Noble savages revisited

At my oldest daughter’s primary school in the 1990’s, study of the Yanomamö 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 Yanomamö than she did about American history.

I should have been paying more attention, but I had other battles to fight with the school. The story behind the Yanomamö is fascinating and controversial. Napoleon Chagnon was the anthropologist who lived with the Yanomamö and popularized them in his 1968 study, Yanomamö: The Fierce People. Chagnon’s findings regarding the Yanomamö were of the politically incorrect variety, the foremost of which had to do with “the primacy of reproductive conflict,” as Charles Mann called it in his outstanding Wall Street Journal review/essay on Chagnon’s compelling memoir, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes–The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.

Chagnon found the up close and personal view of the Yanomamö somewhat disquieting. Mann observed, 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.

Chagnon was lucky to have escaped with his life from his close encounter with the Yanamamo. My daughter’s teachers somehow overlooked the downside of tribal life among the Yanomamö in their study.

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

The row lies at the heart of Chagnon’s memoir. The New York Times Sunday Magazine explored it as well in Emily Eakin’s article “How Napoloeon Chagnon became our most controversial anthropologist.” Eakin observed: “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 was the therefore the perfect vessel to provide the au courant takedown that Chagnon obviously required. Povinielli’s review of Noble Savages in the New York Times Book Review provided a good sample of the seething hostility that Chagnon aroused within the profession. (By contrast, Nicholas Wade’s assessment of Chagnon’s lifework in the Science section of the Times was a model of sobriety.)

Chagnon died last month at the age of 81. The Times obituary is here. Matthew Blackwell sets Chagnon’s story in its proper context in the Quillette essay “The dangerous life of an anthropologist.” Noble Savages is his testament. RIP.

Responses