Renowned MU anthropologist chronicles career, criticisms in new book

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 | 9:14 p.m. CDT; updated 10:09 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 13, 2013

COLUMBIA — Napoleon Chagnon ducked through leaves surrounding the Yanomamo tribe. He stood up and was greeted by a line of tribesmen with green slime dripping from their noses. They pointed 10-foot-long bows and arrows directly at his face.

“I gaped in horror,” Chagnon said. “What the hell kind of reception is this?”

Claiming Kin

Napoleon Chagnon's talk on Tuesday night was part of a larger symposium, Claiming Kin, which is sponsored by the Life Sciences and Society Program at MU. Claiming Kin will present a series of speakers March 15-17 and is intended to explore the evolution of kin groups and evolving notions of kinship. The symposium schedule is available here.


Napoleon Chagnon, National Academy of Sciences member, renowned anthropologist and author, presented his new book “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists” to a crowd of more than 200 on Tuesday at the Bond Life Sciences Center. Chagnon joined MU as a research professor in the anthropology department on Jan. 1.

“He’s one of the big names in the whole area of hunter gatherers and small traditional cultures, so you can’t help but not hear about Napoleon Chagnon when you’re doing anthropology,”said Peter Warnock, an anthropologist who graduated from MU in 2004. 

Chagnon’s “Noble Savages”describes his fieldwork experience in 1964 with the Yanomamo Indians in Venezuela's Amazon region, one of the largest isolated tribal groups today, as well as his other anthropological experience.  

Chagnon’s book describes the Yanomamo as a violent group in which men frequently engage in warfare, abduct women and kill their wives and offspring to avenge deaths.

That research has proven controversial at times.

During the lecture, Chagnon chronicled criticisms made against him, sometimes with jest.

A series of controversies began with his book “Yanomamo: the Fierce People,” published in 1968, he said.

His book said that Yanomamo men fought with neighboring tribes, which was controversial because the common theory at the time was that tribes didn’t fight until capitalism interfered.

He described the Yanomamo men as fighting over women, which contested the Marxist theory that tribal cultures would only fight over scarce resources.

Chagnon’s 1988 paper in the journal Science led to more criticism.

In it, he said he provided statistics that showed Yanomamo tribal men killed others during warfare. He said that men who killed had three times as many children and twice as many wives as those who didn’t.

Chagnon said he was labeled as a racist, as complicit and as "causing academic genocide."

The Washington Post review of “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes - the Yanomomo and the Anthropologists” called many of Chagnon's arguments controversial, including the assertion that Yanomamo killers had greater reproductive success than non-murderers.                                           

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