Fierce Behavior of the Yanomamo: Blood, Revenge and Tribal Warfare
By Myranda Grecinger
The Yanomamo tribes of the Amazon are known for the fierceness in battle, many of their conflicts result in continuous vengeful blood wars which anthropologists have studied for years. In 1988 esteemed ethnologist Dr. Chagnon wrote an article regarding the correlation between Yanomamo raiders and reproduction within the tribe, one year later, Professor Brian Ferguson wrote a rebuttal. The articles written by Ferguson and Chagnon both oppose and complement each other in many ways. Both articles make very intriguing arguments. Ferguson’s article alludes to the idea that Chagnon has failed to support his own theory and even at times contradicts it completely, yet Ferguson himself does not provide enough compelling evidence to discern that it is entirely inaccurate or provide another complete plausible theory. The exploration of each of these articles can lead to nothing but more speculation and further proof that the topic requires further research as both provide an interesting perspectives but are lacking and contradictory in many ways. Anthropology has certainly benefitted from the theories involved with war among the Yanomamo presented thus far. The research provided by the study of such a culture built on ferocity and bent on vengeance will only continue to contribute and mount evidence to further our insight into and understanding of war and its cause and purpose among all people.
Both Ferguson and Chagnon whether intention or un intentional, do uphold Darwin’s theory, yet neither succeed in giving a clear, precise and complete cause for or explanation of Yanomamo war or its relation to reproduction success. Darwin’s theory of evolution includes two main points that supports both of these articles, first is the term Survival of the fittest, and second, Natural selection. Survival of the fittest refers to the idea that “The individuals who best adapt to the environment are the ones who will most likely survive.” (Rae, 1997) Survival of the fittest is actually a component in the idea of natural selection, which states that scarcity of resources will lead to competition between individuals of the same species because all require the same resources. This competition will invariably lead to the death of some and the survival of others. “Individuals having advantageous variations are more likely to survive and reproduce than those without.”(Earlham College Biology department, 2011) The fact that Yanomamo men who have killed are looked on as holding higher stature within the community than those who have not and those who apply swift vengeance when they are wronged are feared and therefore less apt to be trifled with, as well as the fact that conflict is can spurred by the appropriation of a woman or ownership over fruit trees give weight to the ideas put forth by Charles Darwin.
In 1995 Professor Raymond Hames, wrote an article regarding the Yanomamo culture that may shed some light on some of the discrepancies from the previous articles and perhaps give weight to one theory over the other. According to his article, the Yanomamo are a foraging-horticulture society, this means they sustain themselves both through gardens raised with the assistance of simple farm tools and they also rely on a great deal of hunting, fishing and gathering. Unfortunately while Hames’ paper describes the Yanomamo’s culture and mode of substance in far greater detail than either of the other authors, when it comes to the war aspect it only succeeds in adding to the controversy. While Chagnon states that war and conflict has diminished since the arrival of missions, leading one to believe that it is possible that the arrival of western ethics and ideals have changed the way that the Yanomamo handle conflict and thereby planting the idea that their warlike behavior is something of a prehistoric and un-evolved, uncivilized nature, Hames paints a directly opposing picture stating that “ Proximity of missions and government agencies have had little if any impact on warfare.” (Hames, 1995) The disturbing truth is, with so many opposing and conflicting descriptions of Yanomamo, it is literally impossible to gain an accurate understanding of their behavior in or out of conflict and every unsupported or at best lightly supported claim only creates more confusion. There are some claims that are supported by all three sources and therefore can be accepted as accurate.
Each of the three articles correlate on these main points; first, many conflicts begin over the appropriation, loss of, failure to provide or infidelity of a woman; second, men who participate in raids and kill are honored above those who do not, feared by other communities, and tend to have more wives and children than those who do not; and third, the Yanomamo culture uses revenge as a method of coping with loss, sadness and anger and promote fierceness as a positive quality among boys and men. So these articles together do seem to compliment and support each other on some level and because of that, there are some possibly valid theories that can be extracted from the evidence.
Though much is lacking from these articles, when studied together they point to some very interesting arguments that are supported. Women are extremely important to the community for reproductive purposes as well at other attributes that make them invaluable to a community and the Yanomamo appear to view them as status symbols as well; perhaps this is why so many wars revolve around them. The reasoning behind their importance may point back to Darwin’s theory, because whether or not they are consciously aware of it, the men in the community need women to survive as women tend the gardens that sustain them, and need women to procreate. Being a society who’s vengeance and blood wars, which are wars that begin with one village killing someone from another and result in that village striking back, cause the deaths of many of its members one would think that after a time it would be apparent that this is not a positive outcome, but because it has not and the wars continue and warriors are honored, perhaps war serves another purpose, since there are limited resources and the Yanomamo constantly have to move their villages to sustain them, one could easily conclude that survival of the fittest is at work making certain that overpopulation does not cause an issue with survival. The fact that men who have killed and are considered to be fierce are honored and tend to marry more and have more children could easily be attributed to the fact that a strong man equally protection and survival for a woman who is with him and that fact means that he has more to protect and more to lose as well as more wrongs to seek vengeance for and therefore will most likely be more apt to be more fierce and participate in more raids and consequently has more opportunity to be killed himself.
After reviewing all of the evidence there are some conclusions that one could surmise, however more research would be required to fully substantiate them. That being said, there is so much conflicting evidence within these three articles that it is difficult to discern much else. Ferguson, Chagnon and Hames make some very intriguing statements and certainly have shown that focus is needed in this area to answer the many questions raised by each article and their combined value. The Yanomamo are definitely an interesting culture to say the least and deserve further attention from the anthropological community to assess their fierce tenancies and the reasoning and purpose behind it and how it can help with an evaluation and understanding of conflict in people from all over the world.
Chagnon, N. (1988, February 26) Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population Science, 239(4843), 985 Document ID: 1789307 This document can be found at
Earlham College Biology Department (2011) Evolution by Natural Selection
This document can be found at
Ferguson, B. (1989, August) Do Yanomamo Killers Have More Kids? American Ethnologist, 16(3), 564-565 This document can be found at
Hames, Raymond (1995) Yanomamo, Varying Adaptations of Foraging Horticulturalists This document can be found at
Rae, Jake (1997) Darwin’s Theory of Evolution
This document can be found at
© 2011 Myranda Grecinger