Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 17, 2013

The Comanches and the Yanomami

Filed under: indigenous,Jared Diamond,Yanomami — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

Napoleon Chagnon

Almost five years ago to the day, I resolved to begin researching the Comanche Indians of the southern Plains after reading Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”, a novel that was committed to the idea that this tribe (for lack of a better word) was no better than the white settlers who would eventually slaughter them into submission and drive the survivors into reservations. “Blood Meridian” is described on the official website of the Cormac McCarthy Society as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.”

Now, after having read between 4 and 5 thousand pages on the Comanches, I am finally putting together an article for a special issue on indigenous peoples in “Capitalism, Nature, and Socialism”. The last book I am in the progress of reading that will help me finalize my thesis—namely, that the Comanches were bit players in the capitalist transformation of the southern Plains—is David J. Weber’s “Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment”.

On page 76 he gets to the heart of the matter, whether kin-based societies (ie., tribes) were warlike and violent and that “primitive man is a…warrior”. The scholars who defend this view go so far as to say that war is an expression of “human biology”. Other scholars, according to Weber, view warfare as “a response to material conditions in general and to European influences in particular.”

As it turns out Weber’s footnotes mention Brian Ferguson as a leading authority defending the “material conditions” outlook. Just three days ago I had emailed Brian to see if he could recommend any material on the Comanches. I knew of his prior work on Yanomami “warfare”, alluded to in Weber’s notes:

Brian Ferguson offers some of the most compelling arguments that Western contacts generated Native warfare. See, for example, Ferguson, 1900b, 237-57, and Ferguson, 1995, where he makes a case that Yanomamis (Chagnon’s “fierce people” who inhabit a remote mountainous country between Brazil and Venezuela), were not fierce or warlike until European manufactured goods altered their trading relationships with neighboring peoples.

It is more than coincidence that the Chagnon story came up twice this week, once in the Chronicle of Higher Education and now in today’s Sunday NY Times Magazine section. Both articles are geared to the 74 year old anthropologist’s new memoir titled “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists” [Chagnon uses "Yanomamo; other anthropologists prefer "Yanomami"].

I first learned of Chagnon in 2000 when the Chronicle of Higher Education began reporting on a huge controversy that had erupted over the publication of Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado”, a book that charged Tierney with a number of crimes. Chief among them was  a genocide based on the supposed administration of a faulty measles vaccine designed to support an experiment on native resistance to the disease.

The Tierney-Chagnon wars are reviewed in considerable detail in the article titled “Who are the Real Savages?” by Emily Eakin that is surprisingly objective. Given the NY Times’s tendency to side with the establishment, I fully expected a whitewash of Chagnon. He instead comes across as fairly despicable even if he is cleared at the end of the article as being mostly wronged by Tierney. In my view, Tierney’s biggest mistake was the measles vaccine accusation that was far too much an expression of conspiracist thinking. Most of the damage that Chagnon did to the Yanomami was attributable to his own bullheaded insensitivity rather than conscious evil. This excerpt from Eakin’s article will give you an idea of what he was up to:

He spent his first few months trying to learn the villagers’ names and kinship ties, a standard practice at the time and a particular challenge in this case, given the Yanomami’s name taboos: to call someone by his name is often an insult, and the names of the dead aren’t supposed to be uttered at all. Chagnon rewarded informants with fish hooks, matches and, for men who really dished, knives and machetes. (The Yanomami made no metal tools themselves.) Then, on a visit to another village, Chagnon cautiously mentioned the names of the Bisaasi-teri headman and his wife. The residents burst out laughing. He realized that he’d been had: the names he’d been given were slang for genitalia.

I actually prefer Chagnon’s telling of the story in a 1988 Science magazine titled “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population”. It is almost enough for me to feel kindly toward the elderly sociobiologist:

My anthropological bubble was burst when I visited a village about 10 hours’ walk to the southwest of Bisaasi-teri some five months after I had begun collecting genealogies on the Bisaasi-teri. I was chatting with the local headman of this village and happened to casually drop the name of the wife of the Bisaasi-teri headman. A stunned silence followed, and then a villagewide roar of uncontrollable laughter, choking, gasping, and howling followed. It seems that I thought the Bisaasi-teri headman was married to a woman named “hairy cunt.” It also seems that the Bisaasi-teri headman was called ‘long dong’ and his brother ‘eagle shit.’ The Bisaasi-teri headman had a son called “asshole” and a daughter called “fart breath.”

