Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Yanomamo: Reproduction and Warfare

The following is an outline from a Presentation me and my friend Christian gave to out Primitive Warfare class. Some of my ideas are a little scattered so if anyone needs clarification please email me at You can also follow me on twitter and/or send me a message. @curtincall89 :)


· Theory of tribal violence is presented by showing how homicide, revenge, kinship, and warfare are linked and why reproductive variable are included in explanations of tribal war and violence in the Yanomamo Indians of the Amazonas.

o Demographic data indicate that men who gave killed have more wives than those who have not killed

· It is difficult to explain human violence

o Lack of information on violence

o Many anthropologists treat warfare as a phenomenon that is independent from other forms of violence

o So many restrict causes of war to issues that the whole society cares about such as land, hunting regions and resources

· Chagnon then focuses on the individual need and want, which is driven by biological and reproductive needs

o He explains that conflict between individuals is a part of nature, and says that organisms have two kids of efforts within their lifetime:

§ Somatic effort: relevant to survival

§ Reproductive effort: in the interest of inclusive interest

o Blood revenge is the main cause of these conflicts however, which is defined as “retaliatory killing in which the initial victim’s close kinsmen conduct a revenge raid on the members of the community of the initial killer.”


· Important to note first of all the Yanomamo have no written language, formal laws or chiefs/judges.

o There are some general rules, but they are often broken

· Most fights are started over sexual issues such as infidelity, attempts to seduce another’s wife, sexual jealousy, rape, and failure to give promised girl in marriage

o These fights then went through a level of “fighting”

§ First was shouting matches, chest pounding, side slapping, club fights, fights with axes or machetes and then shooting with bow and arrows

o Fights almost never lead to killings, killings were mainly done to other groups mostly to avenge another killing

· Revenge raids seems a little redundant at first but it was all about honor and prestige along with some other gains along the way

o If someone’s family member was killed by another group that person had to exact revenge on them

§ Many times the aggressive groups would coerce females from less aggressive groups when raiding thus upping their gain

§ Also men who act violently to exact revenge have higher marital and reproductive status which is also a gain


· 15,000 individuals among the Yanomamo that are subsidized into approx. 200 independent communities

· Warfare has greatly decreased over the years among the group but there are still at least a dozen village that still engage in warfare

o The mortality rate due to violence is 30% in adult males

Killers, Kinship and Revenge Motives

· The very notion of Yanomamo bereavement implies violence: the word hushuwo translates to “anger verging on violence”

o In the opposite way not exacting revenge was considered cowardice and opened the village to attack and for their women to be seduced by more aggressive villages.

o Revenge is also sought after if magicks were involved, for example is someone is killed by a shaman from an enemy village.

· Once a man has killed another he has to go through a purification ritual called unokaimou and once the men have performed the ritual they are called unokai

o Most killers have unokaied once but some have been unokaied many times

· It is important to note that with villages that many are related to each other

o In one village 97% of the 164 member are related in at least one way to 75% of the village

§ This then fuels that argument that the “village” is almost synonymous to “kinship group”

o On the other hand the Yanomamo villages are transient communities whose membership changes by migration and emigration

§ This then suggests that unokais who now live in different villages may have once been residents in the same village

· Kinship relations are overall hard to understand

o One of the most important functions of a kin group in to pool resources and reallocate them to needy members

o There are many decent groups within the kin groups all patrilineal

§ Reciprocal marriage exchanges between groups of several generations mean that the member of any one descent group have close relatives to other descent groups

o There is however a headsman to each village

§ They are usually polygynous and have many children

o From all of this was can see that the village is composed of large kin groups:

§ People who are related to members of their own lineal descent group through male links

§ People who are related to members of other lineal descent groups through consanguineal marriages and matrilineal marriages

· So since mostly all members are related but move around to different villages, if one member of a person’s original group is killed by his current group he might be moved by grief to return to his original group to exact revenge.

· This all shows the difficulty that there is in interpreting warfare as a phenomenon that pits all the member of one political community against all the members of a different community and makes it clear why the village is not the most useful unit with which to analyze warfare in many tribes.

Kinship Relatedness and Loss of Kin by Violence

· Most individuals are related to their kin in multiple ways.

o In most villages well over 80% of the members are related to more than 75% of the village like mentioned before

o This dimension of kinship relatedness is called kinship density which is a combination of the numbers of kin each individual has, how closely related the individual is to these kins and the obligations and expectations that are associated with particular kinship relatedness.

§ The higher the kinship density in a community, the greater the likelihood that a large number of supportive individuals will take life-threatening risks and that retaliation will occur if a member is killed

· Then the question becomes: Are the Yanomamo more or less violent that the other tribesmen in past of present?

o Hard to decide due to lack of evidence of other tribes

o We do know that 70% of all individuals (males and females) age 40 or older have lost at least one close genetic kin due to violence and 57% have lost two or more

Reproductive Success

· Men who are killers may gain marital and reproductive benefits

o The higher reproductive success of unokais is mainly due to greater success in finding mates either by appropriating them forcibly from others or by customary marriage alliance arrangements in which they seem to be more attractive as mates that the non-unokais.

· On the other hand there are alternative explanations to why the unokais had better reproductive benefits

o One is that the sheer number of the unokais in the society account for the success

o Two, the mortality rate of men who strive to be unokais ups the count of the actual unokais.

o Three, the unokais had better biometric attributes and were more sought after as mates (skills, athletic ability, etc)

o Four, that being a unokais in general deterred attacks against his kinsmen. Two factors then can deter this:

§ Village membership changes chronically and fissioning redistributes individuals in such a way that unokais have some close kin living in distant villages (so obviously these kin wouldn’t attack him)

§ Also if unokais deter the violent designs of others, all members of their kin group benefit, including the non-unokais and their dependents

o Lastly, there is the suggestion that the argument that cultural success leads to biological success among the Yanomamo might be the most promising avenue of investigation to account for the high reproductive success of the unokais


· However one looks at it with all the information and statistics that have been gathered one this is for sure: Reproductive motives play a big role in warfare both as a cause and an effect.


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