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Anthropology Paper: the Yanomamo Tribe

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This is a review about the Yąnomamö by Napoleon Chagnon. The Wadsworth Cengage Learning group, in California in the year 2009, published this edition of the book. He published more than five editions and it is commonly used as an introductory text in university level anthropology classes. The Yąnomamö are a group of indigenous tribal Amazonians that live in the border area between Venezuela and Brazil. Chagnon lived and studied with the Yąnomamö from the mid-1960s to the 1990s. I plan to describe the physical environment of the Yąnomamö society, their subsistence strategies, the way that they communicate, their religion, and their gender and age roles. To start off, I will discuss their physical setting, climate and environment. They live in 200-250 villages in the Amazon rainforest on the border between Venezuela and Brazil. The village where Chagnon lived is located at the junction of the Mavaca and Orincoco Rivers. Chagnon said, “Kaobawa’s village lies at an elevation of about 450 feet above sea level on a generally flat, jungle-covered plain that is interrupted occasionally by low hills” (46).

Most of the rivers and streams start out in the hills as tiny trickles that are dry at some times of the year but turn into dangerous floods at other times. Heavy rain can have a dramatic effect on larger streams and the Yąnomamö avoid larger streams when they select garden and village sites. Their climate has been described as warm and humid so they do not require much clothing. The Yąnomamö are very nomadic because of the deforestation of the rainforest. The jungle is dense and contains a large variety of palm and hardwood trees. According to Chagnon, “the canopy keeps the sunlight from reaching the ground, and on overcast days it can be very dark and gloomy in the jungle” (46). It is very difficult to travel by foot in the forest and along the rivers and streams where sunlight can penetrate to the ground, vegetation grows and it is a haven for birds and animals. Next, I will discuss the Yąnomamö’s subsistence strategies. The Yąnomamö depend on the rain forest, they grow bananas, gather fruit, and hunt animals.

The Yąnomamö move frequently to avoid areas that have become overused. Their technology is easy to create from available materials, effective enough to solve the current problem but are not destined to last forever. Their technology is very easy to create. No tool or technique is so complex that it requires special knowledge and each village can produce every item in requires from available resources. They do trade their tools and resources. Their resources could be described as more characteristic of hunters and gatherers, but the Yąnomamö are horticultural. They have this one weapon called the bow stave that is made from palm wood and it is five to six feet long. The bowstrings are made from the fibers of the inner bark of the palm wood. According to Chagnon, “the bark is twisted into thick cords by rolling the fibers vigorously between the thigh muscle and the palm of the hand; the cords are so strong that one can use them, in a pinch, as hammock ropes” (49). The bow stave is shaped by shaving the stock with the incisors of a wild pig.

The completed bow stave is oval or round in cross section and is very powerful. With use, they become brittle and shatter when drawn too hard. The Yąnomamö created many more weapons and tools to gather and hunt. They also rely on fish but only during certain times of the year. One method is to wait for the rainy season to end because areas of the jungle have been flooded, leaving fish stranded. They used the “slash-and-burn” horticulture, which involves cutting and burning of the forest to create fields. It uses little technology or other tools and it is part of the shifting cultivation agriculture. The Yąnomamö eat what the jungle can offer. They feast on all kinds of insects, larvae, fish, crabs, wild honey, plantain, sweet potato, and palm fruits. They actually lack protein in their diet because they so much more fruit and vegetables than meat produce. Next, I will discuss the language, communication, symbols, and writing systems. Chagnon describes the Yąnomamö’s vocabulary as much larger than the working vocabulary of most people in our own culture.

He also said, “while it is also true that the absolute content of our language’s vocabulary greatly exceeds the content of Yąnomamö vocabulary, it is also true that we know much less of ours than they do theirs” (101). They have different variations and dialects of the language from different villages cannot understand each other. Occasionally, a fight will break out between a husband and wife, and soon the rest of the village expressing opinions on the dispute. Once in a while, a man gives a long, loud speech voicing his opinion of the world in general. This is called what Chagnon refers to as patamou or kawa amou by the Yąnomamö to “act big” (135). Next, I will describe the religion, magic, mythology, and worldview. The Yąnomamö practice the religion of animism, which means they believe the plants and animals around them have animal spirits. These are called xapiripe. In order to see them, they must use a hallucinogen called yopo. Yopo is taken by blowing through a tube into the nose from one person to another. When someone takes yopo, they supposedly have a power to manipulate the spirits in the animal and plants to go into their own body, giving them more spiritual power.

