An Edge Special Event
Napoleon Chagnon, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, David Haig [6.6.13]
Introduction by:
Napoleon Chagnon, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, David Haig

(L-R) Daniel C. Dennett, Napoleon Chagnon, David Haig, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, John Brockman

"Napoleon Chagnon is a Living World Treasure. Arguably our greatest anthropologist ..." — Richard Dawkins, from the Introduction

Thanks to Steven Pinker for initiating and facilitating this Edge Special Event with Napoleon Chagnon, the last of the great ethnographers. 

THE REALITY CLUBLionel Tiger, Paul Seabright, Dominic Johnson, Azar Gat, Daniel Everett

By Richard Dawkins

Chagnon's extraordinary body of work will long be mined, not just by anthropologists but by psychologists, humanists, litterateurs, scientists of all kinds: mined for . . .  who knows what insights into the deep roots of our humanity?

Napoleon Chagnon is a Living World Treasure. Arguably our greatest anthropologist, he is brave on two fronts. As a field worker in the Amazon forest he has lived, intimately and under conditions of great privation, with The Fierce People at considerable physical danger to himself. But the wooden clubs and poison-tipped arrows of the Yanomamö were matched by the verbal clubs and toxic barbs of his anthropologist colleagues in the journal pages and conference halls of the United States. And it is not hard to guess which armamentarium was the more disagreeable to him.

Chagnon committed the unforgivable sin, cardinal heresy in the eyes of a certain kind of social scientist: he took Darwin seriously. Along with a few friends and colleagues, Chagnon studied the up-to-date literature on natural selection theory, and with brilliant success he applied the ideas of Fisher, Hamilton, Trivers and other heirs of Darwin to a human tribe which probably ran as close to the cutting edge of natural selection as any in the world. It is sobering to reflect on how unconventional a step this was: science bursting into the quasi-literary world of the anthropology in which the young Chagnon was trained. Still today, in many American departments of social science, for a young researcher to announce a serious interest in Darwin's dangerous idea—even an inclination towards scientific thinking at all—can come close to career suicide.

In Chagnon's case the animosity spilled over from mere academic disagreement to personal slander, which was not merely untrue but diametrically opposite to the truth about this ethnographer and his decent and humane relationship with his subjects and friends. The episode serves as a dark lesson in what can happen when ideology is allowed to poison the well of academic study. While it is thankfully in the past, it blighted Chagnon's career, and I don't know whether the lesson for social science has been adequately learned.

Chagnon came along at just the right time for the Yanomamö and for scientific anthropology. Encroaching civilisation was about to close the last window on a tribal world that embodied vanishing clues to our own prehistory: a world of forest "gardens", of kin-groups fissioning into genetically salient sub-groups, of male combat over women and trans-generational revenge, complex alliances and enmities; webs of calculated obligation, debt, grudge and gratitude that might underlie much of our social psychology and even law, ethics and economics. Chagnon's extraordinary body of work will long be mined, not just by anthropologists but by psychologists, humanists, litterateurs, scientists of all kinds: mined for . . .  who knows what insights into the deep roots of our humanity?

In his unique role as salon-host and impresario for science, John Brockman has performed what will come to be seen as an enduring service, by bringing Napoleon Chagnon together with four of today's leading Third Culture intellectuals: Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham and David Haig. Separately and in teams, these penetrating minds, combining deep scholarship with a rare ability to communicate and entertain, converse with Napoleon Chagnon and shed and reflect light on the life-work of a great anthropologist and a brave man.

                                                                                —Richard Dawkins

RICHARD DAWKINS, evolutionary biologist, is Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford; Author, The Greatest Show on Earth; The Selfish Gene. He was recently ranked #1 in Prospect Magazine's poll of "World Thinkers 2013."


I first walked into the Yanomamö village thinking I was going to do the perfunctory one-year field research or maybe less, go back to my university, write my doctoral dissertation, publish a book maybe, after two or three years of thinking about it, then return to the tribe ten years later and do the expected thing about,  "Woe is me, what has the world and technology done to my people?" But the minute I walked into my first Yanomamö village I realized that I was witnessing a really precious thing, and I knew I would have to come back again and again. And I did.



The Yanomamö are very valuable now as a commodity. They are the largest most interesting and romanticized tribe in the entire Amazon basin, maybe in the world. They live in an area that is threatened by ecological destruction, so there are people who are interested in saving the rain forest, and people who are interested in saving the natives. And these groups collaborate with each other. Everybody wants the Yanomamö in their portfolio. 



What I've discovered is that life was very much filled with terror of your neighbors, constantly in a position—sort of like Hobbes’ argument—foul weather is not a shower or two but a tendency thereto for months on end. So you always have your eye open to the frontier and try to make sure that the guys out there are on the other side of the moat.


Continue to Part Two


Big villages lord over small villages. So if you're seeking an ally who will protect you from the buggers up the hill who are bigger than you, you're at a disadvantage because in order to get allies, you've got to give women to them. It’s an economics game where the smaller village has to pay up front for the privileges of the alliance, and the bigger village tends to default on many of its agreements. So big villages tend to exploit small villages. It's always a good idea to live in a big village; however, it's like living in a powder keg.


Continue to Part Two Discussion

NAPOLEON CHAGNON is a renowned anthropologist who is most widely recognized for his study of the Yanomamö tribes in the Amazon. He is a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri; Author, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.

STEVEN PINKER, psychologist, is Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology; Harvard University; Author, The Better Angles of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined; The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

RICHARD WRANGHAM is Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology, Curator of Primate Behavioral Biology at Harvard University; Author, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human; (coauthor) Demonic Males: Apes, and the Origins Of Human Violence.

DANIEL C. DENNETT is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, & Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking; Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.

DAVID HAIG, evolutionary geneticist/theorist, is Associate Professor of Biology in Harvard's Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, with an interest in conflicts and conflict resolution within the genome, and genomic imprinting and relations between parents and offspring; Author, Genomic Imprinting and Kinship.


by Steven Pinker

During a sabbatical year at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the 1990s, I had the privilege of befriending Nap Chagnon, a man whom I had first learned about when I was an undergraduate. Chagnon is one of history's great anthropologists, a man who spent thirty years with the Yanomamö, learning their language, documenting their way of life, braving the many dangers of the rainforest, and reporting his findings with candor, scientific thoroughness, and novelistic richness. 

Chagnon is most famous for his reports of Yanomamö warfare, but that does him a double disservice. Other quantitative studies of non-state peoples show that the Yanomamö are not unusual in their high rates of violence, and Chagnon himself was never obsessed with their warring but crafted nuanced descriptions of every aspect of their lives, including their jokes, their everyday emotions, their stories, their methods of conflict resolution, and their reflections on their lives—in short, their humanity. His work is a priceless contribution to knowledge about a vitally informative and quickly vanishing dimension of the human experience.

For his troubles Chagnon has been the target of politically motivated vituperation from some of his anthropologist colleagues, including vicious (and thoroughly discredited) blood libels. Even though he has recently been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, his enemies have used the occasion of the publication of his autobiography to continue to press their uncomprehending and scientifically-illiterate views. In this regard, I suggested to John Brockman that Edge would be a perfect forum to bring the work of this remarkable man to the audience he deserves.

—Steven Pinker


STEVEN PINKER:  You're one of the last of the classical ethnographers, someone who goes in to study a relatively uncontacted, technologically traditional hunting people.  That's not the way a lot of anthropology is done these days. I remember a conversation at a faculty lunch with a professor of anthropology, and I asked him what tribe he studied. He said he studied the nuclear engineers of Los Alamos Labs in New Mexico. Anthropology has changed. Can you just tell us what's it like to go out and study an uncontacted people in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest? Do you pack a steamer trunk full of bug spray and peanut butter, and hire someone to drop you off and say, "Pick me up in six months?"

NAPOLEON CHAGNON:  Well, remarkably, Steve, that's pretty much the way some of it happened. But when I first walked into the Yanomamö village thinking I was going to do the perfunctory one-year field research or maybe less, go back to my university, write my doctoral dissertation, publish a book maybe, after two or three years of thinking about it, then return to the tribe ten years later and do the expected thing about,  "Woe is me, what has the world and technology done to my people?" But the minute I walked into my first Yanomamö village I realized that I was witnessing a really precious thing, and I knew I would have to come back again and again, and I did.

And even at the last hour of my last field trip they hauled me away kicking and dragging because I wanted to do more.

I realized toward the end that my work had offended a large fraction of anthropologists and philosophers and social scientists, mainly because I began advocating evolutionary theory. I realized that this opposition was eventually making it into the political authorities in Venezuela, as well as in the anthropology academic community. So there were always obstacles put in my way to sabotage my field research.

 The last several years that I went to the Yanomamö I spent all of my time collecting data meticulously —tape recordings, ID photographs —and I'm sitting on this vast amount of data. Now I've just been hired by the University of Missouri to begin to exploit all of this data, and it's like being the Battleship Missouri—decked out, refitted, and set off on the high seas to do battle one more time.

PINKER:  Who are the Yanomamö? People sometimes assume  they are hunter-gatherers, which is not technically true, because they grow bananas.  How much do we know about where they came from? We know that the Americas were peopled more than 10,000 years ago by hunter-gatherers who came over from Siberia, but the Yanomamö were not direct descendants of a long chain of hunter-gatherers. What do we know about their history?

CHAGNON:  Well, they're not the direct descendants in any demonstrable way. Peopling of the New World took place, there are estimates, 20,000, 30,000 years ago, but archeologists are skeptical about those dates. But they did reach Tierra del Fuego in the period of 7,000, 8,000 years, once they entered the New World. Very little is known about the people in the tropical forests because we don't have much archaeology on it, and we need archaeology to demonstrate the age of the sites there, and it's not the kind of conditions where preservation of artifacts is ideal.

In any event, there are speculations about vast civilizations on the Amazon River proper, and that the invaders from Portugal and Spain decimated these populations and introduced diseases that had, of course, tragic consequences. But a lot of that is just speculation. On the other hand, I have found archeological sites in the Amazon Basin itself that indicate there were some people there—a rather high-ordered civilization— compared to the tropical forest peoples. There were ceramics and obsidian tools and beads, some with holes drilled through them, in the middle of the tropical forest. And very large sites.

I went to a Yanomamö village very recently, in 1990. They were sitting on a huge mound. The Yanomamö didn't know who made the mound, but there were surface things showing up every time it rained. And these ceramics were elegant and very sophisticated, indicating that somebody lived there a long time before the Yanomamö did.

The Yanomamö find celts—polished stone tools—whenever they garden, and they think the spirits made them. So there's no really good archeology and credible history about the peoples of the New World [in the Amazon Basin].

An archaeologist by the name of Donald Lathrop developed a hypothesis that when the civilizations that were living on rather abundant fishery sources on the general Amazon River were decimated by European diseases, a lot of these people infiltrated and hid out in the hinterlands, and the Yanomamö, or perhaps one group like this, but there's no direct evidence. In fact, I think the book 1491 draws attention to this possibility as well.

But as far as the Yanomamö are concerned, they were the first people ever born, ever created, and when they see foreigners come back in wooden things that we call canoes, they realize that they, too, have been consequence of the Great Flood, and they're coming back as second-class Yanomamö. So foreigners have come in, and now they recognize them as almost human, but not quite, and their name for foreigners, they have one word for foreigners, "Nabä."

One of them, who is really sophisticated—in one of the villages—I brought an old copy of Time Magazine, well, it was a new copy when I bought it, but I kept reading it over and over again. You could get hungry for reading being in a jungle. Anyway, on the back of this Time Magazine was a photograph of some Canadian bank, the Bank of Canada, or something, and the Yanomamö were looking at it, and turning it upside down, and they said, "Well, who are these people?" And I said, "Well, you wouldn't know them. They live far away." "Oh, they're ye'kwana, the next tribe over."

PINKER:  Close enough.


