Uncut version of Chagnon story Page 3 of 8

Some of his enemies were personal. He is by all accounts a boisterous man. Moving among the Yanomamo, Chagnon had, or discovered in himself, the sort of personality that could thrive and impose itself on a brutal and treacherous political environment. For the first months of his fieldwork, while he was learning the language, the Yanomamö systematically lied to him. He needed to collect genealogies in order to trace the histories of the people he moved among, yet among the Yanomamö there is a tabu against using people’s names, and especially the names of the dead. He got around this difficulty by offering machetes to people who would talk to him: they squared their consciences by accepting the gifts but giving him false names for their fellow villagers. It took him five months to discover that the secret names for the chief’s family that he had so carefully collected actually translated as "long dick", "hairy cunt" and their daughter "fart breath". He overcame this obstacle with characteristic determination. It did not make him more trusting of the Yanomamö, and he later wrote: "It became indelibly clear to me shortly after I arrived that … I had to become like the Yanomamö to be able to get along with them on their terms: somewhat sly, aggressive, intimidating, and pushy.

Terry Turner

"Had I failed to adjust in this fashion I would have lost six months of supplies to them in a single day … more importantly, had I failed to demonstrate that I could not be pushed around beyond a certain point, I would have been the subject of far more ridicule, theft, and practical jokes than the actual case." However effective this kind of behaviour may be among the Yanomamö it wins him little respect in the post-modern common room.

Chagnon also lacks piety, both old-fashioned and modern. He is rude to and about missionaries, but when he discusses wife-beating among the Yanomamö he does not bother to tell us it is a wicked thing. He observes instead that it provides a low-cost way for a man to demonstrate his ferocity to other men. It is a common theme of his opponent that he is much more like the brutes he describes than the real Yanomamö are: they are not "the fierce people"; he is "the fierce anthropologist". Frank Salamone, a Catholic anthropologist who tried to broker a truce between Chagnon and the Salesian missionaries, says: "I believe the enmity is the result of Chagnon's harmful field methods, ‘fierce’ personality, and his tendency to lie. He has harmed the Yanomami by his false depiction of them and his failure to defend them in the press."

For the first ten years of his visits to the Orinoco jungles, until around 1975, Chagnon had enjoyed good relaitons with the Salesian Catholic missionaries who control access to most of the region. Indeed, the relationship was so good, he told me, that he was asked by one priest to arrange for the murder of another missionary who had gone off the rails and taken up with a Yanomamö concubine far up the river (he declined). Around then, the relationship started to unravel, and grew worse as Chagnon, and the Yanomamö, grew more famous. In 1987, he says, a German TV film with which he had co-operated described one Salesian as running a tourist trade to see the unspoilt savages. The missionaries were deeply offended, and managed to have him barred from the territory they controlled. When he returned, sponsored by the mistress of the Venezuelan president and by a controversial adventurer, dentist and sky-diver named Charles Brewer Carias, he quarelled once more with the Salesians.

Next: Missions in the rain