The Yąnomamö have a very complex religious belief system. According to their belief, there are four levels of reality. The Yąnomamö believe things tend to fall downward to a lower layer. The duku ka misi, or top layer, is thought to be earliest and sensitive. They believe that many things originated in this layer. It is only considered as having a vague function in everyday life. The next layer down, called the hedu ka misi, and it is known as the sky layer. It has trees, gardens, villages, animals, plants, and most importantly, the souls of the deceased. Everything that exists on earth is said to have a counterpart on the third layer. The bottom surface of the layer is said to be what the Yąnomamö on earth actually see: the visible sky. Stars and planets are attached to the bottom surface and move across it on their individual trails. There are many myths about how the first beings were created. The Yąnomamö seem to believe that the cosmos began with these people present. Chagnon said that he had a hard time trying to get the Yąnomamö to explain how the first beings were created. Lastly, I will discuss the gender and age roles. Many Yąnomamö believe that men are more valuable than women.

The female children are already taught to assume the duties and responsibilities in the household, long before their brothers are obliged to participate in other tasks. The little girls are supposed to tend to their younger brothers and sisters and they’re expected to help their mothers in other chores. By the time that the girls have reached puberty, they have already learned that their world is “less attractive” than that of their brothers (124). They have already been promised in marriage by that time. Girls, have no voice in the decisions reached by their elder kin in deciding whom they marry (124). In many cases, girls have been promised to a man long before she reaches puberty, and in some cases her husband-elect raises her for part of her childhood. She usually does not begin living with her husband until after her first menstrual period. The women are basically the equivalent to housewives that we have here in America. Her duties are particularly laborious, like collecting firewood and fetching water everyday. Collecting firewood is difficult and women spend hours every day searching the neighborhood for the perfect firewood.

If a woman locates a good supply of wood near the village then she will carry as much as she can and store it rather than have it taken by her covillagers. With the child-adult division, the boys are encouraged to be fierce and they are rarely punished by their parents for hitting other boys or on girls in the village. Chagnon describes the life of Ariwari whom emulates his father by copying his activities on a child’s scale (129). His sisters, are forced into more practical labor and help their mother do useful tasks. A girl’s childhood ends sooner than a boy’s. By the time a girl is ten years old, she has become an economic asset to the mother and spends a great deal of time working. Boys, spend hours playing amongst themselves and are able to live out their childhood into their late teens. The girl has already been married and possibly had a child or two, by that time. In conclusion, Napoleon Chagnon has accurately portrayed the Yąnomamö. By living with the Yąnomamö for so long, Chagnon has learned everything that he can about them. I have learned a great deal from him about the Yąnomamö.

My reaction to this book is that it is a great book. I am glad that I know more about the Yąnomamö and that I have learned so much. I think that Chagnon’s publishers should have published the book in a bigger form, like the font was too small to read sometimes. Chagnon also confused me a little bit with the words that he used. I was shocked to learn about the male and female gender roles because they are so different from what we do here. Girls should be able to live their child hood and be happy. Boys should also take on their father’s duties earlier in their life like the girls do with their mother’s. There is so much content in this book that it is almost too much. I believe that some thing could have been left out in order to make this book easier to read. This book contained a lot of information about the gender and child adult division. There was also a lot of information about the cosmos.

I would have liked further explanation of what they about. I learned many things about the Yąnomamö. They live in the amazon rainforest on the border of Venezuela and Brazil. They live in a warm and humid climate that makes it difficult to garden so they are very nomadic. I do not agree with their beliefs of how the first beings came about, though. They believe that they began with the people present. Then, I do not agree with their gender roles. Men and women should have equal opportunities. Little girls should be allowed to live their childhood longer than they do now and they should only live with their husbands after they reach puberty. Little boys should learn their father’s duties around the same age that the girl’s learn their duties. They should both enjoy their childhoods. Their gender roles are a little bit messed up too. It seems like women do most of the laborious work around the house and the men seem to do less. That is just my opinion. I’ve gained many insights from this book.

Work Cited

Chagnon, Napoleon. Yąnomamö. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.

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