Newsletter Vol 11, No 1
March 2003
Yanomamo data: were they fraudulent? Page 4

Page 1

Is the Statement up to date?
Page 2

Page 3

Yanomamo data - fraudulent?
Page 4

Genetics, men, women and war
Page 5

Do primates make war?
Page 6

War abroad, violence at home
Page 7

One of the scientific sources most often used to contradict the Seville Statement, the writings of Napoleon Chagnon about the Yanomamo (the "fierce people") of the Amazon, has come under attack as having been exaggerated and to some extent invented. Readers are referred to the following scientific article by anthropologist Les Sponsel: Yanomami: An Arena of conflict and aggression in the Amazon, Aggressive Behavior, 24: 97-122, 1998 and to the exchange of e-mails and letters to be found on the Internet at The internet exchange is in response to a controversial book and New Yorker article about Chagnon and his mentor, Professor James Neel, written by a journalist, Patrick Tierney. Some of Tierney's charges are listed below, after the Sponsel abstract. It is indicated below where these charges have been challenged by Chagnon or the professor running the website (James Toobey) who is a defender of Chagnon.

Here is an abstract of the Sponsel article:

"The Yanomami of Venezuela and Brazil have become an arena of conflict and aggression in the Amazon in at least three respects: their internal aggression; the aggression among anthropologists and others concerned with them; and the external aggression against the Yanomami from Western society. As such, the Yanomami provide a microcosm of several aspects of the anthropology of conflict and aggression. After some background, a critical analysis is developed of 10 problem areas that call into serious question the scientific status of Yanomami as one of the most violent human societies ever known in anthropology: the Yanomami as "the fierce people"; documentation of their aggression; inflation of their aggression as warfare; neglect of cross-cultural perspective; modern warfare as reversion to tribalization; the negative concept of peace; male sexist bias; the Yanomami as "primitive"; the character of debates; and research priorities and professional ethics. The analysis has more general implications for the epistemology of the study of aggression." (C) 1998 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

The following charges are made in Tierney's book as described in the open letter to be found at message 7180 at

"Chagnon has faithfully striven, in his ethnographic and theoretical accounts of the Yanomami, to represent them as conforming to Neel's ideas about the Hobbesian savagery of "natural" human societies , and how this constitutes the natural selective context for the rise to social dominance and reproductive advantage of males with the gene for "leadership" or "innate ability" (thus Chagnon's emphasis on Yanomami "fierceness" and propensity for chronic warfare, and the supposed statistical tendency for men who kill more enemies to have more female sexual/reproductive partners). He [Tierney] documents how all these aspects of Chagnon's account of the Yanomami are based on false, non-existent or misinterpreted data. In other words, Chagnon's main claims about Yanomami society, the ones that have been so much heralded by sociobiologists and other partisans of his work, namely that men who kill more reproduce more and have more female partners, and that such men become the dominant leaders of their communities, are simply not true."

"Chagnon has not stopped with cooking and re-cooking his data on conflict but has actually attempted to manufacture the phenomenon itself, actually fomenting conflicts betweenYanomami communities, not once but repeatedly. In his film work with Asch, for example, Chagnon induced Yanomami to enact fights and aggressive behavior for Asch's camera, sometimes building whole artificial villages as "sets" for the purpose, which were presented as spontaneous slices of Yanomami life unaffected by the presence of the anthropologists. Some of these unavowedly artificial scenarios, however, actually turned into real conflicts, partly as a result of Chagnon's policy of giving vast amounts of presents to the villages that agreed to put on the docu-drama, which distorted their relations with their neighbors in ways that encouraged outbreaks of raiding. In sum, most of the Yanomami conflicts that Chagnon documents, that are the basis of his interpretation of Yanomami society as a neo-Hobbesian system of endemic warfare, were caused directly or indirectly by himself: a fact he invariably neglects to report. This is not just a matter of bad ethnography or unreflexive theorizing: Yanomami were maimed and killed in these conflicts, and whole communities were disrupted to the point of fission and flight."

On his website Toobey denies the Tierney charges in the following way:
"Chagnon could not plausibly have been the source of Yanomamo violence, since Yanomamo violence occurred prior to Chagnon's arrival in the field, and in other areas from where Chagnon was working. Tierney works hard to cover up actual sources of Yanomamo violence. Chagnon did not invent or exaggerate Yanomamo violence. Chagnon's claims are validated by a large number of independent sources, well-known to Tierney. Tierney misrepresents them as contradicting Chagnon's descriptions, when they support them. Chagnon's reports of rates of violence among the Yanomamo show them to be consistent with the vast majority of other reports. Chagnon's characterization of the Yanomamo as fierce is unlikely to have caused them net harm."

[Note: While we do not have a systematic examination of the "vast majority of other reports" from anthropologists working with the Yanomamo, it may be noted that Professor Sponsel, along with Terry Turner, Professor of Anthropology, Cornell University, authors of the letter quoted above, have both done fieldwork with the Yanomamo, and they quote several other anthropologists who have also done fieldwork there and who are critical of Chagnon's perspective. Anthropological data contradicting Chagnon are also presented in the Aggressive Behavior article. In addition, over the years Chagnon has come under intense criticism by Brazilian anthropologists on the pages of the Anthropology Newsletter and Science magazine.] In the defense mounted on his website, Napoleon Chagnon provides several links to support his research. This includes criticisms of the Tierney book, references to two other accounts of Yanomamo violence and a defense of the making of the ax fight film.

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