beating a wife with a club is considered to be an acceptable way of displaying ferocity and one that does not expose the male to much danger.  The important thing is that the man has displayed his potential for violence and the implication is that other men better treat him with respect and caution….
     With respect to collecting the data I sought, there was a very frustrating problem.  Primitive social organization is kinship organization, and to understand the Yanomamo way of life I had to collect extensive genealogies.  I could note have deliberately picked a more difficult group to work with in this regard.  They have very stringer name taboos.  They attempt to name people in such a way that when the person dies and they can no longer use his name, the loss of the word in the language is not inconvenient.  Hence, they name people for specific and minute parts of things, such as “toenail of some rodent,” thereby being able to retain the words “toenail” and “(specific) rodent,” but not being able to refer directly to the toenail of that rodent.  The taboo is maintained even for the living: One mark of prestige is the courtesy others show you by not using your name.  The sanctions behind the taboo seem to be an unusual combination of fear and respect.
I tried to use kinship terms to collect genealogies at first, but the kinship terms were so ambiguous that I ultimately had to resort to names.  They were quick to grasp that I was bound to learn everybody’s name and reacted, without my knowing it, by inventing false names for everybody in the village.  After having spent several months collecting names and learning them, this came as a disappointment to me: I could not cross-check the genealogies with other informants from distant villages.
     They enjoyed watching me learn these names.  I assumed, wrongly, that I would get the truth to each question and that I would get the best information by working in public.  This set the stage for converting a serious project into a farce.  Each informant tried to outdo his peers by inventing a name even more ridiculous than what I had been given earlier, or by asserting that the individual about whom I inquired was married to his mother or daughter, and the like.  I would have the informant whisper the name of the individual in my ear, noting that he was the father of such and such a child.  Everybody would then insist that I repeat the name aloud, roaring in hysterics as I clumsily pronounced the name.  I assumed that the laughter was in response to the violation of the name taboo or to my pronunciation.  This was a reasonable interpretation, since the individual whose name I said aloud invariably became angry.  After I learned what some of the names meant, I began to understand what the laughter was all about.  A few of the more colorful examples are: “hairy vagina,” “long penis,” “feces of the harpy eagle,” and “dirty rectum.”  No wonder the victims were angry.
     I was forced to do my genealogy work in private because of the horseplay and nonsense.  Once I did so, my informants began to agree with each other and I managed to learn a few new names, real names.  I could then test any new informant by collecting a genealogy from him that I knew to be accurate.  I was able to weed out the more mischievous informants this way.  Little by little I extended the genealogies and learned the real names.  Still, I was unable to get the names of the dead and extend the genealogies back in time, and even my best informants continued to deceive me about their own close relatives.  Most of them gave me the name of a living man as the father of some individual in order to avoid mentioning that the actual father was dead….
…I began taking advantage of local arguments and animosities in selecting my informants, and used more extensively individuals who had married into the group.  I began traveling to other villages to check the genealogies, picking villages that were on strained terms with the people about whom I wanted information.  I would then return to my base camp and check with local informants the accuracy of the new information.  If the informants became angry when I mentioned the new names I acquired from the unfriendly group, I was almost certain that the information was accurate.  For this kind of checking I had to use informants whose genealogies I knew rather well: they had to be distantly enough related to the dead person that they would not go into a rage when I mentioned the name, but not so remotely related that they would be uncertain of the accuracy of the information.  Thus, I had to make a list of names that I dared not use in the presence of each and every informant.  Despite the precautions, I occasionally hit a name that put the informant into a rage, such as that of a dead brother or sister that other informants had not reported.  This always terminated the day’s work with that informant, for he would be too touch to continue any further, and I would be reluctant to take a chance on accidentally discovering another dead kinsman so soon after the first.

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