As one of the most famous of all cultures in anthropology and beyond, the Yanomami are ethnographic celebrities. They are a large population of indigenous people living in a vast area of some 192,000 square kilometers in the Amazon rain forest. The heart of their homeland is the Sierra Parima, part of the Guyana Highlands, the mountainous divide between the watersheds of the two most famous rivers of the Amazon region, the Orinoco and the Amazon itself. Their territory overlaps the border between northwestern Brazil and southeastern Venezuela. Some 21,000 Yanomami reside in 363 scattered communities that range in size from 30 to 90 individuals with a few reaching more than 200 in size. Although very little archaeological research has been conducted in the area, two other independent lines of evidence, linguistics and blood group genetics, indicate that the Yanomami have been a separate population for 2,000 years. Their language remains classified as independent, unrelated to any others on the continent of South America.
Surely among the reasons for their survival for millennia is one of the most outstanding attributes that distinguishes this unique culture, reciprocity. It is a pivotal social principle applied in almost every aspect of their daily life, and most commonly through kindness, sharing, cooperation, and camaraderie. However, this principle is also applied in resolving disputes, occasionally even through violence between individuals, groups, or villages. In various ways reciprocity extends beyond ordinary life to their relationships with the spiritual component of their world as well. For example, every Yanomami hunter has a counterpart in the form of an animal spirit in the forest that he cannot kill without seriously endangering himself. The unity, interconnectedness, and interdependence of all life is a fundamental tenet of the religion and philosophy of the Yanomami, another expression of reciprocity.
The Yanomami world is intensely intimate, socially and ecologically. Traditionally people dwell together in a big, palm leaf thatched, communal, round house with a large open central plaza. Their egalitarian society is structured primarily along lines of kinship. In this communal shelter, the hammocks of each nuclear or extended family are arranged around a hearth along the back perimeter. Each village is relatively autonomous politically with a charismatic headman who can lead only by persuasion in developing a consensus. There is no chief or other authority uniting more than one community, let alone Yanomami society as a whole, although alliances with several other villages are common for economic, social, and political purposes. In Yanomami society the units of residence, kinship, and politics are not isomorphic, but overlap in diverse, complex, and fluid ways. This dynamic is mirrored by the subsistence economy that entails almost daily forays into the surrounding forest for gardening, hunting, fishing, and gathering. Accordingly, individuals accumulate an extensive detailed knowledge of the ecology of their habitat from such regular intimate experience.
Yanomami society successfully adapted to the diverse terra firme (interfluvial) forest ecosystems within its territory for two millennia. They developed an ecologically sustainable society in terms of their low population density; limited interest in material culture; high mobility; rotational subsistence economy; environmental knowledge; and worldview, values, and attitudes. They practice a rotational system of land and resource use not only in their shifting or swidden farming, but also in their hunting, fishing, and gathering. The last three activities emphasize extensive trekking several times a year when they may camp in the forest for a week to a month or so at a time. Their environmental knowledge includes well over a hundred species of wild plants that they use for food, medicinal, and other purposes. Furthermore, their worldview, values, and attitudes usually help promote respect for nature. For instance, they have a system of extensive prohibitions on consuming certain animal species, some of which apply to everyone in the community whereas others are specific to individual circumstances. These food taboos reduce pressure on prey species. Thus, after millennia of use the forest and its wildlife remain intact. The sustain-ability of traditional Yanomami society is no romantic illusion.
The ancestral homeland of the Yanomami is a region of high biological diversity in several respects: tropical rain forest ecosystems; altitudinal zonation and other variations in climate, soils, and biota from lowlands to highlands; tepuis; and refugia. Tepuis, or inselbergs, are isolated tabletop mountains that are like islands of biological evolution with relatively high species endemicity. Refugia are areas of relict forest surviving from periods of wet and dry climatic oscillations during the Pleistocene. For environmentalists and others concerned with Amazonian ecosystems and biological diversity, the optimum route for conservation would be the continued survival and welfare of the Yanomami and other indigenous societies.