PINKER: How do you conceive the relevance of the studies that you did among the Yanomamö for our understanding of human nature in general? They're clearly not a time capsule of our ancestors. On the other hand, there's much about their lifestyle that is probably closer to that of our ancestors than the way we live right now. What kind of qualifications would you make for the particularities of their lifestyle, and its relevance to an evolutionarily typical way of life?

CHAGNON:  Well, I think you've hit the nail on the head. They are not the direct descendants of Stone Age peoples. But ever since the first human being that cultivated the first plant and ate some of its product, from that point on, everybody's been in a changing culture, and to a certain extent we're all descendants of a hunting and gathering heritage that has been modified by the introduction of domesticated and cultivated foods.

All I've been claiming in my writings is that the Yanomamö are not necessarily the modern day survivors of the Stone Age. They are, however, the best approximation that we have in the ethnographic world today of peoples living in a kind of environment—a kind of political system, okay, social system—that approximates as closely as you can find human beings today living in a condition—a state of nature, as it were—that is quite comparable to what must have happened during most of human history. And to that extent, we can learn a lot of things about politics, political attitudes, violence, agression, etc. from people like the Yanomamö. Unfortunately, there aren't many people like the Yanomamö left, and that's what awed and astonished me the first time I saw them.

PINKER: When I've cited figures on violence from a variety of hunter-gatherer, hunter-horticulturalist, and tribal peoples, I often get the criticism, "Well, these aren't all hunter-gatherers." My response is, "Well, that's irrelevant." For the purpose  of testing a specific hypothesis,  say, whether government reduces violence, it doesn't matter whether they're literally hunter-gatherers. What matters is the value of the independent variable you're testing, for example, Is government present, or is government absent? My attitude is that the value of studying these peoples is that there are many features of our present environment that we can't subtract other than by looking at such people. Whether or not they survive only by hunting and gathering is irrelevant to the effect of that variable.

CHAGNON:  I've had this argument with Marvin Harris and people like that. You're not exactly what you eat, though in some cases you might be.

 The important thing that I've discovered about the Yanomamö is the answer to the question of a lot of highly educated people in our society who say, "Oh, it would be so wonderful if we could just go back to an earlier time when life was so much simpler, and pleasant, and neighbors cooperated…" And what I found is the further back in time you go, the more that unpleasant things are ubiquitous in your environment. Violence is just around the corner, and wishing for a return to the noble savage past is possibly one of the biggest errors that one might make philosophically. I don't think life in the state of nature was nearly as pleasant as a lot of people would like it to be.

One example I give from my travels across the United States: I happen to have been invited on a trip into the Grand Canyon by the man who was then Governor of Arizona, Fife Symington, and we had the park ranger, the archeologist for the Grand Canyon area, along with us, and he took us into parts of the Grand Canyon that most tourists don't see. One of the most astonishing things we saw, Pueblo houses built into the edge of the Grand Canyon, with a 1,000-foot drop below, and these houses were occupied by prehistoric Indians who were so terrified of their neighbors that they'd climb down vines and ropes with their kids on their back, and firewood under their arm, and the day's catch in their baskets, because they were just terrified of their neighbors. And that's the way the Yanomamö live. Even the missionaries who have lived among the Yanomamö the longest have pointed out repeatedly to me and other people that these people are terrified of neighbors. It's like Hobbe's war of "all against all" in many respects, and Rousseau is way off the mark.

PINKER:  Maybe not every man against every man, but …


PINKER:  … but every village against every village.


PINKER:  Let's go back to the beginning, Indulge me with a couple of questions about my own obsession, language. So you wander into this village. You don't speak a word of Yanomamö. How do you establish the first communication? What was it like learning Yanomamö? I take it you're fluent in Yanomamö?

CHAGNON: Well, I used to be.

PINKER:  What was it like to try to establish communication without language to begin with?

CHAGNON: Well, I had the advantage. The first day I was in a Yanomamö Village I had with me an American Protestant missionary who had spent some time among the Yanomamö before I got there, and he brought me into the village the first day. He happened to be in the area and I offered him a ride up the Orinoco River. He hadn't been back to the village for over a year. And we walked into the village, and he said, "I'm a bit anxious to see who died." I thought what a macabre attitude that is. Anyway, it's important to know who's dead, because you don't want to say their names. I mean you might have had a friend there a year ago, and you walk in, "Where's Joe?" And you could be in a world of trouble because of that.

 Anyway, he wrote down a number of phrases for me, and with this humble start, I began adding ways to make these statements meaningful to the Yanomamö. Most of the phrases were things like, "Don't hit me with that." But it was things like, "Fetch some firewood," or "Share your food with me." And, of course, in the course of a few hours the missionary left. I was all alone with the Yanomamö there. And they realized at some point very soon after he left that I couldn't speak Yanomamö very well, and they thought: he must be deaf. So they began shouting at me, and that was their solution to our inability to communicate, or my inability to communicate with them—I had some physical defect, it must be my hearing—and so they'd shout louder and louder at me, and they'd finally get disgusted and walk away.

 But slowly I added more and more vocabulary, and I could talk reasonably fluently about common things like, "Where do you sleep?" and "Who's your younger sibling?" and "What village did you come from?" But I could never, at say, six months in the village, start penetrating the really sophisticated components of their world of thought, and belief, and mythology, and things like that. That took much, much longer.

PINKER:  When you did enjoy a greater mastery of the language, did you find that the language itself was constraining  the  kind of ideas and belief systems that could be shared? There had been recent controversy over claims by Daniel Everett…

CHAGNON: Right. I know that.

PINKER: … that another Amazonian people—the Pirahã—could not, or chose not, to talk about anything that was not in their immediate experience. No abstraction. No talk about the past. No talk about the future. In your experience of the Yanomamö, was there concern with entities and systems beyond the five senses?

CHAGNON: I don't think the Yanomamö have the same kind of limitations on the way they dealt with the external world as the Pirahã did. This actually touched on a fairly significant controversy in your field—linguistics—with Noam Chomsky. What was the concept that Dan said? Regression?

PINKER: Recursion.

CHAGNON:  Recursion. That the Pirahã language didn't have recursion, and Chomsky believed all languages had recursion. And it was never settled. Interestingly enough, Daniel Everett had a chance to go back in and bring colleagues with him to test this proposition—this theory—that was basically a Chomskian theory, but most of the linguists in Brazil were Chomskite advocates or students and he failed to get a research permit to do it.

PINKER:  Well, in the Yanomamö, how easy is it to embed a sentence within another sentence? To say, for example, that Bill believes that John is sick?

CHAGNON:  That's very easy to do.

PINKER:  Let's switch from language to cognition. Your work has attracted so much controversy for its descriptions of violence and sex that people forget about the rich characterization of the rest of their way of life—their technology, their mythology, their art, their humor. And for me, reading your book, what was impressive was how much richness there was in your description of their lifestyle. There's one passage in particular that has stuck with me, where you describe how they hunt armadillo. Armadillos live underground in labyrinthian burrows, and the Yanomamö would seal off all the openings to the burrows but one, take a particular kind of fungus, I believe …

CHAGNON: No. It was termite nests.

PINKER: Termite nests that formed an intense smoky fire. They would fan the smoke into the burrow, then one of them put his ear to the ground, listening for where the armadillo was finally…

CHAGNON: Wait. They introduced…a vine with a knot at the end, and they gradually let the vine creep down the burrow, and the guy on the ground would keep his ear to the ground, and where it stopped, they assumed, and quite accurately, that the armadillo had suffocated there. So they pulled the vine out, and laid it down on the ground, determined the exact spot where the armadillo would be, and dug down maybe two or three feet to the dense clay soil, and sure enough that's where the armadillo would be.

PINKER:  It's an astonishing feat of engineering. Can you say something, more generally, about your impressions of their folk science—their folk math, their concept of number, of causality, of space, of biological processes, of chemical composition? Were they intuitive scientists?

CHAGNON: Was that all one question?

PINKER:  That was all one question. Yes.

CHAGNON:  Well, first of all, the Yanomamö have a very limited vocabulary of numbers. They have one, two, and more than two. It's very difficult, as an anthropologist who's interested in demography, to, for example, get ages of people. They don't reckon ages the same way as we do. However, they do talk about certain human universals that all humans have that we don't even have words for. Let me give you an example. What do you call this?

PINKER:  The pit of your elbow?

CHAGNON: Well, the Yanomamö have a specific word for that. For example, when I would ask, "How old is such and such a person?" They would say, "Young." Then to amplify that they would say, "He is just starting to creep." So, you know, pretty much, the age. Or, "How old was this boy when he first went hunting with his father?" He was, "yiiwä,"—his muscles were just starting to get hard. And that's a very specific point in everybody's life. And, "How old was this little girl?"—she was kidnapped by raiders in the next village; she was "suwa härö,"—her nipples were just beginning to appear. So they have very precise ways of indicating characteristics of certain developed ontogenetic dimensions of all forms of life. And they are incredibly interested in insects and the world around them.

Speaking of armadillos, I once asked my best informant, he mentioned the name of an insect, and I said, "Well, what kind of insect is that?" and he said, "Well, you only find them at the entry to an armadillo den. You wouldn't understand that." And I said, "Well, apparently it's an insect that will only assemble or flock around the beginning of the armadillo den if the armadillo is there." And that's how they know which dens to light fires in. But he assumed you're so stupid, you wouldn't know something like that.

PINKER:  Did they make you feel stupid?

CHAGNON: Yes, they did. A Protestant missionary, who was taking a walk between village A and village B, and wanted to come along with me, because he had never been to village B, and this Yanomamö—the Yanomamö are very arrogant, I mean they think they're the be-all and end-all of humanity—and so the missionary was getting kind of annoyed at that, and he said, "Well, if you think the Yanomamö are really smart, why don't you go make me a knife." And the Yanomamö replied, "Well, if you're so smart, why don't you make me one?" It took centuries of the evolution of technology in the industrial world to make a knife.

PINKER:  It required a division of labor.


PINKER:  Do they have words or concepts for abstract entities that might explain their observations of the living world? Do they have any sense of what was passed on, say, from a parent animal to a child animal? Of what's contained in a seed? Do they have words for any of the forces that push things around or that make the sun rise?

CHAGNON: You mean like gravity

PINKER:  Or the equivalent. Were there theoretical constructs?

CHAGNON: Well, their real belief systems about the real world around them blend in at some indefinite point in the past, where you can't really tell if they're talking about spirits or creatures that are real and that you can describe. So the borderline between human beings and the netherworld of spirits and deities is very vague. And, in fact, when they want to say something that's really old, they will say something like, "Peribö iya dähä"—at the time when moon's blood spilled to earth.

They have a myth about the origin of human beings and it begins with the character, Moon. Moon was a cannibal, which they are disgusted with. Every time, for example, I would shoot a tapir—a big ungulate in the tropical forest, it weighs about 500 pounds, but they have the best tasting meat I have ever eaten. And they don't take them very often. So I would cut a big fresh slab of meat off the hind quarter of a tapir, put it in a frying pan, and flip it over, rare, and then just eat chunks of it, blood would be running down my mouth and beard, and they were so disgusted with that. "You want to turn into a cannibal. I mean you're going to be like a jaguar. He eats people."

Anyway, Moon was a cannibal. It's hard to tell if he's human or a spirit, but in a more human aspect of Moon, he came down to Earth, as the moon sets, and he would capture Yanomamö souls and eat them between pieces of cassava, which is odd because the Yanomamö, they do make cassava, but it's nothing like the cassava that's found in the rest of the Amazon Basin. Anyway, Moon ate souls of human beings with cassava, and he would ascend slowly back up into the sky.

