The Savage State. – Review

The Savage State. – Review – book review

James Wilson


EVEN BEFORE ITS recent appearance in the bookshops, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, by the American investigative journalist Patrick Tierney, sparked controversy. The eminent anthropologist Leslie Sponsel calls it, ‘the ugliest affair in the history of anthropology’.

Darkness in El Dorado focuses largely on the work of the American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who in 1968 published Yanomamo: The Fierce People, a study of the Yanomami Indians of Venezuela and Brazil. The Fierce People quickly became the bestselling anthropological textbook of all time, transforming the 25,000 or so Yanomami, almost overnight, into the most famous (and infamous) tribal people in the world.

It’s easy to understand The Fierce People’s success. Chagnon is a born storyteller, and his major ‘finding’ was an editor’s dream. The Yanomami, he claimed, were ‘brutal, cruel, treacherous’ people, living ‘in a state of chronic warfare’. Even when not fighting, Yanomami leaders spent much of their time under the influence of hallucinogenic snuff, summoning up blood-curdling spirits to pursue their vendettas by magic.

Repellent though this endemic violence might appear, Chagnon believed it served an important function: the men who killed the most enemies, he asserted, tended to have more wives and children — so passing on the genes that made the successful warriors and leaders, and ensuring a constant ‘upgrading’ of the population.

From the start, Chagnon’s views were contentious. Missionaries and social scientists accused him of — in the words of Brazilian anthropologist Alcida Ramos — ‘character-assassinating’ the Yanomami. But Chagnon — supported by powerful academic allies such as the socio-biologist Edward O Wilson — insisted that his work was scientifically valid, and that his detractors were ideologically motivated ‘bleeding-hearts’ unable to accept the truth about human aggression.

Now, after 10 years’ research, Tierney has uncovered compelling evidence that both Chagnon’s methods and his findings were deeply flawed. Tierney claims that, in his determination to prove the Indians’ ferocity, Chagnon manipulated data, forbade his cameraman to record ‘peaceful’ activities, and flew in plane-loads of goods to bribe the Indians to re-enact fights for him. This not only forced the Yanomami to become accomplices in promoting his image of them — it also, paradoxically, made the image truer, because the flood of shotguns and machetes provoked outbreaks of real violence.

What is most disturbing about this tragi-farce is its impact on the Yanomami themselves. Chagnon’s ‘fierce people’ image has hindered attempts to help them and given comfort to their enemies. As long ago as the 1970s, the doyen of British anthropology Sir Edmund Leach, refused to back Survival International’s campaign for Yanomami land rights because, after reading Chagnon’s book, he concluded that ‘they would exterminate each other’; more recently, the British government refused to fund a project for the Yanomami, saying that the first priority for any initiative with them must be to ‘reduce violence’. Chagnon’s work influenced Brazilian government plans to fragment Yanomami territory in 1988. It also contributed to the atmosphere of racism in which a gang of gold miners massacred 16 members of the tribe in 1993.

But there is a deeper question. Why should an anthropologist have gone to such lengths to prove a point about one tribe’s culture? The answer, I think, lies in our tendency to see tribal societies as earlier versions of ourselves. As ‘the founder of modem anthropology’, Edward B Tylor, put it in 1871: ‘the savage state… represents an early condition of mankind, out of which the higher culture has gradually been developed or evolved…’

This assumption is so deep-rooted in our culture that it is barely questioned. The press regularly uses words like ‘primitive’ and ‘stone-age’ to describe tribal societies. A CNN report on the Yanomami earlier this month called them ‘one of the world’s true Neolithic peoples’.

The consequence of this for tribal peoples is that we take them both too seriously and not seriously enough. Too seriously, because we project onto them our ideas of human nature, seeing them either as Noble Savages (Margaret Mead’s view) or as bloodthirsty brutes (Chagnon’s). Not seriously enough, because we take their ‘backwardness’ as a pretext for denying them the rights of ‘modern’ people. Under Brazilian law, for instance, Indians are still considered minors, and Canadian courts continue to deny native claims on the grounds that aboriginal societies are too ‘primitive’ to ‘own’ their land.

This muddled thinking creates enormous obstacles for tribal peoples and for those who try to help them to protect their rights. It is time we stopped thinking of societies like the Yanomami as — in Chagnon’s phrase — our ‘contemporary ancestors’, and began to accept them simply as our contemporaries.

James Wilson is the author of The Earth Shall Weep: A History of North America, published by Picador, price [pound]10.00. He has written and worked on a number of television documentaries and is an executive member of Survival International. Survival Internationals new book, Disinherited: Indians in Brazil is available from

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