Ideas that add up #64

Of the men in the villages that Mr Chagnon studied 45% had killed another, sometimes in escalating ritual fights and sometimes in arguments over women. Village raids, though less common, could end in mass slaughter. Killers were feared and admired — and on average had three times as many offspring as men who had no blood on their hands.

…To study the relative reproductive success of killers he had to get them to name their dead relations [thereby violating taboo]. Repeating information gathered in one group to another — central to his methods, since doing otherwise left him open to deception — risked stoking inter-village enmities. And he often rewarded co-operation about providing blood samples by handing out machetes, generally to a village’s most aggressive men. That was a dubious choice of gift…

Review of Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes by Napoleon Chagnon, in The Economist, February 23rd, 2013

His “method” requires him to risk stoking inter-village rivalries, and his violent informants are rewarded with the gift of weapons. This to produce a book demonstrating the violence of Amazonia’s Yanomamo people. Well, there’s a certain logic to that I suppose.

Calls to mind this from Charles C. Mann’s 1491:

Researchers have often described the Yanomamo as “fierce”, aggressive sorts whose small villages are constantly at violent odds with one another.

In Ferguson’s estimation, one cause of the endemic conflict observed by Western anthropologists and missionaries was the anthropologists and missionaries themselves, who gave their subjects “literally boatloads” of steel tools — axes, hatchets, machetes — to ingratiate themselves. At a stroke the village hosting the Westerners would gleam with wealth; its neighbours would seek a share of the undeserved bounty; conflict would explode. “Steel to the Yanomamo was like gold for the Spanish … it could push fairly ordinary people to do things that they wouldn’t consider doing otherwise.”

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