And the two culture heroes decided to shoot this varmint, who was decimating their population. And the first one was left-handed, and therefore, a bad shot. They associated leftness with being "sina", or a poor shot. So he shot arrow after arrow at the fleeing Moon, and he kept missing. And the other brother was right-handed, and good shot. He aimed, hit Moon right in the belly. And when Moon's blood dropped to Earth, it changed into the Yanomamö, and where the blood was thickest, the Yanomamö were really violent and fierce, and they fought constantly and exterminated each other. And where it thinned out—when it spread through the water—the Yanomamö formed by that blood were more suave and friendlier and they didn't exterminate themselves, but nevertheless, other Yanomamö, even they were violent and fierce. And where it got almost thinned down to nothing—just water—they were pretty timid, and most of those are foreigners.

PINKER: So there was an essentialist theory of the roots of violence. You could call it the "Blood of the Moon" theory.

CHAGNON:  Oh, yes. And it almost perfectly fits the geographical distribution of the Yanomamö, except in the southwestern corner. If you look at all the villages of the Yanomamö, the ones to the north and east that are on the periphery are the least aggressive and least violent, and that's …

PINKER:  The refugees?

CHAGNON:  No. Not quite. There are other kinds of refugees. But these are the Yanomamö that the Brazilian anthropologists study.

PINKER:  Were there any skeptics among the Yanomamö of these received myths? I've heard from Louis Liebenberg, who lived among the San of the Kalahari desert,  that one of the told him the official story of sunrise and sunset, namely that the sun was murdered in a pool of blood at the end of every day and his bones would be thrown across the sky to be reborn at sunrise, and you could even hear the whistling sound of the flying bones at night. And the guy added, skeptically:  "That's the story. But you know, I've listened hard. I've never heard that whistling."

Did you ever find any atheists, agnostics, or  skeptics among your …

CHAGNON:  One of my best informants, a man named Kaobawä, was telling me the myth of Naro. Naro is an opossum, but he smelled like a skunk; Naro is really a stinky creature. Anyway, this episode of Naro, he climbs up a tree, and they chop the tree down, and a branch is constrained by a spider web. Anyway, I mean they chop the spider web and Naro goes flying off into the sky, and my informant said, "Do you believe that?" So there are philosophical skeptics among the Yanomamö, too.

PINKER:  That's reassuring.

CHAGNON:  Right.

PINKER:  At least since Alfred Russell Wallace there has been curiosity about the roots of the ability to do science in preliterate and foraging peoples. Liebenberg argues that it's the ability to infer the behavior of animals from their  tracks that's the evolutionary basis of the cognitive ability to do science. But I take it there's more general inference from evidence that you saw among the Yanomamö. For example, you just told us that they had a theory of the demographics and sociology of concentrations of population and violence that they explain by unobserved entities.

CHAGNON:  Right.  

PINKER:  Did you see other cases where they acted like folk scientists?

CHAGNON: No, but now that you've got me thinking about it, I think there's a general correlation between native peoples in the Amazon, or in South America in general, and the sophistication of their numbering system. And the degree to which they intellectualize and have concepts of, say, the stars in the sky, and they have constellations, or the complexity of their baskets. And I think numbering systems tend to be correlated with complex basketry and complex cosmology. Now, I don't know a good example from my work among the Yanomamö that illustrates that, but …

PINKER:  Then let's switch to emotion. Your colleague, Donald Brown at UC Santa Barbara, wrote a book on human universals, in which he repeated the hypothesis by Paul Ekman that all humans display and experience six basic emotions: Happiness, surprise, fear, anger, sadness, and disgust. What about the rest of the spectrum of emotions: romantic love, pride, jealousy, nostalgia, guilt, shame, schadenfreude?

CHAGNON: Well, that's one question.

PINKER:  That's one question. Do you get a sense—having lived with them for many decades—that their general range of emotional experience was similar to ours? Different from ours?

CHAGNON:  I think it was quite similar to ours, with some major differences. For example, I don't think romantic love exists among the Yanomamö, even though Helen Fisher, for example, and people like Helen who do that kind of research.

PINKER:  Yoni Harris reviewed the literature in her UCSB dissertation and claimed that romantic love was a human universal. Wasn’t she a student of yours, or of your colleagues Donald Brown or Donald Symons?

CHAGNON:  Well, we had a knock-down, drag-out argument on her dissertation. Well, first of all, the Yanomamö are so inbred that when they marry a wife she's very often related to the husband by a factor of a coefficient of relatedness that's much closer than first cousins. So kin selection theory, and affection, and obligation to a close kinsman becomes entangled with notions of romantic love. Secondly, if romantic love really existed in societies like the Yanomamö, why do the Yanomamö refuse to marry their parallel cousins, who are as related to them as their cross-cousins? And in fact, they regard their parallel cousins as sisters or siblings, and there's no affection whatsoever; in fact, it's a taboo relationship. So culture and classification of kinsman interferes, to a certain extent, in the emotions that they might have. And finally, marriages among the Yanomamö are like political marriages—like the hierarchy in the aristocracy in England.  They are for alliance purposes, and villages can only be a certain size if the right individuals in that village, the headmen, for example, choose their mates or have their mates provided to them by special other people. So there's a very political dimension to the Yanomamö marriage.

There have been years and years of discussion of "alliance theory" in anthropology. And it's basically marriage theory. And all these complex models of Lévi-Strauss and Rodney Needham, and David Maybury-Lewis, who we're fascinated by, they almost never entail any kind of violence and warfare like the Yanomamö have. Their alliance is a real phenomenon, and that's not just a fancy structural model of some kinship organization. So there's some teeth in marrying certain kinds of cousins that form alliances.

PINKER:  Were there any Romeo and Juliet stories, where the elders formed an alliance, but perhaps the betrothed couple had other ideas?

CHAGNON:  There are occasions where young people run off into the jungle and have illicit affairs when they shouldn't have them. And one could probably argue that it's not simply lust. It may, in fact, be a very large amount of affection, or as Helen Fisher might put it, some "star glittering over their eyes of affection."

PINKER: What about humor? Can you share any good Yanomamö jokes with us?

CHAGNON:  Well, the Yanomamö almost never get bald. Until death they have abundant shocks of hair, like yours, for example.

PINKER:  Not as curly.

CHAGNON:  Not as curly. But one of the missionaries came to the village the first day. They gave him the name Pao, which was the name of a fish. And when he moved back to the village—after I'd been there for three or four months—he was in his house, and I had built my own little hut away from the house. Whenever I went visiting the Yanomamö from one village to another I had a shotgun, I'm a pretty good shot, and whenever I'd shoot a monkey—a certain kind of a monkey that has this really elegant tail—they use the tail. They take the bone out of the tail by cutting the tail open lengthwise, pull the bone out, and wear the tail on their head during the festivals. They're decorative. And one day I shot two of these monkeys—wisha is the name of the monkey—and I gave them all the meat. I don't eat primates despite the blood running down my mouth when I eat tapir.

PINKER:  Professional courtesy.

CHAGNON: Right. I wanted to keep one of the tails for myself to make my own little decorative thing. And I said, "Well, I'll have both of the tails." And they said, "You only have one head, though." And I said, "Well, I'm going to give them as a gift to Pao,"— who was as bald as a cue ball. And they rolled out on the ground. They thought that was so funny that Pao would need two of these monkey tails to cover his bald spot. So that's one example.

PINKER:  Are you going to share the story that you once confided in me about the time you were inoculating them after a feast of banana soup?

CHAGNON: Well, if you wish. I was collecting blood samples, and I brought Jim Neel and a bunch of geneticists into the Yanomamö for a period of about six years.  Sometimes members of the villages weren't at home, so if I were going back to that area, Neel would ask me, "Well, can you get the other group of people who weren't there that you said that weren't there when we were there to take their blood samples?" So I went back to this one village, it was a huge village of 280, almost 300 people, which is big for a Yanomamö village. Anyway, they knew that after the blood sampling I would always give them gifts. So I reached down to find a vein and take a blood sample—I had a vacutainer to do a blood sample—and I'd try to sit back up again and there would be all these hot, sweaty painted bodies with nara—this red paint that once you get it on you'll never get it off. They just had a big feast of banana pudding and meat and they were breaking wind. And finally I got so disgusted with all these sweaty bodies hovering around me and I couldn't even move, and I said, "Would you people stop farting?" One young man looked at me and said, "Fart? People in this village can't fart. We don't even have assholes!"  [yamakö Bosi kuwami]

PINKER:  Let's switch to conflict, which itself has generated so much conflict in the interpretation of your work.

CHAGNON: Well, as you pointed out in the little brief introduction to me, I've talked about a lot of things other than conflict, but conflict is my specialty.

PINKER:  You documented that one of the things they fight over is women, which is significant because of the frequently repeated myth that native peoples, since they have no wealth, have nothing to fight over; it's only when you have the accumulation of wealth that there's anything worth stealing. Whereas if people fight over women, they always, in principle, have something to fight over. But am I right in thinking that it's not the only thing that they fight over?  It's one casus belli, but they can also fight over territory.

CHAGNON: Well, territory, we can discuss that at great length because there are many different dimensions of this territorial thing that we're now raising. But the Yanomamö will, for example, fight over honor. If somebody disses a colleague in the village, when a guy goes out hunting and gets a big game animal, he is pretty much obligated to share that game animal out to especially his in-laws, or the people who his wife came from. They're all living in the same village, but they have cross-cousins and things like that. And sometimes these guys, they have grudges against each other. So at a feast where the meat is being distributed, you can really offend somebody by, instead of giving him a T-bone steak, you give him a pig hock, or something, and that would be very offensive.  Everybody would notice it. And that could lead to a complication further down the line: "This guy dissed me in the meat distribution, I'm going to bash his head in in this club fight." So that's one thing you can do.

So honor, if you were to say, "Well, the Yanomamö are aggressive because they have the strong honor code," well, that's only a tip of the complex series of things that they can fight about. Or somebody might steal a person's tobacco. They frequently run out of tobacco, and when they run out of tobacco, their word for being without tobacco is to be in poverty, to be "hori,"—utter poverty. I'm so hori. Anyway, to tell you how important tobacco is to them, one of my guides and I had to make my own canoe to get out; my other guide ran away, took my canoe, and left us both up there to die. After we ran into the first Yanomamö that we saw in several days—they share their tobacco all the time, they're not good on the germ theory of disease. One will put his tobacco down and the other will go …

PINKER:  This is chewing tobacco?

CHAGNON:  Yes. They put tobacco wads that big around and that long between their lower lips and their teeth. Anyway, he laid down in his hammock and, "Ah. I was so poor I thought I would die." He's sucking on this old three-day-old wad of tobacco from the other guy. So one of the things that they do when they run out of tobacco, they're not good planners for surplus production. So they tend to be under-producers. There aren't many cultivated crops that the Yanomamö will fight over, but tobacco is one of them.

PINKER:  They will steal?

CHAGNON:  Yes. Yes.

PINKER:  From another village?

CHAGNON:  No. Even in their own village when they get poor—"hori"—anything goes. People will actually plant booby traps in their tobacco patch, like sharpened femur bones of a monkey, and bury them like bungee sticks, bungee bones, and they're intended to make it expensive if you go in and snitch somebody's tobacco. They tend not to fight over plantains and bananas.

PINKER: You've written a lot about their conflict resolution techniques. First of all, what are their attitudes towards conflict? To what extent do they valorize conflict itself? Do they believe that it's manly and honorable, as opposed to deplorable and wasteful? And what do they do about it?

CHAGNON:  I wouldn't say that they are polar extremes as you have stated it. They don't like to fight, actually. They prefer to be friendly, amicable, and live life in harmony. But they're caught in a conundrum of the following sort. The only way you can live that nice happy free life is if you're in a small community, like 25 people, most of whom are children. So everything is happy and friendly. People get along with each other. But a village of 25 people is extremely vulnerable to raids from the outside, and the men will come in and steal the women, and send the men packing, or shoot the men and take the women. So they're constantly being pressured to maximize the size of their village. And as you increase the number of people in the village, you get increasing amounts of conflict.

PINKER:  They get on each other's nerves.

