Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 24, 2009

Yanomami Science Wars, part 3

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

Yanomami film documentaries

Documentaries about the Yanomami became a hot commodity not long after Napoleon Chagnon and Jacques Lizot established beachheads in the Amazon rainforest. Since they were one of the few peoples in the world who lived in primitive conditions, as opposed to the modern primitives who used B-52’s, there was a big market for films that depicted their reality. The question as to whether this was the documentary maker’s reality or that of the indigenous peoples remained open.

Chagnon decided to make movies based on the model of Robert Gardner whose “Dead Birds” documentary on Papua New Guinea warfare became an instant classic. In Gardner’s movie, you actually saw people being killed but in Chagnon it only occurs off-screen. For example, in “The Feast”, a documentary about two villages coming together in a military alliance cemented by the exchange of food and gifts, Chagnon announces as the movie concludes that they went to another village and killed a woman.

It is no coincidence that both the Papua New Guinea highlands and the Yamomami villages were the subjects of documentaries with an identical focus. Anthropologists, either professional like Chagnon or amateur like Jared Diamond, with a sociobiological bent see these two areas as overflowing with confirmation of their Hobbesian analysis.

Chagnon initially approached Gardner to work with him on a film, but was told to contact Timothy Asch instead. Chagnon and Asch went on to make a number of films together that became staples in anthropology classrooms. Unfortunately, “The Feast” is not online but you can watch a trailer here.

You can watch “The Ax Fight” below, however:

This is 12 minutes of mayhem with males beating each other with staffs at first and then escalating to machetes and axes. Nobody is actually wounded, however. The final minute or two consists of a Yanomami woman cursing out the visiting villagers who have provoked their wrath. Originally, Chagnon explained the violence as arising over an act of incest but discovered subsequently that he had mistranslated the Yanomami word yawaremou as sexual incest when it really meant something like improper behavior toward a blood relative. The final seconds of the movie acknowledge this misunderstanding but not quite in terms of Chagnon’s lack of linguistic expertise.

The improper behavior in this particular instance was a young man hitting his aunt who had refused to give him some plantains, an altogether less dramatic violation than incest to be sure.

All in all, the documentary has the lurid quality of a “Cops” episode on Fox-TV, with one group of neighbors cursing out another group over perhaps a dog crapping on their lawn. Since there are no cops in the Amazon rainforest, the clear implication is that the violence could have escalated into homicide.

A few years after the movie was made, Chagon developed a new explanation for the conflict, one more in line with his sociobiological theories. One group of disputants was composed of individuals more closely related to each other than that of the other group. Family ties, you see, were critical just like with Tony Soprano. Chagnon drew upon the skills of a mathematician who mapped out their genetic connections like something out of a calculus seminar.

Timothy Asch, who was not political at all, never felt comfortable with “The Ax Fight” even though it was one of his most famous films. He thought that the whole thing was staged by Chagnon who promised the Yanomami trade goods like machetes and pots and pans in exchange for whooping it up.

In an interview, Asch said:

You know the joy of “The Ax Fight” is that because Chagnon was so stuck in simple theories that, right away, the film became a real joke. It is funny with its simplistic, straightjacketed, one-sided explanation…I was feeling, you know, halfway into making the film, this great suspicion of the whole field beginning to fall apart before my eyes as I was putting “The Ax Fight” together. I had a powerful piece of material and it was suddenly looking kind of foolish… I felt it was a little bit like a gargoyle at Chartres…one of those strange things that stick out and you way, what’s this?

One Yanomami villager named Gustavo Konoko, who was an adolescent when the film was made, reflected back on the events that day. He says that Chagnon paid them a machete, a knife and some red cloth to start “una pelea horemu”, or fake fight–kind of like professional wrestling. Tierney quotes Konoko:

He [Chagnon] said, “Fight with poles! We’re going to film, and then I’ll pay you. I’ll give you whatever you want.” When he said that, many young men bloodied each other, playing. “Hit each other! Be fierce! Argue! When the young men play, let the women begin to scream at them.” That’s what he said.

After Tierney’s book was published, Chagnon and his defenders attempted to spin the film’s meaning in a more pacifist direction. They claimed that the ax fight was not a sign of violence but of the Yanomami’s ability to blow off steam, hence staving off a more bloody conflict. If this was the intention, it clearly failed based on the impression it made on anthropology students. Student surveys found that a large majority saw “The Ax Fight” as a traditional chronicle of savagery. A sophomore at USC reacted this way:

The only thing I know about the Yanomami is that they act on their raw passions. They are very primitive people. It seems that they don’t even think before they act. They are very violent people that just go raiding other villages. They take drugs and they freak out on drugs, and on drugs they’ve been know to attack people.

Using more elevated language, of course, this is exactly the impression that Napoleon Chagnon sought to convey.

In April 1996 PBS premiered a documentary titled “Warriors of the Amazon” on Nova. Directed by Andy Jillings, it was an attempt to create an alternative to Chagnon’s documentaries on Yanomami fierceness. A shorter version of the show can be seen in 7 parts on Youtube under the title “Spirits of the Rainforest”. Part one appears below, but it is missing the audio for some reason. It is also necessary to scan forward about 10 seconds to get the video going. For some reason, the other 6 parts work just fine.

As it turns out, the village featured in the documentary was the one presided over by the sexual predator Jacques Lizot. Understandably, he was not part of the documentary but he is credited as a consultant. While Lizot was clear that the village had not been involved in hostilities with other villages for a very long time, he was not averse to staging a feast with a visiting village that played up the ritualistic combat dances that typify Yanomami fierceness. Nova provided an introductory monologue to the movie that begins, “This is the world of the Yanomami; it is a world marked by aggression and revenge.” It was also marked by “the threat of warfare” that requires their men to “go off and fight two or three times a year”.

When Tierney arrived in Yanomami-land, he tracked down the village in order to verify what takes place in the movie. In fact, the village was involved in nearly no killings between 1968 and 1976. After that it got drawn into a war between Chagnon’s village and another village ruled by Lizot. (More about that to come.)

Basically, the film crew induced the villagers to perform “fiercely” on camera in exchange for trade goods and even cash. Since these Indians were fairly well acculturated, the cash made sense. To make the movie seem realistic, it was necessary to get them to go about naked. Up until the filming, people tended to wear clothing bought at missionary stores.

If you watch the movie closely, you will notice a number of the men and women coughing. As it happens, the village was ravaged by disease—including the common cold—that they had no resistance to. During this period, when gold miners and film crews were flooding remote areas where no immunity existed to various infectious diseases, the Indians were suffering the same fate as their North American brothers and sisters in the 18th and 19th centuries. In one key scene a young woman dies from an unnamed illness and is burned at a pyre in a touching ritual. As sensitive as Jillings was to native concerns, the filming of a burial ritual went against their traditions. They don’t allow snapshots let alone filming at such events.


  1. “Up until the filming, people tended to wear clothing bought at missionary stores.”

    Comment by Mehmet Çagatay — July 24, 2009 @ 8:45 pm

  2. Is the Andy Jillings film available on DVD, Region 1?

    Comment by Zach — April 13, 2010 @ 12:10 am

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