Nostalgia for the Natives: Meditations on Napoleon Chagnon’s Noble Savages

Napoleon Chagnon, Noble Savages. My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013)


What is the public image of cultural anthropology today outside of the halls of academia itself? When pursuing this question, the controversial figure of Napoleon Chagnon looms inevitably large.  In the lead-up to his new book, Noble Savages, Chagnon received a laudatory profile in the 13 February 2013 New York Times Magazine, titled “How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist.”1 My first reaction to the title was a sort of queasy bemusement.  I recalled a trenchant piece of wisdom that my own first anthropology professor passed on to me, having to do with personal pronouns: a speaker or writer’s commitments and assumptions are often embedded in these small words.  And so the “our” in Emily Eakin’s profile of Chagnon begs interrogation—who is the “we” it invokes? Anthropologists?  Academics?  New York Times readers? Some abstract, critical American public in general?  As a post-doctoral fellow at Georgetown University with a PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago and a subscription to the Times, I belong to all of these categories, yet I feel absolutely no sense of proprietorship or affinity with Chagnon.  More importantly, I have only come to read Chagnon’s work in order to perform a sort of disciplinary triage beyond anthropology itself. Napoleon Chagnon and his work are not especially read or debated by cultural anthropologists in general.  If anything, I only encountered his name during my graduate studies as a sort of bugbear, a placeholder for the treacheries that unprincipled anthropologists might unleash upon their interlocutors in the field.  And yet, Chagnon is “ours” in a sense:  well known beyond the classrooms, conference halls and journals of cultural anthropology itself, a representative of the discipline to a broader public, whether his colleagues like it or no.

Chagnon is certainly a “controversial” figure. As a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Michigan in the mid-1960s, Chagnon aspired to conduct fieldwork among a “primitive,” “pristine,” small-scale society, as “untouched” as possible by the modern world and therefore still in a “state of nature,” a hypothetical origin point from which more complex societies and cultures are taken to have developed. As my scare quotes indicate, the primordialist logic of primitiveness and the argument that all human societies can be mapped along a single axis of development, from primitive and simple to modern and complex, are by and large eschewed by contemporary anthropologists. Ultimately, Chagnon settled on the Yanomamö people, a linguistically- and culturally-distinct group that resides in scattered villages in the Amazonian and Orinoco basins along the Venezuelan-Brazilian border.2  Chagnon first arrived in Venezuelan Yanomamö-land in 1964, an experience of radical alterity that he describes in vivid, lurid detail in Noble Savages.3 In spite of the horror and disgust that marked his first reactions to the Yanomamö, Chagnon eventually acclimated to life among the “savages”; over the following four decades, he dedicated his career to studying the Yanomamö, with particular focus on kinship, warfare, and their relation to questions of genetic diversity and social evolution (more on this below). Chagnon published a variety of book-length monographs on the Yanomamö, most notably Yanomamö: The Fierce People, which was first published in 1968 (in later editions, the controversial subtitle was dropped).

As his scholarly profile rose, Chagnon became the target of serious accusations related to his fieldwork methods and the deleterious consequences of his research and publication on the Yanomamö themselves.  The most severe allegations focused on his collaboration with University of Michigan geneticist James Neel and the outbreak of a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö in 1968. Chagnon was also accused of fomenting strife among different Yanomamö groups to forward his own research agenda. This cauldron of suspicions and accusations finally came to a boil in the year 2000 with the publication of Darkness in the El Dorado. How Scientists and Journalists Ruined the Amazon, journalist Patrick Tierney’s sensationalist account of Chagnon and Neel’s work among the Yanomamö.  Most notoriously, Tierney asserted that Chagnon and Neel introduced measles among the Yanomamö in order to conduct epidemiological research on the effects of a disease among a population entirely lacking antibodies to it.  Tierney’s book was an immediate scandal for cultural anthropology, both an interrogation of the ethics of ethnography and a public relations crisis for the discipline a whole.  The American Anthropological Association (AAA) convened a task force to investigate Tierney’s allegations. While the task force ultimately found no evidence that Chagnon and Neel had caused or exacerbated the measles epidemic, it did express concern over Chagnon’s research methods (in particular in relation issues of informed consent) and the negative consequences of his representation of the Yanomamö as a “fierce people.”  Now the controversy over Chagnon has reignited due both to the publication of Noble Savages and Chagnon’s election to the National Academy of Sciences.  In response to Chagnon’s election, Marshall Sahlins, a prominent University of Chicago anthropologist and longtime critic of Chagnon’s, resigned from the NAS.4

Chagnon responds vociferously and exhaustively in Noble Savages to the charges against him.  Indeed, as its subtitle suggests, the book is a strange beast stylistically, veering between detailed narratives of his ethnographic adventures with the Yanomamö and incensed diatribes against cultural anthropology in general and a variety of Chagnon’s detractors in particular.  I have neither the inclination nor ability to evaluate the accusations that Chagnon so stridently attempts to refute; others with far more knowledge of Amazonian anthropology and the Yanomamö specifically have already done so.5  Certainly, Chagnon seems to have been the target of much panicked exaggeration and ad hominem denunciation; this may partially account for his own tone of dyspeptic, self-righteous irritation. I am fascinated, however, by the logic and thrust of Chagnon’s response to the accusations against him.  This response, which weds the old anthropological myth of pristine “primitiveness” to a romance of empiricist science as the unique arbiter of truth, simultaneously dismisses cultural anthropology as it is understood by most of its professional practitioners and reinscribes a clichéd, nostalgic image of anthropology as the “study of natives,” an image that only has traction today outside the academy itself.