Until recently, Yanomami territory was also a refuge in two other respects, political and cultural. The Yanomami may have retreated to the core of their territory in the Sierra Parima to escape slave raids from adjacent Carib neighbors during the colonial period. They are one of the unique indigenous cultures remaining in the Amazon, part of the cultural diversity of this region that is increasingly endangered through serious violations of the human rights of the indigenous peoples by some colonists, miners, ranchers, government agents, military, missionaries, anthropologists, tourists, and other foreigners.
Although not generally recognized, the Yanomami in Brazil and Venezuela have been influenced in varying ways and degrees for centuries at least indirectly by Western “civilization,” and sometimes even by direct contact on the margins of their territory. However, only since the 1970s have they progressively become an endangered people, first as the result of the construction of the Northern Perimeter highway that penetrated 225 kilometers into the southern portion of their traditional territory, and since the mid-1980s by the invasion of tens of thousands of illegal gold miners, initially in Brazil, and then more recently also hundreds infiltrating into Venezuela. This cannot be labeled with euphemisms such as cultural contact, acculturation, cultural change, or even catastrophic cultural change—rather clearly in effect it amounts to ecocide, ethnocide, and genocide.
One of the most serious threats of all to the Yanomami in the past two decades has been placer mining, although mainly in Brazil. It is conducted on the land surface by washing away alluvial sediments along river and stream banks with high-pressure hoses and through dredging the bottom of rivers. This causes deforestation, game depletion and displacement, biodiversity reduction, mercury and other pollution, river and stream bank destruction and siltation, and fishery degradation. Subsistence and sport hunting by gold miners, and noise from airplanes and gold mining machinery all combine to degrade the habitat of game and fish as well as deplete and displace their populations. Obviously this has deleterious effects on the animal protein resources, nutrition, health, and disease resistance of local Yanomami communities. Some Yanomami go hungry and even beg for food from the miners, something unknown in their traditional society. For the first time, Yanomami are experiencing poverty and inequality. Other detrimental new practices are introduced such as alcohol abuse and prostitution. Consequently, every aspect of Yanomami society, culture, and ecology is in effect attacked at all levels.
Introduced disease is certainly the most serious immediate threat to all Yanomami. In Brazil, at least 15% of the Yanomami population has already died, mostly as a result of epidemic diseases introduced by the gold miners: tuberculosis, venereal diseases, and even AIDS. The incidence of previously existing diseases, such as malaria and onchocerciasis (African river blindness), has markedly increased as well. Although this medical emergency has long been recognized, and was even predicted in advance of the earlier road construction, the Brazilian and Venezuelan governments have consistently failed to provide adequate medical assistance for the Yanomami. However, the efforts of the Pro-Yanomami Commission in Brazil together with the French organization called Doctors With Out Borders have brought more medical assistance to some Yanomami communities. Unfortunately, there are no comparable efforts in Venezuela, although the situation appears to be less dire.
There have been homicides and even mass murders of Yanomami by gold miners that were subsequently investigated and documented. For instance, the Hashimu massacre involved a series of events from June through August of 1993. The 12 victims included women, children, and elderly. Several of the bodies were mutilated and some even decapitated.
The miners have brought prostitution that spreads diseases. They have also introduced trade goods that can trigger competition and aggression among Yanomami. They have even given Yanomami shotguns, perhaps to win over friends in areas where they mine. The negative effects on the Yanomami of venereal disease, competition for trade goods, and shotguns may sometimes be inadvertent, or sometimes even intentional.
Although the number of miners in Yanomami territory has declined substantially in recent years from a high of around 40,000 in 1987, there are still regular invasions each dry season. Moreover, changes in the national and regional economies, increases in the price of gold, or discoveries of new kinds of minerals could easily and quickly lead to catastrophic explosions of the mining population at any time in the future with grave consequences for the Yanomami.
