Napoleon Chagnon

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Napoleon A. Chagnon (/ˈʃæɡnən/ SHAG-nən;[1] born 1938) is an American anthropologist, professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri in Columbia and member of the National Academy of Sciences.[2] Chagnon is known for his long-term ethnographic field work among the Yanomamö, a society of indigenous tribal Amazonians, in which he used a then-unconventional evolutionary theory approach to understand social behavior in terms of genetic relatedness. Admirers saw him as having been a pioneer of scientific anthropology. Critics objected to his emphasis on biological explanations, especially for violence. Chagnon has been called the "most controversial anthropologist" in the United States in a New York Times Magazine profile preceding the publication of Chagnon's most recent book, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists, a scientific memoir.[3]

Early life and education[edit]

Chagnon was born in Port Austin, Michigan and he was the second of twelve children.[3] He attended the University of Michigan and received a bachelor's degree in 1961, an M.A. in 1963, and a PhD in 1966 under the tutelage of Leslie White.[4][5]


Chagnon is best known for his long-term ethnographic field work among the Yanomamö, a society of indigenous tribal Amazonians that live in the border area between Venezuela and Brazil.[6] Working primarily in the headwaters of the upper Siapa and upper Mavaca Rivers in Venezuela, he conducted fieldwork from the mid-1960s until the latter half of the 1990s. According to Chagnon, when he arrived he realised that the theories he had been taught during his training had shortcomings, because contrary to what they predicted, raiding and fighting, often over women, was endemic. Due to his constantly asking questions, Chagnon was nicknamed "pesky bee" by the Yanomamö. A major focus of his research was the collection of genealogies of the residents of the villages that he visited, and from these he would analyze patterns of relatedness, marriage patterns, cooperation, and settlement pattern histories. The degree of kinship was seen by Chagnon as important for the forming of alliances in social interactions, including conflict. Chagnon's methods of analysis are widely seen as having been influenced by sociobiology. As Chagnon described it, Yanomamö society produced fierceness, because that behavior furthered male reproductive success. According to Chagnon, the success of men in violent interaction and even killing, was directly related to how many wives and children they had. At the level of the villages, the war-like populations expanded at the expense of their neighbors. Chagnon's positing of a link between reproductive success and violence cast doubt on the sociocultural perspective that cultures are constructed from human experience. An enduring controversy over Chagnons' work has been described as a microcosm of the conflict between biological and sociocultural anthropology.[7][3][8]

Chagnon's ethnography, Yanomamö: The Fierce People was published in 1968 and later published in more than five editions and is commonly used as a text in university-level introductory anthropology classes, making it the all-time bestselling anthropological text.[citation needed] Chagnon was also a pioneer in the field of visual anthropology. He collaborated with ethnographic filmmaker Tim Asch and produced a series of more than twenty ethnographic films documenting Yanomamö life.


Darkness in El Dorado[edit]

In 2000, Patrick Tierney in his book Darkness in El Dorado accused Chagnon and his colleague James Neel, among other things, of exacerbating a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö people. Groups of historians, epidemiologists, anthropologists, and filmmakers, who had direct knowledge of the events, investigated Tierney's claims. These groups ultimately rejected the worst allegations concerning the measles epidemic. In its report, which was later rescinded, a task force of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) was critical of certain aspects of Chagnon's work, such as his portrayal of the Yanomamö and his relationships with Venezuelan government officials.

The American Anthropological Association convened the task force in February 2001 to investigate some of the allegations made in Tierney's book. Their report, which was issued by the AAA in May 2002, held that Chagnon had both represented the Yanomamo in harmful ways and failed in some instances to obtain proper consent from both the government and the groups he studied. However, the Task Force stated that there was no support to the claim that Chagnon and Neel began a measles epidemic.[9] In June 2005, however, the AAA voted over two-to-one to rescind the acceptance of the 2002 report,[10] noting that "although the Executive Board's action will not, in all likelihood, end debate on ethical standards for anthropologists, it does seek to repair damage done to the integrity of the discipline in the El Dorado case".