Over the course of Noble Savages, Chagnon meticulously cultivates an image of himself as a voice of scientific reason in the wilderness of unreason that is, in his estimation, contemporary cultural anthropology.  He presents his research on the Yanomamö—inspired by Edward O. Wilson’s hybrid discipline of sociobiology and aimed at explaining social and cultural institutions on the basis of evolutionary, biogenetic imperatives—as objective, nonpolitical science, and, therefore, anathema to the anti-science philistines who have supposedly stormed US Anthropology departments.  Chagnon explains away all criticism of his research on the basis of three distinct trends, which together constitute what he calls “twilight in cultural anthropology”: 1) biophobia, “the chronic opposition in cultural anthropology to ideas from biology that purported to help account for what humans in all cultures did (2013: 402)”; postmodernism, “the notion that ‘facts were merely ‘constructs’ of the human mind and, consequently, that there was no ‘real world’ independent of the observer (Ibid.: 403)”; and, activism and advocacy, “the act of using your accumulated knowledge, prestige, education, deep commitment to some cause….to advocate some political cause (Ibid.: 403; emphasis in original).” According to Chagnon, cultural anthropologists are little more than a “tribe” of fundamentalist-Marxists—at one point, he exclaims that “it was as if the last two bastions of opposition to the theory of evolution by natural selection were fundamentalist fire-and-brimstone preachers and cultural anthropologists (Ibid.: 384)!”—who have dismissed his research because it does not pass muster as political advocacy.  And yet—regardless of the claims that have been made against him—Chagnon’s criticisms of cultural anthropology amount to little more than hogwash.

The cardinal concepts that have defined anthropology over much of its history belie Chagnon’s first charge of biophobia.  For instance, notions of social structure and function, which dominated anthropology during the mid 20th Century and still undergird anthropological argument in significant ways, developed in relation to analogical biological concepts such as morphology.  Contemporary cultural anthropologists by and large do reject a direct analogy between scientific and anthropological objects of study (even as the burgeoning field of Science and Technology Studies underscored social processes through which scientific objectivity is produced). The definitive method of cultural anthropology, ethnography, implies and demands that the anthropologist and her object of study mediate and determine each other; there is no petri dish ethnography.  While Chagnon would surely reject this contention as postmodernist mumbo-jumbo, anthropologists since Eric Wolf (1982) have amply demonstrated that Chagnon’s ostensible object of study, “primitive man in the state of nature,” is a political fiction in its own right.

Chagnon’s caricature of postmodernism is equally unpersuasive, based as it is on a simplistic dichotomy between empirically-verifiable “facts” and nonsense.  This comfortable—and remarkably American—polarity avoids urgent epistemological and ethical questions by dismissing them tout court as outside the domain of “science.” However, if one regards cultural mediation as inherent to the construction of anthropological knowledge—as most cultural anthropologists do—Chagnon’s empiricist conviction seems naïve indeed.  Chagnon’s object of study, “primitive warfare among the Yanomamö,” is not a simple “fact” to be discovered and explained by the scientist.  To the contrary, both events of violence among the Yanomamö (Ferguson 1995), and, more importantly, the very category of “primitiveness” itself, require explanation in relation to the interventions and assumptions of anthropology in general and Chagnon’s activities in particular.  To study warfare as a pre-given social fact that directly indexes the evolutionary state of a society, as Chagnon claims to do, is impossible.

This point unsettles the principal argument that Chagnon makes in Noble Savages, namely, that “primitive warfare” is a result of male competition over “the means of reproduction—women (2013: 333),” rather than competition over scarce resources.  Chagnon contends that his fieldwork demonstrates the viability of this hypothesis, yet his ethnographic account contradicts this very claim.  He spends many pages describing the cycles of mutual violence, recrimination, and revenge that often define relationships among different groups of Yanomamö.  In spite of the interpretations of the Yanomamö themselves, who clearly have a sophisticated understanding of the history and politics of their conflicts, Chagnon insists that all of this fighting is solely about competition over women. The values that the Yanomamö assign to warfare are irrelevant. This denial, in turn, is essential to his argument that both violence and kinship relations in “primitive” society are means of assuring genetic success and, consequently, increasing genetic diversity.  In order to make this argument, Chagnon must first construct his mass of ethnographic material as solely a record of “conflicts over the possession of nubile females (Ibid.: 316)”; by introducing warfare over women as a primordial social fact, he necessarily eschews his own interpretative role in constructing this image of Yanomamö violence.