Since the 1980s, the territory of the Yanomami nation in the country of Brazil has been turned, in effect, into killing fields because of the illegal invasion of many thousands of gold miners with a multitude of negative health, social, and environmental consequences. However, this disturbing human tragedy is not simply an inadvertent result of the activity of the miners and those who support and profit from their activity. It is also clearly the direct result of the failure of the state and provincial governments of Brazil and Venezuela to adequately protect and promote the human rights of the Yanomami, even though both countries have joined in numerous international agreements on human rights and also have significant protections specified in their own constitutions and laws. After decades of a mixture of governmental apathy, incompetence, corruption, and even complicity, all of which is well documented in numerous sources, the Yanomami are an endangered society. They will continue to be threatened, unless the international community marshals a much more concerted, systematic, forceful, and sustained initiative on their behalf.
Anthropologists are part of the international community, and some, such as those who are members of the American Anthropological Association, are supposed to follow a formal code of professional ethics that assigns first priority to the welfare of the host community in research. Furthermore, anthropologists have knowledge of some 500 years of recurrent historical trends in situations in which Western “civilization” made war against indigenous societies. From a diversity of sources the profession also has access to substantial specific knowledge about Yanomami culture and ecology as well as the continuing crisis they suffer. Anthropology in the United States and other countries has its own organizations and contacts with relevant governmental and nongovernmental organizations. In short, anthropologists already possess sufficient knowledge to act on behalf of social and environmental justice for the Yanomami. Yet, with few outstanding exceptions, anthropologists individually and collectively have been grossly negligent in this regard.
By now more than three-dozen anthropologists have worked with the Yanomami in various areas and ways for widely different lengths of time. For instance, the eminent Yanomami ethnographer, Jacques Lizot, actually lived with them for more than a quarter of a century. By now more than 60 books have been published about the Yanomami, albeit with diverse approaches, coverage, quality, and accuracy. With so many different anthropologists publishing this much on the Yanomami for more than a century, it is feasible to compare accounts to identify points of agreement, presumably indicative of ethnographic reality, and other points of disagreement, reflecting the individual ethnographer’s interpretation, idiosyncrasies, biases, and other phenomena. For example, only a couple of these dozens of authors are obsessed with the violence in Yanomami society to the extent of exaggeration and distortion as well as to the neglect of the violence committed by outsiders against the Yanomami: Ettore Biocca and Napoleon Chagnon. Another important consideration that has yet to receive much systematic research attention is the fact that there is tremendous variation in the geography, ecology, economy, culture, and history among the some 363 Yanomami villages scattered over the enormous area of 192,000 square kilometers. Communities are located from the Orinoco lowlands into the Guyana highlands within an altitudinal range of 250 to 1,200 meters above sea level.
It is also feasible to identify historical trends in Yanomami studies (Yanomamalogy). The orientation of anthropological research among the Yanomami has evolved to emphasize more humanitarian, applied, and advocacy work in recent decades. Starting in the late 18th century, various explorers and naturalists like Alexander von Humboldt published anecdotal accounts of brief encounters with the Yanomami. Much later this stage was followed during the 1960s and 1970s by salvage ethnography, an attempt to systematically describe as much about Yanomami culture and life as possible. This was guided by the assumption that, as a supposedly “primitive” people surviving from a previous stage of cultural evolution, the Yanomami were destined for extinction in the face of civilization and “progress,” or at least for profound cultural change through acculturation and assimilation. The first comprehensive ethnography on the Yanomami was published by Louis Cocco in 1971 after he had lived with them as a Salesian missionary for 15 years. Already at this time there was enough research on the Yanomami by various investigators to allow Cocco to include a whole section on the history of Yanomami studies.