CHAGNON: Right. And occasionally they'll explain to me, I mean the question I always ask in all villages, why did such and such a group fission away from such and such a group? And occasionally they'll say, "We've just got so damn many people that we're on each other's nerves all the time, so we just split apart." But when the intensity of warfare is high, it would be really hazardous to split apart. And what I often found is, you know, the garden that might be 20 acres large, this is a big garden, and a fight might occur in the village that might be 200 people, and instead of picking up and moving the next valley over, they can't, because they're too dependent on their gardens. So they split the group into two parts, each locating in a different part of the garden. Then they begin transplanting their plantain cuttings, their banana cuttings, and tubers to some other location, maybe a day's walk away, until they get that garden developed to the point that it can feed them. Then they move away. But they may rejoin and move away again. …

PINKER:  Do they ever attack preemptively, thinking “Let's wipe them out before they wipe us out?”

CHAGNON: That's rare. And it only happened recently when the Yanomamö are put in a position where they acquire firearms, as Catholic Missions frequently give them to lure them away from the Protestants. And that's unfortunate that it's happened a couple of times in the area that I know best. And so when the men get the shotguns, they say well, "Let's go kick some ass over in the other valley," and they'll go shoot and kill people that they have no quarrels with.

PINKER:  But not out of fear of being attacked first?


PINKER: Just out of naked aggression?

CHAGNON:  The Yanomamö explained it this way to me: When you give a fierce guy a gun, he wants to use it.

PINKER: Subtracting away the guns, when the villages are attacking each other, how much of it is out of revenge, how much of it is out of fear?

CHAGNON:  It's almost always for revenge. Blood is their argument. The Yanomamö will always attempt to avenge the death of a kinsman. It may take them a long time, and when the tables are turned on the guys that did it, like they get too small as a group, then it may appear to be a preemptive strike, but it has some historical roots. It's almost never a case where they attack another Yanomamö village preemptively for no reason at all. It's usually a consequence of some previous argument.

PINKER:  Is there moral justification then for the attack? Like, "They had it coming?" "We're doing the right thing." "We're achieving justice"?

CHAGNON:  Right. And they'll rejoice and say, "I spattered his blood all over his wife, and his kids, and even his dog."

PINKER:  What about standing back and saying—at some point they must figure this out—"We're avenging that death, which was caused when they avenged the previous death, and the cycle of violence keeps going on. Is there some way that we can extricate ourselves from this cycle?" Did that thought occur to them? Because they must at some point do the math and realize, well, not every killing could be in revenge.

CHAGNON:  You are asking a profound question here. And the answer to that is best explicated in an incident that happened to me when the Yanomamö began being aware of Venezuelans, for example. It was a territorial capital 200+ miles away, and some of the missionaries sent young guys to the territorial capital to learn practical nursing to come back to the village and treat snake bites, and scratches, and wounds, and things like that, and to give them malaria pills. And they taught them how to use microscopes.

But one of these guys came back and he was just terribly excited when he told me that he discovered policia. I was like, "Well, what's policia?" "They will grab people and haul them off and put them in these little separate houses, if they do something wrong. And I think we need policia, because my brother killed a man from Iwahikorobateri five years ago, and I'm always worried that the Iwahikorobateri are going to come and kill me, because he's my brother." And he thought that if they had law, law would be a good thing.

And ironically, the whole origin of anthropology began when early lawyers were astonished when they came to the New World and saw all of these huge populations living in harmony, and they couldn't understand how they could do it. Well, kinship was part of the answer. But they began thinking seriously. Well, it goes back to Plato, too, about the origin of the state. But a lot of legal minds—in England and in the United States—were astonished that the political state could evolve out of primitive tribes like the American Indians.

PINKER:  So you discovered kind of a Yanomamö Hobbes, who discovered the Leviathan.  

CHAGNON:  Right.

PINKER:  A final question, and it flows out of your answer to the last one. How should we think about what we should do with indigenous peoples? How much of the fruits of civilization should we share, how much should we try to preserve them, or allow them to preserve themselves? How much do they want to preserve their way of life? You must have given a lot of thought to this.

CHAGNON: That's the dilemma. Yes. I have. One answer right off the bat is if you cripple the patient you'd better provide the cure. And to a certain extent, that's what civilization has done to the indigenous peoples. It has introduced diseases—things in their population that we are responsible for—and I think it is our duty or our obligation to make sure that if we contact them at all that we should contact them with their well-being, their physical well-being in mind, and provide medicines for the things that we have introduced to them. From my whole point of view, I thought about this a lot. I mean it might be better to not contact primitive peoples, if any of them exist any more, at all. They're going to be corrupted by Western civilization and die off.

I once made a comment that missionaries, Protestant missionaries, just loved to use as a way to denigrate me, that if the Yanomamö get contacted by Venezuelans or Brazilians, they're going to end up as bums, beggars, and prostitutes on the periphery of the little tiny towns that appear everywhere there's a frontier.And that's the other thing that is, in fact, happening. And in Brazil, where the Yanomamö have much more contact, most of the harm has been to the Yanomamö, but on the Brazilian side of the boarder it has been inflicted on them by Brazilians, not Venezuelans. So most of my detractors are on the Brazilian side of the border, I mean the anthropologists, the Brazilians. They're faulting me for saying things about the Venezuelan Yanomamö that they think is doing the Brazilian Yanomamö terrible harm. Well, I'm not talking about the Brazilian Yanomamö, although they probably are very similar in most areas. But we can't leave them alone. I mean there's no way in the world that we can contact native peoples and avoid the consequences of providing some sorts of resources to repair the damage that the contact itself has created.

PINKER:  Can you imagine any kind of sustainable arrangement between indigenous peoples and modern civilization?

CHAGNON: What I wanted to do in the case of the Yanomamö was to train some Venezuelans or some Brazilians or some Peace Corpsmen and make them little trading posts available in the really uncontacted parts of the Yanomamö so that the Yanomamö would be able to have access to medicines, if they needed medicines, or useful tools, like machetes for clearing their jungle, and maybe even learn how to read and write, and allow them to accommodate themselves to a more gradual change instead of a really shocking change—like an epidemic coming and wiping out half the village. So this is one of the things that I was toying with, but I could never get Venezuelans to go along with it.

PINKER: One more question. You've spent many decades with the Yanomamö, you've accumulated an enormous amount of film footage, of field notes and genealogies and descriptions. What now? Have you donated them to an archive? Are you planning to put it on-line, so that other ethnographers who will not be able to work with uncontacted people will be able to mine more information from the data that you gathered?

CHAGNON:  Yes. I think the database I've collected has been extremely useful, and it would be a shame if I were to perish from this earth without making it available and intelligible. And I've got to do a lot of work on it. Only I know, "Oh, so and so is related to so and so," and that ties a whole bunch of stuff together. I've been thinking about that for a long time, and fortunately the University of Michigan has an Institute for Social Research, which has huge databases on traffic tickets, and demography, and things that Martin Daly would be fascinated with.

But they are now experimenting or toying with the idea of making an indigenous database, starting with mine, because I have so much data. I was recently appointed as a research professor in the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan, but I have to pay my own salary. So when the University of Missouri offered me a job, I could take my data there and get paid to do this from the University of Missouri. So I am developing this database, which I will leave a copy of at Missouri, but I'm also going to give a copy of it to the University of Michigan, who will then make it available online at major research universities who have legitimate students interested in exploiting this data, and it will be eventually shared very widely in the academic community.

PINKER:  Thanks Nap. We've managed to touch just a fraction of your observations over those decades.  Your books and papers on the Yanomamö have been among the most informative and fascinating reads in my career, and I encourage anyone who's enjoyed this conversation to read the original books.

We have a distinguished peanut gallery who have been listening to our conversation, and I wonder if Dan Dennett or David Haig have any questions and would like to continue the conversation.


DANIEL C. DENNETT: I wanted to follow-up on one of Steve's questions about sense of humor. I know from your books that they love practical jokes, that they played practical jokes on you, and I know they have dirty words because they taught you a lot of dirty words and gave you other meanings for them, so you could embarrass yourself without realizing. Let me ask you for a few examples: Do they tell anecdotes about silly things that their friends, or colleagues, or enemies do? Do they ever sort of imitate like a clown, the behavior of somebody? Do they ridicule people? Do they have jokes, other than practical jokes?

NAPOLEON CHAGNON: Well, the answer to all of those questions is yes. Let me give you some specific examples. For example, their myth world, their telling of myths is just rich and replete with all sorts of antics of them going through the motions of such and such a character in the myth. I mean it will entertain the whole village just watching how well a particular Yanomamö can imitate or little nuances that he adds in the imitation that nobody has witnessed before.

DENNETT: And laughter?

CHAGNON:  And laugh. Oh. They really get hilarious about that. How about a practical example of their joke they played on me: One of their words is to have hair on your pubis, and that's called "weshi". It's nothing embarrassing. They talk about it all the time. I mean they don't walk up to a person and say, "Are you weshi?" Now, you can see if they're weshi. I mean they don't have any clothes. But they knew that I didn't always catch the distinction between another word, beshi and weshi. So they connived on this trip we were taking to a distant village, and we were sitting down and resting at one point, and they had all gotten in on this. They asked me, "Wa beshi?" And I thought, "Wa Weshi?"—do you have hair on your pubis? I said, "Awei. Ya Beshi!" And that meant, "I'm horny as hell." And they just broke up. That's really funny.

STEVEN PINKER:  Not exactly Dorothy Parker.

DENNETT:  But word play.

CHAGNON:  And one of the things that they do, which I don't have an explanation for it. Talk about recursive. They would say to me, for example, "Call that guy over there 'asshole'." And I had no idea at first what they were telling me to say, and so, I would call the guy "Asshole," and they'd get mad, and the guy I called asshole would get really mad at me, and really angry, as if the guy who told me to call him asshole didn't exist. And I could never figure out why the perpetrator of this funny thing never had any guilt.

DENNETT:  Sounds like you maybe could have made use of a ventriloquist.

CHAGNON: That's true. Charlie McCarthy. Was he a Senator from Wisconsin?

DENNETT:  Haha. In your book you mention that, although they have words, the idea of a word was not obvious to them, and that you had to go through some effort to get them to break their language up into their words, into nouns, verbs, and so forth.

CHAGNON:  You must have read something I wrote about this, because that's exactly what happened. The biggest difficulty I faced in doing my field research is to get them to realize the notion of a word and where one ended and the next one began. They intuitively knew that, but they didn't know how to explain that to me. They'd make a statement to me that would go on for five pages, and it was because I didn't know where one part of the statement ended and the next began. And I finally trained one of them, right, got one of them to understand what I was trying to do. I wanted him to say a word as a discrete component in a more complex collection of words, and I thought this was a major breakthrough, and it was.

PINKER:  That's true in non-literate peoples in general, and in children. , What intuitively seems to us like a word is actually the product of  active meta-linguistic awareness:  reflecting back on language as an entity.  Until the late Middle Ages there weren't even spaces between words in print. Language was just written as one long sequence of sounds, which literally is what it is. If you look at an oscilloscope tracing of speech there are no little breaks between one word and the other.

CHAGNON:  So the Yanomamö aren't as linguistically primitive as we think they are.

DENNETT:  They're actually quite accurate in terms of what the speech wave consists of.

DENNETT:  Steve Levinson has a hypothesis about how interaction with people who speak another language simplifies your own language. It's a very interesting idea. Nobody knows if it's true. But do the Yanomamö have much experience interacting with people who don't speak Yanomamö? I mean in your case you didn't, but you didn't have somebody to speak English with or Spanish with.

CHAGNON:  Right.

DENNETT:  Have most of them heard people speaking foreign languages?

CHAGNON:  Probably now there's no Yanomamö who has not ever been in the presence of a foreigner. They may live in a really isolated village, but they walk three days to go to the closest mission, and they sit around and admire and fear what they see there. Then they go back to their village, and some of the stories they tell are really amusing. And they imitate.