The title of Chagnon’s memoir should give you a good idea of where he is coming from. “Noble Savages” is the term coined by Rousseau that people such as Napoleon Chagnon hoped to debunk through an empirical study of a tribal people who made war in order to take women as booty. By having access to multiple sexual partners, the “savage” had a better chance of propagating his genes as Eakins puts it:

Chagnon believed that biology was essential to understanding the tribe’s warfare over women. After all, more women meant more opportunities to pass on genes through reproduction — a basic tenet of evolutionary thought. But biology had no place in the cultural-materialist paradigm. And explanations of human behavior that relied on evolutionary theory were typically met with suspicion in anthropological circles, a legacy of the American eugenics movement, which invoked Darwinian ideas to justify racist efforts to “improve” the gene pool. “The last bastions of resistance to evolutionary theory,” Chagnon told me, “are organized religion and cultural anthropology.”

The article cites Steven Pinker as an expert for the defense:

Scientists have since endorsed Chagnon’s Science article. “It shouldn’t be a shocking finding,” Steven Pinker, the Harvard evolutionary psychologist who cites the paper in his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” told me. “As a pattern in history, it’s well documented.” Pinker said that he was troubled by the notion that social scientists should suppress unflattering information about their subjects because it could be exploited by others. “This whole tactic is a terrible mistake: always putting your moral action in jeopardy of empirical findings,” he told me. “Once you have the equation that the Yanomami are nonviolent and deserve to be protected, the converse is that if they are violent they don’t deserve to be protected.”

For those who haven’t kept track of the science wars, “evolutionary psychologist” is just another way of saying sociobiologist, a term that has become tarnished over the years for its obvious connection to social Darwinism. Pinker’s views about the warlike character of pre-class societies have been echoed by Jared Diamond, whose new book “The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” will likely repeat the points he has made in the past.

On February 3rd the Guardian reported on the reaction of Survival International to Diamond’s new book:

Survival accuses Diamond of applying studies of 39 societies, of which 10 are in his realm of direct experience in New Guinea and neighbouring islands, to advance a thesis that tribal peoples across the world live in a state of near-constant warfare.

“It’s a profoundly damaging argument that tribal peoples are more violent than us,” said Survival’s Jonathan Mazower. “It simply isn’t true. If allowed to go unchallenged … it would do tremendous damage to the movement for tribal people’s rights. Diamond has constructed his argument using a small minority of anthropologists and using statistics in a way that is misleading and manipulative.”

In a lengthy and angry rebuttal on Saturday, Diamond confirmed his finding that “tribal warfare tends to be chronic, because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace”. He accused Survival of falling into the thinking that views tribal people either as “primitive brutish barbarians” or as “noble savages, peaceful paragons of virtue living in harmony with their environment, and admirable compared to us, who are the real brutes”

Of course Diamond raises the “noble savage” canard as if his opponents think that indigenous peoples lived in a Garden of Eden. In reality the primary focus among Marxists, or their closest relatives cultural materialists like Marvin Harris, is on the social and economic factors that lead to peace or violence. To invoke the term “noble savage” is tantamount to a kind of essentialism that people like Brian Ferguson are anxious to eschew at all costs.

Like the Yanomamo, the Comanches of the 19th century have become poster boys for those who would line up with Pinker, Diamond and Chagnon, even if they are not so committed to evolutionary psychology. Two recent scholarly books “Comanche Empire” and “War of a Thousand Deserts” are replete with descriptions of wanton Comanche violence. Reports of scalping, rape, kidnapping, and murder appear on every few pages.

While the authors of “Comanche Empire” and “War of a Thousand Deserts” are unknown to the average American, a recent book by a journalist that obviously draws from their scholarship was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a best seller. This is how author S.C. Gwynne described the Comanches in “Empire of the Summer Moon”:

