Napoleon Chagnon

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Napoleon Chagnon
Born (1938-08-27) August 27, 1938 (age 78)[1]
Port Austin, Michigan
Nationality American
Alma mater University of Michigan (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.)
Thesis Yanomamö Warfare, Social Organization and Marriage Alliances[2] (1966)
Doctoral advisor Leslie White
Known for Reproductive theory of violence, ethnography of Yanomamö
Influences Meyer Fortes, Sewall Wright, E.O. Wilson

Napoleon Alphonseau Chagnon (/ˈʃæɡnən/ SHAG-nən;[a] born 27 August 1938) is an American anthropologist, professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri in Columbia and member of the National Academy of Sciences.[3] Chagnon is known for his long-term ethnographic field work among the Yanomamö, a society of indigenous tribal Amazonians, in which he used an evolutionary approach to understand social behavior in terms of genetic relatedness. His work has centered on the analysis of violence among tribal peoples, and, using socio-biological analyses, he has advanced the argument that among the Yanomami violence is fueled by an evolutionary process in which successful warriors have more offspring. His 1967 ethnography Yanomamö: The Fierce People has become a bestseller and is frequently assigned in introductory anthropology courses.

Admirers have him as having been a pioneer of scientific anthropology. 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.[4]

Early life and education[edit]

Chagnon was born in Port Austin, Michigan and was the second of twelve children.[4][5] After enrolling at the Michigan College of Mining and Technology in 1957, he transferred to the University of Michigan after his freshman year and there received a bachelor's degree in 1961, an M.A. in 1963, and a Ph.D. in 1966 under the tutelage of Leslie White.[6][5] Based on seventeen months of fieldwork begun in 1964, Chagnon's thesis examined the relationship between kinship and the social organization of Yanomamö villages.[2][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.[7] 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.[4][5] As Chagnon described it, Yanomamö society produced fierceness, because that behavior furthered male reproductive success. The genealogies showed that men who killed had more wives and children than men who did not kill.[4] 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 Chagnon's work has been described as a microcosm of the conflict between biological and sociocultural anthropology.[4][8][9]

Chagnon's ethnography, Yanomamö: The Fierce People was published in 1968 and later published in more than five editions, selling nearly a million copies,[4] and is commonly used as a text in university-level introductory anthropology classes, making it the bestselling anthropological texts of all time.[10][11][12] 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. The ethnographic film The Ax Fight, showing a fight among two Yanomami groups and analyzing it as it relates to kinship networks, is considered a classic in ethnographic film making.[13]

In 2012 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.[3] Marshall Sahlins, who has been a major critic of Chagnon, resigned from the Academy and cited Chagnon's induction as a reason.[14]


Darkness in El Dorado[edit]

In 2000, Patrick Tierney, in his book Darkness in El Dorado, accused Chagnon and his colleague James V. 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 AAA 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 Yanomamö 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.[15] In June 2005, however, the AAA voted over two-to-one to rescind the acceptance of the 2002 report,[16] 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.[17] For example, the interviews upon which the book was based all came from members of the Salesians of Don Bosco, an official society of the Catholic Church, which Chagnon had criticized and angered.[11]

Alice Dreger, an historian of medicine and science 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".[18]

Anthropological critiques of his work[edit]

Chagnon's work with the Yanomamö has been widely criticized by other anthropologists.[4][19][20] Anthropologists have critiqued both aspects of his research methods as well as the theoretical approach, and the interpretations and conclusions he draws from his data. Most controversial has been his claim that Yanomamö society is particularly violent, and his claim that this feature of their culture is grounded in biological differences that are the result of natural selection.[4]

Anthropologist Brian Ferguson has argued that Yanomamö culture is not particularly violent at all, and that the violence that does exist is largely a result of socio-political reconfigurations of their society under the influence of colonization.[21][22] Bruce Alberts has rejected the statistical basis for his claims that more violent Yanomamö men have more children.[23][24] Others have questioned the ethics inherent in painting an ethnic group as violent savages, pointing out that his Chagnon's depiction of the Yanomamo as such breaks with anthropology's traditional ethics of trying to describe foreign societies sympathetically, and have argued that his depictions have resulted in increased hostility and racism against the Yanomamö by settlers and colonists in the area.[25][26][4] However, it is noted that Albert “cannot demonstrate a direct connection between Chagnon’s writings and the government’s Indian policy.” and that the idea that scientists should suppress unflattering information about their subjects is troubling and supports the idea that nonviolence is a prerequisite for protecting the Yanomami.[4]

Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, one of Chagnon's graduate teachers,[27] has criticized Chagnon's methods, pointing out that Chagnon acknowledges behavior contemptible to his informants by violating food-sharing obligations.[14][20] Sahlins has claimed that Chagnon's trade of steel weaponry for blood samples and genealogical information amounted to "participant-instigation" which encouraged economic competition and violence.[20] Lastly, Sahlins has argued that Chagnon's publications, which contend that violent Yanomami men are conferred with reproductive advantages, make false assumptions in designating killers and omit other variables that explain reproductive success.[20] In 2013, Sahlins resigned from the National Academy of Sciences, in part in protest of Chagnon's election to the body.[14][28][29] Other researchers of the Yanomami such as Brian Ferguson have argued that Chagnon himself contributed to escalating violence among the Yanomami by offering machetes, axes, and shotguns to selected groups to elicit their cooperation.[21][22][19][30][31][4] Chagnon charged local Salesian priests with supplying guns to the Yanomami who then used them to kill each other.[4]

Written works[edit]


  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1968), Yanomamö: The Fierce People .
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1974), Studying the Yanomamö, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston .
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1992), Yanomamo – The Last Days of Eden .
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A; Cronk, Lee; Irons, William (2002), Adaptation and Human Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective .
  • Chagnon, Napoleon (2013). Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0684855110. 

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 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1995), "Chronic Problems in Understanding Tribal Violence and Warfare", in Willey & Chichester, Genetics of Criminal and Antisocial Behavior, Ciba Foundation Symposium 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1972), "Tribal social organization and genetic microdifferentiation", in HARRISON, A; BOYCE, A, Structure of human populations, Oxford 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1973), "Daily life among the Yanomamo", in ROMNEY, AK; DEVORE, PL, You and others, Cambridge 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1973), "Yanomamo social organization and warfare", in FRIED, M, Explorations in Anthropology, New York: Crowell 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (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 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1977), "Yanomamo – the fierce people", in GOULD, R, Man's many ways, New York: Harper & Row 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1977), "Yanomamo warfare", in COPPENHAVER, D, Anthropology full circle, New York: Prager 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1979), "Is Reproductive Success Equal in Egalitarian Societies?", in CHAGNON, N; IRONS, W, Evolutionary Biology and Human Social Behavior, North Scituate: Duxbury 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (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 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1982), "Anthropology and the Nature of Things", in WIEGELE, T, Biology and the Social Sciences, Boulder: Westview 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1982), "Sociodemographic Attributes of Nepotism in Tribal Populations: Man the Rule-Breaker", in GROUP, KSCS, Current problems in sociobiology, New York: Cambridge University Press 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A; 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 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A; Bugos, PE (1979), "Kin selection and conflict: an analysis of a Yanomamö ax fight", in CHAGNON, Napoleon A; IRONS, W, Evolutionary biology and human social behavior, North Scituate: Duxbury Press 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A; 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, pp. 22–31 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1967b), "Yanomamö Social Organization and Warfare", Natural History, LXXVI, pp. 44–48 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1968a), "The Culture-Ecology of Shifting (Pioneering) Cultivation Among The Yanomamö Indians", International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, 3, pp. 249–55 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1968b), "The feast", Natural History, LXXVII, pp. 34–41 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1970), "Ecological and Adaptive Aspects of California Shell Money", Annual Report of the UCLA Archaeological Survey, 12, pp. 1–25 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (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 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1975), "Genealogy, Solidarity and Relatedness: Limits to Local Group Size and Patterns of Fissioning in an Expanding Population", Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 19, pp. 95–110 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1976), "Yanomamo, the true people", National Geographic Magazine, 150, pp. 210–23 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1980), "Highland New Guinea models in the South American lowlands", Working papers on South American Indians, 2, pp. 111–30 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1981), "Doing fieldwork among the Yanomamo", Contemporary Anthropology, pp. 11–24 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1988), "Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population", Science, 239, pp. 985–92, doi:10.1126/science.239.4843.985 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1989), "Yanomamö survival", Science, 244, p. 11, doi:10.1126/science.244.4900.11 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A (1990), "On Yanomamö violence: reply to Albert", Current Anthropology, 31, pp. 49–53, doi:10.1086/203802 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A; 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, pp. 339–49, doi:10.1002/ajpa.1330320304 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A; Hames, RB (1979), "Protein Deficiency and Tribal Warfare in Amazonia: New Data", Science, 203, pp. 910–13, doi:10.1126/science.570302 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A; Le Quesne, P; Cook, JM (1971), "Yanomamö Hallucinogens: Anthropological, Botanical, and Chemical Findings", Current Anthropology, 12, pp. 72–74, doi:10.1086/201170 
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A; 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, pp. 171–225 