During the 1980s, research on the Yanomami in Venezuela became more problem-oriented, much of it focusing on the causes of their so-called warfare and related issues. Actually the most intense form of Yanomami inter-village aggression is more akin to the famous blood feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families in the Appalachian Mountains between Kentucky and Virginia from 1882 to 1890. In any case, the extended debate about the causes of aggression in Yanomami society was over competing sociobiological and ecological explanations proposed mainly by Napoleon Chagnon and Marvin Harris, respectively. Until Brian Ferguson’s subsequent meticulous ethno-historical research, the Yanomami were falsely treated as some kind of a pristine isolate. In addition, the consequences on aggression and other aspects of their society of the movement of some villages to the lowlands in pursuit of trade goods and other Western resources were mostly ignored. Furthermore, there is no scientific or other justification in affording internal aggression in Yanomami society so much attention while largely, if not entirely, ignoring aggressive external forces that clearly threaten their survival, welfare, and rights as fellow human beings.
Simultaneously in Brazil, however, with the dire consequences of road construction and then mining in the southern territory of the Yanomami, research in that country shifted in emphasis from basic to applied and advocacy work as exemplified by the heroic efforts of anthropologists like Bruce Albert, Gale Goodwin Gomez, Alcida Ramos, and Kenneth Taylor, among others. In Venezuela, where the situation was not as grave and urgent, basic research persisted. However, the controversy over the allegations of serious violations of professional ethics and of the human rights of the Yanomami on the part of Napoleon Chagnon and associates made in Patrick Tierney’s controversial book in late 2000 have aroused increased concern with social responsibility and relevance in anthropological research in both Venezuela and Brazil. Accordingly, many no longer consider it justifiable to collect scientific data merely to feed careerism and the vague promise of contributing to human knowledge. Such egocentric work not only dehumanizes the host communities in which the research is conducted, but the researcher as well. The Yanomami and the profession deserve far better.
Fortunately, the Yanomami themselves are increasingly working to sustain their self-determination and other human rights, territorial integrity, and ethnic identity, as well as to meet their own medical, educational, political, and other needs. For instance, one of their leaders, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, has traveled internationally to publicize their situation and needs. He has addressed organizations such as the British House of Commons and the United Nations. Some schools in Yanomami communities in Brazil are teaching computer literacy with equipment provided by donations raised by Cultural Survival, Inc. It may well be just a matter of time before there are even Yanomami trained as anthropologists documenting their own culture and critically assessing what others have published about their society. Thus, although Yanomami face many serious threats because of the failures of the state and provincial governments of Brazil and Venezuela in protecting and advancing their human rights, they are not merely passive victims of cultural contact and change, but increasingly active agents in struggling to determine their own future. The only anachronism is those racist and ethnocentric outsiders who continue to view them as primitive, worthy only as a source of scientific data and not of voicing their own opinions—including opinions about anthropologists. The Yanomami are neither noble nor ignoble savages, but rather they are fellow human beings with a distinctive culture. Indeed, the word Yanomami simply means human being.
- Borofsky, R. (2005). Yanomami: The fierce controversy and what we can learn from it. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Chagnon, N. A. (1997). Yanomamo. New York: Harcourt Brace College.
- Cooco, L. (1972). Iyewei-Teri: Quince anos entre los Yanomamos [Fifteen years among the Yanomamos]. Caracas, Venezuela: Libreria
- Editorial Salesiana. Ferguson, R. B. (1995). Yanomami warfare: A political history. Santa Fe, NM: School of American
- Research Press. Lizot, J. (1985). Tales of the Yanomami: Daily life in the Venezuelan forest. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Ramos, A. R. (1995). Sanuma memories: Yanomami ethnography in times of crisis. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Rocha, J. (1999). Murder in the rain forest: The Yanomami, the gold miners, and the Amazon.London, UK: Latin American Bureau.
- Smole, W. J. (1976). The Yanomama Indians: A cultural geography. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
- Tierney, P. (2001). Darkness in El Dorado: How scientists and journalists devastated the Amazon. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.