Thus some chroniclers ignore the brutal side of Indian life altogether; others, particularly historians who suggest that before white men arrived Indian-to-Indian warfare was a relatively bloodless affair involving a minimum of bloodshed, deny it altogether.16 But certain facts are inescapable: American Indians were warlike by nature, and they were warlike for centuries before Columbus stumbled upon them. They fought over hunting grounds, to be sure, but they also made a good deal of brutal and bloody war that was completely unnecessary. The Comanches’ relentless and never-ending pursuit of the hapless Tonkawas was a good example of this, as was their harassment of Apaches long after they had been driven from the buffalo grounds. Such behavior was common to all Indians in the Americas. The more civilized agrarian tribes of the east, in fact, were far more adept at devising lengthy and agonizing tortures than the Comanches or other plains tribes.17 The difference lay in the Plains Indians’ treatment of female captives and victims. Rape or abuse, including maiming, of females had existed when eastern tribes had sold captives as slaves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But that practice had been long ago abandoned. Some tribes, including the giant Iroquois federation, had never treated women captives that way.’ Women could be killed, and scalped. But not gang-raped. What happened to the Parker captives could only have happened west of the Mississippi. If the Comanches were better known for cruelty and violence, that was because, as one of history’s great warring peoples, they were in a position to inflict far more pain than they ever received.

Most important, the Indians themselves saw absolutely nothing wrong with these acts. For westering settlers, the great majority of whom believed in the idea of absolute good and evil, and thus of universal standards of moral behavior, this was nearly impossible to understand. Part of it had to do with the Comanches’ theory of the nature of the universe, which was vastly different from that of the civilized West. Comanches had no dominant, unified religion, or anything like a single God. Though in interviews after their defeat they often seemed to go along with the idea of a “Great Spirit,” Comanche ethnographers Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel were extremely skeptical of any creation myths that involved a single spirit or an “evil one.”19 “We never gave much consideration to creation,” said an old Comanche named Post Oak Jim in an interview in the 1930s. “We just knew we were here. Our thoughts were mostly directed toward understanding the spirits.”‘

The Comanches lived in a world alive with magic and taboo; spirits lived everywhere, in rocks, trees, and in animals. The main idea of their religion was to find a way to harness the powers of these spirits. Such powers thus became “puha,” or “medicine.” There was no dogma, no priestly class to impose systematic religion, no tendency to view the world as anything but a set of isolated episodes, with no deeper meaning. There were behavioral codes, to be sure—a man could not steal another man’s wife without paying penalties, for example. But there was no ultimate good and evil: just actions and consequences; injuries and damages due.

Enemies, meanwhile, were enemies, and the rules for dealing with them had come down through a thousand years. A Comanche brave who captured a live Ute would torture him to death without question. It was what every-one had always done, what the Sioux did to the Assiniboine, what the Crow did to the Blackfeet. A Comanche captured by a Ute would expect to receive exactly the same treatment (thus making him weirdly consistent with the idea of the Golden Rule), which was why Indians always fought to their last breath on battlefields, to the astonishment of Europeans and Americans. There were no exceptions. Of course, the same Indians also believed, quite as deeply, in blood vengeance. The life of the warrior tortured to death would be paid for with another torture-killing if possible, preferably even more hideous than the first. This, too, was seen as fair play by all Indians in the Americas.

What explains such a radical difference in the moral systems of the Comanches and the whites they confronted? Part of it has to do with the relative progress of civilizations in the Americas compared to the rest of the world. The discovery of agriculture, which took place in Asia and the Middle East, roughly simultaneously, around 6,500 BC, allowed the transition from nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies to the higher civilizations that followed. But in the Americas, farming was not discovered until 2,500 BC, fully four thousand years later and well after advanced cultures had already sprung up in Egypt and Mesopotamia. This was an enormous gap. Once the Indians figured out how to plant seeds and cultivate crops, civilizations in North and South America progressed at roughly the same pace as they had in the Old World. Cities were built. Highly organized social structures evolved. Pyramids were designed. Empires were assembled, of which the Aztecs and Incas were the last. (As in the Old World, nomadism and hunter-gatherer cultures persisted alongside the higher civilizations.) But the Americas, isolated and in any case without the benefit of the horse or the ox, could never close the time gap. They were three to four millennia behind the Europeans and Asians, and the arrival of Columbus in 1492 guaranteed that they would never catch up. The nonagrarian Plains Indians, of course, were even further behind. Thus the fateful clash between settlers from the culture of Aristotle, St. Paul, Da Vinci, Luther, and Newton and aboriginal horsemen from the buffalo plains happened as though in a time warp—as though the former were looking backward thousands of years at premoral, pre-Christian, low-barbarian versions of themselves. The Celtic peoples, ancestors of huge numbers of immigrants to America in the nineteenth century, offer a rough parallel. Celts of the fifth century BC were described by Herodotus as “fierce warriors who fought with seeming disregard for their own lives.”‘ Like Comanches they were savage, filthy, wore their hair long, and had a hideous keening battle cry. They were superb horsemen, inordinately fond of alcohol, and did terrible things to their enemies and captives that included decapitation, a practice that horrified the civilized Greeks and Romans!’ The old Celts, forebears of the Scots-Irish who formed the vanguard of America’s western migrations, would have had no “moral” problem with the Comanche practice of torture.