Chagnon worked with ethnographic filmmaker Tim Asch to produce at least forty films on Yanomamo culture,[32] including The Feast (1969), The Ax Fight (1975), and Magical Death (1988). These films, especially The Ax Fight, are widely used in anthropological and visual culture curriculum and are considered to be among the most important ethnographic films ever produced.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Though the name Chagnon is French, he uses the American pronunciation


  1. ^ Shavit 1992, p. 61.
  2. ^ a b Chagnon 1966.
  3. ^ a b Retrieved 27 January 2014.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Eakin 2013.
  5. ^ a b c d Gabrielson 2014.
  6. ^ McGee & Warms 2007, p. 247.
  7. ^ Silva 1988.
  8. ^ Chagnon, Napoleon (19 August 2014). Napoleon Chagnon: Blood is Their Argument. Edge. Interview with Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, Daniel C. Dennett, and David Haig. Retrieved 23 February 2015. 
  9. ^ Laden, Greg (2 May 2013). "Are Anthropologists a Dangerous Tribe?". Slate. The Slate Group. Retrieved 23 February 2015. 
  10. ^ Retrieved 1 June 2016.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  11. ^ a b D'Antonio 2000.
  12. ^ Retrieved 1 June 2016.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  13. ^ Chagnon & Bugos 1979.
  14. ^ a b c Sahlins 2013.
  15. ^ "El Dorado Task Force Papers" (PDF). American Anthropological Association. 18 May 2002. 
  16. ^ "AAA Rescinds Acceptance of the El Dorado Report". 
  17. ^ "Statement from University of Michigan Provost Nancy Cantor on the book "Darkness in El Dorado"". 
  18. ^ Dreger 2011.
  19. ^ a b Povinelli 2013.
  20. ^ a b c d Sahlins 2000.
  21. ^ a b Ferguson 1995.
  22. ^ a b Ferguson 2001.
  23. ^ Albert 1989.
  24. ^ Albert 1990.
  25. ^ Ramos, A. R. (1987). Reflecting on the Yanomami: Ethnographic Images and the Pursuit of the Exotic. Cultural Anthropology, 2(3), 284-304.
  26. ^ Nugent, S. (2003). The yanomami. The Ethics of Anthropology: Debates and Dilemmas, 77.
  27. ^ Chagnon 2013, p. 338.
  28. ^ Golden, Serena (25 February 2013). "A Protest Resignation". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 20 February 2015. 
  29. ^ Wade, Nicholas (25 February 2013). "Discord Over Scholar's Tribal Research". New York Times. Retrieved 23 February 2015. 
  30. ^ Lizot, J., & Dart, S. (1994). On warfare: an answer to NA Chagnon. American Ethnologist, 21(4), 845-862.
  31. ^ Borofsky, R. (2005). Yanomami: The fierce controversy and what we can learn from it (Vol. 12). Univ of California Press.
  32. ^ Saxon, Wolfgang (11 October 1994). "Timothy Asch, 62, Professor Who Filmed Remote Societies". New York Times. Retrieved 23 February 2015. 
  33. ^ Lewis 2004.


External links[edit]