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Columbia Missourian

MU's anthropology department adds two big names to its faculty roster

By Whitney Hayward
January 15, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon stands in front of a ceremonial mask made by the Piaroa, a group of indigenous people in Venezuela, in his Columbia home. Chagnon is a new research professor in MU's Department of Anthropology and has extensive experience studying the Yanomamo tribe on the border Venezuela and Brazil.

*This story has been modified to correct the spelling of Carlene Chagnon's name and to reflect that Martin Daly was hired in September. **In an earlier version of this story, a misplaced paragraph incorrectly characterized Napoleon Chagnon's reaction to criticism of his work.

COLUMBIA —With two new research professor hires in the past three months, MU's Department of Anthropology has raised its national profile. The first hire in September*, Martin Daly, is known for his work in evolutionary psychology. Napoleon Chagnon, hired Jan. 1, is one of the most prominent American anthropologists.


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"Chagnon’s work with the Yanomamo is of the utmost importance not just to anthropology, but on a global scale — for us to be able to understand the major problems that face humanity," MU anthropology professor Mark Flinn said.

His work helps answer universal questions like, "Why do we end up in these astonishing arms races? Why do we kill each other by the millions?" Flinn said.

The anthropology department has made recent efforts, most headed by Flinn, to draw faculty members that focus on evolution.

"Missouri will now probably be the strongest department in evolutionary anthropology," Northwestern University Professor Emeritus William Irons said. Only a handful of universities in America have anthropology departments with evolutionary programs, Irons said, though much of the controversy surrounding the study of evolution has decreased within the last 10 years. 

Anthropology, or the study of humans and their ancestors, is interested aspects of human relationships, appearance, behavior, language and culture. Evolutionary anthropology seeks to answer the same research questions, but through the framework of human development and history.

Daly is an evolutionary psychologist, who investigates how behavior and psychology are influenced by evolution. Some of Daly's best-known work is on the "Cinderella Effect," which involves propensity for stepchild abuse. His main research topic has been the demographic patterns and risk factors for homicides.

He is writing a book on "Inequality and Homicide," which will address how income inequality affects homicide rates. Daly will offer a graduate seminar on his research topic in the spring semester. 

“This is a context in which you put some of the material in front of a bunch of bright young people each week and we all discuss it,” Daly said.

Chagnon is known within the anthropological community for his work in South America, researching the Yanomamo people.

"It's unbelievable to get even one of these folks," Flinn said."But to get both of them, in one year, is unheard of. This is a coup that has sent shock waves through this discipline."

Chagnon has been tangled in his share of controversy, but in an interview last week he said he felt energized by his move to MU. 

"It feels like I could have my career all over again," he said.

"The Fierce People"

The Yanomamo reside in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, scattered along the border between Venezuela and Brazil in 200 to 250 small villages. Before the 1960s, they had almost no contact with the outside world. Chagnon studied the Yanomamo when the government maps were inaccurate, the language was unknown and the culture was unfamiliar.    

"I thought, these noble savages that flittered around in the jungle with scented bodies would try to help me, anxious to have me wear them out by reciting their genealogies from five generations back," Chagnon said recently in an interview in his new home in southeast Columbia. "I would write it all down, go back to the United States and write a book. But it just wasn’t that way."

Chagnon's home is filled with artifacts from distant lands. Ye'kuana Indian canoe paddles hang in the living room, dark wooden African tribal masks adorn the walls, and baskets, one from the Yanomamo tribe, sit on a ledge lining the foyer.  Every piece seems to hint that the house's inhabitants have seen things most never have the opportunity to.  

It took Chagnon more than a year to learn enough Yanomamo language to start work on their genealogy.  Saying the name of another member Yanomamo was taboo, which made tracking kinship difficult. Chagnon said he eventually convinced members of the Yanomamo Bisaasi-teri tribe to tell the truth. When Chagnon visited another Yanomamo tribe, members asked about the names he'd learned. Chagnon said he quickly realized something was wrong.

"So they asked, ‘Oh, what was so-and-so’s name?’ and I said, ‘Oh, 'asshole' was his name,'" Chagnon said. "And then they’d ask, ‘Oh what was his wife’s name?’ And I said (a vulgar term for female genitalia). It quickly dawned on me that they had duped me."

Five months worth of genealogy and data collection was worthless. Chagnon had to start from scratch.

"It was funny as hell, had I been able to stand back,” Chagnon said. “But at the time I was really annoyed that they had hoodwinked me. It totally changed my approach to how I interacted with them."

Outmaneuvering practical jokes wasn't the greatest challenge, as it turned out.  The Yanomamo frequently engaged in warfare, and at least one-fourth of males died violently in the area where Chagnon lived, he said.

Returning to America and readjusting to the culture proved just as difficult as getting used to the Yanomamo way of life, Chagnon said. The commonplace became annoying, and Chagnon realized he was experiencing culture shock.

"I resented standing in line to do anything," Chagnon said. "In the jungle you just did it! And I always, still today, feel uncomfortable going into a public place and having people stand behind me, because in the jungle that’s a good way to get shot with an arrow." 

Chagnon wrote a book about his experience in 1968 called, "Yanomamo: The Fierce People," which quickly became an important textbook for introductory anthropology courses. 

