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Location of the Yanomami peoples
Regions with significant populations

Yanomaman languages



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Yanomami location.png
Location of the Yanomami peoples
Regions with significant populations

Yanomaman languages



The Yanomami, also spelled Yąnomamö or Yanomama, are a group of approximately 20,000 indigenous people who live in some 200–250 villages in the Amazon rainforest on the border between Venezuela and Brazil.


Domestic life, clothing and diet

Yanomami shabono

The Yanomami live in villages usually consisting of their children and extended families. Village sizes vary, but usually contain between 50 and 400 people. In this largely communal system, the entire village lives under a common roof called the shabono. Shabonos have a characteristic oval shape, with open grounds in the center measuring an average of 100 yards (91 m). The shabono shelter constitutes the perimeter of the village, if it has not been fortified with palisades.

Under the roof, divisions exist marked only by support posts, partitioning individual houses and spaces. Shabonos are built from raw materials from the surrounding jungles, such as leaves, vines, plums and tree trunks. They are susceptible to heavy damage from rains, winds, and insect infestation. As a result, villagers build new shabonos every 1 to 2 years.

The Yanomami depend on the rain forest; they use "slash-and-burn" horticulture, grow bananas, gather fruit, and hunt animals and fish. Yanomami frequently move to avoid areas that become overused, a practice known as shifting cultivation when the soil becomes exhausted.

Yanomami women in Venezuela

Children stay close to their mothers when young; most of the childrearing is done by women. The Yanomami practiced polygyny,[citation needed] though many unions were monogamous. Polygamous families consisted of a large patrifocal family unit based on one man, and smaller matrifocal subfamilies: each woman's family unit, composed of the woman and her children. Life in the village is centered around the small, matrilocal family unit, whereas the larger patrilocal unit has more political importance beyond the village.

The Yanomami are known as hunters, fishers, and horticulturists. The women cultivate plantains and cassava in gardens as their main crops. Men do the heavy work of clearing areas of forest for the gardens. Another food source for the Yanomami is grubs.[1] Often the Yanomami will cut down palms in order to facilitate the growth of grubs. The traditional Yanomami diet is very low in salt. Their blood pressure is characteristically among the lowest of any demographic group.[2] For this reason, the Yanomami have been the subject of studies seeking to link hypertension to sodium consumption.

Rituals are a very important part of Yanomami culture. The Yanomami celebrate a good harvest with a big feast to which nearby villages are invited. The Yanomami village members gather huge amounts of food, which helps to maintain good relations with their neighbors. They also decorate their bodies with feathers and flowers. During the feast, the Yanomami eat a lot, and the women dance and sing late into the night.

Although many ceremonies exclude female involvement or participation, they are a large part of the preparation. In preparation for large ceremonies, Yanomami women make alcoholic drinks for the men.[3] The use of hallucinogenic drugs is very common, however women are forbidden from involving themselves in this practice. The women do, however, participate in the practice of endocannibalism. In this practice, the Yanomami people consume the bones of a deceased kinsman.[4] The body is burned, and the bones mixed with food. This tradition is meant to strengthen the Yanomami people and keep the spirit of that individual alive.

The women are responsible for all the domestic duties and chores, excluding hunting and killing game for food. Although the women do not hunt, they do work in the gardens and gather small sources as food. The gardens plots are sectioned off by family, and grow bananas, sugarcane, mangoes, sweet potatoes, papaya, manioc, and other crops.[5] The Yanomami women cultivate these gardens until the gardens are no longer fertile, and then move their plots. Women are expected to carry 70 to 80 pounds (32 to 36 kg) of crops on their backs during harvesting, using bark straps and woven baskets.[6] Plantains and grubs are common sources of food, and are staples in the Yanomami diet.

In the mornings, while the men are off hunting, the women and young children go off in search of termite nests and other grubs, which will later be roasted at the family hearths. Sometimes, the women also pursue frogs, land crabs, or caterpillars, or even look for vines that can be woven into baskets. While some women gather these small sources of food, other women go off and fish for several hours during the day.[7] The women also commonly use plants such as manioc to turn into flat cakes, which they cook over a small pile of coals.[8]

Yanomami women are expected to bear and raise many children, who are expected to help their mothers with domestic chores from a very young age, and mothers rely very much on help from their daughters.

