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Napoleon Chagnon and the Myth of the Noble Savage

(NAPOLEON CHAGNON)

“Two hundred years later, Venezuelans speak of natives as a national asset—and sometimes even a touristic attraction—that enhances their national pride, very much like oil fields, beauty queens, Miguel Cabrera, or Angel Falls.”

In the United States, politicians refer to indigenous tribes simply as “Native Americans.” In Venezuela (and some other South American countries), politicians describe indigenous tribes with the words “nuestros indigenas” (our indigenous people). The use of the pronoun our is relevant here, for it reveals the paternalistic attitude towards native groups in Venezuela. 

The American Revolution was mostly about pragmatic issues (“no taxation without representation”), and ethnic nationalism had little to do with it; as far they were concerned, American revolutionaries were as Anglo-Saxon as the British. The South American revolutionaries were different. Although their revolutions were led by criollos (people of full European descent), the revolutionaries spoke the language of ethnic nationalism. In their war propaganda efforts, the South American revolutionaries went to great lengths to convince other criollos that they were different from the Spaniards and, therefore, that they should join the fight for independence. As part of this nationalist myth-making, criollos embraced indigenous identity, as a way to create ethnic differences with Spain. Consequently, even though native tribesmen were not impressed with criollos (in fact, they joined the Spanish side in the early phases of the war), they were ultimately used as symbols of the new emerging South American nations.

Two hundred years later, Venezuelans speak of natives as a national asset—and sometimes even a touristic attraction—that enhances their national pride, very much like oil fields, beauty queens, Miguel Cabrera, or Angel Falls. In other words, natives have become poster children, or even worse, museum pieces. That is how they are “nuestros indigenas.” And even though the bulk of Venezuelans do not interact much with natives, Venezuelans get very sensitive about them, especially if foreigners say a few uncomfortable truths about their way of living.

Napoleon Chagnon, who passed away a few weeks ago, was one such foreigner. He made a name in anthropology, by studying the Yanomami tribe, an indigenous group that lives near the border between Venezuela and Brazil. Criollo nationalism ultimately relied on the Noble Savage myth; i.e., indigenous tribes are cooperative, peaceful, wise, and were living in a golden age until the conquistadors brought misery, death, and destruction. The Yanomami were especially regarded as noble savages—mostly because they were the last Venezuelan tribe to establish contact with Western civilization. Thus, in pure Rousseauian spirit, they were considered closest to the uncorrupted purity of natural man.

Chagnon shattered that myth. He discovered that the Yanomami may be savages, but they are certainly not noble. They are far from being peaceful; in fact, 30 percent of adult male deaths come from violence, and “44 percent of males estimated to be 25 or older have participated in the killing of someone.”

Chagnon shattered that myth. He discovered that the Yanomami may be savages, but they are certainly not noble. They are far from being peaceful; in fact, 30 percent of adult male deaths come from violence, and “44 percent of males estimated to be 25 or older have participated in the killing of someone.”Even more shockingly, this violence follows a pattern predicted by evolutionary psychology: those who kill, get to have more wives and more children, and hence, in more primitive societies (i.e., those closer to the conditions of human evolution in the African savannah hundreds of thousands of years ago), genes for violent behavior spread more easily. Chagnon, a rigorous anthropologist, did not come to these conclusions lightly. He relied on extensive ethnographic observations, large samples of data, and many, many years of patient study.

It wasn’t just Venezuelans who were upset. Ever since Franz Boas and his students aggressively advanced a cultural relativist agenda in American anthropology, most anthropology departments in the United States also have a weak spot for the Noble Savage myth. And so, unable to prove Chagnon wrong, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) preferred to engage in defamation. In 2000, an obscure journalist, Patrick Tierney, published Darkness in El Dorado, a sensationalist book claiming that Chagnon dehumanized the Yanomami by portraying them as extremely fierce. As part of that dehumanization, so Tierney claimed, Chagnon engaged in human experimentation, distributed measles among the Yanomami population, and caused a major epidemic. This was music to the ears of the AAA: in their mind, anybody who dares to challenge the Noble Savage myth, must be a crossover of Hernán Cortés and Josef Mengele. The AAA pursued an investigation, even though in any other case, the organization would have paid little attention to the sensationalist claims of an obscure journalist.

As it turned out, these allegations were entirely without foundation, and by 2005, the AAA quietly dropped the case, with no apologies to Chagnon. One particular allegation by Tierney is emblematic of the lamentable state of affairs that seems to be dominant in anthropology.Tierney accused Chagnon of introducing Western technologies to Yanomami communities; according to Tierney, the introduction of machetes was the catalyst for the violence that Chagnon described in his ethnographic studies.

Chagnon did not deny that, indeed, he introduced machetes and other Western goods in Yanomami communities. But, are we really to believe that this single event is responsible for so much violence in Yanomami communities? Tierney and the anthropologists who listened to him, seemed to be too influenced by The Gods Must Be Crazy: as if a single Coca-Cola bottle were capable of causing such mayhem in a paradisiac society! Machetes are not evil objects for Yanomamis; in fact, they eagerly desire them, not so much to kill their brethren, but simply, because it makes life easier in many of their daily tasks. Sadly, under the gods-must-be-crazy mentality, most anthropologists are terrified at the prospect of natives becoming Westernized and would prefer them to have a hard life, just so they (the anthropologists) can delight themselves watching the natives as living relics in human zoos. One particular organization, Survival International, stubbornly lobbies governments to keep natives as museum pieces, even against their will, and prevents them from becoming more Westernized. It is time to call these organizations out, as at least one sensible anthropologist, Adam Kuper, has done repeatedly.

The passing of time ultimately proved Chagnon right and cleared him of any wrongdoing. But, I am afraid that the reasonable side is losing the battle in this culture war. As Western civilization is taking some nasty turns with the likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro, and other not-so-nice politicians of the Right, Social Justice Warriors engage in the same tactic that originated, long ago, with the likes of Tacitus, Montaigne, Rousseau, and other promoters of the Noble Savage myth: they glorify primitive tribes as a way to highlight Western civilization’s own faults. Unfortunately, this does not help. Intellectual honesty requires anthropology to portray non-Westerners as they really are—and not in some idealized image. This is what Chagnon did for decades, and on the occasion of his passing, we should honor him precisely for that.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at Ajman University, United Arab Emirates. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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