Most of the allegations made in Darkness in El Dorado were publicly rejected by the Provost's office of the University of Michigan in November 2000.[11] For example, the interviews upon which the book was based all came from members of the Salesian Society (an official society of the Roman Catholic Church) which Chagnon had criticized, and thus angered, in his book.[12]

Tierney has since claimed that "Experts I spoke to then had very different opinions than the ones they are expressing now."[13]

Brazilian director José Padilha revisits the Darkness in El Dorado controversy in his documentary Secrets of the Tribe. The film, screened at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize. It includes testimonials from key players.[14]

Alice Dreger, an historian of medicine and science, and an outsider to the debate, concluded after a year of research that Tierney's claims were false and the American Anthropological Association was complicit and irresponsible in helping spread these falsehoods and not protecting "scholars from baseless and sensationalistic charges".[15]

Researcher contamination in Yanomamö findings[edit]

Some[who?] have argued that the Yanomamö became violent after Chagnon arrived to conduct his research and offered machetes, axes, and shotguns to selected groups to elicit their cooperation.[16][17]

Miscellaneous criticisms[edit]

Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has criticized Chagnon's methods.[18][verification needed]

Written works[edit]

  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1966), Yanomamö Warfare, Social Organization and Marriage Alliances (unpublished PhD dissertation), Ann Arbor, MI: Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan 


  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1968), Yanomamö: The Fierce People .
  • ——— (1974), Studying the Yanomamö, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston .
  • ——— (1992), Yanomamo – The Last Days of Eden .
  • ———; Cronk, Lee; Irons, William (2002), Adaptation and Human Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective .
  • ——— (2013), Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists .

Book chapters[edit]

  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1986), "Yanomamö social organization and aggression", in FRIED, M, War; the Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression, New York: Garden City 
  • ——— (1995), "Chronic Problems in Understanding Tribal Violence and Warfare", in Willey & Chichester, Genetics of Criminal and Antisocial Behavior, Ciba Foundation Symposium 
  • ——— (1972), "Tribal social organization and genetic microdifferentiation", in HARRISON, A; BOYCE, A, Structure of human populations, Oxford 
  • ——— (1973), "Daily life among the Yanomamo", in ROMNEY, AK; DEVORE, PL, You and others, Cambridge 
  • ——— (1973), "Yanomamo social organization and warfare", in FRIED, M, Explorations in Anthropology, New York: Crowell 
  • ——— (1973), "The culture-ecology of shifting (pioneering) cultivation among the Yanomamo Indians", in GROSS, DR, International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, New York: Garden City 
  • ——— (1977), "Yanomamo – the fierce people", in GOULD, R, Man's many ways, New York: Harper & Row 
  • ——— (1977), "Yanomamo warfare", in COPPENHAVER, D, Anthropology full circle, New York: Prager 
  • ——— (1979), "Is Reproductive Success Equal in Egalitarian Societies?", in CHAGNON, N; IRONS, W, Evolutionary Biology and Human Social Behavior, North Scituate: Duxbury 
  • ——— (1979), "Mate Competition, Favoring Close kin, and Village Fissioning Among the Yanomamö Indians", in CHAGNON, N; IRONS, W, Evolutionary biology and human social behavior, North Scituate: Duxbury 
  • ——— (1982), "Anthropology and the Nature of Things", in WIEGELE, T, Biology and the Social Sciences, Boulder: Westview 
  • ——— (1982), "Sociodemographic Attributes of Nepotism in Tribal Populations: Man the Rule-Breaker", in GROUP, KSCS, Current problems in sociobiology, New York: Cambridge University Press 
  • ———; Ayers, M; Neel, JV; Weitkamp, L; Gershowitz, H (1975), "The influence of cultural factors on the demography and pattern of gene flow from the Makiritare to the Yanomama indians", in HULSE, FS, Man and nature: studies in the evolution of the human species, New York: Random House 
  • ———; Bugos, PE (1979), "Kin selection and conflict: an analysis of a Yanomamö ax fight", in CHAGNON; IRONS, W, Evolutionary biology and human social behavior, North Scituate: Duxbury Press 
  • ———; Flinn, MV; Melancon, TF (1979), "Sex-ratio variation among the Yanomamö Indians", in CHAGNON, Napoleon; IRONS, W, Evolutionary Biology and Human Social Behavior, North Scituate: Duxbury Press 

Journal articles[edit]

