Saturday, March 15, 2014

Noble Savages by Napolean Chagnon ***

Two books in one ... an enlightening history of the Yanomamo and a sad memoir of the anthropologist who spent his life studying them.

Noble Savages by Napolean Chagnon covers the author's three decades with the Yanomamo, a people living on the border of Venezuela and Brazil, some of whom who when he arrived in 1964 had never had any contact with the outside world. He lived with them long periods during his annual research trips. He learned their language and they became trusted friends.

They play tricks on him. They have a taboo against saying someone real name allowed, so he worked diligently to interview people alone and cross-check their answers with other to assure correct names. One village conspired to no only all give him the same wrong names, but to have those name be obscene words. He only discovered this much later when visiting a distant village, who all had a good laugh at his expense.

Much of his research pointed out what must now be obvious, though at the time of his original research, it was acrimoniously contested. Prior to organized civilization, much activity was directed towards reproduction, not surprisingly, men with more power had more offspring. One of his "aha" observations was that women all had a similar number of children, but men could vary from none to dozens or more. From separate sources, and in the extreme, estimates place Gengis Khan's male-line descendants at 0.5% of the all men.

This is the book for you if you are interested in primitive cultures, there are none more primitive than the Yanomamo, and probably no one writes better about them Chagnon.

No part two. This book is more than history of the Yanomamo from isolation to political pawns and impediments to progress. It is a memoir, and for whatever reason, the author presents himself as a collector of resentments and slights.

He faults an author who wrote a negative book on his activities with
Tierney's copious endnotes we often misleading and even inaccurate.
In a moment of self-realization the Chagnon confesses
I spent years trying to write this book, scrapping much ... because of the anger that kept creeping into my writing, giving it a very depressing tone.
Unfortunately for all, this tone is still there throughout, though I can recommend the first half for mostly featuring the Yanomamo. Simply put the book down when they are supplanted by the author's academic and political difficulties.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on February 3, 2014. I received the book on February 11, 2014.

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