Noble Savages: Book summary and reviews of Noble Savages by Napoleon Chagnon

Noble Savages

My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes -- the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists

by Napoleon Chagnon

Noble Savages

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Book Summary

When Napoleon Chagnon arrived in Venezuela's Amazon region in 1964 to study the Yanomamö Indians, one of the last large tribal groups still living in isolation, he expected to find Rousseau's "noble savages," so-called primitive people living contentedly in a pristine state of nature. Instead Chagnon discovered a remarkably violent society. Men who killed others had the most wives and offspring, their violence possibly giving them an evolutionary advantage. The prime reasons for violence, Chagnon found, were to avenge deaths and, if possible, abduct women.

When Chagnon began publishing his observations, some cultural anthropologists who could not accept an evolutionary basis for human behavior refused to believe them. Chagnon became perhaps the most famous American anthropologist since Margaret Mead—and the most controversial. He was attacked in a scathing popular book, whose central allegation that he helped start a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö was quickly disproven, and the American Anthropological Association condemned him, only to rescind its condemnation after a vote by the membership.

Throughout his career Chagnon insisted on an evidence-based scientific approach to anthropology, even as his professional association dithered over whether it really is a scientific organization. In Noble Savages, Chagnon describes his seminal fieldwork - during which he lived among the Yanomamö, was threatened by tyrannical headmen, and experienced an uncomfortably close encounter with a jaguar - taking readers inside Yanomamö villages to glimpse the kind of life our distant ancestors may have lived thousands of years ago. And he forcefully indicts his discipline of cultural anthropology, accusing it of having traded its scientific mission for political activism.

This book, like Chagnon's research, raises fundamental questions about human nature itself.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Invaluable book...[Chagnon] delivers a gripping adventure travelogue. His take on the corrupting relationship between politics and science is as likely to restoke the flames of debate as settle outstanding accounts." - Publishers Weekly

"More than two-thirds of this rehabilitative work is a fascinating, accessible study of a little-known people." - Kirkus Reviews

"One of history's greatest anthropologists - and a rip-roaring story-teller - recounts his life with an endangered Amazonian tribe and the mind-boggling controversies his work ignited. Noble Savages is rich with insights into human nature, and an entertaining interlude with a remarkable man." - Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

"Noble Savages is an epic - not only of one of the most extraordinary physical and intellectual adventures ever experienced by a major scientist, but also the history of one of the most significant events in the early, often turbulent meeting between evolutionary biology and the social sciences." - E. O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus, Harvard University, and the author of The Social Conquest of Earth and Sociobiology

"Very few people have led lives as fascinating as Napoleon Chagnon's, or have lived among people as dangerous as the Yanomamö, and fewer still have his courage or his honor. Noble Savages is a page-turning masterpiece. You don't need to know anything about anthropology to read it. By the time you finish, you'll know a lot." - Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Old Way and The Harmless People

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Napoleon Chagnon is distinguished research professor at the University of Missouri and adjunct research scientist at the University of Michigan, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He formerly taught at the University of California-Santa Barbara, Penn State, Northwestern, and the University of Michigan. He is the author of five previous academic books and lives in Columbia, Missouri.

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