WHY MEN Kill – John Q. Patton studies the murderous Achuar Indians of Ecuador

Mary Roach

The Achuar Indians of Ecuador have, by one count, the highest murder rate in the world. To anthropologists, that makes their society a good place to understand the violence within us all.

There are many reasons to be nervous in the village of Conambo in the Ecuadoran Amazon. You can be nervous about crossing a large swift river in a tiny wobbling canoe. You can be nervous about the sand flies that carry Leishmania parasites, which bore through your sinuses and eat out your brain. You can be nervous about the giardia in the manioc beer that can wreak havoc with your bowels, the tarantula in the outhouse, the vampire bats in the schoolhouse.

The Achuar people of Conambo are not especially nervous about any of these things. The Achuar are nervous about the Achuar. The Achuar hold the dubious distinction of having had, in recent generations, one of the highest murder rates on Earth. In 1993 a poll of villagers revealed that 50 percent of their immediate male ancestors had died from shotgun blasts. (The traditional Achuar greeting is Pujamik–“Are you living?”)

If you weren’t born here, you for damn sure wouldn’t live here. Unless you were John Q. Patton. Patton, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado and the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, studies the roots of war and killing. He takes a biological approach to human behavior, which is to say he expects Darwinian theory to explain it. And from that evolutionary perspective, war is something of a problem, because it appears to be an altruistic act: you are risking your life for the good of the community. Taking chances with one’s life does not, at first glance, appear to be a good way for a young man to pass on his genes. As Patton puts it, “You die, and then where are you reproductively?”

Patton was drawn to the Achuar for a couple of reasons, the first being the insights they may offer into early human society. For hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors lived in small bands that got their food by hunting or gathering, and it was during this time that evolution may have fixed much of our underlying psychology. Unlike our own culture, in which millions of people live within a tangle of political structures, the Achuar live in small villages without any central leadership, and they still get a lot of their food by hunting.

Another reason Patton chose to study the Achuar is that they defy the most commonly accepted reason for war among tribal people: food. According to the “protein hypothesis,” tribes fight against each other to gain new territory because there isn’t enough to eat in their own. Patton doesn’t think the truth is that simple. The rain forest where the Achuar live is sparsely inhabited and teeming with game. According to data collected in the early 1980s, the average Conambo adult consumes 104 grams of protein a day (the U.S. recommended daily allowance is 30 grams). They often eat 4,000 calories a day. The Achuar clearly don’t have to fight: for their dinner–yet they most certainly do fight.

We are sitting in the Conambo schoolhouse, which serves as Patton’s base. Besides the meeting hall, the school, and the church (a former helicopter repair shed built by an oil company), the town is no more than a scatter of thatch-roofed homes, linked by muddy jungle footpaths.

While we talk, Patton fills Ziploc bags with everyday medical supplies, which he will distribute to each household we’ll visit today to interview subjects. To compensate villagers for their help, Patton serves as de facto medic. By decree of the Human Subject Review, a sort of Miss Manners for the field-research set, Patton is obligated to provide a net benefit to the community over the course of his stay. “So I held a meeting when I came in,” recalls Patton. “`You can help me or not,’ I told them. `But everyone will get medical treatment.'” To barter my welcome (and room and board), Patton hooked me up with Direct Relief International and had me bring in medical supplies: Vermox dewormer for 500.

“Altruism is the conundrum of Darwinian theory,” Patton is saying as he opens up boxes of petal pink worm pills. A small crowd has gathered to watch. (It’s not hard to be fascinating in Conambo: Wear contact lenses! Have red hair! Eat a Power Bar!) The way most anthropologists have made sense of altruistic acts on the battlefield, Patton continues, has been to think in terms of the survival of the behavioral trait, not the man. The concept is known as kin selection. You’ll do something for others if you’re closely related; the capacity for altruism gets replicated not by your passing it along to your offspring but by your saving the lives of others who share it.

Kin selection may work as an explanation for war in patrilocal societies, which are centered on fathers and sons and brothers who stay together even when they marry. But it doesn’t work for the Achuar. Theirs is a matrilocal society: the men move into the homes and villages of their wives. They fight and die for their fathers-in-law, though they share no blood.

Patton thinks something else is going on. “When people use the term altruism, what they usually mean is behaviors that appear to be altruistic but are really some form of enlightened self-interest.” The academic term is reciprocal altruism: tit for tat masquerading as altruism. Patton has theorized that warriors fight and kill in exchange for a boost in status–and that boost in status sets them up for certain evolutionary perks.