"When that book came out, it was almost an instant best-seller," Flinn said. "Part of that was the intense interest in America with war. People wanted to know how the heck this stuff happened anyway, and whether we can see where the roots of conflict might lie."

The ethnography brought Chagnon notoriety. Before he retired at the University of California-Santa Barbara, he had lecture classes filled with more than 900 students.

"It’s like, whoever has popcorn and throws it into the pond at one end, all of the ducks will go to that end," Chagnon said, "Well, I had lots of popcorn."

Not everyone within the anthropological community was as enthused with Chagnon’s description and study of the Yanomamo. Some felt uncomfortable, even angry, that Chagnon described the society as fierce and, at times, vicious.

"Some saw the way Chagnon portrayed the Yanomamo culture as not right because they kill each other. They even kill their babies," Flinn said. "And we know that humans must have been nice, and kind, before the intervention of the capitalist global market."

Darkness and controversy 

Chagnon’s ability to continue research was eventually affected by growing hostilities.  When he was teaching at the University of California-Santa Barbara, Chagnon made three attempts to return to the Yanomamo. Chagnon said pressures from various anthropologists created a hostile political environment, which stopped his trip short in Venezuela and prevented entry into Yanomami land. 

"Here’s someone who's devoted his life to understanding the Yanomamo, and his whole world was turned upside down," Flinn said. "You’ve sacrificed your own self, been away from your own kids, had diseases, maybe shortened your life. And now you can’t get back."

When Chagnon was unable to return to the Yanomamo, he left California and moved to rural Michigan with his wife, Carlene*, and his dog, Darwin.

"If I couldn't do field research, I didn't want to be an anthropologist," Chagnon said.

"I spent the next 15 years fighting the demons that were after me," Chagnon said.** "I was sort of depressed back then because I couldn’t figure out what was happening to my career."

Things got worse when the book "Darkness in El Dorado" came out in 2000. The author, Patrick Tierney, alleged Chagnon and geneticist James Neel had committed atrocities, as far as knowingly introducing measles to the Yanomamo. Chagnon said the American Anthropological Association did not give him the opportunity directly refute the claims.

Flinn knew that Chagnon needed time away but continued a good working relationship with the anthropologist.  He visited Chagnon in Michigan over the next few summers, and eventually decided it would be best for Chagnon to come out of hiding.

"I'm sorry, but it was like Frodo," Flinn said, a reference to the unlikely hero of the Tolkien "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.  "He had something that was too important for humanity to just let him slide peacefully beneath the waves. We weren’t going to let him go gently."

Flinn said it was during this time that he allowed himself to consider the possibility of Chagnon coming to MU.


Seven years ago, Chagnon came to MU to give a talk on his research. Flinn said he had plans to convince the administration to hire the anthropologist as an "unusual senior hire." The enthusiasm to hire someone like Chagnon, though, wasn’t there then.

"So what happened then, the provost and administration, were recognizing that people who were prestigious, like those in the National Academy of Sciences, or Nobel Prize winners," Flinn said.  "And we don't have very many of those folks here in Missouri."

Last year, Chagnon was admitted into the National Academy of Sciences, which was created to give "advice on the scientific and technological issues that frequently affect policy decisions," according to the society's website.

Chagnon said that's when the light at the end of the tunnel began appearing. To be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences meant recognition from his scientific peers that his research had academic credibility.

Flinn said the second he caught wind of Chagnon's appointment, he started contacting professors within the university who could be influential in getting the anthropologist to Columbia. 

Late last year, Chagnon again visited Columbia, to discuss possible employment.

"Things just began coming together," MU Provost Brian Foster said. 

Foster said Chagnon's connection with Daly, who had then recently taken a job at MU, was helpful in getting the anthropologist on board. For more than 25 years, Daly and Chagnon were members of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society.

"He was happy to come here to talk to everyone and entertain my idea that he should consider a move," Flinn said.

Chagnon said he agreed to come as a courtesy to Flinn. "We had no intention of moving here," he said.

When he realized MU had faculty with similar research interests, and he could have a post-doctoral student to help with his research, Chagnon said he changed his tune.

"I was flabbergasted," Chagnon said. "So, I accepted. I said yes, where can I sign on the dotted line."

A mass of data

Within two hours of seeing the listing for a post-doc to work under Chagnon, Shane Macfarlan sent his application to MU.

Macfarlan quit his job at Oregon State and moved his family to Columbia.

"There's a bit of flexibility in our lives right now so we can do this," Macfarlan said. "Plus it’s a new adventure."

Macfarlan will oversee a team charged with digitizing and analyzing Chagnon's unarchived data on the Yanomamo. 

"I met Shane for the first time two nights ago, and he is just bubbling with energy," Chagnon said. "These young guys are going to run me into the ground."

Chagnon spent most of his time collecting data, and little time processing it. Flinn said Chagnon knew his time with the Yanomamo was limited, and wanted to get as much information as he could.

"It was a time window, Flinn said. "If he didn't, the opportunity would have been gone. This data, it's now irreplaceable." 

Flinn said the main goal is to make Chagnon's unpublished findings public for the anthropological community and the rest of the world. 

"It's not just, gosh, these savages in the Amazonian rainforest, why do I give a damn?" Flinn said.  "We're going to learn stuff about how the world works, how family and kinship is important, and how the modern world has created some circumstances that aren't particularly ideal. It might help us understand more, to come to a more peaceful world."