DENNETT:  They're inventing scribble. That's what it sounds like.

CHAGNON:  It's like inventing three or four words Spanish and Portuguese, or something, and then the rest of it gibberish. And that's what they think foreign language—Spanish and Portuguese—is like.

DENNETT:  So they haven't just encountered a foreigner. They've encountered foreigners speaking their language to each other.

CHAGNON:  Right.

DAVID HAIG:  But within the Yanomamö's people, it's a single language dialect.

CHAGNON:  No. There are dialect differences, and some of them are large enough that I had difficulty without spending four or five days there to catch what's going on so I can adjust my ear to the, I don't know how you would describe that, I'm not a linguist, but the timbre and the pitch.

PINKER:  The phonology.

CHAGNON:  Right.

PINKER:   A lot of these stories suggest that they have a difficulty in, pardon the expression, their folk anthropology. They seem to have trouble with the concept that someone may not speak Yanomamö; therefore, he has to be shouted at. 

CHAGNON:  This was early in my field research, and at that time there were vast numbers of villages that had never seen foreigners. And so it wasn't unusual at that time. Now, it would be unusual.

DAVID HAIG: Can I just comment on that? When I got married in Brazil, and my father, who had never left Australia, came there, we went into a small shop in a Brazilian town, and he just sort of wanders up and asked for something in English, and he was incomprehensible.   So what he did was he elevated and started speaking English louder. It seems to be a reaction. 

CHAGNON: There's a gene for that.

DENNETT:  One question that I have is,  why didn't they kill you?A better way of putting it is what did they think you were doing? I mean we know about anthropologists. They knew about missionaries. You weren't a missionary.

CHAGNON:  Not even most of them knew about missionaries.

DENNETT:  But I was trying to imagine if somebody who looked quite different from me set up a pup tent on the corner of my street and started asking me questions, that would be very, very puzzling and upsetting. I don't think I'd be very friendly to the whole thing. How were you able to live in their company so well and so long?

CHAGNON:  That's a really complex question, but I have an answer. First of all, you understand the relationship between the goose and the golden egg? Well, I was the goose. And if you wanted any more golden eggs, you didn't kill the goose. So to a certain extent, the fact that I could provide useful things to them— not only steel tools like machetes, but also medicines—they really caught on very quickly that the medicines that I brought, for example, tetracycline to put in their eyes to cure the infected eyes, it was almost miraculous. The next day they would have 100 percent cure from tetracycline. So I brought useful things to them.

Secondly, word of my presence leaked inland, and toward the end of my second year of field research there was no place I could go where they didn't know about me, and I'd arrive at their village thinking that I'm going to really scare the pants off these people. They haven't seen any foreigners before. I'd walk into the village and they'd say, "What the hell took you so long? We've been waiting for two years for you to get here!" And so they were looking forward to my visits. I had a good reputation.

PINKER:  This is what leads to the accusation that your presence actually affected their behavior,  giving them machetes, and so on. You must have given a lot of thought to that.

CHAGNON:  Yes, I have. I have detractors, political critics, and most of these accusations against me are just invented. That is a testable proposition. Why don't you go out and provide me the evidence that what I have done to the Yanomamö is so radically different from what they have done?  

The Yanomamö are very valuable now as a commodity. They are the largest most interesting and romanticized tribe in the entire Amazon basin, maybe in the world. They live in an area that is threatened by ecological destruction, so there are people who are interested in saving the rain forest, and people who are interested in saving the natives. And these groups collaborate with each other. Everybody wants the Yanomamö in their portfolio. 

PINKER: It's fairly obvious to all of us that there's no incompatibility with an honest description of the way they live their lives, which, of course, overlaps sort of with the way that every culture lives their lives. There's violence in every culture.


PINKER:  …and the ideal of preventing them from being exploited or otherwise harmed.

CHAGNON:  No. That's a good point to make. Most anthropologists I know who are really scientifically-oriented are also humanistic, and they see no incompatibility with being concerned for the welfare of the people that they studied, and making accurate repeatable observations on the same people.

There is no incompatibility between science and humanism.

DENNETT:  Would you imagine discovering a behavior, a practice, a policy in a tribe that was so repugnant to Western sensibilities that you would decide not to write about that?

CHAGNON: Well, the Yanomamö practice infanticide occasionally, and it's for a variety of reasons. One of them being if they suspect that the newborn infant is deformed, and it can be traced right back to parental investment. Why invest in a losing prospect? Let's terminate the infant now and start anew. Another example of infanticide is, this is even rarer, that some guy was cuckolded by, or suspected he was cuckolded by some other guy, and he puts pressure on his wife to kill the new infant. That's not very common, but I've heard of it. And I began reporting, as soon as I learned this, that the Yanomamö practice infanticide, and I didn't make a big case out of it. When I learned that a deputado in the Venezuelan government—which is basically like a representative or a senator—had learned that there were people in her country that were killing their own children, she wanted to go in and arrest these people and put them in jail. So I stopped reporting any information I acquired about Yanomamö infanticide, not because it was disgusting to Westerners, because I'll bet if you looked at the abortion rate in Venezuela in middle class women, their rate of abortion would be much, much higher than the Yanomamö infanticide.

PINKER:  Well, in fact, historically, I've seen an estimate—it  averages  over many peoples, and there’s a lot of variation underneath it—that the traditional infanticide rate was about 15 percent of live births, which is pretty close to the …

CHAGNON:  In Western culture?

PINKER:  No No, in non-Western cultures. Which is pretty close to the abortion rate in the West, until recently.

CHAGNON:  Oh, really?

PINKER:  The abortion rate has since then come down. But there is something to the idea that abortion in the West serves a similar purpose to infanticide in traditional cultures. 

CHAGNON:  That's right. It's a definitional matter, so don't get uptight about Yanomamö practicing infanticide when your sister or your wife has had an abortion. I mean if you want to make a moral issue out of it, let's include everybody.

HAIG:  So you talked about giving them tetracycline and machetes, but I'm interested in what you needed to get from them. How did you feed yourself when you were there? Did you bring in your food with you?

CHAGNON:  Initially, I did. I mean I naively tried to live off canned sardines and peanut butter, and stuff like that, but the more I lived with them it was just too much of a hassle, so I just ate a lot of wild food. And I bought plantains and bananas from them, and some of that; their produce was excellent.

HAIG:  And you bought it, so …

CHAGNON:  I would trade them, say, some crackers, or some little glass beads. I didn't pay a lot of it, but they had a huge abundance of plantains, and I mean if you look at it from the point of view of a modern supermarket, and, you know, I was getting 50 pounds of bananas for the equivalent of one penny or something, but they don't last very long. I mean I'd buy a big bunch of bananas from the Yanomamö and they'd say, "Oh. Sell it to him," and then they'd almost eat all of them, because they would get ripe faster than I could eat them.

HAIG:  You must have taken a lot of fishhooks, a lot of machetes, and a lot of drugs in with you.

CHAGNON:  No. No. No.

HAIG:  Would you get resupplied from time to time, or each trip you'd come in with something?

CHAGNON:  Yes. The longest I'd spent with the Yanomamös was my first trip, and it was something like 17 months. But during that 17 months I'd gotten out to Caracas, I think, twice, and most of the time was being spent buying goodies to bring back to the field, like food, and coffee, and cigarettes, and no, I didn't bring any beer back.

HAIG:  And fishhooks?

CHAGNON:  And fishhooks. But then in the United States I discovered these little Chinese shops that sell fishhooks by the 10,000s, and you could get a lot of fishhooks for just a few cents. And they're divisible. I mean it's like money, you can divide it, and make change out of it. And so I paid the kids with fishhooks, and they just loved them. And little pieces of nylon fish line, and the parents loved it, because kids were doing something useful and contributing to the larder. I mean I didn't change their economy, but it was one way that I was expressing utility from their point of view.

DENNETT:  Did they ever ask you how these were made?

CHAGNON: No. No.  Could you make a fishhook?

DENNETT:  No. I couldn't. No.

CHAGNON:  The story, or the accusation that until Chagnon got there, the Yanomamö had no steel tools, no fishhooks, no machetes, no shotguns, he brought all this—that's just nonsense. In fact, if I recall from one of the Catholic priests, a Salesian priest I told you about, I got a Bolex camera, and he wanted me to make a film of him and his mission, and the most important thing he wanted me to know, he got all of his receipts out, going back ten years, and he listed all of the steel axes he gave, and there were hundreds and hundreds, all of the machetes that he gave, thousands of them. He was an Italian. He'd go back to Italy and he'd bring 55-gallon barrels of teeny little glass beads, which cost him almost nothing in Italy, but they're like gold in Latin America. He'd bring them back by the 55-gallon containers.

PINKER:  Well, the question isn't really who brought these goods in, but did the presence of the goods change their way of life?

CHAGNON:  Well, did you ever try to beat a tree down with a wooden club? 

DENNETT:  So the answer is yes.

CHAGNON:  The answer is yes. I mean a steel tool is much, much superior to a stone tool. The Yanomamö, they tell me that back when their ancestors were here, they didn't have axes and machetes, and they had to make gardens by burning the trees at the trunk, and they would die, and all the leaves would fall down, and they planted between the barren trees.

PINKER:  Slash and burn? Or just burn? But did they have stone tools before?

CHAGNON:  They find archeological stone celts, which the spirits left behind.

PINKER:  But they don't have a supply of flint or material for…


DENNETT:  And how did they make fire before?

CHAGNON:  With a fire drill. And when I was there for the first year of my field work life, maybe two years, every Yanomamö man had a little bamboo carrying case, a section of bamboo that's hollow, and it would have extra arrow points, because if you shoot a certain kind of arrow it breaks every time, so you have to replace it, and you have to carry spares. And strapped to that bamboo point carrying case, the quiver, which is a piece of cord around the neck, there was always a chunk of soft wood that was cylindrical, with evidence that it had been used to light a fire, and they would, I mean that was their matches. And they could do it fairly quickly. When matches were introduced, those disappeared. And when aluminum pots were introduced, their pottery disappeared. They made a pot that was about that high, narrow at the bottom, and it flared up on the sides, and they were so crudely fired that if they'd fall over they'd smash. So they carried them in pack baskets. They made these big baskets that the women harvested their produce in, bananas. When they moved from one place to another, they'd carefully pack this crudely fired clay pot in the basket, and then surround it with vine hammocks so it wouldn't wiggle. And they took very good care of those.  When aluminum pans came in, they just stopped doing it. And for a while you could find chunks of the clay pots being used in their drug-taking, because the clay pot is a much nicer surface to grind their drugs on than an aluminum cooking pot.

PINKER:  This gets back to the question of external influence, since you are saying that this does change the way they live their lives.

CHAGNON:  Oh, yes. Yes. I'm not saying that I didn't change their lives. That's inevitable for any anthropologist.

PINKER:  Right.  But how did this modify the generalizations that you can make from what you observed in their behavior to how our ancestors lived, or to the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, to which our emotions and ways of thinking are evolved?

CHAGNON:  Probably very little. And it depends on what kind of item you're introducing to their culture. If you introduce a shotgun, that has a profound effect on how villages get along with each other. I mean if the guys in the next village over have shotguns, and you have shotguns, it increases the mortality rate, but you're not going to pick a fight with a village that has shotguns and you only have bows and arrows. So it depends on the kind of product of Western industrial culture that you're talking about, and whether or not it would have a perceptible, observable effect on the state of nature.

HAIG:  So where do machetes and axes then come in this whole issue?

CHAGNON:  Well, certainly after the industrial revolution.

HAIG:  Yes. But do they change the nature of their warfare, or their interactions with …

CHAGNON:  Probably machetes didn't change the nature of their warfare, except in the sense that it made gardening more efficient, and, therefore, villages could get larger. And their warfare, in fact, is best, I mean one dimension of their warfare is the number of people who are involved in it, and people, the size of the village can be is, in a sense, a function of how much land they can clear, and they can clear a lot more land with a machete and an ax than they can with a stone tool.

