Renowned anthropologist Napoleon Alphonseau Chagnon, 81, of Traverse City, Michigan, died Sept. 21, 2019, at Munson Medical Center after a prolonged illness.
The eldest son of Rollin Peter and Mildred Elizabeth (Cavanaugh) Chagnon. Chagnon was born and mostly raised in Port Austin, Michigan.
The Chagnon family moved to Onaway, Michigan, in 1955, and Chagnon graduated from Onaway High School the following year. It was in Onaway that he met classmate Carlene Badgero. They dated and corresponded throughout college and were married on July 16, 1960. Nap and Carlene were blessed with 59 years of marriage, two children and five grandchildren.
The summer after graduating high school, to earn money for college, Nap attended a civil engineering training camp near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, then was hired as a surveyor and helped build the approach to the Mackinac Bridge.
As a college freshman, Chagnon attended the Michigan College of Mining and Technology in Sault Saint Marie, where he studied physics. He transferred to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor his sophomore year. At Michigan and during the summers, Chagnon worked as an ambulance driver and a dormitory house fatherto pay his way through college. In the summers, he continued to work as a surveyor.
While studying physics at the University of Michigan, Chagnon took his first anthropology course and fell in love with it. He said that by the second lecture of the second course he “was hooked.” He earned his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate in anthropology at the University of Michigan, where he ultimately held his first university teaching position.
In 1964, as a doctoral student, Chagnon traveled deep into the Amazon jungle, on the border of Venezuela and Brazil, to study a primitive tribe, the Yanomamö, a population of 25,000 people living in 250 villagesapproximately. Chagnon became the first outsider to contact numerous remote villages of the Yanomamö. Chagnon lived among them, learned their language and came to love them, as he devoted his career to studying the Yanomamö.
For approximately 20 years after his first trip into the Amazon, Chagnon lived in Yanomamö villages for months at a time nearly every year; Carlene and their children, Darius and Lisa, came to find it normal that “Dad is away in the jungle.” In conducting his extensive field research, he asked the Yanomamö so many questions — and so persistently — that they affectionately came to call him “Shaki,” which means “pesky bee.”
Chagnon was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2012, as one of the world’s leading anthropologists. His prominence in 20th century anthropology has been compared in importance to that of Margaret Mead and Claude Levi-Strauss.
Academic friends and colleagues from around the world have reiterated their admiration for his work and expressed their sorrow at the loss of his friendship, humor, and courage.
Anthropology professor John Tooby of University of California at Santa Barbara said Chagnon “was a great scientist, but also he was one of the few great men I have known — he had an extraordinary amount of moral courage.”
Sebastian Junger, best-selling author (“The Perfect Storm,” “Tribe”) and award-winning filmmaker (Academy-Award Nominated “Restrepo”), studied anthropology in college at Wesleyan under a protégé of Chagnon’s. “Napoleon Chagnon was an incredibly brave, groundbreaking anthropologist ... (whose) work is undoubtedly the best starting point for how modern populations can learn to more peacefully coexist with their neighbors,” Junger said.
Harvard professor of biological anthropology Richard Wrangham said he “will remember (Chagnon) as a true original, a wonderfully bold and ambitious adventurer who mixed extraordinary personal courage with personal awareness. His sensitive side came out in his beautifully written and delicately perceived ethnographies.”
Award-winning author, historian, and journalist Alice Dreger, who earned her doctorate in the history and philosophy of science, spent a great deal of time with Chagnon when researching him for her critically acclaimed book, “Galileo’s Middle Finger.”
“He was just a good man ... He was an enormously interesting man, but he was also, to my mind, the ontogeny that recapitulates the phylogeny. By that, I mean that he was so exquisitely human, he was humanity. The loss of that feels very great to me,” Dreger said.
Chagnon published wellmore than 100 academic papers and book chapters, five books and 21 documentary films. His 1968 monograph, “Yanomamö: The Fierce People,” sold over 1 million copies and became a celebrated workamongst students of anthropology. His last book, “Noble Savages,” was called “an epic” by renowned sociobiologist and Pulitzer Prize winner E.O. Wilson, then a Harvard College professor of psychology, Harvard University. Wilson described Chagnon as a “rip-roaring storyteller” and went on to say that “Noble Savages” is rich with insights into human natureand an entertaining interlude with a remarkable man.