Using small strings of bark and roots, Yanomami women weave and decorate baskets. They use these baskets to carry plants, crops, and food to bring back to the shabono.[6] They use a red berry known as onoto to dye the baskets, as well as to paint their bodies and dye their loin cloths.[7] After the baskets are painted, they are further decorated with masticated charcoal pigment.[9]

Female puberty and menstruation

The start of menstruation symbolizes the beginning of womanhood. Girls typically get their periods between the ages of 10 and 12, and as soon as the period begins, girls are married off. Due to the belief that menstrual blood is poisonous and dangerous, girls are kept hidden away in a small tent-like structure constructed of a screen of leaves. A deep hole is built in the structure over which girls squat, to "rid themselves" of their blood. These structures are regarded as isolation screens.[10]

The mother is notified immediately, and she, along with the elder female friends of the girl, are responsible for disposing of her old cotton garments and must replace them with new ones symbolizing her womanhood and availability for marriage.[10] During the week of that first menstrual period the girl is fed with a stick, for she is forbidden from touching the food in any way. While on confinement she has to whisper when speaking and she may only speak to close kin, such as siblings or parents, but never a male.[4]

Up until the time of menstruation, girls are treated as children, and are only responsible for assisting their mothers in household work. When they approach the age of menstruation, they are sought out by men as potential wives. Puberty is not seen as a significant time period with male Yanomami children, but it is considered very important for females. After menstruating for the first time, the girls are expected to leave childhood and enter adulthood, and take on the responsibilities of a grown Yanomami woman. After a young girl gets her period, she is forbidden from showing her genitalia and must keep herself covered with a loincloth.[4]

The menstrual cycle of Yanomami women does not occur frequently due to constant nursing or child birthing, and is treated as a very significant occurrence only at this time.[11]


There are many variations and dialects of the language, such that people from different villages cannot always understand each other. Linguists believe the Yanomaman language is unrelated to any other South American indigenous languages. The origins of the language are unknown.


In early anthropological studies the Yanomami culture was described as being permeated with violence. The Yanomami people have a history of acting extremely violently not only towards other tribes, but towards one another.[12][13]

An influential ethnography by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon described the Yanomami as living in "a state of chronic warfare".[1] Chagnon's account and similar descriptions of the Yanomami as primitive and warlike sparked controversy in anthropology and an enormous amount of interest in the case of the Yanomami. The debate centered around the degree of violence in Yanomami society, the question of whether violence and warfare could be seen as an inherent part of Yanomami culture, or whether it was better explained as a response to specific historical situations. Writing in 1985 anthropologist Jacques Lizot who had lived among the Yanomami for more than twenty years stated:

"I would like my book to help revise the exaggerated representation that has been given of Yanomami violence. The Yanomami are warriors; they can be brutal and cruel, but they can also be delicate, sensitive, and loving. Violence is only sporadic; it never dominates social life for any length of time, and long peaceful moments can separate two explosions. When one is acquainted with the societies of the North American plains or the societies of the Chaco in South America, one cannot say that Yanomami culture is organized around warfare as Chagnon does"[14]

Anthropologists working in the ecologist tradition such as Marvin Harris, argued that a culture of violence had evolved among the Yanomami through competition resulting from a lack of nutritional resources in their territory.[15][16] However the 1995 study, "Yanomami Warfare" by R. Brian Ferguson, examined all documented cases of warfare among the Yanomami and concluded that:

"Although some Yanomami really have been engaged in intensive warfare and other kinds of bloody conflict, this violence is not an expression of Yanomami culture itself. It is, rather, a product of specific historical situations: The Yanomami make war not because Western culture is absent, but because it is present, and present in certain specific forms. All Yanomami warfare that we know about occurs within what Neil Whitehead and I call a "tribal zone", an extensive area beyond state administrative control, inhabited by nonstate people who must react to the far-flung effects of the state presence."[17]

Ferguson stresses the fact that contrary to Chagnon's description of the Yanomami as unaffected by Western culture, the Yanomami experienced the effects of colonization long before their territory became accessible to Westerners in the 1950s, and that they had acquired many influences and materials from Western culture through trade networks, much earlier.[citation needed]