HAIG:  And with less cooperation. Individuals can do more with an ax. They can cut a tree down.

CHAGNON:  In what sense do …

DENNETT:  In the old days did they have to have the whole family beat on that tree for a long time?

CHAGNON:  Well, I don't know. I never saw that happen.

DENNETT:  No, I know, but …

CHAGNON:  I doubt that the, assuming that felling trees or clearing involved burning chunks of trees, I think the same fraction of the population, the adult males, between, say, 14 and 25, would still be doing the work.

PINKER:  And the violence goes back well before the introduction of machetes …

CHAGNON: Oh, yes.

PINKER:  … cultural memory, and tales of the way they used to live.

CHAGNON:  Yes. Right. Well, if you read the life of Helena Valero, and this book by Mark Ritchie, Spirit of the Rainforest, about the old shamans and that lived in the Yanomamö area before the missionaries got in. They're still fighting with machetes and axes, way back, you know, 100 years ago. I seriously doubt that steel tools had any impact whatsoever, on their warfare.

PINKER:  Is the main weaponry bows and arrows?

CHAGNON: Yes. Yes.

PINKER:  And they have poison?

CHAGNON:  They have curare, but it's a very poor form of curare. There are a lot of tribes in the Amazon Basin that can make really lethal curare. If you scratch yourself, uh, frog poison. I mean a certain kind of frog exudes a very toxic substance that's lethal. Anyway, the Yanomamö have a really crude way of making curare. Curare is a mixture of the curare and a bunch of other stuff, I don't know what the other stuff does. They say it adds adhesive qualities to it. It makes it sticky, and sticks to the arrow point. They put a whole bunch of pencil-length pieces of palm wood, and it's hard as a rock, the palm wood is, and they weaken it by cutting it every inch or so. So when it hits something, it breaks off, and they put poison on it. And when they shoot a monkey, for example, the monkey gets pierced with the curare tipped arrow, it breaks off and leaves the point inside of the monkey, and the monkey just eventually relaxes. The curare relaxes muscles.

PINKER:  Do they use it against each other as well?


PINKER:  The same technique. But  curare from …

CHAGNON:  From a vine.

DENNETT:  And does it make the meat dangerous to eat?

CHAGNON:  No. You can eat curare. Apparently, when you ingest it, it doesn't. At least the Yanomamö curare doesn't. I've eaten lots of meat killed by curare-tipped arrows.

PINKER: The curare gets broken down. It's an antagonist to the neuromuscular juncture, so it paralyzes your skeletal muscles.

HAIG: One more question just to round up, so we can get some closure?

CHAGNON: Now don't ask that question about inter-genome conflicts? Or I'll have to have Steve answer that question.

HAIG:  You mentioned that the heavy work of clearing trees was being done by the adult men, but how do you feel the balance of the sexual division of labor is there?

CHAGNON:  Well, women do a lot of collecting of plants, and fish, and little tiny shrimps, and things like that. They make a lot of useful additions to the larder, but the men do most of the game hunting, and that requires a lot of endurance, and running, and not being hindered by babies.

DENNETT:  I've got one more question for you. Back again to what they thought of you. What did they think you were doing? Why did they think you were there? It wasn't to hand out medicine and fishhooks.   Did you try to explain why you would come and do all this?

CHAGNON:  No. They arrived at their own conclusion, which I thought was very logical: I'm trying to learn how to become human.


by Richard Wrangham

All humans once lived in societies of a few hundred or thousand people sharing a common language and culture, laws unto themselves, independent of the whims of nation-states or the chiefs of neighboring tribes. The rapid disappearance of such anarchic groups has undermined our ability to document a critical social context of human evolution, but even if many such opportunities were still present, many would go untaken. Isolation and routine material discomforts make anthropological fieldwork difficult enough in ordinary circumstances. When danger is added in the form of lethal raids between villages or murderous attacks on honored guests, most professionals back away.

Napoleon Chagnon established early his reputation for being one of that rare breed willing to take large personal risks.  He conducted his PhD research with the Yanamamö in Venezuela in field conditions that were clearly unnerving, as he described in his first book, published in 1968 at the age of 30. By 1980, when I met him, he had returned for years of further fieldwork and produced a series of ethnographic movies. By then his book was in its second edition. It was called Yanamamö: the Fierce People and had become a classroom classic because of its vivid and uncompromising descriptions of astonishing behavior. 

The reason for my meeting Chagnon was his coming for a six-month sabbatical to King’s College, Cambridge, where he joined a research group on behavioral ecology and sociobiology. The rest of us (Brian Bertram, Tim Clutton-Brock, Robin Dunbar, Geoff Parker, Dan Rubenstein and me) studied animals. Only Chagnon studied humans. He impressed me from the start with the clarity of his focus. What he wanted was high-class data. His aim was to clean his rich information on genealogies to the point where he could be completely confident about the accuracy of kinship and demography in as many villages as possible.

Napoleon Chagnon’s commitment to data quality has been a vital part of the searing honesty that illuminates his work. For all his colorful accounts of the realities of day-to-day life in the forest, ultimately the importance of his work lies in their empirical novelty. In the second part of our interview with him, we see continuing evidence of the two sides of the iconic anthropologist: dedication to science, and the lived experience of a courageous explorer. 

—Richard Wrangham


RICHARD WRANGHAM: So we've known each other just about 30 years. More than 30 years.

NAPOLEON CHAGNON:  More than 30 years.

WRANGHAM:  Which in the context of the development of anthropology is actually quite a long time already, because things have changed with the primitive peoples of the world.

CHAGNON:  Yes. They've changed at an accelerating pace in recent decades. There are going to be no more tribesmen left to study in the not too distant future.

WRANGHAM:  So do you feel you got in with the Yanomamö just in time?

CHAGNON:  Yes. I think that that's an understatement. When I walked into my first village I realized that, "Oh, my God, this is going to end soon. These people are one of the most astonishing peoples I've ever heard about." And that's why I studied them so long.

WRANGHAM:  So when you say they were astonishing, to what extent do you feel that is because they were a particular people, or is it because these people were in a particular historical context?

CHAGNON:  I think a little bit of both. For example, I've read lots of ethnographies about native peoples, and you'd see tin cans in the village and a motor boat parked in the river, but the Yanomamö were just stark naked and pristine.

WRANGHAM:  But they have a penis string, right, surely?

CHAGNON:  Well, they'd be naked without one.


CHAGNON:  Anyway, I brought an Apache Indian from New Mexico with me who's been trying to go back to the old ways of the Apache. He had been following my work, and he always wanted to go visit the Yanomamö with me. So I invited him to come along on one of my trips. And we went to one of the remote villages and he broke down and cried. He didn't realize how much of his own culture his people had lost, just by looking at the Yanomamö.

WRANGHAM:  So when you say that, that makes it seem as though there's something really attractive, romantic, alluring about the Yanomamö culture from the point of view of your friend.

CHAGNON:  From the point of view of a Native Apache who's been trying against very great odds to kind of resurrect the image, the feeling, the sense of being in a special culture, yes, he realized a great deal of the Apache past has gone.

WRANGHAM:  But you are known for producing what some might say are very honest characterizations of the Yanomamö and others might say are characterizations that make them appear very unattractive. You use words like "hideous," and "smelly," and so on.

CHAGNON:  Very rarely.

WRANGHAM:  But they get picked up on?

CHAGNON:  Right. Yes. I once was accused of emphasizing or exaggerating violence among the Yanomamö, and it came largely from an article that Marvin Harris had written that was very critical of my work. In the span of one paragraph he found and sought out every possible derogatory thing that could be twisted into an exaggerated version of what Chagnon says about the Yanomamö. It was just hideous and if I said that about the Yanomamö—as sort of a characterization of the Yanomamö—the way I think about them, it was just completely distorted. So a lot of the bad rap that I've gotten for exaggerating the Yanomamö has been, in some measure, the consequence of how some of my colleagues have twisted my words.

WRANGHAM:  So do you want to back away from the notion that they are a very violent people?

CHAGNON: No. Not in one moment. They are a very violent people, but that's not the only thing about them; I've said lots of things about the Yanomamö. You have to read my work as a general body of work, not just pick and choose where I have said those specific things.

WRANGHAM:  Because I mean the picture that comes across to me of you with the Yanomamö is that you're incredibly friendly with certain individuals; you've got very warm relationships, and much of the time everybody is having very quiet, peaceful lives, just going about their regular family business.

CHAGNON: In general, they do spend a lot of time picking gnats out of each other's hair, telling stories and myths, snorting drugs—some of the pleasures in life. But if you were to budget their time on a motion activity basis, probably they spend very little time engaging in violence, as many people in our culture do, as soldiers do.

WRANGHAM:  Well, there's this ridiculous debate that's going on, or I wouldn't say debate, I wouldn't want to grace it with those words, but a ridiculous kind of concept that's been in primatology for the last few years, which is that the amount of time spent in aggression is a useful variable. So there are several papers that have been published saying, look, it turns out that primates only spend, say, between half and one percent of their time—and that may be an exaggeration—in being aggressive. Therefore, they say, aggression is unimportant.

CHAGNON:  That's not true.

WRANGHAM:  Please comment.

CHAGNON:  Well, I once heard Robert Trivers make a comment about the cost of engaging in some kind of altruistic attitude: If you look at the circumstance of kissing a baby on the cheek, it's relatively inexpensive, but snatching that baby out of an oncoming railroad train is potentially a very expensive cost to the altruist. So therefore, the point Trivers is making is: the amount of energy invested in what you do is not necessarily the best measure of its consequence.

WRANGHAM: Clearly violence is hugely important for its functional consequences, as you have argued. Can we come back to this question of the place of the Yanomamö and the understanding of people living at that level of subsistence? So there are these arguments that Brian Ferguson and others have made saying that the arrival of the colonialists increased the frequency and maybe the tenor of violence.

CHAGNON:  That may be, but I'd like to see the evidence that Brian Ferguson can muster to demonstrate that in a convincing way. Now, how does he know that it hasn't decreased the amount of violence?

WRANGHAM:  Well, you're being very sort of hands-off. I'm impressed, given your reputation for confrontation.

CHAGNON:  Well, you have all the dirty pictures, Richard. We all know the joke about Rorschach tests where the patient sees "copulation" in every ink blot and responds to the "shrink's'" comment that the patient’s mind is on sex.

WRANGHAM:  But, should we really be so accepting of that view? I mean there are many, many cases you can point to in which the arrival of the colonialists leads to a reduction of violence. So the British, when they go in there, they're constantly creating peace among different groups. You're implying that actually you think that the Ferguson view has got some credibility.

CHAGNON:  No. Brian doesn't know anything about the Yanomamö. He's a good researcher. He reads everything. In fact, I discovered, as a consequence of his research, a publication that I had made 20 years earlier that I had forgotten about. So I had to rely on Ferguson to dig it out. But he's got kind of a worms-eye view of what life is like in this kind of a society. He has false images of Yanomamö warriors guarding the trails between A and B to protect their investment in the trade zone, or something. And that just simply is not true.

WRANGHAM:  So I've got a dog in this race because, as you know better than anybody, people who try to do surveys of the frequency, importance, degree of violence in hunter-gatherer warfare, reach lots of different results. Some people say there's a lot of warfare; some people say there's not really very much when you consider all of the different peoples. So what Luke Glowacki and I did was to look at just the cases where hunters and gatherers are neighbored by another society of hunters and gatherers, and not by farmers or pastoralists. And there's an extremely consistent pattern in the relatively few hunters and gatherers for whom that particular context applies. The consistent pattern was there was just consistent war. It was a very Hobbesian world.

CHAGNON:  There's a remarkable book about an English prisoner who jumps ship off the coast of Australia.

WRANGHAM:  William Buckley.

