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Noble savages revisited

At my number one daughter’s primary school in the 1990′s, study of the Yanamamo bushmen permeated the curriculum. By the time my daughter moved on from the school to seventh grade, I believe she “knew” (I think much of what she was taught isn’t true) more about the Yanamamo than she did about American history.

I should have been paying more attention, of course, but I had other battles to fight with the school. It turns out that the story behind the Yanamamo is fascinating and controversial. Napoleon Chagnon is the anthropologist who lived with the Yanamamo and popularized them in his 1968 study, Yanamamo: The Fierce People. Chagnon’s findings regarding the Yanamamo were of the politically incorrect variety, the foremost of which had to do with “the primacy of reproductive conflict,” as Charles Mann calls it in his compelling Wall Street Journal review/essay on Chagnon’s memoir, Noble Savages (which I have not read).

Chagnon is lucky to have escaped with his life from his close encounter with the Yanamamo. Chagnon seems also to have been disgusted by his close contact with the Yanamamo. Mann writes, for example:

Early in “Noble Savages,” the author describes his encounter with the Yanomamö who were aiming their bows at him: “Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips,” he writes, “making them look even more hideous. Strands of dark green snot dripped or hung from their nostrils—strands so long that they drizzled from their chins down to their pectoral muscles and oozed lazily across their bellies, blending into their red paint and sweat.” The description emphasizes his point: Village life is dirtier and more unpleasant than civilized life—get real! Later he explains that the mucus, the byproduct of a snorted drug, is next to impossible to wipe off in a land without handkerchiefs or tissue paper. Nonetheless, this is not the kind of language that will soothe the troubled indigenous-rights activist.

I’m pretty sure my daughter didn’t learn anything about the downside of tribal life in the Amazonian bush in her study of the Yanamamo.

As interesting as Chagnon’s professional observations and discoveries are, they pale next to the row they triggered within academic anthropology. Chagnon was defamed and hounded by his professional colleagues, a story that Mann tells in some detail in his essay/review.

The row must lie at the heart of Chagnon’s memoir. The New York Times Sunday Magazine explores it as well in Emily Eakin’s article “How Napoloeon Chagnon became our most controversial anthropologist.” Eakin observes: “Chagnon…turned the romantic image of the ‘noble savage’ on its head.” He had to pay the price.

Elizabeth Povinelli is a professor of anthropology and gender studies at Columbia University. She is the author, most recently, of Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. She is the therefore the perfect vessel to provide the au courant takedown that Chagnon obviously requires. Povinielli’s review in this past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review provides a good sample of the seething hostility that Chagnon has aroused within the profession. By contrast, Nicholas Wade’s assessment of Chagnon’s lifework in the Science section of the Times yesterday is a model of sobriety and well worth reading.

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