Napoleon Chagnon is biosocial professor emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Chagnon was born in 1938 in Port Austin, Michigan. He earned his PhD in anthropology at the University of Michigan in 1966. There, he studied unilineal cultural evolution under Leslie A. White. Chagnon tested White’s assertions that changes in technology played a primary role in social evolution when he gathered ethnographic field data among the Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela and Brazil. When Napoleon Chagnon began his study of the Yanomamo in 1964, few Whites had interacted with them, and none for extended periods of time. Chagnon was able to document the effects of Yanomamo acculturation to outside cultures, particularly the political and technological impact of trade goods. Chagnon also documented the effects of diseases and epidemics introduced by lumbermen and miners on the Yanomamo population and social organization. In 1988, Professor Chagnon established a survival fund with nonprofit organizations to develop health care programs for the Venezuelan Yanomamo. The Yanomamo are victims of scourges like influenza and water pollution as a result of their contact with an influx of illegal miners.
Chagnon became world renowned for his analysis of Yanomamo warfare and his participant observation field research techniques. He is also widely respected for his international advocacy for Yanomamo land rights, environmental protection, and human rights. The nature of Yanomamo warfare and violence between villages has been the subject of much of Chagnon’s research. Chagnon’s most important observations of the Yanomamo include their use of hallucinogenic drugs in shamanistic healing rituals and the violent practice of fighting with axes. The “Ax Fight,” captured on film, is a popular ethnographic CD-ROM for college students. Chagnon explains Yanomamo violence and warfare as a result of a shortage of wives, perpetuated by female infanticide and cycles of vengeance. In response to protein-shortage explanations for warfare asserted by other anthropologists, Chagnon and partner Raymond Hames measured the amount of protein in several Yanomamo villages. They did not find a correlation between protein levels in local diets and violent warfare. Chagnon continues to gather field data among extremely remote Yanomamo villages contacted in the early 1990s.
In 1993, Chagnon was part of a team that investigated the violent murders of Yanomamo women and children by illegal miners. The massacre of the women and children followed the Yanomamo shooting of Brazilian miners who had killed Yanomamo men over territorial disputes. In 1999, Patrick Tierney alleged fieldwork misconduct on the part of Chagnon early in his research career, in a sensational book titled Darkness in El Dorado. The American Anthropological Association engaged in a detailed investigation in 2001 of the charges that Chagnon and geneticist James Neel had been the cause of a measles epidemic among the Yanomami people. All major allegations made by Tierney were shown to be not only false, but deliberately fraudulent.
Chagnon is currently engaged in computer-assisted longitudinal analysis of Yanomamo demography, settlement patterns, geography, and warfare patterns. He seeks to further understand and explain differences in Yanomamo village life and warfare intensity over time and place.
- Chagnon, N. A. (1967). Yanomamo social organization and warfare. In M. Fried, M. Harris, & R. Murphy (Eds.), War: The anthropology of armed conflict and aggression. New York: Natural History Press.
- Chagnon, N. A. (1997). Yanomamo: The last days of Eden (5th ed.). San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
- Chagnon, N. A., & Hames, R. (1979). Protein deficiency and tribal warfare in Amazonia: New data. Science, 203(4383), 10-15.