Napoleon Chagnon's ethnography Yanomamö: The Fierce People is the best-selling anthropological book of all time.

In his book Chagnon implies (based on the data he collected) that the most violent and aggressive males, of the Yanomamö won the most copulations thus passed on their genes for "fierceness." Chagnon's work has been attacked, most notably by Journalist Patrick Tierney, in his book, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. Yet if you read Chagnon's works you come to understand that most of Tierney's attacks are unfounded, Chagnon has been careful to base his conclusions on his data.

The Yanomamo, a hunter-gatherer society, make their home in the Amazonian region of South America. They are the largest native group in the Amazon basin, numbering approximately 8,000 (figure from 1995) in Venezuela and Brazil, and live in villages dispersed in the jungles north of the Amazon river. Their culture is cataloged as Neo-Indians and is comparable with cultures that date back more than 8000 years.

Socially, they live in small bands based on kinship ties. They make their homes in round communal huts called shabonos, which contain the living quarters of individual family units. Both within the band and with neighboring bands, they are quite violent. Children are taught from an early age that they have a responsibility to do to others what is done to them. Bands make frequent war. Within a single band there is uneasy peace based on familial ties. This peace is often broken by chest pounding competitions in which two men, surrounded by a circle of other men, repeatedly punch each other in the chest until only one remains standing. They also engage in the same behavior with ax blows to the head. The scars received in these competitions are status symbols, and proudly displayed.

Women have very low status, and are often beaten by their husbands, as punishment or preemptive warning. Outside of the tending and preparing of yams, and childrearing, they play little part in the Yanomamo society or religion. They may be only one of several wives. There is a shortage of women among the bands, which leads to raiding on nearby tribes to steal women (and then to war). This situation exists because of the accepted practice of female infanticide.

Their mythology divides reality into four levels. The uppermost level is called "duku ka misi" and the Yanomamo believe that many things originated in this area. This layer does not play much of a role in daily life. It is considered to be just there, once having had some vague function. The next layer down is called "hedu ka misi" and is known as the sky layer. This layer is invisible, but is similar to earth. It has trees, gardens, villages, animals, plants and most importantly, the souls of the deceased. Each earthly thing has a counterpart on this level. Humans live on the third level, "hei ka misi", or "this layer". It was created when a chunk of hedu broke off and fell down. Finally, there is the surface below "this layer" which is formally called "heita bebi" which is almost barren. A crooked version of the tribesmen live there, practicing cannibalism and capturing Yanomamo children.

They also have interesting mythology surrounding the dead. It is forbidden to speak the names of the dead (which makes the naming of children and also determining relationship rather difficult). When a tribesman dies, the body is cremated and the women weep and wail in a display of grief. The ashes of the body are then mixed into a soup and consumed by the family members. Doing so allows the soul to go to the afterlife, and also be retained within the band (which adds to the band's power).

The Yanomamo men use a drug called Ebene to contact the spirit world. They make a green pasty mixture derived from a tree that grows throughout the region. Wads of the mixture are place in 3-foot-long hollow tubes and forcefully blown into the nostrils of a recipient. At first, the experience is painful, and vomiting or dry heaving may occur, but eventually it is pleasurable and the user will see dancing, flashing lights (spirits). They will then sing to call these spirits into themselves, where they can control them and use them to harm enemies or cure kinsmen.

They have no written language, no standard pronunciation between bands and are diglottic (they posses a formal and informal dialect). In addition to this, there are numerous dialects. The language of the Yanomamo contains a large number of terms relating to spatial concepts, but very few relating to precise measurement. They measure time only as morning, midday, afternoon, and night, and their counting system only includes one, two and "more than two." For anything above two, fingers are used for visual representation. They can add and subtract, but only amounts that don’t exceed the number of fingers.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the population of Yanomamo has decreased dramatically and still continues to decrease at a rapid rate. This is due in a large part to destruction of their lands and gold mining. The miners have exposed the bands to diseases that they have no immunity to. Many die from simple colds. Also, mining techniques utilizing mercury have contaminated the water supplies, killing the fish and making the water undrinkable. Currently, those Yanomamo who have not been able to adapt to the modern way of life (by learning Spanish and adopting Christianity) must rely on the missions to survive.

This information was won in a chest pounding competition from:

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