Work done among the Yanomamo of Venezuela and Brazil by Patton’s adviser, Napoleon Chagnon of the University of California at Santa Barbara, seems to support this. Chagnon demonstrated that a certain class of accomplished killers, called unokai, have on average two and a half times the number of wives and more than three times the offspring of their meeker compatriots. Critics of Chagnon, however, have pointed out that virtually all unokai are tribal headmen and that their higher status could have derived from that title and not from their conquests at war. “Chagnon demonstrated that men who had killed had higher reproductive success,” says Patton. “Elsewhere, people had demonstrated that high status leads to more children. The missing link in the causal order was some correlation between warriorship and status to connect the two.”

That’s where Patton comes in. His method is straightforward: he asks each man to rank his fellow men, first by status in the community, then by warriorship. Patron’s only tools are a stack of Polaroids, a pencil, and a waterproof field notebook.

It’s a simple task made grueling by the demands of rain forest canvassing. We’ve been on the trails 40 minutes, looking for a house with a man inside. Most of the Achuar men are spending this day hunting, and they don’t have Day `Timers where they pencil you in. So you slog and sweat and backtrack and try someone else. “This is how it goes here,” says Patton. “If you think it’ll take an hour, it typically takes two or three.”

A man named Ushpa lives on the riverbank. Two hundred yards down the trail, Patton issues a high-pitched “Hoooo!” (You don’t want to sneak up on an Achuar man unless you plan to fire the first shot.) We find Ushpa sitting in the front yard, weaving a string bag. He holds the bottom of the bag with his big toe, a bigger big toe than most. People here use their bodies like tools: Ushpa’s wife has notches in her front teeth where she runs palm frond fibers through to strip them down to make string. Patton exchanges pleasantries, and then he launches into his medical demonstration, drawing stick figures to show the proper dosages.

Ushpa’s wife approaches, bearing ceramic bowls of an eggnog-hued drink. The bowls contain chicha, a manioc beer whose fermentation is speeded by the saliva of the women preparing it. They don’t spit directly in the drink, but chew up the manioc and spit that in: small consolation when you’re facing a drinking bowl the size of a riding helmet. To set down the bowl is almost as rude as refusing it. Patton manages to hold his steady in one hand while demonstrating how to open a Tylenol child-safety cap with the other. (Cultural anthropology breeds singular talents. Here is a man from urban Los Angeles who can smoke tapir meat, pick a bat out of the rafters with a blowgun, and hold his own at chicha drinking contests.)

From his backpack, Patton extracts his deck of Polaroids. With a schoolboy translating Spanish into Achuar (Conambo children learn Spanish at the government school), Patton explains that he wants Ushpa to arrange the Polaroids according to who is the most juunt–an Achuar word that translates loosely as “big.” He arrived at the term by talking to villagers. “I’d say to them, `Some people, when they talk, people don’t pay attention. But others, when they talk, people always listen. Is there a name for someone like that?'”

We are joined by a visitor, Mirunzhi, one of Conambo’s most formidable males and an Achuar dead ringer for Willem Dafoe. You wouldn’t want to bend this man’s fender. A love-at-first-sight situation develops between Mirunzhi and Patton’s backpack, a nifty purple rubber river-running pack that could carry a lot of monkey meat.

“?Quien es mas juunt?” begins Patton, holding aloft a pair of snapshots. Ushpa chats quietly with Mirunzhi. ‘The translator presents the answer: “How much you pay for that bag?”

Patton is used to this sort: of thing. Thus far this summer, he has promised his tent to a man in exchange for a blowgun and traded a wristwatch for an anaconda tooth. (Casio digital watches are a status item among Conambo men, even though few know how to read them and even fewer have reason to.) “Three hundred thousand sucres,” Patton answers. Ushpa spits manioc pulp on the floor. Mirunzhi looks depressed.

Eventually Patton gets the men to focus on the task at hand, and soon Ushpa has the Polaroids laid out on the floor, a photographic hopscotch of intense, unsmiling faces. After noting the order of the photographs, Patton gathers them up for round two: warriorship. “?Quien es mas achima?” Achima is the Achuar word for “warrior.” “If a war was to break out and there was a battle, who would prove himself to be the best?”

