A Reputation For War

A Reputation for War by R. Brian Ferguson
AUTHOR: R. Brian Ferguson
TITLE: A Reputation for War
SOURCE: Natural History v104 p62-3 Ap '95

Ever since they were dubbed "the fierce people" by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon in the 1960s, the Yanomami have typified primitive belligerence for hundreds of thousands of college students. The groups Chagnon lived with on the upper Orinoco River seemed endlessly embroiled in fights, duels, and treacherous raids, as the men competed over women and status or sought to avenge previous killings. The vivid descriptions of Yanomami character and warfare helped fuel a debate over whether humans were inevitably propelled toward violence. The debate was largely precipitated by Robert Ardrey's popular book African Genesis (1961), which argued that humans had a genetic heritage as "killer apes." Many academics countered that, far from being instinctive, warfare would have played a minor role throughout most of the human evolutionary career. They tied the advent of warfare to the agricultural revolution, with its sedentary communities and stores of food, and the subsequent rise of centralized states. Human nature, they declared, was almost by definition plastic, shaped by culture, and humans could be educated to solve their conflicts in other ways. Against the background of the Vietnam War, this was a more optimistic message.
Enter the Yanomami, a people apparently isolated from outside influences until recent times. They were proclaimed by some to be the living embodiment of a violent evolutionary heritage. Others, rejecting this grim interpretation, sought an adaptive explanation for Yanomami behavior. They proposed that in the tropical Amazonian forest, which lacked rich concentrations of resources, warfare and hostility served to break up groups into sustainable size and then space them suitably across the landscape. In this view, although warfare had its costs, it contributed to the Yanomami's ability to survive within the limitations of their ecosystem.
Both of these interpretations took for granted that the Yanomami way of life was pristine. But my historical studies, comparing the experiences of many different Yanomami groups, have led me to reject that view. I have found that these Amazonians have been affected by the presence of European Americans for up to 350 years, and that Yanomami warfare can only be understood in this light.
Outside influences began in the 1630s, when Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch colonists, or their indigenous allies, came raiding for slaves. The ensuing violence wiped out the more complex societies that had existed in the Yanomami region-densely settled chiefdoms of river traders-and restricted the Yanomami to highland sanctuaries. Both peaceable and violent contacts between Yanomami and outsiders occurred from the mid-eighteenth century until 1950, when the first Protestant mission settled in alongside a Yanomami village, initiating extensive interactions that still continue.
When the political history of Yanomami living in various parts of their territory is reconstructed, a connection emerges between their wars (with one another or with neighboring peoples) and significant changes in the European American presence. The common thread in their fighting appears to be access to, and control over, sources of Western trade goods. Like other Amazonian groups, the Yanomami have rapidly come to regard steel tools, aluminum pots, cloth, and other manufactured items as necessities. Yanomami able to obtain these goods close to the source want them not only for their own use but also to trade with groups farther away. In exchange, other Yanomami provide local products, labor, wives, and political support. Friction arises because the interests involved in these exchange relationships are so vital and the inequalities are so pronounced. This friction can lead to raiding, directed at protecting or improving positions within the radiating trade networks.
In the first decade of this century, for example, the frenzied rubber-tapping boom in Amazonia led to a surge in Western trade goods passing along the Uraricoera and other rivers near Brazilian Yanomami territory. In a series of raids, ambushes, and at least one pitched battle, some local Yanomami groups carved out a niche in the trade system. They then gave up raiding, but soon were pressed from behind by the "wild" Yanomami in the mountains.
For some Yanomami, including those living around the mission posts of the upper Orinoco River, contact with resident outsiders has led to a much more sedentary way of life. Over time, hunting depleted local game supplies and was replaced by fishing, more intensive cultivation, and consumption of mission foods. Having lost their mobile way of life, these groups are unable to follow the traditional option of moving away when frictions arise. And with little hunting, they lose the custom of sharing meat, which as Kenneth Good has observed, is a source of solidarity. Worst of all, their exposure to outsiders brings them new diseases, with epidemics tearing great holes in the social fabric. For some Yanomami, such as those encountered by Chagnon, long and strong contact with the outside world created so much disruption that, for a time, violence became almost normal in interpersonal relations.
The Yanomami case shows the extraordinary reach and transforming effects a centrally governed society, or state, may have, extending way beyond its last outpost. The impact of disease, trade goods, migrations, and political restructurings can spread far in advance of face-to-face contact, and when the state's advance agents do arrive, they commonly bring even more destruction with them. Because they may possess firearms or dispense coveted trade goods, even contemporary missionaries and anthropologists can become important players in these conflicts and the focus of violent competition. That is what happened on the upper Orinoco.
The changing economic and political conditions in a remote "tribal zone" can lead to bloodshed, sometimes creating warfare in regions where little or none existed in the past. For centuries, Westerners have looked upon such carnage and used it to justify the obliteration of indigenous cultures in the name of civilization. What has not been acknowledged is that the "savage" behavior is itself often a result of foreign intrusion; that local conflicts are firmly connected to global processes. The Yanomami have taught us to proceed with extreme caution before assuming warfare in indigenous groups is pristine and isolated. Anthropologists can lead the way in applying this important lesson to so-called ethnic or tribal warfare in Africa and Europe.

R. Brian Ferguson, an associate professor of anthropology at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, is the author of Yanomami Warfare: A Political History (Santa Fe: SAR Press, 1995).

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