Intraspecific violence is one of the leading causes of Yanomami death. As much as 50% of Yanomami males die violent deaths. The Yanomami are in constant conflict with neighboring tribes over local resources. Often these confrontations lead to the Yanomami leaving their villages in search of new ones.[18] Women are often victims of physical abuse and anger. Inter-village warfare is common, but does not too commonly affect women. When Yanomami tribes fight and raid nearby tribes, women are often raped, beaten, and brought back to their shabono to be kept in their tribe. During the raids, Yanomami men capture and bring back the other women in hopes of marrying them. Wives are beaten on a regular basis, so as to keep them docile and faithful to their husbands.[12] Sexual jealousy causes a majority of the violence.[11] Women are beaten with clubs, sticks, machetes, and other blunt or sharp objects. Burning with a branding stick occurs often, and symbolizes a male’s strength or dominance over his wife.[4]

The Yanomami men killed children while raiding enemy villages.[19] Helena Valero, a Brazilian woman kidnapped by Yanomami warriors in the 1930s, witnessed a Karawetari raid on her tribe:

"They killed so many. I was weeping for fear and for pity but there was nothing I could do. They snatched the children from their mothers to kill them, while the others held the mothers tightly by the arms and wrists as they stood up in a line. All the women wept. ... The men began to kill the children; little ones, bigger ones, they killed many of them.”.[19]


In the mid-1970s, garimpeiros (small independent gold-diggers) started to enter the Yanomami country. Where these garimpeiros settled, they killed members of the Yanomami tribe in conflict over land. In addition, mining techniques by the garimpeiros led to environmental degradation. In 1990, more than 40,000 garimpeiros had entered the Yanomami land.[20] In 1992, the president of Brazil Collor de Mello accepted the opening of a Yanomami Park founded by Brazilian anthropologists and Survival International, a project that started in the early 1970s. Non-Yanomami people continue to enter the land. The Brazilian and Venezuelan governments do not have adequate enforcement programs to prevent the entry of outsiders into this land.[21]

Ethical controversy has arisen about Yanomami blood taken for study by scientists such as Napoleon Chagnon and his associate James Neel. Although Yanomami religious tradition prohibits the keeping of any bodily matter after the death of that person, the donors were not warned that blood samples would be kept indefinitely for experimentation. Several prominent Yanomami delegations have sent letters to the scientists who are studying them, demanding the return of their blood samples. These samples are currently being taken out of storage for shipping to the Amazon as soon as the scientists can figure out whom to deliver them to and how to prevent any potential health risks for doing so [22]

Members of the American Anthropological Association debated the dispute that has divided their discipline, voting 846 to 338 to rescind a 2002 report on allegations of misconduct by scholars' studying the Yanomami people. The dispute has raged since Patrick Tierney published Darkness in El Dorado in 2000. The book charged that anthropologists had repeatedly caused harm—and in some cases, death—to members of the Yanomami people whom they had studied in the 1960s.[23]. In 2010 Brazilian director José Padilha revisited the Darkness in El Dorado controversy in his documentary Secrets of the Tribe.

Haximu Massacre

The Haximu Massacre (or Yanomami Massacre) was an armed conflict in 1993, just outside Haximu, Brazil, close to the border with Venezuela. A group of garimpeiros killed approximately 16 Yanomami, which in turn killed at least two garimpeiros and wounded two more.

In July 2012 the government of Venezuela investigated another alleged massacre. According to the Yanomami, a village of eighty natives was attacked by a helicopter and that the only known survivors of the village are three men who happened to be out hunting while the attack occurred.[24] However in September 2012 Survival International, who had been supporting the Yanomami in this allegation, retracted the allegation after journalists could find no evidence to support the claim.[25]

Non-governmental organizations and support groups working for the Yanomami

UK based non governmental organization Cultural Survival has created global awareness-raising campaigns on the human rights situation of the Yanomami people.[26]

The US based World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has created a play to convey what is happening to the people and their natural environment in the Amazon rainforest. It tells of Yanomami tribesmen/tribeswomen living in the Amazon and has been published and performed by many drama groups around the world.