After his firstacademic teaching position at the University ofMichigan, Chagnon held tenured positions as a professor of anthropology at Penn State, Northwestern University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and, at his passing, was research professor at MU. He also did a sabbatical at Cambridge University, England, and lectured extensively throughout his career at many of the world’s major universities, including Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Berkley, Chicago, West Point, UCLA, Tokyo, London, Rome and many others.
Chagnon’s colleague, biomedical anthropologist and professor Mark Flinn, currently at Baylor University, was alsoonce his graduate student and herecalls how Chagnon riveted his audiences. He describes Chagnon’s lectures at Penn State as being “standing room” only. In a lecture hall that had 968 seats, every seat was taken and students would be sitting in the aisles and lined up at the door, trying to get in, even if they weren’t registered for the class.
“They just wanted to hear him speak,” Flinn said.
Chagnon’s fame made him a target, and a lucrative one. In 2000, an ambitiousauthor published a book largely about Chagnon, full of jaw-droppingfalse claims that made for exciting reading and it madeheadlines. Chagnon was not a litigious man; he was a scientist, through and through,so he endured the significant pain and distraction that resulted from the false claims rather than suing for libel.
Harvard Professor Richard Wrangham said, “I frown at the thought of the pain he suffered when attacked unfairly by self-righteous critics. ... And somehow he managed at the same time to be a cheery companion! What a guy.”
Chagnon loved dogs, bird hunting, the Great Lakes, the cherries and fall colors of Northern Michigan. He bellowed the University of Michigan fight song, and on football Saturdays, his home shook with his jubilant cries of “Go Blue!” Chagnon loved music, particularly Mozart and flamenco guitar, and it was not unusual for him to spend long hours writing at his desk at home, a big dog sleeping at his feet, with Mozart piano concertos playing in the background until dusk. He loved nature deeply and worried about the fate of primitive tribes, as well as the fate of the Amazon.
Privately to his closest academic friends and colleagues, he shared that his wife Carlene was truly a rock to him, and he missed being away from his wife and children as much as his career had demanded.
Chagnon loved photography and as a young boy, after he had saved up money to buy his first camera, he rushed to the shores of Lake Huron, eager to take his first photographs of the enormous body of water he so adored, only to feel crushed when every single photo came back as nothing more than a grey blur with a horizon line. Yet He went on to had many of his stunning photographs of the Yanomamö featured in National Geographic Magazine. over the years and to He won numerous awards for his historic documentary films about the Yanomamö.
Chagnon is survived by his wife, Carlene Chagnon of Traverse City, Michigan; a son, Darius (Lisa Peebles) Chagnon of Nashville, Tennessee, Tennessee; a daughter, Lisa (AJ) Cheponis of Colorado; his grandchildren, Danielle Gotschall, Caitlin Machak, Nikita Machak, Cyrus Chagnon and Ava Cheponis; as well as his brothers Verdun (Jackie) of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and Christopher (Nanette) of Black Lake, Michigan; his sisters Mairè (Gerald) Chagnon-Hazelman of Black Lake, Lavonne “Moni” (Keith) Alexander of Oxford, Michigan, and Annette “Nettie” (Mark) Chagnon-Olson of Show Low, Arizona; and numerous nieces, nephews, step-grandchildren and in-laws.
Chagnon was preceded in death by his parents; brothers R. Patrick, Denis, Glenn and Vincent; and sisters Marlene Revord-Simoneau and Emilie Gilewski.
Nap’s family will receive local friends at the Chagnon Funeral Home in Onaway, Michigan, from 2 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. A memorial to receive academic friends and colleagues will be held in the coming months.
Memorials can be made to Documentary Educational Resources in care of Alice Apley, executive director, at 108 Water Street, 5A, Watertown, MA 02472. Specify that the funds are to be used for the preservation and remastering of Napoleon A. Chagnon’s films in the Smithsonian’s Humanities Film Archive. Memorials can be made to the E O Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, The Half Earth Project, in honor of Napoleon A. Chagnon.