Patton has been asking the Achuar this question since 1992, and his results are striking. When he lines up the rankings Achuar men give for both qualities, warriorship accounts for as much as 78 percent of the variation in men’s status. The better a warrior you are, the more status you apparently earn. To Patton, this is the first step toward understanding how war persists in human societies–tracing the effect of being a good warrior on your success in society, and ultimately in passing on your genes.

The Achuar concept of warriorship encompasses not only strategy and skill but also valor, willingness, and lack of hesitation. As Patton puts it, “There’s a big difference between hitting the target and hitting the target when the target is trying to hit you.” Wisdom also plays a part. “In talking to people about this, one of the things that kept coming up was that a good warrior was mas pensativo–he’s more thoughtful.” A good warrior knows when to fight and when not to, whom to pick on and whom not. This notion of wisdom in warriorship helps explain how Patton can get Achuar men to rank their peers even though many of them haven’t seen war during their lifetime. “In a society where in the past half the men got killed, you assume that a man who reaches old age must be doing something right.” A Polaroid of an older man invariably places higher on the warriorship ranking than those of the town’s youngest men, regardless of the size of their biceps or the fierceness of their gaze.

A third visitor has arrived, a shaman from a nearby village. He carries a shotgun, and you get the sense it’s not for monkeys. There was a time, during the 1950s, when the Achuar and their enemies the Shuar didn’t set down their guns until they went to sleep. Populations were decimated not just by intertribal raids but by fierce feuding within communities. Making matters worse, deaths by natural causes were often attributed to shamanic foul play. A man would die of say, a stroke. His son, seeing no outward cause of death, would visit the local shaman to find out if someone had put a curse on his father. The shaman would go into a hallucinogenic trance and very often come out of it with the source of the curse. A revenge assassination invariably followed.

These days, with the help of outside arbitrators called in to settle feuds, things have quieted down. Raids between the Shuar and the Achuar have all but disappeared, supplanted by trading between the two. The last murder here occurred around 1988. Though it’s also true that just a few weeks back, members of the community were talking about killing a man who misspent community funds on prostitutes in Puyo.

With intertribal raids and revenge murders becoming less common, will warriorship still confer status among the Achuar, or will something else take its place? Patton concedes that other skills–speaking Spanish, for example–will factor into a man’s overall status. Spanish enables a man to travel and earn money outside the community and to be involved in rain forest politics. “But will it or something else replace warriorship? I suspect not. Yes, the ability to interact with the outside is important, but guess what? You do these rankings and who are the high-ranking men? They’re Mirunzhi. They’re Kaiyashi. These men don’t speak any Spanish at all. They’re high-ranking warrior guys.”

Even in our society, where status is tied to income and address, wartime exploits will carry a man a long way. “I have this slide that I use in lectures that was the cover of the National Enquirer,” comments Patton. “It says STORMIN’ NORMAN SCHWARZKOPF, SEXIEST MAN IN AMERICA. We still have this tribal psychology about our warriors.”

Ushpa is finishing up the warriorship task, but Patton has a new line of questions for him: “If a conflict arose here in Conambo, who would side with whom?” Patton is aware that the town’s social alliances can skew the men’s rankings of one another. There’s a natural tendency to underrate the status of men who aren’t part of one’s clique. But in mapping the social structure of Conambo, Patton is also measuring a phenomenon called triadic awareness: the ability to triangulate political loyalties and make informed decisions about the likely consequences of violence. The men of Conambo have a keen sense of whom they can and can’t trust in the event of conflict. Patton would argue that this is an evolved trait. “There’s a strong selective pressure to be able to make good who-to-trust decisions: you’re wrong, you’re dead.”

Here, according to Patton, are the forces that were behind the origin of human social structures. You want to be part of a group that’s big enough to beat the other guys, or at least be a threat to them, yet not so big that you can’t keep everyone fed. Friendships are forged according to who can offer whom what, as a sort of insurance policy. “I think that’s the natural state,” says Patton. He cites the example of chimpanzees: since they have no weapons, their power is based on physical strength. In some cases the apes other apes want as friends are the strongest ones. In other cases the chimps make a strategic alliance: two weaker ones will join up because together they can defeat a stronger chimp.

When you’ve got weapons, it’s warriorship, not brute strength, that counts. Patton has mapped Conambo’s social organization along two dimensions: stares, on the vertical, and alliances, on the horizontal. He sees little guys attaching themselves to big guys and big guys gaining advantage by having lots of little guys in their fold.