CHAGNON:  William Buckley. If you read that little short book you really understand how prevalent fear of your neighbors, from attacks by your neighbors, theft of your women by neighbors, was; everywhere that Buckley went. He moved over a large area of central Australia.

WRANGHAM:  Although, he was actually a member of a particular group, though.

CHAGNON:  Right. Right. But it was just incredible. I mean it read just like my descriptions of the Yanomamö. 

WRANGHAM:  We should be very confident that this is the way in which small groups of humans have organized themselves.

CHAGNON:  Right. I think at the beginning of the recent book I wrote was this yearning for the golden age of the past; how nice it must have been during the simpler times in our own past, even in hunting and gathering societies. What I've discovered is that life was very much filled with terror of your neighbors, constantly in a position—sort of like Hobbes' argument—foul weather is not a shower or two but a tendency thereto for months on end. So you always have your eye open to the frontier and try to make sure that the guys out there are on the other side of the moat.

WRANGHAM:  So one of the areas in which primitive warfare is being most described is in New Guinea. And there we have the famous descriptions of the Dani where they have groups of men confronting each other in rather ritualized arrangements, in which somebody gets a spear in their foot, and then everyone else screams and says, "Let's call it off," and they go home.

CHAGNON:  That's not exactly true about the Dani or New Guinea warfare, in general. Mervyn Meggitt, who's an expert on the New Guinea area, once told me a story. "You talk to some of these guys that have been engaged in that and every once in a while they tell you a story about, 'Oh, my Uncle Fred…' (he leans over the wrong way as he tells you the story), and coughed, and he died of the arrow point that had been embedded in his body for 25 years." And so the number of casualties in those so-called symbolic wars was actually much higher than most anthropologists are aware of.

WRANGHAM:  So maybe they've been underestimated. Surely the big point that is that every now and again when groups confront each other, one group will turn out to be much larger than another. Maybe it's when there are alliances among villages, and one village didn't send as many men as they were supposed to, and another one is riddled by disease, and another one just had some misfortune and all of a sudden they're on their own, and then what happens was a massacre.

CHAGNON:  Right.

WRANGHAM:  So what I wanted to ask was: similar to the Dani or other New Guinea tribes, do you get a parallel division between ritualized battles and massacres in the Yanomamö?

CHAGNON:  Well, first of all, I don't think … except when you take a look at their overall pattern of ways that they fight, for example, chest pounding, that can be described in a fairly meaningful way as some sort of ritual that they go through, although there are occasionally mortalities, as a consequence.

WRANGHAM:  From the chest pounders?

CHAGNON:  Oh, yes. If you pound somebody on the chest hard enough in the right spot you can break their heart.

WRANGHAM:  Because how big are these clubs?


WRANGHAM:  Oh, they use just fists.

CHAGNON:  Yes. And sometimes men will conceal a stone in their fist, which is, in my area, not kosher, but in other areas they apparently do use stones inside of their fists. The next level up, I would say, is club fighting, and that can get lethal; each step on the escalation of their violence tends to be more lethal as you ascend the scale of violence. So chest pounding or wrestling in the mud—that's almost no casualties. Club fighting with nabrushi, which are big, long clubs that are ten feet long sometimes …

WRANGHAM:  So how heavy would one of those clubs be?

CHAGNON:  Well, sort of like a pool cue.

WRANGHAM:  Oh. Okay.

CHAGNON:  You get whacked on the top of the head with a pool cue and it ruins your whole weekend.


CHAGNON:  But then they also have a kind of club called a "himo," it's a hardwood palm club that's sharp as a razor—you can make palm wood really sharp—and if you get hit on top of the head with one of those, it's lethal; it's like getting hit on the top of a head with a heavy club.

WRANGHAM:  And this is a case where the one guy is just allowed to take a swipe at the other one and then waits for the other one to come back.

CHAGNON:  Right.

CHAGNON:  And the guy that he's hitting on top of the head has to remain fixed and …

WRANGHAM:  And bad manners to dodge.

CHAGNON:  Right. Except if he starts swinging sideways. You're not supposed to do that.

WRANGHAM:  Oh. Okay.

CHAGNON:  It should be up and down.

WRANGHAM:  Incredible.

CHAGNON: And then finally, the most deliberate and most similar to what we would call "war" is raiding, with the intent to kill. And this is not ceremonial at all.

They sneak up on a village and wait until everybody's asleep, then the first man that comes out of the village to urinate is the one who's likely to get nailed. Very often in villages—and I've been in villages like this—they don't defecate or don't urinate when they're at war in the village to avoid being a victim. Lots of villages I've been in would advise me to put my pack up against the low end of the shabono where people can get underneath and shoot at you, and my camera equipment, and stuff like that, because they were expecting raiders.

And in one village, the headman of the village—in all villages I would always sleep near the headman's house—actually crawled about 30 feet on his hands and knees and belly to my hammock and shook me, asked me to load my shotgun—which he knew I always kept at my hammock side—and shoot somebody because he heard raiders. And I just said, "I'm too tired. I'm just going to fire it up in the air and we'll call it a night." And I did, and they all went back to sleep, because anybody who would want to raid that village, hearing a shotgun go off in it, probably would best turn back. They don't like to attack villages that have shotguns in them.

WRANGHAM:  Yes. And that confirms the general principle that we see in chimpanzees, which is that if you're detected on your potential attack, then you call off the attack because the last thing you want to do is get into a fight. What you want to do is just kill somebody and get out of there.

CHAGNON:  And their entire strategy for raiding is they do a mock battle; they have a special word for a mock battle. They make an effigy of the person they want to kill. Usually on the trail it's made quickly out of a pile of leaves with some vines and they pretend they're going to attack this—and they give it a name, like some specific human being in their village. They sneak up, train all the young guys to keep concealed to get the best shot, and they do this several times on route to the enemy—and then when they get to the village, somebody will eventually get a shot at somebody taking a pee at dawn, and hopefully they'll hit the guy. Then they have a very formal way of retreating: The front guys will run back and then kneel on their hands and knees until the next group of guys pass by them, and then they run back, and they do that all the way back to their own village. So it's a fairly well organized strategic strike, so to speak. When they get far enough away from the village that they don't think their victims can bypass them but what you never want is to have them get around you.

WRANGHAM:  So there are some societies in which the aim is to do more than just attack and kill one. In Eskimo societies, Ernest Burch describes, raiders trapping people in their hut and then finding a way to kill all of them. In the Yanomamö, it seems as though you often describe smaller incidents, where, as you were just saying, you kill the guy that's come out to urinate, and then you go back home.

CHAGNON:  But the Yanomamö have something that is the ultimate kind of warfare, and their word for it is "nomohori," which could be translated as dastardly trick, where, usually in confederacy with some other village that is an enemy of the village you're fighting, you have them conceal themselves outside and invite your putative friends into the village to dance, and feast, and eat a lot of food, and sing chants at night, and then sleep in the village. But sometime during the night your guys arm themselves with axes, or clubs, and they infiltrate all of the campfires that their visitors are in, and on the signal of one of them—like some hoot or some whistle—they fall upon the sleeping victims, and they can kill maybe ten or fifteen at one time; and that's called a nomohoni. There's a wonderful description, particularly of that, in a book by Mark Ritchie. He tells the story of an older shaman who's been through all of this before the missionaries or anybody from Venezuela or the outside world came in, and actually documented some of the violence that went on during his lifetime; and it's really grim. It's like reading John Morgan's account of his wanderings in Australia in the early 19th Century.

WRANGHAM:  So any battles? I can't remember if you've described where one village and another village do something like the Dani— meeting at a certain place in order to have a battle.

CHAGNON:  No. No. Nothing like that.

WRANGHAM:  Any sense of why that is so different among the Yanomamö from some of the others?

CHAGNON:  It's too risky. I mean each side realizes the possibility of getting injured or killed in such an encounter. The Yanomamö want to inflict damage when their opponents least expect it, and then retreat.

WRANGHAM:  So you're describing all of these raids. Were you ever there to the point where you saw the attack?

CHAGNON:  No. I never wanted to see the attack. They always wanted me to go along, mainly because I had a shotgun. And I absolutely refused to do it, just to be neutral, because I knew if I sided with any particular village I was opening it up for me to get picked off as one of them. In fact, one group of Yanomamö I made first contact with, the Iwahikorobateri, I had become so identified with the village I lived in that on my first visit to them they tried to kill me that night with axes, but I was what they say, "moyawei," that means alert—shining my eyes around (I had flashlight).

They told me in my home village, whenever you go to a strange village always inspect your surroundings; you're likely to have a better sleep without getting killed. Well, they approached my hammock to kill me—the three brothers—and I knew all of them. I mean I learned who they were afterwards, after the first contact.

They approached me and intended to bash my skull in with axes, but I kept waking up, shining a flashlight around, and they knew I had a shotgun. So I left the village the next day. There was something unsettling about being in that village—it was kind of a fifth sense. So I left, and the village was divided on its intention to kill me; some of them wanted to kill me, some of them wanted to be friendly to me. And immediately a group of the friendly ones volunteered to get me out of the village—back to the canoe where I had all my gifts for them stored. Anyway, they didn't kill me, but if they had, they probably would have sung a song that goes something like this:

(Napoleon Chagnon Sings Song)

CHAGNON:  That translates into, "The arrow is red," meaning it has blood on it.

WRANGHAM:  It sounds like a note of triumph, too.

CHAGNON:  Oh and you ought to see their warrior lineups. I've been in lots of villages where the men were leaving on raids, but in one village there must have been 75 warriors, and it was the first time I saw a raiding party leave, and it was at night. You can't see much at night. The village just got deathly silent. And then a shriek came out of one corner of the village, and the man that came out was rattling his bow against all of his arrows, which makes a big racket, and he was bragging about, "I'm going to slay them right down to the last baby in the village, even kill their dogs." Seventy-five men, one at a time, joined the line in the middle of the village until all of them had gotten there; it must have taken 30 minutes.

WRANGHAM:  Huge village.

CHAGNON: Well, it was a combination of allies; three different villages. Then it got silent again. I was like, "Oh, Christ, they're on to me. They're going to get me." All of a sudden a blood-curdling scream came out of one man. I recognized who he was, and he was a great singer. His name was Torokoiwä and he sang …

(Napoleon Chagnon Sings Song)

CHAGNON:  "I am hungry like the meat-hungry buzzard. I am hungry like the wasp that eats carrion." And on, and on, and on. He sang about four stanzas, and then all of them in unison sang the same stanza. It was really frightening. I had goose bumps running up and down from my toenails to my ears. Anyway, at the end of this, the headman got them all assembled in a semicircle and they faced southeast—the direction of the village that they were headed to—Kaobawä—and they shouted three times in unison, "Wha. Wha. Whaaa." After the third repetition of that, they ran out of the circle where they were all gathered, each one their own direction, and they screamed, "Wha, Wha, Wha…" They were ceremoniously vomiting up the flesh that they had just eaten as carrion-eating birds or wasps. Then the next morning they repeated the whole thing all over again—the same procession, but this time I could see. They left after it was over, went off to raid the enemy. They killed one man on that raid, but on the way back, one of them got shot right through the lung, just above his heart; the arrow came out the other side.

WRANGHAM:  They were being chased by the …

CHAGNON:  Yes. The raiders had gotten around them, ambushed them on their way back, and they got this one guy. The arrow went all the way through his chest, the tip of it. It was rahaka, a broad lanceolate-shaped bamboo arrow point. So one of the guys pulled the arrow out, and what he did was bite it with his teeth and pulled it all the way through the wound. When they got back to the village he was really in bad shape. They had this taboo, when a guy is shot with a rahaka-tipped arrow, he can't drink any water, which is the dumbest thing to do; he should have had a lot of water. So he's emaciating in his hammock for about two days, really thirsty, and I intervened in their culture. You're not supposed to do that.

