Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Survival International, February 26, 2013
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.survivalinternational.org/articles/3272-brutal-savage-myth

The Fierce People? The myth of the ‘Brutal Savage’

Portrayals of Indians as violent savages remain common. Perhaps the worst recent example of this characterization comes from the controversial US anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who carried out fieldwork with the Venezuelan Yanomami from the 1960s.

In his book, Yanomamö: The Fierce People, Chagnon constructed a sensationalist image of the tribe, describing them as ‘sly, aggressive, and intimidating’, ‘fierce’, ‘continuously making war on each other’, and living in a ‘state of chronic warfare’.

The Fierce People was a best-seller in the USA and is still a standard text for anthropology students today. It is also a key source in many recent popular science books by writers such as Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker, which also promote the myth of the ‘Brutal Savage’. Controversy

Despite the popularity of The Fierce People, Chagnon’s findings have been severely criticized by others who have extensive experience of the Yanomami. Many anthropologists, doctors and missionaries that have worked over many decades with the Yanomami simply do not recognize Chagnon’s characterizations, and profoundly disagree with his depiction of the tribe.

On 19 February 2013, Chagnon released his autobiography, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.

Many anthropologist specialists in the Yanomami of Venezuela and Brazil have signed an open letter condemning Chagnon’s characterization of the Yanomami.

Eminent anthropologist Marshall Sahlins explains how Chagnon exploited his Yanomami subjects to achieve his aims. Sahlins recently resigned from the US National Academy of Sciences in protest at Napoleon Chagnon’s election to the Academy.

Leading Brazilian professor of anthropology Eduardo Viveiros de Castro says the Yanomami are anything but the nasty, callous, sociobiological robots Chagnon makes them look like.

Prominent anthropologists Philippe Descola and Manuela Carneiro da Cunha have issued statements about Chagnon’s work and Sahlins’s resignation.

Experts wrote to the Daily Telegraph, to protest at an article repeating Chagnon’s views in 2001.

Carlo Zacquini, a Catholic lay missionary who has worked and lived among Yanomami for nearly 50 years, ‘never found them to be violent’. The Yanomami speak out

Hear what Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami spokesman and President of Hutukara, had to say about The Fierce People and Noble Savages in interviews with Survival.

In an excerpt taken from La chute du ciel, Paroles d’un chaman Yanomami, by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, he discusses the violence of Western societies.

Whilst a few Yanomami may die in conflicts, far more have been killed by outsiders in violent attacks or by the diseases they have brought in.

Between 1989 and 1993 it is estimated that nearly 20% of the Yanomami in Brazil died from diseases introduced by the gold miners. These invasions still pose huge threats to their health and security. Davi Kopenawa warns:

Today our real enemies are the gold miners, the cattle farmers and all those who want to seize our land. Our anger must be directed at them. That’s what I think.


The greatest tragedy in this story is that the real Yanomami have largely been written out of it, as the media have chosen to focus only on the salacious details of the debate that rages between anthropologists, or on Chagnon’s disputed characterizations. Rarely mentioned is the fact that The Fierce People had disastrous repercussions for the Yanomami, and tribal peoples in general.

Read how Brazil’s military dictatorship was influenced by the characterization of the Yanomami as hostile to each other.

See why UK government refused to fund an education project with the Yanomami.

More recently Chagon’s research has been used by Jared Diamond in his controversial new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? to back his erroneous claim that ‘most’ ‘traditional’ societies like the Yanomami exist in a state of ‘constant warfare’; that they are far more violent than industrialized societies; and that they welcome ‘pacification’ by the state.

Diamond’s book has been condemned by Survival director Stephen Corry, indigenous organizations and academics, and his arguments compared to those of European colonists, who sought justification for the brutalities of imperialism.