In this sense, Patton sees a strong parallel between Amazonian tribes and inner-city gangs in the United States. “In a gang, just as here, there’s no question that you choose your friends in terms of who you think is going to back you up and who might be an important person to have on your side.” Gangs also serve to demonstrate the link between status and warriorship. Prospective members assume they’re probably not going to earn their status by getting a graduate degree and landing a prestige job. “They realize they’re not part of the wider social network, so they create their own, with its own social hierarchy.” As in the Amazon, it’s a hierarchy based oil violence. “Killing and warfare are one of the few ways,” says Patton, “that men can distinguish themselves and compete for status.”

Even among law-abiding Westerners, you can sometimes encounter signs of the Conambo-style social contract. “Next time you pass some guy on the corner with a tin cup and a sign that says HOMELESS VETERAN,” Patton says, “what he’s telling you is, `I took the risk, but you didn’t give me the benefit.’ The feeling of guilt that we have comes from this idea that we had a social contract with this man and we broke it. I definitely think those psychological mechanisms are still there.”

Patton packs up the coveted purple backpack and bids his adieus. A toddler waves good-bye. She is teething on a plastic bottle of pinkeye medication. The next house on the agenda belongs to a youngish man named Robert. (Some men go by their Achuar names, others by names they picked up from missionaries.) Robert stands out among the Polaroids, not for his status or warriorship–both on the low side–but for his outfit. He chose to put on his Sunday best, a pink-and-red-flowered Hawaiian shirt.

Robert in person is more soft-spoken than his clothes. He lives with his wife and children and a rangy black dog that you do not want to pet. A pot is boiling on a wood fire, and termites are streaming out of one of the logs.

Robert puts the Polaroid of Robert at the top of the layout. Hie is doing something more commonly associated with camping mattresses and life jackets: in Patton’s words, he’s self-inflating. What Patton means is that Robert has placed his Polaroid considerably higher in the warrior hierarchy than his exploits or reputation would merit. Robert thinks he’s boss of the beach. This is the kind of guy you want to watch out for. A man at the bottom of the heap has the most to gain and the least to lose. He’s more likely to make a rash grab for power. He’s also more likely to lose should the conflict turn violent. Which is where good bluffing tactics come in.

Richard Wrangham, a Harvard primatologist who helped formulate current ideas about violence in human evolution, has a theory called military incompetence. It explains why a man like Robert would blunder forth into battle when any fool can see the odds are stacked against him. Evolution should have put a stop to this sort of behavior, but it hasn’t. Wrangham and Patton argue that self-deceit facilitates it. A strong bluff can deter an enemy, even an enemy which most likely win. And the most effective bluffers are the ones who don’t think: they’re bluffing. It’s possible to elevate your status and enjoy the perks of being a mighty warrior without even going into battle. Eventually your number is bound to come up, but in the meantime you’ve sired a pack of bluffers to carry, on the trait.

So it is that ultimately suicidal violent traits can turn out: to be evolutionarily successful. Take the case of despots and dictators. Here are men who live with enormous risks every day of their lives. When the risk-taking pays off, it pays off big.

“Remember that the despotic individual is really only a vehicle for the trait,” says Patton. “Let’s say we have 10 individuals with the psychology to be despotic. Nine get wiped out; they push it too far. One of them succeeds and gets 20 wives. Overall, it’s still a good reproductive payout.” Patton cites the example of a man from Conambo named Basilio, whose grandfather was a warrior of wide repute. Eventually someone killed him, but in the interim he amassed ten wives and several dozen children. “The salmon who stays out at sea instead of struggling upstream may live a long life,” says Patton, “but he doesn’t reproduce. From an evolutionary perspective, he might as well be dead.”

Two women are ladling chicha from a vast ceramic urn. Patton wipes termites off his pants leg and leans hack against the porch: “It’s Miller time!” Robert’s daughter sets down a plate of yams the color of Barney. We eat nine. When steamed tapir fetus may be waiting around the bend, you make the most of purple yams.