  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1967a), "Yanomamo – the fierce people", Natural History, LXXVII: 22–31 
  • ——— (1967b), "Yanomamö Social Organization and Warfare", Natural History, LXXVI: 44–48 
  • ——— (1968a), "The Culture-Ecology of Shifting (Pioneering) Cultivation Among The Yanomamö Indians", International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences 3: 249–55 
  • ——— (1968b), "The feast", Natural History, LXXVII: 34–41 
  • ——— (1970), "Ecological and Adaptive Aspects of California Shell Money", Annual Report of the UCLA Archaeological Survey 12: 1–25 
  • ——— (1973), "The culture-ecology of shifting (pioneering) cultivation among the Yanomamo Indians", in GROSS, DR, International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, New York: Garden City 
  • ——— (1975), "Genealogy, Solidarity and Relatedness: Limits to Local Group Size and Patterns of Fissioning in an Expanding Population", Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 19: 95–110 
  • ——— (1976), "Yanomamo, the true people", National Geographic Magazine 150: 210–23 
  • ——— (1980), "Highland New Guinea models in the South American lowlands", Working papers on South American Indians 2: 111–30 
  • ——— (1981), "Doing fieldwork among the Yanomamo", Contemporary Anthropology: 11–24 
  • ——— (1988), "Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population", Science 239: 985–92 
  • ——— (1989), "Yanomamö survival", Science 244: 11 
  • ——— (1990), "On Yanomamö violence: reply to Albert", Current Anthropology 31: 49–53 
  • ———; Ayres, M; Neel, JV; Weitkamp, L; Gershowitz, H (1970), "The influence of cultural factors on the demography and pattern of gene flow from the Makiritare to the Yanomama indians", American Journal of Physical Anthropology 32: 339–49 
  • ———; Hames, RB (1979), "Protein Deficiency and Tribal Warfare in Amazonia: New Data", Science 203: 910–13 
  • ———; Le Quesne, P; Cook, JM (1971), "Yanomamö Hallucinogens: Anthropological, Botanical, and Chemical Findings", Current Anthropology 12: 72–74 
  • ———; Margolies, L; Gasparini, G; Hames, RB (1982–83), "Parentesco, demografia, patrones de inversion de los padres y el uso social del espacio arquitectonico entre los Shamatari-Yanomamo del TF Amazonas: informe preliminar", Boletin Indigenista Venezolano (in Spanish) (VZ) 21: 171–225 


  • The Yanomamo Series, in collaboration with Tim Asch, includes 22 separate films on the Yanomamo culture, such as:
    • The Ax Fight (1975)
    • Children's Magical Death (1974)
    • Magical Death (1988)
    • A Man Called Bee: A Study of the Yanomamo (1974)
    • Yanomamo Of the Orinoco (1987)
  • Yanomamo Filmography list, University of California, Santa Barbara

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Though the name Chagnon is French, he uses the American pronunciation.
  2. ^ Retrieved 27 January 2014.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  3. ^ a b c Eakin, Emily (13 February 2013). "How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist". New York Times. Retrieved 19 February 2013. 
  4. ^ McGee & Warms, p. 247
  5. ^ "Napoleon Chagnon, '61, MA'63, PhD'66". Alumni Authors Series. Alumni Association of the University of Michigan. Retrieved 20 February 2013. 
  6. ^ Silva, Stacey (20 January 1988). "Meeting The Fierce People". The Daily Nexus. Retrieved 2008-10-23. 
  7. ^ Edge Aug 19, 2014NAPOLEON CHAGNON: BLOOD IS THEIR ARGUMENT:An Edge Special Event
  8. ^ Greg Laden, Slate Are Anthropologists a Dangerous Tribe
  9. ^ "El Dorado Task Force Papers" (PDF). AAA. [dead link][dead link]
  10. ^ "AAA Rescinds Acceptance of the El Dorado Report". 
  11. ^ "Statement from University of Michigan Provost Nancy Cantor on the book "Darkness in El Dorado"". 
  12. ^ D'Antonio, Michael (20 January 1988). "Napoleon Chagnon's War of Discovery". LA Times Magazine (UCLA). Retrieved 2008-10-23. 
  13. ^ Miller, John J. "The Fierce People: The wages of anthropological incorrectness," National Review, 20 November 2000.
  14. ^ Lim, Dennis (31 January 2010), "Secrets of the tribe: World Documentary Competition", Sunfiltered (blog), Sundance channel .[dead link][dead link]
  15. ^ Dreger, Alice (16 February 2011). "Darkness's Descent on the American Anthropological Association". Human Nature 22 (3): 225–46. doi:10.1007/s12110-011-9103-y. 
  16. ^ Brian Ferguson, Yanomami Warfare
  17. ^ Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, Sex at Dawn", Harper, 2010
  18. ^
  • Ritchie, Mark Andrew. "Pulling His Eye Down", Spirit of the Rainforest, Island Lake Press, Chicago, 1996.
  • McGee, Jon R. & Warms, Richard L. "Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History", Texas State University, San Marcos, 2008. ISBN 0-07-340522-1

External links[edit]