The civilized Greeks and Romans? Only someone steeped in the imperialist and racist ideology of a republic borne from the savage Greco-Roman bowels could ever make such a statement.

The best antidote to this way of thinking is a BBC documentary narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones that can be see in part here:

Jones quotes the words of a Celtic general as found in the writings of Tacitus. Although Tacitus was a Roman, he was not above allowing one of the “barbarians” to make an eloquent case for his people. It includes the famous dictum: “They built a wilderness (or solitude) and call it peace”, an apt description of Iraq today.

 To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace (ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant).

Chagnon’s memoir was eviscerated in the Sunday Times Book Review.


  1. I just finished T.R.Fehrenbach’s ‘Comanches: The History of a People’. It’s the only thing I’ve read on the subject, but it seemed pretty even-handed. I look forward to reading Louis’s piece in CNS. According to Fehrenbach, the horse Amerindians of the plains were overwhelmed by the numberless Euro settlers and their diseases. The newcomers’ notions of property in land and fenced agriculture were incompatible with nomadic hunting.

    Whether the indigenous Americans were violent and predatory before the arrival of the Euros may be speculative, but it seems well-documented that many of them proved to quite ruthless after contact was made. They met their match in those categories – violence, predation, and ruthlessness – at the hands of the settlers who eventually gave us Dick Cheney and Donald Trump.

    Comment by Seekonk — February 17, 2013 @ 8:53 pm

  2. Fehrenbach’s book was the very first I read on the Comanches and it is quite good. I plan to refer to it in my article. The one thing that is missing from the canon is a book written by a Native American scholar on all this, although Ned Blackhawk’s “Violence Upon the Land” is close in spirit to what is needed. It is focused on the Utes, who got involved with alliances/wars with the Spanish in the same fashion as the Comanches and the Apaches. I recommend it highly.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 17, 2013 @ 9:14 pm

  3. Most Americans traditionally regard Palestinians in the same way as they regard native American Indians, except that in recent times Mr Obama has taken to calling the American Indians “our first Americans” and invited Indian chiefs to Washington for an annual tribal nations conference.http://www.zapaday.com/event/471786/0/Obama+opens+Tribal+Nations+Conference.html There is not much chance though of Netanyahu calling Palestinians “our first Israelis”, since, according to the Zionist ideology, the land has always been Jewish, even if there were no Jews living on it. The Jews were there first, even if they weren’t there.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — February 18, 2013 @ 8:52 am

  4. I look forward to your piece on the Comanches. Having read quite a bit of Derrick Jensen’s work last year, I’ve concluded that my knowledge of indigenous cultures in North and South America is abysmal and that I need to do something about that. While McCarthy’s agenda is clear, I’m not convinced that Jensen doesn’t veer too far in the other direction away from the historical record — romanticizing the indigenous. An important topic.

    Comment by David — February 18, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

  5. See

    The Shocking Savagery of America’s Early History

    Bernard Bailyn,on the nation’s Dark Ages


    ” It’s a grand drama in which the glimmers of enlightenment barely survive the savagery, what Yeats called “the blood-dimmed tide,” the brutal establishment of slavery, the race wars with the original inhabitants that Bailyn is not afraid to call “genocidal,” the full, horrifying details of which have virtually been erased.”

    Comment by saltleygates — February 24, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

  6. As a Comanche person, who has yet to be fortunate enough to find an accurate even handed book on The Numunu I am curious to see your understanding of us. No historian I have seen has even begun to tackle the paradox of a people who lived largely as raiders and traders while at the same time, within the tribe, held almost all goods in common and considered selfishness the greatest vice. I would also be interested to see how you address gender, since we are traditionally matriarchal, with a long history of female warriors fighting along side males. Historians tend to either leave this out entirely or spread wild misinformation about gender roles in Comanche society. Gwynne in particular is guilty of this (it should be noted while we are one of the most highly educated tribes in the US he did not consult a single living Comanche, or at least site one in the appendix of his book)

    Comment by weyodi — March 7, 2013 @ 9:04 pm

  7. Weyodi, write me privately at lnp3@panix.com and I will send you my article once it is printed.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 7, 2013 @ 10:11 pm

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