Late one evening, we are sitting on the schoolhouse veranda, watching moths suck minerals from a sweat-infused T-shirt that hangs on the line. A man appears out of the darkness and speaks to Patton in hushed, urgent tones. A woman named Suitiar has fallen ill on the trail near the house of a man named Kaiyashi. The suddenness and severity of the illness has led her family to suspect witchcraft, and a shaman–the man we saw earlier today carrying a shotgun–is about to perform a ritual to remove a tsentsak, a supernatural psychic dart blown by another shaman, often at someone else’s behest. As a backup, they want Patton there, with his bag of Western pills and ointments. And so we make our way to Kaiyashi’s house on the far side of the river. It’s rush hour in the jungle. Leaf-cutting ants cross the airstrip in columns six inches wide. Frogs make sounds that are way too big for them. Overhead, shooting stars and fireflies flash, and it’s sometimes hard to tell which is which.

Kaiyashi’s home is lit by candles, but even with electric light the scene would make your hair stand on end. Valerio, the shaman, has taken a hallucinogen that will enable him to divine the sender of the tsentsak. This he follows up with mouthfills of tobacco juice, which will facilitate the woman’s cure. He bends over Suitiar and inhales dramatically, as if to suck out the dart. Then he leans back, stands, and commences an affront of gruesome gargling, followed by a god-awful hawking retch and a splat of tobacco juice that lands loudly in Kaiyashi’s front room.

Patton is uneasy. The situation has an ominous background and could easily turn violent. Suitiar, the woman who fell sick, is Ushpa’s wife. Barely three weeks ago, Ushpa and Suitiar lost a daughter, who died inexplicably on the trail. (Patton suspects the cause was dehydration from dysentery.) The dead girl’s mother-in-law, Piricinda, took maikua, an atropine drug that nonshamans take to divine the source of a tsentsak on their own. In her trance, she saw Conambo’s shaman. The shaman denied the charge and fingered a second shaman, who he said had taken his own form. The second shaman left town soon after. Smart move, inasmuch as Piricinda’s husband Mirunzhi was primed for revenge. Should Ushpa’s wife die tonight, so close on the heels of his daughter’s death, the shaman might find himself the victim of an assassination.

We head back to the schoolhouse. A pair of nylon shorts has dropped from the line while we were gone, interrupting a work party of leaf-cutting ants who apparently took it for a floppy blue leaf and set about cutting up the leg. “Did I tell you,” says Patton, shaking off the ants, “my theory about revenge and the origins of religion?”

Patton has no data to back up his theory and assumes it will anger certain anthropologists who don’t like his Darwinian approach. He tells me anyway. When you spend this much time among the Achuar, you can’t get too worked up about the wrath of indignant academics.

It goes like this: When humans enter into a social contract for mutual defense, they agree to back each other up. What happens when one of them dies? The social contract ends. Unless there’s the threat of revenge. What is revenge? The extension of that social contract to the afterlife. Even though he’s dead, you still need to honor that contract. How do you do that cognitively? Spirits–your friend’s spirit will not rest until you avenge his death. And it is a belief in spirits that all religions have in common. “So there you have it,” says Patton. “The evolution of the concept of spirit may be a simple cognitive solution to the extension of a social contract for mutual defense. These shorts are wrecked.”

At breakfast the next morning at the house of an Achuar named Isaac, Valerio, the shaman, reports that: Suitiar is feeling better. He says it was a boa constrictor that sent the tsentsak. (Certain animals are believed to have the power to send the psychic darts. The darts can even strike by accident, ricocheting off shamans’ shields and hitting innocent bystanders.) The local shaman is off the hook. Peace in Conambo continues its shaky course.

Ushpa is over for a bowl of chicha, still weaving his bag. Children are taking turns trying to hit a piece of fruit with a blowgun. Isaac’s wife serves bowls of rodent soup. I get a lower leg, foot intact. People here seem kind and friendly. It’s hard to imagine them raising shotguns at each other. “There’s a phrase,” says Patton, spitting out toenails. “`An armed society is a polite society.’ When you don’t have institutions like police and any conflict can escalate to something serious, you haw. to he very careful.” Besides, he adds, he’s not making the case that the Achuar are violent by nature.

“We’re not talking about a gene for violence here. We’re talking about the evolution of the strategic use of violence: knowing when to push it and when not to. The biggest mistake people make about the kind of anthropology I do is that they assume that what we’re talking about is these simple, knee-jerk instincts. When in fact these instincts are complex, evolved strategies. What: drives violence is: When do the costs and benefits favor it, and when do they favor peace? I have no problem saying warfare is a product: of our biology. I also say that doesn’t mean it’s a biological inevitability.”

Good. Then no one will shoot me if I give my rodent ankle to the dog.

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