The German based non governmental organization Yanomami-Hilfe eV is building medical stations and schools for Yanomami in Venezuela and Brazil.[27]. Founder Christina Haverkamp crossed in 1992 the Atlantic ocean on a self-made bamboo raft in order to draw attention to the continuing oppression of the Yanomami people.[28]

The Brazilian based Yanomami formed their own indigenous organization Hutukara Associação Yanomami, and website.[29]

In popular culture

See also


  1. ^ a b Ya̦nomamö: the fierce people (Chagnon 1998; Chagnon 1992; Chagnon 1983)
  2. ^ "Yanomami Indians in the INTERSALT study" (accessed 14 January, 2007)
  3. ^ Micheli, Gina. "Yanomamo Wedding and Marriage Traditions." Retrieved 10 Jan 2011.
  4. ^ a b c d Good, Kenneth, with David Chanoff (1988) Into the Heart. London: The Ulverscroft Foundation.
  5. ^ Napoleon A. Chagnon (1992). Yanomamo. NY: Harcourt Brace College Publishers. Fourth edition.
  6. ^ a b Kenneth Good (1991). Into the Heart: One Man's Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomamia. NY: Simon and Schuster.
  7. ^ a b Alcida Rita Ramos (1995). Sanuma Memories: Yanomami Ethnography in Times of Crisis. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  8. ^ Schwartz, David M, with Victor Englebert. Vanishing Peoples Yanomami People of The Amazon. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books.
  9. ^ Cruz, Valdir (2002). Faces of the Rainforest: The Yanomami. New York: PowerHouse Books. 
  10. ^ a b Chagnon, Napoleon A. (1938). Yanomamo. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
  11. ^ a b Chagnon, Napoleon A. (1938). Studying the Yanomamo. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
  12. ^ a b R. Brian Ferguson (1995). Yanomami Warfare: A Political History. Santa Fe: School for American Research Press.
  13. ^ Ramos, A. R. (1987), Reflecting on the Yanomami: Ethnographic Images and the Pursuit of the Exotic. Cultural Anthropology, 2: 284–304. doi:10.1525/can.1987.2.3.02a00020
  14. ^ Lizot, Jacques. 1985. "Tales of the Yanomami", pp. xiv–xv).
  15. ^ Harris, Marvin. 1984. "A cultural materialist theory of band and village warfare: the Yanomamo test". in Warfare, Culture, and Environment, R.B. Ferguson (ed.) pp. 111-40. Orlando: Academic Press.
  16. ^ Marvin Harris. 1979. The Yanomamö and the cause of war in band and village societies. In Brazil: Anthropological Perspectives, Essays in Honor of Charles Wagley. M. Margolis and W. Carter (eds.) pp. 121-32. New York Columbia University Press.
  17. ^ Ferguson, R. Brian. 1995. Yanomami Warfare: A political history. SAR Press. p. 6
  18. ^ Chagnon, Napoleon (1968). The Fierce People. 
  19. ^ a b Christine Fielder, Chris King (2006). "Sexual Paradox: Complementarity, Reproductive Conflict and Human Emergence". LULU PR. p.156. ISBN 1-4116-5532-X
  20. ^ Kottak, Conrad Phillip (2004) Anthropology: the exploration of human diversity, 10th ed., p. 464, New York: McGraw-Hill.
  21. ^ Chagnon, N. Yanamamo: Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology. 2009. p. 231-232.
  22. ^ Couzin-Frankel, Jennifer. "Researchers to return blood samples to the Yanomamö". Science. Vol. 328, No. 5983: 1218.
  23. ^ "Never Mind", Inside Higher Ed, 29 Jun 2005
  24. ^ http://en.mercopress.com/2012/08/30/venezuela-investigating-alleged-massacre-of-indigenous-people-in-the-amazon
  25. ^ Jonathan Watts (11 September 2012). "Campaign group retracts Yanomami 'massacre' claims". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/11/venezuela-yanomami-massacre-claims-retracted. Retrieved 13 September 2012. 
  26. ^ http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/yanomami
  27. ^ http://www.yanomami-hilfe.de/en/campaigns-and-projects/
  28. ^ http://www.yanomami-hilfe.de/en/campaigns-and-projects/bamboo-raft-trip-1992/
  29. ^ http://hutukara.org/
  30. ^ "Cannibal Holocaust - Yanomamo". http://www.cannibalholocaust.net/index3.htm. 
  31. ^ Andrew N. Woznicki. "Endocannibalism of the Yanomami". The Summit Times. http://users.rcn.com/salski/No18-19Folder/Endocannibalism.htm. 
  32. ^ Witze, Alexandra (12 October 2003). "Left-Handed heritage goes way back, researchers say". Dalles Morning News. Belo Corp.. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4188/is_20031012/ai_n11421342/. Retrieved 17 February 2011. 
  33. ^ "Yai Wanonabälewä review". Focus on the family. http://www.pluggedin.com/videos/2008/q2/yaiwanonablewtheenemygod.aspx. 

Further reading

External links