Politics also necessarily enters the picture here.  Chagnon has amassed immense ill will among fellow anthropologists by flatly denying that his research has any relationship to politics whatsoever. This denial hinges on an oil-and-water image of the relationship between politics and science—as Chagnon puts it, “Science as such (does) not advocate anything at all (Ibid.: 59).”  Of course, Chagnon is under no obligation to advocate on behalf of the Yanomamö (though at one point he rather dubiously claims that he was the sole voice for the Yanomamö’s best interests in a dispute involving the Salesian Catholic Mission in Yanomamö-land).  Advocacy, however, does not exhaust politics. As I read Noble Savages, I constantly wondered when Chagnon would reflect on the political consequences that his patronage had on the Yanomamö, especially considering the fact that his troubles with his major Yanomamö antagonist, a headman named Moawa, focused entirely on the dispensation of Chagnon’s largesse.  I waited in vain for such reflection.  For Chagnon to acknowledge that he had effects on the Yanomamö would be tantamount to introducing an ethnographic Heisenberg uncertainty principle, one that Chagnon’s own nostalgic romance of social science cannot accommodate.

Finally, then, we must return to the question of what Chagnon and Noble Savages mean for the public image of American anthropology today—indeed, it is only possible to understand Chagnon in this light.  Because Chagnon is important to the public image of anthropology, despite the fact that his arguments and research largely lack disciplinary consequence. I contend that Chagnon’s notoriety stems from and reinforces a “nostalgia for the natives” that remains appealing and persuasive for the American public, even as anthropologists continue to inveigh against it.  In one stunning passage early in Noble Savages, Chagnon scoffs at a colleague who does not conduct research with the “wild primitives”:  “Some years after I had gotten my Ph.D., I met a prominent American anthropologist who had done his fieldwork in India using native informants who were fluent in English.  He casually mentioned that his major informant decided to earn his own Ph.D. in anthropology at Cambridge University.  His informant, no doubt, had long since lost the glint of wildness in his eye (Ibid. 2013: 42; my emphasis).”  This brief passage, I think, contains the key to the phenomenon that is Chagnon.  There is a certain self-satisfaction, a certain reassurance, and a certain jouissance to be gained from casting distant others in the “savage slot” (Trouillot 2003).

As anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli acidly observes in her scathing New York Times review of Noble Savages, “If your belief in your culture’s superiority is founded on thinking of other societies as prehistoric time capsules, then you will enjoy this book. If not, say a requiem for the trees and make an offering to the pulp mill.”6  Alas, Chagnon’s readers do not seem to have accepted Povinelli’s invitation to the mill:  as of this writing, Noble Savages has received an average rating of 4.3 stars out of 5 on the basis of forty-two reviews on (far more than most anthropologists ever expect to receive).7  This fact only serves to confirm that Chagnon’s ambition to establish scientifically the sociobiological truth of the “savages” and “natives” remains terribly appealing. Ironically, Chagnon’s popularity and notoriety—the fact that he is “ours”—derives from the fact that the public at large still thinks, absurdly, that this is what anthropologists do. Until more cultural anthropologists take up the challenge of communicating otherwise to this broader public, a tiresome, disquieting nostalgia for the natives will surely continue to shape public notions of what anthropology is.


My immense thanks to Sean T. Mitchell for his valuable advice on this essay.


2 In Yanomamo Warfare: A Political History (Santa Fe: SAR Press, 1995), anthropologist Brian Ferguson thoroughly interrogates the founding fiction of Chagnon’s argument, namely, that warfare among the Yanomamö is representative of a pristine “state of nature.”  As Ferguson writes, “Yanomami warfare is tightly connected to changing circumstances of Western contact…the great majority of cases (of war) occur shortly after a major change in the Western presence and involve those who have better access to Western goods fighting those who were more removed from Western sources (1995: 275).”

3 Consider, for example, the following passage:  “I felt goose bumps on my arms.  I imagined myself being present at a time ten thousand years in the past and thought about how utterly strange that I was to be one of the last members of my profession to experience an event that had, by the 1960s, become nearly unique.  These were the last of the Stone Age warriors assembling to wreak mayhem and death on distant enemies.  Their enemies waited anxiously, not knowing when they would come, but anticipating their terrible wrath (Chagnon 2013: 82).”


Works Cited

Chagnon, Napoleon  1984 [1968]  Yanomamö: The Fierce People.  Dumfries, NC: Holt McDougal.

_____.  2013 Noble Savages. My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

Eakin, Emily  2013  “How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist.” The New York Times Magazine. 13 February.

Ferguson, Brian 1995 Yanomamo WarfareA Political History. Santa Fe: SAR Press, 1995.

Povinelli, Elizabeth 2013  “Tribal Warfare. ‘Noble Savages,’ by Napoleon Chagnon.” The New York Times 15 February.

Tierney, Patrick  2000 Darkness in El Dorado. How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. New York: W.W. Norton.

Trouillot, Rolph  2003  “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness.” In Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. New York: Palgrave McMillan.

Wolf, Eric  1982  Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Jeremy F. Walton is Jamal Daniel Post-Doctoral Fellow for the Study of the Levant Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. 


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