WRANGHAM:  The cultural inhibition (against drinking water) wasn't suited to handle this particular problem?

CHAGNON:  No. So I ceremoniously made a big aluminum pot full of what essentially was heavily-sugared lemonade. And I ceremoniously took two aspirin and crushed them and spread the powder all over the lemonade, and I solemnly warned them, "Don't any of you touch this. It is mörösöna, which is their corruption of the Spanish word "medicine." And I said, "This is really powerful mörösöna. If anybody drinks this who doesn't have an arrow wound, it's going to be bad news for them." So none of them drank any of it. And I gave the wounded man a tablespoon of this mörösöna. His eyes lit up. Two of us then knew what it was—lemonade.

WRANGHAM:  Excellent. But he didn't say?


WRANGHAM:  And it did have some aspirin in it as well.

CHAGNON: Yes. Right. It was medicinal.  

WRANGHAM:  So you were incredibly intimately involved. You made a big study of kinship.

CHAGNON:  Yes. A really big one.

WRANGHAM:  I want to ask about kinship because a couple of weeks ago we had the Boston bombing here—by two brothers. Several pairs of brothers, I think, were involved in the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers.

CHAGNON:  I didn't know that.

WRANGHAM:  And the assassination of Caesar began with brothers. Did you see any evidence that beyond kinship—just being in general, really important as a sort of structuring force—did brothers take a special role and relationship to the violence in supporting each other?

CHAGNON: That's an interesting question. Martin Daly has been interested in that. In his book Homicide with Margo Wilson, he has cases of collaborative homicides, in which close kinsman collaborate in killing of some third person. He couldn't get a lot of data on it, and he used some of my data. He showed the slide again recently. He's now at the University of Missouri, and showed the slide, and he talked with, David Haig attended, I believe. David was at that same conference. A lot had to do with evolution, by the way. Anyway, collaborative killing, where the perpetrators are related to each other but unrelated to the victim is an interesting question. There aren't too many populations where you can get data on it.


CHAGNON:  I have a lot of data on it, more than what I gave to Martin Daly. But now that I'm at the University of Missouri, I have all this research data that I've been accumulating for 30 years, and they have a post-doc that they gave me, and he's a wizard at the computer and statistics, and we're now just going to make a big splash with all the papers that we're going to do.

WRANGHAM:  All right.

CHAGNON: And one of them is going to be on collaborative killers, because Martin Daly asked me, "Nap, do you have any more data on collaborative killers? I've got this little sample from you, but what else is there?" And I'll give him the answer: eventually, but with a much larger sample size.

WRANGHAM:  Because a brother is a really useful ally if the first individual to make a move is taking a risk, and he can count on the brother to support him in a way that maybe he can't count on others.

CHAGNON:  Well, that really tells kinsman from non-kinsman, because I did an article on a film that I made called "The Ax Fight," about the relatedness between the two teams and they all came from the same village, but the coefficient of relatedness among …

WRANGHAM:  I thought one of the opponents was a visitor.

CHAGNON:  They had actually moved away and had become a separate village, but the division was so recent, and that's what caused the fight. They came back and expected to be treated as visitors, when, in fact, they were relatives. And they were expecting the local guys to give them all the meat, and the women to get all the plantains for them, sort of like the Welfare system; they were pigging out on Welfare. And they wore out their welcome.

The analysis I made with one of my former students, Paul Bugos, indicated very clearly that there was a really strong bias in how these two factions developed, and the coefficient of relatedness of each faction was much, much higher than the coefficient of relatedness of everybody pooled together. And there were really interesting things that came out of the … Four brothers separated from cousins, and stuck together in certain scenes in this, and they in turn, stuck together as co-fighters against third cousins. It was just like seeing a procession at a funeral, where mom or dad are in the first car, and the corpse of the baby is in the second car, and then cousins are in the third car, and distant kin in the fourth car.

WRANGHAM: So how is it that you're able to reach that conclusion?

CHAGNON: Reach what conclusion?

WRANGHAM: Well, that sexual service or reproductive service is more important than the …

CHAGNON: I'm not saying that their labor contribution to the larder is irrelevant. I'm just saying it's insufficient to overcome the interest that the men have in the opposite sex.

WRANGHAM: Well, but a bachelor, what kind of life does the bachelor have?

CHAGNON: Plain, short, nasty, and brutish.

WRANGHAM: Right. Exactly. So, you know, when he gets a wife, then she can give him standing, provide him with meals. Isn't that really important to him?

CHAGNON: Everybody cooks. I mean cooking for somebody is not a big expense.

WRANGHAM: So a bachelor can eat everywhere?

CHAGNON: Yes. I mean not everywhere, but he can come home to mom and dad, who might live in the section of the shabono right next to his. They're munching all the time.

WRANGHAM: It's the ones without the moms and dads I'm thinking of.

CHAGNON: Well, if you don't have moms and dads you're in trouble.


CHAGNON: Now, there is an instance in which men will go to a village and deliberately take a woman, but it's only when woman has run away from a cruel husband in her village and flees to another village. She better be sure that that village she flees to has a lot of tough guys in it, because she's almost certain to be pursued and recaptured by her ex-husband and his brothers, and then she'll be severely punished for doing that.

WRANGHAM: So presumably the women you're talking about are those in their late teens, or could be they be older, up to their late thirties?

CHAGNON: Yes. They would have a better chance of being taken into the other village the younger they are.

WRANGHAM: Do men ever marry older women?

CHAGNON: Oh, yes.

WRANGHAM: Why would that be?

CHAGNON: Can't find one that's suitable, and more attractive. They'll marry anybody.

You can't really classify the Yanomamö as monogamous, polygamous, and polyandrous. Nor do I suspect you can do that with any society, or at least societies of the sort that you're interested in, like hunters and gatherers, transisting from hunting and gathering, to agriculture; or early agricultural societies like the Yanomamö. You have to look at marriage as a life history event. So when you're young and don't have a lot of kinsmen, the best game in town might be sharing a wife with your brother. So at that point your marriage is polyandrous. Then as you age, or your kinship fortunes increase—like more of your own kinsmen move to your village—then you might be able to do a wife all by yourself. And then if you become politically important and have a lot of relatives and lots of sisters to give away in marriage, you might end up with two or three wives. The most wives a Yanomamö I know has ever had is six at the same time.

One of the papers I'm going to do is how many spouses each sex has throughout their lifetime; just to try to add some dimension to this argument about polygamy, polyandry, and monogamy.

HAIG: So when you say spouse, what do you mean by that? What is spouse, just somebody you're sleeping in the same hut with?

CHAGNON: No. They formally acknowledge marriage.

HAIG: They formally acknowledge.

CHAGNON: Yes. Like, if you ask them who's married to whom, they'll tell you.

HAIG: Okay.

CHAGNON: But the verb they use is "bou." That means to possess. "Who does such-and-such a guy possess?" He'll say the name of his wife.

HAIG: How would they say who is she married to, you know ..

CHAGNON: They would say, "Who owns her?"

HAIG: Who owns her?

CHAGNON: But it's not really ownership. To possess implies something more broad and has certain dimensions and responsibilities involved there.

DENNETT: Is it the same word as who owns this sack of beans or this …

CHAGNON: No, it's not. It could be used that way. But when it comes to people, you know, that they're talking about being married, or having a spouse.

DENNETT: They have a separate word.

HAIG: So how many marriages are from within the village and how many from somebody coming in from the outside?

CHAGNON: It depends on the size of your village. It's a huge numbers game.

HAIG: Okay.

CHAGNON: Big villages lord over small villages. So if you're seeking an ally who will protect you from the people up the hill who are bigger than you, you're at a disadvantage because in order to get allies, you've got to give women to them. It's an economics game where the smaller village has to pay up front for the privileges of the alliance, and the bigger village tends to default on many of its agreements. So big villages tend to exploit small villages. It's always a good idea to live in a big village; however, it's like living in a powder keg.

WRANGHAM: Why does it matter militarily whether you're in a big village or a small village, given that the raids are surprise attacks?

CHAGNON: Because it depresses the enthusiasm of your neighbors to sneak attack you, because you way outnumber them.

WRANGHAM: Because there's the possibility that a really large attack will be made in return.

CHAGNON: Yes. And since there are so many people they can get around you and intercept you on the retreat.

WRANGHAM: So what's the largest number of raiders you ever saw?

CHAGNON: Probably 70, 75. The smallest is ten.

DENNETT: Oh. I thought raiding parties were smaller than that. You always get a pretty good posse before you go do anything.

CHAGNON: If a village can't field 10 raiders, that pretty much determines the minimum size of the village. If it's not large enough, and demographically structured in a certain way to produce ten able-bodied men to go on raids, it's likely it may not a viable village.

HAIG: But if the point of the raid is honor.

CHAGNON: It's revenge.

HAIG: It's an honor or revenge thing, so that they'd go to punish that village by killing one of their men or …

CHAGNON: It's not to be confused with the Mediterranean sense of honor.

HAIG: Okay.

CHAGNON: It's to get revenge because they killed my brother.

HAIG: Okay.

CHAGNON: And they didn't deflower my little sister. And that's honor.

DENNETT: Now, all this basically political lore that you've just been telling us the last five minutes, do you hear the kids talking about this?

CHAGNON: No. Well, they might talk about it, but I didn't do my study on children.

DENNETT: So for one reason or another, talking to the kids was not an activity that you could comfortably engage in?

CHAGNON: No. Well, I could comfortably engage in it, but I didn't want to waste my time. I talked to the adults. Those are the decision makers. The kids do not decide who's going to go on a raid.

WRANGHAM: But it might be really interesting.

CHAGNON: But I only have one life to lead.

WRANGHAM: Okay. Fair enough.

CHAGNON: Every time I get in a conversation with experts in any particular field, they frequently ask, "why didn't you study this?"

Well …

DENNETT: I'm still a little unable to imagine why your hosts in the villages you were in didn't kill you. They didn't kill you because that's killing the golden goose and you had …

CHAGNON: In some villages.

DENNETT: And you had the medicine, and the fishhooks, and all that. But why didn't they just say, "Give us all your fishhooks and medicine right now?" Why didn't the strongman just take everything?

CHAGNON: Well, that's why I stopped studying this one village.

DENNETT: Because they did?

CHAGNON: Yes. He wanted to. He wanted my shotgun at the end. People in the Yanomamö villages in Brazil—the missionaries give them guns, and he wanted my shotgun. "When you leave, just leave your gun behind." No. And I knew that so long as he remained in that village I would never go back, either because he'd kill me or I'd kill him in self-defense. And it's not good to kill your informants.

DENNETT: That's true.

CHAGNON: The American Anthropological Association has policies about that.

WRANGHAM: Okay. So here's the last question.

CHAGNON: It better be a big one.

WRANGHAM: It is. As you know, a few decades ago Elizabeth and I lived with the Lese farmers of the north-eastern Congo for nine months. After several months of being there, Elizabeth, who grew up in a small village in England, said, "You know, exotic as all this behavior is, basically, it all feels incredibly familiar." Did you feel that life among the Yanamamö was basically familiar from the sense of the relationships that you witnessed growing up?

CHAGNON: Yes. The villages that I became really involved in, like Bisaasi-teri and these were just like my good friends, and even some of my relatives, and it was not like observer-observed kind of relationship. I wept at their funerals, and things like that. They played with my kids in the short time my kids were there. So it's very easy to empathize and recognize, even as an anthropologist or maybe a missionary, how similar these people are to you. They may have exotic customs, and eat grubs an inch long, but basically, when you scratch them, they bleed red and have emotions like yours.

John Brockman & Napoleon Chagnon


Steven Pinker [9.8.02]

Steven Pinker [9.27.11]
Richard Wrangham [8.8.09]  

 David Haig [10.22.02]

 Daniel C. Dennett [2.16.99]

Richard Dawkins [1.2.97]

John Brockman [1991]

John Brockman [12.31.01]

By John Brockman [10.25.06]